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Reviewing the Book Review

Speaking the Unspeakable

8 June 2008

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

A very middling issue, with lots of reasonably well-written reviews by repeatedly unsympathetic readers. Are there still people out there who think that the best judge of something is someone who doesn't like it?


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

The Boat, by Nam Le. Hari Kunzri's review is so extraordinarily unsympathetic that one wonder what Mr Le's publishers might have been thinking. But Mr Kunri is obviously and very inappropriately exploiting this book to argue a complaint with the literary community.

The Boat is transparently a product of the increasingly formalized milieu in which American writers train — a well-wrought collection that, in its acute self-consciousness, trails a telltale whiff of “the industry” that is its initial concern, of the “heap of fellowship and job applications” the fictional Le needs “to draft and submit” when he’s interrupted by his father. “Ethnic lit” is unhappily what emerges when identity politics head into the marketing meeting, and for any writer with a non-WASP name, it’s all too easy to feel one is being pimped for one’s “background and life experience” (real or imaginary), and somehow colluding in the production of a crude, essentialized version of oneself in return for an advantage over ethnically uninteresting peers. Le is starting to grapple with the subtleties of authenticity, but one comes away feeling that it’s not really his subject, that he has a future as a very different kind of writer.

The Enchantress of Florence, by Salmon Rushdie. David Gates doesn't like this novel, but his lucidly expressive review does help the reader understand what Mr Rushdie is trying to achieve:

But despite such bald message-mongering, this isn’t primarily a political novel but a work of imagination about the imagination. Such ginned-up marvels as the magic fragrances that get the Florentine traveler past guards and underlings and into the emperor’s presence may be either transporting fantasies or time-wasting claptrap, depending on your taste or your mood. But enchantment, finally, is only a metaphor: “Witchcraft requires no potions, familiar spirits or magic wands. Language upon a silvered tongue affords enchantment enough.” I doubt a writer with a truly silvered tongue would use the expression “silvered tongue,” but who could disagree with the thought? No writer — and no reader — doubts the transformative power of language. Now can we shut up about it?

The Enchantress of Florence is so pious — especially in its impiety — so pleased with itself and so besotted with the sound of its own voice that even the tritest fancies get a free pass. “But imagine, Jodha,” Akbar tells his imaginary wife, “if we could awake in other men’s dreams and change them, and if we had the courage to invite them into ours. What if the whole world became a single waking dream?” Not that again — didn’t Samuel Johnson squelch such Berkeleyan whimsies back in the 18th century by kicking a stone? Maybe it’s just my philistine cussedness talking, but life’s just too short.

Breath, by Tim Winton. Jennifer Schuessler's warm review is clear about this "darkly exhilharating" novel's character and qualities. The protagonist looks back on his surf-centric youth:

Thinking back on the first time he ever stood on a board, the grown-up (and thoroughly wised up) Pikelet says, “I still judge every joyous moment, every victory and revelation against those few seconds of living.” If the tangled encounter with Eva and Sando doesn’t quite seem like enough to reduce a man to a lifetime of failed relationships, psychiatric hospitalizations and therapeutic blowing on his didgeridoo, Winton’s novel succeeds as a tautly gorgeous meditation on the inescapable human addiction to “the monotony of drawing breath,” whether you want to or not.

Morality Tale, by Sylvia Brownrigg. Review Elinor Lipman is very taken by this "divinely deadpan" novel, and her enthusiasm is infectious.

Breathes there a more or less happily domesticated man or woman who hasn’t experienced an extramarital crush? How interesting, then, and how brave to tell a quiet, patient, witty tale in which “the 3 a.m. fantasies of our bodies together, Richard’s and mine, were going to remain in their packaging, unopened, untested.”

A novel as good as Ms Lipman says that this one is deserves a closer — longer — look.

While They Slept: An Inqury Into the Murder of a Family, by Kathryn Harrison. Robert Pinsky is warmly enthusiastic about this book. But his review is a somewhat incoherent collection of observations about the representation of extreme evil and "massive" psychological wounds. It does not seem to occur to him that a family failure fitting an all-too recognizable American pattern might require a response radically other than a stirring narrative account.

