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In the Book Review

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review.

This week's better reviews are by Pankaj Mishra (Bruce Wagner's Memorial) and Tom Reiss (Fritz Stern's Five Germanys I Have Known). Thomas Mallon's coverage of books about Katharine and Audrey Hepburn is one big piece of storytelling, and it belongs in Vanity Fair, but, not surprisingly, given the reviewer, it's compellingly interesting. If you'd like to hear Mr Fallon discuss his book about plagiarism, Stolen Words, in a radio interview from 1989, click here.

Fiction & Poetry

The cover story, which sprawls over a great deal of interior space, is William Kennedy's review of Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic new novel, The Road. The premise of this book is so obscene that I could not bring myself to soak up what Mr Kennedy has to say about it. Although he means to recommend the book, he makes a formidable case against it. Having read Blood Meridian and All the Pretty Horses, I know that Mr McCarthy is a formidable misanthrope, and I have no time for misanthropy. Mr Kennedy writes,

McCarthy has said that death is the major issue in the world and that writers who don't address it are not serious. Death reaches very near totality in this novel. Billions of people have died, all animal and plant life, the birds of the air and the fishes of the sea are dead: "At the tide line a woven mat of weeds and the ribs of fishes in their millions stretching along the shore as far as the eye could see like an isocline of death."

But death is obviously not the subject here. Destruction is. Killing is. Mr Kennedy's review is, perhaps rightly, dazed as by trauma. It does not inquire into the meaning of Mr McCarthy's vision, or the significance of such a book's publication. The editors of the Review have pre-empted such considerations in the very placement (and length) of the piece.

Ben MacIntyre's review of Restless, by William Boyd, is nothing but storytelling. The book is not mentioned until the second quarter of the piece, where it degenerates into plot summary. Mr MacIntyre's judgment is confined to the following paragraph, which is three parts hot air and one part inadvertent detraction.

Boyd's first novel, A Good Man in Africa, was a glinting satire, while An Ice-Cream War combined history, comedy and tragedy to wonderful effect. Here, he has used a more muted palette, with no humor, no literary embroidery, and little emotion. The pared-down style, clipped and understated, perfectly fits the sepia setting.

In sharp contrast, Pankaj Mishra writes a fine as well as favorable review of Bruce Wagner's Memorial. Because India is something of a motif in the novel, it is good to infer from the reviewer's approval that the motif is not meretricious. Mr Mishra believes that Mr Wagner has reached a crucial moment in his career. 

But now that the fierce energy of his rejection of what he calls "fast food slow death nation" looks to be burning itself out, he'll have to find higher ground than the Hollywood Hills from which to asses the inadequacies of the way we live now. This may consist of no more than exploring a fantasy of a better way of doing things, like the ones that Christianity and theosophy offered to Dostoevsky and Saul Bellow, to name two writers obsessed with the moral and spiritual health of their societies. Refocusing his concerns in this way could help Wagner make a long overdue move - from interesting cult fictionist to major writer.

With Lucy Ellmann's review of Lynne Tillman's American Genius: A Comedy, we slip back into mediocrity. Ms Ellmann tries much too hard to be cute, and she winds up making the novel look extremely silly.

These [episodes] she slathers with encyclopedic facts, an insanity of facts. She dispels her own mounting hysteria with facts. They entrap you the way Melville's obsessions do, though Tillman's universe lacks the scale of a whale. She's more likely to pelt you with a disquisition on denim.

The quoted material sounds more impatient than anything else. I was similarly mystified by Roy Hoffman's review of Lee Smith's On Agate Hill. If this is not a novel written for teenagers, then Mr Hoffman has failed to make that clear. "Gradually, though, with lyric intensity, Smith's inventive storytelling overcomes these misjudgments and, as Molly enters the fussy but rigorous Gatewood Academy, her age catches up with her literary style." Volumes.

Rick Marin gives Michael Tolkin's The Return of the Player a moderately favorable review. Like The Player, this novel is a satire of Hollywood soullessness, and Mr Marin made me ask a question that I wish had occurred to him: can very bad people produce very good movies? Here is a passage from the novel itself:

The parents in the yoga studio admitted to themselves that the urge to have children had the same force as the urge to buy something expensive, that their children were mostly awful because they came from parents who could not distinguish between narcissism and the force of life that demanded reproduction.


Natalie Angier's review doesn't make clear just how much of The Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery, by D T Max, is about the Italian family that has been "plagued by an extremely rare hereditary disorder that destroys the brain's capacity to fall asleep." She suggests, perhaps inadvertently, that the book is really about prions, the subcellular molecules of protein that have been identified as the pathogen behind mad cow disease.

Charles McGrath likes Isaiah Wilner's book about Briton Hadden, obliviated co-founder, with Henry Luce, of Time, The Man Time Forgot: A Tale of Genius, Betrayal, and the Creation of Time Magazine.

Wilner got the idea for The Man Time Forgot in 1999, when he was a junior at Yale and himself the editor of The Daily News, and his book is very much a young man's production, with a sometimes ungainly prose style and an occasionally shaky grasp of history. ... But in other ways, the book's "gee whiz" quality seems not at all unsuited to its topic, not least in reminding how young these fledgling editors were when they got started...

This judgment makes up for some of the storytelling in which Mr McGrath indulges.

