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Reviewing the Book Review

Black Sites

3 August 2008

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

A lackluster issue, certainly so far as novels go. Three of the six titles get dithery, disenchanted reviews, while a fourth seems to belong in one of the crime roundups.

Geoff Nicholson's Essay, "My Literary Malady," is about gout. Mr Nicholson is a sufferer.


The following titles belong on your bookshelf.

The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror turned Into a War on American Ideals, by Jane Mayer. Alan Brinkley's well-engaged summary of Ms Mayer's book leaves no doubt that, although the Bush Administration is not the first American government to disregard Constitutional safeguards of civil rights, it is the worst to do so.

There is no happy ending to this sordid and shameful story. Despite growing political pressure, despite Supreme Court decisions challenging the detainment policy, despite increasing revelations of the once-hidden program that have shocked the conscience of the world, there is little evidence that the secret camps and the torture programs have been abandoned or even much diminished. New heads of the Defense and Justice Departments have resisted addressing the torture issue, aware that dozens of their colleagues would face legal jeopardy should they do so. And the presidential candidates of both parties have so far shown little interest in confronting the use of torture or recommitting the country to the Geneva Conventions and to America’s own laws and traditions.

The Bush administration is not, of course, the first or only regime to violate civil liberties. John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt all authorized or tolerated terrible violations of civil and human rights, all of them in response to great national and global crises. In some respects, the Bush administration is simply following a familiar path by responding to real dangers with illegal and deplorable methods. But Jane Mayer’s extraordinary and invaluable book suggests that it would be difficult to find any precedent in American history for the scale, brutality and illegality of the torture and degradation inflicted on detainees over the last six years; and that it would be even harder to imagine a set of policies more likely to increase the dangers facing the United States and the world.


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

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski. Mike Peed's neutral review concludes with a helpful balance of what Mr Peed regards as the pros and the cons of this already-popular novel.

Wroblewski seems aware of the two outsize risks he has undertaken — not merely deciding to retell “Hamlet,” but combining it with a near categorically twee subject: slobbering, tail-wagging dogs. He handles his task with impressive subtlety, even when allowing the narrative a dog’s-eye view. But while sections of this book achieve a piercing elegance, the novel too often slides into the torpid mode of field guides and breeding manuals, with Wroblewski’s penchant for detail getting in the way of a full exploration of his characters’ emotional cores. This concern with the exterior frequently eclipses his attention to the interior, a self-indulgence that the first-time author may well outgrow.

Alive in Necropolis, by Doug Dorst. Given this novel's setting (a suburb of San Francisco that's mostly graveyard) and some of its characters (ghosts), Mark Costello might have taken greater pains to assess the extent to which this book's construction is as fanciful as its inspiration. Instead, the conclusion of his storytelling-laden review is itself fanciful — as opposed to intelligible.

Awareness is the high prize of the novel. Characters who save themselves from deathliness and dissolution do so through compassion and open eyes. As Mercer begins to hear and see Lillie Coit and the other souls around him, he is drawn into a struggle in the graveyard. He is needed there and this is what he needs.

Whatever does that mean?

Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 pages, by Ammon Shea. Nicholson Baker is just the man to review this quirkotic memoir. We're assured that it is more than a book report on a stunt.

The effect of this book on me was to make me like Ammon Shea and, briefly, to hate English. What a choking, God-awful mash it is! Surely French is better. Then I recovered and saw its greatness afresh. The O.E.D., Shea notes, is “a catalog of the foibles of the human condition.” Shea has walked the wildwood of our gnarled, ancient speech and returned singing incomprehensible sounds in a language that turns out to be our own.

Iron Fists: Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State, by Stephen Heller. Aside from a few quibbles, Christopher Benfey is enthusiastic about this visual study of the interplay between graphic design (and other symbolic manipulations) and totalitarian regimes in the last century.

For the most part, Heller’s prose is as clear and uncluttered as the graphic design he admires. He takes no ideological position and does not distinguish between repressive regimes of the right (sometimes called “authoritarian”) or the left. Nor does he advance any overarching theory about the destiny of art in totalitarian regimes, though he leaves no doubt about the grim fate of ordinary citizens. Given his dark subject, he can be forgiven for abusing adjectives like “infamous,” “horrific,” “diabolical” and “heinous,” though such words lose some of their power with the third or fourth repetition. They also obscure the continuity between branding campaigns of the past and our own battles over flag pins and the Pledge of Allegiance.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? Memoirs of a Literary Forger, by Lee Israel. Although Thomas Mallon convincingly presents this true-crime story as an engaging bagatelle, I don't know what he was thinking by comparing the author to "Dawn Powell and Helene Hanff, women clinging to New York literary life, or its fringes, by their talented fingernails."

The Three of Us: A Family Story, by Julia Blackburn. Liesl Schillinger clearly likes this book, but her account of Ms Blackburn's memoir of her egotistical parents is so spectacularly harrowing that the one gropes in vain for the literary redemption that alone can save such a book from the charge of prurience.

