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Reviewing the Book Review

Urban Poet

29 June 2008

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

At some point in the future, I must work up my argument against reviewing new novels by Alan Furst and Donna Leon, insofar as they conform to the authors' previous novels in tone and subject. Although I'm an avid reader of both, I don't much see the point in reviewing each new book as it appears. All I need is to know is that it's for sale.

In this week's Essay, "Cultural Crossroads of the Levant," Rachel Donadio has a general look at Ibis Books, the Israeli publisher of English translations of books with a Middle Eastern connection, and a particular glance at S Yizhar's Khirbet Khizeh, a novel that, perhaps unusually, both appears on high school curricula and appeals to critics of Israel.

Yes

The following titles belong on your bookshelf.

Personal Days, by Ed Park. It is unusual for books to shine when reviewers compare them to others like them, but Mark Sarvas works that magic here by floating this novel nicely on the success of Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End, last summer's novel about pink slips. While pointing out the many ways in which Mr Park's novel is different, the review attests that the level of quality is similarly high.

Park has written what one of his characters calls “a layoff narrative” for our times. As the economy continues its free fall, Park’s book may serve as a handy guide for navigating unemployment and uncertainty. Does anyone who isn’t a journalist think there can’t be two books on the same subject at the same time? We need as many as we can get right now.

The Hebrew Republic: How Secular Democracy and Global Enterprise Will Bring Israel Peace at Last, by Bernard Avishai. Adam LeBor's too-short review calls this book "brilliantly argued," and then goes on to point out what distinguishes it from the stacks of tendentiousness on the nature and future of Israel:

In the endless discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, trade is rarely mentioned. Avishai argues that a new elite of globalized businessmen and -women is helping to remake the Israeli economy. He notes, correctly, that “Israeli elites cannot hope to have an economy like Singapore’s and a nationalities war like Serbia’s.” After a peace settlement, he hopes, Israel’s knowledge economy and high-tech start-ups would flourish across the Middle East, with Palestinian entrepreneurs as go-betweens. It’s an engaging, optimistic vision. Perhaps too optimistic — but a century ago Herzl was also dismissed as a fantasist. In this wise, humane and important book, Avishai is taking on the role of a Herzl for the modern age.

Okay

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

Selected Poems, by Frank O'Hara (edited by Mark Ford). Frank O'Hara's mid-century sensibility was immensely fertile and frequently irresistible. As William Logan writes in his guardedly favorable review of this new collection, "today, he might have written a blog." Which is not to say that O'Hara's poetry is therefore ephemeral. Rather, it raises the question whether poetry was the right medium for him. "What O’Hara most objected to about poetry, however, was the hard work."

He was always looking for some vivid stimulus, preferably one a little outlandish — not a bad thing for a curator of modern painting, perhaps, but not necessarily a good one for a poet (O’Hara treated contemporary art with far more deliberation than he treated poetry).

The White King, by Gyorgy Dragoman (translated by Paul Olchvary). Danielle Trussoni calls this novel about life in totalitarian Romania "darkly beautiful."

The official party stance is that “the country’s future is its youth” and “there’s no way the party would expose this treasure to danger,” but Djata’s experience proves otherwise. After an “accident in an atomic power plant in the Great Soviet Union” reminiscent of Chernobyl, the boy is given iodine pills and forced to play soccer outdoors, taking care “to avoid contact with the ball because the ball picks up radioactivity from the grass.”

More Than It Hurts You, by Darin Strauss. Louisa Thomas's whining review is unhelpful in almost every way, but her storytelling, oddly enough, conveys the impression of a vibrant read.

Moving between characters, Strauss veers from heavy satire to social commentary to earnest realism, following plot lines that sometimes splinter into dead ends. He also slips into the minds of everyone from the infant Zack to an evangelist serving newly freed inmates. And while the narrative still manages to be engaging, Strauss’s habit of swinging from theme to theme — prejudice, marital dynamics, the willful naïveté of entitled suburbanites, the nature of parenthood, the limits of American meritocracy — can produce a dizzying effect, adding too many complications to an already complicated plot.

Allow me to collect myself a moment and to try to remember a novel, written in plain English, that had a "dizzying effect." Dizzying reviews such as this one make it difficult to say.

Microcosm: E Coli and the New Science of Life, by Carl Zimmer. Peter Dizikes writes, somewhat madly, "If you msut limit yourself to only one title on bacteria this year, Microcosm is a good pick." He goes on to say that this book raises intriguing problems about the definition of such terms as "human being."

Genetic engineering and new forms of biomedicine could therefore engender a worthy civic dialogue or aggravate old political fractures. Or biotechnology may simply roll on. In any case, Zimmer adroitly links the common heritage we share with E. coli and the emerging horizons of science: “Through E. coli we can see the history of life, and we can see its future as well.”

The Downhill Lie: A Hacker's Return to a Ruinous Sport, by Carl Hiaasen; The Mysterious Montague: A True Tale of Hollywood, Golf, and Armed Robbery, by Leigh Montville; and The Franchise Babe, by Dan Jenkins. Regular readers may swoon to see three golf books among the Okays, and I must say that I'd be happier if Holly Brubach's roundup were positioned as back-page Essay. Mr Hiaasen's book looks to be about as humanistic an appraisal of golf as anyone is likely to write, while Mr Montville's book, despite not getting high marks from the reviewer, appears to be an unusually pungent slice of Americana. Mr Jenkins's novel, of course, would ordinarily belong among the Noes (see The Spies of Warsaw, below), but its presence contributes to the richness of the context, which is epitomized by this passage.

