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In the Book Review

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

As everybody knows, The New York Times operates two completely independent book-review operations. There are the Books of the Times, reviewed in every day's Arts Section. Then there's the Book Review. Really big books often get dual, conflicting coverage. When I say that a book doesn't belong in the Book Review, I don't mean that it's unworthy of critical attention. Sure, I put sports books in among the Noes as a matter of course, and yes, it's true that I have no interest in sports. But the Book Review ought to be a home for the humanities: literature, history, political thought (not theory!), and serious consideration of the pleasures of life. The Times publishes a daily Sports section. Why not review sports books there? The two Noes in today's Review review would fit comfortably in the Styles section; the latter would be apt next to the chess column. Lots of books, especially political biographies, are genuinely newsworthy; the Book Review ought to aim for the somewhat more timeless.

Ben Schott, the gent who's raking in the simoleons in his career as a miscellanist, notes in his Essay, "Confessions of a Book Abuser,"

It is notable that those who abuse their own books through manhandling or marginalia are often those who love books best.

I myself never write in books. I have a blog!


The following titles appear to deserve coverage in the Book Review. The reviews may still be inadequate or useless.

In the Country of Men, by Hisham Matar. This new novel about the nightmare of Libya under Qaddafi has been getting a lot of mention, and Lorraine Adams's review suggests why.

What can a child know about totalitarianism? In Hisham Matar's exceptional first novel, this question transcends the psychological to yield something rare in contemporary fiction: a sophisticated storybook inhabited by archetypes, told with a 9-year-old's logic, written with the emphatic and memorable lyricism of verse.

Ms Adams backs up the last assertion with more quotation than one usually gets in the Book Review, and she is careful to note that this is not another Kite Runner, a book that she faults for "cliché and padding." The review is so forcefully positive (but not browbeating) that I feel obliged to run across the street to buy a copy right away! An excellent review.

Ten Days in the Hills, by Jane Smiley. A O Scott's review is almost favorable. If I had not read the novel myself, I'd class it with the Maybes, because Mr Scott considers the book to be a failure - and if it's a failure, what's it doing in the Review, even if Jane Smiley wrote it. Having read the novel, I believe that he misread it. He asks the wrong question: "... how could this fail to be, at the very least, wickedly entertaining?" Now, just why should it be wickedly entertaining?

The shapelessness of Ten Days in the Hills is the result of a potentially interesting experiment in literary anachronism. What would it look like to bring an archaic, exotic model of storytelling into contact with the particulars of contemporary American life?

In this case, it looks like a very long dinner party, at which the reader is more an interloper than an invited guest.

If that's how he felt about it, Mr Scott ought to have declined to write the review.

Winterwood, by Patrick McCabe. According to Gregory Cowles, this novel by the author of Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto, "is a Gothic ghost story, complete with branches tapping on windows and the smell of mildew signaling the devil's arrival." The review is shot with notes of disappointment, but Mr Cowles never comes out and says anything negative about the book. I feel equally grudging about judging the review to be, on balance, very useful. There is enough quotation for a reader to judge whether or not Winterwood would be a congenial read.

Adam Haberberg, by Yasmina Reza (translated by Geoffrey Strachan). Caryn James's review of this second novel by the well-known playwright is favorable and enthusiastic. The novel is about a day in the life of a disappointed writer (the title character), and not a full day at that. He spends most of it with an old classmate, Marie-Thérèse.

We feel for Adam without always agreeing with him. He sneers at Marie-Thérèse's vulgarity, snobbishly seeing her as devoid of depth or imagination. She does seem tragically devoted to her Krups coffee maker and her bread machine. But she is also kinder and wiser than she initially appears, a complication Reza allows readers to grasp even if Adam doesn't.

The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam, by Tom Bissell. Joe Klein really likes this book, in which a thirtysomething journalist accompanies his troubled veteran father on a trip to Vietnam. Having just quoted a powerful exchange between father and son in which the latter tries to maintain conversational calm while the former "vents" about the stupidities of the war, Mr Klein writes,

It is a supreme act of authorly self-abnegation, and an utter relief from the solipsistic memoirs that clutter the shelves, that Tom Bissell allows his father to be a far more sympathetic character than he portrays himself to be. After a visit to the Cu Chi tunnels, young Bissell insists on firing an AK-47 at a shooting range the Vietnamese have opened next to the museum, as if unaware that the very sound of the gun would raise horrific memories for his father. "'Now imagine,' my father piped up, 'that 20 guys are firing back at you, and people everywhere are screaming'."

