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Reviewing the Book Review

African Idyll

7 September 2008

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

The cover story, about Helene Cooper's Liberian childhood, exile, and separation from a girl who was brought up as her sister, promises to be very good, but Caroline Enright can't be bothered to quote it. Her book report is of little use, adding nothing to the Review reader's awareness that isn't already conveyed by the cover placement.

Jess Row's Essay, "Styron's Choice," assesses the fallout, among black critics, of The Confessions of Nat Turner. It would appear that this effort is premature.


The following titles belong on your bookshelf.

American Widow, by Alissa Torres; illustrated by Sungyoon Choi. Alissa Torres is the widow of a man who started a job at Cantor, Fitzgerald on September 10, 2001. According to Charles Taylor's powerful review, her graphic memoir is more a caustic evaluation of the post 9/11 world in which she finds herself than a lament excoriating her husband's murderers.

American Widow is a contrary beast for its depiction of a series of missed connections in a time venerated for the way it unified people. These incidents are sometimes unbearably moving, as when the smile of a maternity-shop clerk deflates after she’s told Torres is shopping for a black dress.

Even as Torres delineates her experience, her story tells those of us lucky enough not to have lost someone on Sept. 11 that we’d be foolish to believe we can share it.


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

Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3, by Annie Proulx. Ron Carlson's warmly favorable review, describes, if it does not quote, Ms Proulx's prose style well enough to give the reader an idea of what reading these stories will be like.

At one point, Hi desecrates an Indian burial cave while fashioning a crude still to make potato whiskey. There’s the metaphor right there — and symbols like these appear again and again, both in Proulx’s stories and in the history of the American West.

Supreme Courtship, by Christopher Buckley. Blake Wilson's enthusiastic review does little to settle my doubt that Mr Buckley is more than a light-handed writer of amusing occasional pieces and satisfying film scenarios, but it does convince me that the writer's heart is in the right place.

Buckley lampoons as an insider. A onetime speechwriter for George H. W. Bush, he knows the monograms on the linens and has supped with kings. But he’s more an anthropologist than a settler of scores. His own ­libertarian-leaning politics shine through his narratives without weighing them down. And he’s admirably fair-minded, skewering politically correct crusaders on one page and holy-rolling bigots on the next. His villains are Washington’s ideologues, left and right, whose principles always boil down to self-regard. Buckley’s heart belongs to the outsiders, outcasts and mavericks who see through all the spin. Each of his novels may be as light as air, but bit by bit they’re building up into a significant social portrait, the beginnings of a vast Comédie-Washingtonienne.

Yesterday's Weather, by Anne Enright. Having pointed out that Ms Enright's great question is "What do men want?" Christopher Benfey goes on to give a helpful if fractured look at her writing.

Bad sex is a particularly rich topic for Enright; the title of “The Bad Sex Weekend” could have served the whole volume. In one tale, it’s “aimless battering” with a drunken boy from Sligo; in another, the “coffee-morning euphemism that was conjugation with my husband.” Bad sex, Enright implies, is of an infinite variety, while good sex, like grace, is mysterious and indescribable. “I think,” the Paris-based narrator of “Here’s to Love” confesses, “that many couples are happy in bed — strange, mismatched couples that you see on the metro; ugly ones too. What a great secret!” It’s a secret mainly kept in “Yesterday’s Weather.”

One More Year: Stories, by Sana Krasikov. Gaiutra Bahadur gives us one of those too-short reviews whose favorable claims are undercut by its brevity. Her rallying conclusion, however, promises something above the ordinary.

Krasikov once worked as a reporter for a newspaper in New Hampshire, and she knows both the emotional texture and the legal minutiae of the lives of immigrants the way a journalist might. (After the waitress’s husband hits her, a lawyer tells her she can petition for resident papers as a domestic violence victim.) But Krasikov’s cast of exiles, refugees and repatriates are also, more fundamentally, people moving in and out of love — or what passes for it. She has written a sensitive book about the economics of relationships: how they can become subtle transactions by people trying to pull off the trick of occupying more than one place and more than one time.

Walk the Blue Fields, by Claire Keegan. Maud Newton's favorable review might have been longer, but it is helpfully concise. (The reference is to a story by Flannery O'Connor.)

Keegan’s writing is delicate: not prudish, but exact. She understands that in life and in art the power of sexual urges lies in their shocking contrast with the mundane. The brother’s body — and the thoughts it conjures of the groom’s — operates much like O’Connor’s wooden leg. There is the thing itself, and there is the way it illuminates the priest’s lonely situation.

The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood, by Helene Cooper. Caroline Elkins's almost criminally irresponsible view indulges in enthusiastic storytelling at the expense of illustration: we are given no real taste of Ms Cooper's prose. "Cooper’s perseverance and immense talent with language eventually catapulted her into a career as a journalist." Show me the language!

Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, by Michael Kimmel. Wesley Yang's criticism of this book seems just on its face:

On the one hand, Kimmel tells us he is writing about the kind of children who “were rewarded for every normal developmental milestone as if they were Mozart.” On the other hand, these boys are all taught the “Guy Code” — a set of crude injunctions (“boys don’t cry,” “don’t get mad, get even,” “bros before hos,” “size matters” and so forth) whose “unifying emotional subtext . . . involves never showing emotions or admitting to weakness.” Meritocratic parents who strive to turn their ordinary progeny into gifted children do not teach the pitiless masculine creed of frontier America, but Kimmel uses both of these journalistic clichés to describe the same people when it serves his purpose.

But if Mr Kimmel's interpretations leave Mr Yang dissatisfied, his collection of data doesn't.

