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In the Book Review

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

On the whole, an attractive range of good books; even the iffy ones appeal in one way or another. Tony Judt's excoriation of David Burleigh's Sacred Causes suggests that there needs to be what in my kindergarten class was called the nuisance corner. Mr Burleigh would appear to be a nuisance, and it's useful to have that pointed out. Execrable books - books that ought to be avoided - could be reviewed in periodic batches, and very, very briefly. Mr Judt is a top historian and critic, he knows Mr Burleigh's field. Perhaps he could be accommodated on the Op-Ed page some Sunday.


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

Heyday, by Kurt Anderson. Geoffrey Wolff's gee-whiz review is not very helpful. He retails the plot outline of Mr Anderson's historical novel but does not quote very extensively from it. It's not unlike carnival barking.

Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City, by Michael A Lerner. Pete Hamill delivers a favorable review of this account of the havoc wrought by Prohibition on New York City. He indulges in a lot of storytelling, though, and when he does engage with the book, it's to point out the topics that aren't explored.

But Lerner's book is a serious work, suggesting that there are still lessons to be learned from the 13 years, 10 months and 18 days of a utopian American delusion. There remain a number of Americans today who are filled with similar angry visions, hoping to make them into law.

Oil on the Brain: Adventures from the Pump to the Pipeline, by Lisa Margonelli. Ted Conover's review is exemplary. He conveys, by quotation, the flavor of Ms Margonelli's writing, and he makes it clear that Oil on the Brain is a solid book.

The specialized knowledge of those who deal with oil is mainly what Margonelli sets out to channel in these pages. ... Her approach is quirky but comprehensive, informal but rigorous: Margonelli has a facility with humbers and an easy way with questions of policy, and the narrative passages here, lightly first-person and often funny, help make accessible the facts of our dependence on oil.

My Father's Secret War: A Memoir, by Lucinda Franks. According to Dorothy Gallagher, this is a book in which the author comes to terms with her subject. She is modestly favorable about it.

A child's reconciliation to a parent is not small thing, but one wishes that Franks's overbearing questioning of an old man added a little more weight to our understanding of the horrific war he fought, the genesis and ramifications of which contsumed more than half of the 20th century.

At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches, by Susan Sontag (edited by Paolo Dilonardo and Anne Jump). Pankaj Mishra gives this collection a very favorable review. He is acute about the power of Sontag's work:

Sontag asserted a uniquely American privilege by embracing multiple European traditions, and she used a word prone to much abuse - "spiritual" - often and remarkably precisely to make a higher consciousness appear imperative for political as well as artistic engagements with the world.

Curves and Angles: Poems, by Brad Leithauser. David Kirby gives this collection, which, he suggests, owes a great deal to Borges, and even something to Lorenz Hart, a favorable review that's a bit too subtle and evocative. 


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

The Weight of Numbers, by Simon Ings. I hadn't gotten very far into Erica Wagner's review of this novel before I found it difficult to follow and glanced up at her byline. Of course. I can never make sense of reviews produced by the Times of London editor. She makes Mr Ings's plotting sound preposterously complicated. She might be right the the author "has many talents, but lacks in this book the control to make them serve his purpose," but her review suffers from a similar lack of control.

Fed Up: Everything You Think You Know About Food Is Wrong, by Barry Glassner. Times food writer Kim Severson concludes:

It's too bad The Gospel of Food is so uneven, because we do need to approach what we eat with a side dish of skepticism and a dose of clearheaded thinking. Too often, though, Glassner commits the same sin he sees in others - taking the pleasure out of food.

This belongs in Wednesday Dining In/Dining Out section.

Don't Stop Me Now: Stories, by Michael Parker; and Lately, by Sarah Pritchard. Tom Barbash declines to offer a reason why these two collections of short stories share a review. He talks about one book, and then he talks about the other, noting only that, while Mr Parker's characters act out their emotional distress, Ms Pritchard's suppress theirs. He seems to like them both well enough, but short story collections require more pointed - and personal - enthusiasm.

Winifred Wagner: A Life at the Heart of Hitler's Bayreuth, by Brigitte Hamann (translated by Alan Bance). Do we need a book about the dreeadful daughter-in-law whom Richard Wagner did not live long enough to meet? Geoffrey Wheatcroft calls Ms Hamann's offering a "remarkable biography," but he fails to suggest why his own book review doesn't contain all the information that one would want.

And as gripping as the book is, it's not pure pleasure to read 500 detailed pages without a single likeable or admirable character, at least among the main players.

Finn, by Jim Clinch. According to Ron Powers, Finn is a re-imagination of the world of Huck Finn (the title character is Huck's father), as worked through the lenses of Cormac McCarthy.

It shows up in the nihilistic, uninflected murder and cruelty that seem inextricable from the harsh riverine terrain - or from McCarthy's terrain.

Doesn't sound like fun.

When You Catch an Adjective,  Kill It: The Parts of Speech, For Better and/or Worse, by Ben Yagoda; and The Fight For English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot and Left, by David Crystal. Patricia O'Connor likes these books, but she doesn't make the case for either of them; they seem, in her review, to be somewhat trivial magazine articles that have swollen into books. She thinks that Mr Yagoda is wrong to urge us to adopt the sexless third-person plural (as in "does everybody have their book?"), and she nods to Mr Crystal's account of the unpredictable orthography that crept into English with the advent of printing. 

The Solitude of Thomas Cave, by Georgina Harding. If Steven Heighton's review is accurate, then this novel is an environmental "parable," based on "a bit of historical hearsay." It tells the story of a sailor who, in 1616, wagered that he could survive a solitary winter at an Arctic whaling station. He emerges from this ordeal with a packet of suspiciously current ideas about man and nature.


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

Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, from the Great War to the War on Terror, by Michael Burleigh. Tony Judt's review makes this book out to be a tendentious white-washing of the role of the Catholic Church vis-à-vis the Jews.

And there is more than a hint of something truly nasty in his five-page rant against the "greedy and mean-spirited" Irish, or those historians (unnamed, but perhaps Jewish?) who are silent about Protestant backing for Nazism because "conservative Protestant Christians are stalwart supporters of Israel." Politico-religious zealotry is a timely topic, but anyone seeking a dispassionate account of it should look elsewhere. Sacred Causes is an ugly instance of its own subject matter.

In short, it oughtn't to have been reviewed.

"Trying to Meet the Neighbors," by Dave Itzkoff. I'm he didn't mean to do so, but in this piece, the Book Review's science fiction editor all but disconnects his field from that of literature. The essay isn't about science fiction directly, but about Seth Shostak's SETI research (think Contact). Mr Itzkoff quotes Robyn Asimov, daughter of the famous Isaac.

"His major thrust, and I think Seth's and SETI's as well, is to get people interested in science, and doing something about it, and then handing the baton over to the next generation. It's an almost egoless outlook, because the intellectual curiosity is what takes priority."

Insert the name of your favorite science-fiction author in place of Shostak's in the previous quotation, and I think her formulation still holds true.

Science fiction, then, is pedagogical; it gets readers to be interested in science nonfiction. Put it in the science section.


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