A fine review.

The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts, by Milan Kundera. Russell Banks's essay on this meditation on aspects of fiction is fit for publication in a book. It's sympathetic and favorable, but not blind to faults.

One has the impression that Kundera, at least on the page, is a fabulous talker and not an especially good listener.

Mr Banks notes that Mr Kundera largely overlooks American novelists, and has nothing to say about fiction written by women - not a surprise.

Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ian Buruma has written extensively about the author of this book, in his A Murder in Amsterdam. That makes him an expert, and that in turn, in my developing view at least, disqualifies him as a reviewer here. Sure enough, Mr Buruma rehearses objections to Ms Hirsi Ali's anti-Islamic stance that he made in his book - he'd be inhuman not to. His review is favorable overall, and Mr Buruma indulges in storytelling primarily to point up the importance of the book. But there's no need to enter into the larger argument about diversity in Europe - not here.

Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence, and Forbidden Desires, A Surprising Number of Which Are Not About Marriage, by Pete Dexter (edited by Rob Fleder). Buzz Bissinger writes with awe about this collection of novelist Pete Dexter's muscular journalism.

Dester often throws punches of profundity at the end of his columns, and too often they miss. But I began not to care. Even two decades later, Dexter's writing holds up. It doesn't necessarily make him timeless, although I did find myself terribly nostalgic for the column he wrote in Philadelphia and for the way voice was once so coveted that reporters for The Daily News and The Inquirer used to strut about with swagger and pride.

Another win for the favorable, sympathetic review. Let me say it again: reviews are not for tearing books apart. Neither are they for selling books. They're for finding readers. What's that line about honey and vinegar? Some readers prefer vinegar.

Notebooks, by Tennessee Williams (Edited by Margaret Bradham Thornton). Edmund White makes these hitherto unpublished notebooks, which Williams stopped keeping in 1958, sound very appealing - largely by quoting extensively from them.

No matter how far he traveled, Williams remained true after his fashion to the fragile, vulnerable members of his family, who haunted almost all of his writing. What becomes clear in these notebooks is that Williams feared that he himself might sink into the same madness that afflicted his sister. His writing not only extended sympathy to the rounded of the world but also acted as a form of therapy to keep him sane.

The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America's Deadliest Avalanche, by Gary Krist. In 1910, two Great Northern trains were stalled by a snowstorm in 1910 and then walloped by an avalanche. Ninety-six people were killed. According to Louise Jarvis Flynn, Mr Krist tells his story well, although she thinks that he might have made it more exciting here and there. What she does not tell us is whether or not the author is as conscious is she is of the plus ça change aspect of the book. "Whether a hurricane is to blame or a blizzard...our outrage in retrospect seems matched only by our lack of foresight at the time."

Charisma: The Gift of Grace, and How It Has Been Taken Away From Us, by Philip Rieff. Philip Rieff, who died last year, was a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. He developed over several decades the conviction that his discipline needed to be informed by Christian values - the serious ones. Christopher Caldwell makes it clear that Charisma, although not polished, is a grave book of intelligent convservatism.

As Rieff shows in some magnificent passages of biblical exegesis, charismatics - those with charismata, or special gifts of grace - are the moralists in this system. But they do not work by bossing people around or seeking power; they work by submitting to the existing covenant in ways that provoke imitation. So, paradoxically, "renewal" movements tend to be reactionary, and even prophets are backward-looking - they are tethered to, draw their credibility from and seek to intensify previous revelation.

At the end of the review, Mr Caldwell touches on the impasse in Rieff's thinking: if we resolve to return to life under a religious covenant, we'll have no need of sociology whatsoever.


It is difficult to tell whether these books are as indifferent or pointless as the reviews suggest.

The Communist's Daughter, by Dennis Bock. This novel is based on the life of Norman Bethune, a Canadian doctor who served Communist causes around the world. A prickly and difficult man, Bethune might have shown off better in a traditional, omniscient-observer narrative, and Nisid Jajari's review suggests that the epistolary form employed by Mr Bock - his Bethune writes letters to an infant daughter that the real doctor never had - makes this a hard novel to like.