For all this, “Guyland” bristles with excellent raw material. Kimmel has an ear for the telling quotation. Some are worth the price of admission all on their own:

“When I tell moms about the gender asymmetry of the oral sex ‘epidemic,’ for example, or what the hooking-up culture actually is like,” Kimmel writes, “they seem shocked at how predatory it is, how the sex seems so disconnected from anything resembling even liking the other person. The fathers, though, get jealous.” One man — the 48-year-old father of a 19-year-old boy — asks him to clarify: These guys are getting it on with, “like, different girls all the time and ... the girls are willing to do that?” And “she doesn’t even expect him to call her — let alone, like, be her steady boyfriend? Oh, what I wouldn’t give to be 20 years younger.”

Syncopations: Beats, New Yorkers, and Writers in the Dark, by James Campbell. Sam Munson writes, "Campbell is fascinated by outsiders, exiles, eccentrics, self-fashioners and self-destroyers." His review suggests, although not very quotably, that Mr Campbell's approach to his subjects is at least as literary as they are.

A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties, by Suze Rotolo. Sia Michel's sympathetic underlines the wise discretion of Ms Rotoli's titles, which do not mention her freewheelin' boyfriend, Bob Dylan.

A Freewheelin’ Time makes an obvious nod to Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters, a memoir about a romance with Jack Kerouac and the male-dominated Beat scene. Rotolo presents a similar scenario, a pre-­feminist time when “women and girls were permitted to sit at the table, where they would be served without any hesitation, but they were not to ask for any more.” It’s exhilarating to watch Rotolo, shy as she was, push the boundaries; in 1964, she made an illegal trip to Cuba, where she met Fidel Castro and Che ­Guevara.

The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up, by Liao Yiwu (translated by Wen Huang). Michael Meyer's favorable review is sympathetic enough, but I was unable to tell whether the interviews that make up this book meld into a coherent picture of China or simply pile up miscellaneously.

Most books about China published in the West plant their standards at the best-­selling poles of enchantment or awful mystery, but The Corpse Walker is more subtle. Its collective tone is not mournful but, rather, full of forbearance and forgiveness. Deng Xiaoping is often invoked by Liao’s subjects, and always positively. Even the Buddhist abbot has a picture of Deng on a temple wall; the abbot praises him for reversing Mao’s policies and relaxing control over religion. Typically, a subject’s harrowing story ends with a self-deprecating remark and a wish to let bygones be bygones. And the subjects assume responsibility for their fate. A convicted safecracker laments not distributing his riches to the unschooled and unemployed. “What’s the difference,” he asks, “between those corrupt officials and me?”


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

Other Lives: A Novel in Three Parts, by André Brink. Reviewer Ligaya Mishan is so underwhelmed by these stories that one almost sighs with relief: another book that one needn't read. This, however, is not the purpose of a book review. Peering over the shoulder of her dislike, some readers might find appealing possibilities.

Certainly it’s brave of Brink to tangle with these issues, which have grown murkier in the new age of ostensible freedom. But his cause isn’t helped by plodding prose — the voices of all three narrators are numbingly similar, prone to bald, banal statements like “I want to know what it means to be me” — and he overloads his narratives with clichéd horror-story accouterments. David lives on the 13th floor — in Apt. 1313, no less — of a monolithic apartment complex (designed by Steve) that was built over the unmarked graves of slaves and is haunted by an Ancient Mariner type who claims to have been waiting there some 300 years.

Needless to say, however, that the virtues of Mr Brink's stories, whatever they might be, would be more easily discerned from a sympathetic review.

The Nightingales of Troy: Stories of One Family's Century, by Alice Fulton. This too-short review shares the page with another, mentioned above (One More Year). This time, however, the place of clear, strong praise is taken (as it often is, where "poetic" prose is alleged) by mystification.

Still, if this collection is any indication, Fulton may be firmly establishing herself in a different genre. She once said she is drawn to the symbolic elements of a poem, how they act as a “pattern of lace held together by tiny joining threads.” Her prose, however, might be regarded as a tightly woven blanket. It’s exciting to watch Fulton as she finds the right threads with which to create nuanced fiction, firmly bound.

The Heretic's Daughter, by Kathleen Kent. It is unclear from Chelsea Cain's favorable review whether this book, written by a descendant of one of the women hanged at the Salem witch trials, is intended for adult readers.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery (translated by Alison Anderson). Caryn James's guardedly favorable review makes much of the uncertain appeal of a brainy French best-seller to American readers. Is that really her concern? Amidst the storytelling, there is not much judgment of the novel.

Farm Friends: From the Late Sixties to the West Seventies and Beyond, by Tom Fels. Claire Dederer, who wasn't around for the countercultural Sixties, prefers to remember them differently from Mr Fels, who was, and her review is poutingly unsympathetic.

As I said, maybe you were there. If you were, you are likely to be engaged by Farm Friends, which sometimes reads like the class notes from an alumni magazine, written by a somewhat crabby former classmate. If you weren’t there, it might cure you of wishing you had been.

I Don't: A Contrarian History of Marriage, by Susan Squire. Dahlia Lithwick's review is so jaundiced ("Marriage is one of the last manifestations of human optimism." — what other kind of optimism is there?) that it imparts a joky tone to what might well be a more serious book than the one reflected here.

The Hurricanes: One High School Team's Homecoming After Katrina, by Jeré Longman. Jay Jennings's review makes it clear that this is more than a book about sports:

Longman, a native of south Louisiana and a sports reporter for The New York Times, is at his best when writing mini-essays on history, geography and sociology, and when describing, in all their rustic simplicity, the residents: their hearty acceptance of difficult jobs, their rich enjoyment of good food (“cooks knew how to smother a raccoon in wild onions until the meat fell from the bone”), their commitment to family and friends.

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