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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 cover story is Lisey's Story, the new Stephen King novel for which literary claims are being made, not least by the author himself. Jim Windolf's review is favorable, but it does not venture an answer to the literary question - which, for the matter of that, it does not even ask. The literary question about Stephen King is not whether horror stories can be literary. We know from Poe that they most certainly can. The question is whether the quality of Mr King's writing is literary. I myself do not think that it is: there is not likely to be anything significant within the covers of his books that will fail to appear in a competent film adaptation. Mr King is, at his best, a compelling scenarist; as a writer, he is flatly, artlessly vernacular. That would be why, when he was in grade school, his classmates would pay to read his stories, while his teacher would complain that he was writing junk. In any case, whether Lisey's Story marks a break with Mr King's pulp-toned past cannot be a matter of plotting. As Mr Windolf's extracts are not very substantial, the quality of the book is impossible to judge on the basis of this lengthy review. 

Brooke Allen's fine review of The Stories of Mary Gordon, by, of course, Mary Gordon, is largely favorable, but its concluding sentences point to an interesting failing in the collection.

It's a shame, though, that the stories haven't been provided with dates or arranged in a clear chronology. Tracking the progression of a writer's career is always instructive - and in a career like Mary Gordon's, particularly so.

Paul Gray is rather harder on the late Frederick Busch, whose posthumous collection, Rescue Missions: Stories has just appeared.

Although the individual stories display Busch's usual craftsmanship, they begin to feel manipulative when read in sequence. Seeking out the cheek with acne is the way most of these characters look at the world. When the setting is upstate New York, where Busch spent much of his adult life, descriptions point out "snow pitted by car exhausts" and "several feet of dirty snow and twisted slush" and "mud-colored ruts of ice," but ignore the momentary enchantment of a snowfall.

Kaiama L Glover may have wanted more space in which to explain her response to The Translator, by Leila Aboulela: her review is pinched and stressed almost to the point of incoherence. Happily, however, there are a few helpful sentences.

Of course, conflict is inevitable in a novel set in Scotland and Sudan that explores desire in the context of profound religious devotion. And in some ways Aboulela passes too lightly over the obstacles posed by this tension. But while her forays into politics and Western media manipulation of Muslim extremism can seem facile, she more than compensates with beautiful passages on Islam's essential purity and poetry. Aboulela has a talent for expressing the simple wonders of unbroken faith. Just as deftly, she uncovers the intricacies of unbroken faith. Just as deftly, she uncovers the intricacies of how such faith can be challenged - suddenly, subtly.

Even as I complain that such-and-such a reviewer was clearly the wrong choice for a given book (see Daniel Mendelsohn on Jonathan Franzen, for example), so I must lament that, from time to time, I am unqualified to attempt lucidity when confronted by certain books. Will Self's The Book of Dave: A Revelation of the Recent Past and the Distant Future is so unappealing a proposition (set in a bleak, postapocalyptic future) that I clutched at the final paragraph of Nathaniel Rich's unfavorable review with something like a drowning man's desperation.

What the author himself means to say is not much clearer. Self's model of Dàvinanity [don't ask] seems constructed to show religion's tyranny over its devoted followers, the arbitrariness of its symbols and tenets, and its brutal effectiveness at stifling critical thinking. But these criticism of organized religion are hardly unconventional, and are here conveyed with all the nuance of Dave's misanthropic tirades. If anything, the message seems to be that Dave's grumpy views of society are myopic and wrongheaded (though amusing) - a conclusion most readers will reach the first time they meet the blustering cabbie. And so we're ultimately left with a pair of grotesque worlds, facing each other like two mirrors, but reflecting nothing.

Finally, there's Barry Unsworth's The Ruby In Her Navel: A Novel and Love and Intrigue in the Twelfth Century. Jason Goodwin gives this book, set in the Norman kingdom of Sicily, a generally favorable review, but notes that the use of a first-person narrator "creates tonal difficulties:

creates tonal difficulties: Thurstan's language is a kind of cod-medieval English, something you might call haulberk. "Secretly I thought he made the better appearance, because he was also slender and graceful in movement, whereas I have more weight to me and more thickness in the shoulder." Some people may like this kind of thing, and I can be lulled along by it, but it's a sort of novelistic limbo.


Franklin Foer's review of Bob Woodward's State of Denial is a curious affair. Mr Foer, currently editor of The New Republic, seems almost gleeful about the book's unflattering portrait (finally!) of the Bush regime, but he does not actually praise the book itself.

With State of Denial, you sense this (somewhat overwrought critique has rattled Woodward. It has forced him to change his style. There's less of his signature omniscience here - a style that not only reflected his proximity to power, but captured the self-confidence of the Washington Establishment. In its place, he has grown self-referential, nervously mentioning his past books, as well as inserting himself as a character into his own tale. That Bob Woodward has strayed from the Bob Woodward method tells you a lot about the state of American journalism.

Mr Foer adds that "Rumsfeld takes so much pummeling that he eventually becomes a strangely sympathetic character. If Schadenfreude is your thing, maybe this is the book for you.

Much later in the Review, James Traub hands Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World, by Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman, an intelligently favorable review. Noting that Mr Lieven is "a fiery pamphleteer of the left" and that Mr Hulsman is a former conservative think-tanker who applauded Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's partition of Europe into "old" and "new," Mr Traub writes,

The fact that these two thinkers have found enough common ground to write a book together is an astonishingly perverse achievement of neoconservative theory and practice. It has also become something of an inside-the-think-tanks cause célèbre, since Hulsman has said that Heritage [Foundation] fired him soon after the book project was announced.

