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In the Book Review

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

There are three excellent fiction review this week. Liesl Schillinger's cover story, a review of Tom McCarthy's Remainder, is a joy to read: it's just what I've been waiting for. This favorable, sympathetic review lets me know in no uncertain terms that Remainder is not a book for me! The things that she likes about the book are things that I have no patience for - and, hey, that's just me. Others will conclude that Remainder ought to be the next title on the reading list. This is how the Book Review's reviews ought to work.

There were too tough call on classification, and in both cases I erred on the side of mercy. Walter Kirn's review of David Mamet's book talks about "crackpot theories," suggesting that the newsworthiness of this particular new book by an eminent writer ought to be covered in another part of the newspaper. Similarly, Thomas A Repetto's Bringing Down the Mob seems like a book for Mafia buffs. I may have been hard on Howard Norman's Devotion, but Emily Barton's review didn't give me much to work with.

There are two reviews by experts in their fields, both somewhat problematic. Why not ask an expert to assess a book? Sounds like a great idea! In practice, however, the expert does not speak your language, and he will be helplessly bothered by trifles that won't concern you.

Another bit of good news, though: William Grimes's Essay, "Rediscovering Alexander Herzen," is just the sort of thing that ought to appear in this space ever week. Herzen is in the cultural news because of Tom Stoppard's monumental trilogy about nineteenth-century idealists and revolutionaries, The Coast of Utopia. Mr Grimes transforms Herzen from a "do I have to" writer to a stylist worthy of The New Yorker. Adam Gopnik's name is never mentioned, but the comparison is unavoidable.


It has occurred to me that I defer to the editors of the Review with regard to full-page reviews of poets. Not nearly as literate in poetry as I ought to be, I am unwilling to dismiss any poet as insufficiently indispensable (all these negatives!) I haven't heard of Ellen Bryant Voigt before, but Sven Birkerts assures me that she "has been a serious inside presence in the literary world for decades." As always, I'm flummoxed by the conceit of writing ten or more words of criticism to every word of Ms Voigt's verse. What's more important? Not a question.

Liesl Schillinger's review of Tom McCarthy's Remainder is, for the moment, my textbook example of a favorable, sympathetic review. Ms Schillinger likes the book - that's the favorable part - but she also enters into its spirit - the sympathetic part - and by doing so she highlights aspects of the book that would certainly prevent me (for example) from enjoying it.

But McCarthy's superb stylistic control and uncanny imagination transport this novel beyond the borders of science fiction. His bleak humor, hauntingly affectless narrator and methodical exposition on his theme make Remainder more than an entertaining brain-teaser: it's a work of novelistic philosophy, as disturbing as it is funny.

There are so many red flags in Ms Schillinger's praise that I won't bother to enumerate them; this isn't, after all, about me. It's about the usefulness of this kind of review, and, by implication, the uselessness of the negative, unsympathetic - nasty - review. The accompanying photograph of Mr McCarthy is also useful. The author presents himself as a scruffy man-child, slouched on the floor against an artfully disheveled array of books.

Stacey D'Erasmo is just as warm about André Aciman's Call Me By Your Name, a book that I loved.

But what André Aciman considers, elegantly and with no small amount of unbridled skin-to-skin contact, is that maybe the heat of eros isn't only in the friction of memory and anticipation. Maybe it's also in the getting. In a first novel that abounds in moments of emotional and physical abandon, this may be the most wanton of his moves: his narrative, brazenly, refuses to stay closed. It is as much a story of paradise found as it is of paradise lost.

With a book as highly-styled as Call Me By Your Name, however, I think that more substantial quotation is called for. Some readers are certain to find the book too rich for pleasure.

Paul Gray's review of Louise Dean's This Human Season, a third fine review this week, is so persuasive that it tempted me to lift my embargo on books about the Troubles:

But she doesn't simply work factual details into a gripping story; given such powerful raw material, many competent novelists could do that. Instead, Dean dexterously highlights the telling advantage that fiction has over journalism and history, portraying the inner realm of thoughts and feelings. With remarkable even-handedness, she evokes the day-to-day struggles of English and Irish, Protestant and Roman Catholic, as they try to get on with their lives while the world around them goes insane.

Turning to nonfiction, we have Madison Smartt Bell's Toussaint Louverture: A Biography. Adam Hochschild, the reviewer, is the author of Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves, and therefore something of an expert in the field of colonial uprisings of the type that Toussaint Louverture came to lead. Commissioning experts to review their colleagues' books is a practice that I have come to find questionable. Certainly the expert is in a position to assess the value of the book - but is this really what's wanted? The Review is not addressed to specialists, but rather to general readers. Mr Hochschild's favorable review is not particularly useful, because it approaches the book from a specialist's purview and neglects the general reader's concerns. Noting the paucity of documentation about the Haitian leader, Mr Hochschild regrets that Mr Bell does not make more use of related materials (contemporary diaries) that, while not on point exactly, "flesh out the world" of Louverture. "Still, this is the best biography of Toussaint yet, in large part because Bell does not shy away from the man's contradictions." We've got to take Mr Hochschild's word for it. I might add that expert reviews are the most likely to drag and niggle in tedium.

