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Reviewing the Book Review

Dying of the Light

5 October 2008

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

Reading, this afternoon, that Emily Gordon is stepping down as editor of Emdashes, the great New Yorker-centric Web log, I felt my toes curling in envy. How I'd love to give up this self-appointed weekly review of The New York Times Book Review. This week, especially. What a lackluster lot of books!

The Book Review is mired in a cesspit of publicists and chits. But it's all we have. As soon as there's an American version of Lire, I'll quit. Gladly.

Stephen Millhauser's Essay, "The Ambition of the Short Story," is sort of literary criticism that only publishers care about. The very idea of comparing the prestige of short stories and novels is masks nothing but concern for what sells.

***

KEY: Blue (We all ought to 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); Purple (I've read it); Maroon (Big Literary Deal); Black (Out!)

FACT

Nothing To Be Afraid Of, by Julian Barnes. Garrison Keillor claims to like this book ("I will say a prayer for retail success"), but he devotes most his review to Mr Barnes's bleak view of life, without the slightest suggestion that the author can be even funnier than the reviewer.

We are all dying. Even the sun is dying. Homo sapiens is evolving toward some species that won’t care about us whatsoever and our art and literature and scholarship will fall into utter oblivion. Every author will eventually become an unread author. And then humanity will die out and beetles will rule the world.

Seeing Mr Keillor's byline, I've learned to look for the glint of a shiv.

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination: A Memoir, by Elizabeth McCracken. As a proposal for the general reader's attention, Lucinda Rosenfeld's clotted review of this book about bearing a stillborn child is a failure — possibly because the reviewer herself has had the same misfortune. What were the editors thinking?

A Promise to Ourselves: A Journey Through Fatherhood and Divorce, by Alec Baldwin (with Mark Tabb). Alex Kuczynski's final paragraph reaches through the author's celebrity and finds the beating heart of a book worth reading.

For all its faults, its creakinesses and almost codger-like crankiness, its occasionally sludgy prose, this book has a point. Divorce is hell. Lawyers are vultures. Children get lost. Baldwin bravely set out to illuminate and change the way divorce is conducted in this country; he also, wittingly or not, offers a candid, unhappy portrait of a marriage gone desperately sour.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution and How It Can Renew America, by Thomas L Friedman. Jonathan Freedland gives this new book by the Times columnist a guardedly favorable review, suggesting that some of Mr Friedman's eco-friendly positions have brought him rather too far to the left to allow consistency with his pro-business stance.

But these are minor infelicities when set against a book that will be accessible outside the eco-converted, is grounded in detailed research and repeatedly hits its target. It contains some killer facts — the American pet food industry spends more on research and development than the country’s power companies; Ronald Reagan stripped from the White House the solar panels that Jimmy Carter had installed as a symbolic step toward energy independence. Above all, it is fundamentally right on the biggest question of our age. If Friedman’s profile and verve take his message where it needs to be heard, into the boardrooms of America and beyond, that can only be good — for all our sakes.

What Mr Freedland fails to do is to place this book in the context of the political action that it calls for. Having read the book, what is the reader to do? There is no indication that Mr Friedman addresses this question.

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, by Annette Gordon-Reed. According to reviewer Eric Foner, whose feeling about this book are very guardedly positive, the question at the heart of this book concerns the nature of the relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. Was it a carnal convenience for the man who would be the country's third president? Or was it touched by love? Although happy enough to learn about the Hemings family, Mr Foner notes, "Readers will find it absorbing, but many will wish it had been a shorter, more focused book."

Amarcord: Marcella Remembers: The Remarkable Life Story of the Woman Who Started Out Teaching Science in a Small Town in Italy, But Ended up Teaching America How to Cook Italian, by Marcella Hazan. Craig Seligman acknowledges a disclaimer that ought to have disqualified him from covering this book:

Yet she seems to make out the contours of their story only vaguely. Maybe a strong editor could have given it more shape, but the Hazans are not what you would call putty in an editor’s hands. I know this partly from having done a stint at Food & Wine during a period when they had a column in the magazine. I never dealt with them directly, but I don’t remember anyone who did getting off a call from them with a sunny smile. There’s further confirmation in the chapter of “Amarcord” that chronicles their dealings with Judith Jones at their erstwhile publishing house, Alfred A. Knopf.

Mr Seligman's roughly sympathetic review is dispiritingly saturated in Eau de Not-What-You-Know-But-Who-You-Know. Ms Hazan and her husband, Victor, come off as the anti-Childs. The book comes across as a pendant to the Marcella Hazan's career, not, as My Life In France does with regard to Julia Child's, its capstone.

Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq, by Linda Robinson. James Traub's warmly favorable review appears to share the author's admiration for the general as well as her lack of it for the Bush Administration:

Indeed, you cannot help being struck by the radical difference between Bush and his world, and Petraeus and his. The ­55-year-old general is a superachiever who took on all the toughest training assignments and came away with the ­medals, a perfectionist who demands as much from others as from himself and a deeply reflective figure — he has a Ph.D. in international relations from Princeton — who continually adapts to the lessons of experience. Petraeus puts no special store by his gut intuitions; in Iraq, he surrounded himself with junior officers as analytical, and as driven, as he is. Robinson singles out as his greatest gift not leadership but “intellectual rigor,” which compelled him “to mount a sustained effort to understand the problem.”

Like Eating a Stone: Surviving the Past in Bosnia, by Wojciech Tochman (translated by Andrea Lloyd-Jones). Matthew Price summons as much enthusiasm as one might for this journalist's account of the essential peacelessness of Bosnia, but he fails to argue that a small corner of the world that has already had more than its share of the world's attention deserves yet more. This is not to say that it doesn't: I suspect that the virtues of Mr Tochman's look at the still-grim landscape has much to tell us about nations and races in modern Europe. All we get from Mr Price is a study in futility.

FICTION

Deaf Sentence, by David Lodge. Stephen Amidon's useless review is so busy demonstrating that, as a farce, this novel is a disappointment, that it can't be bothered to convey Mr Lodge's dryly humorous tone. "Their trip to an appalling holiday camp called Gladeworld is loaded with comic potential, but winds up being merely glum." You can conclude either that the author has lost his touch or that the reviewer doesn't know what he's talking about.

The Development: Nine Stories, by John Barth. Sven Birkert's patronizingly favorable review begs to be deconstructed, not so much for its content as for its length and tone, both of which suggest that Mr Barth is being treated to a brief review in recognition of now-ancient laurels. There is a suppressed sense of amazement that the novelist is both alive and capable of writing.

The China Lover, by Ian Buruma. Joshua Hammer's storytelling review suggests that this novel, based on the long and adventurous life of a Japanese entertainer from Manchuria, is merely an armature for Mr Buruma's extensive knowledge of East Asian Affairs, although Mr Hammer also calls the book "evocative." His failures of sympathy make the review much harder going than Mr Buruma's novel.

Buruma’s plot strays all over the map, and that’s part of the problem with this ambitious book. He seems to have tried to work in every theme he’s every contemplated about Japanese history and identity: the problematic relationship between East and West, the Japanese underworld, anti-Semitism, the role of the foreigner in Japan, the web of connections and obligations that knits together Japanese society. The episodic narrative, packed with celebrity walk-ons (Pu Yi, the puppet emperor in Manchuria; Truman Capote), is always fascinating but sometimes dizzyingly unfocused.

The Legal Limit, by Martin Clark. Although reviewer Allison Glock describes this book, in her opening sentence, as a "legal thriller," there is very little in what follows to suggest that she's right to do so.

In a novel of ample graces, Clark’s real strength is his familiarity with the material. He knows the law. He knows his people, how small-town life can be a solace and a cell, how the past informs and haunts, how men will never stop finding new ways to wound one another, family especially.

Sounds like a good novel to me, and much too relaxed to be a thriller.

A Cure for Night, by Justin Peacock. Another legal thriller, apparently. Michael Auger's ambiguous review concludes with one of those bad-but-good paragraphs that can only baffle readers.

Away from the bench, A Cure for Night is fuzzier, like a slide that you can never really focus. Joel and Myra’s personal lives are a little vague, while the restaurants they visit are extremely specific. (This book could double as a guide to nice places to go in Park Slope.) The downtime could have been graced more by Joel’s lawyer friend Paul, with his jaded view of the billable life: “I do it for the money, and because I failed to come up with anything more interesting to do.” But you’re not hiring Justin Peacock to be Bret Easton Ellis or Richard Price. He’s all about the law, and based on his work here, he’s got a good chance to make partner.

Pharmakon, by Dirk Wittenborn. Between the clods of storytelling and a preoccupation with the novelist's apparently autobiographical inspiration, James Kaplan never manages to convey an impression of this evidently somewhat quirky book.

A Race Like No Other: 26.2 Miles Through the Streets of New York, by Liz Robbins. Benjamin Cheever gives this book about the local Marathon a warmly favorable review. "Robbins, a sportswriter for the New York Times, has packed her book with scrumptious details." It sounds like just the stocking-stuffer for the runner in the family — who ought to have read about it in the Sports section.

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