It is hard to imagine that a man so evidently thoughtful and so capable, at times, of passion ... could also be as detached as Bock often makes him out to be. In exploring and underscoring his narrator's many contradictions, Bock loses some of the sympathy readers might otherwise have extended him. His Bethune is all to human, yes, but perhaps not sufficiently humane.

Fangland, by John Marks. This review seems to have no other justification that to give good old Joe Queenan an opportunity to be funny while playing rough. Having called Fangland "a Romanian Bright Lights, Big City with more blood, Mr Keenan writes,

Half satire, half vampire novel, but completely ridiculous, Fangland has an absurdly complicated structure and goes on far too long to support the journalists-as-bloodsuckers joke. Devised as a secret corporate memo that just happens to include Harker's diary, a producer's e-mils, a correspondent's therapy journal and some tried and true third-person reporting whose provenance is never established, Fangland constantly switches narrative voices. These days everybody does this ... but this doesn't make it any less annoying.

"Completely ridiculous" books have no place in the Book Review. Period.

The Mathematics of Love, by Emma Darwin. Susann Cokal begins her congested review by mentioning Possession, A S Byatt's big novel of love then and now. This is not propitious; Ms Cokal's disappointment with The Mathematics of Love is pervasive.

Darwin's two independent story lines suggest riches - the way the past and present, and sometimes even the future, can meet in artistic representation - that remain, for the most part, unexplored. Like her visual artists, Darwin plays intriguingly with light, shadow and perception, but her novel's overall picture isn't fully developed. Some equations remain to be solved.

The novel wouldn't have garnered coverage simply because the author is the great-great-granddaughter of You Know Who), would it?

The Art of Aging: A Doctor's Prescription for Well-Being, by Sherwin B Nuland. Joseph Epstein, who can trivialize anything, writes that Dr Nuland's new book is not up to his usual standard. Having noted that the author's surname at birth was Nudelman, Mr Epstein complains,

A sensible man, Dr Nuland, but I wish he had held his co-author, Nudelman, in firmer check. This Nudelman is a preacher, an amateur psychologist, a nudnik not above quoting Kahlil Gibran on the importance of love and work in enjoying the later years of life. This Nudelman writes gushing profiles of the actress Patricia Neal ... and the pioneering cardiac surgeon Michael DeBakey ... idealizing both doubtless interesting people beyond reality, as well as mushily sentimental portraits of more obscure older people who have managed to enjoy life despite having been smashed by serious illness. ... His interest in longevity has rendered him short of levity."

Ha ha.

Mississippi Sissy, by Kevin Sessums. Norah Vincent, who has become something of house expert at the Review on border crossings in genderland, is not impressed with this memoir of growing up gay in the South. She concedes that he had an awful childhood.

But these are facts, not merits, and they do little to shore up the unfortunate truth that while the author may have, as they say, a past, he does not have a voice. Most of Mississippi Sissy has the feel of someone reaching for material. ...

In his reaching, Sessums sometimes reaches quite low, as when he informs us, in true locker-room style, that his fellow sixth graders revered him for the size of his penis...

To put it in current lingo, this piece so belongs in Styles.

Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution, by Michael D Tanner, and It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush, by Joe Conason. These books attack the Bush Administration from the both the Right and the Left - indeed, the review is illustrated with drawings of the President being struck by red and blue gloves. (The blue glove hits him from the right, though, and the red glove is left-handed. Hmmm...) Jacob Heilbrunn is another house expert, in this case on debunking political polemics. This is the one area where I approve of unsympathetic reviews, and Mr Heilbrunn can pulp with the best. First, Mr Tanner; then, Mr Conason.

What's more, Tanner glides rather easily from linking the corruption of the Republican Congress to big government. There is no necessary connection between the two. The fact that a Republican Congress looted the government on behalf of big business and itself does not discredit Social Security, Medicare and a host of other programs.

It's also the case that Conason's alarmism inadvertently buys into Bush and Cheney's own hokum by attributing a kind of implacable and infallible power to the administration. Whatever its intentions, however, the hallmark of the administration hasn't turned out to be Machiavellian cunning but sheer ineptitude.

(I'd remind Mr Heilbrunn that the Nazi regime, especially when it cranked into full throttle, turns out to have been fairly inept.)

