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Reviewing the Book Review

Haitian Fathers

9 September 2007

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

What a dispiriting issue. Only one book of fiction in a total of three Yeses - and an apparently minor fiction at that. The insipidity of the novels and/or the reviews placed among the Maybes made me wonder why I bothered with this issue, and I have never seen so many Noes. Instead of feeling virtuous for filling in a lacuna, I'm worn down by the sense of having yielded to a pointless obsession. I ought to have let it go at "Sorry, but I broke my neck this week."

There's the germ of a delicious literary coffee-table book in David Oshinsky's Essay, "No Thanks, Mr Nabokov." Mr Oshinsky has gone through the archives of Alfred A Knopf (now a division of Random House; the archives are in Texas, naturally) and turned up some remarkable rejection letters. Just for starters:

In the summer of 1950, Alfred A. Knopf Inc. turned down the English-language rights to a Dutch manuscript after receiving a particularly harsh reader’s report. The work was “very dull,” the reader insisted, “a dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions.” Sales would be small because the main characters were neither familiar to Americans nor especially appealing. “Even if the work had come to light five years ago, when the subject was timely,” the reader wrote, “I don’t see that there would have been a chance for it.”

Knopf wasn’t alone. “The Diary of a Young Girl,” by Anne Frank, would be rejected by 15 others before Doubleday published it in 1952. More than 30 million copies are currently in print, making it one of the best-selling books in history.

The galaxy of now-celebrated writers dismissed by Knopf and his editors ranges from Borges ("utterly untranslatable") to Plath (not enough "genuine genuine talent for us to take notice.") It's a publisher's nightmare - or at least you'd think so, until you remembered that the name of Knopf remains the gold standard for literary publishing in the United States.

Yes

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

New Bedlam, by Bill Flanagan. This novel about television's "race to the bottom" promises, in Joe Keohane's review, a sickeningly funny look at the pathology of our major medium.

One reality show Kahn [the hero] considers, called “Love Race,” has three young men run through an obstacle course, strip naked, stand in front of three giggling young women and start frantically masturbating. Flanagan conveys the hilarity and mortal horror of the scene beautifully, but then has Kahn pass on it.

Brother, I'm Dying, by Edwidge Danticat. Jess Row's generous review presents this powerful family history of Haitian deracination as "a memoir whose clear-eyed prose and unflinching adherence to the facts conceal and astringent under current of melancholy, a mixture of homesickness and homelessness." Ms Danticat's uncle was brutally mistreated by Homeland Security forces when he sought asylum in the United States in 2004, and died in shackles. Alluding to Ms Danticat's success as an American writer, Mr Row concludes,

Danticat's father died shortly after Joseph and was buried under the same tombstone; she imagines them together again in Beauséjour, reconciled and happy once more. But she makes no indication of how she might reconcile these shattering events with her own near-miraculous American odyssey. It's hard to imagine how anybody could.

In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia, by Ronald H Spector. Richard J Samuels's review is forcefully succinct:

We all know the cliché about how “history repeats itself,” but successful historians show us how. Iraq casts a long, dark shadow across every page in Spector’s book, starting with Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s declaration in a radio address that “today freedom is on the offensive, democracy is on the march.” Strewn in liberty’s path, however, were a “tar pit of China’s internal wars,” native fighters in Indonesia unintimidated by modern weapons, unresolved policy disputes between the State Department and the Defense Department, “bales of American dollars,” alliances of convenience with corrupt warlords, and local militias of unknown provenance led by “whiz-bang” demagogues. Much of this will sound familiar to modern readers living through the Iraq war, and there’s still more: Washington pursued ambiguous policies that officials on the ground knew were doomed; fewer troops were deployed than commanders requested; tours of duty were extended for war-weary soldiers who were “unprepared temperamentally or by training to become part of a great social and economic reconstruction project”; and support from the American public declined sharply for adventures in Asia.

Maybe

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

Sons and Other Flammable Objects, by Porochista Khakpour. Judy Budnitz gives this first novel, about one family's Iranian diaspora, a mixed review.

