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In the Book Review

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

What is Leni Riefenstahl doing on the cover of this week's Book Review? The same thing she always did: looking great. She was a beautiful and industrious filmmaker. These are not criteria of greatness, however. If Riefenstahl holds any interest for us today, it's in her long success at shrugging off her Nazi past - and that's not a very nice story. Riefenstahl is one of those absurdly irritating figures who thrive, even posthumously, in any kind of attention.

Erica Wagner's Essay, "Call Me, Ishmael," only half-humorously proposes that the cellular phone will drive dramatic irony from the novel.

And that's another insidious aspect of mobile telephony: its retrospective ability to make even a relatively recent novel look quaint. While it's true that the peculiar bunch of students in Donna Tartt's Secret History would never fit a common model of contemporary behavior, it's hard to believe that the murdered Bunny wouldn't have a cell, and his disappearance might be just a bit less mysterious. But the novel was published in 1992, which counts as the olden days now.

In the center of the issue, Rachel Donadio profiles book dealer Glenn Horowitz, the man behind some very rich sales of books and literary archives. The piece ends up trivializing literature by showing Mr Horowitz as just another purveyor of luxury goods.


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

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, by Dinaw Mengetsu. Rob Nixon gives this novel about a displaced Ethiopian who keeps a small grocery in Washington, DC, such a strong review that I ordered a copy on the spot.

In Mengetsu's work, there's no such thing as the nondescript life. He notices, and there are whole worlds in his noticing. He has written a novel for an age ravaged by the moral and military fallout of cross-cultural incuriosity. In a society slick with "truthiness" - and Washington may be the capital of that - there's something hugely hopeful about this young writer's watchful honesty and egalitarian tenderness. This is a great African novel, a great Washington novel and a great American novel.

That certainly made me sit up and pay attention!

Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy, by Andrew Cockburn. Jacob Heilbrunn is just the man to review this partisan book. It is clear that he shares Mr Cockburn's dim opinion of the former Secretary of Defense, but he raps Mr Cockburn's knuckles all the same for overstating a few cases. 

The European Economy Since 1945: Coordinated Capitaliism and Beyond, by Barry Eichengreen. Sheri Berman's favorable review is also a good one. Mr Eichengreen, she writes,

reminds us that economic development calls for much more than simply the unleashing of market forces; it demands institutions capable of generating the resources, skills and relationships necessary to handle the particular economic challenges a country has to face at a particular time. And by demonstrating how institutions helpful in one era can become counterproductive in another, Eichengreen has important lessons about the future to teach both policy makers and publics.

The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh, by David Damrosch. Jonathan Rosen's largely favorable review of this account of, among other things, the decoding of the cuneiform tablets that traveled from Mesopotamia to the British Museum in the Nineteenth Century, ends on a sour note.

Damrosch's eagerness for universal themes leads him to stumble awkwardly in his coda, where he compares Saddam Hussein's first novel, which draws loose inspiration from Gilgamesh, to Philip Roth's Great American Novel, which features a baseball player named Gil Gamesh.


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

Christine Falls, by Benjamin Bright. Kathryn Harrison's review of this crime novel by John Banville writing under a pseudonym begins on a very positive note. "More than a seamless performance in fulfilling the demands of its genre, Christine Falls is executed with what feels like authorial delight." The last word in the next paragraph, however, is "perfunctory." Toward the end, the review becomes outright unfavorable.

Because Quirke and his supporting cast are types rather than fully realized characters, they're immune to the kind of analysis, or significance, imposed on a Moses Herzog or a Rabbit Angstrom or, for that matter, a Freddie Montgomery, the protagonist of John Banville's novel The Book of Evidence. But it's hard to dismiss what emerges as a particularly insidious strain of misogyny in Christine Falls - insidious because it masquerades as Quirke's concern for the fate of unwed mothers and their babies.

If that's a fair characterization of Christine Falls, then the review doesn't belong in the Review, even if a noted novelist wrote it.

Winterton Blue, by Trezza Azzopardi. Liesl Schillinger devotes two paragraphs of her favorable review to Ms Azzopardi's prior two novels, something that ought to be a matter of course in the Review. Nowhere, however, does Ms Schillinger actually issue a judgment about the new novel as a whole: the favorable nature of the review is more a vibration than an expression.

Lost City Radio, by Daniel Alarcón. Sarah Fay wants to like this novel more than she does. Having just judged the second half of the novel as "marred by dull descriptions ... that lapse into sentimentality," Ms Fay interrupts herself:

Still, there's enough here to confirm that Alarcón is talented - and wise - beyond his years, that he remains intent on challenging himself and his readers.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence of this in the review.

