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Reviewing the Book Review

Tapped Out

15 June 2008

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

This week's issue seems to stand out as neither serious nor engaging. Not one of the reviews makes its subject seem to be an exciting, must-read book. It's the sort of Book Review that makes me wonder why anybody bothers to crank the thing out.

Will Blythe's Essay, "Agee Unfettered," compares and contrasts two versions of James Agee's posthumous A Death In the Family, the one that you may have read and a new, more scholarly edition (and ultimately the preferable one, according to Mr Blythe).


The following titles belong on your bookshelf.

Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's Prisoner of Conscience, by Justin Wintle. Seth Mydans's enthusiastically favorable review separates the wheat of this book from the kind of chaff that might so easily have been produced:

Perfect Hostage suffers in places from the awe this brave woman inspires in those who write about her. Wintle sometimes employs jarring turns of phrase — he speaks of the Burmese people’s chances of having “the generals’ guts for garters” and suggests that if Aung San Suu Kyi is killed, “her sainted blood might trickle into Inya Lake.” But the book presents readers with the complexity of Myanmar’s history and its present tensions, and of Aung San Suu Kyi herself, who is described as both flexible and inflexible, ready to cooperate with her oppressors but unbending in calling for international sanctions against them.

The most provocative section comes at the end of the final chapter. Though it seems a bit of an afterthought, it attempts to explain what Aung San Suu Kyi has meant for the fate of Myanmar. Have her idealistic vision, her personality, her fortitude and her perseverance been a positive force, or have they held her nation back from the possibility of change? It is a difficult question to answer, both because Aung San Suu Kyi is so charismatic and her story so morally unambiguous, and because of a sort of political correctness that has come to characterize support for her.

But it is just this determined support, Wintle suggests, that may have inhibited the kind of moral and political compromises sometimes needed for history to move forward. Rather than embracing what he calls “Aung San Suu Kyi’s strategy of highest principle,” he says Western nations could have pursued a policy of economic and political engagement that might have drawn the generals out of their shells. “Counterproductive sanctions,” he says, include “instances where rightly principled positions have turned into inflexible dogma — a charge sometimes leveled at Aung San Suu Kyi herself.”


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

The Other, by David Guterson. Bruce Barcott really likes this book, writing that, like the two novels that precede it, it's even better than Snow Falling On Cedars. And he's able to say why: "But the voice of Neil Countryman is that of a good, thoughtful man coming into middle-class, middle-aged fullness, and his recollections of life in Seattle have a wonderful richness and texture.

The Other is a moving portrait of male friendship, the kind that forms on the cusp of adulthood and refuses to die, no matter how maddening the other guy turns out to be. It’s also a finely observed rumination on the necessary imperfection of life — on how hypocrisy, compromise and acceptance creep into our lives and turn strident idealists into kind, loving, fully human adults. Wisdom isn’t the embrace of everything we rejected at 19. It’s the understanding that absolutes are for dictators and fools. “I’m a hypocrite, of course,” Countryman says, reflecting on his own life and John William’s doomed pursuit of purity. “I live with that, but I live.”

Submarine, by Joe Dunthorne. Sarah Towers gives this novel the kind of favorable review that writers might be happy to read but that can hardly be imagined to promote sales. That's because Ms Towers's storytelling, interposed between reader and novelist, is far from enthralling. "The mind of a teenage boy is not an easy place to inhabit." Indeed. Ms Towers, sadly, does not bother to tell us why, in the case of this book that she likes very much, we should want to.

All Or Nothing, by Preston L Allen. Andrew Hultenkrans's review of this novel about gambling is perhaps too brief, but with one paragraph he places the book securely within the appropriate context.

As a cartographer of autodegradation, Allen takes his place on a continuum that begins, perhaps, with Dostoyevsky’s “Gambler,” courses through Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano,” William S. Burroughs’s “Junky,” the collected works of Charles Bukowski and Hubert Selby Jr., and persists in countless novels and (occasionally fabricated) memoirs of our puritanical, therapized present. Like Dostoyevsky, Allen colorfully evokes the gambling milieu — the chained (mis)fortunes of the players, their vanities and grotesqueries, their quasi-philosophical ruminations on chance. Like Burroughs, he is a dispassionate chronicler of the addict’s daily ritual, neither glorifying nor vilifying the matter at hand. Yet he never wallows like Lowry nor amuses like Bukowski. His spare, efficient prose could be called medium-boiled, but at times it seems overly casual, tossed off. While this makes for “realism” and easy digestibility, it prevents Allen from scaling the heights (and plumbing the depths) of his literary forebears.

Bottlemania: How Water Went On Sale and Why We Bought It, by Elizabeth Royte. Lisa Margonelli's enthusiastic review would horrify me if I lived anywhere but New York City, whose fabled water supply continues to be a gold standard, if an imperilled one. Bottled water is so obviously a bad idea in this town that it's hard to see what good a book could do. As for the rest of the country...

By the time I finished “Bottlemania” I thought twice about drinking any water. Among the risks: arsenic, gasoline additives, 82 different pharmaceuticals, fertilizer runoff sufficient to raise nitrate levels so that Iowa communities issue “blue baby” alerts. And in 42 states, Royte notes, “people drink tap water that contains at least 10 different pollutants on the same day.” The privatization of pristine water is part of a larger story, a tragic failure to steward our shared destiny. And if you think buying water will protect you, Royte points out that it too is loosely regulated. And there is more — the dangers of pipes and of plastic bottles, the hazards of filters, and yes, that “toilet to tap” issue. But there is slim comfort: Royte says we don’t really need to drink eight glasses of water a day. Drink when you’re thirsty, an expert says. That’s refreshing.

