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In the Book Review

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

Lots of good books this week, including important biographies of Edith Wharton, George F Kennan, Lincoln Kirstein, and Gertrude Bell. Oh for the time to read all of them! I'm not entirely sure that I'd have bought Hermione Lee's Wharton book if I'd read Claire Messud's review first; although she's enthusiastic about the book, Messud finds an air of effort in the production, something that she rightly declares to be missing from Ms Lee's Virginia Woolf. In other words, I can no longer expect a Wharton completely refreshed from the magisterial treatment of R W B Lewis in 1976, as Ms Lee refreshed Woolf from such portraits as Quentin Bell's.

Sandor Marai's The Rebels has the air - all unread - of Major International Fiction.

Henry Alford's Essay, "Genius!", concerns "misblurbing." Yes, Virginia, there are still people who rely on blurbs. Apparently. I'm shocked, shocked to read of the fiendish things that marketers do to get boffo quotes for their dust jackets. Thank you, Mr Alford, for this TIMELY! report on a VITAL! and FASCINATING! matter.  


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

Halflife, by Megan O'Rourke. Joel Brouwer's appreciation of Ms O'Rourke's verse is infectious, and he quotes plenty of it. Of the first poem's opening line, "My poor eye," Mr Brouwer writes,

In fact, the sentence neatly encapsulates the central drama of O'Rourke's poems: the tremendous difficulty of writing clearly and adequately ... about things longed for but never seen ... and things so terrible they should never have to be seen.

A Far Country, by Daniel Mason. Matt Steinglass considers this novel to be even better than Mr Mason's well-received The Piano Tuner. The "simple plot" concerns the attempt of a country girl, probably Brazilian, to find her brother in "the city." 

Ultimately, the debt A Far Country owes to Black Orpheus only testifies to the enduring power of its narrative in third-world life. The fear that animates Isabel's quest is the terror not of poverty but of being lost: stripped away from one's village, one's family, from anything one might call home.

The Rebels, by Sandor Marai (translated by George Szirtes). According to Tibor Fischer, this novel about a group of adolescents about to be packed off to World War I "fires on all narrative cylinders" and has been "gracefully" translated. Marai spent his later decades in the United States, but he doesn't seem to have made much of an effort to sell his work in English; that is being changed now, with a stream of praise-winning volumes, of which The Rebels is said to be one of the more remarkable.

Marai wrote only a handful of plays, but he injected a strong theatricality into many of his novels. His characters tend to be either laconic or torrentially talkative. Costume and pretense fascinated him, and the boys of The Revels stage an impromptu private performance in the city's theatre under the guidance of a sinister, itinerant actor, an evening that will cost them dear.

Edith Wharton, by Hermione Lee. Claire Messud's lengthy and favorable review consists mostly of storytelling - as indeed do most reviews of biographies. It's as though the reviewer has taken on the burden of "selling" the subject's life story to benighted readers. Where the subject is a novelist of Wharton's eminence, one might expect more literary assessment than resume. The review ends on a cautionary note.

In the end, too, there is about Hermione Lee's remarkable biography a slight air of unfulfillment, as if for her biographer Wharton were ultimately more an admirable effort than a beloved subject. (It is an air, incidentally, completely absent from Lee's marvelous Virginia Woolf, a more thoroughly absorbing and affecting book.) Nobody has done Edith Wharton such careful justice as Lee, who has brilliant illuminated so many of the rooms in Wharton's vast interior house. But perhaps because these rooms are so fully furnished and their trappings so well rendered, it is at times difficult to see clearly, or indeed fully to embrace, the lonely innermost soul herself. Such detachment is undoubtedly the biographer's job, but it also reflects, as Wharton unflinchingly believed, what life is like.

The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein, by Martin Duberman. This impressive life of a remarkable New Yorker, best-known for his founding role with the New York City Ballet, gets high marks from Dwight Garner.

Kirstein remains something of an enigma, a hollow man, at the close of The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein, but it's hard to blame Duberman. Kirstein's personality ran to extremes; raging blowups were followed by acts of extreme kindness. His temper, which only got worse with age, confused even those closest to him. "One could be embraced on Monday, cut dead on Tuesday," Duberman writes. "Lincoln's gaze was tantamount to spinning the revolver changer for Russian roulette.

Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations, by Georgina Howell. Gertrude Bell was remarkable for insisting that she be allowed to take a major role in geopolitics; like so many accomplished women of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, she was not a feminist, and held most women in disregard. Fluent in Arabic and Persian, she shaped Iraq. Robert F Worth says that Ms Howell's books is "breathless, somewhat worshipful."

When it comes to Iraq, Howell accepts Bell's own views too readily, both about herself and about the broader British imperial vision. At one point Howell refers in passing to "the peculiarly British notion of public service free of corruption" as if it were an unmixed gift to subject peoples.

Troublesome Young Men: The Revels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England, by Lynne Olson. Jon Meacham writes a favorable and helpful review. Calling the book "brisk, engaging," he goes on,

Olson, a former White House correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, has given us a fascinating snapshot of the Tory "rebels," as she calls them, who ultimately opposed Neville Chamberlain and helped elevate the then-unbeatified Churchill.

George Kennan: A Study of Character, by John Lukacs. In retrospect, George F Kennan may stand forth as the most eminent American of the Twentieth Century after FDR. Because he outlined a successful strategy for waging the Cold War, and did it so persuasively that successive leaders adopted it, he is the ultimate victor, the Wellington in a war without battles. James Traub's review is favorable but somewhat uncomfortable, given Kennan's WASPy disdain for people of other origins. (Indeed, the review reminded me of Matt Damon's character's breathtaking remark in The Good Shepherd, "We have the United States. The rest of you are just visitors.") But Mr Traub praises Mr Lukacs (who knew Kennan well) for including the full text of a Kennan speech delivered at Notre Dame in 1953 that denounced ideology of any kind.

