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In the Book Review

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

It's been quite a while since I was first pricked by the sense that I've done what I had to do with this Review review gig. If I soldier on, it's because I know that a lot of literate readers have problems with Sam Tanenhaus's management of the Book Review. The other day, I encountered Scott Esposito's entry on the problem at Conversational Reading; by all means, follow his links to The Literary Salon and Edward Champion's Return of the Reluctant. That Mr Tanenhaus is out to produce "journalism" appears to be not only misguided but unfulfilled, as the Review has almost nothing to say about the business of book publishing.

Instead of reporting on what's going on, the critics at the Book Review ought to make the news by judging the best books for the national conversation of critical readers. These readers don't need to be entertained by facetious illustrations (Patrick Thomas's for The Writing on the Wall) or books about penis length (Ron Jeremy). They don't need the anointment of past masters' latest titles (the new Paul Auster). They need to know about a handful of indispensable nonfiction books, and they need expanded access to the actual writing of fiction and verse. Nobody can read everything, but readers ought to come away from the Review reliably assured about books that will engage them.

I was unpleasantly surprised to see that Eileen Chang's Love in a Fallen City is briefly reviewed in Andrew Ervin's Fiction Chronicle. By most other accounts, Chang is an important Chinese writer whose discovery in English is overdue. She certainly deserves more space than Rachel Donadio gives, in her Essay, "Literary Agent," to the pulp fiction of E Howard Hunt.


Mayra Montero is a Cuban writer who lives in Puerto Rico; her ninth novel, Dancing to "Almendra" (translated by Edith Grossman), is about the gangs-and-glamour atmosphere of Havana before Castro. Jim Lewis has lots of good things to say the book, but in one sentence alone he sells it:

Her writing is swift and agile; it dances like a tough kid in a good suit - well pressed but never boring, and never calling attention to the strength that lies behind it.

Paul Muldoon is an Irish poet of increasing renown whose latest book of poems, Horse Latitudes, appears alongside a critical work, The End of the Poem: Oxford Lectures. Langdon Hammer's favorable review of both books is not particularly helpful to the uninitiated. There are no sustained excerpts - unforgivable in a poetry review. Feel free to puzzle over this particular passage:

Here as elsewhere in The End of the Poem, Muldoon is undoubtedly writing about his own motives as a writer. But the intricate verse forms in Horse Latitudes tend to keep those motives - the hand he reaches out to us - at a careful distance.

It sounds very good, but I've no idea what it means. Joseph Lelyveld gives Family Romance: A Love Story, John Lanchester's memoir, a favorable but unsympathetic review. He tells us all about the big family secret - Mr Lanchester's mother had been a Roman Catholic nun before marrying his father, and she suppressed this fact, going so far as to fake a passport posing as someone ten years younger - but does little to illuminate the book beyond complaining about "soggy sentences."

Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints: Essays is a collection of Joan Acocella's criticism, most of which appeared in The New Yorker. Kathryn Harrison's review sets forward a Credo for critics:

She is a celebrant of art, not blind to the flaws of what she admires nor so inclusive in her praise that she fails to discriminate between the lesser and greater novels of, for example, Saul Bellow, but a creitic whose enthusiasm is infection. Clearly, she reviews only what she finds worth her time to review - work she loves.

Would that the Book Review were conducted along such lines. Novelist and playwright Michael Frayn has written a book of philosophy, The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of a Universe. Jim Holt spends a lot of time distinguish realism from idealism, thereby shortchanging his thesis.

Philosophers these days rarely write fat tomes taking on the whole gamut of philosophical themes: space and time, language and truth, determinism and free will, consciousness and the self. But this is what Frayn has done, with immense erudition (especially linguistic) and more than a dash of wit.

This proposition is never unpacked, and it's meaning never becomes clear. Götz Aly's Hitler's Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State (translated by Jefferson Chase) ties Nazi success to the distribution of plundered goods. Dagmar Herzog resists this monotonal explanation but never actually argues against it. Anatol Lieven is sharp but supportive about John Mueller's Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats.

He is, in my view, too complacent both about the inexorable spread of the technologies of mass destruction and the spread of extremist ideologies, especially among the Muslims of Europe. These threats need to be taken extremely seriously. Where Mueller is quite right, however, is in arguing that all too many of the responses to terrorism adopted by the Bush administration have ranged from the pointless to the disastrous.


If Paul Auster's Travels in the Scriptorium is as jejune as Sophie Harrison's review makes it out to be, then perhaps it's time to stop reviewing everything that the writer produces simply because of his authorship. Jennifer Egan's favorable review of Peter Ho Davies's The Welsh Girl, in contrast, fails to make a case for the novel, focusing instead on "interesting" historical events that underlie the plot.