Inheritance, by Natalie Danford. It's difficult to tell from Ligaya Mishan's review whether Inheritance is a genuinely literary novel, with characters on whom "significance" may be "imposed," or just a high-end beach book with a nasty betrayal at its core.

When an Italian asks Olivia to explain the difference between the English words "story" and "history," she's stumped. "History," she ventures, is "bigger and involves more people - like the history of a country, or a way, or a revolution. Story is smaller." This deceptively slender novel belies that distinction.

An ambiguous remark.

Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl, by Steven Bach; and Leni Riefenstahl: A Life, by Jurgen Trimborn, translated by Edna McCown. Clive James's essay about Riefenstahl insists that even great artistry does not neutralize complicity in political wrongdoing, and he suggests that Riefenstahl's artistry was not great. Mr Davis argues persuasively that Riefenstahl lied about her unawareness of the dark side of Fascism, and that she was able to shrug off culpability with the help of time and "her histrionic abilities."

Luckily for her, she had feminine wiles to burn: until she was old and gray, she met few men who didn't fall for her on the spot. It could be said that she had looks and energy but no real brain. The evidence was overwhelming that she didn't need one.

Beyond pointing out which of the two books ostensibly under review has the better pictures (Mr Trimborn's) and which has the better text (Mr Bach's), Mr Davis has almost nothing to say about either. Mr Davis condescends to the readers of the Review no more graciously than he condescends to a celebrated filmmaker's feminine wiles.

Virgin: The Untouched History, by Hanne Blank. While there's nothing essential oddball about virginity, it seems to spawn a lot of kooky ideas. Alex Kuczynski passes a few of these along in her storytelling review. Of the book itself, she writes that it is "a useful, if sometimes clumsy, antidote to our confusion." For starters, who can name the five types of hymen?

Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus, by Alex Halberstadt. Divorce specialist Raoul Felder's brother Jerome did indeed have an unlikely life, but I'm not persuaded, at least by Alan Light's review, that unlikelihood merits book-length treatment. Jerome had polio as a child and was disabled by it; developing an interest in the blues, he became a noted singer before writing the lyrics to some pop hit classics, such as "Teenager in Love." Mr Light tells the story but engages with the book only glancingly.

Halberstadt, a freelance writer, never met Pomus, but he vividly links the melancholy and yearning in these songs with Pomus's own personal and professional frustrations while never overplaying his hand.

Tales From the Torrid Zone: Travels in the Deep Tropics, by Alexander Frater. Christopher Benfey's very favorable review did not convince me that this is an important book, but I am no connoisseur of travel writing, and I gather that Mr Frater is pretty good at it.

As a child of the tropics himself, born into a family of Presbyterian missionaries in the New Hebrides, Frater has written a book that is part memoir, part travel yern, a hymn to solar lands where people "wear their shadows like shoes. ... While most of his "tales" are set in the South Pacific, Frater takes as his province all the "70 or so warm, wet countries" he has visited between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. As a result, Tales From the Torrid Zone feels both wide-ranging and a bit disjointed.


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

Billy the Kid: the Endless Ride, by Michael Wallis. T J Stiles writes,

Wallis's account, though solidly reliable, is not always so compelling. He sometimes steps on his own storytelling, referring to events he has yet to narrate and garbling what should be dramatic scenes. He attempts to add flavor with goddurn-it, get-along-little-dogie lingo, turning a hanging into a "neckstretching," shouts into "hollers," and murderers into "mankillers." A heavy salting of clichés proves at least as distracting: in this book, a "leader of the pack" who "called the shots" might bully "working stiffs" on "the straight and narrow."

Mr Stiles concludes that "to understand [Billy] is to glimpse something of the making of modern America." That is really a quite monumentally fatuous thing to say.

All God's Children: Inside the Dark and Violent World of Street Families, by Rene Denfield. Tara McKelvey writes,

All God's Children is both fascinating and flawed. Denfield describes, in a factual and sometimes choppy manner, searing brutality ... and extremem egoism .... But even murderers can evoke sympathy - or at least seem human - in a well-constructed book. In Denfield's, they don't.

Off the Record: A Reporter Unveils the Celebrity Worlds of Hollywood, Hip Hop, and Sports, by Allison Samuels. Baz Dreisinger writes,

Actually, those looking for plain old journalism might also look elsewhere: Off the Record is not so much journalism as meta-journalism - a journalistic account of journalistic accounts.

He concludes:

The moves celebrities make during interviews are, to an eager journalist, like the events of a dream to a devout Freudian: revealing, but subject to overreading. Sometimes a random remark is just a random remark - and sometimes even a veteran reporter gets dazzled by fame.



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yes, think your thoughts about leni interesting as well, i've posted about her in the past....eternally fascinating

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