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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, I'm going to try something new. Instead of following the Book Review's distinction between fiction and poetry - a distinction confined to the table of contents, I'm going to group my assessments of this week's reviews under three headings: Yes, Maybe, and No. These groupings reflect my judgment as to whether a given book ought to be reviewed in the Book Review at all. As far as possible, it does not indicate my judgment of the reviews themselves, but as the reviews are all I have to go on, in many cases, a poorly-conceived review may so badly misrepresent a book that I conclude that the book itself is unimportant at best.

I hope that the new distinctions will bring out the multi-dimensional nature of this project, which, I must say, I've been slow to discover. When I began, almost a year and a half ago, I rather lightheartedly approached the reviews as a target: did the review sell the book to me or didn't it? In time, this came to seem beside the point, the point being this: was the Book Review doing its job? If a review didn't sell me, that is, was the book or the review to blame? Thanks to a few authors who wrote to me, asking me to reconsider, I not only enjoyed some great reads but came to see that reviews appearing in the Book Review could be much more misleading than I'd thought. They say that any publicity is good publicity, but given the price of books and the time that they take to read, I don't think that the maxim applies to publishing.


New additions to the Library of America are per se worthy of Book Review coverage - so far, at least. According to William Logan, the Complete Poems and Selected Letters of Hart Crane (edited by Langdon Hammer) "contains more of Crane than most readers will ever need," but he adds that

Crane still makes young men want to write poetry - his best lines are extraordinary, even if there are few major poems, or even very good ones.

Mr Logan provides a lively mini-biography of this ultimately disappointing poet, but he does not quote enough of the verse. What the Review ought to offer in connection with coverage of the Library of America, at least where poetry is concerned, is a page of complete poems or substantial excerpts.

Roy Hoffman's review of Andy Catlett: Early Travels, by Wendel Berry, is largely sympathetic. It begins, "In this tender, slender, fictionalized memoir, Wendell Berry adds another chapter to his continuing account of rural life in Kenturcky." He does, however, occasionally find the book to be "dyspeptic" and "cantankerous."

Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man, by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore, gets a favorable and sympathetic review from Christopher Hitchens.

Has there ever been a more obviously foredoomed military escapade (for once one can employ the word accurately) than the dispatch, for the second time in a quarter-century, of a British Expeditionary Force to protect Belgium and France from German expansionism?

Mr Hitchens takes care to let us know that this ripping story, which reminds him, somewhat ironically, of Agincourt, is well served by Mr Sebag-Montefiore, although more quotation would have been useful.

Michael Oren's Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present has been garnering a good deal of favorable reception, and Max Rodenbeck joins the chorus. Having made it clear that Mr Oren's history is for the most part articulately neutral, he does take issue with Mr Oren's conclusions about our misadventure in Iraq.

Such subtle reinforcement of America's self-image as an innocent among Middle Eastern sharks mars an otherwise exemplary work. This is a pity, since, as Oren amply illustrates, it is America's failure to be clear and honest about its own motives, as much as it serial failure to interpret the Middle East, that has so often befuddled relations with the region.

There are two biographies of literary figures, one of them briefly more famous than the other. That would be the subject of John Osborne: The Many Lives of the Angry Young Man, by John Heilpern. Ian Jack notes that this book, authorized by Osborne's widow, "is, insofar as such a thing is possible, a sympathetic biography of an unsympathetic man." That's about all that he has to say about it, though; the rest of the review is an unpleasant capsule biography of a seminal and once-celebrated playwright. There is no assessment of Mr Heilpern's critical treatment of Osborne's four most famous plays, of which Look Back in Anger (1956) had a permanently explosive impact on British theatre. I'd expect better of the editor of Granta, Mr Jack.

Thomas Mallon does not commit the same mistake in his review of Claire Tomalin's Thomas Hardy.

Tomalin herself examines the novels with the confident judgments of a critic, not the hedged and sometimes overawed appraisals of a scholar. Appreciative of Hardy's genius, she still finds his body of fiction "exceptionally uneven."

Scrupulously following Ms Tomalin's account of Hardy's life, Mr Mallon's review is admirable in every way.

Finally, there is Kieran Healy's Last Best Gifts: Altruism and the Market for Human Blood and Organs, which gets a favorable review from Virginia Postrel. Ms Postrel complains that Mr Healey doesn't cover the living donors of kidneys who benefit two-thirds of all transplantees, but that would appear to be a conscious limitation, not a "shortcoming."

