Reading Matter
Books On the Side
Books In Brief

Reviewing the Book Review

Born Again

4 May 2008

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

Having perused the four reviews of Chinese novels in this week's issue, it occurs to me that the editors ought to assign non-Anglophone books to readers fluent in both English and the language of the original. This would not only improve reviewers' assessments of translations but, what's more important by far, present novels in their native contexts. Only a dolt would routine demand that French novels ripple with the strengths of the English novels — or display their foibles, either. Chinese literature, available to far few English-speaking readers, issues from a culture that has become only superficially familiar — and that only recently.

Provincial as the United States regrettably is about foreign languages, the editors of the Book Review ought to have no trouble find thoughtful and appreciative bilingual reviewers in every language whose literature is robust.

Aventurina King's Essay, "China's Pop Fiction," is mostly about a very young pulpmeister named Guo Jingming. The subject is not literature but marketing. Although toned for readers of The New York Times, the essay's contents belong in something like People.

New Chinese Fiction

Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, by Mo Yan (translated by Howard Goldblatt). Eminent Sinologue Jonathan Spence gives this panoramic novel about China, with aspects that might seem magic-realist if they were not so fundamentally Chinese, an enthusiastic review. Without overdoing the storytelling, Mr Spence presents the book in a readily-intelligible cultural context. He concludes on a note of optimism about Chinese fiction.

It seems that novels in China are coming into their own, that new freedoms of expression are being claimed by their authors. Mao has become a handy villain. One wonders how much longer his successors will be immune from similar treatment.

It's a pity that Liesl Schillinger and Pankaj Mishra don't approach their books with Mr Spence's understanding. 

The Song of Everlasting Sorrow: A Novel of Shanghai, by Wong Anyi (translated by Michael Berry and Susan Chang Egan). Francine Prose's warmly favorable review implicitly argues that there need be nothing inferior about the novel of character, even without character development, if it is undertaken by a capable writer.

Ultimately, it is Wang Qiyao who suffers the most and changes the least. And it is Wang Anyi’s complex and penetrating portrayal of her heroine that best displays her gifts as a novelist. Michael Berry and Susan Chang Egan’s graceful translation, only rarely marred by jarring Americanisms (“grunt work,” “deal breaker”), helps us understand why Wang Anyi is one of the most critically acclaimed writers in the Chinese-speaking world.

Though we are told what Wang Anyi’s heroine is thinking and feeling at almost every moment, her essential qualities become apparent to us — if not to her — only as we observe the patterns that reappear throughout her life. She compulsively or inadvertently places herself at the apex of triangulated relationships and fails to see the pain she causes in the process. Resourceful and essentially decent, she is nonetheless unable to fully comprehend the intensity of other people’s emotions.

Wang Qiyao may not ripen as well as Emma Bovary has done, but Ms Prose's review invites an appetizing comparison.

Serve the People!, by Yang Lianke (translated by Julia Lovell). Liesl Schillinger's review, which makes an explicit comparative references to Fielding's Joseph Andrews as well as to Madame Bovary, is not as helpful as that of Ms Prose.

Can fiction be graded on a curve? Are there extenuating factors that ought to be brought to bear? This book is a chapter from living history that the world beyond China is only lately beginning to glimpse. Even now, the window is not fully open, nor is it sure that, if pushed up, the window could be propped ajar. Wu and Liu’s dalliance sometimes reminds the reader (a bit) of Emma Bovary and Rodolphe, playacting at obsession until their game, by accident, turns serious. At other times, Liu’s persistent advances and Wu’s conscience-stricken refusals recall the buffoonery of Henry Fielding’s “Joseph Andrews,” in which the title character, a handsome, virtuous young footman, resists the indelicate overtures of his employer — that proto-cougar, Lady Booby. Writing in the permissive 18th century, his path paved by the drollery of Restoration comedy, Fielding mined this subject for every dram of comic potential. But Yan, writing roughly two and a half centuries later, is more guarded: not quite comic, not quite tragic, more earnest than uproarious in tone. His story is memorable and strange, but it feels particular, not universal.

Patronizing talk of grading on a curve, and all but holding a Chinese writer responsible for lacking a very peculiar Western tradition, are unworthy of Ms Schillinger.

Wolf Totem, by Jiang Rong ([also] translated by Howard Goldblatt). Pankaj Mishra's knowledgable review is so flatly unsympathetic that readers and writer will be joined only by regret. Holding the book up to Western standards, Mr Mishra finds it wanting in every way before finally acknowledging that a book that has been wildly successful in China might have something going for it.

It’s even more remarkable that a novel so relentlessly gloomy and ponderously didactic has become a huge best seller, second in circulation only to Mao’s little red book. This success may be due, at least in part, to its exhortations to the Chinese to imitate the go-getting spirit of the West. However, “Wolf Totem” also captures a widespread Chinese anxiety about their country’s growing physical and moral squalor as millions abandon the countryside in search of a middle-class lifestyle that cannot be environmentally sustained. The novel’s literary claims are shaky; and Jiang Rong’s apparent wish to transform China’s national character through a benign conservationism is compromised by his boy-scoutish arguments for toughness. Yet few books about today’s China can match “Wolf Totem” as a guide to the troubled self-images of so many of its people as they stumble, grappling with some inconvenient truths of their own, into modernity.


