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Reviewing the Book Review

Real WMD's

22 June 2008

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

Jacob Heilbrunn's Essay, "Not My Fault," is an almost savage dismissal of the disillusioned memoir of which Scott McClellan's What Happened is the latest in a wearying line.


The following titles belong on your bookshelf.

The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Business, by David A Price. Michael Hirschorn's generally favorable review is flawed by whining — the book "lacks the high-end access and dish of, say, James B Stewart's Disney War..." — but his account leaves no doubt that this study of the mighty unpredictability of creative business ventures is the real deal. Not the least of Mr Price's achievements is a bracing assessment of Steve Jobs's role in the growth of an enterprise that, for one example, George Lucas didn't know what to do with:

Ed Catmull and (especially) John Lasseter, the gregarious and fecund creative geniuses behind Pixar’s greatest movies, are heroes in Price’s story, but it’s clear they lacked Jobs’s brio. Without Jobs’s relentless drive, Pixar would have been an inferior and probably bankrupt competitor to Sun Microsystems, not the most important movie studio of our era (and certainly the only one interesting enough to write a book about).


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

The Garden of Last Days, by Andre Dubus III. Jay McInerney is not the sympathetic reader that a novel of this book's dimensions deserves, but at least the review leaves no doubt about its dimensions, if only obliquely.

Rising, Falling, Hovering, by C D Wright. Joel Brouwer's review of this collection of poems is graced by two substantial quotations and a keen sense of the poet's politicized aesthetic.

Wright doesn’t assert equivalences so much as she suggests parallels through repetition and variation, and through her formal structures. Illegal immigrants crossing the border are described on Page 40 as entering a “memory hole,” which we understand to mean that they are leaving their familiar homes and families behind. But the phrase also reminds us that back on Page 17, the bombing of Baghdad and the subsequent looting of its museums and libraries in the weeks following the American invasion in 2003 was also referred to as having created a “memory hole.” It’s a vexing moment for attentive readers; both instances of the phrase make sense in their individual contexts, but do they also somehow connect? Whether they do, and if so how, Wright leaves up to us to consider. And in that way, we become implicated: our participation is required in order for the poem’s meanings to unfold. That’s a disconcerting responsibility, but it’s also one that grants us great power. Our presence in the poem counts. And Wright calls us to account.

One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Krushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War, by Michael Dobbs. Richard Holbrooke's enthusiastic review places this book in context and deems it a shining addition.

Any new entry in the crowded field of books on the 1962 Cuban missile crisis must pass an immediate test: Is it just another recapitulation, or does it increase our net understanding of this seminal cold war event? By focusing on the activities of the American, Soviet and Cuban militaries during those tense October days, Michael Dobbs’s “One Minute to Midnight” passes this test with flying colors. The result is a book with sobering new information about the world’s only superpower nuclear confrontation — as well as contemporary relevance.

Perhaps irresistibly, Mr Holbrooke wraps up his review with a shuddering guess at how the crisis would have played out with the current administration in the White House at the time.

On the Lap of Gods: The Red Summer of 1919 and the Struggle for Justice that Remade a Nation, by Robert Whittaker. Jay Jennings's largely favorable review of this book about the violence surrounding an attempt by black workers in Arkansas to form a union is beset by whining: "All the elements of a legal thriller are here ... but Whittaker seems hesitant to step out of his role as arbiter of facts and embrace a more imaginative approach." It is always unhelpful of reviewers to wish for a different kind of book than the one that they've been paid to read.

The Forger's Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century. Anthony Julius's favorable review might have been a little longer, but it is helpful as is.

Dolnick, the author of The Rescue Artist, about the theft of Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream, tells his story engagingly and with a light touch. He has a novelist’s talent for characterization, and he raises fascinating questions. How, for instance, could the forgeries have fooled anyone? (Dolnick says that van Meegeren was “perhaps the only forger whose most famous works a layman would immediately identify as fake.”) How do forgers set about doing their work? One chapter is titled “Forgery 101”; it contains instructions from which any prospective forger would benefit. And why does our estimation of a work of art change when we discover it is a fake?

