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In the Book Review

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

Fighting a cold, I haven't been very enthusiastic this week, at least about the Book Review.  The dispiriting cloud of dusty triviality was thicker in this week's issue than it usually is. Only one of the six novels seemed unmistakably serious, and almost a third of the nonfiction titles struck me as miscellaneous and lacking or failing to merit truly general interest. 

I did like Greg Clarke's very droll gargoyle, above, which illustrates Caroline Weber's review of Andrew Hussey's Paris: The Secret History. I've seen this book in the shops, and I agree with something that Ms Weber hints at: it could have been much more solid.


Kaiama L Glover's rousing review of Michael Thomas's novel, Man Gone Down, manages to make reading the book sound like elevating homework. She explores its many racial issues at the expense of explaining what sounds like a feverish plot.

One of the bigger questions posed by the novel is how to pursue the American and other dreams when the realities of race stand so mightily in the way.

It's a bit numbing. A more intriguing, not to say appealing, tale of advance in America is told, if Warren Goldstein's review is to be trusted, by Stephanie Capparell's The Real Pepsi Challenge: The Inspirational Story of Breaking the Color Barrier in American Business. After World War II, Pepsi chief Walter S Mack, Jr, resolved to capture the "Negro Market" for his soda. He hired Edward F Boyd to run a team of twelve African-American salesmen.

More journalism than history, more inspiration than analysis, The Real Pepsi Challenge nevertheless deepens our appreciation not, as the author would have it, for the platitude "that diversity is good for business and that business should be good for diversity," but for the persistence and courage of those willing to break barriers and risk the consequences.

David Orr, writing about the Notebooks of Robert Frost seems more interested in alliances and enmities among American poets than in discussing Frost's notebooks; as happens so often in the Book Review, this is "poetry criticism" that reads like a Page Six for poets.

No, the point is that whenever we begin forming up teams in American poetry, we run into the problem of picking sides for such complex and hard-to-place poets as Frost, T S Eliot and Wallace Stevens (not to mention Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop and Lorine Niedecker.

Why, this problem often keeps me up at night. (The problem poets constitute their own team.)

David Oshinsky's very good review of Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine's Greatest Lifesaver, by Arthur Allen, tells of hope and wonder giving way to suspicion and benightedness.

The problem appears to be growing. As more children go unvaccinated in the United States, there has been a rise in vaccine-preventable diseases. Meanwhile, fewer pharmaceutical companies are no producing vaccines, citing the high cost of te4sting, diminishing markets and a fear of litigation. For Allen, a reversal of these trends will require something long overdue: a frank discussion of about the risks and benefits of vaccination. His splendid book is a smart place to begin.

Niall Ferguson is too complex a writer - and certainly too demanding a critic - for the pages of the Book Review. That's another way of saying that his work in this line is not fully intelligible to those who haven't yet read the book under discussion. This leaves the reader in a state of greater, not lesser, confusion. Even though I haven't read it, I believe that Rupert Smith's important book, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World, deserves a heartier recommendation to general readers. 

Can we do better in future? Here Smith delivers less than I had hoped for.

Ben MacIntyre's review of Edward Luce's In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India, is more helpfully sympathetic - to the reader as well as to the writer.

Indian diplomats, academics, Hindu nationalists and makes of cow-dung anti-dandruff shampoo will not enjoy this book. Most others, I suspect, will relish even the more stringing appraisals it contains, for what comes through is a whole-souled enthusiasm for the place and its possibilities, an optimism that Indian democracy will always overcome.

Simon Blackburn is quite warm about A C Grayling's Descartes: The Life and Times of a Genius, but he spends his review on a thumbnail of the philosopher's life and work, and he has nothing to say about the book except that it "deftly conjures up the political and religious conflicts of [Europe], and brings to life those distant characters and events that began to shape modern Europe..." Mr Blackburn does not address the need for a new book about a foundational philosopher, and, for a philosophy professor himself, he oddly neglects to urge readers to read Descartes.


It is much easier to decide which nonfiction books are worthy of attention than it is to do the same for novels, because subject matter is so much less a matter of importance. One must rely on the very review that one is assessing. Thomas Mallon's review of Consolation, by Michael Redhill, is sympathetic, and, with a substantial excerpt, would have given a clear picture of the novel - insofar as it is possible to be clear about a pair of muddy stories about Toronto, photography, and excavation. One is left with a doubt that Consolation might be more curiosity than classic. Similarly, Ben Fong-Torres fails to lift Bich Minh Nguyen's Stealing Buddha's Dinner: A Memoir, above the taint of triviality that seeps from too much talk about food.

