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Reviewing the Book Review

Atmospheric Disturbances

136 July 2008

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

A summer treat for me: only ten titles receive full reviews this week. On the downside, half of them are Maybes, and one is a No.

Rachel Donadio's Essay is a birthday card: "The Leopard Turns 50." Ms Donadio quotes a piquant remark made by Lampedusa's adopted son:

In a recent appearance at New York University, Lanza Tomasi acknowledged that “the division in class” depicted in the novel is “unredeemable.” And yet, Lanza said, like all great novels, The Leopard transcends such boundaries. Reading it, “no one believes he’s the lower class,” Lanza said. The “miracle” Lampedusa produced in this novel is that “everyone believes he’s the prince.”


The following titles belong on your bookshelf.

Beijing Coma, by Ma Jian. Jess Row's favorable review is a bit on the short side, but it leaves no doubt about the novel's importance.

That indelible final image of protest, coupled with Ma’s insistence on telling the story of the Tiananmen protests in such fastidious detail, makes “Beijing Coma” not only an extraordinarily effective novel but also an important political statement, appearing as it does immediately before the 2008 Olympics and a year before the 20th anniversary of the June 4 massacre. In a preface included in the Chinese edition, Ma makes his intentions explicit, arguing that it is the Chinese people who are truly comatose: “Inside Dai Wei,” he writes, “there is a strong, resilient person who remembers, and only memory can help people regain the brightness of freedom.” In this sense, for all its savagery, “Beijing Coma” is one of the most optimistic novels I’ve encountered in a long time.

The Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars, by Andrew X Pham. Matt Steinglass's warmly favorable review begins with some very useful placement, something that, when it is positive (as opposed to invidious), is always useful.

Do we really need yet another Vietnam memoir? Yes, as it turns out. True, every second American who debarked in Saigon has written about the experience, but there are far fewer accounts of the war by Vietnamese in English, and much of what exists, on both the northern and southern sides, is marred by propaganda. Few books have combined the historical scope and the literary skill to give the foreign reader a sense of events from a Vietnamese perspective. Le Ly Hayslip’s “When Heaven and Earth Changed Places” gave us the war through the eyes of a South Vietnamese peasant girl turned sex worker, while Nguyen Qui Duc’s “Where the Ashes Are” told us what it was like to watch his father, a high-ranking official in Hue, be taken captive by the Vietcong. Bao Ninh’s autobiographical novel “The Sorrow of War” gave us the viewpoint of a disillusioned North Vietnamese grunt. And now we can add Andrew Pham’s “Eaves of Heaven” to this list of indispensable books.

If you know, or know of, the other books that Mr Steinglass mentions, then you will have a context for the remainder of his review, making it considerably more enlightening than mere enthusiasm would have been.


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

Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen. Liesl Schillinger probably can't be held responsible for scaring me with the possibility that this apparently very clever novel may work along the lines of Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics.

So far, this could be farce, trompe l’oeil, Ionesco, Magritte. But the story quickly changes course. Seeking a logical explanation for the presence of the interloper (it can’t be a case of “Rema-based psychosis,” he conveniently concludes), Leo delves into the research of a quasi-paranormal scientific association called the Royal Academy of Meteorology, in particular the publications of a man named Tzvi Gal-Chen, whose work on Doppler radar...

Oh dear.

The Size of the World, by Joan Silber. Craig Seligman's favorable review gives a fairly good idea of what reading these stories might be like:

Silber’s writing also seems unremarkable. Few of her sentences call out to be quoted or even remembered, really. Her first two stories ... frankly seem a little bit pallid. But something in them keeps you reading; you may feel lulled but not bored. And as you continue, you perceive what a serious misjudgment “pallid” is. Slowly, almost while your attention is somewhere else, the intensity level rises. And rises. Notes sounded softly in the early stories deepen and resonate, until Silber’s quiet music has turned symphonic.


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

Girl Factory, by Jim Krusoe. Julia Scheeres's iffy review begins with a spectacularly wrong-headed riff about yogurt and goes downhill from there. Only the milk of human kindness that I've got by the quart in every vein prevents my slipping this title among the Noes.