While the journal format doesn’t allow Hiaasen much occasion to exercise his flawless ear for dialogue, it does give us a chance to hear the voice in his own head. His preoccupations emerge as themes here: a midlife awareness of the physical decay that aging brings, a stubborn resolve to prove himself the exception, memories of his father, hope in his son.

Apples and Oranges: My Brother and Me, Lost and Found, by Marie Brenner. "If Marie Brenner and her brother Carl can learn to love each other," writes James Panero, "there might be hope for our divided America after all."

“Is anything in life an accident?” Marie asks. They both came from the same secular Jewish household, heirs to a chain of Texas discount stores called Solo Serve. So how could she become a liberal journalist in New York while her brother turned out to be a Bush-loving, Wagner-listening, evangelical “right-wing nut” growing apples on the other coast?

Marie Brenner brings the same journalistic arsenal to this question that she would normally reserve for an investigation of Big Tobacco. When her brother gets sick, research becomes her coping mechanism. “I am treating my brother as if he is a source,” she writes, “someone I have been assigned to interview.”

Maybe

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

Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam. This book would have benefited from a more sympathetic review. The following is not very helpful:

When it comes to remedies, the authors dutifully come up with a stream of proposals big and small to address the issues in a way that is supposed to contrast with the combination of leftist populism and centrist neoliberalism that is the alternative. But the result is a mix of compassionate conservatism and ersatz centrist neoliberalism.

White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement, by Allan J Lichtman. Ditto. This book, too, would have benefited from sympathetic coverage. Or, should I say, the readers of the Book Review would have benefited. David Frum finds Mr Lichtman's thesis to be wrong-headed at best. Mr Frum goes on to complain, in language that might be brought to bear on his own review:

You do not need to be a partisan of a political movement to write its history. But you do need enough imaginative sympathy to comprehend how it won adherents and supporters. Yet increasingly it seems that the history of conservatism is attracting liberals who lack that sympathy — for whom the whole thing was a giant con, a tissue of rationalizations for ugly bigotries. These liberal chroniclers of conservatism refuse to examine their own prejudices. They do not see that their wholesale dismissal of the principles of others amounts to little more than self-flattery. We might call this the Bourbon school of liberalism: after many years in exile, it has still learned nothing.

Even on the evidence of this review, it appears that Mr Lichtman is writing a social, rather than a political account of conservatism in America. By and large, this has indeed been "a collection of unattractive impulses."

Right Is Wrong: How the Lunatic Fringe Hijacked America, Shredded the Constitution, and Made Us All Less Safe (and What You Need to Know to End the Madness), by Arianna Huffington. The brunt of Jack Schafer's rather blasé review is that Ms Huffington is flogging a dead horse.

The best evidence of the conservative decline is that McCain, the bane of all hard-right Republicans, has clinched the party’s nomination for president. But rather than regarding his victory as a defeat for the “lunatics,” Huffington interprets it as one of their successes. McCain has been “hijacked” by the right-wingers! He’s become their puppet, she suggests, mouthing their brutish line on torture, religion and immigration.

Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics, by Nina L Krushcheva. Steve Coates somewhat bewildering review left me wondering how someone who disagreed so profoundly with a book could engage in debate about its thesis. That thesis, moreoever, receives very murky presentation.

Khrushcheva professes to love Nabokov, but she puts much more heart into thrashing him: for his “conceit, coldness and emphatic indifference to all us ordinary folks, unworthy of his genius”; for his “contempt of the Russian tradition of socially minded literature”; for his “heartlessness,” his “unmitigated arrogance,” his “vanity and airs” and his skewering of other writers; for his “lack of ‘physical’ heroism” in contrast to Osip Mandelstam, dead in the gulag; for his aristocratic birth and for much else besides. Nabokov may be the first prophet to be anointed with vitriol.

Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands, by Michael Chabon. Mark Kamine's enthusiastic review left me more convinced than ever that I don't agree, with either the reviewer or the author, that "pop culture and literature are not mutually exclusive." They are not united by the common need to entertain.

No

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

Devil May Care, by Sebastian Faulks, writing as Ian Fleming. Alex Berenson begins his review thus:

Before Jason Bourne, before Jack Ryan, there was Bond, James Bond, the original two-dimensional, world-saving secret agent.

There's no need to say more — but keep reading:

The Spies of Warsaw, by Alan Furst. Alessandra Stanley's review suggests that this book continues the falling-off in the quality of Mr Furst's output that critics complained about with regard to his last book, The Foreign Correspondent, but I place this review among the Noes because reviewing individual entries in the oeuvres of such writers as Mr Furst, Donna Leon, Ian Rankin, and Ruth Rendell (Wexford series) is both premature and unnecessary. It is unnecessary, certainly, because these first-class writers of detective (or suspense) fiction find new readers by word of mouth, from devoted readers who need only know that a new book has been published. It is premature because the writer's engagement with a fundamental topic — in the cases of Ms Leon and Mr Rnakin, nothing less than the life in very interesting cities — remains ongoing, the true work in progress. I don't say that these writers don't merit coverage in the Book Review. On the contrary, I think that periodic assessments of their achievements to date would give the back-page Essay more purpose than it has at the moment.

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