Christopher de Bellaigue writes of Skylark Farm, a novel about the Armenian Genocide by Antonia Arslan, that

Putting down this book, it's worth trying to separate Arslan the promising novelist from Arslan the iffy historian.

That's about as damning as one might inadvertently be. Indeed, the overall impression made by the review is that Skylark Farm is a rallying cry for the Armenian diaspora. Michael Gorra is somewhat more straightforward about Louis Begley's Matters of Honor.

It's an idiosyncratic voice - though only enough to irritate, not interest. Sam presents himself as a lens on Henry's life, an invisible witness to his eventual decision to cut whatever ties the New World has given him. But that lens keeps losing its focus.

This may be fun to read, but it's not good reviewing. Mr Gorra hints that Mr Begley has written this book before, only better. If so, it doesn't merit free-standing coverage.

Elizabeth Gaffney's review of Michael Lewenthal's Charity Girl is sympathetic; Louisa Thomas's review of Alice Hoffman's Skylight Confessions is not. Neither makes a solid case for including the book in the Review.

Simon Hussey's Paris: The Secret History seems, in Caroline Weber, to be a racy but not very diligent look at the underside of Paris, a raucous celebration of less privileged Parisians over the centuries that talks of the "Palais de Luxembourg" and neglects important related work by Michel Foucault and Robert Darnton.

I had to reread Blake Bailey's review of The Way It Wasn't: From the Files of James Laughlin, edited by Barbara Epler and Daviel Javich a second time, aloud, because I missed, the first time, Mr Bailey's single sentence about the book, which he says

is handsome, lavishly illustrated and cobbled together purely for the fun of it. It deserves a place on the coffee table or toilet tank of any discerning littérateur.

Laughlin, the founder of New Directions, the publisher of experimental and otherwise advanced American writing, kept an informal "auto-bug-offery" that now achieves posthumous publication. Mr Bailey devotes the bulk of his review to a recap of Laughlin's life. It's very beside the point.

Tom Ferrell's review of Anne Morrow Lindbergh: First Lady of the Air, by Kathleen C Winters, says that the book is "pointed and modest," and "concerned almost entirely with Anne as a figure in aviation history." More curiosities!

Typecasting: On the Arts and Sciences of Human Inequality: A History of Dominant Ideas, by Ewen and Ewen (a husband-and-wife team of scholars) clearly addresses an important subject, but David Berreby's review is so unfavorable - almost hostile - that one wonders what the book is doing in the Review in the first place. A nosegay of incomplete sentences:

Dripping with unearned knowingness, indifferent to the factual debate. And just plain wrong.

My heart sank when I turned the page and saw Tara McKelvey's Nonfiction Chronicle. I thought they might have given up on this unsatisfying format, which is both too long and too short. If a book is not significant enough for a free-standing review, then it deserves no more than a sentence or two that notes its publication with the breeziest assessment. (John Leonard used to do this very well at The Atlantic, where Benjamin Healy and Benjamin Schwarz continue in updated style.) Stretched out over a long paragraph, a review is almost certain to lose focus, especially when Ms McKelvey, whose impatience with the format is palpable, starts out spaciously, in features-article style. I no longer see the point in evaluating these pieces. They're literary monsters, not meant to be.


Terry McAuliffe (with Steve Kettman) appears to have written a name-dripping memoir, What a Party! My Life Among Democrats, Candidates, Donors, Activists, Alligators, and Other Wild Animals. Of McAuliffe on the Global Crossing scandal, Rick Perlstein complains,

You might say the more proximate wrongdoing was going on TV in an election year in which corporate greed was the Democrats' best issue and saying a company that had only not quite swindled millions of pensioners and individual investors was "great" - and then being so un-self-aware as to brag about it in your memoir.

Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the Book Review, writes this week's Essay, "Beyond Criticism," a propos of the Library of America's publication of three Saul Bellow novels. The title says it all.


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As I don't dislike a little pedantry, this does not represent a "gargoyle", which are normally too busy sprouting rainwater to smoke cigarettes, but a "chimera", or simply une chimère, which we owe not to Notre Dame's original buiders, but to Viollet le Duc's imagination.

Please be reassured, with the new ban, even chimeras won't be allowed to smoke, and Paris will be a smoke-free as San Francisco...

I am a kottke.org micropatron

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