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Reviewing the Book Review


10 August 2008

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

Four reviews this week discuss books about the failures of bad American policies or the wickedness of even worse ones. It is difficult to know to whom, at this point, such titles are aimed, if not a prosecutor in The Hague.

In this week's Essay, "Cover Stories," graphic designer Stephen Heller writes about three celebrated novelists and the artists who designed their latest dust jackets.


The following titles belong on your bookshelf.

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us), by Tom Vanderbilt. Mary Roach presents this book as vital, possibly urgent.

This basic truth — feeling safe kills — lies beneath many of the book’s insights. Americans think roundabouts are more dangerous than intersections with traffic lights. Roundabouts require you to adjust your speed, to merge, in short, to pay attention. At an intersection, we simply watch the light. And so we may not notice the red-light runner coming at us or the pedestrian stepping off the curb. A study that followed 24 intersections that had been converted from signals or stop signs to roundabouts showed an almost 90 percent drop in fatal crashes after the change.

For similar reasons, S.U.V.’s are more dangerous than cars. Not just because they’re slower to stop and harder to maneuver, but because — by conferring a sense of safety — they invite careless behavior. “The safer cars get,” Vanderbilt says, “the more risks drivers choose to take.” (S.U.V. drivers are more likely to not bother with their seat belts, to talk on cellphones, and to not wear seat belts while talking on cellphones.) So it goes for much of the driving universe. More people are killed while crossing in crosswalks than while jaywalking. Drivers pass bicyclists more closely on a road with bike lanes than on one without.

Aha! Jaywalking is safer!


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

187 Reasons Mexicans Can't Cross the Border: Undocuments 1971-2007; and Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems, by Juan Felipe Herrera. Stephen Burt's enthusiastic review of these collections of apparently difficult verse gives a fairly good idea of what a reader will be in for:

Half of the World in Light draws on all Herrera’s 14 books of verse for adults (though not on his writings for children): it contains all the kinds of poems he writes — verse orations and evocative monologues, but also imitations of imaginary paintings, travel poems about the Middle East and visual-typographic verse in the manner of e. e. cummings. Herrera’s talent invites such amplitude, though Half of the World may overdo it; it seems too various, too generous and simply too long to make an ideal introduction.

Along with 187 Reasons, however, it is the introduction we have. Herrera’s worst poems seem disorganized, excessive, frantic; his best seem disheveled, excited, uncommonly free. “A poem,” he promises, brings “a way to attain a life without boundaries.” All life, all art, involves boundaries, if only those of birth and death. Some poets keep us conscious of those boundaries; others, like Herrera, discover their powers by defying them. Many poets since the 1960s have dreamed of a new hybrid art, part oral, part written, part English, part something else: an art grounded in ethnic identity, fueled by collective pride, yet irreducibly individual too. Many poets have tried to create such an art: Herrera is one of the first to succeed.

Alfred and Emily, by Doris Lessing. I found Caryn James's generally favorable review somewhat confusing. It goes back and forth between honoring the author's "generosity" and noting her anger.

The entire project of “Alfred and Emily” is more revealing than either part of the book alone. The novella can be flat-footed; the biographical material is more thorough in Under My Skin. But it’s amazing to witness Lessing, at 88, still ferociously grappling with the meaning of her parents’ shattered lives. Of course, in explaining them she is also explaining herself. And this book continues her obsession with alternate realities.

This Land Is Their Land: Reports From A Divided Nation, by Barbara Ehrenreich. Eve Fairbanks is not enthusiastic about this collection of recent journalism, largely because it seems to strike her as dated, with rather remote villains.

But the first thing you notice about Ehrenreich’s book is that the villains who did the snatching are only vaguely present. When the people oppressing the poor are mentioned, they’re the vague, crudely drawn fat cats of populist morality tales: “plutocrats”; the “bloated overclass”; people who “for all we know ... sip their single malts in mahogany-walled dens” and tool around in private jets.

Descent Into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, by Ahmed Rashid. Raymond Bonner's favorable review is difficult to assess, because one has already read — alas! — too many reviews of too many "blistering critiques" of the Bush Administration. One might as well, it seems, be discussing the matter in Latin.

My Guantánamo Diary: The Detainees and the Stories They Told Me, by Mahvish Rukhsana Khan. Jeffrey Rosen's favorable review is crisp:

I began My Guantánamo Diary wondering whether Khan was too credulous, especially after she conceded that “it may appear to some readers that I gave ample, and perhaps naïve, credence to the prisoners’ points of view.” But by the end, I was more or less persuaded by her conclusion that most of the Afghans she met were not guilty of crimes against the United States, and for a simple reason: the military ultimately released most of them.