The following titles belong on your bookshelf.

Armageddon in Retrospect: And Other New and Unpublished Writings on War and Peace, by Kurt Vonnegut. Roy Blount, Jr doesn't like everything in this new posthumous collection, but some of it, he feels, is as good as anything that Vonnegut ever wrote.

Whenever anyone or anything dies in Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut repeats a refrain that has become famous: “So it goes.” In that trope (but not, I think, in the earlier “but not me”) there is more manner than madness. The same has been said, justly, of Vonnegut’s later fiction and essays.

But let us now set “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets,” and the young man’s aforementioned letter home, and the son’s introduction, and the old man’s last speech next to the rest of Vonnegut’s work. With all that we can begin to appreciate — in its grimness, crankiness and confusion, its conflicted flirting with an increasingly adoring audience, its lapses into juvenility — a terrific post-traumatic witnessing.


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

Attachment, by Isabel Fonseca. Helen Schulman is frank about faults that she expects some readers to find with this novel about ageing hispters, but her sympathetic understanding will be helpful to readers who find themselves intrigued. 

But if this book is a bit untidy, in terms of classic novel structure, so is midlife. And one suspects that this, indeed, is Fonseca’s point. So what if some of the plotlines not only stay unsatisfyingly open, but feel even in the very last chapter as if they were just getting started? Resolution is for a later stage of life (if we’re lucky). Fonseca’s cast is a bumbling crew of affectionate and selfish pleasure seekers, full of battered egos and insatiable needs — we may not always admire them, but they sure are interesting to watch. Like the Eliot Spitzers of the world, Mark and Jean are sophisticated, educated, childish, unwise; even under the gun, they can’t help being themselves. In one of the book’s few true confrontations, Mark (described as looking “stung, hurt, radically aged”) gropes for something to latch onto, however pathetic:

The Mayor's Tongue, by Nathaniel Rich. Reviewer Sophie Gee does pretty much the same thing as Ms Schulman, and provides a useful review. Noting that Mr Rich's "characters and their relationships feel as though they might have been more at home in short fiction," she winds up compellingly:

When characters finally reach their journeys’ ends, they find themselves trapped, not released. A literary debut about the power of telling stories concludes as a fable about the imprisoning force of creativity. It’s hardly surprising: after a century of being worked and reworked, literary fiction is such a pressured, inbred genre that it usually does confine and constrain.

Yet when Rich writes of his characters, their affections, their impulses and failings, he writes generously and movingly, free of the constraint he describes at the end of the book. Surprising friendships, small intimacies of fidelity and kindness, large gestures of joy: “The Mayor’s Tongue” does all these so well, pointing the way to Nathaniel Rich’s promise as a fiction writer.

A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World, by Tom Horwitz. Andrew Ferguson seems to like this book, "an intenstive self-tutorial mixed with lots of reporting and running around," but he winces at the unpatriotic nature of the author's stabs at demythologizing, and he ends on a somewhat sour note.

Think how refreshing it would be for a writer of Horwitz’s gifts to approach the task of pop history from the opposite direction — not to pick apart a myth but to explain those elements within it that are, after all, true. The myth of the Pilgrims, for example, comes in many shapes and sizes, each containing a different portion of factual accuracy. But underlying them all is what was once understood to be a basic fact: these battered and luckless wanderers carried with them a set of peculiar principles that slowly unfolded into a spectacularly successful experiment in freedom, prosperity and human dignity, something unforeseen and without parallel in all history. If our best writers delight in attacking the myth, it’s probably because they no longer see this truth as self-evident.

1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War, by Benny Morris. David Margolick admires this book rather more than he likes it. Hailing Mr Morris's comprehensive, non- partisan analysis, he finds them less than easy to read.

Deep inside Morris’s book is an authoritative and fair-minded account of an epochal and volatile event. He has reconstructed that event with scrupulous exactitude. But despite its prodigious research and keen analysis, 1948 can be exasperatingly tedious. The battlefield accounts, dense with obscure place names and weapons inventories, are so unrelenting, and unrelentingly dry, that you are grateful for the full-page maps (which themselves are hard to follow). The narrative cries out for air and anecdote and color.

A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade, by Christopher Benfey. Laura Miller's unsympathetic review, largely disposable, is salvaged by a final paragraph that just begins to try to understand Mr Benfey's project.