Bill Gifford's Ledyard: In Search of the First American Explorer seems, in Candice Millard's account, to more a curiosity than a history; John Ledyard (1751-1789) seems to have failed at every undertaking, dying of illness in Cairo only to be buried in an unmarked grave. Mr Gifford, we're told spent four years following his subject's footsteps (into Siberia, among other places), and Mr Gifford tells his own tales as well as what can be learned of Ledyard's, an approach that Ms Millard judges to have yielded "mixed results." French Seduction: An American's Encounter With France, Her Father, and the Holocaust, by Eunice Lipton, seems to baffle Caroline Weber, who has lately become the Review's default reviewer of all books French.

Yet while Lipton emphasizes the French people's "deep distaste for Others," she fails to explain in any fully coherent way why she chooses to live in their midst.

Luc Sante complains that Patrick Anderson, author of The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks, and Cannibals Captured Popular Fiction, "never delivers on his subtitle."

When Anderson generalizes about the thriller, however, he engages in politicking. He tells us that Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch is as interesting a character as “Bellow’s Herzog or Roth’s Zuckerman” and suggests that Connelly, Lehane and George Pelecanos are as deserving of the National Book Award as Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon and Jonathan Safran Foer. And well they might, but Anderson does not bother to make his case. He can only assert it, again and again, in various tones and pitches, as if the reader were hard of hearing. The sour and aggrieved note in his voice, with all the appeal of a member of Congress arguing that his district is the one most deserving of pork, damages his cause more than his vigor assists it.

Why does such a failed project deserve a review? Lawrence Downes is almost snarky about What I Know For Sure: My Story of Growing Up in America, by Tavis Smiley (with David Ritz).

However Smiley’s story strikes you, as a tale of stellar achievement or a physics lesson in the buoyancy properties of limitless self-regard, he is without doubt a natural at what he does. Incessant talkers often reveal far more of themselves than they mean to, and silent readers of this book can fill in a lot of gaps. When you add up all the boasting, the relentlessly upbeat bromides, the breathless celebrity encounters and the earnest litany of injustices suffered and hurdles overcome, you get an entirely plausible, unwittingly honest portrait of a natural-born talk-show host, and how he got that way.

Where Mr Downes's piece belongs is in the paper's Saturday Arts pages. Harriet A Washington's Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present would appear in its title to be an important book, but Ezekiel Emanuel's lengthy review all but trashes it.

Documenting the history of medical research involving black Americans is a necessary and worthy project, but a book as rife with errors and confusions as this one will neither help reduce health disparities nor protect against future exploitation.

Rich Lowry is not impressed by John Patrick Diggins's attempt to present Ronald Reagan as a great liberal president, in Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History. Mr Lowry, who edits The National Review (a periodical of the Right), concludes,

If Diggins’s account of Reagan is ultimately unpersuasive, both liberals and conservatives will find it challenging. And if the repetition and poor organization of this book sometimes keep it from being enjoyable reading, it is nonetheless a sign that across the political spectrum we are beginning to agree that Ronald Reagan was an important, even admirable, figure. What liberals and conservatives will probably never agree on is why.

But Mr Lowry is surely the wrong man for this review. A liberal or centrist critic would have produced something upon which more reliance might be placed. Jagdish Bhagwati, a Columbia professor of economics and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, seems both too interested and too big a gun to bring to bear on The Writing on the Wall: Why We Must Embrace China as a Partner or Face It as an Enemy, by Will Hutton.

The question, then, is whether, the Chinese Communists will be able to make the necessary accommodations, justifying the optimism of those Sinologists who have been predicting a “resilient authoritarianism.” Or will China’s leaders dig in their heels, suppressing dissent and opposition and possibly precipitating political and economic chaos? It’s anybody’s guess; and Hutton is not particularly helpful on this matter.

Having said that, Mr Bhagwati might have ventured his own opinion. He must certainly have one. His silence suggests that the whole affair is of no pressing concern to him.


Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics, by Jennifer Baumgardner gets what it deserves from Norah Vincent.

Which, incidentally, is why I take issue with Baumgardner’s emphasis on the political all-importance of who is sleeping with whom, which resembles the religious right’s equally absurd obsession with the genitalia of people who want to wed. Less, not more, is what’s called for. We will have won the battle against puritanism in America not when sexuality is run up the flag pole, but when it is irrelevant.

An even surer way of making Ms Vincent's point is to overlook books such as this. Jane and Michael Stern are certainly the perfect reviewers for Ron Jeremy: The Hardest (Working) Man in Showbiz, by Ron Jeremy (with Eric Spitznagel), but the confessions of well-endowed porn stars do not belong in the Book Review. Some other acreage must be made available for them - why not Business on Sunday?


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My copy of "Love in a Fallen City" is on its way via amazon... Can't wait to read it!

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