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

The Challenge: Hamdan v Rumsfeld and the Fight Over Presidential Power, by Jonathan Mahler. Bryan Burrough is an unsympathetic reviewer here.

Argh, I hate when this happens. No doubt you’ve had the same experience. You pick up a book by a first-rate author on an important topic. He’s done all his homework. Everything is explained clearly. The writing is professional, no words wasted. But when you close the book you are forced to conclude: You wanted an aria, and all that’s on the page is a terribly intricate and somber hymn.

A reader who actually enjoyed this book would probably have presented this problem more clearly.

The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life, by David Carr. Again, what is the use of a review written by a bored reader? "I don't know about you," writes Bruce Handy, "but for me, stories about other people's partying wear thin real quick."

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami (translated by Philip Gabriel). After a spell of admiring-sounding storytelling, reviewer Geoff Dyer lowers the boom.

Murakami may be addicted to running, but hey, it seems a lot healthier than Mishima’s bodybuilding trip — and nothing about the book under review suggests that Murakami will disembowel himself and get a friend to cut off his head. Even so, aspects of his training involve such extremes of self-torture that even the most tolerant reader will find them questionable, for the unpalatable truth is that Murakami listens to Eric Clapton while running.

Is there any connection between the music Murakami listens to and his own prose? In races he is conscious of his fellow competitors’ running styles in the same way “two writers perceive each other’s diction and style.” Jogging alongside him we get ample opportunity to check out his literary style, at least as given to us in this translation from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel.

To characterize it as briefly as possible: easy on ear and mind alike, it’s the type of prose I would call sort of pretty poor. Running is “sort of a vague theme” (i.e., not just vague but vaguely vague), and the book is “a kind of memoir.” Murakami sort of likes this kind of thing, not just as an indistinct modifier but as a form of category-definition. He’s the “type of person,” “kind of person” — I lost track of the number of times this came up — who likes “sort of laid-back” music and is “sort of a brazen person” who sometimes has “a sort of arrogant attitude.”

The pot-shot quotations might have been more effective in the company of an extended quotation.

American Priestess: The Extraordinary Story of Anna Spafford and the American Colony in Jerusalem, by Jane Fletcher Geniesse. In this classically unhelpful review, Mark Oppenheimer dishes out the storytelling and then faults the author for the lack of intellectual rigor. By the end of review, he gives us a clear idea of the book that ought to have been written.

Kingmakers: the Invention of the Modern Middle East, by Karl E Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac. Alex von Tunzelman's tepid-to-negative review comes close to relegating this book to the Noes.

It is hard to sum up Kingmakers. At its best, when the authors get hold of a really good story and run with it, the book is lively and illuminating. But often the thread is lost in a jumble of information without obvious purpose. Meyer and Brysac conclude that their kingmakers “erred not through malice or ignorance but through excess of ambition.” Similarly, their book is admirably fair-minded and well researched. Had it played more to its strengths of adding color and depth to the story of American involvement in the Middle East, it could have been accused neither of lacking ambition nor of error.

This is not helpful.


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

My Sister, My Love: The Intimate Story of Skyler Rampike, by Joyce Carol Oates. Sarah Churchwell's extremely unfavorable review underlines the conclusion that Ms Oates's books, like those of John Grisham and Danielle Steele, form a genre all their own, and require no coverage in a general-interest book review.

My Sister, My Love could have been a powerful indictment of cultural complicity in child abuse, but Oates emerges as so superior to her characters that complicity isn’t acknowledged, only the most facile sorts of blame. The real transgression isn’t against fictional characters but against Joyce Carol Oates’s unquestionable genius. She is capable of so much more.

Intercourse: Stories, by Robert Olen Butler. If this book is anything like Tom de Haven's account of it, then the editors were misdirected: this collection of "stories" about the couplings of famous figures from fact and fiction belongs in the Dirty Book Review.

Thanks to the stream of consciousness, almost everybody sounds, well, “poetic,” tootlingly so, although whenever Butler mucks around in mythology or the Dark Ages, it’s the poetry of Stan Lee scripting an issue of “The Mighty Thor”: “I am a raging tall-flamed pine fire at her touch,” declares Paris atop Helen of Troy; Attila’s wife gasps, “Lo, he is suddenly weak,” as the Hun collapses dead in her arms. Except for a few stabs at slapstick comedy (Santa Claus and an elf, a rooster and a chicken), Butler mostly plays it straight, though he does lapse a lot into pastiche and parody. Thomas Jefferson with Sally Hemings: “I run and I run and I pursue my happiness.” Gertrude Stein with Alice B. Toklas: “Her mustache is her mustache is her mustache.”

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