Much the same can be said of John Lewis Gaddis's review of Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World, by Margaret MacMillan. (Why am I certain that Ms MacMillan had nothing to do with that subtitle?) Mr Gaddis is a Cold War authority, and his review either storytells Ms MacMillan's story or it niggles with her omissions and repetitions, before concluding that "Still, there is more than enough to admire in MacMillan's book." Not very helpful.

Walter Kirn's sharp review of David Mamet's Bambi vs Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business is full of the reviewer's characteristic brio, but if his subject were not so eminent a figure in American culture - and if I did not hold Mr Kirn in such high regard - this paragraph would be appearing under the rubric of "Maybe." The review is far from nasty, but it's not favorable and it doesn't appear to be sympathetic.

Given his achievements in the movies, Mamet has our respect from the outset in these essays, but his insistence on coaxing yet more respect from us through a combination of lofty locutions, abrasive pet theories and brawny folklore causes one to wonder after a while if he's a tough and disgusted as he makes out or if he's putting on an act. As books like this one have proved through the decades, a Hollywood writer is only an old hand when he gives the moguls his middle finger.

I'm sure that Mr Kirn is right - but that's cheating.

William Boyd writes a very interesting review of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah, a very interesting book (to say the least). The reviewer notes a certain flatness to the descriptions of violence, such that "it's the reader's imagination that delivers the cold sanguinary shudder, not the author's boilerplate prose.

It is a vision of hell that Beah gives us, one worthy of Hieronymous Bosch, but as though depicted in primary colors by a naive artist.

However, perhaps this gives us a clue to the nature and effect of these terrifying African conflicts.


The unbelievable violence and dread, the blood and death, seem - if this does not appear too awful an oxymoron - somehow guileless and innocent, random, unpremeditated. Is that what fundamentally disturbs us about these African conflicts?

Peter Keepnews's review of George Gershwin: His Life and Work, by Howard Pollack, strikes the very note that's wanted: in his view, the book

is not the ideal book for the casual fan or the musically unsophisticated. Pollack has not written a dry treatise, but neither has he simplified things for general consumption. At the same time, it is hard to imagine even the casual fan not having fun at least thumbing through it. And it is equally hard to imagine that anyone will write a more thorough study of Gershwin's music anytime soon, if ever - or that anyone will feel the need to, now that Howard Pollack has had his way.

A 'book for the ages," then! Who could ask for anything more?


Emily Barton's review of Howard Norman's Devotion is pure muddle. There's a lot of storytelling. There are complaints about the novel's details - the chronology, it seems, isn't right. "These lapses of authorial attention stick out, in part, because Norman's prose can be so vivid." What's that supposed to mean? That the novel is both careless and overwritten? Classify this with the "favorable but unsympathetic" reviews.

Gideon Lewis-Kraus writes that Yael Goldstein, author of Overture, "is a young writer of great emotional precocity." I smell an oxymoron: no one is emotionally precocious; some people simply achieve wisdom sooner than others. Mr Lewis-Kraus claims that the novel avoids "the fashionable archness typical of many young writers," but he nevertheless conveys the impression of a highly contrived fiction. Contrivance also seems to be a problem with Measuring Time, by Nigerian novelist Helon Habila, if Hari Kunzru's report is at all reliable. "Measuring Time itself gives discomforting hints of being part of a larger project."

In the end the book meanders to a halt, as if overwhelmed by its own despondency. But this somehow seems a fitting end to a melancholy narrative of a fight against decay, a struggle for hope in a cynical world.

Flower Confidential, by Amy Stewart, is a book about the cut-flower industry. Interesting topic, but Constance Casey's review fails to give a reason why it deserves book-length treatment for general readers. The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism From 1600 to Modern Times, by Tristram Stuart, seems to have gotten a lot of attention, probably because it's full of curiosities about Newton's diet, &c. Edward Rothstein's review jumps right in and splashes away at the facts. There is an interesting thesis in this bloated book: the obsession with purity common to so many vegetarians inclines them to every manner of purge, including the sanguinary kind. This is a matter that Joan Didion might have disposed of, indelibly, in twenty or thirty pages at most.

Books about the Mafia. Bringing Down the Mob: The War Against the American Mafia, by Thomas A Repetto, appears, in Vincent Patrick's review, to be a book about RICO, the revolutionary federal statute that required "a decade of proselytizing before prosecutors would employ it." This is probably a book for Mafia buffs (so to speak), and I'm tempted to line it up with the "Buffyverse" book below.


Is it necessary to go beyond merely stating the title of The Physics of the Buffyverse, by Jennifer Ouellette? What is this book doing here? J D Biersdorfer's review claims that the book "makes an earnest effort to introduce the laws of physics to couch potatoes in a relatively painless way." Voilà! Couch potatoes don't read the Book Review.


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