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In the Book Review

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


Accompanied by a nice photograph of the author and his dogs, A O Scott's extremely favorable review of Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land does what it can to push Mr Ford onto the Olympian summits of American letters. Toward the end, he writes of Frank Bascombe, the ordinary guy at the center of a trilogy of novels,

But the point is, you must take Frank as he is, and admit him into your circle of intimates according to affinities that go deeper than literary taste. And accepting him - extending your sympathy, laughing at his jokes, overlooking his crotchets and prejudices - amounts nearly to an ethical imperative, the acknowledgment of his personhood.

But I'm afraid that Mr Scott said nothing to persuade me that Frank Bascombe is worth Mr Ford's attentions, doubt about which crept in when I read excerpts from Independence Day in The New Yorker. Mr Ford is an extraordinarily gifted writer, but there's a weird narcissism about Frank, as if he's in love with the ordinary guy he's trying to be.

Christopher Dickey's review of Magic Time, by Doug Marlette, is a stammering affair, haunted, I suppose by echoes of the Civil Rights movement as it was experience by white Southerners and as it forms the foundation of this novel.

Alongside these historical events, and drawing from them, Marlette creates a narrative where nothing and no one is quite real; all is more or less subtle caricature. (One resists using that word, since the novelist is best known as a cartoonist, but, well, there it is.) ... But the storytelling is involving and the plot wondrously complicated, a tall tale about terrible times that were, in memory, magical and magnificent.

Poor Charles Frazier has not been getting the kind of review that welcomed Cold Mountain to the literary party in 1997. Everyone seems to be disappointed by Thirteen Moons, and Adam Goodheart is no exception.

The problem, I think is that Frazier writes almost exclusively to create effects. He seems to be in love with the supposed gorgeousness of his own prose, a backdrop against which his characters emerge merely as dim figures, without consistent motivations or even personalities. Tolstoy and Virgil - and, come to think of it, Margaret Mitchell - credibly describe human beings driven by ambition, greed, drunkenness and fickle lust. Frazier can't even get the drunkenness right.

Notwithstanding the above, Mr Goodheart finds much of the writing in Thirteen Moons "bad - really bad." One Good Turn, Kate Atkinson's second crime novel, One Good Turn, gets a good review from Liesl Schillinger, although I think that Ms Schillinger had more to say than space permitted. Of Ms Atkinson's approach, she writes, "she's less interested in bringing perpetrators to justice than in exposing the engines of complicity, weakness and ego that drive seemingly witnesses and victims." This is a review that would have benefited mightily from an extended quotation from the text; I came away from it rather confused. Not one of Ms Schillinger's best efforts. Confusing in a different way is Gregory Cowles's review of The End of Mr Y, by Scarlett Thomas.

Thomas understands that a spoonful of escapism helps the phenomenology go down, and she obliges with a breakneck thriller of a plot that includes collapsing buildings, renegade CIA agents and debauched sex. In a way, she's flipped the Matrix formula on its head: the movie leaned on philosophy to make its generic story more cerebral, while Thomas uses genre to jazz up what's essentially a novel of ideas.

Finally, there is The Curse of Caste: Or The Slave Bride: A Rediscovered African American Novel, by Julia C Collins and edited by William L Andrews and Mitch Kachun. Sven Birkerts is pretty sure that this unfinished piece of boilerplate is

not worthy of the canonically foundational 'first novel by an African-American woman slot.' The best that can be said for The Curse of Caste is that it offers more evidence, if evidence were needed, of the persistence of racism in the former slave-owning class as the Civil War was ending - as seen by a woman and portrayed through a miscegenetic relationship.


Christopher de Bellaigue is not enthusiastic about Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran, by Jason Elliot - Road to Oxiana it ain't - but his review is, on balance, favorable.

Around his account of many months of travel, and sustained by extensive reading in libraries, he aims to build nothing less than a cohesive idea of Iran's artistic development.

Kathryn Harrison is working her way onto the small but growing list of reviewers whose work I dread because I come away from it with the painfully simultaneous impressions that I didn't get her point and that her point wasn't worth making. I can make no real sense of her review of Blue Arabesque: A Search for the Sublime, by Patricia Hampl. Inspired by Matisse's Woman Before an Aquarium, Ms Hampl appears to have written a book about (in her words) "passionate and detachment, of intimacy and distance," but, according to the review,

Ultimately, Blue Aquarium isn't a memoir so much as it is a paean to the act of seeing, celebrating our capacity to be transformed by the truths art holds, recognizing them as ... holy.

The ellipsis there is not added. As usual, Ms Harrison is excited by the intersection of sacred and transgressive impulses. Blue Aquarium gets lost in the gush. Michael Wood's review of Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination, by Lee Siegel, is nearly as incomprehensible. I can tell that, just as Kathryn Harrison likes Patricia Hampl, Mr Wood doesn't like Mr Siegel. That much is clear. But what seems to be a complete lack of sympathy makes him a very poor critic. Mr Siegel writes for The New Republic, but in Mr Wood's hands he comes off as a mush-prone nut who has a couple of worthwhile things to say.

In contrast, James Campbell's review of the next installment of John Fowles's diaries - The Journals: Volume Two: 1966-1990 - is astute. "There is intelligent observation in abundance, but disgust and dislike of humankind eventually conspire to exclude Fowles from the front rank of literary diarists." Front rank or not, Fowles's self-exposure gets a favorable nod from Mr Campbell. Caveat emptor, he implies, but don't not be an emptor.