The Day of the Barbarians: The Battle That Led to the Fall of the Roman Empire, by Alessandro Barbero (translated by John Cullen). This book, about the battle of Adrianople in 378 CE, in which Gothic forces obliterated the Eastern Empire's army, gets high praise from Steve Coates.

One of the many paradoxes in Barbero's elegant and pleasurable little account - what a joy it is to read about the ancient world in digestible portions - is that the Eastern empire learned from its experience and intentionally shifted its barbarians farther and farther toward the West. Despite being the site of the first irreparable crack in the imperial fabric, the East lived on as the Byzantine Empire and remained stable and strong long after the shell of the West had crumbled under the barbarian onslaught.

Freedom's Power: The True Force of Liberalism, by Paul Starr. Michael Lind is quite enthusiastic about this book; I wish his review were somewhat more lucid, which I suspect it would have been had it been given a little more room. Mr Lind says many good things about the book, but can't begin to back them up with arguments of any complexity, and the review tends to read as a series of topic sentences. Through the fog, an important book seems about to emerge. 

A Guest in My Own Country: A Hungarian Life, by George Konrad (translated by Jim Tucker and edited by Michael Henry Heim). Alan Riding likes this amiable memoir by the sometime-underground Hungarian writer.

It is a story inescapably dominated by the Holocaust and a Communist dictatorship, but it is also very much a person story, one in which tragedy, fear, resistance and tedium are accompanied by humor, mischief, successes and a good deal of skirt-chasing.


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

The House on Boulevard St: New and Selected Poems, by David Kirby. Carol Muske-Dukes gives this collection a mordant review. It concludes,

Yet these poems have less to do with "inkpots" or memory or innovation that they do with "splattering the canvases." Kirby stretches his backdrop, then "paints with breath-long brushstrokes. It seems right that he's been immortalized in a Lichtenstein-style cameo. Like the cover, these poems may be too cool for words.

The Pesthouse, by Jim Crace. Francine Prose's review of this "post-apocalyptic" novel starts out on a neutral-to-positive note, but it ends rather dismally, wondering why "American primitives should sound like refugees from a Thomas Hardy novel," and faulting Mr Crace's unoriginality.

It's disorienting and a little disturbing - like some sort of odd déjà vu - to read about the hell of the future and feel that we've been there before.

Helpless, by Barbara Gowdy. Chelsea Cain clearly likes this book, but her remarks are confusing. She faults a nine year-old girl for not being "fully formed." Although she praises the book's lean, suspenseful writing, she fails to make it clear why this book about a sexual predator who tries to keep his hands off the child whom he has locked in his basement is worth reading.

The Miracle of Catfish: A Novel in Progress, by Larry Brown. I had never heard of Larry Brown before reading this review, and I'm still puzzled by Beverly Lowry's reverential review. It appears that the writer died and left an unfinished manuscript, which is this book, very lightly edited by Shannon Ravenel. The action takes place in and around Oxford, Mississippi, but Ms Lowry never gets round to placing the book on a continuum between Oxford's literary poles, William Faulkner and John Grisham. In the absence of an an extensive quoted passage, I'm inclined to regard Brown as an acquired, regional taste.

The Visible World, by Mark Slouka. Eva Hoffman likes this novel about growing up in Queens with haunted parents, but not the novel within the novel, which is the protagonist's attempt to understand his mother's past..

Unfortunately, the fiction the narrator invents is a tale of love and war so fantastically and at the same time conventionally romantic that it strains the modern reader's patience, rather than reinforcing imaginative conviction.

Too Close to the Sun: The Ambitious Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton, by Sara Wheeler. The subject of this book, Florence Williams, "is best known for being a lover of interesting women," most notably Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen).

Everyone liked and many people loved Denys Finch Hatton. Few knew him well, and no one could ever fully understand him, certainly not his lovers, and, ultimately, not Sara Wheeler. But just as Blixen might have said, knowing him a little was worth the ride.

Bigger Than Life: A Murder, a Memoir, by Dinah Lenney. The author's father led an interesting, if somewhat distant, life, but one that ended in kidnapping and murder. Tara McKelvey is not very sympathetic:

Bigger Than Life, which is part of Tobias Wolff's American Lives series, is an uneven, confused memoir, guided by emotional logic and a sense of entitlement. This may work in a therapist's office. ... Sadly, though, Lenney seems unable to process the trauma of her father's murder to the extent necessary for a memoir. 

The River Queen: A Memoir, by Mary Morris. Jennifer Gilmore wants to like this trip down the Mississippi more than she does.

Although her boating skills are never honed, it's to her credit as a writer that the river and its history never cease to provide apt metaphors for her own changing life.

That's very nice, but it's undercut by the suggestion that the book's structure works against its impact. I should say that Ms Gilmore needed more than a column to unpack her ideas.


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

The New American Story, by Bill Bradley. This mission statement only looks like a book. It is really a political pamphlet, devoid of literary value - and rightly so. Politicians, even when they're retired, are by nature tendentious, setting things out as they wishes them to be seen. Mr Bradley's contents may be better or worse than the norm, but nothing can persuade me that they belong between the covers of a book, intended to be read by a normal human being. Timothy Noah, incidentally, isn't impressed. He faults Mr Bradley for structuring his material in a way that "allows him to maintain senatorial decorum while enjoying maximum freedom to create straw men."


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