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Reviewing the Book Review

A Not So Common Reader

17 August 2008

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

At the end of my fourth summer of reviewing the Book Review, I've finally decided how to handle the reviews of books that I have already read: realistically.

This week, for example, if I were to go on the basis of Walter Kirn's review, I'd have to place James Wood's beguiling How Fiction Works among the Maybes; according to Mr Kirn, there is no good reason for buying this book. What he says about it, though, bears so little relation to what I read that I have to place the book where I think it belongs.

A look at the Noes may suggest some other decisions that have been long in the works To readers surprised that I would place a book by Thomas Frank at the bottom of the review, I insist that, in the Internet Age, books about what we used to call "current affairs" must stake a claim to long-term readability in order to merit coverage.

Rachel Donadio's Essay, "He Blurbed, She Blurbed," will entertain anyone who has just learned how to read. It is itself an overgrown blurb.


The following titles belong on your bookshelf.

How Fiction Works, by James Wood. Walter Kirn's snarkily unfavorable review, already discussed at the Daily Blague, wilfully fails to address the book that Wood has written — when it does not simply misrepresent it. The opening sentence sets the tone:

In the second of two short prefaces to “How Fiction Works,” an old-fashioned primer on literature that also functions as a timely primer on the art of modest self-marketing, the esteemed critic James Wood reaches out to assure “the common reader” (that good fellow from the club who tries to keep up with all things cultural but is forever slightly short on time) that his prose is as free as he can make it of what James Joyce termed “the true scholastic stink” of so much academic writing.

How Fiction Works is obviously written as an appreciation of fiction, not an introduction to the subject, and it presupposes the seasoned reader's familiarity with about a hundred works of fiction, most of them quite well-known.


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

A Blessed Child, by Linn Ullmann (translated by Sarah Death). Stacey d'Erasmo likes this novel, by the daughter of a famous actress and her even more famous director.

The past persists, more vivid than the present. This is true not of life, in which events do draw to a close, but of the magic-lantern slide show of memory, that pensive perpetual motion machine. While A Blessed Child might have been a more tough-minded book had Ullmann thrown a spanner into the works, it’s not hard to understand her decision to keep things going. Does anyone ever really want to visit the summer island for the last time? Think twice before answering.

This Must Be The Place, by Anna Winger. Liesl Schillinger greatly admires this novel, set in today's Berlin. Despite the review's somewhat confusing storytelling, the book appears to deserve her praise.

Hope is the decidedly unheroic heroine of Anna Winger’s stealthily original first novel, This Must Be the Place, an unretouched yet touching portrait of a woman, a man and a city in flux. The woman, of course, is Hope. The man is not her neglectful husband but a neighbor in her gentrified Charlottenburg apartment building, a washed-up German television star named Walter Baum, who coasted through his 20s and 30s on the proceeds from dubbing Tom Cruise’s voice in the German-language releases of Cruise’s hit films. Now 39, freshly dumped by his much younger girlfriend, Walter ponders a return trip to Los Angeles (where he spent some tim e in the ’80s, playing Prince Charming at Disneyland) but buys no ticket. Instead, he broods, telling himself that he could have been a contender if he’d stayed longer in Hollywood — and if he hadn’t developed a bald spot.

Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation, by John Carlin. Times executive editor Bill Keller gives this book a very warm review that, given the political importance of its subject (how Mr Mandela exploited rugby, a game associated with Afrikaaners, to bring South Africans together) warrants its coverage in the Book Review.

Mandela was, Carlin demonstrates, “a canny strategist, a talented manipulator of mass sentiment. His gift for political theater was as sophisticated as Bill Clinton’s or Ronald Reagan’s.” If Playing the Enemy were not so well written, it would deserve a place among the management tomes and self-help books that dominate business best-seller lists — a guide to leadership that plays to people’s better angels.

Credit and Blame, by Charles Tilly. Alexander Star's mash-up of the late sociologist's last book comes close to trivializing it, but the virtues of Tilly's reflections manage to show through.