Several motifs from Krusoe’s earlier fiction return here, including a preoccupation with life extension and a subplot featuring animal geniuses. He never explains the creepy old men, who leave behind hundred-dollar bills as well as wrappers for breath mints, antacids and toothpicks. The women are also enigmas. Perhaps they symbolize the rampant exploitation of young women everywhere — by sexist filmmakers, predatory bosses, polygamist sect leaders, infertile couples and so on. Their silence makes their mysterious plight all the more unsettling. Are they victims or pioneers? Women who took an anti-aging obsession a step too far? Do they dream of future violence like the “pre-cogs” in the film “Minority Report”? And what moral obligation does Jonathan have to these inanimate beings — who, because we know so little about them, seem disturbingly more doll-like than human, and therefore less deserving of our pity.

Who says there's no such thing as bad publicity? This headache-inducing stuff is worse than nothing.

The Outcast, by Sadie Jones. Louisa Thomas's review is hardly enthusiastic, but it seems fair-minded.

And yet, although “The Outcast” doesn’t feel original, it’s consistently interesting. Jones’s portrait of the claustrophobia and conformity of 1950s England is sharp and assured, a convincing illustration of the dangerous consequences of a muzzled society. In prison, Lewis is convinced there is no place for him, that he is “wrecked.” But when he returns to Waterford and tries to resume his life, he comes to realize that “all of the people who managed in the world” are also “wrecked people,” that “everybody was in a broken, bad world that fitted them just right.”

Ark of the Liberties: America and the World, by Ted Widmer. David Oshinsky gives this book about American foreign policy a review that barely more favorable than neutral. He also makes it sound more like the kind of throwaway rhetorical pamphlet that Washington types like to turn out than a serious history. (Mr Widmer now heads the John Carter Brown Library at Brown, but he worked in the Clinton Administration.)

Bill Clinton and George W. Bush neatly frame Widmer’s conclusion. Clinton, we learn, could judge the line between American virtue and American hubris, between a truly dangerous enemy and a simply obnoxious one; Bush had no clue. As for the future, Widmer is counting on a return to the “peculiar mixture of realism and idealism” that has served America so well for so long. And praying, no doubt, for a Democratic landslide come Nov. 4.

Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, by Richard Brody. Stephanie Zacharek isn't overly impressed by this book, but her account of it is clear enough to recommend it to those who might not share her opinion, quite drolly put, of the famous cinéaste:

Richard Brody’s “Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard” is a story of transformation, a painstaking account of a lifelong artistic journey. Now we know how one of the greatest of all filmmakers — the man who so radically changed cinema in 1959 with his debut feature, “Breathless” — became an intolerable gasbag.

Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World, by David Maraniss. Reading David Margolick's singularly unimpressed review, one has to wonder if dropping the awful subtitle would have signifcantly altered the book's complexion.

There’s no doubt, as Maraniss too regularly reminds us, that the Rome Olympics took place against the backdrop of momentous events. The cold war raged. Cuba was falling into the Soviet orbit, and the Soviets had just shot down an American U-2 spy plane. And though, remarkably, the two Germanys still fielded a single team, a wall would soon divide Berlin. But when you think of it, momentous events enfold just about every Olympics, including the forthcoming one. The world is a caldron in which something crucial is always bubbling up.


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

The Snake Charmer: A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge, by Jamie James. Donald G McNeil's review of this book about the late Joe Slowisnski is sadly convincing:

Something in the way [Slowinski] told the tale left me feeling not terribly sorry for him. He was still bragging — an exhibitionist with a death wish. I kept getting the same feeling as I read “The Snake Charmer,” Jamie James’s brief biography of Joe Slowinski, a promising herpetologist at the California Academy of Sciences who died at age 38 on a collecting trip to Burma.

No matter how hard James tries to make Slowinski sound roguishly charming, how often he mentions his “disarming, gap-toothed smile,” how earnestly he swears in the epilogue that he sorely feels the loss of someone he never met, I could not help reading between the lines: intentionally or not, he makes his subject sound like a Class A jerk.

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