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Reviewing the Book Review

House Proud

27 July 2008

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

With a little more point, this would have been an unsually fine issue of the Book Review. All four novels would have benefited from a clearer focus upon the authors' way with words.

Rachel Donadio's Essay, "More Bang for the Book," is about the money that famous writers can make on the after-dinner circuit, and the charms of being taken up and them dumped by Royce-Carlton, the premier booking agency.


The following titles belong on your bookshelf.

Buying In; The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are, by Rob Walker. Farhad Manjoo's favorable review makes it clear that to read this book is to complete the public service that Mr Walker initiated in writing it.

Few observers have plumbed the subterranean poetry of marketing as thoroughly as Walker, who writes Consumed, a weekly shopping-culture column in The New York Times Magazine. In Buying In, Walker aims to lift the cloud of self-delusion that obscures our buying habits. Every indicator suggests we’re the shoppingest society that’s ever lived; every day, we purchase more stuff, produce more trash, descend deeper into debt and feel the press of commercial desire grow ever more intense. Walker, mining research from psychology and economics to explain the unlikely rise of several brands, argues that our susceptibility to marketing arises from our ignorance of its pervasiveness. Indeed, in recent years the ad industry has adopted an underground method of selling that depends on our complicit embrace of brands. Walker calls it “murketing,” and once you understand it, you notice its footprint everywhere.

Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists, by Susan Neiman. Philosopher Simon Blackburn gives this serious book on ethics such a strong review that, even though many readers might find the topic heavy going (we don't see enough of the writing to judge that), it comes to seem nothing less than indispensable.

One of Neiman’s favorite examples of heroes is the Abraham who questioned God’s decision to destroy Sodom on the grounds that it would be unjust to any good people in the city. Saying no or even “Are you sure?” to infinite power is probably high on most people’s list of heroisms, one they hope, but doubt, they might achieve themselves. A more surprising hero at first sight is the wily Odysseus, the crafty wanderer whose morals are more frequently the target of raised eyebrows. But Odysseus represents the kind of engagement with the world coupled with an awareness of possibility that Neiman admires. His vitality, his adaptability, and his touching humanity are better models for grown-up living than the cardboard cutouts that inhabit most people’s moral imaginations. Plato made a cognate point by banishing the artists from his ideal republic altogether, supposing that the human imagination is too malleable to withstand without corruption their assaults of fantasy and falsehood. Again, it is a sign of our times that we find anything outlandish in this view.


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

My Name Is Will: A Novel of Sex, Drugs, and Shakespeare, by Jess Winfield. Liesl Schillinger's enthusiastic review leaves little doubt that this book, by the founder of The Reduced Shakespeare Company, is an entertainment.

In “My Name Is Will,” Winfield may be accused of treating his favorite literary lion unceremoniously. But, after all, no gentleman is a hero to his varlet.

My soul is utterly dead to this kind of funny business, but many readers will doubtless appreciate its invigorating manner.

Evening Is The Whole Day, by Preeta Samarasan. Allegra Goodman gives this novel about Malaysia a very favorable review.

But even if the seams don’t match perfectly, Samarasan’s fabric is gorgeous. Her ambitious spiraling plot, her richly embroidered prose, her sense of place, and her psychological acuity are stunning. Readers, responding to the setting, will immediately compare her to Kiran Desai. I think Samarasan’s dialogue and description are reminiscent of Eudora Welty, another woman who knew how to write about family and race and class and secrets and heat.

Thrumpton Hall: A Memoir of Life in My Father's House, by Miranda Seymour. Charles McGrath's ebullient review tells you all you need to know in the second paragraph.

It’s also the story of her father, and not the least of its accomplishments is that it instantly catapults him into the front rank of impossible and eccentric English parents — right up there with the overbearing Thomas Butler, nightmarish father of Samuel; with Evelyn Waugh, who wrote that “I despise all my seven children equally”; and even with Lord Redesdale, Nancy Mitford’s “Farve,” who once kicked a young man off the family estate just because he carried a pocket comb. None of them, as far as we know, made the women in the family wear wigs. For formal occasions, though, George FitzRoy Seymour, who found the natural hair of his wife and daughter greatly wanting, insisted they wear hairpieces.

