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In the Book Review

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

There are few well-conceived reviews this week. Siddhartha Deb on Lydia Davis is about it. Frank Rich is eloquent about Falling Man, but his piece belongs on the Op-Ed page. Thomas Mallon writes very well about Juliet Nicholson's survey of England in 1911, but he storytells to distraction, and eclipses the book itself.

When I sorted the books preliminarily, Marco Pierre White's memoir was among the Yeses. Actually writing up the review, I was moved to move it to the Maybes. Yes, David Kamp likes it, and he makes it sound like a good read. But he fails to make the case that the book belongs in the Review. On the point of noting, just a moment ago, that William D Cohan's book about Lazard Frères belongs in the Business section, I realized that Mr White's book belongs in the Dining In/Dining Out section. (Imagine the following in caps: Just being a book does not destine a title to Book Review coverage. There are other places in the luxuriant spread of the Times for such notices.) That's the first time that a book has dropped from Yes to No, via Maybe, since I began organizing the Review review as I do.

If both The Lizard Cage and The Sea Lady are the magnificent novels that their reviewers claim them to be, then surely the editors ought to have provided more room. Both reviews feel jagged and peremptory, and talk too much about current affairs.


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

Falling Man, by Don DeLillo. Don DeLillo's 9/11 novel is as close as it gets to required reading, so perhaps there's no need for a review, and it doesn't matter that Frank Rich's essay in the Book Review doesn't function very well as one. Mr Rich writes about 9/11, about Mr DeLillo's career - especially his record of highly predictive fiction - and he storytells the new novel. But none of this gives us a chance to assess the power of Falling Man. On the contrary, it stands in the way.

The Lizard Cage, by Karen Connelly. Lorraine Adams's review claims that this novel about political imprisonment out-Orwells Orwell:

Connelly's novel accomplishes something Orwell never managed: it gets inside the head of that "conscious man." Her prisoner's innermost self is laid bare in the pages of The Lizard Cage - even his most unbecoming moments. Unlike Wei or Mandela, who wrote for a public that had enshrined them as heroic figures, Connelly's fictional character has no constituency, no reputation to uphold. Through him, she shows us what autobiography usually veils: the human spirit not at its most defiant and brave, but as it really is and can only be.

Too much of the review, however, is taken up with collateral issues, such as the recent history of Burma (the novel's setting).

The Sea Lady: A Late Romance, by Margaret Drabble. Paul Gray's review seems almost grudgingly favorable. The author's career is rehearsed, in relation to British politics of the time. About the book itself, Mr Gray is something of a tease. It may be necessary to withhold information so as not to spoil the reader's fun, but teasing is warranted.

A Tranquil Star: Unpublished Stories, by Primo Levi (translated by Ann Goldstein and Alessandra Bastagli). Jonathan Rosen doesn't take issue with this book's subtitle: these stories have never been translated into English before. He notes that Levi's stories read like joint projects of Ray Bradbury and Kafka, and he praises the translation. Then thumbnails the stories that interest him the most, pontificating reverently throughout on the Holocaust and human degradation at every opportunity.

Varieties of Disturbance: Stories, by Lydia Davis. Writing of a story about two scholars arguing over which translation of Proust is better - and Ms Davis has translated Du côté de chez Swann - Siddhartha Deb summarizes Ms Davis's art:

We have read three passages about circular walks, which may sound indulgent. In fact, the deceptively simply story becomes a palimpsest in which the current experience is seen to be a rewriting of other, previous experiences, and Proust's memory of a childhood already vanished at the time of writing comes alive in the evening walk of two middle-aged scholars adrift in a foreign university town. Haunting, dreamlike and yet indisputably real, "The Walk" perfectly illustrates Davis's exceptional skills as a writer. Her belief that language is both the subject and the medium of fiction has not led her, as we might expect, into solipsistic echo chambers, but into new worlds.

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kingsolver. As we understand the contemporary food supply as it really is, lucid alternatives, such as Ms Kingsolver's "locavore" experiment (eating only her own produce), make for compelling reading. Corby Kummer claims that this book provides exactly that, with "some lovely food writing" thrown in for extra pleasure.

The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, by Natalie Angier. Toward the end of his favorable review, Steven Pinker faults the author for resorting too often to clever-sounding analogies that do not lead to greater understanding. His theory of metaphor is surprisingly literary, but surely his objections on this point merit no more than a sentence or two, not three paragraphs. Mr Pinker notes that Ms Angier is true to her subtitle, and does not get involved in cutting-edge scraps.