David Leonhardt, who writes on economics for the Times, writes an excellent review of The Great Risk Shift: The Assault on American Jobs, Families, Health Care, and Retirement, by Jacob S Hacker. Up to a point, it's the standard review of books like this, praising the author's shrewd analysis of an impending crisis, but then damning the author for failing to propose viable solutions. Mr Leonhardt has an idea where the solution might lie, however, and it is worth reading just for itself. The shortcut to which he refers is the one so often taken by public intellectuals: Mr Hacker relies on the American economy's facts and figures, but does not inquire into Americans' thoughts and aspirations.

This shortcut matters because it helps explain why Hacker's side has been losing for so long. It still has not persuaded Americans, who generally expect to succeed, that they might well be served by more insurance. The antagonist throughout The Great Risk Shift is a cult of individualism that Hacker calls "The Personal Responsibility Crusade," As Bill Clinton understood, however, Americans do not like to be on the opposite side of personal responsibility. This book doesn't move the newly muscular Democrats any closer to finding their happy warrior.

Charles Morris can't make up his mind about Dynasties: Fortunes and Misfortunes of the World's Great Family Businesses, by David S Landes. On the one hand, he calls it an "entertainment," in Graham Greene's sense, and concludes that the book "was clearly a pleasurable undertaking, not a scholarly one, and general readers may enjoy it for precisely that reason." Most of the piece, however, seems to pick at Mr Landes's failure to defend his belief that family members brought up within the peculiar environment of a given firm can outperform generic professional managers with more rigor. There is this little nugget of information that I'll pass on:

The purest cases for Landes's "stewardship" thesis may be the Peugeots and the Wendels [both French families]. Over a number of generations, both families have been gifted, committed and acutely aware of their multigenerational obligations.

Could it be that "stewardship" is the sword with which to cut down "personal responsibility"?

Hampton Sides's Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West gets a favorable review from N Scott Momaday, but its not a very good one. We're told that Kit Carson "is at the center of this book," and that Mr Sides originally "set out to write a book on the removal of the Navajos from Canyon de Chelly and their Long Walk to the Bosque Redondo," and, indeed, these are the topics that preoccupy Mr Momaday's review. If so, however, then Mr Sides has snuck a little book inside a mammoth title.

On the facing page, Jacob Heilbrunn takes on the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, reviewing three books, Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, by Victor Sebestyen, Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt, by Charles Gati, and Journey to a Revolution: A Personal Memoir and History of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, by Michael Korda. Mr Heilbrunn rises to the challenge of digesting so much material in so short a space.

Despite their very different approaches, these works have some important things in common: each of the authors has a personal connection to Hungarian history and culture; each refers to newly available documents from the Soviet and American archives; each casts a cold eye on American declarations of a crusade for democracy behind the Iron Curtain; and above all, each shows that - just as George F Kennan had predicted - Stalin's vast empire contained the seeds of its own demise.

What Mr Heilbrunn regrets is that "none of the authors note that the events in Hungary refuted the theory, advanced by Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism, and widely believed in the West almost until the end of the cold war, that Communism had reduced entire populations to a permanent state of cringing subservience."

Actress and culinarian Madhur Jaffrey has written a memoir of her childhood, Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India, and the Review has assigned the book to food writers Jane and Michael Stern. The comfortable result will sell many copies.

A shimmering security pervades Jaffrey's youth, which she describes as "surrounded by love, concern, family tensions, cousinly competition and the general goings-on of a large joint family." Nowhere is the enveloping warmth more palpable than at dinnertime, either at the sprawling table of the compound in Delhi or at picnics in the city and the mountains. ...

Jaffrey's taste memories sparkle with enthusiasm, and her talent for conveying them makes the book relentlessly appetizing.

An equally satisfying assignment: Henry Alford on Amy Sedaris. Writing of the comedian's I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence, Mr Alford quietly complains:

In addition to wanting specific party tips and recipes, many of us read books on entertaining because to do so is to lessen our anxiety about letting others get close to us, literally and metaphorically. As hilarious and as relentlessly inventive as Sedaris is, her prescriptions are often more likely to induce laughter or awe than intimacy. The sheer force of Sedaris's personality, both on the stage and on the page, could crush most other comic performers and writers like the tiny bugs we are, but a gracious host is as much an enabler as a doer.

In other words, he loved the book. Alexandra Jacobs did not even like The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability, by Laura Kipnis. After sketching Ms Kipnis's career from academic feminist to attention-getting author - her Against Love came out in 2003 - Ms Jacobs writes,

The Female Thing feels like a rushed attempt to capitalize on this accomplishment, a loose collection of ideas knitted together after too many thimblefuls of sherry at the faculty lounge. Kipnis begins with a provocative if familiar premise: women's natural instincts make them complicit in their own historical subjugation. But the text that follows is filled with woolly equivocations: "of course .. obviously ... which is to say" - more padded than a Wonderbra, as Kipnis might put it (she grasps at cheeky just-us-gals metaphors, comparing the presumably painful state of current gender relations, for example, to "ingrown hairs after a bad bikini wax.")

It's a fun review, if you're feeling a little mean.

Steven Johnson's Essay, "Own Your Own Words," is about the importance of exploiting Google in order to "own" a topic.


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