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In the Book Review

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

I found myself pondering, this week, the existential significance of the book review - or at least the kind of book review that appears in the New York Times Book Review. What is it for? I no longer believe that it is necessarily meant, at a minimum, to be informative about books themselves. Week after week, reviewers shove the books aside and mount their own pulpits. Hatchet jobs are far from unknown. Unsympathetic reviews - which make so sense to me at all, now that I've thought bout it for a while - fail to provide readers with any direction. And because of constraints of time and space, not to mention the prospective, rather than appreciative, nature of the reviews, the pages rustle to the tune of marketing more than that of literary criticism.

There is a role for the Book Review, but I don't think that the current management is doing a very good job of playing it. I don't expect it to resemble the New York or London Review of Books. Those publications are more serious, but they're also more demanding, and somewhat delimited in their selection of titles. The Book Review ought to cover books of broad cultural importance, with more fiction coverage and fewer extraneous features. I'm all for amusing reviews - the Review could use a lot more laughter - but I'm finding "funny" Essays irrelevant and jejune. There ought to be a feature that talks candidly about buzz. That, after all, is what everyone in publishing talks about. Readers ought to be told more about how manuscripts are bought and promoted, and it wouldn't hurt to get the names of a few powerful editors out into the public discourse.

Reviewers ought to be chose much more carefully. Two consistently good reviewers appear this week - novelist Walter Kirn and Paul Gray - along with Times columnist Clyde Haberman, who used to be a foreign correspondent for the newspaper and who is therefore not entirely unqualified to write about Palestinian problems. As I've noted below, John T Edge gives us an ideal review, one that identifies the flavors of a book so precisely (and economically) that readers can quickly tell whether or not they'd find Wrestling With Gravy an enjoyable read.

To do that, Mr Edge has to have read Jonathan Reynolds's book sympathetically, whether he liked it or not. No reviewer can sympathize with every author, but I daresay few authors lack for sympathetic readers, and sympathetic readers alone can write usefully about books. If the editors of the Book Review can't do a better job of matching books with sympathetic readers, they ought to resign.


It's hard to know what the editors of the Book Review are thinking about fiction this week. There is a belated literary curiosity from Cuba, and a novel from India that prompts the editorial title, "Gangsta Raj." Then there are two books by women that seem a trifle mass-market for the Book Review. At least they have literary aspirations. The two novels by male Americans are simply crap.

We'll dispose of the last in roundup format.

Next, by Michael Crichton. "But Crichton seems intent on confusing his readers, pummeling them with a barrage of truths, half-truths and untruths, until they have no choice but to surrender." - Dave Itzkoff.

Vicious Circle: A Novel of Complicity, by Robert Littell. "Littell cannot seem to decide whether he means the rabbi and the doctor to be real human beings, emblems of the broader conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, or simply caricatures of religious extremist. He settles for an awkward mix of the three, as Vicious Circle lurches between tragedy and satire." - Alex Berenson.

Lauren Collins files a very disappointed review of Jody Shields's historical novel about maxillofacial surgery for British casualties, set in 1915,  The Crimson Portrait.

The recycling of existing subject matter isn't, in itself, the problem with The Crimson Portrait. But Shields's novel leans less toward riff than rehash.

The first chapter is "lumbering"; a central character muses "unconvincingly." If there is an audience for this book, the Book Review isn't going to be of much use. The same goes for Everybody Loves Somebody: Stories, by Joanna Scott. Sarah Saffian complains that

Scott overuses this brink-of-disaster device. As the collection progresses, her ominous tone, initially tantalizing, becomes a tedious tease.

In their different ways, these four reviews all pour cold water on the idea of running out and buying any of the books under consideration. That seems to be their sole purpose. Nobody who picks up the Book Review expects a novel by Michael Crichton to be favorably reviewed; arguably, nobody who picks up the Review would read Mr Crichton's more recent work. Mr Crichton does not, in any case, need any kind attention from the Times. I cannot believe that the editors couldn't have found four flawed but interesting novels that might otherwise get lost - and that very well may get lost. Why take up my time with books that the reviewers didn't find deserving?