As an economic sociologist, Healy adds important dimensions to the intensifying debate over organ procurement. He reminds both advocates and opponents of markets that commercial transactions are embedded in social structures ad as likely as other exchanges to have social meaning. To succeed, incentives must show sensitivity to those meanings.

(Mr Healy is a contributor to the Web log Crooked Timber.)


There are three novels this week that receive inconclusive reviews. Karen Olsson clearly wants to like The Virgin of Flames, by Chris Abani, more than she does, which is why she calls its defects "the missteps of an ambitious writer with an original perspective." She makes the novel's story sound disagreeably weird, and the book worthy of no more than roundup coverage. If Rachel Cusk's Arlington Park is as angry and hackneyed as Lucy Ellmann's review makes it out to be, then it probably doesn't deserve coverage in the first place, but I suspect that a more sympathetic reader might have been able to give a clearer picture of this novel about British suburban anomie. As for A Tale of Two Lions, by Roberto Ransom (translated by Jasper Reid), Alexander McCall Smith tries to be favorable but is clearly unsympathetic, finding the book "whimsical" but lacking in "meat." His review suggests that he has more actual experience of lions than Mr Ransom does; perhaps that's what got in the way of a clear review.

In nonfiction, we have Dragon Sea and Something in the Air. Dragon Sea: A True Tale of Treasure, Archeology and Greed Off the Coast of Vietnam, by Frank Pope, may or may not be a trivial book about a case of marine archeology in which a lot of pretty porcelain is recovered from a five hundred year-old wreck (give or take) and then squandered ineptly on eBay. Holly Morris's review makes the most of the story's interest but fails to convey a sense of its quality at book length.

Dave Marsh's review of Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation, by Marc Fisher, is a fine example of what I'd call the competitive review. Mr Marsh presents himself as equally, if not better, informed about Mr Fisher's subject. He strongly disagrees with Mr Fisher's thesis, and he devotes his review to a critical rewrite of details that, in his view, Mr Fisher has bungled. The book gets lost in the process. The world is not improved by such one-sided shouting matches. 


Of the two titles that I've dropped into "unworthy" bin this week, I'm not entirely sure about Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastical Creatures, Advanced Civilizations and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth's Surface, by David Standish. Joshua Glenn's review is largely favorable, and easily rides the kook factor of the book's topic. But then he quotes from the book to devastating effect.

But his efforts to explain the popularity of hollw-earth-ism ... are weak. Standish rather lamely suggests it "can be seen as a sort of ultimate metaphysical retreat to the womb." As for the proliferation of hollow-earth fiction from the 1870s on, it can be chalked up to the fact that writers needed "somewhere to set improbable romances now that formerly remote, unknown corners of the earth were becoming less believable as settings the more they were explored." Ho hum!

As for I Am Plastic: The Designer Toy Explosion, by Paul Budnitz, it's a good example of the sort of pop-culture tome that signals the end of intelligent life as we know it. Art director Steven Heller approaches the book's bizarre subject as if he were covering cutting-edge rock bands. We are unhappily familiar with such meretricious gravitas. I should have thought that it would be easier, however, to describe "designer toys" than it is to capture the sound of music in words. Mr Heller means to be facetious, but I take him at his word:

Originally conceived by the New York design school graduates David Horvath and Sun-Min Kim, the Uglydoll line has grown into a monstrous franchise with dozens of iterations, collected (ostensibly for their kids) by baby boomers, like me, who have yet to fully embrace maturity.

The very best thing in this week's Review is Jim Harrison's Essay, "Don't Feed the Poets." I don't know what the title refers to, but the essay that follows is a beautiful appreciation of Karl Shapiro's The Bourgeois Poet, a collection of prose poems that Mr Harrison came upon and loved "when I was decidedly not bourgeois." Mr Harrison touches, with a poet's concision, upon an amazing variety of topics within his short space, from the dilapidations of his Michigan farmhouse to the "subdued but relentless hurly-burly in academia that swallows up discretionary time" to the sting borne by the very word "bourgeois."

It should be remembered that bourgeois was a volatile word in the '60s, frequently an insult. After our horrid winter I ended up teaching at Stony Brook on Long Island, where I occasionally noted professors in bell-bottoms with long hair saying, "All power to the people," whoever they might be. Obviously our workday clothing is also a costume signifying who we wish to be, and professors at the time could be nervous about being bourgeois. Only a Republican would wear a clean trench coat.



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