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Reviewing the Book Review

Blood and Guts

25 May 2008

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

The theme of this week's Book Review is dissatisfied reviewers. Anyone who reads each and every one of the reviews may be tempted, as I was, to invite the would-be critics to go out and write their own books.

Mike Meyer's Letter From Beijing, "Learning to Speak Olympics," is a droll account of the efforts of the good people of the Chinese capital to learn a bit of English in times for the Games.  

So just what are Chinese people learning about the English-speaking world? For starters, we’re moody sluts. A book called “Love English” teaches that “Do you want to go to a movie?” really means “I’d eventually like to have sex with you,” while “I’m bored” really means “Do you want to have sex?” The final entry in “50 Selected Love Letters Between United States Presidents and Their Beloved” is from Monica to Bill, and introduces the adjectives “disposable,” “used” and “insignificant."

At least they're trying, the Chinese.


The following titles belong on your bookshelf.

Sleeping It Off In Rapid City: Poems, New and Selected, by August Kleinzahler. Stephen Burt's warmly favorable review persuasively argues that Mr Kleinzahler's take on his principal material is faithfully sophisticated:

Kleinzahler’s poems of guyhood, like his poems of travel (they are often the same poems), make fun of the very qualities they admire: when they praise Shop-Rite Liquor, or envy the raw sex drive of a tomcat “grooving to a limbic tomtom,” they are kidding and they are not kidding at once. Many poets try to sound tough, or masculine, or self-conscious about manhood, and fail miserably: what qualities let Kleinzahler succeed? His eye, and his ear — he is, first and last, a craftsman, a maker of lines — but also his range of tones, and his self-restraint: he never says more than he should, rarely repeats himself and keeps his focus not on the man who speaks the poems (and whose personality comes across anyway) but on what that man sees and on what he can hear.

The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, by Steven Greenhouse. Robert H Frank's lucidly favorable review is, in addition to an enthusiastic endorsement of this book, perhaps the most genuinely optimistic evaluation of our overall economy that I have read in a long time.

The bad news is that in today’s hyper-competitive climate, the corporate sector is no longer able to administer the nation’s social safety net. Government is really the only alternative. The good news is that the American economy still has the largest G.D.P. in the world — much more than enough to support a high standard of living for shareholders, managers and workers alike.

As Greenhouse observes in his closing chapter, the components of an efficient social safety net are reasonably well understood. For instance, we could easily afford a single-payer health system like the one in France, which covers everyone and delivers better health care for about half the amount we now spend per capita. We could easily afford to supplement the American Social Security system, which transfers income from workers to retirees, by establishing a national retirement savings plan in which a portion of each worker’s wages was deposited in a tax-sheltered investment account, enabling families to take full advantage of the miracle of compound interest. We have ample resources to supplement lagging wages by raising the Earned Income Tax Credit, which Ronald Reagan called the most effective antipoverty program ever devised by Congress. And we could easily reduce the college-tuition burden on low-income families by expanding the existing program of Pell Grants.


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

The Lazarus Project, by Aleksandar Hemon. Cathleen Schine's ebullient review is infected by the liveliness of Mr Hemon's writing about even the grimmest subjects.

Some writers turn despair into humor as a way of making the world bearable, of discovering some glimmer of beauty or pleasure or, most important, humanity. In contrast, the gifted Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon has taken the formal structure of humor, the grammar of comedy, the rhythms and beats of a joke, and used them to reveal despair. His new novel, “The Lazarus Project,” is a remarkable, and remarkably entertaining, chronicle of loss and hopelessness and cruelty propelled by an eloquent, irritable existential unease. It is, against all odds, full of humor and full of jokes. It is, at the same time, inexpressibly sad.

Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres, by Ruth Brandon. Reviewer Susann Cokal would prefer a more disciplined, sociological survey of a profession that rose and fell within less than a century and a half — and which left few regrets. But if Ms Brandon writes as well as Ms Cokal suggests she does about lumiarny figures such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Claire Clairmont, her book would appear to be useful.

Standard Operating Procedure, by Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris. Raymond Bonner's largely favorable review succumbs, perhaps inevitably, to the temptation to storytell. Here, though, is the only negative thing that Mr Bonner has to say about Standard Operating Procedure:

The authors do themselves and their readers a disservice, however, by failing to provide detailed notes or an index. It is not always clear whether their information comes from the interviews, from the military investigations, from sworn court statements or even from other journalists. And recently Morris acknowledged that he paid some of the people he interviewed, without saying whom. Still, this is one of the most devastating of the many books on Iraq.

The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family, by Steve Coll. Christopher Caldwell's favorable review suggests that the power of this book lies in its contextualization not of a large family's black sheep but of the win-win ambivalence of that family's stake in the Arab economy. "Seven years' distance reveals a brutal reality: for both his family and his country Osama bin Laden's attacks turned a profit."

