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Reviewing the Book Review

War and Peace

24 August 2008

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

Paul Berman's Essay, "Mailer's Great American Meltdown," argues unpersuasively that neither the doves nor the hawks were right about the problem of Communism in the world, back in the day.

What would happen to Indochina and the rest of the world if Communism were to carry the day in Vietnam?

We know what happened in Vietnam, and we know that it might have happened more quickly, and with much less loss of life, if the doves had been able to overrule the hawks at the very beginning of the American engagement. We also know that it was completely contained within Southeast Asia. Talk of "the rest of the world" is moronic. It is one thing to fear nationalist parties of various stripes. But to fear "Communism," especially, as Mr Berman seems to do, now, is simply childish. It is the fear that brought us Fascism, McCarthy, and more recent demagoguery.


The following titles belong on your bookshelf.

Epilogue: A Memoir, by Anne Roiphe. Maggie Scarf doesn't mention Joan Didion, but her account of this "immeasurably sad story" that, paradoxically, some of us will be lucky enough to discover in the first person, makes it sound like a worthy companion to The Year of Magical Thinking.

In a little-known essay called “Loneliness,” the psychoanalyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann once remarked that it’s difficult for most people to retain vivid recollections of times when they were very lonely. This isn’t because the experience isn’t striking; it’s because it’s almost unbearably so. Loneliness presents a threat to a person’s integrity and well-being, to the very sense of who one is. “Loneliness is so awful an experience,” Fromm-­Reichmann observed, that “most people will do practically anything to avoid it.” But loneliness makes up a large and unavoidable part of a newly widowed woman’s life. So, paradoxically, does the wish to be left alone with one’s grief, as Anne Roiphe tells us in this raw, painful and yet occasionally comic memoir of the year and a half following the sudden death of her husband.


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

The Unfortunates, by B S Johnson. Charles Taylor's review of this unbound novel from 1969 — only the first and final chapters are marked as such — would have benefited from more generous extracts. Although it sounds favorable, I'm not quite sure what the following paragraph means.

But artists have to be judged by how well they’ve made their chosen methods work for themselves, and The Unfortunates is a triumph of both scrupulous faithfulness to experience and to narrative rejiggering. Here, I should hasten to add that for readers — those sometimes forgotten creatures who quite rightly don’t care much about form, preferring to invest themselves in narrative, emotion and character — The Unfortunates, despite its unorthodox presentation, offers exactly that.

Mother on Fire, by Sandra Tsing Lo. Pamela Paul's enthusiastic review highlights this book's charms.

Sandra Tsing Loh’s “Mother on Fire” begins with a bam! as the reader is immediately thrust into what can best be described as a frantic perimenopausal breakdown, packed with rants against Oprah-sponsored literature, Frida Kahlo-worshiping tattooed undergrads and the unfortunate fashion decisions made by M.O.S.C.’s (Mothers of Small Children), the last of which Loh, at once proud and discomfited, is one. For 16 bewildering pages, as I was subjected to capricious ALL CAPS!! railing against convection-oven bacon and left-wing mass e-mailers, I feared I was in for an overjoking, underfunny mess of a book, like being stuck on the freeway with Opie and Anthony for 300 pages. But it was over in a hot flash, and by Page 17 I had adjusted to Loh’s acrobatic prose (liberated here from the orderly confines of Atlantic Monthly paragraphs) and was in awe of her quippy brilliance.

The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British, by Sarah Lyall. Matt Weiland's guardedly favorable review of this portrait, by the Times' correspondent in London, suggests that Ms Lyall has limited her canvas to what American readers may want to read about England, rather than what English readers need to read about their own country. As such, it does the book no real disservice.

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, by Richard H Thaler and Cass R Sunstein. Benjamin M Friedman has reservations about some of the arguments for "libertarian paternalism" that are set forth in this book, but his review makes it clear that the authors are offering food for thought, not mere strategy.

The conceptual argument is powerful, and most of the authors’ suggestions are common sense at its best: Set up 401(k) programs so that employees have to opt out if they want, rather than making them opt in. (At present, roughly 30 percent of employees eligible for 401(k)’s don’t sign up, despite the enticement of employer matching contributions.) Do the same for organ donation. Make credit card companies offer an automatic full-payment option. Offer investment vehicles that provide automatic portfolio rebalancing. Most of these ideas work because of the human tendency, widely documented, toward what Thaler and Sunstein call “inertia.” Most of us just call it laziness.

White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, by Brenda Wineapple. Miranda Seymour's cheerily enthusiastic review places Ms Wineapple's achievement in the context of other books about the Belle of Amherst.

Praising Sewall’s work, Wineapple takes him to task only for his dismissal of Higginson, a bias that betrays, as she puts it, “a presumption typical” of Sewall’s generation. By restoring the colonel to what now seems his rightful position — as a courageous, principled radical who was Dickinson’s chosen reader, admirer and advocate — Wineapple throws what she describes as “a small, considered beam” upon the work and life of these two “seemingly incompatible friends,” the recluse and the activist.

That “beam,” when directed by a writer as thorough and intuitive as Wineapple, brightens not only the pale figures of the poet and the hitherto elusive colonel but the poems for which, upon occasion, Dickinson drew inspiration from Higginson’s more active life.

