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Reviewing the Book Review

Bring Us Apart

11 May 2008

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

This week's is easily the strongest edition of the Book Review that I have covered in the three-odd years that I've been assessing it. With its fourteen titles divided between three Yeses and eleven Maybes, there is nothing to complain about, and much to admire. George Will, Kathryn Harrison, and David Leavitt write as People of Letters, not book reviewers; their objections are sympathetically postured. It's a pleasure to take my hat off to the editors.

Rachel Donadio's Essay, "1958: The War of the Intellectuals," reminds me, and will acquaint younger readers, with the different grain of hipness in Late Fifties America. The Intellectuals thought that the Beats weren't serious, but they found them more tolerable than "middlebrow" culture — a term that has less bearing every year. Critical reception of James Gould Cozzens's best-seller, By Love Possessed — a novel that I have enjoyed twice, the first time only eleven years after the book came out — gives Ms Donadio a handle on the current of the time.

What she doesn't address, perhaps because she is not old enough, is a question that presses upon me more and more: were we better or worse off in those days of worrying about being taken seriously? And how do we reconcile the generally-remembered impression that the Fifties were sleepy years with the anxiety so manifest in its attitudes and artifacts?


The following titles belong on your bookshelf.

Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shiite Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq, by Patrick Cockburn. James Glanz's admiring review suggests that this is prerequisite reading for anyone who tends to hold forth on our Iraqi misadventure.

But “Muqtada” will immediately become one of a small handful of books that are required reading for anyone who wants to unravel the meaning of events in Iraq five years into the war. To take one example: For Prime Minister Maliki, one positive outcome of his inconclusive assault on the Mahdi Army in Basra is that the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a crucial part of his coalition that is led by another noted Shiite family, the Hakims, has warmed to him considerably after years of regarding him warily.

That isolated fact means little until you know that during years of exile in Tehran, Damascus and elsewhere, the Hakims continually accused Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr of being a collaborator with the Hussein regime. The rivalry between the Hakims and the Sadrs has never died, and in Iraq it won’t soon be forgotten. The prime minister may have depicted the operation in Basra as purely a matter of clearing armed bandits from the streets. But the fact remains that whoever those gunmen were, they withdrew only when Moktada ordered them to.

By the way, it seems to me that if Westerners can agree on the Romanization of Chinese ideograms, they ought to be able to do the same for an alphabetic language such as Arabic.

The Post-American World, by Fareed Zakaria. Josef Joffe spends perhaps too much of his largely sympathetic review arguing with the author about the challenge that China and India pose to the United States, but he does so in the spirit of constructive debate, not destructive sniping.

The United States, too, has acted the bully in recent years, and it has paid dearly. Still, why does it retain “considerable ability to set the agenda,” to quote Zakaria? How can it muster the convening power that brings 80 nations to Annapolis? The short answer (mine) is: America remains the “default power”; others may fear it, but who else will take care of global business? Maybe it takes a liberal, seafaring empire, as opposed to the Russian or the Habsburg, to temper power and self-interest with responsibility for the rest.

And maybe it takes a Bombay-born immigrant like Zakaria, who went from Yale to Harvard (where we were colleagues) and to the top of Newsweek International, to remind this faltering giant of its unique and enduring strengths. America will be in trouble only when China becomes home to tomorrow’s hungry masses yearning to be free — and to make it.

Given his conclusion, it might have been more useful of Mr Joffe to discuss the peril of our current immigration impolicy.

Havanas in Camelot: Personal Essays, by William Styron. David Leavitt's sympathetic appreciation of the late novelist's outlook makes a compelling case for adding this collection to any shelf of American belles-lettres. The review's favorable tone survives a sharp but apt criticism that Mr Leavitt makes in just the right place.

Here Styron is referring, of course, to Giovanni’s Room, whose narrator is white (as Baldwin was not) and gay (as Baldwin was). Oddly, though, Styron never mentions Baldwin’s homosexuality. Is this elision symptomatic of that notorious intolerance by omission that so often characterized the attitude of ’60s “sexual revolutionaries” toward male homosexuality, and that was all the more pernicious for its resistance to exposure? Such a conclusion is difficult to avoid, especially when one considers the posture Styron takes in his essays on syphilis and censorship — that of an ardent advocate of sexual liberation and freedom of expression.


