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Reviewing the Book Review

The Final Days

28 September 2008

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

A new, highly provisional format this week. It has been a while since the last innovations, so, until the Book Review introduces the innovation of assigning books to sympathetic readers who write reviews with the greatest care, I guess I'll have to provide my own from time to time in order to keep from going crazy — since I seem to be constitutionally unable to Let This Gig Go, even though I suspect that it has taught me everything that it can.

FACT and FICTION receive separate treatment — an overdue move, I suspect. The font color of a fiction title tells you what I think of the book, while what follows assesses the review. As for nonfiction, I don't really know why I didn't follow the same procedure.

As before, books are listed, within their section, in the order in which they appear in the Book Review.

Dorothy Gallagher's Essay, "What My Copy Editor Taught Me" — a memoir of Helene Pleasants, an editor at both Redbook and Grand Street — made me wish that I had more time to copy-edit my own work, because I believe that almost everything can be improved. I like to write, but I love to re-write.



Hurry Down Sunshine, by Michael Greenberg. Ordinarily, I find that books about illness don't merit coverage in the Book Review. This exceptional-sounding book about depression seems to warrant a different judgment, partly because too many people continue to regard depression as an existential problem rather than as a disease, and partly because, according to Rachel Donadio's review, Mr Greenberg writes with a darkness that is appropriate to his subject.

After Sally’s first, tenuous recovery, her mother, Robin, confesses she still hasn’t given up the idea that Sally is “in touch with a higher force.” Greenberg responds, “I wish she’d get back in touch with the lower one.” And Robin says, “It wouldn’t kill you to think positively for once in a blue moon.” But Greenberg’s refusal — or inability — to think positively, or reductively, is one of his best qualities. What sets “Hurry Down Sunshine” apart from the great horde of mediocre memoirs, with their sitcom emotions and too neatly resolved fights and reconciliations, is Greenberg’s frank pessimism, dark humor and fundamental incapacity to make sense of his daughter’s ordeal, let alone to derive an uplifting moral from it.


The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008, by Bob Woodward. Jill Abramson, former Times bureau chief in Washington, was clearly given carte blanche to scold President Bush in her review of this fourth Woodward volume on the Bush Administration. She scolds Mr Woodward, too, for not having expressed doubts that he now claims to have been implicit in the outwardly laudatory first two volumes. But her final paragraph is supportive.

But Woodward’s own judgment of the war and of Bush doesn’t really matter. In the course of four books he has given readers the conversations and documents we need to reach our own judgments. He has also, however unevenly and imperfectly, supplied enough synthesis and analysis to make that judgment genuinely informed. Sure, these books can be a slog. But they stand as the fullest story yet of the Bush presidency and of the war that is likely to be its most important legacy.

This sounds very high-minded, but I cannot imagine the existence of an intelligent American who hasn't already reached a judgment about George W Bush.

The King and the Cowboy: Theodore Roosevelt and Edward the Seventh, Secret Partners, by David Fromkin. Johann Hari charges Mr Fromkin with making too much of a tenuous connection — these "partners" never met — but on the basis of Mr Fromkin's other books I expect that he draws some useful parallels while bringing both of these colorful characters to life.

As his earlier histories show, Fromkin has real and hefty skills. His writing is concise; his reading is wide; his pacing is superb. All three can be admired here. But it is hard to shake off the sensation that this time he has lavished his abilities on an account of a friendship that never really was.

Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen, by Philip Dray. David S Reynolds's review is generally favorable, but there is too much storytelling to get a real taste of the book itself. That this study of the doomed attempt of black leaders to stand up to white America after the Civil War is important, however, is not in question.

Dray casts fresh light on the positive aspects of Reconstruction and powerfully dramatizes its negative side. His well-researched book is both exhilarating and disturbing. It offers a collective biography of several black congressmen in the South during Reconstruction who bravely took a public stance against racial prejudice. But it also shows that these politicians were stymied by a rising culture of white supremacy and home rule in the South.

The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too, by James K Galbraith. Roger Lowenstein manages to admire this book in an entirely unsympathetic way.

Galbraith admits neither ambiguity nor doubt; indeed, his prose is absolutist in proportion to the extent to which his assertions are unprovable. For Galbraith, the market as its apostles describe it does not really exist. It is a “vaporous” idea, a “cosmic and ethereal space,” a “negation,” a “nonstate.” Finally, it is “another god that failed.” This is brilliant rhetoric. It is not brilliant economics, but give him his due: He has raised trenchant questions about a system in crisis.


Blue Genes: A Memoir of Loss and Survival, by Christopher Lukas. Why was Roy Blount Jr asked to write this review? Was he a friend of the author's late brother, reporter Anthony Lukas? The comparison of the brothers to Felix and Oscar, of The Odd Couple, takes inattentiveness to the edge of poor taste.


Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Mark Richardson. We will pass over the merits of the book that inspired this production, for John Leland makes it clear that the new book has little in common with it. "Richardson, on the other hand, is a motorcycle guy. He's best describing the gear or the feel of the bike."

Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering From the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes, by Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver. Bruce Barcott's extremely positive review suggests that this is a fine book. "Armchair mountaineers will give the book pride of place in their collections." The use of "collections" instead of "libraries," however, is an oblique reminder that not every good book merits coverage in the Book Review.

Icon of Evil: Hitler's Mufti and the Rise of Radical Islam, by David G Dalin and John F Rothmann. Having lambasted the faux-scholarship that infects this history, Tom Segev concludes:

In spite of all this, the book is worth noticing, as it belongs to a genre of popular Arab-bashing that is often believed to be “good for Israel.” It is not. The suggestion that Israel’s enemies are ­Nazis, or the Nazis’ heirs, is apt to discourage any fair compromise with the Palestinians, and that is bad for Israel.


KEY: Purple (I've read it) Red (I've heard good things about it, or liked other books by the same author) Fuchsia (Don't know anything about this book, but I'm attracted) Orange (Don't know/not attracted) Maroon (Out!)

One Fifth Avenue, by Candice Bushnell. Henry Alford's moderately sympathetic review is not as naughty as it might be. Maybe that makes it deadlier.

There’s a difference between getting the details right and somehow putting these details across in a manner that captures our imagination. Bushnell has good bits, for instance, on what city teenagers do in country houses, and on a feeling of longing called “the ache” that real estate can induce. But these interludes are rare, and once, as Miss Susann preached, is not enough. Given that Bushnell has plunked us down in a milieu fairly drenched with luxury and style, these shortcomings feel piquant. She has lined her ermine cape with muslin.

The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, by Victor Pelevin (translated by Andrew Bromfield). Liesl Schilliger's enthusiastic review conveys a clear idea of this novel.

In Russia, enthralled critics have called The Sacred Book of the Werewolfliteraturnaya Viagra.” The Viagra effect is what makes the medicine go down — the medicine, that is, of Pelevin’s bereft philosophy of modern times, presented in statements like “The whole of human history for the last 10,000 years is nothing but a constant revision of the results of privatization.” It’s a bitter message that this dark fairy tale makes not only palatable but irresistible.

Ms Schillinger is especially keen on the translation — a good thing to know.

Happy Families: Stories, by Carlos Fuentes (translated by Edith Grossman. Having read Reading Like a Writer CHECK TITLE, I'm surprised to find Francine Prose discussing a book that she so clearly dislikes. Because Mr Fuentes's themes are serious, the result is an amazingly unhelpful review. If the collection is as bad as Ms Prose suggests that it is, a more sympathetic review, scrupulously lining the book up against the author's other work, is what's called for.

All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, by Janelle Brown. Sheelah Kohlhatkar's review is guardedly favorable at best, but her conclusion makes one wonder if she herself is one of this beach-book's characters.

Indeed, Janice seems to possess a comforting steeliness, despite her acts of self-sabotage. In fact, she draws strength from the very consumer culture that appears to be sucking the life out of her. On the eve of her first public encounter with her soon-to-be ex, Janice faces her reflection after putting on that Von Furstenberg dress: “In the mirror she sees sharp angles, lean lines, a point to her chin that lets the world know she is not to be taken lightly.”

Once Upon a Time in England, by Helen Walsh. Marina Silver's review is so clotted with storytelling that it's impossible to place this novel about a mixed-race working-class family and gritty North-of-England life.

The Good Thief, by Hannah Tinti. Maile Meloy might have been given more room to express her enthusiasm for this book, but she makes her point:

The effect of Tinti’s steady, authoritative style is to make odd and extraordinary events seem natural: if she says there are hat boys and mousetrap girls, there are. And because of the seeming transparency of the narrator, we experience the world as Ren does, and feel his fear, unfiltered, when he’s left alone with a wagonload of corpses and one of them sits up. Writing for adults while keeping to a child’s perspective isn’t easy, and Tinti makes it look effortless.

A Better Angel: Stories, by Chris Adrian. According to Sylvia Brownrigg's review, Mr Adrian was a pediatrician and is now a Harvard Divinity student. What she has to say about his stories is not appealing. One of the lighter passages:

There are certainly strains of comedy in Adrian’s darkness. The place for an ill parent’s chemo­therapy treatments is referred to as the “infusion salon.” The story about the short-gut girl is narrated in the sarcastic voice of a child bored by her own grotesque condition, who refers to using her feeding tube as being “on the sauce” and mentions that she was banned from a camp for short-gut sufferers “for organizing a game where we rolled a couple of syndromic kids down a hill into a soccer goal.” “Almost everybody loved it,” she comments in self-defense, “and nobody got hurt.”

That's funny?

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