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Reviewing the Book Review

The Ashes

18 May 2008

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

This week's Book Review is as poor as last week's was excellent. Dwight Garner manages the unexpected trick of producing a thoroughly trivial rave in response to Joseph O'Neill's Netherland. If I didn't know better, I'd have classed this (by all accounts) important novel with the Maybes, and there are several other cases of reviews placed above their stations but below their subjects'. It is at least better to give good books shoddy reviews than to lavish good reviews on shoddy books.

David Shaftel's Essay, "An Island Scorned," concerns the prickly relationship between V S Naipaul and his homeland, Trinidad. It will be of interest to all readers of A House for Mr Biswas.


The following titles belong on your bookshelf.

That Little Something: Poems, by Charles Simic. Katha Pollitt's warmly enthusiastic review risks praising a collection of accessible, even memorable poems. And why not?, she persuades one to conclude.

Among contemporary poets, Simic, now 70, is not only one of the most prolific but also one of the most distinctive, accessible and enjoyable — the commonplace critique of contemporary poetry as dull, obscure and lacking in individuality definitely does not apply. He’s received every imaginable prize; he’s currently poet laureate. Just about the only thing critics complain of is that his style has shown relatively little development over the years. That’s true, although in the last decade or so his poems seem to me to have become shorter, simpler, less manic. But is it a fault to keep your style? If you’ve got a great thing going, why mess with it?

Why, indeed?

The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, by Bill Bishop with Robert G Cushing. Although Scott Stossel's favorable review is neither strong nor enthusiastic, the picture of a very important book emerges from its columns.

Over the last decade, as 100 million Americans have moved from one place to another, they’ve clustered in increasingly homogeneous communities. This is where The Big Sort, which grew out of a series of articles that Bishop, formerly a reporter at The Austin American-Statesman, wrote with Robert Cushing, a retired sociologist and statistician from the University of Texas, is both wonkiest and most original. Working with a team of collaborators (including Richard Florida, the author of “The Rise of the Creative Class”), Bishop and Cushing swam around in different sets of data — voting records; I.R.S. income figures; patent filings; poll numbers from advertising firms — to figure out how thoroughly, and in what ways, Americans had sorted themselves. Their conclusion: “By the turn of the 21st century, it seemed as though the country was separating in every way conceivable.”


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

Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill. There is no question in my mind that this book belongs among the Yeses; for one thing, I already have a copy. But Dwight Garner's review is so poor — so trite, so miscellaneous, and so prone to idle storytelling — that if had nothing else to go by, the book would appear to belong in the Maybes. Hence this compromise. Full of hot air, Mr Garner begins with a lot of (extremely premature) blather about "so-called 9/11 novels," only to pronounce that Netherland is "not that novel" — not the 9/11 novel. A fairly pointless point, given the context.

The Hakawati, by Rabih Alameddine. Lorraine Adams's review has not been given enough room to accommodate her interesting ideas about the placement of this book within the traditions of Arab literature. As a result, the following passage is both over-ambitious and unconvincing.

The result might have been experimental folderol, but Alameddine has a genius for the emotional hinges on which novels turn. We learn this during the earliest stages of the book, as the narrator worries about his father: “His laborious inhalations gurgled. Shallow breaths. He cracked feeble jokes. He tried to move, but just getting his arm to behave was arduous.” In a more predictable novel, the next tale might have been about the ailments of a venerable king. Instead we hear of a slave, her hand cut off by a demon, who embarks on a journey through the underworld in search of her missing extremity, departing with “no plan, no weapon and no energy to speak of.” The suffering of the narrator’s father has been transmogrified into a slave’s retrieval of her dignity. It suggests, without actually mentioning either, the journeys of Aeneas and Odysseus to the realms of the dead.

Wit's End, by Karen Joy Fowler. Liesl Schillinger's gently unfavorable review is not entirely unsympathetic, and this adequate if not great read will probably disappoint none of the review's readers who choose to take it on.

As she wanders a seaside arcade in Santa Cruz, Rima comes across a miniature golf course and remembers one of Addison’s books, a golfing murder called Below Par. The name of that mystery had been unfortunate, Addison later concluded. In interviews, she had joked to reporters, “Never title a book as if you were playing straight man to the reviewers.” With Wit’s End, Fowler perversely ignores her own counsel.

The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008, by Sean Wilentz. Although I remain unpersuaded by Douglas Brinkley's review of the virtues of Mr Wilentz's theses, it would appear that they're given clear and fair summation.

Assiduously avoiding stereotypical put-downs about Reagan’s intellect, Wilentz understands that a deep-seated fear of Armageddon wisely guided many presidential decisions during the 1980s. The mistake many pundits and scholars have made, he asserts, is tattooing a convenient label on Reagan’s forehead, like “conservative,” “hawkish” or “pro-business.” One understands the man better, Wilentz says, by exploring the power of optimism and nostalgia. Drawing on psychological assessments of Reagan by Lou Cannon, Garry Wills and Edmund Morris, he concludes that Reaganism was never a party or a faction or a movement — it was the persona of an old-fashioned Midwesterner enveloped in the mythic tenets of Main Streetism.

