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In the Book Review

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

What's in the water? I seem to have gotten very permissive this week, with more Yeses than Maybes. Even with all the worthy subjects addressed this week, however, the editors managed to squeeze in two wholly undeserving books, one a bit of raunchy ventriloquism about Mickey Mantle, the other a "historical" action book about the move of the Knights of St John from Rhodes to Malta.

Rachel Donadio's Essay, "Point of Order," is about Robert's Rules of Order, which, it may interest you to know, remains copyrighted, if eminently knock-off-able. It interested me to learn that the rules are traceable back to Thomas Jefferson. Aside from the fact that they appear between covers, it's difficult to know what Robert's Rules are doing in the Book Review. What's next? Hoyle's?


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

Fellow Travelers, by Thomas Mallon. Michael Gorra finds this novel about the McCarthyite gay witch hunt "appealing," written in "crisp, buoyant" prose. As an example of mish-mashed storytelling, however, his review is hard to beat.

The Gentle Axe, by R N Morris. Liesl Schillinger compares this book favorably to some successful recent historical novels.

Admirably, Morris doesn't overhandle the language. Unlike, saay, Caleb Carr in The Alienist or Iain Pears in "An Instance of the Fingerpost," he doesn't hit false notes in tone or affect baroque accents.

Ms Schillinger also writes that the novel, which follows up the subsequent career of the examining magistrate in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, seems "less like a modern tribute to Dostoyevsky than a translation of an overlooked novel by one of his contemporary imitators."

In the Driver's Seat: Stories, by Helen Simpson. Maile Meloy likes some of these stories much better than others, but her praise outweighs her disappointment. She does quote nearly enough to convey a sense of Ms Simpson's rhythms, alas. Her conclusion:

In the Driver's Seat contains some wonderful stories, and if it seems rushed and uneven, I still sided with Simpson's practical-minded characters - like the one who gets a furtive kiss from her 9-year-old son in full view of his school - for whom the good moments, sometimes achingly perfect, make up for the rest.

The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor, by William Langeweische. Jonathan Raban admires this book, which traces the all-too-surmountable obstacles facing a terrorist who wished to attack the United States with nuclear weaponry, praising its "cool, precise, and economical reporting." But he regrets that more of an effort was not made to translate a series of Atlantic articles into a proper book.

The Clarks of Cooperstown: Their Singer Sewing Machine Fortune, Their Great and Influential Art Collections, Their Forty-Year Feud, by Nicholas Fox Weber. Debby Applegate doesn't think much of Mr Weber's storytelling skills, but she suggests that the book's interest lies in its handling of the art collecting indulged by the third generation of the Clark family.

Instead of evoking a dramatic family saga, he structures his book as a series of meandering and repetitive biographical sketches that muddle the plot and tax the reader's patience. All the same, art lovers will be intoxicated by the sheer abundance of masterpieces. Here, Weber is at his best, describing art in a vivid, straightforward manner, free of pedantry. And he has a gift for breathing like into styles now out of vogue.

Although the book might not be ideal, the review makes it clear that its subject is rich in more than mere art talk.

The Door of No Return: The History of Cape Coast Castle and the Atlantic Slave Trade, by William St Clair. According to reviewer Caroline Elkins, this book about the portal between Africa and slavery, "brings to life the small crew of expatriates - rarely more than 50 along the entire coast - responsible for the castle's operations."

Though death loomed large, the castle bustled with activity, Africans, mulattoes, the occasional European woman, livestock, voracious ants, poisonous snakes, exotic birds, even a declawed leopard created a carnival-like atmosphere that seldom hinted at the otherwise grim business at hand.

Ms Elkins believes that Mr St Clair would have done better to "venture further into the interior" of Africa, but that is clearly what the historian determined not to do.

Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson; Einstein: A Biography, by Jürgen Neffe (translated by Shelley Frisch). Corey S Powell reviews two new biographies of the iconic genius.

Both authors justify themselves in part by incorporating recently unearthed bits of Einsteiniana, including a trove of personal letters released by Hebrew University last year. At a deeper level, though, these books owe their existence not to new scholarship but to an old frustration. A half-century after Einstein's death, his theories and the mind that spawned them remain as baffling as ever.

According to Mr Powell, Mr Isaacson's Einstein is a "resilient humanist," while he's a "naive idealist" to Mr Neffe.

Ralph Ellison: A Biography, by Arnold Rampersad. Brent Staples calls Mr Rampersad "uniquely qualified to examine the Ellison case," a writer's stretched out failure to follow an incandescent first novel with a second novel of any quality. It is clear from Mr Staples's review that Ellison's idea of "the epitome of Negro psychological and even spiritual ingenuity in response to white terror" is worth looking into.


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

The Descendants, by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Joanna Kavenna's somewhat dissonant review talks up the harrowing things that happen to Ms Hemmings's protagonist, but also speaks of the book as a "comedy." The quoted passages might well come from a comedy, but they just as well might not. A confusing review.

The Secret of Lost Things, by Sheridan Hay. Meg Wolitzer likes the parts of this novel that are set in a Strand-like used bookstore . She does not like the parts that take place in the Nineteenth Century.

Although Hay tries to turn Melville and his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne into real characters through extensive quotations from their letters, these sections only intermittently crackle with life.

Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years, by David Talbot; Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F Kennedy, by Vincent Bugliosi. There are two distinct reviews here, presented on facing pages, each written by someone who agrees with the position taken by his author and therefore in both cases sympathetic. Alan Brinkley cheers Mr Talbot for continuing to dig out the conspiracy behind Lee Harvey Oswald, while Bryan Burrough praises Mr Bugliosi's tenacity - even if it does lead to a book of 1,612 pages.

Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789-1989, by Michael Beschloss. Mary Beth Norton begins her review by wondering just when "presidential historians" emerged from the pack of general historians. She doesn't say so, but her remarks made me think of books such as Mr Beschloss's as variants of books about hot chief executive officers in the world of business. Ms Norton goes on to suggest that a book cautioning "his readers to be wary of presidents whose actions could lead the nation in the wrong direction" would have been more useful.


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

The Religion, by Tim Willocks. By the time I got to the end of Susann Cokal's review of this swashbuckling novel, my jaw was flapping against my sternum. What was this book doing in the Review? Ms Cokal remarks at the end that the book has "few pretensions to high literature," but unless I'm missing something in her review, it doesn't have any.

7: The Mickey Mantle Novel, by Peter Golenbock. Ihsan Taylor is withering about this book, which, even had it been good, belongs somewhere else in the Times. Set in heaven, the novel posits that Mickey Mantle wants a tough sports journalist, Leonard Shecter, to make him confront his demons. Instead, the switch-hitter goes into frat-boy mode. My favorite line from the review is in the parenthesis:

The raunch piles up, and we forget that 7 is supposed to be about Mantle's soul-searching. (Shecter turns out to be a "hard-nosed" journalist in the same sense that Wile E Coyote is a predator.) Save for a few mawkish moments in the final pages, Mantle is a puzzlingly useless guide to his own emotions.

Mr Taylor wraps up his review with a modest list of better books for anyone interested in the Mantle mystery.


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