Rediscovering Jacob Riis: Exposure Journalism and Photography in Turn-of-the-Century New York, by Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitrom. Matthew Power's intelligent review shows the utility of this serious reconsideration of the "myth" of Jacob Riis — which is, apparently, that the writer and reformer was as interested in the abject human beings he photographed as he was horrified by their wretched living conditions.

Riis believed that defective character led to poverty and that conscience-driven capitalism was the best solution. Although he pitied them, his reform crusade “ascribed little or no role at all to tenement dwellers themselves,” Czitrom writes. This brand of noblesse oblige perhaps anticipated the public housing failures of Riis’s 20th-century admirer Robert Moses.


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

Black Flies, by Shannon Burke. Liesl Schillinger's review is enthusiasticlly favorable, but it fails to overcome its own suggestion that the power of this novel lies in its brutality.

Be warned: as in “Dispatches,” many of the most vivid scenes in “Black Flies” make for harrowing reading. Visceral and mercilessly detailed, they are not included for sensational purposes — not as an E.R. version of “war porn.” Instead, Burke uses them as shock treatment for the conscience, like the paddles that resuscitate a 12-year-old girl who has been electrocuted. “It was the most eerie, unnatural thing I’d ever witnessed,” says the medic who saves her. “I watched death recede from her.” For anyone who has flirted with fashionable jadedness or suffered disappointments that led to a sullen fascination with the darker side of human experience, Burke blows apart the pose.

The impression that I get from the review is that Black Flies is a kind of self-help book for recovering disaffected youth.

No Way Home: A Dancer's Journey From the Streets of Havana to the Stages of the World, by Carlos Acosta. This is not that book that reviewer Jennifer Balderama expected, and her disappointment color her review of "a ballet memoir that utlimately isn't much about ballet at all."

Flying High: Remembering Barry Goldwater, by William F Buckle, Jr; and Strictly Right: William F Buckley Jr and the American Conservative Movement, by Linda Bridges and John R Coyne Jr. Victor Navasky writes warmly about the camaradie that he felt for the late publisher of The National Review, but he says almost nothing substantive about Buckley's book about Goldwater, and he remarks of the Bridges and Coyne work that "No Buckley misdeed goes unextenuated." As Calvin Trilling might say, the review is wily.

U S vs Them: How a Half Century of Conservatism Has Undermined America's Security, by J Peter Scoblic. Nicholas Confessore's half-page review is manifestly too brief for a discussion of Mr Scoblic's thesis — if it has any merit. It is hard ot know what ot make of the following:

Scoblic argues convincingly that conservative foreign policy in the years since has increasingly undermined American security, most strikingly in the area of nuclear proliferation, where the Bush administration’s bellicosity has spurred a new arms race among nonnuclear powers. But the book is less satisfying when trying to account for the popularity of the “us versus them” mentality among rank-and-file voters, attributing the attitude to Americans’ innate tribalism and fear of death. And Scoblic, who himself believes that alliances and diplomacy magnify rather than sap American influence abroad, offers little guidance on how to show a still-skeptical public that liberal internationalism will offer more security, not less.

McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld, by Misha Glenny. Peter Robb's discontent with this book makes it very difficult to evaluate — exactly what a review ought not do. I find the following passage terminally bewildering:

Traveling through the global underworld and — with the splendid exception of Dubai — flying high over points where the licit and illicit economies meet, Glenny tends to forget that one man’s crime is another man’s legitimate business opportunity. The otherness of the criminal world is, of course, a premise of true crime books, offering readers both thrills and reassurance, but today’s crime is tomorrow’s history. A birth pang, perhaps, of democracy. The criminality in the oil and gas industries gets space in “McMafia,” but in the countries of the former Soviet Union rather than Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria or Angola. And like the rest of history, true crime is written by the winners. “McMafia” runs on the insight that money is a lot easier to move around than it used to be, but doesn’t consider how the first world’s financial systems are linked with the proceeds of the third world’s business horrors — the car bombs, the decapitations, the endless targeted killings, the flayings alive — it describes.

Panther Soup: Travels Through Europe in War and Peace, by John Gimlette. Craig R Whitney's very unfavorable review shifts between hostility and incoherence, and suggests at the outset that Mr Gimlette is inadquately serious:

Gimlette is a barrister in London who makes a sideline of books that are not so much travelogues as wittily written explorations of time, place and character.


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

Can't Remember What I Forgot: The Good News From the Front Lines of Memory Research, by Sue Halpern. Kyla Dunn's largely dissatisfied review makes it clear that this "valuable snapshot in time," although "likely to be forgotten," merits coverage in the Science and Health pages of the newspaper.

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