Kate Field: The Many Lives of a Nineteenth=Century American Journalist, by Gary Scharnhorst. Ben Downing handily sums up the pluses and minuses of this book's subject:

As Scharnhorst’s subtitle suggests, Field had many lives, but they were all outward. Nomadic, unreflective and, despite having turned some heads, probably a virgin to the end of her days, Field had no private or inner life to speak of — or at least none that can be recovered, and Scharnhorst was wise not to try. “I need a clear head to accomplish the work I must do in this world,” Field once stated, “and nothing so unfits a sensitive nature for mental exertion as emotional intensities.” Scharnhorst was also wise not to make big claims for Field’s writing. Her description of, say, Dickens unleashing “a sunlit shower of smiles and tears” may have melted readers in 1868 but hardly has the same effect in 2008. What continues to impress, however, is the woman’s sheer undeflectable force. Thomas Carlyle once labeled John Stuart Mill’s self-accounting “the autobiography of a steam engine.” In this book, Kate Field comes across as an equally well-oiled piece of human machinery.

The Return of History and the End of Dreams, by Robert Kagan. David E Sanger's favorable review failed to allay misgivings that this book, clearly intended as a (yet another) critique of Francis Fukuyama's The End of History is an extended white paper, worthwhile in substance but, at 116 pages, both too short and too long.

The Colfax Massacre: The Untold Story of Black Power, White Terror, and the Death of Reconstruction, by LeeAnna Keith; and The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction, by Charles Lane. Kevin Boyle's lucid review distinguishes the strengths of these books while making it clear that they're both strong; readers ought to have no trouble deciding which account of the consequences of one this country's very darkest days is more congenial.

Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching, by Paula J Giddings. Richard Lingeman is clearly more interested in Ms Giddings's subject than in her book, about which he has very little to say, beyond its being present "ably, if in occasionally numbing detail."

Only Love Can Break Your Heart, by David Samuels. Jascha Hoffman writes, at the end of his enthusiastic review of this collection of sketches of dodgy Americans,

Perhaps we should not be surprised, then, that the author pulls a similar disappearing-reappearing act in his introduction, announcing first that the collection will serve as “my final goodbye to the dying industry that has paid my bills,” then that “I will continue writing for magazines” because “I don’t know any other kind of life.”

It’s an appropriately elastic maneuver from a brilliant reporter who has made a career of observing “our national gift for self-delusion and for making ourselves up from scratch,” as he puts it, “which is much the same thing as believing in the future.”


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

The Third Angel, by Alice Hoffman. Polly Morrice's rather brief review contains little but the worst sort of storytelling. That little tends toward the incomprehensible:

For readers, sniffing out the parallels between the stories slightly obscures one of the pleasures of reverse narrative — its sense of inexorability, of every action tending toward a certain conclusion.

The Girl in the Fridge, by Etgar Keret (translated by Miriam Shlesinger and Sondra Silverston). Joseph Weisberg, writing that "many of the stories [in this collection] feel slight, believes that Mr Keret's later book, The Nimrod Flipout, is still the one to read. It is hard to tell what purpose Mr Weisberg thought his review might serve.

We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, by James Meek. Somewhere behind Alex Berenson's too-brief review, I sense an engaging novel, but it is very much through a glass, darkly. Mr Berenson seems preoccupied by comparing and contrasting the novel to the oeuvre of Tom Clancy. A perilous engagement.

Sitting Practice, by Caroline Adderson. In an equally too-short review (sharing the page with the previous entry), Jincy Willett tries to make a case for this novel about love and paraplegism but never overcomes the atmosphere of New-Age gimmick.

Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History, by Ted Sorensen. Jack Rosenthal's review of this memoir by the man who was almost JFK's alter ego is besotted by sentiment.

A highlight of the New Frontier was the June 26, 1963, speech in West Berlin in which Kennedy memorably declared, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Sorensen takes responsibility for incorrectly including the word “ein,” thus making the sentence mean “I am a jelly doughnut.” Nonetheless, the reverberating meaning was clear to the 250,000 other Berliners on hand.

The book offers other historical nuggets. Had J.F.K. won a second term, George Ball or McGeorge Bundy might well have replaced Dean Rusk as secretary of state. In 1962, Kennedy and Khrushchev made extensive plans for an internationally televised discussion, ultimately canceled at the last minute. Sorensen guesses that Kennedy might one day have become a university president, newspaper editor or, more tantalizing, “secretary of state in his brother Bobby’s administration.”

It is impossible to judge which of these "insights" is the most jejune.

Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, by Jeffrey D Sachs. Although Daniel Gross begins his review with the claim that this book could not appear "at a better time," he goes on to mount a series of quibbles that ends by quietly charging Dr Sachs with hypocrisy for having had three children (instead of 2.1). He quotes Dr Sachs as saying that "the very idea of competing nation-states that scramble for markets, power and resources will become passé," but nowhere suggests that when this comes to pass (as it is indeed in the course of doing) the emerging powers might be multinational corporations rather than both writers' preferred "one-worlders." It is hard to believe that Jeffrey Sachs is as naive as Mr Gross (inadvertently?) makes him out to be.

Please Excuse My Daughter, by Julie Klam. Ginia Bellafante writes,

So what is this cozy little affair, this tale without high highs or low lows, this memoir equivalent to a municipal bond? Klam’s book is an amiable one and yet still an account of affliction, the story of a young woman embarking on her New York adulthood plagued by the leprosy of the affluent, a paralyzing failure of ambition.

Considering this judgment, I wonder why this book should not be placed among the Noes.

Wallace Stegner and the American West, by Philip L Fradkin. Beyond calling this book "nicely timed to set the table for Stegner's centennial in 2009," review John Wilson ignores it, and simply writes about Stegner's life as if that were his subject.


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

Bringing Home the Birkin: My Life in Hot Pursuit of the World's Most Coveted Handbag, by Michael Tonello. This tale of eBay Platinum Power Selling sounds very interesting in an idle sort of way, but it clearly doesn't merit coverage in the Book Review.

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