Julia Blackburn’s memoir of her appalling upbringing at the hands of monstrously self-involved, catastrophically unfit parents manages to be completely distinct yet hauntingly familiar. A rival to K2 in the multipeaked landscape of domestic chagrin, it recalls Edward Gorey’s bleak faux-Victorian cartoon book “The Hapless Child.” In that grim fable, illustrated with spidery pen-and-ink drawings, Gorey relayed the epic misfortunes of a little girl named Charlotte Sophia, abducted by an evil man with a mustache, brought “to a low place,” then sold to a “drunken brute” who forced her to make artificial flowers to keep him in liquor. “She lived on scraps and tap water,” a caption reports, under an image of the frail Charlotte Sophia, clad in a thin nightdress, teetering on a broken chair and reaching for a spigot. “From time to time the brute got the horrors,” reads another panel, which shows him raving as Charlotte Sophia cowers in a corner. Young Julia’s travails were far worse. The low place she inhabited was her childhood home, the venue for George-and-Martha-style brawls and drunken, drugged, salacious revels. Her captors were her parents.


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

Black and White and Dead All Over, by John Darnton. Joshua Hammer enthusiastically describes this as "an Agatha Christie whodunit as written by Carl Hiaasen," but fails to explain why the book has been singled out from other crime books for stand-alone coverage.

Steer Toward Rock, by Fae Myenne Ng. Ligaya Mishan's murky review stresses the exotic nature of this novel, which hinges on a tattletale operation, the Chinese Confession Program, that might be hard to believe under the sign of any previous US administration. But Mishan is not taken with Ms Ng's writing, and she finds that the narrative "founders."

So Long At the Fair, by Christina Schwarz. In this classically unhelpful review, Danielle Trussoni conveys two things only: her own lack of interest in this book, and doubt that it merits coverage in the Book Review.

Mercury Under My Tongue, by Sylvain Trudel (translated by Sheila Fischman). Tayt Harlin's review of this novel about an adolescent dying of cancer is one of those pieces that suggest a much better book than the allotted space does. The comparison to Thomas Bernhard's novels alone begs for fuller treatment.

The House on First Street: My New Orleans Story, by Julia Reed. Blake Bailey's warmly favorable review so stoutly refuses to place this memoir of Big Easy good life, only mildly disturbed by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, within the context of the city's that colossal human and cultural losses. I could not make up my mind whether the book is banally Junior-League or downright obscene.

Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism, by Kevin Phillips. If it were not for the importance of this book's discussions, it would belong among the Noes, for it is essentially a pamphlet, and already, according to Daniel Gross's all-but-unfavorable review, somewhat out of date.

At root, he sees the American political economy as a system in which supercapable policy makers and businesspeople sit around and decide what will happen and then put the policies in place to make sure it does. The reality is that the financial elite contains as many screw-ups as it does masters of the universe. And for someone so hostile to speculation, Phillips sure engages in a lot of it. Though he admits he has “no personal firsthand knowledge” and is “not interested in becoming a conspiracy investigator,” he reports that some people think the President’s Working Group on Financial Markets, which consists of officials from the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve Board and elsewhere, has turned into the “Plunge Protection Team,” whose purpose is to use government resources to keep markets perpetually buoyant, protect big firms from losses and “suppress what economist Joseph Schumpeter called ‘creative destruction.’” If there is a Plunge Protection Team, it’s doing a profoundly awful job. Creative destruction is alive and well and living at 383 Madison Avenue, the former headquarters of the firm formerly known as Bear Stearns.

Off the Deep End: The Probably Insane Idea That I Could Swim My Way Through a Midlife Crisis — and Qualify for the Olympics, by W Hodding Carter. Another borderline No. Bill Strickland writes,

In 1984, swimming for Kenyon College, Carter won a national championship; he was tempted to delay postgraduation plans and train for the Olympics, but heeded his father, who told him it was time to move on. Almost 20 years later, at 41 and failing at his career and his relationship with his wife, Lisa (with whom he has four children), Carter decides to fix his life by taking another shot at his dream.

The premise is irresistible for those of us who believe sport is a metaphor for life. Carter’s best chance to qualify for the 2008 Games, the 50-meter freestyle, an all-out sprint that’s over in about 20 seconds, also proves an apt metaphor for his writing; he tells his story with the same zeal, putting on a real show without going deep.

America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11: The Misunderstood Years Between the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Start of the War on Terror, by Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier. If the editors truly believed that this book deserves coverage in the Book Review, then they ought to have found a more enthusiastic reviewer. Nicholas Thompson does everything but call it a total flop before sounding the note of faint praise.

Straight history like this is valuable, particularly for an oft-neglected era. But as hinted at by the ambiguous title, the book doesn’t fulfill its promise of reinterpretation. America Between the Wars, after all, could describe any peaceful era since independence.

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