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Reviewing the Book Review

Summer Reading

1 June 2008

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

Ach, what an ordeal. All these terrible books! Well, just four. Four Noes is a record, though. And the idea that the only really sure book is the one denouncing retirement communities! Ahimè!

Joe Queenan's Essay, "Jumbo Lit," begins with the conceit of his reading Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities. As soon as I stop choking with laughter, I'll be fine.

Or maybe not. The lying hound! Get this:

For at least four years I’d been having trouble with the van — the passenger door went on the fritz in 2006, the emergency brake started sticking in 2007, the rear wiper started squeaking this year and the engine has been wheezing since it hit the 132,000-mile mark in 2004 — but I’d never taken care of these problems because I’d rather lie on the couch reading gargantuan books like The Man Without Qualities.

I insist that everyone who believes in Tinkerbelle stand up right now and start clapping. Let's fix that Previa! Mrs Queenan is either the Victoria of enablers or — tacet homo honoris.

As regards Mrs Queenan, that is. Mr is the most lyingest sack of s*** that I have yet encountered outside the pages of Popular Mechanics.

The problem was, shopping for a car involved reading a bunch of Consumer Reports, and every time I sat down with the magazines, trying to decide whether to buy the Honda Accord or the Toyota Camry, I found myself sneaking back to the far more glittering prose of The Man Without Qualities. Though I assured my wife that I would buy a car just as soon as I'd finished off Musil, she knew I was lying.

There! Didn't I say so? I'm calling the District Attorney tomorrow: the Times is abusing literature!


The following titles belong on your bookshelf.

Leisureville: Adventures in America's Retirement Utopias, by Andrew D Blechman. It is hard to tell from John Leland's review whether Mr Blechman hangs his subject or simply provides the rope, but it leaves no doubt that this portrait of American social bankruptcy is as vital a study of uncivil wrongs as any book about Civil Rights. Here is the paragraph that prompted me to send Leisureville to my aunt, who lives in a community that would run "Frank" out on a rail:

As Blechman notes toward the end, retirees may in fact be losing interest in golfistans like the Villages, which makes Leisureville perhaps less about the vanguard of a cultural shift than a parting glance at a fading consumer vision. Baby boomers say they want to work in retirement and stay where they are. But it is at times a fascinating glance. Organized around recreation and promotion, the Villages welcomes residents with a ubiquitous radio station that repeats, “It’s a beautiful day in the Villages!” and maps that depict the outside world as “a white void.” Residents drive $25,000 golf carts to prefab downtowns, complete with histories invented by the developer, where cover bands play “Brick House.” Not having children around seems to free the retirees to act like adolescents. Frank, a man in his 70s who is said to have had two heart attacks and a stroke, is asked to describe his typical day. “Get high and play Nintendo,” he says. “I’m not much of a cook, so I just eat a lot of pepperoni.” A nation of college students has found its gray figurehead.


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

Dear American Airlines, by Jonathan Miles. Richard Russo's favorable review presents us with a great deal of storytelling about yet another dubious drunkard protagonist who, as if being all of that weren't enough, is stuck at O'Hare. The quotation of an entire paragraph from the novel would have been extremely helpful. As it is, I was thankful to be reminded of Brigid Brophy's experimental novel, In Transit — although not by Mr Russo.

The House on Fortune Street, by Margot Livesey. Liesl Schillinger's largely favorable review might have been improved by the thought that the author of fifteen works of fiction might think she knows what she's doing. As it is, the piece seems colored by the fear that a novel about unmarried women's thoughts about commitment is necessarily ephemeral.

Late Nights On Air, by Elizabeth Hay. Meg Wolitzer's largely sympathetic review certainly teaches me something about her:

An equal-opportunity empathizer, she vividly renders the slightly rumpled men and quiet women of the station, far from their original homes.

Sometimes there are too many of them to keep track of — and too many place names as well. The Hanbury River, Sifton Lake and the Beaufort Sea may inspire specific images among Canadian readers, but to someone unfamiliar with the geography they merely create a vague, undifferentiated Canadianness. And the imposition of the true story of the Mackenzie Valley pipeline project on an otherwise invented narrative creates a jarring tonal shift, like moving from the quiet beauty of late-night radio to the information overload of a bluntly made television documentary. Luckily, the drama of the proposed pipeline is only one aspect of an elaborate and finely honed narrative.

I happen to know that I am not the only consumer of fiction whose immediate reaction to the geography of Late Nights on Air would be to acquire a very good Canadian atlas, and to make do with Google Maps until I did.

Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis, by Kingsley Amis (Introduced by Christopher Hitchens). Dominique Browning's pert review dimly grasps that the interest of this volume is largely historical, as the heroic consumption of alcohol has gone the way of dragonslaying. We should have been better served by a reader who didn't consume the entire book in one sitting. The preference for "shaken, not stirred" martinis should not be mentioned unless one is prepared to grapple with the kitchen science involved, if any.