The Return of Ulysses: A Cultural History of Homer's Odyssey, by Edith Hall. Every now and then, we need to be told why a classic is important, especially since we can't be told that it is great. Steve Coates feels that Edith Hall does a fine job with one of the most venerable of epics.

Hall, a research professor of classics and drama at Royal Holloway, University of London, fills her pages with sharp and often surprising observations about the Odyssey and its spiritual children. She devotes much attention to film (The Searchers, The Natural, Cold Mountain and many others), but even reflected in this modern medium, she realizes, the Odyssey owes a measure of its allure to its sheer, echoing antiquity. Reading her good-humored and accessible book is like conversing across the ages.


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

Something to Tell You, by Hanif Kureishi. If Erica Wagner's unfavorable review inspires one person to read this book, I'll be surprised. Inspiration will have to come from elsewhere. Ms Wagner's style might best be described as punchily futile.

All of this would be fine if any of it were believable: but it isn’t, so it’s not. If you are looking for a vibrant portrait of modern London and the people who inhabit it, then this isn’t the book for you.


Awesome, by Jack Pendarvis. Allison Glock's disappointed review suggests that she wasn't the ideal reader of this book. (I wouldn't want to cook for her, either.)

In a novel, one longs for a little expansion, and not the kind Pendarvis favors. Here, the Seinfeld rules seem to be in effect. Nobody learns anything. Awesome is really only interested in himself. This may be effective in a sitcom or a short story or a one-act play, but after a time, reading Awesome begins to feel a bit like eating risotto. Appetizing enough, but every bite tastes the same.

A Fraction of the Whole, by Steve Toltz. John Freeman's review stops short of claiming that this novel is both incoherent and unreadable — but only just.

A Fraction of the Whole, which was recently long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, tries to create friction between Martin’s and Jasper’s different renditions of events, but this fails because they sound the same. Each has the rolling breathlessness of a two-hour panic attack, only Martin is slightly more relentless. “All I ever wanted was for everyone to like me,” he says, and he narrates accordingly. He makes comments that belong in a teenager’s journal — “Odor of Paris in my mouth, mint with a chewy center” — and cheap stabs at profundity: “Death is full of surprises.” Thanks! “Babies have to learn to smile,” he writes before Jasper is born, “so what if I never taught him or showed him laughter?”

The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin's Secret Service, by Andrew Meier. Serge Schmemann's somewhat neutral review of this book is succinct about one thing:

Meier uses the subjunctive mood to signal the reader that he is often just guessing. But, alas, he doesn’t use it often enough. There are stretches of the story in which it’s not clear whether Meier is reporting, speculating or inventing.

Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique, by Michael S Gazzaniga. Because Daniel J Levitin's too-short review doesn't begin to do justice to the claims of Mr Gazzaniga's title, it's impossible to tell whether this is a substantial book or just a platter of light anecdotes.

Falun Gong And the Future of China, by David Ownby. See the preceding review. Joseph Kamin's storytelling does not obscure the fact that his piece is defective in the same way.

Invisible Nation: How the Kurds' Quest for Statehood Is Shaping Iraq and the Middle East, by Quil Lawrence. There is not doubt of the importance of Mr Lawrence's subject. As Michael Goldfarb points out, the Kurds make up "the world's largest ethnic group without a country of their own." His review suggests, however, that this look at "Kurdistan," a work of journalism rather than history, pulls a few of its important punches.

This is a journalist’s book, long on double-sourced facts and interesting quotations. But Lawrence, whose experience gives him genuine authority on Kurdistan, could have provided more original analysis of the questions that gnaw at the reader. Why in this new era do the Kurds continue to tolerate the corruption and nepotism associated with their leaders? How long will it continue? What does it mean for building true democracy there? Lawrence might also have speculated on the almost irrational hatred of Turks toward Kurds, a powerful negative force in the region.

The Black Hole War: My Battle With Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics, by Leonard Susskind. George Johnson's uncertain review does little to make this demanding book sound intelligible.

Susskind explains this dizzying notion about as clearly as is probably possible. Every time a bit falls into a black hole, its opening expands by one square Planck length — an area billions and billions of times smaller than a proton. It is because of this phenomenon, Susskind contends, that the information isn’t lost. A description of everything that falls into a black hole, whether a book or an entire civilization, is recorded on the surface of its horizon and radiated back like imagery on a giant drive-in movie screen. As with a hologram, three dimensions are contained within two.


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

A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for American in the Middle East, by Kenneth M Pollack. Max Rodenback's review leads me to a conclusion toward which I've been heading ever since I began following the Book Review critically: the Book Review is not the place for discussion of books like this. Mr Rodenbeck feels that Mr Pollack's policy recommendations are weakened by his "protectiveness toward Israel." What is arguable in a history becomes contentious in a blueprint, and the last thing that the review of literature needs is the abrasiveness of acrimonious passions.

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar, by Paul Theroux. Robert McFarlane's extravagantly unfavorable review would be itself egregious if it were not for the following paragraph, which explains the publication of a sad lot of books.

Certain writers have a style that can be best likened to body odor: irresistible to some, obnoxious to many and apparently imperceptible to the writer himself. Theroux’s lack of self-awareness, his failure to observe the basic hygiene of modesty, is compelling in its way. How can anyone be this narcissistic, you wonder in disbelief, in appalled fascination.

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