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Reviewing the Book Review

The First Lady

31 August 2008

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

What a wearying issue: nearly a third of the reviews are utterly so-so — or, in the case of Joe Queenan's, worse.

Michael Scammell's appreciation of the legacy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn prefers the "irreverent, even playful outsider and versatile stylist who preceded the solemn historian and gloomy prophet.

Yes

The following titles belong on your bookshelf.

The Road Home, by Rose Tremain. Liesl Schillinger's warmly favorable review suggests that this novel, among a Russian immigrant in London, is a work of powerful literary imagination.

A less disciplined and agile author might have been tempted to ease Lev’s transition from daydreamer to doer. Or she might have jollied Lev into a toque at London’s River Café and set Rudi up as a chauffeur on Belisha Road. But Rose Tremain is in the business of inventing not so much fantasies as alternate realities. In “The Road Home,” she lets Lev in on her secret: “Don’t think about Auror down there in the darkness. Don’t think about the past.” The present is also a work of imagination.

Okay

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

American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld. Joyce Carol Oates's enthusiastic review takes a large view of this roman à clef about First Lady Laura Bush.

Curtis Sittenfeld surely did not intend to create, in this mostly amiable, entertaining novel, anything so ambitious — or so presumptuous — as a political/cultural allegory in the 19th-century mode, yet “American Wife” might be deconstructed as a parable of America in the years of the second Bush presidency: the “American wife” is in fact the American people, or at least those millions of Americans who voted for a less-than-qualified president in two elections — the all-forgiving enabler for whom the bromide “love” excuses all. Criticized for abjuring responsibility for her husband’s destructive political policies, Alice reacts defensively: “The single most astonishing fact of political life to me has been the gullibility of the American people. Even in our cynical age, the percentage of the population who is told something and therefore believes it to be true — it’s staggering.”

All Souls, by Christine Schutt. Maud Casey struggles manfully to present this "bold, sharp story" as a must-read. I was not persuaded, but I respect the attempt.

These are ardently bookish girls who quote Virginia Woolf, as Astra does in a yearbook ad dedicated to Car:“How then, she had asked herself, did one know one thing or another thing about people, sealed as they were?” This question is posed by the young painter, Lily Briscoe, contemplating Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse. (A student taking a Siddons English class, “Families in Distress,” wonders about the Ramsays, “Were they a family in distress or just a family?”)

The Same Man: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh in Love and War, by David Lebedoff. Jim Holt certainly likes quoting from this book, but his review does not engage Mr Lebedoff's prima facie preposterous theory that the similarities between Orwell and Waugh outweigh the differences as seen by anyone standing closer than Betelgeuse.

Dissimilar though their causes may have been, Orwell and Waugh were both anchored by “a hatred of moral relativism”; that, Lebedoff claims, is what set the two men apart from their contemporaries. Yet in stressing this similarity, the author elides a deeper difference. Although Waugh despaired about the future, he saw the Catholic Church as an enduring bulwark against chaos. His moral order was backed by divine authority. Orwell too was a passionate believer in objective truth, including moral truth. But unlike Waugh, Orwell did not attribute transcendent power to the truth; indeed, he feared that it might ultimately prove impotent in history.

Freedom's Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention, by Gary J Bass. Adam Hochschild's guardedly favorable review suggests that although the second half of Mr Bass's book is perhaps not entirely worthy of publication in book form, it is preceded by much that is valuable.

Freedom’s Battle is really two books that don’t quite fit together. The longer and better one is a lively narrative history of a string of European efforts to stop various massacres in the 19th-century Ottoman Empire. In several short chapters before and after this story is a shorter and weaker book, in which Gary J. Bass argues for humanitarian military interventions as a tool of international justice today. The historical episodes, he claims, are “rare lights along an otherwise dark road” that show us how these might work. For me that road remains dark, for reasons I will come back to, but much of the history Bass unearths is fascinating and well told.

Maybe

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

The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry, and Invasions, by Adam Kirsch. Reviewer Langston Hammer is almost blindingly unsympathetic to Mr Kirsch's criticism and poetry.

Eliot was a deeply, richly divided writer, whose inspiration was both traditional and experimental. In his case the poet-critic’s poetry and criticism are often at odds; one hand challenges or battles the other. Kirsch, by contrast, seems to write poetry to satisfy his own critical prescriptions, or what he believes Arnold’s or Eliot’s to be.

"Other than that, Mrs Lincoln..."