Sacred Games, by Vikram Chandra, gets a favorable review from Paul Gray, who once again writes a good review as well. Here's how it wraps up:

By paying homage to both Ian Fleming and James Joyce, Chandra risks alienating the constituencies of each - of writing a thriller that's too serious and a serious novel that's too much in thrall to an absurd story. But in the post-9/11 era, madmen intent on blowing up all or even a small part of the world don't seem quite as unrealistic as they once did. If you keep that in mind, you may find Sacred Games as hard to put down as it is to pick up.

(The last remark alludes to the book's 916-page length.) Of The Initials of the Earth,  by Jesús Díaz (translated by Kathleen Ross), Terrence Rafferty writes,

It's appropriate that the first appearance in English of Díaz's ambivalent epic is a university-press edition. The book needs all the scholarly apparatus it can bear because its value is more documentary than literary; it's less interesting as a novel than as an act of self-revelation. ... But in the world outside Cuba (this part of the world, anyway) The Initials of the Earth is an academic curiosity, and there's an awful message-in-a-bottle poignance to that. Díaz set out to be exemplary, to write the scripture of his revolution, and wound up with something more like a shaky priest's confession - a desperate attempt to persuade himself that his faith isn't heading for the rocks.


This week's cover story is Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties, by Robert Stone. Walter Kirn is enthusiastic.

Erudite but blunt, both tender and hard-boiled, the part-time tabloid hack turned novelist knows how to stick a sentence. He knows how to fly down the high road of ideas, then suddenly crank the steering wheel of style and take us for a rough ride along the ditches. He's great on people - on joining their abstract insides to their outsides - and he's even better on places, both when they're populated, like New Orleans, and when they're almost deserted, like stretches of the Pacific coast of Mexico.

For what it's worth, this book is on my list.

George Johnson's favorable review of The Scientist as Rebel, by Freeman Dyson, left me a bit confused.

It's debatable whether anyone's book reviews - even those as thoughtfully discursive as Dyson's - belong embalmed between covers, but The Scientist as Rebel can be perused for a sampling of his iconoclastic takes on a science that sometimes seems to be turning into an establishment of its own.

But almost every sentence in the review portrays Mr Dyson as a patient "brick layer," more interested in new tools than in new ideas. He seems anything but rebellious. Polly Morrice is ambiguous in a different way about The Goldfish Went on Vacation: A Memoir of Loss (and Learning to Tell the Truth About It), by Patty Dann. According to Ms Morrice, this book, which recounts the course of author's husband's fatal brain cancer from the perspective of helping her three year-old to cope, is "grounded in a familiar discussion of how hard it is for Americans to come to grips with death." Memoir or self-help book? You decide. 

There are three books about the Middle East. First, former President Jimmy Carter's Palestine Peace Not Apartheid gets a polite bruising from Ethan Bronner.

This book has something of a Rip van Winkle feel to it, as if little had changed since Carter diagnosed the problem in the 1970s. All would be well today, he suggests, if his advice then had been followed. Forget Al Qaeda (the name does not appear in this book), the nuclear ambitions of Iran and the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Also about Palestine is The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood, by Rashid Khalidi. Clyde Haberman praises Mr Khalidi for wondering where the Palestinian leaders have been, but he also asks where ordinary Palestinians have been.

Images of West Bank celebrations after the 9/11 attacks hardly bolstered international confidence in the Palestinians' moral compass or political wisdom. The same may be said about their election last year of a government led by the radical Islamic group Hamas, which refuses to accept Israel's right to exist.

From the other end of the region - perhaps beyond it - comes In the Line of Fire: A Memoir, by Pervez Musharraf. In his review, which is a lot more favorable than I expected it to be, Fouad Ajami declares that the book is "written for American readers," and goes on to note the importance of Kemal Ataturk in the Pakistani leader's formation (his father was a diplomat posted to Istanbul).

There is a measure of Kemalism - its style, its irreverence in the face of the nation's culture - in Musharraf. Pakistan today is not the Turkey of Ataturk, it is a more lethal place, and Musharraf stops well short of Ataturk's unyielding secularism. But in his swagger, his eagerness to pull Pakistan into the West orbit of power, he is reminiscent of the legendary Turkish leader.

Moving to the United States, we have American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, by Chris Hedges. Rick Perlstein moves to disarm Mr Hedges's alarmism, noting that it has been a long time since "evangelical Christians" have indulged in violent protests or acts of terrorism.

