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Reviewing the Book Review

Livin' La Vida Local

6 July 2008

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

A multitude of sins — even if only a small fraction of the total — was expunged by the editors' decision to run Conrador Massaguer's bravura "Visit Cuba" travel poster on this week's front page.

Henry Alford's shooting...barrel Essay, "Transloosely Literated," is a multiple choice quiz of translation howlers. There's no good reason to try for the right answers, but I was gratified to find that my time with G H McWilliam's translation of the Decameron allowed me to identify his way with a line from Verga.


The following titles belong on your bookshelf.

Telex From Cuba, by Rachel Kushner. Susann Cokal's warmly favorable review, although cluttered with storytelling that might better have been replaced by extracts from the novel, makes a solid, must-read case for this novel, which pits fully-realized characters (Americans for the most part) against the world-historical background of an economic colony on the brink of revolution.

Kushner herself evinces an intimate knowledge of her novel’s world and characters. Her style is sure and sharp, studded with illuminating images: In Oriente, “the wind gusted like a personality”; Everly, newly arrived in a new dress, “felt like a tea doily, damp and frilly and out of place,” while La Mazière thinks of Havana as “a damp city where dreams were marbled with nothingness.” When we first see Rachel K, she’s flying above sugar cane fields with K. C.’s father, “a person who was dangerous because he didn’t know which parts of him were rotten, or even that he harbored rot.” These are potent moments, and they make the novel a dreamy, sweet-tart meditation on a vanished way of life and a failed attempt to make the world over in America’s image. Out of tropical rot, Kushner has fashioned a story that will linger like a whiff of decadent Colony perfume.

Hospital: Man, Woman, Birth, Death, Infinity, Plus Red Tape, Bad Behavior, Money, God, and Diversity on Steroids, by Julie Salamon. D T Max's enthusiastic review leaves no doubt that this up-front look at a helplessly malfunctioning refuge is every bit as gripping as The Devil's Candy and a lot more important.

To me, the big surprise in this book — I can hear the doctors out there laughing — is how much hospitals, even nonprofit community hospitals like Maimonides, think about money. As administrators there say, “No margin, no mission.” I was under the impression that hospitals have to treat anyone who comes to the emergency room, but there are many definitions of “treat.” Hospitals have to stabilize patients, it seems, but they do not have to cure them. If patients can walk and their wallets are empty, they can be walked to the door. Administrators track the performance of all the doctors. Operations are a gold mine and admissions are good, but only if the patient doesn’t stay longer than insurance permits. “We don’t want more of the elderly, complicated patient,” the head of the cancer center says — actually says! — at a meeting.


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

America, America, by Ethan Canin. Geoffrey Wolff's insistently unsympathetic review harps, most unhelpfully, the questions that this novel's narrator can't or won't answer. Mr Wolff's storytelling, moreover, seems designed to make the book look flat and stale. One can think of no explanation for this piece other than personal animus.

City of Thieves, by David Benioff. Boris Fishman likes this book about the Siege of Leningrad so much that one wonders at the brevity of his review.

In its own modest way, “City of Thieves” becomes a commentary on the literary rigidities of our day. James Frey and Margaret B. Jones — gifted storytellers who, perhaps cravenly, mislabeled their work as nonfiction — are eviscerated in the same court of public opinion that venerates apple-cheeked first-timers who transcribe every heartbeat of their suburban youth but have the moxie to call it fiction. Benioff’s opening chapter, “true” or not, is a gentle reminder that fiction is often nonfiction warped by artifice, and that nonfiction is unavoidably a reinvention of what actually happened. In exposing these seams — God bless his editor for leaving in that chapter — Benioff reminds us what a beautifully ambiguous world we live in.

The God of War, by Marisa Silver. Although Claire Dederer likes this book well enough, her review, running contrary to her explicit judgment, makes it sound like a "problem" novel. It would have been more helpful to describe the experience of reading what appears to be a delicately set-forth story about the burden of premature responsibility.

The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed, by Michael Meyer. Kate Sekules writes about this book with infectious enthusiasm.

And Meyer delivers — not as a memoirist might, with emotional connection and personal transformation, but as a reporter, or an unusually conscientious travel writer. As the book’s title suggests, Meyer provides plenty of substantial insight into what is indeed a dying way of life. He also explains — exhaustively — why it is dying and how the demolitions happen: the Chinese character for “raze” is daubed on condemned buildings under cover of night by a spectral official Meyer calls “the Hand.”

Meyer is a curiously old-fashioned “watching the natives” kind of travel writer, rather than a postmodern narrator-as-character kind. In fact, he keeps himself so assiduously out of the picture that he excises even relevant personal details. When declaring his love for Beijing, for instance, Meyer also mentions having met his future wife there — an eventuality that presumably colored his experience of the city. Yet like the Hand, this fiancée never actually appears in the book.

And why, in a book about hutong, should she?

The Film Club, by David Gilmour. Douglas McGrath, the writer and director of several films (with a credit for co-writing Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway, gives this father-son book a guardedly favorable review. Aside from not much caring for Mr Gilmour's taste for metaphor, he appears to have found the book engaging.

But the book is not a catalog of film recommendations. Gilmour uses the movies and, more important, the time he and Jesse spent together watching them, as an opening to explore and maybe understand who each of them is. The book chronicles Jesse’s troubles — mostly with girls, but also with drinking and drugs. And it does not spare Gilmour: he is out of work when the story starts, at an age when finding something new is both difficult and embarrassing. But he is modest about his own problems and doesn’t ask for pity. Like any good parent, he focuses on his son and he makes us care very much about what happens to him.

