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Reviewing the Book Review

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14 September 2008

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

It would be wonderful to know, if were only possible, how many copies of this week's novels are sold to readers of the Book Review. Five of the six fiction titles inspire such lackluster reviews that one might suspect the editors of wanting to give Al Silverman's oral-ish history of the Knopf Era a goose.

Mick Sussman's Essay, "Attack of the Megalisters," deals with automated used-book sellers and the moms-and-pops who use common sense and elbow-grease to undersell them. Not everyone will be charmed to learn that old-fashioned book dealers are called "hand sellers."


The following titles belong on your bookshelf.

The Forever War, by Dexter Filkins. Roberts Stone's impassioned review sets this book apart from almost everything written about our misadventure in Iraq.

It is not facetious to speak of work like that of Dexter Filkins as defining the “culture” of a war. The contrast of his eloquence and humanity with the shameless snake-oil salesmanship employed by the American government to get the thing started serves us well. You might call the work of enlightening and guiding a deliberately misguided public during its time of need a cultural necessity. The work Filkins accomplishes in “The Forever War” is one of the most effective antitoxins that the writing profession has produced to counter the administration’s fascinating contemporary public relations tactic. The political leadership’s method has been the dissemination of facts reversed 180 degrees toward the quadrant of lies, hitherto a magic bullet in their never-ending crusade to accomplish everything from stealing elections to starting ideological wars. Filkins uses the truth as observed firsthand to detail an arid, hopeless policy in an unpromising part of the world. His writing is one of the scant good things to come out of the war.

The Way of the World: A story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism, by Ron Suskind. Michael Crowley's review does not dwell on this book's subtitle. On the contrary, it surprises us with yet more shocking revelations, backed by Ron Suskind's sterling record, of the Administration's chicanery on the subject of weapons of mass destruction.

Even more disturbing is the story of a former Iraqi intelligence chief named Tahir Jalil Habbush. Suskind describes in gripping detail secret meetings between Habbush and British intelligence in January and February of 2003. Habbush insisted that Saddam Hussein had abandoned his weapons programs but would not publicly admit it, so as to maintain a facade of deterrence against regional rivals like Iran. Not only did the White House dismiss Habbush’s statements, Suskind writes, but an irritated Bush even asked whether the Iraqi could be asked for “something we can use to help us make our case.” A subsequent $5 million C.I.A. payment to Habbush, disclosed by Suskind, has the smell of hush money.


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

Two Marriages: Novellas, by Phillip Lopate. Jan Stuart prefers one half of this book rather better than the other, writing of the preferred novella,

As the reader waits expectantly for the other shoe to drop (and it does, with a thud that resonates all the way to New Jersey), Gordon offers up an unwitting caricature of the neocolonialist American male: blinded by a sense of mission and Gauguin-inspired fantasies of the exotic third-world maiden. Lopate’s hapless protagonist, with his tortured prose, soporific digressions and selective revelations, manages the near impossible — giving too much information and at the same time saying nothing. “The Stoic’s Marriage” is a mordantly funny brickbat tossed at every diarist egged along by big publishing dreams.

Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum, by Richard Fortey. Olivia Judson's enthusiasm about this "entertaining memoir" makes it sound like very light reading indeed. Amidst the storytelling, the book goes unquoted. Absolutely nothing in the review supports its final paragraph:

The role of museums and their importance is the real theme of Fortey’s book. And he shows again and again that for all they sound fusty and dusty, they are much more than repositories of the past. They have a vital role to play now and in the future.

We'll have to take Ms Judson's word for it.

The Time of Their Lives: The Golden Age of Great American Book Publishers, Their Editors and Authors, by Al Silverman. Bruce Jay Friedman makes this book sound like great fun.

To make his case, Silverman, for years the president of the Book of the Month Club (and later, at Viking, the editor of Saul Bellow, T. C. Boyle and William Kennedy), sought out survivors of “the good old days” and found 120 of them. Many were cleareyed and bouncing around in their 80s and 90s. (Take heart, McCain doubters.) The publishers seemed to have outlived their authors. Perhaps it was because they knew when to quit. Writers never do, or can’t afford to. Curtis Benjamin, once chairman of McGraw-Hill, is clear on this subject: “There’s no such thing as a poor publisher.”


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

Nothing Is Quite Forgotten In Brooklyn, by Alice Mattison. Dominique Browning is happy enough to fill her review with storytelling, but when she finally gets round to judging the book, she is hardly enthusiastic.

It’s left to Con’s daughter to assemble the jigsaw puzzle of love, trust, betrayal and culpability that is the relationship between these women, and she does so in a scene of quiet, controlled confrontation that should be the novel’s climax. But the reader has long seen this coming, a flaw in the narrative structure that undercuts dramatic tension.