Khakpour is so good in these scenes that it’s all the more frustrating when she resorts to abstraction or omission. Darius’s depression and Xerxes’ grievances become suddenly less absorbing whenever the focus shifts from external events to internal ramblings and rantings. The family members repeatedly refer to Iran as a “hell” or a “nightmare,” but aside from a few striking glimpses — like the image of the family standing on their patio, among their neighbors, scanning the night sky for antiaircraft missiles — we get little sense of their lives there or the circumstances of their escape.

Songs Without Words, by Ann Packer. Although Liesl Schillinger has many good things to say about this book, her final judgment is that it is a "re-gifting" of the author's previous hit, The Dive from Clausen's Pier.

Like the accident in “The Dive From Clausen’s Pier,” the suicide attempt in “Songs Without Words” turns a spotlight on achingly normal, decent people whose uneventful lives might otherwise have passed unnoticed by anyone but the paperboy. Yet this novel lacks its predecessor’s urgency, perhaps because the diving accident in the first book occurs just a few pages in, acting like a springboard for the narrative, while here the crucial action takes place after nearly a hundred pages, slowing the story’s momentum.

Self's Deception, by Bernhard Schlink (translated by Peter Constantine). Charles Taylor likes this book, but he might have liked it better.

I’d gladly check out Schlink’s next Self book, but I hope he takes care to make his plot as distinctive as his hero. Self is too enjoyable a presence to be set adrift in an indifferent mystery.

A Peculiar Grace, by Jeffrey Lent. Walter Kirn has a lot to say about this novel - in which a solitary ironmonger and a feckless hippie share a Victorian house for pages and pages and still more pages before finally having sex - much of it favorable, but it all boils down to this:

A novel that goes nowhere slowly because it’s always pausing along the way for orgies of overstimulated self-obsession makes it hard for the reader to enjoy an ending, too.

Shining at the Bottom of the Sea, by Stephen Marche. Christopher R Beha's generally favorable, if rather brief, review makes it clear that this is a very odd book - it's about the literature of a fictional North Atlantic island - but his judgment stalls there. Make of this what you will:

[In] Shining at the Bottom of the Sea" Marche has found a more fitting form for his abiding concerns: diaspora and its discontents, and the efforts of far-flung people to bridge the gaps of time and space by way of the written word.

The Custodian of Paradise, by Wayne Johnson. Max Byrd's extremely truncated review is not long on coherence, and it goes so far as to claim that this novel's story is a reheated version of a predecessor. It is only Mr Johnson's patent lack of sympathy for Mr Johnson's work that forces me to give it the benefit of the doubt.

When We Get There, by Shauna Selly. John Freeman gives this novel, set in the dying Pennsylvania coal belt, a nice review, except that it's all storytelling. What kind of book Ms Selly has produced is nowhere in evidence.

The Extra Large Medium, by Helen Slavin. Dawn Drzal redeems an otherwise lukewarm review of this spiritualist whodunit with a concluding observation that the author "widkedly skewers a society whose obsession with the afterlife shortchanges life itself."

Dark Reflections, by Samuel R Delany. Baz Dreisinger's review of this novel, written by a gay black poet about a gay black poet, sounds insistent comparisons between Mr Delany's hero and J Alfred Prufrock; in the pre-Stonewall era chronicled here, the protagonist barely dares to love, much less embrace his sexuality. Because Mr Dreisinger seems preoccupied by issues other than literary merit, it is difficult to tell if the novel is worth reading.  

The Zookeeper's Wife, by Diane Ackerman. D T Max very much likes this fascinating story about the harboring of three hundred Jews in Warsaw's Jews throughout the war, but he feels that it would have been better told as a novel.

This is an absorbing book, diminished sometimes by the choppy way Ackerman balances Antonina’s account with the larger story of the Warsaw Holocaust. For me, the more interesting story is Antonina’s. She was not, as her husband once called her, “a housewife,” but the alpha female in a unique menagerie. I would gladly read another book, perhaps a novel, based again on Antonina’s writings. She was special, and as the remaining members of her generation die off, a voice like hers should not be allowed to fade into the silence.