Hedges is at his worst when he makes the supposed imminence of mass violence the reason the rest of us should be fighting for the open society. We should be fighting for it anyway.

Allan Sloan turns in a droll review of P J O'Rourke's doubtlessly droll repackaging of an allegedly unreadable classic, On "The Wealth of Nations."

...this book is well worth reading. You'll pick up a few good lines, you'll see a primo stylist at work. And you'll see why Adam Smith is so often quoted but so rarely read.

The problem with this review is that, by his own account, Mr Sloan has not read The Wealth of Nations, even though he has been a "business writer since 1989." And yet he asks me to trust an eminent spinmeister's digest of an economist whose theories are far more ambivalent than conservative thinkers have made him out to be. What were the editors thinking?

Ronald Spector's review of Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign 1941-1945, by Evan Thomas, suggests that Mr Thomas's focus on the personalities of the commanders blocks "other considerations that are at least as important in forming a judgment about these four individuals." Nonetheless he declares the book to be "engaging and thorough" nd "based on extensive research."

William F Buckley praises the two volumes of American Speeches - Political Oratory From the Revolution to the Civil War and Political Oratory From Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton - that Ted Widmer has edited for the Library of America, as "useful, and sometimes powerful ignition points for hot flashes of indignation, contempt, rage, veneration and yearning," but he regrets the absence of background materials that would put the speeches in context.

John T Edge observes that Jonathan Reynolds, author of Wrestling With Gravy: A Life With Food "is at his best when purposefully entangling libido and linguine." This is the kind of good review that's so conspicuously missing from this week's fiction coverage. I myself never think of lovemaking while I am eating my dinner, and I don't much care for mixing sex with seconds, but I know that many people do and do, and Mr Edge has obliged by helping them find a book that they'll like - while saving me a dead-end.

The selection of books in Matthew Price's Nonfiction Roundup is all but brain-dead. There are two books about nothing:

Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird, by Andrew D Blechman. "Blechman wittily traces the history of this gentle, intelligent, misunderstood bird - pigeon hatred, he shows, is a recent phenomenon - and journeys into its obsessive subcultures."

Monopoly: The World's Most Famous Game - and How It Got That Way, by Phillip E Orbanes. "Parker Brothers bought the game in 1935, and it became a global Depression-era smash, with versions to tailored to various markets. Italians of the Mussolini era, for example, enjoyed "Monopoli," which featured a "Via del Fascio," while the British could bid on Bond Street." That's been going on, then, longer than I thought.

And then there are two books of a scholarly cast:

Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man: Massachusetts and the History of Sexuality in America, by Thomas A Foster. "Zeroing in on the Bay State, Foster uses sermons, newspapers and court testimony to uncover a frank, often viciously witty discourse on male sexual behavior."

There Goes the Neighborhood: Racial, Ethnic, and Class Tensions in Four Chicago Neighborhoods and Their Meaning for America, by William Julius Wilson and Richard P Taub. "In this compact study, the esteemed sociologist Wilson and his colleague Taub gauge these changes in an effort to highlight "a major national challenged: the development of intergroup harmony in an era of rapid ethnic change." It's a noble goal, but their findings aren't terribly encouraging (and their academic prose - these are essentially research papers - can be a bit mind-numbing)."

And - to round things out? - a "brief, solid introduction, more an essay than a full-blown biography, to one of  the 19th century's great realists,

Portrait: The Life of Thomas Eakins, by William S McFeely. "Unfortunately for McFeely, his book arrives in the wake of two major books on Eakins published in the last few years."

Neal Pollack, I gather, is a very hip writer. Perhaps I've even read something of his. But in Elissa Schappel's review of his new book, Alternadad, Mr Pollack comes off as profoundly fatuous.

The alternative style of parenting and his wife, Regina, subscribe to is built on the desire to raise a kid - a totally deck kid - without actually having to change, or give up any of, your pre-baby lifestyle.

Polymath Richard Powers's Essay, "How to Speak a Book," discusses the virtues of dictation.

Not that efficiency has always been dictation's prime selling point: in dictating his own last few baggy monsters, Henry James perfected such fluid elocution that, according to Edith Wharton, he couldn't even ask directions without releasing a torrent of "explanatory ramifications."


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