The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace, by Ali A Allawi. Mr Wong complains that Mr Allawi's very interesting portrait of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is unmatched by his descriptions of other leading actors in the rending of Iraqi society, but he does praise the author for unpacking the work of Ali al-Wardi, a psychologist and an historian, for Western readers.

The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm, by Juliet Nicholson. On the whole, Thomas Mallon likes this book, written by the granddaughter of, among other things, a novel called The Edwardians, Vita Sackville-West. He disagrees, however, with its thesis that England was undergoing a transformation on the eve of World War I. Mr Mallon sees nothing but a death wish. As often with Mr Mallon's highly articulate reviews, there is too much storytelling, which is always particularly objectionable in the context of histories. What did Mr Mallon know before he read 1911, and what will the reader find in it.


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

Flight, by Sherman Alexie. Tom Barbash's enthusiastic review is downright confusing, at least to this reader, because its jumble of vivid terms - "high-concept extravaganza," "narrative stripped to the bone," "hyperactive mind" - don't add up to coherence. Is the following supposed to be praise?

Reading Flight is a bit like falling through the sort of nightmares you might have after too much late-night television and spicy food. Or like being asked to close your eyes and listen to a series of visual clues.

My Holocaust, by Tova Reich. David Margolick's review can only be called "choking."

At a time when morons and bigots say the Holocaust never happened, or that it wasn't such a big deal if it did, the business of publicizing and exploiting the mass murder of European Jewry for political, financial, or institutional gain is something we Jews would rather not discuss, except among ourselves. Reich has taken this taboo and built an entire novel - wickedly clever and shocking, tasteless and tedious, infuriating and maybe even marginally constructive - on it.

City of Oranges: An Intimate History of Arabs and Jews in Jaffa, by Adam LeBor. Gershom Gorenburg never comes out and calls this book tendentious, but he does point out that the author's viewpoint is pro-Palestinian, and that the book first appeared in the UK. "City of Oranges is an engaging, well-constructed book, even if its characters are more colorful than complex."

Four Queens: The Provençal Sisters Who Ruled Europe, by Nancy Goldstone. Megan Marshall makes it clear that this is not a serious work of history but a book of wonders: four sisters married princes and kings and ran Europe through their husbands. Poppycock. "Goldstone repeatedly asserts that one episode or another showed the Berenger sisters influencing events, but her evidence doesn't always support her claims."

The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical Americans Are Winning the Culture War, by Dan Gilgoff. Jacob Heilbrunn aims his vaporizer at this book, but doesn't shoot. He notes that Mr Gilgoff is a "dispassionate" reporter of his material. As for that subtitle, though:

But as Gilgoff also says in his rather perfunctory conclusion, the religious right remains bedeviled by factional disputes... Despite this book's striking subtitle, the culture war seems to be petering out, with the religious right far from victory. It may now be demonstrating not the exertions of a virile new political species, but the thrashings of a dinosaur that can do a lot of damage in its final throes.

Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, by Nancy Isenberg. Jill Lepore's generally favorable and engaged review suggests that Ms Isenberg ultimately fails to make her case.

The problem is, it's hard, even after reading Fallen Founder, not to agree with Burr's enemies that he was a bit of a schemer, probably a traitor and at least some kind of fiend. Surely we would understand the founders better if we followed Isenberg and put a little more flesh on their bones. But Aaron Burr has a little too much on his.

The Rose Café: Love and War in Corsica, by John Hanson Mitchell. It's possible that The Rose Café is a quiet but concentrated jewel of a memoir, in which the author waits out the Vietnam War in spicy territory. If so, reviewer Alida Becker has completely failed to convey the rapture that would flood from such a book.


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

A Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness, and the Making of a Great Chef, by Marco Pierre White, with James Steen. David Kamp compares Mr White to "future rock stars who lost their mothers young," and he says that Mr White's book is "a moving, unaffected, delightfully honest book. At times, it's almost sweet." The chef's very physical responses to impatience are not overlooked. Whenever the nominal author writes with the assistance of a professional helper, however, the review ought to give some idea of the success of the ventriloquism.

The Last Tycoons: The Secret History of Lazard Frères & Co, by William D Cohan. Richard Parker writes,

In many of its details, The Last Tycoons" will captivate those closest to the industry. ... But for a general audience, there is little that will seem new after two decades of Enrons, Worldcoms and Milkens - all tales of similarly motivated me, the Masters of the Universe.

In other words, this book belongs in the newspaper's Business Section.


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