Métro Stop Paris: An Underground History, by Gregor Dallas. Caroline Weber's ultimately unfavorable review indicates that, despite its offbeat title, this is a personal memoir of Paris, refracted through buildings and historical events, and, as such, possibly priceless. Ms Weber quotes enough of the book to give a rough idea of what to expect of Mr Dallas's writing.

Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power, and Lies, by Ginger Strand. Robert Sullivan's enthusiastic review is a treat to read — rare for a rave — but it doesn't neglect to spell out the importance of Ms Stroud's argument that our handling of Niagara Falls betrays in microcosm our exploitative habits of mind.

It’s a wonder that a book this fun can be so thoughtful, so deeply felt at times. “Goodyear has been good to me,” a cancer-plagued plant worker says after visiting with his cancer-plagued father, who unknowingly worked with uranium at a Union Carbide shop; the Goodyear plant has had a mini cancer epidemic. The quote is not a joke, not another meant-to-be-smart magazine crack. Life is confusing. We need to work to survive, even if it kills us, which it too often does. Niagara is just a more dramatic (at least when the water’s turned up high) version of America’s everywhere. When he landscaped the falls after the Civil War, Frederick Law Olmsted separated the scenic from the useful at Niagara, taking the factories out of the view. We might all have been better off keeping an eye on them, or, better yet, appreciating what they mean to us. If we had recognized the link between our work and our landscape, we probably would not be trying to remember where we put all those 55-gallon drums.

The Necessity of Theater: The Art of Watching and Being Watched, by Paul Woodruff. Leah Hager Cohen's review leaves no doubt whatsoever about the importance of this book, at least so far as its subject is concerned; a finer ear and more generous quotation might have canceled (instead of raising) doubts that The Necessity of Theatre belongs among the Yeses.

Woodruff’s manner is by turns engaging and off-putting. He takes such care to be clear, to edify, that it seems ungrateful not to lap up every word. But he has a professorial penchant for making the same point many times over, often using identical phrases — “I hope my readers will not mind my repeating this like a mantra,” he says at one juncture — and he is relentless about recycling his favorite examples. (If anyone mentions football or weddings to me anytime soon, I cannot promise to be responsible for my actions.) Although both his frankness and his courage in making judgments feel refreshing, at times the judgments themselves seem overly reductive: “How well you watch shows how good a person you are.” “Good people make good watchers because good people take pleasure in empathy.”

The Crowd Sounds Happy: A Story of Love, Madness, and Baseball, by Nicholas Dawidoff. Reviewer Sam Stephenson compares this book equally to Russell Baker's Growing Up, and proceeds to back up this claim.

The voice in “The Crowd Sounds Happy” is inquisitive and graceful while sparing no pain, and it makes one wish Dawidoff had a broader platform, like Russell Baker’s old New York Times column. Dawidoff writes, “When you are young there is the terrible inability to understand that it’s your deficits that will make others not only like you but feel close to you.” He learned this bit of wisdom, but I’m not sure many other adults have. If they did, then crowds might be happy.

American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the "It" Girl, and the Crime of the Century, by Paula Uruburu. Ada Calhoun generally approves of this sympathetic re-casting of the life of someone usually seen as a beautiful but deadly temptress. And even when she doesn't, she's clear enough about her terms to allow the reader to decide.

Uruburu, who teaches English at Hofstra University, is a master of detail. When she’s describing, for example, the snow flurries, glowing Chinese lanterns and lead-painted penny whistles that greeted the start of 1900, the effect is magical. But at other times, her language veers from vivid to purple. Her figures of speech tend toward the florid (Victorianism in America “lingered like a ripe Anjou pear in Indian summer”). She also at times uses comically short phrases for dramatic effect (on Nesbit: “Vixen. Victim. The ur-Lolita.”), or more modifiers per sentence than are strictly necessary, as in: “A startlingly loud gunshot pierced the torpid night air.”

We've Always Had Paris... And Provence: A Scrapbook of Our Life in France, by Patricia and Walter Wells. Reviewers Jane and Michael Stern would have done better to gush unreservedly about this book while quoting the very same passages. No reader would have been any more deceived into buying a book that may well be less than "a fresh vision of the world through other eyes," and more like "an overlong Christmas letter" — and the Sterns would have walked off with very genial expressions.


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

The Flash Press: Sporting Male Weeklies in 1840s New York, by Patricia Cline Cohen, Timothy J. Gilfoyle and Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, in association with the American Antiquarian Society. Strictly speaking, this book has no place in the Book Review. A scholarly look at scurrilous matter, it merits coverage in distinctly other types of journals. Nicholson Baker's review, however, is almost as eloquent as one of his own dirty books, and it is cautionary, at least, to know that the inflammable prose style favored the "Sporting Male Weeklies" was once capable of triggering libinous thoughts, and perhaps even impulses.

