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In the Book Review

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

In this space not quite a year ago, when I was still new to the project of reviewing the Book Review, I wrote the following rather cavalier capsule:

¶ Local son Robert Long has written a book about the artists who made the Hamptons interesting as well as glamorous, De Kooning's Bicycle: Artists and Writers in the Hamptons. I would read this book, but only if asked to do so. Alice McDermott's Child of My Heart covered this territory well enough for me.

Mr Long subsequently contacted me and took me up on my offer to read the book if asked to do so. I duly read the book - and liked it very much. Mr Long invited me to a book party at Lenox Hill Books, where I was the only guest who wasn't an old friend. He could not have been nicer to me. We exchanged a few emails, and I hoped to have lunch with him some time when he might come into town from East Hampton. I don't think that we had any contact at all in 2006, but I thought of him, and of his book, quite often, not least because they opened my eyes to Abstract Expressionism.

I was very sorry to hear, the other day, from a friend of Mr Long's who found my Portico page via Google, that the writer died last week of pancreatic cancer. I should have liked to know him better. Then again, I should never have known him at all if I hadn't undertaken this review. You never know which door will open to your knock, but the Internet opens thousands of corridors. I feel very lucky to be one of the people who will remember Robert Long. 


An odd issue: only three novels, and an extremely long review of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion. The novels are a very odd batch: Thomas Bernhard (who died in 1989 but whose novel has just been translated, for masochistic readers), Richard Powers (reviewed by Colson Whitehead, no less - in-crowd treatment), and a historical legal thriller about Cicero by Robert Harris. Marcel Theroux's review of Imperium does a fine job of assessing Mr Harris's timely novel.

His Cicero is a Clinton or a Blair: an ambitious provincial, a lawyer with political aspirations and aided by a strong and opinionated wife, starting out with neither wealth nor powerful friends; a man of shifting ideological conviction but confident of his own benevolence, assiduous, driven and in love with the very process of politics.

We know what happened to Cicero (and to politics). Christopher Benfey gamely tries to adduce reasons why anyone would want to read Bernhard's Frost (1963), hitherto unavailable in English, but the writer's misanthropic perversity shines through. 

With such a minimal plot and cursory descriptions, there's plenty of room for Strauch's musings, as reported by the impressed and increasingly unhinged narrator. Strauch has little to say about art. He hates the art world and hasn't painted in years; when he still did, he painted in darkness. "When he thought his picture was done, he drew back the curtains, so abruptly that the light blinded him and he couldn't see."

Mr Whitehead's cheerleading review of The Echo Maker is so plush with storytelling that I can only appraise it as a service to people who want to know what the latest Powers book is about because they're not going to get round to reading it. Although he means to be favorable, his condensation of the novel is anything but interesting; it gave me a headache to try to follow it.

The Echo Makers joins my Powers favorites through the admirable harmony he achieves between his rhetorical strategies - on the life of the sandhill cranes, on the furrowed dynamism of the brain - and the travails of Mark, Karin and Weber as they try to navigate their altered territories.

Between the cranes and the navigation, I'm not roused.


Now, what's going on with Jim Holt's review of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion? The length - two full pages (with illustrations) and the cover - is most unusual, trumpeting the Review's belief that it is necessary to have a carefully developed opinion about this book. Mr Holt engages many of Mr Dawkins's Darwinian claims and takes issue with several, but his judgment is not unfavorable. Rather, it is somewhat weary.

Despite the many flashes of brilliance in this book, Dawkins's failure to appreciate just how hard philosophical questions about religion can be makes reading it an intellectually frustrating experience. As long as there are no decisive arguments for or against the existence of God, a certain number of smart people will go on believing in him, just as smart people reflexively believe in other things for which they have no knock-down philosophical arguments, like free will, or objective values, or the existence of other minds.

Far more valuable, really, is something that Mr Holt said in a telephone interview (to someone at the Review), quoted in the issue's "Up Front" section:

I agree with Dawkins's conclusions, but his reasoning is so unlovely. The beauty of the reasoning - that's my religion.

Two books that grumble about religiosity in politics receive very similar treatment at the hands of conservvative commentators. George Will is patient but ultimately patronising in his review of Brooke Allen's Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers. he calls it a "wonderfully high-spirited polemic," follows that with a good deal of storytelling, but ultimately concludes that it all makes no never-mind.

In 1953, the year before "under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, President Dwight D Eisenhower declared July 4 as a day of "penance and prayer." That day he fished in the morning, golfed in the afternoon and played bridge in the evening. Allen and others who fret about a possibly theocratic future can take comfort from the fact that America's public piety is more frequently avowed than constraining.

David Brooks claims to be a friend of Michael Sullivan, and he also claims that he and Mr Sullivan are the "only two self-confessed" followers of the late philosopher Michael Oakeshott, but he's just as patronising as Mr Will. Like Ms Allen, Mr Sullivan is ticked off by the encroachment of "religious fundamentalism" within the conservative movement, and has written The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How To Get It Back as a way of signaling his alarm. Not to worry, says Mr Brooks.