Forgery is interesting in part because it demands great, if imitative, skill, and in part because copying itself has become a significant aspect of contemporary art-making. It is an art-crime that encourages reflections on the nature of art itself. This book is an aid to such reflections.

The Two Kinds of Decay, by Sarah Manguso. Emily Mitchell praises the poetic exactitude of Ms Manguso's memoir of a rare and deadly blood disease. Her review strongly suggests that this book's literate intensity makes it fully a book about being alive.

Manguso was already a writer when she became ill, and her obsession with words, their capacities and limitations, permeates her book. The world of hospitals and doctors has its own language, which she translates for the uninitiated reader. Her plasma replacement treatment is called “apheresis,” which she notes is “from the Greek aphairein, to take away.” She is amused that hematologist-oncologists abbreviate their titles to “‘hem-oncs’ (pronounced almost like he-monks).” But her interest is more than literary curiosity. When she has a line implanted directly into her chest so her plasma can be replaced more easily, she parses her reaction: “I had read Freud in school. He distinguishes fear, a state of worrying anticipation, ... from fright, the momentary response of our mind to a danger that has caught us by surprise but is already over.” For hours, she writes, “I lay there, weeping in fright. Not fear. Fright.”


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

Cost, by Roxana Robinson. I could not tell, from Leah Hager Cohen's favorable review, whether this novel is more than a beach book. Almost every detail that she samples is musty with cliché. Ms Robinson's achievement may, remarkably transcend the predictable novel of taciturn WASPs in Maine, but Ms Cohen doesn't seem aware that it might have to, in order to merit coverage in the Book Review.

Wrack and Ruin, by Don Lee. Lisa Dierbeck's too-short review does nothing to place Mr Lee's comic novel about utterly incompatible brothers — beyond saying that it is comic. Comic as in Carl Hiaasen? Or perhaps as in Diane Johnson? The following statement is all very nice, but it's unhelpful without a context:

Playful and lighthearted, “Wrack and Ruin” has an accidental elegance that is un-self-conscious and refreshing. The deceptively straightforward storytelling conceals considerable craftsmanship.

The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st-Century Politics With an 18th-Century BBrain, by George Lakoff. William Saletan's review is so fundamentally unsympathetic that the page is little more than a cloud of partisan smoke. What would have been much more to the point is a review that probed liberal, progressive reluctance to embrace Mr Lakoff's "framing" program.

Notes on a Life, by Eleanor Coppola. Sarah Kerr's flat but favorable review raises just enough interesting questions about the quality of this memoir, written by the rather put-upon-sounding wife of Francis Ford Coppola, to suggest that coverage might actually be warranted. Doubts hover nonetheless:

Fabulous real estate plays a lead role in these recollections. The Coppolas are always remodeling or moving in or out of a temporary place. Another of Eleanor’s warring impulses is her preference in life for Zen simplicity, which makes her long to lose the burden of so many possessions. But then she does like to shop — on one trip for no fewer than “10 days straight” — with a special yen for textiles. Their winery now a big business, Eleanor accompanies Francis as he begins scouting for sites in which to expand the small chain of eco-boutique hotels they started in the ’90s. A secret businesswoman even emerges from within, as she goes to a store in San Francisco’s Chinatown to buy items she can mark up for resale at their Belize resorts.


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

Good Guys and Bad Guys: Behind the Scenes With the Saints and Scoundrels of American Business (and Everything in Between), by Joe Nocera. Although Michael Hirsh presents this as a thoughtful collection of Mr Nocera's articles for the Times, there is nothing in his review to suggest that the book stands out from other current-events business books, which almost by defintion do not belong in the Book Review.

Central Park in the Dark: More Mysteries of Urban Wildlife, by Marie Winn. Elizabeth Royte's mixed review does nothing to lift this book out of the "Hobbyist" class.

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