City of Refuge, by Tom Piazza. Jennifer Szalai's firmly unsympathetic review is extremely unhelpful. If the book is the mediocrity that she makes it out to be, then it oughtn't to be covered in the Book Review; if not, then the Review has done a needless disservice.

The haste with which so many lines seem to have been written, the plucking of sentimentality’s low-hanging fruit, suggests a novelist who assumes he can neglect literary possibilities in his pronouncement of what he takes to be a Greater Truth. I would have expected otherwise from the author of Blues and Trouble, a collection of stories, and My Cold War, a novel, both of which were willing to linger in worlds thick with surprising locutions and moral ambiguity. Perhaps there are those who believe that a novel tasked with telling the story of a real-life tragedy deserves a special dispensation, a reprieve from literature’s more complicated concerns. But to relieve fiction of its burdens is to relieve it of its power. Indeed, much of City of Refuge seems to have been written with the same heavy hand as Why New Orleans Matters, in which Piazza declares, “New Orleans inspires the kind of love that very few other cities do.”

Dinosaurs on the Roof, by David Rabe. Charles Taylor's too-short review is amiably unhelpful. Mr Rabe's treatment of one of his two main characters is much admired, but the novel itself is adjudged "woolly" and undisciplined.

The Glimmer Palace, by Beatrice Colin. Mike Peed strains for nice things to say, in his too-short review, but he can't quite leave it at that.

Colin often writes with a supple, whimsical charm: “A young girl went to a party and swapped her clothes for a twist of cocaine. The man she ended up with had just sold his grandmother’s pearls for a quart of cheap vodka. The cocaine was talcum powder; the vodka was cleaning fluid.”

But what can appear artful frequently devolves into artificiality

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson (translated by Reg Keeland). Alex Berenson's review is almost stupefyingly unenthusiastic.

But if the middle section of “Girl” is a treat, the rest of the novel doesn’t quite measure up. The book’s original Swedish title was “Men Who Hate Women,” a label that just about captures the subtlety of the novel’s sexual politics. Except for Blomkvist, nearly every man in the book under age 70 is a violent misogynist.

Is There a Right to Remain Silent? Coercive Interrogation and the Fifth Amendment After 9/11, by Alan M Dershowitz. Jonathan Mahler's review never spells out why 9/11 changes our construction of the Fifth Amendment. Nor does it suggest that this book is anything but a jolly but intramural argument.

Reading this book, one is reminded why Dershowitz is one of the very few American law professors whose work has crossed over into the mainstream. He wears his erudition lightly. He has worked hard to make “Is There a Right to Remain Silent?” accessible to nonlawyers, peppering it with references to Lewis Carroll, Stephen Jay Gould, Maimonides and Jerry Seinfeld. Despite his best efforts, though, this sort of detailed legal analysis inevitably gets technical. Those not already steeped in the issue of self-incrimination are likely to get bogged down.

Woman of Rome: A Life of Elsa Morante, by Lily Tuck. Alan Riding is content to tell the story of Alberto Moravia's sometime wife, but when it comes to judging the book, written because Ms Tuck wanted to show that Morante "deserved better," he lets his slip show.

Tuck’s story can hardly be more cheerful than Morante’s life, but it proves one thing: that Morante was much more than Moravia’s wife. Through occasional excerpts, the power of her writing is also evident. If Woman of Rome were to lead readers to her fiction, Morante might even have given it her blessing. But she left a warning for biographers. “The private life of a writer is gossip,” she noted, “and gossip no matter about whom offends me.”


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

The Genius: How Bill Walsh Reinvented Football and Created an NFL Dynasty, by David Harris. Geoffrey Cowles waxes enthusiastic: "The man won three Super Bowls, after all, and the football is what makes him a worthy subject." Oh, no, it isn't. In any case, "the Walsh-era 49ers were covered by better writers than Harris."

The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, by Andrew J Bacevich. Jonathan Tepperman's review makes this book sound like a sermon. Which we may need. But:

Unfortunately, Bacevich is not very good at offering suggestions. Given the sweep of his attacks, the alternatives he comes up with are surprisingly small-bore: America should live within its means, pursue a more modest foreign policy, act to abolish nuclear weapons and combat global warming — all sensible ideas but hardly the sort of grand transformation he says the country needs. Perhaps Bacevich doesn’t feel he has to provide detailed answers because he sees himself more as a prophet than as a policy maker. But surely what we require today, more than broad condemnations of American consumerism, are very specific solutions to very specific problems.

Someone ought to have reached this conclusion before the printers got rolling.

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