George Will is given lots of space to sing the praises of Michael Lewis's The Blind Side, a book that he insists will interest even those who really dislike football. I'd say, "Try me," but that would involve my reading the book. There is a remarkable, if vaguely distasteful, story here about a gifted player's rescue by a bountiful family, but the review itself made my skin crawl. Sharing the page with the tail of Mr Will's piece is Alison McCulloch's brief review of On Truth, by Harry G Frankfurt. This is the companion to the Princeton professor's On Bullshit - a title that the Times makes itself ridiculous by refusing to print. Ms McCulloch deems the new book "superfluous," but her explanation in support of this judgment is, to me at any rate, incoherent. As the reviewer is an editor at the Book Review, I can't say that I'm surprised by the dismal quality of her piece.

Niall Ferguson's The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West gets a review from Simon Sebag Montefiore that is as good as it is favorable. Here's how it ends:

But his real conclusion is a warning to the West. We must study the 20th century, he insists, because, in different ways, it could all happen again: "We shall avoid another century of conflict only if we understand the forces that caused the last one - the dark forces that conjure up ethnic conflict and imperial rivalry out of economic crisis, and in doing so negate our common humanity. They are forces that stir within us still."

In other words, it ends with a nice juicy quote from the book. David Sirota is generally favorable about Lou Dobbs's War on the Middle Class: How the Government, Big Business, and Special Interest Groups Are Waging War on the American Dream and How to Fight Back. He describes Mr Dobbs's style as "seething yet remarkably matter-of-fact" and his prose as "refreshing."

It is undeniable that aside from Dobbs and a few politicians, America's political debate is almost entirely devoid of economic populists. War on the Middle Class confronts this problem head-on - and thanks to Dobbs's passion and charisma, it succeeds in sounding an alarm that cannot be ignored.

I recently wrote about a review of Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic - and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World that appeared in The New Yorker, unaware that the author is the Everything Bad Is Good Steven Johnson. David Quammen hastily points this out in the Review before going on to do some admittedly irresistible storytelling. If he gets tired of Mr Johnson's stylistic quirks, he's clear about the book's narrative strength and thorough research. Even so, he never draws Steven Shapin's powerful point that good civics are more important than good science when it comes to public health.

Art Buchwald thought he was a goner in February of this year, but he's apparently still going more or less strong. James Kaplan admires the way in which he writes of his life at a hospice, visited by so many of the great and the good, in Too Soon to Say Goodbye.

Amid an old man's pardonably digressive reminiscences (some of which will nevertheless feel familiar to readers of Buchwald's other books), he speaks feelingly about the realities of death: living wills, the grief of other, less fortunate hospice residents and their families, and the strange American habit of trying to ignore life's end. Art Buchwald has looked straight at his own "dirt nap," with liberating results. "People told me," he writes, "they loved talking to someone who wasn't afraid to discuss death."

Sala's Gift: My Mother's Holocaust Story, by Ann Kirschner, is a book that will helplessly be regarded as "remarkable." Based on a packet of letters and diaries that a young internee at a labor camp managed to preserve throughout World War II, it tells the stories of some Polish Jews who were lucky enough to survive the Holocaust. Because such material is too radioactive to criticize in the everyday sense, Blake Eskin would have done better to assess Ms Kirschner's skill as an editor and interviewer, a matter about which the review says nothing.

Prisoners: A Muslim and Jew Across the Middle East Divide is Jeffrey Goldberg's account of a friendship of sorts between an Long-Island-bred journalist and a Muslim whose ethnic background and profession Elena Lappin's review neglects to mention. But her overall judgment is astute.

Goldberg ends the book on a hopeful, almost elated note. His optimism is based on something like gratitude when Rafiq finally says that he would want him to live if he were present during a suicide bombing. But he is missing the point. Prisoners tells us, eloquently, the complete and complex story of Jeffrey Goldberg's love for Israel, but very little else. We really don't know what's on Rafiq's mind, and in his heart, because his Jewish friend doesn't either. The Middle East will remain one big prison as long as there are no books about friendship between Jews and Arabs written by Arabs. Strangely, Herzl seems to have know this when he wrote The Jewish State in 1896: "Long-term prisoners do not willingly quit their cells."

Grand Illusion: The Untold Story of Rudy Giuliani and 9/11 is an attempt by Wayne Barrett and Dan Collins to tarnish the luster of the former mayor's image. According to Jonathan Mahler, "...the book's relentlessly hostile tone undermines the authors' case." But Sophie Harrison's review of The Woman of Substance: The Secret Life That Inspired the Renowned Storyteller Barbara Taylor Bradford, by Piers Dudgeon, finds the author's admiration for his subject just as limiting, and she recommends the novelist's Web site as a better source of information. (Ouch!) "But here and elsewhere, in all her groomed and ultimately guarded manifestations, the original woman of substance feels as oddly made-up as one of her own characters."

John Wilson's Essay, "God Fearing," explores the divergence between the evangelical juggernaut imagined by liberal paranoia and the bumbling, fractious character that evangelicals usually have in current fiction. The writer himself appears to be a thoughtful evangelical, and his piece is not without humor.


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