Bush's Law: The Remaking of American Justice, by Eric Lichtblau. Jeff Stein's warm review does a good job of placing this book in the context of critiques of the Bush Administration:

Get it out of your head that “Bush’s Law” is another high-minded, high-umbrage, A.C.L.U.-channeled eulogy to the United States Constitution, which died on the table at the hands of Bush administration surgeons. No, it’s Stephen King country, a collection of horror stories every bit as mouth-drying and finger-curling as Kathy Bates’s taking the lumber to James Caan in “Misery.”

Even readers who have followed the administration’s legalistic contortions over wiretapping and waterboarding since 9/11 may be unnerved by Lichtblau’s recounting of the human dramas behind the stories of laws broken and ignored. Some of his stories involve officials who stood up to the White House and its henchmen in the F.B.I. and the Justice Department at the cost of their jobs. Others are moving accounts of professionals who lost their integrity, or at least their dignity, by averting their eyes.

The Drunkard's Path: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, by Leonard Mlodinow. George Johnson's enthusiastic review is very entertaining — but that's just the problem. Mr Mlodinow's book comes off as an after-dinner brain teaser. We're told nothing about how it might help our stubborn innumeracy.

The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom, by Simon Winchester. Alida Becker's review trips through some underwhelming storytelling, but it secures the impression that Mr Winchester has written another lively and engaging book about colorful scholarship.

A Voyage Round John Mortimer, by Valerie Grove. Thomas Mallon likes this book, although he enjoys discussing its subject more. This is only natural when the subject is an old charmer like the creator of Rumpole.

A reader may wish that Mortimer had given his biographer one bit of stage advice: either get on or get off. Grove’s first-person intrusions are jarring, and the whole production could be a lot smoother. Nonetheless, for all its wish-it-could-be-otherwise reports of bad behavior, the book generally manages to retain the comic spirit Mortimer has always insisted is essential to living and writing.

Dawn, Dusk or Night: A Year With Nicolas Sarkozy, by Yasmina Reza (translated by the author and Pierre Guglielmina. Diane Johnson has a few quarrels with the translation, but she remains engrossed by the French playwright's presentation of the French president as a media star who "couldn't care less about lunch with members of Parlement."

The polished, epigrammatic text reflects her fascination, if not infatuation. Remember how Henry Kissinger always got all those glamorous dates? She notices the things a woman notices about a man: his wardrobe (“he pulls on a white Ralph Lauren polo shirt”), his effect on other women, his boyishness: “He is smiling like a kid filled with wonder. His best face, in my book.”

Nothing seems to have happened between them, a disappointment, perhaps, for one or both. Reza is at her most astute about politicians in general. She alludes from time to time to another one, “G.,” who is apparently a close friend or lover. But the political game itself evokes her mistrust. “What’s the point?” she asks. Or is it she “who understands nothing? Who fails to appreciate ... the invisible and imperious code of diplomacy or, in all matters, the necessary nothingness?”

A Writer's People: Ways of Looking and Feeling: An Essay in Five Parts, by V S Naipaul. David Rieff's review is clouded by fundamental disagreements that he has with Sir Vidia's outlook on nationality and character; the Book Review is really not the place for such a discussion. The piece concludes usefully, however:

But what remains impressive, even in this disappointing book, is Naipaul’s sense of wonder at the worlds he has discovered. For all his haughtiness, something fresh and innocent infuses his early memories and his recollections of the alienation and loneliness he felt in his early years in London. Few writers have traveled as far from their origins as Naipaul has, and done it so willingly and with such single-mindedness, and few have regretted that estrangement quite so much.


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

The German Bride, by Joanna Hershon. Aside from raising a few interesting but inconclusive to Willa Cather's classic of Santa Fe, Death Comes For the Archbishop, this review throws no light on the literary quality of this novel about Jewish merchants in New Mexico.

Snuff, by Chuck Palahniuk. If half of what Lucy Ellmann has to say about this book is true, then her assessment does not belong in the Book Review.