When You Are Engulfed In Flames, by David Sedaris. I'm quite tempted to put this book among the Noes, because what, after all, is the point of reviewing a book of humorous essays? It's almost as futile as analyzing a joke, and even Vanessa Grigoriadis, who actually likes this collection (most reviews that I've seen have been chilly to frosty) cannot help falling back on comparisons to the author's other collections that serve no real purpose. For what it's worth, I read most of the pieces when they appeared in The New Yorker, so I bought Mr Sedaris's recording, to listen to on my daily walk.

A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould's Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano, by Katie Hafner. Having advised us that the true protagonist of this book is Verne Edquist, the blind man who was Glenn Gould's piano tuner of choice, reviewer Emma Brockes goes off on a tangent, under the impression, it seems, that the book is supposed to be a thriller.

The suspense in this story is mostly flattened by the sheer weight of technical detail it is made to bear, which cramps the writing and makes it seem hurried. Lively encounters between Gould and his technicians or his handlers at Steinway & Sons are invariably cut off with an explanation of how pianos work or a history of the industry as bland as an encyclopedia entry. There are a few “fancy that!” sweeteners to get you through these bits — for example, that “in the early 20th century, piano tuners outnumbered members of any other trade in English insane asylums.” Or that during World War II Steinway ran a neat sideline in the manufacture of coffins. But it is a relief to get back to the dysfunctional buddy movie with Edquist and Gould, or rather — since Gould is already the subject of several biographies — back to Edquist. The freshest material is the piano tuner’s tale.


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

A Case of Exploding Mangoes, by Mohammid Hanif. Reading between the lines of Robert MacFarlane's favorable review, I sense that this is a successful novel, but I can't be certain, because Mr MacFarlane is so busy describing Mr Hanif's characters and filling us in on the factual background of his subject, the assassination of Pakistani dictator Zia ul-Haq, that the novel itself remains distant. The passages that Mr MacFarlane quotes are, at least taken out of context, somewhat underwhelming.

Audition: A Memoir, by Barbara Walters. David Kelly's enthusiastic review begins with an anecdote in which George Will looks at the author "with disdain" and says, "It's only television, Barbara." Nothing in the review suggests that Mr Will's disdain was misguided.

The book is so chock-full of news and quasi entertainment that it’s tempting just to start quoting some of it, even if out of context (kind of like running attention-grabbing promos for a prime-time magazine show): “I developed the bladder of a camel.” “All I could think of was Nietzsche’s belief in a superior being.” “The swami was sitting on the floor in the lotus position, playing with his toes.” “The Bay of Pigs was a pick-me-up for everyone.” “I sometimes said, ‘Enough with the penises.’ ” “Mrs. Clinton is quite small on top but rather large in the hips.” The last one was not lifted out of context.

Very much only television.

One Man's America: The Pleasures and Provocations of Our Singular Nation, by George Will. Jacob Heilbrunn's guardedly favorable review argues that Mr Will does a good job of presenting the ancients' case in the recent "battle between ancients and moderns" among conservatives, but he makes Mr Will come across as a dinosaur.

Elsewhere, Will, like not a few conservatives, drifts into intellectual quicksand in trying to reconcile his worship of the past with his admiration for the free market. What Daniel Bell called the cultural contradictions of capitalism poses something of a problem for him since, you might say, he admires libertarian economics but not the libertinism that accompanies it. And for all his denunciations of hedonism, Will’s contempt for environmentalists and admiration of capitalism prompts him to pour scorn on measures to protect the planet. Suddenly, the swollen appetites of Americans are O.K. According to Will, in a column from 2002, “Beware the wrath of Americans who like to drive, and autoworkers who like to make, cars that are large, heavy and safer than the gasoline sippers that environmentalists prefer.”

He continues, “Some environmentalism is a feel-good indulgence for an era of energy abundance.” Still, when it comes to preserving a Civil War battlefield at Chancellorsville, Va., Will bemoans the threat of automobiles and new highways.

Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives, by Jim Sheeler. Isaac Chotiner's review makes it very difficult to assess this book, which follows Major Steve Beck as he informs families of the deaths of Marines.

The book’s crucial flaw, however, is unintentionally revealed in an early remark Sheeler makes about Beck’s work: “While each door is different,” he writes, “the scenes inside are almost always the same.” Precisely because these scenes are so depressingly similar, the book feels padded as well as slight. Still, there is something oddly comforting about the nearly interchangeable reactions the families display when confronted with a crushing loss. Perhaps unwittingly, then, Sheeler has written something that captures the universal as much as it does the personal.

Minders of Make-Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children's Literature, by Leonard S Marcus. Reviewer Laura Miller is so disappointed that this book is not about children's literature — as its subtitle suggests, it's about publishers and librarians — that she never makes clear if this book might interest the general reading public, or if it is an insider's account, likely to mean little outside the world that it describes. It seems to have had little interest for Ms Miller.

Cecil B DeMille: A Life In Art, by Simon Louvish. What were the editors thinking, when they assigned this book to the venerable Andrew Sarris, a film critic who clearly hasn't the time of day for DeMille's output? Mr Sarris seems to want to talk about almost anything but the man's movies, but takes up Mr Louvish's account of DeMille's ancestry and educational influences with what almost looks like interest. Then he winds up with this:

Thus, for all its length and copious detail, Louvish’s biography is a great read and, incidentally, a fascinating history of a life lived to the hilt through a long, turbulent segment of our time.

The blurbaciousness of this comment suggests an indifference on the reviewer's part as to whether it applies to Mr Louvish's book or to its subject.

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