God's Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America, by Hanna Rosin. Nina Easton seems predisposed, somewhat understandably, to regard this book as a doomed project.

The coverage of religious fundamentalists by mainstream journalists — and many have visited Patrick Henry since its opening — tends to take on the trappings of an anthropological exercise: outsiders arriving to study the rituals and mating habits of a strange native tribe. There is an “us and them” quality that is difficult to transcend. The question must be asked of any writer undertaking this enterprise: Are you trying to horrify your like-minded readers or enlighten them? Rosin clearly intended to enlighten. Her empathy for the students and families she interviews is apparent. But there are suggestions that this is a cultural divide she can’t quite cross (a reference to the “eerily independent and well-behaved” small children at a student event, descriptions of “goofy love songs to Jesus”) and a politics she spurns (George Bush’s “fixed” view of God’s will leads to arrogance; Barack Obama offers a “humbler” version of Christianity).

In the end, Rosin hints at much drama to be mined at Patrick Henry. But in her journalistic telling, the stories of Farris and his students — and their determination to become leaders inside a culture that their belief systems reject — come up short.

No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939-1945, by Norman Davies. Susan Rubin Suleiman is pretty rough on Professor Davies.

Davies’s method is best qualified as haphazard encyclopedism: all categories are covered, but only with potshots, in pieces designed to show that the war was not “simple.” The writing is plodding, and at times puzzlingly elliptical. Take, for example, the paragraph devoted to Kurt Vonnegut. It is in the section on prisoners of war in the “Soldiers” chapter, which notes that the war had a total of 10 million P.O.W.’s, many of them never to return. The section ends with nine thumbnail biographies; No. 8 is Vonnegut:

“Kurt Vonnegut (born 1922), a scout of the U.S. 106th Infantry Division, was captured in December 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge, and as a P.O.W. witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden. A well-known writer, he is the author of the semiautobiographical ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ (1969). He succeeded Isaac Asimov as president of the American Humanist Association.”

One truly wonders to whom this information is directed. Surely English-speaking readers of this book will have heard of Vonnegut (they probably also know that he died several months ago), and many will have read “Slaughterhouse-Five.” The last sentence gives us a fact we may not have known — but is it worth knowing?

High Cotton: Four Seasons in the Mississippi Delta, by Gerard Helferich. So far as reviewer Dale Maharidge is concerned, this would have been a dandy book if the author had struck out on unknown territory instead of basing his account on the experience of his wife's first cousin.

Next time he sits down to write a book, Helferich should type the word “risk” into his computer in 144-point font, hit print and tape it to a wall near his desk to be constantly reminded that one must take it if there is to be any hope for success.

Satan's Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption, and New York's Trial of the Century, by Mike Dash. The lamentable subtitle refers to the only instance in which an American policeman has been sentenced to death - Lt Charley Becker remains the only American policeman to be sentenced to death, and in what appears to have been a frightful miscarriage of justice. Vincent Patrick's storytelling review can't be bothered to judge the quality of Mr Dash's book.

Bobby and J Edgar: The Historic Face-Off Between the Kennedys and J Edgar Hoover That Transformed America, by Burton Hersh. According to David Corn's review, this is a somewhat overheated review of a well-known feud, one that Mr Corn summarizes as between subversion (Hoover's fear) and corruption (Kennedy's). Sadly, "when the book reaches Nov 22, 1963, ... it truly jumps the rails, with wild assertions about wacky claims by later President Ford about "mob crossfire." I wish I could believe that something in here "transformed America."

No

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

Cheap Diamonds, by Norris Church Mailer. Alex Kuczynski manages to gush over this potboiler without ever offering substantial evidence for the following assertion:

For all these quibbles — the overwrought plot, the thin characters, the clumsily inserted cameos of Viva, Vreeland, Andy Warhol and Richard Avedon — it is impossible not to admire Mailer, who is also a painter of some accomplishment. I imagine it is maddeningly difficult to finish a book when you are stepmother to seven children, no matter how old they are, and have two of your own, and happen to have been married for three decades to possibly the country’s most famous (as well as arguably the most bombastic, grumpiest and most ill-tempered) living author. It’s so brave, in fact, it’s almost pathological.