Although, given the nature of this book's subject (English eccentricity), quoting a passage to give a sense of Ms Seymour's style would have helped to place her somewhere on the genre's scale, presumably between Gerald Durrell and Edith Sitwell.

Spiral Jetta: A Road Trip Through the Land Art of the American West, by Erin Hogan. According to Tom Vanderbilt's guardedly favorable review, this isn't a great art book — the writer is underwhelmed by the objects of her pilgrimage — but an engaging travel book.

I was never quite sure what Hogan was looking for when she set out — self-fulfillment or some new insights into what art is, or what it is for — or indeed whether she found it. But I loved the ride. In Spiral Jetta, an unashamedly honest, slyly uproarious, ever-probing book, art doesn’t magically have the power to change lives, but it can, perhaps no less powerfully, change ways of seeing.

Assisted Loving: True Tales of Double-Dating With My Dad, by Bob Morris. James Poniewozik gives this situational memoir a smiling review.

There are a lot of lessons learned and circles completed and people learning what they realize they knew all along in Assisted Loving, and despite Morris’s pre-emptive self-consciousness — “What is this, Dad? Tuesdays with Morris?” he asks at one point — it can be a little pat. But then, part of what this funny, good-hearted story says about romance is that, at any age, it comes in part through the willingness to be unembarrassedly corny. And maybe through some well-meaning meddling. Nothing says love, this book tells us, like a good strong push.

Books: A Memoir, by Larry McMurtry. Although James Campbell doesn't give this book an unfavorable review, it's obvious that he didn't like reading it. Happily, his liberal quotations give the curious reader, who may already know a thing or two about Mr McMurtry's affable style, plenty to go on.

The End of Food, by Paul Roberts. John T Edge gives this book about the shakiness of current food production a guardedly favorable review. The subject is evidently of the first importance. However:

Roberts is an expert at marshaling facts and collating figures, but a workmanlike writer. He travels to, among other food crisis flashpoints, Kenya and China. No matter the locale, Roberts measures inputs and outputs. And he draws conclusions from the differences. Our modern “food system can only truly be understood as an economic system,” he argues, “one that, like all economic systems, has winners and losers, suffers periodic and occasionally profound instability and is plagued by the same inherent and irreducible gap between what we demand and what is actually supplied.”


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

Say You're One of Them, by Uwem Akpan. Charles Taylor's review of this short story collection suggests a very distressing confusion, on the reviewers part, of the words "humanist" and "humanitarian." I hope that this is a personal quirk, and not evidence of some ghastly virus sweeping through the younger generation.

Clouding the review even further is Mr Taylor's desire to tell us how Mr Akpan's stories could be better. That sort of thing is never helpful.

December, by Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop. Polly Morrice likes this novel, which is centered on a gifted child who won't talk, but her too-short review makes it sound more oddball than interesting. If the book is as good as we're led to believe, then it deserves better treatment.


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

Once You're Lucky, Twice You're Good: The Rebirth of Silicon Valley and the Rise of Web 2.0, by Sarah Lucy. One's misgivings about this book's coverage in the Book Review is amply confirmed by Katie Hafner's tepid review: we're dealing here with an expanded magazine article, and certainly not something written for the ages:

The writing is, at best, informal. For instance, the last time I checked the American Heritage Dictionary, in spite of how computer trade journalists might choose to use the word, “architect” was not recognized as a verb, to say nothing of “rearchitect.” And Lacy’s fifth-grade teacher would no doubt wince at the profusion of incomplete sentences. (“Probably a good thing few women work there.” And “The time Jay and Marc were chatting when Sumner Redstone sauntered up.”) Then again, everything happens so quickly in Silicon Valley that perhaps there is no time to write a proper sentence.

Such a burbly book belongs alongside new product reviews in the Business Day section.

Collections of Nothing, by William Davies King. Henry Alford's reliably droll review utterly fails to explain the University of Chicago Press imprint that this book, which is about just what it says it is, bears.

Part memoir and part disquisition on the psychological impulses behind the urge to accumulate, Collections of Nothing is a wonderfully frank and engaging look at one man’s detritus-fueled pathology. King’s honesty and ambivalence about his pastime only increases his emotional connection to the reader. I wanted, by turns, to breast-feed and strangle him.

This title belongs in Personal Health.

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