High Wire: The Precarious Financial Network of American Families, by Peter Gosselin. Noam Scheiber gives this book a cautiously favorable review — it's good as far as it goes — but not unreasonably faults the author for failing to acknowledge that the prosperous age upon which we look back so nostalgically was, essentially, an economic anomaly.

Still, this is basically a quibble. In November, voters will face a choice between a Democrat who talks about alleviating the risks bearing down on lower- and middle-income Americans and a Republican who, in effect, promises to continue the Bush administration’s economic policies. Voters confused about how this choice affects their daily lives should read Gosselin’s book from cover to cover.

The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire: Churchill, Roosevelt, and the Birth of the Pax Americana, by Peter Clarke. Isaac Chotiner is not tremendously impressed with this book as a work of history, but eventually he finds a hole in which his peg fits.

“The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire” may not have sexy revelations or counterintuitive reappraisals, but Clarke, the author of “Hope and Glory: Britain 1900-2000” and other books of British history, is an engaging narrator and a skilled summarizer. His generally anti-imperialist analysis is also made more persuasive by a wistfulness about the empire that will be familiar — even understandable — to anyone who has read John Buchan or Ian Fleming or any of the brilliant Indian-born authors writing in English, from Anita Desai and her daughter Kiran to Vikram Seth.

Origins, by Amin Maalouf. Jonathan Wilson gives this family memoir a sweetly favorable, if storytelling-laden, review.

Now, just when it looked as if more or less everyone, politicians included, was close to getting the Sunni-Shiite thing down, along comes Amin Maalouf with his lovely, complex memoir, “Origins,” to remind us that Arab identity is as fluid, unsettled and ever-changing as the Mediterranean Sea where it kisses the shores of Lebanon, his country of origin, and France, where he has lived for the last 30 years.


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

Bright Shiny Morning, by James Frey. Walter Kirn's amusing but unsympathetic review faults Mr Frey, formerly in trouble for an excess of fabulism, for displaying too little of it here.

Interspersed with the formulaic stories of the tragic ingénues, the demonic celebrity, the moral bum and the tender-hearted maid, Frey provides a World Book’s worth of trivia concerning the geography, demographics and social history of Los Angeles. “In 1895, all 23 of the incorporated banks in Los Angeles County are robbed at least once.” “In 1968, Robert Kennedy is shot and killed at the Ambassador Hotel after winning the California Democratic presidential primary.” These inserts are supposed to have an ironic, ominous quality that haunts and complicates the imagined stories. Instead they remind us, repeatedly and naggingly, of the thinness of Frey’s inventions, which rival them for arid tedium, proving that this stranger to the truth is also, at least for the moment, a stranger to fiction.

One is left wondering what kind of Kool-Aid the good folks at HarperCollins are drinking.

The Wild Places, by Robert Macfarlane. Holly Morris's favorable review nevertheless manages to make this book sound anything but general-interest.

The wild, now a quality of organic vigor that lives in his urban beechwood as much as on remote summits, “prefaced us, and it will outlive us,” he writes.

And it hones our faith. For those of us disinclined toward religion — we who find our values, our hereafter, our happiness in the rhythms, the “fizz and riot” of the natural world — Macfarlane’s map, which is this book, is a kindred, bewitching tract. And like the wild it parses, it quietly returns us to ourselves.

I can scarcely believe that The Wild Places is the volume of spiritual uplift that Ms Morris's review so strongly suggests.

House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family, by Paul Fisher. If this book has an ideal reader, Hermione Lee's review is not going to help to bring them together. Consider the last paragraph:

Fisher’s most disconcerting decision is to refer, throughout, to Henry James as “Harry.” This is fair enough when he is a little boy, but leads to trouble when he becomes a major novelist and legendary subject of biography. So we get “Harry’s smash-hit novella ‘Daisy Miller,’” and “Harry finished his final installment of ‘The Portrait of a Lady,’” and Leon Edel’s “painstaking analysis of Harry.” It’s as if I had written a whole biography of Edith Wharton referring to her by her childhood nickname, “Pussy,” or as if Richard Holmes had called Shelley throughout by his family name, “Bysshe.” Fisher presumably wants us to feel intimate not with the famous, celebrated, public “Master,” but with “the vulnerable, struggling Harry James.” This is why, I suppose, there is rather little in the book about Henry’s (or William’s) writings. Fisher wants to show, not the author but the child, the son and brother, persisting as the essential self. So he pictures Henry James, after the deaths of his parents and all his siblings, as a profoundly lonely figure, playing down his adult friendships and professional relationships. He ends his book (in yet another imitation of Lytton Strachey’s much-imitated ending of “Queen Victoria”) with a deathbed rush back to James’s earliest memories of childhood. It is a thoroughly infantilizing agenda, in which no one in the James family, least of all the novelist, is allowed to put childhood and family life behind him, and to be grown-up.

One to Nine: The Inner Life of Numbers, by Andrew Hodges. Although Jordan Ellenberg appears to have enjoyed this book, he rather fatally backs up his offhand remark that it is beset by "what Stephen Colbert might call 'mathiness':"

a series of fervent gestures that gives the impression that mathematical ideas are being expressed, but doesn’t actually deliver the goods. Readers will enjoy sprinting through “One to Nine,” and they’ll certainly learn that there’s much more to the subject than the algebra and calculus taught in high school. But they might not be able to explain exactly what.

Oh dear.

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