It’s very pleasant to float alongside so curious and playful a writer as he drifts from one anecdote or observation to the next. God, who makes that early and daunting appearance as the hummingbird’s alter ego, doesn’t wind up coming into the story much. Instead, the narrative drops in on a series of interesting historical figures, from Stowe, always struggling to be more conventional than she really was, to Todd (who wrote in her journal, “What is there in me which so attracts men to me, young and old?”), to Beecher in all his folly, to Dickinson — fierce and enigmatic, an exotic genius disguised as a New England spinster. (There’s even a cameo appearance by Joseph Cornell.) We get snippets of Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s sumptuous nature writings and fine descriptions of Heade’s paintings, including his tropical studies of hummingbirds shimmering beside huge, voluptuous orchids. I suspect that by the end of this journey most readers will be diverted rather than persuaded, but so what? Few amusement park passengers complain about being let off exactly where they got on.

That snarky finish suggests a temperamental unsuitability on the part of the reviewer that the editors ought to guard against. Such dismissals accomplish nothing.

Who Do You Think You Are?: A Memoir, by Alyse Myers. In a very short — too short — space, Jennifer Gilmore makes this "pleasantly old-fashioned" backward glance at growing up working-class Queens sound surprisingly arresting. Here is the final paragraph:

Who Do You Think You Are? begins a week after her mother’s funeral, when she and her sisters are sorting through her apartment. Without telling them, Myers takes a precious box, which her mother had kept locked throughout the author’s childhood, refusing to reveal its contents. And yet she doesn’t open it for 12 years, not until she unlocks it with her own daughter. This painted wooden box provides the only tension in a story whose ending is predetermined, and I expected it to be empty, a reflection of the cold, austere woman who would never let her daughters have a look inside. But it’s not empty. In fact, it’s full to bursting, its contents providing the author — and the reader — with more answers than Myers’s own story could ever reveal.


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

The Lost Dog, by Michelle de Kretser. Alison McCulloch's generally sympathetic review faults this novel about the weeklong search for a dog in the Australian bush for being overly aphoristic.

This book’s insights are at times so thickly layered as to leave character, story and reader gasping for light and air. Which isn’t to say they’re necessarily bad insights. More often than not, de Kretser nails some situation or foible in 20 words or less.

Harry, Revised, by Mark Sarvas. When Troy Patterson winds up his inordinately unsympathetic review of this first novel with the following crack:

That you are reading a review of this novel in these pages is a testament to the author’s success as a blogger. Sarvas’s site, titled The Elegant Variation, has been remarking on the literary world for nearly five years...

the attentive reader might be forgiven for sensing that a hidden agenda has just been revealed. It's as though the editors would put Mr Sarvas's book among the Noes, if it didn't present the opportunity to announce to the world that the Blogosphere is still incapable of Real Literature. Mr Patterson's review is a most unbecoming bit of fun.

While America Aged: How Pension Debts Ruined General Motors, Stopped the NYC Subways, Bankrupted San Diego, and Loom as the Next Financial Crisis, by Roger Lowenstein. Although Jeff Madrick agrees that Mr Lowenstein's subject is a vital one, he makes it clear that the book is apoiled by a tendentious and unsubstantiated antipathy toward labor unions.  

From all this, however, Lowenstein draws a conclusion he does not prove. “The story of pensions is, in fact, largely the story of the slow accretion of power by the labor unions,” he concludes. But is it? The unions bear plenty of responsibility in the three stories he tells. But so does management. In each case, management deliberately underfunded its obligations.

Mr Madrick proceeds to contest the three claims of Mr Lowenstein's subtitle. 

Turtle Feet: The Making and Unmaking of a Buddhist Monk, but Nikolai Grozni. Amy Finnerty likes this book, but she gets so involved with storytelling that she fails to convey the written quality of a book that seems on its face to be written in a highly personal voice that might not be to every reader's taste.

The Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn, by Solomon Volkov (translated by Antonina W Bouis). Keith Gessen is so hostile to the premise of this book — things are better than ever on the cultural front in Russia, now that Communism has been defeated — that his review almost falls into incoherence. Mr Gessen agrees that Communism was a bad thing, but he sees a resurgence of cultural oppression that sounds to me as Russian as the Tsars. The review's final sentence comes close to self-cancellation.

Reading Volkov’s chatty, well-informed and in many ways enlightened book, you wonder whether he even suspects just how badly, how devastatingly, how possibly lastingly, he and his friends have lost.

Not very helpful.

Re-Make/Re-Model: Becoming Roxy Music, by Michael Bracewell. Ira Robbins's clearly disappointed review — where's the music, man? — doesn't make much sense of this heavy-going analysis of the various artistic influences that bloomed in the bands "wildly inventive 1972 debut album."

Anyone willing to trudge through 400-plus dense pages about abstruse concepts like “the taut, almost erotic relationship between product design and human physicality” might also hope to learn something about Roxy Music’s career, if not the group’s rock-star lives. Forget it: once the curtain is raised, the show is over. With no suggestion of a sequel, the story ends with the release of the band’s first album.

Permalink  Portico About this feature

Copyright (c) 2008 Pourover Press

Write to me