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Reviewing the Book Review

The Student of Desire

21 September 2008

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

As I was reading this week's issue, I was struck by the frequency of the word "scene." I don't mean to be pedantic, but novels are written in chapters and passages, not scenes. They are not scenarios or screenplays. Thinking about novels in terms of scenes seems spectacularly wrong-headed to me. Although I've probably done it myself, I won't anymore.

Jack Handy, who writes very funny short pieces for The New Yorker, complains about the Humor Sections in today's bookstores — or the lack of them — in his Essay, "Laughter in the Dark." I've always found Humor Sections to be sad and pathetic, possibly because "Humor" covers a very wide gamut, including a great deal of stuff that almost anybody will not find amusing, and possibly because "Humor" books are so thin. Nor have I ever figured out how to shelve "Humor" books in my own library. But I wouldn't dream of lending one of them out — much less giving them away.

Actually, a great deal of the humor in my library is contained within the compact covers of The Complete New Yorker. And don't anybody even think of saying that "it's not as funny on a computer screen."


The following titles belong on your bookshelf.

Home, by Marilynne Robinson. A O Scott's warmly enthusiastic review leaves no doubt that Home, like its concurrent predecessor, Gilead, is a great American novel.

Home is a book full of doubleness and paradox, at once serene and volcanic, ruthless and forgiving. It is an anguished pastoral, a tableau of decency and compassion that is also an angry and devastating indictment of moral cowardice and unrepentant, unacknowledged sin. It would be inaccurate to say that the novel represents yet another breathless exposé of religious hypocrisy, or a further excavation of the dark secrets that supposedly lurk beneath the placid surface of small-town life. When Robinson writes that “complacency was consistent with the customs and manners of Presbyterian Gilead and was therefore assumed to be justified in every case,” she is not scoring an easy, sarcastic point. There is real kindness and generosity in the town, and its theological disposition is accordingly tolerant and charitable. Reverend Boughton embodies this forgiving, welcoming spirit both in his dotage and in his prime. In his preaching days, Glory recalls, “he did mention sin, but it was rarefied in his understanding of it, a matter of acts and omissions so common­place that no one could be wholly innocent of them or especially alarmed by them, either — the uncharitable thought, the neglected courtesy. While on one hand this excused him from the mention of those aspects of life that seemed remotest from Sabbath and sunlight, on the other hand it made the point that the very nicest among them, even the most virtuous, were in no position to pass judgment on anyone else, not on the sly or the incorrigible, not on those who trouble the peace of their families, not on those who might happen to have gotten their names in the newspaper in the past week.”

And yet, as Mr Scott points out, this same Reverend Boughton completely misses the moral crux of the burgeoning Civil Rights crisis, while his old friend Ames seems to have altogether buried his own grandfather's abolitionist radicalism.


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

Indignation, by Philip Roth. David Gates writes, in his generally enthusiastic review — how much for Roth generally and how much for this novel in particular is uncertain — that the novelist "withholds a crucial piece of information" for most of his narrative. He proceeds to make it very easy for readers who don't want the surprise to be "spoiled" to put down the review. The withheld detail turns out to be the opposite of remarkable, but the withholding seems adolescent — which, considering the author, is also the opposite of remarkable.

Goldengrove, by Francine Prose. Beginning with a quick explication of the Hopkins poem from which Ms Prose draws her title (and which serves as the epigram), Leah Hager Cohen raises readers' expectations only to express her ultimate disappointment with the novel, which ought to have been — if there's a word for one she seems to be looking for — more "special."

Nico’s father’s interest in different cultural beliefs about the end of the world, for example, feels like quintessential Prose territory, ripe fodder for her intellect and ingenuity. In one scene, he and Nico make a pilgrimage to the hill where a 19th-century doomsday cult gathered to wait for the rapture. This is a real historical event, called, rather wonderfully, the Great Disappointment, and I was eager to see how Prose would mine it. But the scene disappoints. Nico and her father shuffle dejectedly around the site (a half-abandoned strip mall), then get back in the car. Nico: “Can we go home now, Dad?” Her father: “I guess they didn’t call it the Great Disappointment for nothing.” This may qualify as irony, but there’s little energy in it.

Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism, by Bernard-Henri Lévy (translated by Benjamin Moser. Christopher Hitchens's review, extremely engaged with Mr Lévy's objectives, is both formidable and a little insidery, composed in an atmosphere in which the various crises of the world today are so many markers on a board game. It gradually emerges, however, that Left in the Dark is an ardent call for a more scrupulous, less rancorous Left.

This blending of a relatively modern prejudice with the oldest prejudice of them all is what sickens Lévy enough to give it the appellation “Red-Brown.” It is the “new barbarism” of his subtitle. Against it, he counterposes the values of the Enlightenment, the France of the Dreyfusards, of Camus rather than Sartre, of Jean Moulin and Pierre Mendès-France rather than Maurice Thorez or — BHL’s true bête noire — that debased Jacobin of today’s French Socialism, Jean-Pierre Chevènement. The left, he insists, must renounce any version of ultimate or apocalyptic history, along with any mad schemes to create heaven on earth. A secular, pragmatic humanism will be quite demanding enough, thank you.

The Angel of Grozny: Orphans of a Forgotten War, by Asne Seierstad (translated by Nadia Christensen). Peter Baker's sympathetically favorable review of this post-war assessment of social degradation "skates a little too lightly over abuses by" the Chechen resistance, but in Mr Baker's review it is a "much needed call to attention for the international community." Some readers may agree with Russians who demanded of Ms Seierstad, "What right do you have to criticize us?...Who gave you that right?"

Hitler's Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe, by Mark Mazower. James J Sheehan's favorable review shows how a new line of thinking about the Nazis is troubling the waters of political correctness. Although Mr Sheehan never mentions "Working Toward the Führer," the substitute for an operating principle that Ian Kershaw identified in Nemesis, it would appear that Mr Mazower's subject is much the same thing.

One of the most striking themes in “Hitler’s Empire” is the contrast between the Nazis’ military prowess and their political incompetence. Hitler was simply not interested in developing a program that might appeal to potential allies, for whose national interests and aspirations he had little sympathy. He left the political direction of his Eastern European regime to Alfred Rosenberg, who — as Hitler expected — wasted his time on elaborate but irrelevant programs and pronouncements. Nazi diplomacy, since 1938 directed by the monumentally inept Joachim von Ribbentrop, was an oxymoron. In 1942, when officials in the foreign office pleaded with Hitler to issue a statement about the future, he tersely replied, “No such preparations for peace are necessary.”

And yet Mr Sheehan claims that this book trumps Nicholson Baker's argument that the Second World War was unnecessary. Were the Nazis so evil because they were incompetent? And, for the matter of that, who did go to war against the Nazis, and when? The Russians were simply defending themselves from an invasion. British resistance did not become American offense until the Russian front proved to be a German hemorrhage.


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

Sweetheart, by Chelsea Cain. Amy Finnerty makes this serial killer thriller sound worthwhile as well as suspenseful.

But the novel is sensual and engulfing. We feel Archie’s every aching rib and taste the bitter narcotics he downs five pillsat a time to banish his agony. We smell Gretchen’s lilac perfume and the entrails she likes to leave as calling cards. But it is the marital drama entwined with the carnage — Archie’s conflict, his wife’s protective rage and the menace posed by the ultimate home ­wrecker — that keeps us turning the pages.

The Butt: An Exit Strategy, by Will Self. David Kelly isn't terribly impressed. ("...we've all known people who weren't nearly as amusing once they cleaned up their act.")

In his interview with The Guardian, Self called this novel “a political allegory” and described Heart of Darkness as “deeply ambivalent about colonialism,” pointing out that it can be read both as “a critique of colonialism” and as “a book about the contamination of the West by some awful, chthonic, primal rhythm.” He added, “I wanted The Butt to have more than one possible reading in that way.” Still, it’s one thing to achieve profound ambiguity, another to write a Will Self novel. While Heart of Darkness centers on metaphysical horror, The Butt seems to come down to parenting skills. I say “seems” because, with all those possible readings lurking about, you can’t be too sure. Like Marlow, “I asked myself sometimes what it all meant.”

In the end, none of this matters to Self. His subtitle is “An Exit Strategy,” but it could just as easily be “How Fiction Doesn’t Work.” He’s never had much use for literary niceties like plot and characterization, and why should he? After all, a novel is only a novel, but a good Cigarette is a Smoke.

Man In the Dark, by Paul Auster. Tom LeClair's unenthusiastic review suggests that there is just enough literary interest in this book to merit Book Review coverage — coverage that in this case the author might have done without.