Blaming, Tilly cautions, draws clear boundaries between a worthy us and an unworthy them, and that can be dangerous. When a group is faulted for a violent act, it’s all too easy to single out its most vulnerable members for retaliation, inciting further violence. Credit, by contrast, “does not necessarily establish a sharp line between ins and outs,” Tilly writes. The bestowal of honors, prizes and promotions can prompt resentment and disputation. But for the most part, crediting is a less contentious business: after all, it “associates giver and receiver in the same moral milieu, while blame separates two moral settings from each other.” We pat some people on the back, thank others heartily for even minor acts of politeness and grease the wheels of social life as best we can.

Looking for Anne of Green Gables: The Story of L M Montgomery and Her Literary Classic, by Irene Gammel. Kate Bolick's favorable review makes a good case for reading this accessible study in literary history. (Who knew that the almost too-pretty Evelyn Nesbit was Montgomery's inspiration for the plain Anne?)

It comes as a surprise to learn that the tale of brave, original Anne was intended not as a children’s story but as a serial for one of these highly sentimental mass-market publications aimed at young women. But the medium was well suited to Montgomery’s belief that, as Gammel puts it, “literature should engage with the real world by transforming negative realities.” By channeling her own fraught ambivalence — a longing “to restore her lost family” versus a fierce desire for independence — into a valentine to a rural idyll, Montgomery both mirrored and soothed the anxieties of her readers, the legions of unmarried, professionally minded women moving to urban areas at the turn of the century. Montgomery herself couldn’t have it both ways, but Anne could: displaced, she’d found a family, yet her orphan status and homely looks ensured she would always be essentially independent (well, at least for the first book).

The Terminal Spy: A True Story of Espionage, Betrayal, and Murder, by Alan S Cowell. Simon Sebag Montefiore gives this book a generally favorable review, faulting the author's proclivity for purple prose but hailing the book for making clear "that Litvinenko’s murder is worth studying, both as a symbol and a symptom of Russia today.


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

Ancient Highway, by Brad Lott. Lisa Fugard's review indulges in murky storytelling without conveying a sense of the novel that Mr Lott has written.

When Lott’s novel Jewel was selected for Oprah’s Book Club, he explained his literary strategy: “You write because you hope someone’s heart is going to be moved by that story.” I’m guessing he tried to achieve that with the reconciliation that takes place at the end of Ancient Highway. An exhausting scene at a flea market and the ensuing family reunion might have that effect on some readers. But others might think back to an earlier passage, in which a cavalier Earl tells his daughter why his eyes are dry after they’ve gone to see Bambi: “They want you to cry.”


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

The Gargoyle, by Andrew Davidson. Sophie Gee's disappointed review suggests that this is the sort of book that feeds on the easy pretension that "lite" books claim when they're written up in the Book Review.

There’s no doubt that readers want a tale of unbearable suffering and ultimate redemption, and a whole lot of people in the publishing industry (not least the author himself) hope that Davidson’s novel is going to fit the bill. The Gargoyle ought not be mistaken for a depiction of unbearable suffering or ultimate redemption, however; it is simply an entertaining novel straining to feel like something more substantial.

Since we can't spank them, books that borrow the plumage of classics (Inferno, among others) ought to be ignored.

Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko, by Blake Bell. At the most, this book about the Objectivist cartoonist belongs in a roundup review of books about graphic fiction.

As vivid as his work is, it’s never been pretty, and he’s never returned to his most famous creations for a victory lap or courted attention beyond acknowledgment of his work. The raw, nightmarish visions of his art are all he offers, and all he’s ever needed to offer.

The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, by Thomas Frank. Although my sympathies are with Mr Frank, his arguments, which as Michael Lind's review points out, are both mildly dated and extensively cherry-pioked, belong in magazines. A book on this urgent topic ought to be more rigorous, if less rousing, than Frank's tract.

Warrior Girls: Protecting Our Daughters Against the Injury Epidemic in Women's Sports, by Michael Sokolov. Polly Morrice's generally favorable review does not explain what this book is doing in the pages of the Book Review.

The Lizard King: The True Crimes and Passions of the World's Greatest Reptile Smugglers, by Bryan Christy. Terri Jentz's review suggests that this sell-by material belongs on a Web site, not in a book.

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