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

Peace, by Richard Bausch. Ben McIntyre seems to like this novel; he certainly storytells with relish. Just when you expect him to crown his review with some explicit praise, however, he pulls up short:

Bausch’s war is real, but his characterization of the warriors is less assured, sometimes veering close to stereotype: Joyner, the brash teenager from the Michigan sheep farm, with the foul mouth, the barely suppressed racism and the sturdy heart; Asch, the tender Jewish boy with chubby cheeks; Marson himself, a former star athlete and Roman Catholic self-interrogator, trying to keep command, trying to pray.

The members of this typecast crew stagger grimly over a frozen mountainside on night patrol ...

This complaint about typecasting seems odd, because from the nature of the tale that Mr McIntyre relates, a bit of typecasting would seem to be appropriate if not inevitable.

The Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich. Bruce Barcott's review exhales a fatigue with this much-loved author's fiction, but even the negatives are usefully revealing.

One of the risks of Erdrich’s multiple-narrator structure is that sometimes a narrator comes along who blows the rest of them off the page — and makes a reader wonder why on earth we’d ever return to those bores. Marn Wolde’s story, which chronicles the rise and fall of Billy Peace (young Corwin’s uncle), a charismatic cult leader, is a tour de force of sly comedy. As Billy’s wife, Marn finds herself trapped on his Branch Davidian-style compound with hilariously commonplace concerns about her bright young daughter, Lilith. “I thought she was terribly intelligent,” Marn says, “but there was no outside testing.” When Marn exited the novel, I felt like calling after her, “For the love of God, don’t leave now!”

Fall of Frost, by Brian Hall. I couldn't tell what Jonathan Miles thinks of this novel (which he compares, not unfavorably, to Michael Ontdaatje's Coming Through Slaughter), but he describes it so clearly and quotes so abundantly that I felt able to form an opinion.

The book is billed as a novel, but this is only because it is speculative rather than veritable; it is more properly classified a vie romancée, a bio enhanced with the loosey-goosey methods of fiction. Variations on this form have become increasingly fashionable in recent years — so fashionable, in fact, that two fictional portraits of Henry James alone were published in 2004, with another trailing along the next year. Like James, an inert and reputedly celibate Victorian, Frost seems from the outset an unlikely protagonist for fiction.

The Ten Year Nap, by Meg Wolitzer. Penelope Green's (appropriately) tart review stops short of being unfavorable; it seeks, successfully, to place the novel in front of the right readers.

As in earlier novels like “The Wife” and “This Is Your Life,” Meg Wolitzer presents a taxonomy of the subspecies known as the urban female. Lavishly educated and ruefully self-aware, the women in “The Ten-Year Nap” are never quite at the top of their game, time and success having passed them by — because of their gender, weak ambition, middling talent or some combination thereof. Amy and her friends aren’t total losers, they’re just not big technicolor winners. Caught between the second and third waves of feminism, they’ve created lives — as daughters do — in opposition to those of their mothers.

All this could make for a dreary soup, except that it’s a Wolitzer novel, so it’s very entertaining. The tartly funny Wolitzer is a miniaturist who can nail a contemporary type, scene or artifact with deadeye accuracy.

The Story of a Marriage, by Andrew Sean Greer. Maggie Scarf admires this book, but she might have quoted it more substantially in lieu of storytelling. Readers will probably find her judgment useful.

The Story of a Marriage is pervaded by a brooding, secretive air. Pearlie, it becomes clear, is a withholding narrator; she has her own silences. Greer’s rich prose is filled with Poe-like symbols (there’s even a sinister bird) as well as sudden, terrifying illuminations and semi-surreal encounters, many of which take place in a hellish amusement park. (One of its rides is even called “Limbo.”) Like the envied, threatened lovers in Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee,” Holland and Pearlie live in a windswept “kingdom by the sea.”