There are two full-page reviews of baseball books, and I have to confess to reading them with interest. The first, The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the World, by Joshua Frager gets a favorable review by John Thorn that can't resist storytelling the book's topic, the illicitly stolen signals that enabled Bobby Thomson to hit a three-run home run in 1951, but he does take a moment to call the book "a revelation and a page turner, a group character study unequaled in baseball writing since Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer. On the facing page, David Margolick gives us some more storytelling, about Curt Flood, a Cardinals center-fielder who "risked his career to help beat baseball's reserve clause." The book in question, which Mr Margolick seems to like, is Brad Snyder's A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood's Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports. The author is faulted for being too partisan, soft of Flood and merciless with Bowie Kuhn (whom Mr Margolick calls "a stuffed shirt and an empty suit"), and thanked for honoring Curt Flood - not much of a review.

Peter Keepnews reviews I Killed: True Stories of the Road From America's Top Comics, compiled by Ritch Shnyder and Mark Schiff. He loves the book, but hates the title, pointing out that it would be more accurate if it were I Died, and if it dropped the reference to "top" comics.

If you open the book at random - and you may as well, since unlike a really tight stand-up set it has no structure to speak of - you could find Jerry Seinfeld or Joan Rivers, but you are at least as likely to find George Westerholm, Don Barnhart Jr or Mishna Wolf. Not that there's anything wrong with that: these are the people in the comedy trenches, and I Killed is mostly about the bizarre, unpredictable, sometimes dangerous nature of life down there.

At the center of the Review, Thomas Mallon reviews the new Hepburn books, one about Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn, by William J Mann; and the other about Audrey, Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn, by Donald Spoto. Storytelling about the stars is always irresistible, however inappropriate in a book review. Thomas Mallon makes no attempt to judge either book by others devoted to the respective Hepburns; aside from remarking that "Spoto does a far less successful job of inhabiting his Hepburn that Mann does his...", he doesn't much deal with the books at all. As everyone interesting in such matters already knows. Mr Mann's book is something of a revelation, confirming his subject's androgyny and her homosexual relationships. I cannot resist this interesting, not entirely clear to me sentence from the review:

Her physical appetites seem to have been decidedly low; in terms of emotion, she was homosexually a taker but heterosexually a giver.

It feels churlish to rap Mr Mallon's knuckles, but this is the New York Times Book Review, not Vanity Fair (where chunks of Mr Mann's book appeared recently.)

The writer Ron Rosenbaum has, or used to have, a column in the New York Observer entitled "The Edgy Enthusiast." Now he has applied his edgyism to Shakespeare, in The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups. Woo-hoo! Walter Kirn writes as if caught up in the excitement himself.

As it is, though, [Rosenbaum] acts as our romantic surrogate. His compulsive quest for intimacy with every clause and comma Shakespeare touched - or some printer's apprentice retouched - is not the result of some eccentric turn-on but an enduring, collective arousal. His sighs are the sighs of all Shakespeare lovers, concentrated.

The most serious review this week is Tom Reiss's piece on Fritz Stern's Five Germanys I Have Known, the burden of which seems to be a caution to complacent Americans: what happened in Germany between the wars could happen here; many of the same elements and factors are in place. Mr Stern is a Columbia professor whose family left Breslau in 1938. Taught by Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling, he is a committed mid-century liberal, horrified by the retreat from liberal values urged by religious radicals. Mr Reiss sums up:

By probing history for answers to how Germany progressed from radical illiberalism to Nazism, Stern has created a cumulative canon of warning signs for the degeneration of any great nation's politics. The more personal history in this book adds power to an argument that has been a lifetime in the making.

"Work Hard, Study and Keep Out of Politics!": Adventures and Lessons From an Unexpected Public Life is the new memoir by James A Baker III, with Steve Fiffer. Jacob Heilbrunn's review would be fairly guilty of storytelling if storytelling weren't unavoidable when reviewing memoirs, but there's still not enough judgment (by Heilbrunn of Baker and of Baker's semi-ghosted writing) to give the piece ballast. If this is not Vanity Fair, it is not The Nation, either.

Mao's Last Revolution, by Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals is praised by Judith Shapiro as "an important first effort to establish the facts" of the Cultural Revolution - no mean accomplishment in the wake of a book burning, anti-intellectual fiesta.

Mao comes across as surprisingly reasonable, if often deliberately opaque. In contrast to other recent portrayals that stress his megalomania and cruelty. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals describe him as starting the revolution out of genuine concern that China might follow Khrushchev's revisionist road (rather than out of political weakness, as many have argued). Mao appears in control of all key decisions concerning the movements targets and direction until he is weakened in the revolution's latter years by Lou Gehrig's disease and other ailments.

O, the horror! Finally, there is Eavesdropping: A Life by Ear, by Stephan Kuusisto. Rachel Cohen's review never locates a better foundation for the book's validity than the author's blindness, and the aural compensations that he has found in listening.

In the end, the many epiphanies are too alike, the fragmentary essays never grow into a cohesive whole. And yet each chapter has its fine moments... Eavesdropping has a similar generosity.

Francis Fukuyama's Essay, "The American Way of Secrecy," sharply criticizes the Bush Administration for demanding inordinate deference, and it urges Americans to refuse to comply.


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Thank you for noting Ellman's mediocre writing about and trivializing of American Genius, A Comedy. Much appreciated, Spike Austen

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