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Reviewing the Book Review

War Plans

13 April 2008

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

A shortish, woolly-feeling issue — only fourteen titles, half of them Maybes. At the same time, two Yeses and no Noes. If I were to sum it up, I'd say that everybody might have worked a little harder.

Stephen Koch's Essay, "The Playboy Was a Spy," appears to be a coda to the recent publication of Noël Coward's letters. The unstated thrust of the piece seems to be that Churchill was too homophobic to allow Coward to serve more extensively.


The following titles belong on your bookshelf.

Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century, by Philip Bobbitt. Niall Ferguson gives this book a lucid and emphatically favorable review.  

To summarize: Bobbitt believes that there is a real war against terror; that civil liberties as previously understood may need to be curtailed to win it; that we must nevertheless fight it without violating our commitment to the rule of law; and that the United States cannot win it alone. This is certainly not a combination of positions calculated to endear Bobbitt either to the left or the right in the United States today.

Yet it is striking that, despite being a Democrat, Philip Bobbitt so often echoes the arguments made by John McCain on foreign policy. He sees the terrorist threat as deadly serious. He is willing to fight it. But he wants to fight it within the law, and with our traditional allies.

Right of the Dial: The Rise of Clear Channel and the Fall of Commercial Radio, by Alec Foege. Although Jacques Steinberg is not entirely happy with Mr Foege's prose style, he hails this account of the growth of Clear Channel's portfolio — from 43 radio stations in 1995 to over 1200 by 2001 — as a "noble" effort, with an important and "unnerving" story to tell. 


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

The Finder, by Colin Harrison. In an interesting expression of modern aesthetics, reviewer Pete Hamill, who generally likes this dark crime thriller, even though, as he complains, there's no one to root for, remarks on "one 10-page stretch of explosition that stops the narrative cold.

And yet Harrison has little choice. The subject of his discourse is essential to understanding the novel, and it is almost impossible to dramatize. Balzac and Zola often did the same; Raymond Chandler and Ian Fleming did not.

The implication that Chandler and Fleming are superior, as novelists, to Balzac and Zola is intriguing. In the context of Mr Hamill's thoughtfully helpful review, it also tells the informed reader a great deal about what to expect.

The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments, by George Johnson. Peter Dizikes warns that Mr Johnson's "list is eclectic and his outlook romantic," but he calls this "an appealing account of important scientific discoveries." 

Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the  Birth of Religious Freedom in America, by Steven Waldman. Richard Brookhiser likes this book and conveys his enthusiasm in a persuasive review.

Waldman’s conclusion is that “the Founding Faith ... was not Christianity, and it was not secularism. It was religious liberty — a revolutionary formula for promoting faith by leaving it alone.” There is a certain amount of modern sales pitch in Waldman’s revolutionary formula: Religious right! Nouvelle atheists! A pox on both their houses! But he adduces a mass of evidence to support it.

Head Cases: Stories of Brain Injury and Its Aftermath, by Michael Paul Mason. Mary Roach is careful to present this book as an antidote to the work of Oliver Saks.

But Mason performs a valuable service by calling attention to the plight of the brain injured. From reading Oliver Sacks, I had come to think of neurological dysfunction as an almost fanciful affliction, its victims like characters in a work of magical realism. Mason has provided a needed, and sobering, account of reality.

Ms Roach's list of the book's faults is clear and dry, and unlikely to dissuade any interested reader.

A Blue Hand: The Beats in India, by Deborah Baker. Celia McGee's drily favorable review waits until the last paragraph to make it clear that this book is about a clutch of famous personalities, and not about their writing, but better late than never.

Mysteriously missing from a book that is in some senses a literary exploration, though, is much of any of these writers’ writing. It’s been said, of course, that Ginsberg’s genius, and to a degree that of the Beats in general, was more in the life than in the work. Baker’s book reflects that sentiment.


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

The Rain Before It Falls, by Jonathan Coe. Erica Wagner's iffy review is more lucid than her standard offering, but just as prone to unhelpful storytelling. Unimpressed readers never do a good job of summarizing stories; they accentuate (and so exaggerate) what they dislike. parts that they dislike. 