A timeless story of conflicting loyalties, The Story of a Marriage has roots in the fiction of Poe’s era, but, fittingly enough, its plot is firmly anchored in the vividly described America of the early 1950s — a seemingly serene era whose submerged social, racial and political tensions would soon create their own disruptions and upheavals.

Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, by Rick Perlstein. George Will believes that Mr Perlstein, who was born during Nixon's first term, fails to prove his thesis about a divided America, but he does so with such patience, with so many quotations, and with no gratuitous pokes, that the reader can see past him and make an independent judgment. This is partisan book reviewing (of which I am not a fan) at its best.

“How did Nixonland end?” Perlstein asks in the book’s last line. “It has not ended yet.” But almost every page of Perlstein’s book illustrates the sharp contrast rather than a continuity with America today. It almost seems as though Perlstein, who was born in 1969, is reluctant to let go of the excitement he has experienced secondhand through the archives he has ransacked to such riveting effect.

“We Americans,” he says, “are not killing or trying to kill one another anymore for reasons of ideology, or at least for now. Remember this: This war has ratcheted down considerably. But it still simmers on.”

Not really. America has long since gone off the boil. The nation portrayed in Perlstein’s compulsively readable chronicle, the America of Spiro Agnew inciting “positive polarization” and the New Left laboring to “heighten the contradictions,” is long gone.

The Bishop's Daughter: A Memoir, by Honor Moore. Kathryn Harrison quibbles almost endlessly with this book, but it still comes across as a strong read about a very interesting man, Paul Moore, the bisexual Episcopal bishop of New York. Here is the review's last paragraph:

“If only they knew the truth,” Paul Moore said in his daughter’s therapist’s office, “thinking of people who praised his life,” “his body moving in large waves of sobbing.” “It is inconceivable,” Hawthorne wrote of Dimmesdale, “the agony with which this public veneration tortured him!” The remarkable and loving accomplishment of “The Bishop’s Daughter” is that in revealing Paul Moore as he could never disclose himself, in showing him humbled and suffering, Honor Moore does not diminish but enlarges him.

Blood Matters: From Inherited Illness to Designer Babies, How the World and I Found Ourselves in the Fugure of the Gene, by Masha Gessen. Jennifer Senior concisely states this book, part memoir (of living with BRCA1) and part report, about hard choices:

Our culture doesn’t yet have the infrastructure — educational, medical, moral, the whole shebang — to handle the consequences of the recent revolution in genetic testing. But we’ll need it, and Gessen, though drafted into this project against her will, is helping to do the crucial spadework to build it. As she points out, the nascent rules of the new cancer caste to which she belongs “are an approximation, albeit a very crude one, of the rules by which my daughter’s generation will run its life.”

Twenty Chickens For a Saddle: The Story of an African Childhood, by Robyn Scott. Marcus Mabry's disappointment with this book does not obscure strengths that will appeal to readers more interested in Africa than in introspection.

Like Scott, I wrote my memoir in my 20s, and I know from experience that when she writes the next edition of “Twenty Chickens for a Saddle,” 20 years from now, she may well add some of the emotional complexity this first edition lacks.

Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form, by Helen Vendler. David Orr admires Professor Vendler's stewardship of poetry, but he is not blinded to her foibles, which he handles, however, with such careful cogency that this study, although not "as strong as it could be," emerges as a solid achievement — although not one for beginners. so carefully

The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal, by Lily Koppel. The story behind this book is one that curious dream about: rooting through ancient discards, a young woman comes across the diary of another young woman — kept decades ago. Alana Newhouse's sympathetic review indicates that Ms Koppel's book lives up to the story's potential.

Although Koppel never says this outright, the diary seems to adjust her perspective — and her reporting. She studies with an 83-year-old Japanese painter and sensei, rummages through the Bouvier Beales’ attic at Grey Gardens and visits the last typewriter store in Manhattan. The journey leads Koppel right where she wants to be. In the end, “The Red Leather Diary” is a story about not one but two lovable characters — and the city that brought them together.

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