After, say, 10 books, maybe novelists should be retested, like accident-prone senior citizens renewing their driver’s licenses. Veterans of literary wars would anonymously submit a new manuscript to agents. Of Man in the Dark, I think they’d say, “third-rate imitation of Paul Auster.” Then the author might decide to rev up a first-rate imitation of his first-rate early work. Or he might write a fourth-rate attack on literary agents.

The House of Widows, by Askold Melnyczuk. Review Rudolph Delson, who professes great admiration for the author's first two novels, wants to play script doctor for this one; sadly, his quotations bear him out.

Consider this paragraph, describing the instant, in 1990, when James meets his long-lost grandmother Vera:

“Half a century rose up between us — 50 years of war, famine, destruction. Crucible moments of passion, insight and hope. The old are time capsules. In her presence, I could almost hear the rattling of horse carts, machine guns, bells at Easter.”

It’s a moment for vigor, and Melnyczuk is lazy; he lets James recite some historical clichés (“crucible moments,” “time capsules”), and then hurries James and Vera off to lunch.

Sweetsmoke, by David Fuller. Roy Hoffman isn't entirely clear about the nature of this novel, which may be a whodunit, set on a Virginia plantation in 1862, in which a slave attempts to find the murderer of the woman who taught him how to read.

Yet if you read Fuller’s novel mainly for its fast-paced plot, Sweetsmoke can be captivating.

That "yet" puts this book among the Maybes.

Glamour: A History, by Stephen Gundle. The quotes given in Caroline Weber intrigued review indicate that, notwithstanding the interest of his theories, Mr Gundle's prose is lamentably deficient in the appealing quality of which he writes.

If these lines make you want to jam a freshly sharpened pencil into your eye, then trust me, you’re not alone. They are, however, fairly typical of the author’s prose. The courtesans of the belle epoque, he observes, “offered a phantasmagoria of glamour as a commercial aesthetic of illusion and fascination.” In 1950s Ameri­ca, where housewives and pinup girls emerged as rival feminine ideals, “the tensions between domesticated and eroticized female appeals was played out not only in the mass media and the leisure industries but also in the new dialectic that the American-led consumer revolution created between the United States and Western Europe.” Meanwhile, back in Monaco, Grace Kelly’s wedding to Prince Rainier “consolidated the popular passion for fashion and elevated aristocratic­type stars and models to a central position in its diffusion.”

The Comeback: Seven Stories of Women Who Went From Career to Family and Back Again, by Emma Gilbey Keller. Eugenie Allen lets her claws show in this review of a cheerful can-do book by the wife of the Times's executive editor, but she doesn't use them.

In the end, these accomplished, lucky women bring reassuring voices to our increasingly urgent national conversation about mothers and work; now it’s time for their less fortunate peers to make themselves heard. Earlier this summer, new Congressional data confirmed what some experts have been warning about for years. Many women have left the work force not because they craved more time with their children, but because they’ve been squeezed out of a weak labor market.

September Songs: The Good News About Marriage in the Later Years, by Maggie Scarf. I'm as torn by this title as I am about Ms Keller's. Hilma Wolitzer's review doesn't entirely convince me that this book, for the most part a glowing report on the happiness that people who stay married appear to enjoy more intensely over the years, belongs in the Book Review.

Soldiers of Reason: The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire. Jacob Heilbrunn calls this book "entertaining and fast-paced" but "too quick to dismiss American apprehensions as 'paranoia'."

Where Abella excels is in his descriptions of the colorful characters who populated RAND at its inception, like the mathematician John Davis Williams, who “personified what would become hallmarks of RANDites — a love of pleasures of the flesh, a dedication to abstract theory, and a sense of absolute self-righteousness married to an amoral approach to politics and policy.”

Or, in ordinary parlance, an arrogant bastard.


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

Going Hungry: Writers on Desire, Self-Denial, and Overcoming Anorexia, edited by Kate Taylor. Nothing in Ginia Bellafante's review suggests that this is anything but a collection of article-length memoirs of illness.

Bumping into Geniuses: My Life Inside the Rock and Roll Business, by Danny Goldberg. Jody Rosen finds this book a trifle overwritten (Goldberg sees "geniuses everywhere"), but nowhere distinguishes it from other industry-niche memoirs, topped with gossip for fans, that don't belong in the Book Review.

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