All The Sad Young Literary Men, by Keith Gessen. Andrew O'Hagan's review has a duplicitous sheen; without ever saying anything very unpleasant about this novel by the editor of the voguish n + 1, he makes it sound quite ridiculous. Here are two somewhat indirect quips that show the reviewer being nice

Literary editors who write novels are like princesses who get involved in the manufacture of tiaras: they want a piece of the action, sure, but also they must want to play a more invigorating part in creating the dazzle that defines them.

Stories of people’s struggles with boredom are always boring, and the novel flags somewhat at this point.

And here's the last line:

There must, after all, be a way of life in which literary young men are not enslaved to the sad business of always having to do better than “the people they went to college with.”

If I were Mr O'Hagan, I wouldn't bother submitting anything to a certain literary magazine anytime soon.

Trauma, by Patrick McGrath. Sven Birkerts's distantly favorable review is a classic example of what happens when the critic appraises a story, and not the author's handling of it. Passages of storytelling alternate with a stream of unsupported statements. Mr Birkerts seems to expect that Mr McGrath's reputation will precede him, and so take care of the reviewer's job.

The Devil's Footprints, by John Burnside. Neil Gordon begs to correct this book's dust-jacket, and to compare Mr Burnside not to Stephen King but to Stewart O'Nan — the author's references are more literary than masscult. But then he faults the book for being "limited." The result is a muddle.

While this paucity of fictional invention may indeed reflect Michael’s mental limitations, it makes it hard to care about his odd life or even to be shocked by it. The Devil’s Footprints may be impressive in its technical ambition, but it delivers something less than the ambiguous, complex world one would have expected from a writer of Burnside’s accomplishment.

The Monsters of Templeton, by Lauren Groff. Charles Taylor's review fits an unhappily familiar pattern, striking a positive, even slightly awestruck note at the outset, only to slide into general dissatisfaction. We go from this:

If Groff had delivered all this homesick study and rumination over cherished tall tales in maximalist prose, “The Monsters of Templeton” might have been insufferable. It isn’t. ... And she pulls off surprisingly much of it without making us cry Uncas.

to this:

In the end, all of Groff’s parodies and pastiches cannot disguise that she’s written a very simple tale of homecoming and reconciliation. Her talent appears to be simpler and more openly emotional than she acknowledges. Though she throws in ending after ending, Groff also ties things together quite nicely; if what had preceded these multiple endings had been less showy, you could even say satisfyingly. In Steve Erickson’s recent novel Zeroville, a film editor describes his job as freeing the true movie from the false one in which it is imprisoned. That’s the work that hasn’t been done on The Monsters of Templeton.

"Socialism Is Great!": A Worker's Memoir of the New China, by Lijia Zhang. In his rather maddening review, Joseph Kahn tells us many interesting things about the author and her memoir (Ms Zhang taught herself English from such handbooks as Jane Eyre), but he never comes out with anything that could be taken as a judgment of the book. His last line is inappropriately trivializing:

Zhang now works as a journalist in Beijing. She seems to suggest that in the 1980s, Chinese politics had evolved enough that they could be a quixotic diversion for a restless and headstrong girl.

The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation, by Philip Shenon. At the beginning of his generally favorable but somewhat murky review, Jacob Heilbrun launches a topic sentence that he never really argues.

America’s intelligence services may try to work in secret, but they are increasingly being exposed to public scrutiny. After the 9/11 Commission chronicled their shortcomings in its best-selling 2004 report, the Bush administration and Congress backed sweeping reforms. But as accounts appear about fresh lapses, it doesn’t seem that much has changed. The surprising thing doesn’t seem to be when things go wrong, but when they go right.

The Commission, by Philip Shenon, helps to show why this is the case.

Instead of showing how this is the case, Mr Heilbrunn storytells Mr Shenon's account of backstage maneuvering at the Commission. It makes for discouraging reading, and will hardly, I expect, inspire many readers to purchase this book. 

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