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In the Book Review

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

Why isn't Clive James on the cover? His is probably the one book covered this week that everybody ought to buy. The Derek Walcott review is, in contrast, a quiet disaster, a snuff job really. Who is this William Logan, may I ask?

Natalie Angier's review is this week's strongest. As my uncle used to say, she knows her onions. And she knows how to assure us that David Sloan Wilson, author of Evolution for Everyone, knows his onions, too.

A few of the category calls were tough. It feels wrong, somehow, to list a volume of Derek Walcott's poetry in the Maybes, and there's much in Madison Smartt Bell's review of Erica Wagner's Seizure that suggests a work of emotional sensationalism. If you're unhappy with my final choices, feel free to reverse them. I'm probably with you.

Yes

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

Seizure, by Erica Wagner. I have come to regard the reviews of Erica Wagner with confused dread: I know that I'm never going to make sense of them. According to Madison Smartt Bell, however, she has written an absorbing novel about two unmoored adults who discover a deep connection. The story is absorbing, in fact, that Mr Bell storytells it, praising Ms Wagner now and then but rarely quoting her "dense, expert writing." The story sounds exceptional nevertheless.

The Long Exile: The Tale of Inuit Betrayal and Survival in the High Arctic, by Melanie McGrath. According to Elizabeth Royte, this book has a grisly tale of official mendacity to tell, and "wickedly talented" Ms McGrath "writes as if she'd lived in the Artic for years." It would appear that anyone who reads this book will be shocked and dismayed that the Canadian government has still not apologized to Inuit families whom it resettled for Cold War purposes.

Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History, by Clive James. This is a Big Book, and Liesl Schillinger is duly thoughtful. She places Mr James for those who might not know who he is (an Australian, expat "comic public intellectual") and then explains what he does. This leads to contradictions.

In this book, James means to present seriously the lives and ideas that 21st-century students ought to know about as they set out to educate themselves.

But:

Each chapter is not so much a biography of the character in its title as a catchall for the fertile associations the author brings to the name. Thoughts of W C Fields provoke a broadside against censorship; praise of Duke Ellington leads to censure of bebop. [&c]

Not too serious, then.

Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives, by David Sloan Wilson. In her sympathetic and favorable review, Natalie Angier fastens on a key aspect of Mr Wilson's "decidedly refreshing" explanation of Darwinism.

As he sees it, all of life is characterized by a cosmic struggle between good and evil, the high-strung terms we apply to behaviors that are either cooperative or selfish, civic or anomic. The constant give-and-take between me versus we extends down to the tiniest and most primal elements of life.

Ms Angier notes that Mr Wilson considers himself to be an optimist, but that's no reason not to read his apparently engrossing book.

The Road to Disunion: Volume Two. Secessionists Triumphant: 1854-1861, by William W Freehling. Eric Foner, writing a largely favorable review, believes that Mr Freehling is perhaps too interested in his colorful cast of political operatives, and writes in a "forced" popular style. Nevertheless, Mr Freehling makes the case (according to Mr Foner) that divisions within the South made the actual Civil War that took place anything but inevitable.

Inventing Human Rights: A History, by Lynn Hunt. The concept of human rights is roughly as old as the modern nation-state, and that's the problem that Ms Hunt seeks to explain in a "tour de force of compression," according to Gordon S Wood's favorable review. If we don't yet understand the implications of universally established human rights, it may be because we haven't been at the task for very long.

Maybe

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

Selected Poems, by Derek Walcott (edited by Edward Baugh). William Logan is a tough critic - which may or not mean that he's a good one. He finds Mr Walcott's new book so uneven that one hardly knows what to think. "He's a better poet when just mulling things over, in a louche beachcomber-ish way - when he talks politics, the taste seems bitter in his mouth." He also accuses one poem of "scenery-chewing."

Few poets have been lavished with greater gifts that Walcott; but much of his later work has been unadventurous (and undistilled), full of stock passages and stale opinions. He arrived at a few views when young and has trotted them out ever since.

Knots, by Nuruddin Farah. Christopher de Bellaigue's unhelpful review wanders from storytelling to disappointment. Mr de Bellaigue complains that this book is not as good as Mr Farah's last, From A Crooked Rib.

Doris Lessing once described Farah as "one of the few African men who write wonderfully about women." In Knots we see this only fitfully.

A Model Summer, by Paulina Porizhkova. Alex Kuczynski tries hard to prop up this novel, comparing it, in her last paragraph, to Kafka's The Castle. She has undermined this comparison, however, by writing, "A Model Summeri would be as dark and violent as the direst of de Sade if it weren't for Porizhkova's gee-whiz, chick-lit tone."

Changing Light, by Nora Gallagher. Dennis Overbye's review of this novel, which is set in New Mexico during the undertaking of the Manhattan Project, cleaves very closely to its scientific aspects, especially its relation to historical fact, and observes that "her description of the manufacture of bomb molds has the dry precision of a lab notebook." Mr Overbye ends up making Changing Light sound like the sort of novel that requires a pre-existing interest in a field.

