Reading Matter
Books On the Side
Books In Brief

Reviewing the Book Review

Killer Children

20 July 2008

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

All good things come to an end: no Yeses this week.

Margo Rabb's Essay, "I'm Y.A., and I'm O.K.", looks at the mixed curse of being marketed as a Young Adult writer. Novelist Sherman Alexie wishes that, in his case, it had happened sooner.

In a second essay, "On Poetry," David Orr appraises The Warrior, a book of poems that has made its author, Frances Richey, wealthy, for a poet. Mr Orr is bit green about the gills:

So “The Warrior” is the poetic equivalent of a movie like The Shawshank Redemption: unsurprising and sentimental on the one hand, likable and competently constructed on the other.

Virginia Heffernan's roundup of self-help books is amusing, but don't ask me what section of the Times it belongs in. Certainly not the Book Review.


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

Real World, by Natsuo Kirino (translated by Philip Gabriel). When Kathryn Harrison covers a book for the Book Review, you know that it is unlikely to focus on well-mannered tea parties; pain parties would be more like it. This regularity has the effect of creating a literary genre: books that make editors think of Kathryn Harrison. Real World comes off as nothing less than exemplary.

Noir fiction generally posits a moral universe as deliberate and stark as that in the novels of Dostoyevsky, its plots unfolding in a moody urban landscape marked by corruption and incontinence, a setting that transcends its role as stage to become player. As Dostoyevsky did in “Crime and Punishment,” Kirino pushes her antihero to murder as a means of philosophical statement and communicates an authorial anxiety that contemporary social ills will destroy humanity. But while Dostoyevsky sets up a contest between Christian love and a pernicious nihilism that inspires barbarity, Kirino’s “Real World” offers no possibility of god or redemption.

Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam, by Mark LeVine. Howard Hampton's guardedly favorable review of this curious inside look at the North African youth scene — the author is a rock musician himself — suggests that a heavy-metal initiative might be just thing to distract young Muslims from the excitements of terrorism.

Even though these antisocial bands want no part of hard-liners like the mystical Justice and Spirituality Association in Morocco or the spooky Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (and the disdain is often mutual), LeVine thinks if they could all put aside their petty differences and work together, they could start a domino effect in the Middle East like the one that toppled the Eastern bloc. (He’s like the straight arrow in comic books who’d invariably look around at the scene of Armageddon and say with a sigh, “If only we could have harnessed their mutant energy for goodness.”) The punch line of LeVine’s informative, valuable and moderately mad book is twofold: this conscientious anti-imperialist has written a swell tract in favor of large-scale cultural imperialism — a Marshall Amps Plan — and his program is undoubtedly the first to enlist death metal as the spearhead of a new Peace Corps(e).

The Prince of Frogtown, by Rick Bragg. Christopher Dickey's hard-headedly favorable review suggests that Southerners and rural folk may find this reconstruction of a long-lost father's life more interesting than the urban likes of me, for whom the story may be no more than pathetic. In other words, Mr Dickey does his job.

Charles Bragg will remain a puzzlement. But Rick Bragg has made of the dark shadow in his life a figure of flesh and blood, passion and tragedy, and a father, at last, whose memory he can live with. And that is no small thing for any man to do.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective, by Kate Summerscale. Marilyn Stasio's enthusiastic review all but credits this book with putting the "Ur" in "Murder."

More important, Summerscale accomplishes what modern genre authors hardly bother to do anymore, which is to use a murder investigation as a portal to a wider world. When put in historical context, every aspect of this case tells us something about mid-Victorian society, from prevailing attitudes about women (“prone to insanity”), children (“full of savage whims and impulses,” according to one 19th-century physician) and servants (“outsiders who might be spies or seducers”) to the morality-based intellectual constructs that codified such views of human behavior.


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

Palace Council, by Stephen L Carter. Thomas Mallon, perspicacious critic though he be, is perhaps not the ideal reader of this book, of which he writes, "There is, believe it or not, a fine novel begging to get out of all this Da Vinci-coded nonsense."

Of Men and Their Mothers, by Mameve Medwed. Ann Hodgman really like Ms Medwed's last book. This one, however, she finds a bit flat and stale. "There’s a reason horrible mothers-in-law are a comedy staple: they’re predictable and not too threatening."

Come On Shore And We Will Kill And Eat You All: A New Zealand Story, by Christina Thompson. Alison McCulloch could certainly like this book more than she does. Although she devotes some space to backing up the judgment that Ms Thompson's "her observations about the enduring effects of colonization can be penetrating," she is very much put off by an out-of-date condescension that she detects in the writer's understanding.

Thompson persists with this meeting-of-alien-peoples theme as the tenuous link between the memoir part of her book, in which she is cast as a kind of explorer charting new cross-cultural territory in her relationship with a Maori (“I was small and blond, he was a 6-foot-2, 200-pound Polynesian. I had a Ph.D., he went to trade school”), and the history part (the European discovery and colonization of New Zealand). The late-20th-century pub incident, for example, segues into accounts of 18th-century encounters between Maoris and explorers like James Cook and Marc-Joseph Marion du Fresne. Both of them were ultimately killed by the Polynesians they met; Thompson married hers.

This is unhelpful.


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

Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China, by Fuchsia Dunlop. Dawn Drzal makes the usual world-historical claims for this book —

Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper is both an insightful, entertaining, scrupulously reported exploration of China’s foodways and a swashbuckling memoir studded with recipes (not converted, alas, from metric measurements) . But what makes it a distinguished contribution to the literature of gastronomy is its demonstration, through one person’s intense experience, that food is not a mere reflection of culture but a potent shaper of cultural identity.

— but nothing in her review supports them. A book for Wednesday's Dining In/Dining Out section.

Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes, by Jim Holt. William Grimes's distinctly unenthusiastic review stops short of branding this book as the sort of thing that convalescents are saddled with by well-meaning friends — but only just.

In the end, Holt seems less interested in getting to the bottom of his subject than he is in getting to the end of his assignment. “Slight” would be too weighty a word for this soap bubble of a book. Even after being plumped out with illustrations, it barely qualifies as a stocking stuffer.

Permalink  Portico About this feature

Copyright (c) 2008 Pourover Press

Write to me