As any number of historians, sociologists and pollsters can tell you, the evangelical Protestants who now exercise a major influence on the Republican Party are an infinitely diverse and contradictory group, and their relationship to these hyperpartisans is extremely ambivalent.

Next thing you know, Mr Brooks - whose glibness is so viscous that I don't believe him even when i agree with him - gets off this zinger: "His book would have benefited from more reporting - or any."

Better to read, perhaps, Blood Brothers: Among the Soldiers of Ward 57, by Michael Weisskopf. Nathaniel Tripp's very favorable reviews this heartbreaking book about Iraqi veteran amputees, written by an embedded journalist who lost his right hand to an IED in 2003. According to Mr Tripp, the middle-aged author's plight is firmly downplayed in contrast to that of the soldiers, all young men denied the full lives that they might have had.

In this war where the public is prevented even from seeing photographs of returning coffins, the grim reality of these men's sacrifice becomes clear. Blood Brothers is a fine and heartfelt work honoring them.

Paul Tough's sympathetic review of Chutes and Ladders: Navigating the Low-wage Labor Market, Katherine S Newman's report on a handful of Harlem kids who have done relatively well in the teeth of disadvantage, makes it look like an important rethink.

The traditional approach of sociologists, Newman writes, is to see the inhabitants of urban ghettoes as outsider "separated from the rest of American society," in the grip of an "oppositional culture." But the crowd she followed isn't like that at all. They have a strong commitment to middle-class values, she reports, especially around work and welfare. They are, in fact, "closer to a conservative, 'red state' perspective than the liberal 'blue state' view that most sociologists, myself included, subscribe to."

On facing pages in the center of the Review, we have a book about cosmetic surgery facing a book about the future of food. The net effect is to call the idea of progress into question. Retired dancer and elegant writer Toni Bentley is not happy with Alex Kuczynski's Beauty Junkies: Inside Our $15 Billion Obsession With Cosmetic Surgery. She doesn't come out and say so directly, but the implication that Ms Kuczynski is not thinking with maximal critical faculties.

Kuczynski finishes her book having sworn off surgery herself - after her Restyleane "large yam" lip debacle. "By the time this book comes out," she writes proudly, "I won't have had a Botox shot or a collagen shot for a year>' You go, girl! However, her simplistic admonishment to "stop and think. And think and stop," will deter no one intent on surgical self-improvement. It doesn't even begin to confront the hunger being assauged by external alteration.

Matt Lee and Ted Lee, brothers who collaborate on Hollywood for the Times, and who have just come out with The Lee Bros Southern Cookbook, behave like two nice boys in the sandbox in the course of their brisk coverage of Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food, by Warren Belasco. They shovel neat piles of storytelling into different buckets labeled "Catastrophe?" "No Problemo?" and "Stewardship?" in apparent imitation of the author, who

is a mostly impartial guide, revealing himself only in the beginning ...  and in the postscript, where he dabbles in relativism ... before giving up for a plea against a pragmatic, incrementalist approach to dealing with the earth's environmental challenges and in favor of "quantum leaps" and "impassioned wake-up calls."

Did I read excerpts in Vanity Fair? Valerie Lawson has written a life of P L Travers, Mary Poppins, She Wrote. An odd woman, the woman born Helen Lyndon Goff adopted an Irish infant, a twin - the one that she preferred - whom she raised to believe that "Daddy had had some kind of an accident and died in the tropics." At the age of seventeen, however, he ran into his brother in a Dublin bar. I couldn't resist passing that story along. Review Chelsea Cain thinks that the book is almost as odd as its subject.

Lawson, a feature writer for The Sydney Morning Herald, reports where Travers went, whom she met and what she said in letters and essays, but she keeps Travers at arm's length. Biographers don't have to love their subjects, but Lawson doesn't even seem to like hers.

How anybody could review Cancer Vixen: A True Story, by cartoonist Marisa Acocella Marchetto, without alluding to Brian Fries's Mom's Cancer is beyond me, but Ariel Levy pulls it off. "In its giddy fixation on lip gloss and sling-backs, Cancer Vixen is less a contribution to the established genre of cancer literature than it is the inauguration of something marginally novel: Sick-Chick Lit."

Michael Steinberger gives Jay McInerney's A Hedonist in the Cellar: Adventures in Wine a very favorable review, and quotes enough to back himself up. "One of McInerney's many virtues as a wine writer is that he seems to have no agenda apart from maximizing his pleasure."

Devoting a full page to Neil Genzlinger's reviews of Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive World of Trivia Buffs, by Ken Jennings, and Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade in "Jeapardy!", by Bob Harris, is something of a low for the Review. We know that smart people can be trivial, but we needn't encourage it.

In his Essay, "Cabin Fever," Henry Louis Gates Jr wonders why James Baldwin thought so ill of Uncle Tom's Cabin. "Surely," he eventually answers, "it was because he was, however unconsciously, speaking to his own deepest fears: that as a novelist, he was guilty of the very thing he disdained in Stowe." By that time, Mr Gates has made his case.


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