There is a running gag (to which the reader’s response may be to gag and run) about porn film titles, only a few of which — “Gropes of Wrath,” “Beat Me in St. Louis,” “Lady Windermere’s Fanny” — can be mentioned here. Some don’t even attempt to be clever. “Inside Miss Jean Brody” sounds like a title suggested by a newly arrived Martian.

Is this what passes for invention these days? Do Palahniuk’s readers chortle at such things? Have they no pride? There’s a glaring absence of finesse. A paragraph-long description of difficulty with excretory hygiene is offered by one “dude” as an analogy for a bad day, then repeated almost word for word at the end of the book. It’s not that great an analogy.

Pennsylvania Avenue: Profiles in Backroom Power, by John Harwood and Gerald H Seib. Ted Widmer has a lot to say about the lobbyists and fixers who stand between the White House and the Capitol (in some cases figuratively) — and for the most part its gets in the way of his review of this book, the evaluation of which is largely confined to the following paragraph.

Through a series of sharp vignettes and character sketches, the authors of “Pennsylvania Avenue,” John Harwood and Gerald F. Seib, take the reader behind some of the more imposing facades along the refurbished road, introducing the famous and not-so-famous, and explaining how business gets done in the new Washington. Though they accept the common view that the old rules have changed, their analysis is fresh and stimulating. Each is a well-connected reporter: Harwood talks for CNBC and writes for The New York Times, Seib is the executive Washington editor of The Wall Street Journal and they have been granted easy access into a variety of D.C. domains. Their subjects range from Congressional barons and peddlers of influence — not exactly new types — to up-and-coming Internet operatives and spinmeisters who are changing the way that information bounces around the Beltway echo chamber.

The Legend of Colton T Bryant, by Alexandra Fuller. Instead of reviewing this book, Bryan Burrough goes on a tear about the line between fact and fiction, which he finds unacceptably smudged in Ms Fuller's book. Some, perhaps many, readers will not share his scruples, at least in connection with "a slender volume," by Mr Burrough's account quite beautifully written, about "a Wyoming kid who died in an oil-field accident."

Franklin and Lucy: President Roosevelt, Mrs Rutherfurd, and the Other Remarkable Women In His Life, by Joseph E Persico. David Greenberg is largely unhappy with this airing of closed cupboards.

Everyone likes a bit of gossip now and then, but Persico’s relentlessness is disconcerting. He pursues questions about when and with whom Roosevelt went to bed with the same solemnity that other historians take to the question of when and with whom he decided to go to war.

Drawing the Line at the Big Ditch: The Panama Canal Treaties and the Rise of the Right, by Adam Clymer. Mark Lewis describes this books as "a case study of how one issue played out during the scorched-earth campaigns of the 1976-80 period, when the New Right rose to prominence." His review is not long enough, however, to make a claim on the general reader.

How To Be Useful: A Beginner's Guide to Not Hating Work, by Megan Hustad. Alexandra Jacobs pronounces herself unsympathetic to this book, based as it is on the "premise that traditional 9-to-5 life is fundamentally boring." Ms Jacobs loves her own office routines. Why, then, anyone would expect her to produce a useful review of Ms Hustad's guide is beyond reckoning.

A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father, by Augusten Burroughs. Hugo Lindgren finds a spot on the crowded bandwagon of critics who merrily denounce this popular writer's latest memoir. His lack of sympathy renders his review thoroughly unhelpful. "If there is a single comic moment, I was too depressed to notice it." If I had nothing else to do, I would stitch this sentence as a sampler and award it as a negative degree, announcing the bearer's lack of credentials as a review.


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

The Reavers, by George McDonald Fraser. Neil Genzlinger means to wax enthusiastic about this posthumous production; instead he simply makes it look like an embarrassment.

How gleefully cheeky is “The Reavers,” George MacDonald Fraser’s final book? The assigned length of this review was 600 words. If it had started out simply quoting the book’s first sentence, it would be half over by now.

But wait; there’s more. That 300-plus-word behemoth begins with — what else — “It was a dark and stormy night. ... ” Fraser, who died in January, must have been pretty pleased with himself.

You can do a lot with six hundred words, but Mr Genzlinger doesn't.

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