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In the Book Review

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

Groan! This week's Book Review is all but overwhelmed by a huge essay about Norman Mailer, Lee Siegel's "Maestro of the Human Ego." From the title to the last sentence, I found it hard to follow Mr Siegel's thinking. He writes with a lot of transcendent-sounding terms about Mr Mailer's transcendent achievement as a writer.

To not cohere to received axes of fact - magical phrase! [??] - to approach life novelistically, is to make connections between the visible and the invisible world, and to transfigure the commonplace. We now are drowning in mind-numbing literature of the commonplace: tipping points, hive minds, "freakanomics," "bobos in paradise" - it is all lifestyle trends, marketing techniques, cheap behavioral psychology and glib social-pattern-spotting. This flood of minutiae makes one long for Mailer's heroic attempts to invest experience with a higher meaning, no matter how far-out or unacceptable some of his connections between seen and unseen might be. Even if such notions offend household pieties, they have the effect of making you return fully awake to first principles that had begun to make you snore. And when Mailer's connections work, they are beyond good.

In response to Mr Siegel's complaint about "mind-numbing literature of the commonplace," I would argue that it reflects a widespread aversion to literary heroics, a shared notion that perhaps we are not very good judges of ourselves when we leave facts and figures behind. The final sentence is empty cheerleading. Mr Siegel goes on to give an example of a connection - from Marilyn.

"Since sex is, after all, the most special form of human communication, and the technological society is built on expanding communication in much the same way capitalism was built on the expansive properties of capital and money, the perspective is toward greater promiscuity." If you are seeking an explanation for why pornography takes up most of the Internet, there it is.

Sex is "the most special form of human communication" - what on earth does that mean? Mr Mailer must find it exhausting, given his background, not to be "'a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn'."

Fiction

As a review of The Castle in the Forest, Lee Siegel's monster tribute to Norman Mailer is evasive. Mr Siegel kicks up so much dust with his breathless and not always lucid praise that the new novel shifts in and out of view. We're told that it's about the early days of Adolf Hitler and his family, that it's narrator by an SS officer who is actually the Devil, and that Mr Mailer strips his characters of their self-regarding delusions. It's also hinted that readers in search of a good story ought to keep moving: "...Dieter is, for one thing, an awful storyteller." 

Lorraine Adams's review of The Bastard of Istanbul, Turkish novelist Elif Shafak's second book in English, is somewhat disappointing, because it postpones judgment until the last paragraph, having spent much of its time discussing the semi-official bigotry that motivates the Turkish inability to face up to the Armenian genocide. Ms Adams has some interesting things to say about the role played by a conservative attorney, Kemal Kerencsiz, but when we read "Shefak may be a writer of moral compunction but she has yet to become - in English, at any rate - a good novelist," we might well wonder why Ms Adams didn't tweak her material into an Essay for the back page. Books written by writers judged not to be "good novelists" simply don't deserve coverage in the Book Review.

Liesl Schillinger is even more disappointing about Roddy Doyle's Paula Spencer. She tells us what the novel is about, more or less, but she fails to convey the flavor of what might or might not be a very depressing read.

It's a testament to the incantatory power of Doyle's writing in that earlier book that Paula's valiant will to glorify, not horrify, her past and to survive her present overshadows her husband's campaign to crush her.

I'm not sure that I understand that sentence. As to the new book, the closest that Ms Schillinger comes to judgment is not quite literate. "In a word, yeesh."

One supposes that Walter Mosley's Killing Johnny Fry: A Sexistentialist Novel gets a review at all because of the critical success of Mr Mosley's Easy Rawlins detective stories, but that is not good enough a reason for including a book that reviewer Charles Taylor describes as "a frankly pornographic novel." It's that simple.

Nonfiction

Alan Wolfe, ordinarily genial and moderate, pulls no punches in his review of Dinesh D'Souza's The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11.

So let this "decent" liberal make perfectly clear how thoroughly indecent Dinesh D'Souza is. Like his hero Joe McCarthy, he has no sense of shame. He is a childish thinker and writer tackling subjects about which he knows little to make arguments that reek of political extremism. His book is a national disgrace, a sorry example of a publishing culture more concerned with the sensational than the sensible.

In a sense, this is not a book review, there being no "book" to review. It ought to have been published at the newspapers Op-Ed page. Better still, the Book Review could provide regular reports on the book business wherein among other things the trade-off of sense for sensation could be lamented.

Just how important good journalism is to the national health is the implicit subject of The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff. Raymond Arsenault's urgently favorable review traces the consequences of Gunnar Myrdal's 1944 observation that "the future of race relations ... rested largely in the hands of the American press."

The Race Beat is very much an insider's account. Roberts and Klibanoff are sensitive to the details and challenges of journalistic practice: the complex relationship between editorial and news divisions; the politics of newsroom assignments; the strengths and weaknesses of competing wire services; the placement and longevity of news stories; the impact of libel laws and the legal oversight of newspapers; the role of management and financial constraints; the differences among print, television and radio coverage; and the significance of having correspondents on the scene.

This review could easily have been a tangle of storytelling. In fact, it is never disengaged from The Race Beat. It's the best review this week.

Scott Stossel's review of Sarah E Igo's The Averaged Americxan: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public appears at first to be favorable.

...Igo chronicles the emergence of a "mass society" and the transformation of the American consciousness along statistical lines. In telling this story, Igo does for social statistics what Louis Menand's Metaphysical Club did for American pragmatism, providing a narrative intellectual history of the field.

At the end, however, Mr Stossel seems to dismiss the subject, if not Ms Igo's book, with the claim that we learn more about ourselves from great fiction than we do from numbers. This is inconsequent.

Roy Blount, Jr's review of Letters of E B White: Revised Edition. Originally edited by Dorthy Lobrano Guth. Revised and updated by Martha White is loaded with hidden agenda. Mr Blount used to worship Mr White, but he got over that, and came to regard White as "well, white, for one thing, but also cozy." "My old hero was a hothouse flower." If the review is to be judged favorable, then it is the most grudging good review that I have ever read, and not only because Mr Blount sprays his ambivalence upon every sentence. He refuses to give us an extract from the correspondent in context. Why else does the general reader turn to old letters, but for their élan?

There is nothing that Amy Bloom can find to say about False Self: The Life of Masud Khan, by Linda Hopkins that persuades me that this book deserves coverage. The subject was a somewhat charlatanesque psychoanalyst trolling the upper reaches of midcentury Britain.

Hopkins's biography is thoughtful, thorough and insightful. But I never felt the tragedy she asserts, and only Bruce Jay Friedman or Irish Murdoch could have done justice to the [comedy].

The final titles this week make me queasy. The first is an inspirational story (very funny, though, if Ada Calhoun's review is accurate), and the last thing I want to do is to say anything unpleasant about a handicapped writer. The second is a collection of raunchy personal ads, and the next-to-last thing that I want to do is to convey the impression that I'm a humorless prune. But neither The Best Seat in the House: How I woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed For Life, by Allen Rucker, nor They Call Me Naughty Lola: Personal Ads From The London Review of Books, edited with an introduction by David Rose (and reviewed by Henry Alford) belongs in The New York Times Book Review. We are surely in the Convenience Store Era of the Book Review's evolution.

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