Becoming Judy Chicago, A Biography of the Artist, by Gail Levin. Elsa Dixler's review is an awful piece of storytelling. It recounts the artist's interesting career without seriously engaging the book under review. Then she faults Ms Levin for being "so immersed in Chicago's writing that their perspectives seem nearly identical..." This piece belongs in the Saturday Arts section; it could pass for a report of the upcoming opening of the Elizabeth A Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, where Ms Chicago's Dinner Party will be permanently installed.

Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music, by Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor. Ben Yagoda never comes out and says so, but his review suggests that this book is a miscarriage of Theory.

Another problem is the book's insularity. Barker, a former musician and songwriter, and Taylor, the author of The Future of Jazz, show no awareness that for a century or so, authenticity has been a crucial and highly charged word and concept in philosophy, psychology and aesthetics. If they had made use of Lionel Trilling's classic 1972 book, Sincerity and Authenticity.....

And does it really matter?


These books, if they deserve coverage at all, ought to grace other sections of The New York Times.

Sweet: An Eight-Ball Odyssey, by Heather Byer, reviewed by Danielle Trussoni; The Kings of New York: A Year Among the Geeks, Oddballs, and Geniuses Who Make Up America's Top High School Chess Team, by Michael Weinreb, reviewed by James Kaplan. These are books about pastimes, but neither appears to be up to the standards of Izaak Walton. Ms Trussoni: "Like most talented women, she understands that to succeed at a man's game she must play by his rules, only better and in flashy shoes." Mr Kaplan: "The book vibrates with the energy of the outer boroughs."


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To abuse a book in any way, even unintentionally, is sacriligious. I have vivid memories of one of the very few times my grandmother ever let forth with a yell; I had folded back a corner of a page to keep my place in a coloring book. When Grandma discovered that I, a four or five-year old, was merely copying my Dad, her son, Dad got a major what-for. Grandma was ably backed up by Mother, and since, by every single nun and teacher I have ever known, not to mention librarians. A book is a repository of knowledge, a passport and a holder of dreams and should be helped to last as long as possible so that just one more person may enjoy and benefit from its treasures, be they great or small. Mr. Schott's observation notwithstanding, buy a notepad and a bookmark.

I don't know if it's all right for authors of the aforementioned books to post here, but I thought I'd take a stab at the question raised by one of your entries. I'm the authot of Fangland, the novel savaged by Joe Queenan, and I'd like to try and shed some light on why a "completely ridiculous' book got reviewed in the TBR. I'm not just trying to defend my honor here. I'm equally interested in bringing some focus to thinking about why the Review makes certain choices. In the case of Fangland, here are some reasons for its inclusion. It received rave reviews in most of the trades, including stars from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. It was published by a prestigious literary imprint, Penguin Press. And it was written by someone with a very strong track record as a novelist, myself, with a New York Times Notable Book under my belt, among other things. And yet, after I read the review, I did ask myself why the editors bothered. If, indeed, the novel is that worthless, why not merely kill it with silence? Here's my insight, for what it's worth. The Book Review is not just a place that offers a smorgasbord of literary work every week. It's an institution with a civilizing mission in the world. It believes that it must not only uplift the worthy but punish the unworthy. In this context, certain kinds of books ought to be discouraged, and mine, I think, fit into this category. It would seem to be in the spirit of the Devil Wears Prada, i.e. a reflection of a real workplace, and we're tired of that genre. It would seem to be yet another vampire novel, and do we really need one more of those? It would seem to be a cynical indictment of a well-loved television show, and we don't like that. And, by the way, what right does someone who worked in television have to write novels? Stick with the visuals, buddy. All of these notions may or may not have contributed to the decision to give my book to Queenan, to then run the review at a full page, with a picture. It's quite a distinction for a "completely ridiculous" novel, unless, of course, the work in question isn't ridiculous at all. I personally suspect that Fangland touched a nerve, and someone at the TBR felt a very strong urge to take it--and me--down a notch in a very public way. If the Book Review sees itself as having a civilizing influence, then my book may have felt like an argument for disrespect, or worse, disorder. A lot of people loved it because it defiantly worked against both genre and literary conventions and yet seemed to succeed on its own terms. Maybe the Times felt that an official course correction was needed. One way or another, I agree with your final comment on the matter. 'Completely ridiculous" novels do not belong in theTBR.

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