Tree of Rivers: The Story of the Amazon, by John Hemming. Beyond presenting Mr Hemming as a thoughtful and well-traveled expert about the peoples of the Amazon basin, Candice Millard's sympathetically favorable review does not make clear just how this book tells "the story of the Amazon."

Hemming’s most recent book, “Tree of Rivers,” covers ground familiar to anyone interested in the history of the Amazon. What makes the book important and, in many ways, even remarkable, are the breadth of the author’s experience and the depth of his understanding.

There's something a little bit thin about such praise.

Red Summer: The Danger, Madness, and Exaltation of Salmon Fishing in a Remote Alaskan Village, by Bill Carter. Nothing in Sid Evans's review lifts this book above the plimsoll line of its subtitle. It promises entertainment to readers who are interested in folks who seek the fringe of civilization instead of fleeing it.

The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts, by Tom Farley Jr and Tanner Colby. There is nothing quite so irresistible as the oral history of a doomed subject, and Peter Keepnews's favorable review suggests that this unlikely title excels at its own game.

To the authors’ credit, they do not pull their punches when it comes to the problems that stifled Farley’s potential and eventually killed him. The stories of his epic binges and his countless trips to rehab and back are presented with empathy and context — his father, to whom he was devoted, was an alcoholic who apparently never sought treatment — but without excuses.

That those stories become repetitive only adds to their impact. After a while I found myself wishing that I could reach into the book, grab Farley by the lapels and beg him to cut it out — and, more realistically, that someone had been able to get that message across to him in real time. The Chris Farley we meet here is both funnier and more lovable than the typical celebrity drug casualty, which makes “The Chris Farley Show” both sadder and more frustrating than the typical just-say-no cautionary tale.

Bring Me Back Home: Love, Death, and Country Music, by Dana Jennings. Full disclosure: it is my opinion that "country music" is close to being a contradiction in terms. Country music is the only type of music that I have ever found actually unpleasant. So, when reviewer David Kirby, after claiming that country music provides "the soundtrack for the lives we all live," has the impudence to continue,

This means your life, too, my cabernet-sipping friend who just came in from a squash match and is about to cue up a Chopin étude.

his credibility runs into very stiff resistance. May my lights go out long before the world ever looks like this to me:

Black looks, black hearts, black circles around your eyes when you’ve been up all night with a sick child who’s not getting better or because you lipped off to some squirt who turned out to be meaner and quicker than you were: black is the color that dominates the country palette. Not to mention the blackness in the eyes themselves: in a photograph of a father he barely recognizes, Jennings sees in his stare “a country darkness ... that scares the hell out of me.”

American Nerd: The Story of My People, by Benjamin Nugent. Jim Windolf's review, eager to be enthusiastic but frustrated by this book's uneven quality, suggests that, at the end of the day, there may be nothing for the nerd to tell the rest of us.

When Nugent describes his meetings with childhood friends from his nerd peer group, the bloggy tone gives way to precise storytelling. With it comes emotion. Observing that one of his old classmates now wears his “button-down shirt buttoned one button too high,” Nugent writes, “It occurs to me that many people who have withstood arbitrary punishments from life are not tough, in any conventional sense of the word.” This comes on the last page, but it feels almost as if the book is just getting started.

Everything They Had: Sports Writing From David Halberstam (Edited by Glenn Stout). Edward Lewine reviews this book as though nothing like it had ever been published. A much-loved reporter and, by all accounts, an agreeable man's man, Halberstam died in a car accident last year. The posthumous collection of his occasional sports reportage is a nothing less, and nothing more remarkable, than a peculiarly American form of literary homage.


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

The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Adventure, Commerce and Obsession, by Adam Leith Gollner. There is nothing in Mary Roach's review to suggest that this monotopical book about the wide variety of earthly fruits merits coverage in the Book Review.

Reggae Scrapbook, by Roger Steffens and Peter Simon. Baz Dreisinger's enthusiastic review —

The book is, above all, fun. Turning page after oversize page, ogling colorful collages and wondering what treats were in store next — Reggae stickers! An envelope of marijuana-themed postcards! — I felt like a keyed-up kid with a new toy.

— doesn't bother trying to convince readers who aren't already sold on Jamaica and its music that this might be a good book to read.

Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, by Joe Nick Patoski. What slender claim this book might have had upon the attention of Book Review readers is plowed under by Alan Light's reluctant-sounding judgment:

The one thing missing from “Willie Nelson: An Epic Life” is a healthier dose of skepticism. Nelson has reached a near-mystic stature with his fans, but the reality is that his need for perpetual motion has also extended to his home life, where he has been through three divorces and the suicide of a son. Yet the only flaw Patoski singles out is Nelson’s excessive loyalty to his friends, even in the face of various arrests and mishaps.

Bob Dylan: The Drawn Blank Series (Edited by Ingrid Mössinger and Kerstin Drechsel. Marisha Pessl's review is good enough to inform us that this is a book of pictures.

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