Muses, Madmen, and Prophets: Rethinking the History, Science, and Meaning of Auditory Hallucination, by Daniel B Smith. I read an article about the phenomenon of auditory hallucination recently, one much longer than Peter D Kramer's review but shorter, perforce, than Mr Smith's book. The bottom line is that not everybody who hears voices is crazy, and there is much to learn about neurobiology. I already knew the second part, and the article was amply informative about the first. Books about diseases (as distinct from the people who suffer them) do not belong in the Book Review. For what it's worth,

Smith's strongest interest in in hallucination as inspiration. He provides a fascinating account. ...

After St Theresa, poets either celebrated the loss of "aurality" as a triumph of Christ over the oracles or mourned a loss of direct inspiration.

The Mistress's Daughter, by A M Homes. Ms Homes is a gifted writer with a strong following. Katie Roiphe writes, for the most part, very favorably about this new memoir. Toward the end of the review, however, she becomes puzzling.

But this book veers toward the sentimental, concluding with an unusually straightforward tribute to her inspiring adoptive grandmother. Here the reader cannot help thinking of the ferocity of Homes's fiction: the suburban house going up in flames, the gunshots in the mall. Normally, she is not one to reach for consoling niceties, for flourishes of redemption and images of human endurance. How can the ruthless author of Music for Torching and The Safety of Objects allow herself this easy way out of a story that can have no easy way out? It feels false.

Well something certainly feels false. I have no objection to straightforward tributes - and that's just it. Why does Ms Roiphe think that there's anything "sentimental" about praising a grandmother? She does not explain herself, irremediably discounting the value of her review.

Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, by Benjamin Butler. Pamela Paul assesses Mr Barber's book as an extremely lightweight production, written at the level of a college textbook and narrowly researched. "Marginally relevant filler ... pads the text , seemingly to generate book-length proportions." Ouch! It gets worse. 

Barber, who apparently aspires to the life of a public intellectual, with its talk show appearances and lecture circuits, could serve as the anti-Thomas L Friedman, offering a decidedly less rosy view of the life behind the Lexus wheel. If only he wrote a book half so well.

Sick: The Untold Story of America's Health Care Crisis - and the People Who Pay the Price, by Jonathan Cohn. What could be more serious than this country's health-care crisis? (It's debt?) And what is American Enterprise Institute "resident scholar" Sally Satel doing reviewing Mr Cohn's book, even if she is a doctor and even if she calls the book "important"? Although she says that Sick is "an edifying primer" on how the crisis came about, she faults Mr Cohn for failing to assess the range of proposed solutions. Ms Satel is most definitely not a sympathetic reviewer, even when she says nice things. 

Framing the Debate: Famous Presidential Speeches and How Progressives Can Use Them to Change the Conversation (and Win Elections), by Jeffrey Feldman. Eve Fairbanks is almost appalled by the noted blogger's book, which in her view simply advocates liberal use of the techniques of Gingrich, Rove & Co in order to "reframe" political discussion.

This approach radiates cynicism. That's the most amazing - and insidious - thing about this book. Feldman presents himself as a bulwark of democracy, dedicated to promoting "a healthy American political culture filled with more voices and more points of view." But his vision of politics is profoundly undemocratic. To believe that the "enemy" frame is impossible for us to resist - that our behavior as citizens flows, robotlike, from the way we are manipulated by buzzwords - is to see us as Shakespeare saw those laughably malleable Romans in Julius Caesar: they are inspired first to hate Caesar by Brutus's speech and then to love him by Antony's, in the space of minutes. This scene is terrifying because it reveals that even though Caesar has just been assassinated to preserve the Republic, the Republic is already dead. Its people are unfit for it. So, too, with us if our minds are governed by keywords.

Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower, by Zbigniew Brzesinski. Mr Heilbrunn appears to think well of this book overall, but his doubts highlight the extent to which this is just another former National Security Adviser's tendentious, self-graded report card. For example, Mr Brzezinski praises the president whom he served for brokering the Camp David accords, but overlooks Mr Carter's "hapless response" to the fall of the shah. Such a book is of interest only to historians and political insiders.

The Label: The Story of Columbia Records, by Gary Marmorstein. As it happens, I am reading this history of my favorite LP label - the one that was guided by at least two great minds (John Hammond and Goddard Lieberson) - at the moment, and I can tell you that John Rockwell is right to judge that Mr Marmolstein is "defeated" by "the dizzying diversity of the tales he is trying to tell."

And yet, and yet: there are great stories here, and a great story, and great music too, all dimly discernible through the breezy clutter of Marmorstein's prose. Maybe someday, someone will tell that story with the elegance and insight it deserves.

No

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

Eye of the Archangel: A Mallory and Morse Novel of Espionage, by Forrest DeVoe, Jr. Charles Taylor spends most of this review pointing out how inferior Mr DeVoe's detective series is to Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise books. The book is evidently high-toned pulp.

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