The Bible Salesman, by Clyde Edgerton. John Leland's breezy review scatters a lot of unusual details across its truncated columns, but allows no settled opinion of this novel about a con men and Christians in a decades-ago South.

The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff. Louisa Thomas's lackadaisical and too-short review is long on complimentary storytelling but short on useful judgment. The conclusion exemplifies the review's packed-up quality.

In a less talented writer’s hands, The 19th Wife could have turned into a Rube Goldberg contraption. But in the end the multiplicity of perspectives serves to broaden Ebershoff’s depiction not only of polygamy, but also of the people whose lives it informs. And this gives his novel a rare sense of moral urgency.

If the novel were that good, then these ideas ought to have been worked out in a longer review.

The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature, by Daniel J Levitin. Is it curious that the editors have asked science-fiction reviewer Dave Itzkoff to weigh in on this book? His cautiously favorable review appears to give a pretty good idea of what the book is like. "Levitin is on safer ground, and much better able to show off his natural passion and estimable aptitude for writing about music, when he leaves the science behind and shares personal anecdotes that illustrate the pervasive role songs play in our lives."

Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan... and the World, by Courtney Humphries. Writing about this book enthusiastically, reviewer Elizabeth Royte does not explain why this popular-science journalism was gathered up into book form.

Marrying Anita: A Quest for Love in the New India, by Anita Jain. Lori Gottlieb's too-short review fails convey a sense of this book's heft. The questions at the end are not particularly helpful.

The result is less a dating memoir than a thoughtful, incisive exploration of the nature of connection. Ultimately, Jain seems to be asking, Is modernization really progress? After all, if with choice comes freedom, then why do so many single women feel imprisoned by their loneliness?

The Way We'll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream, by John Zogby. Assigning this book to funnyman Joe Queenan is tantamount to the editors' saying that the book is a joke.

Part of the problem in the pop clairvoyance racket is that not all oracles are equally Delphic. Zogby, who loves to coin cloying terms like “Secular Spiritualists” and “the Dreamless Dead,” describes pollsters as “priests and philosophers . . . peering through the veil of time.” He adds, “Unlike priests and philosophers, though, . . . we at least have the data to back us up.”

For a serious assessment of this book, the reader will have to look elsewhere.

X Saves the World, by Jeff Gordinier. Kara Jesella's nattering review begins, "Jeff Gordinier’s X Saves the World is the latest addition to a now towering pile of 1990s nostalgia literature." It doesn't get more interesting than that, leaving one with the suspicion that this Maybe is really a No.

Sex in Crisis: The New Sexual Revolution and the Future of America's Politics, by Dagmar Herzog. It is difficult to tell from Hanna Rosin's somewhat snarky review whether this is a bad book or one that the reviewer simply dislikes. The piece ends incoherently.

In 15 years, Herzog writes, the Christian right has “managed to undo the most important achievements of the sexual revolution.”But Herzog’s friends trapped in sexless marriages are not turning to Tim LaHaye for help. They are talking to their shrinks, or watching HBO’s “Tell Me You Love Me” for clues about what’s normal. The national conversation about sex and love is not dominated by Lou Sheldon or Donald Wildmon or even Rick Warren. It’s dominated by Carrie Bradshaw and Us magazine and Nerve.com.

Herzog laments that the United States is not Europe, where teenage sex is considered natural and beautiful (or at least a subject for long, lugubrious coming-of-age movies). But this has long been a puritan country, where sex comes loaded with guilt. Only these days, the problem is not so much teenagers being manipulated by their youth pastors. Instead, it’s the hookup culture and Miley Cyrus posing almost naked and average 16-year-olds freely sharing the details of their sex lives on MySpace.

Still Alive! A Temporary Condition: A Memoir, by Herbert Gold. What kind of a book is this and for whom is it written? Joseph Berger declines to say, specifying only that Mr Gold has known a number of famous writers, such as Saul Bellow and Terry Southern.

Gold pines for it all — the friends and enemies, the mentors and betrayers, even a “first wife, from whom I fled for my life. For the aged it can be lonely out here.”

This is rather like exhorting us to visit a shut-in.

No

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

Blue Dixie: Awakening the South's Democratic Majority, by Bob Moser. Chris Suellentrop makes it clear that this book offers assessments of political strategies past and future that will probably not be of interest to the general reader, serving instead as ersatz history. No matter how excellent such books might be from the insider's point of view, they do not merit coverage in the Book Review.

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