Oh, I see. This is an extra-credit project, squeezed in among the stepchildren and Norman's breakfast tray. Silly me.

The Scandal of the Season, by Sophie Fee. Gideon Lewis-Kraus cannot hide the fact that this opportunistic bar of soap would never find its way into the Book Review if Alexander Pope were not a character.

World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism, by Norman Podhoretz; and The Iranian Time Bomb: The Mullah Zealots' Quest for Destruction, by Michael A Ledeen. The only good thing to be said about these manifestly silly books is that they have elicited intelligent criticism from Peter Beinart, a reformed Iraq hawk. On Podhoretz:

The most astonishing part of “World War IV” is Podhoretz’s incessant use of violent imagery to describe American politics. Critics of the Iraq war represent a “domestic insurgency” with a “life-and-death stake” in America’s defeat. And their dispute with the president’s supporters represents “a war of ideas on the home front.” “In its own way,” Podhoretz declares, “this war of ideas is no less bloody than the one being fought by our troops in the Middle East.”

No less bloody? That’s good to know. Next time I talk to my sister-in-law, an emergency medicine doctor serving at Camp Taji, north of Baghdad, I’ll tell her we have it just as rough here at home. Norman Podhoretz is practically dodging I.E.D.’s on his way to Zabar’s.

On Ledeen:

There are two well-known arguments against Ledeen’s position. The first — made by, among others, the journalist Laura Secor after extensive interviews with Iranian dissidents — is that American support for regime change would backfire, by allowing Tehran to paint the dissidents as American tools. Incredibly, Ledeen never addresses this. He says that antigovernment Iranians differ over whether America should help them “openly or secretly,” but skips the larger question of whether they want American help at all. The closest he comes is an acknowledgment that on a recent trip to the West, the famed Iranian human rights activist Akbar Ganji opposed “American pressure on the mullahs.” Ledeen explains this by hypothesizing that Ganji must have had his spirit broken in jail, a slander for which he provides no evidence.

The second argument against regime change is that even if it succeeds, a democratic Iran will still want the bomb. (After all, Iran’s nuclear program has already survived one ideological revolution; it began under the shah.) Ledeen states that “lots of people say ... the Iranian people really want their government to have nuclear weapons — but there is no reliable polling data to support it.” That’s it. After that, he simply drops the subject.

Mr Podhoretz's screeds, in my view, come dangerously close to the mad behavior of lunatics who cry "Fire!" in crowded places. One has had quite enough of him and his brood; the man ought to be silenced.

Hard Call: Great Decisions and the Extraordinary People Who Made Them, by John McCain. Any doubt that this book just might belong in the pages of the Book Review is soundly squelched by Jacob Heilbrunn's concluding observation:

In essence, McCain depicts only the upside of history and great men. For all his emphasis on honor and nobility of character, he never confronts the fact that the Bush administration has systematically debauched those virtues in its contorted efforts to battle terrorism. The most that McCain volunteers about the Iraq war is the mild observation that “the political and military mistakes we have made in Iraq offer a variety of examples of insufficient awareness.” But the Bush administration was repeatedly warned about the risks ahead of time and cavalierly chose to believe in its own version of reality. McCain, though, refuses to make that easy call. The real value of McCain’s book, then, may be that it reveals why he is unlikely to win the presidency.

Far Afield: A Sportswriting Odyssey, by S L Price. Gordon Marino's review does not even attempt to suggest that this is a title for the Book Review.

Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding, by Scott Weidensaul. Reviewer John Wilson, a confessed birder himself, writes of this book,

Weidensaul, a federally licensed bird bander and the author of a number of previous books, writes with the ease of someone who is confident that the story he’s recounting will hold our attention. A few of the men and women in his portrait gallery will be familiar even to many casual birders — the pioneering naturalist William Bartram, the great bird painter and self-promoter John James Audubon and, in the 20th century, Roger Tory Peterson, whose field guides made the specialized knowledge of ornithologists accessible to amateurs as never before. Many others are not so well known.

Such a book has no place in the Book Review. Send it to Sports.

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