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Reviewing the Book Review

Out in the Cold

12 October 2008

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

Anthony Gottlieb's Essay, "My Parrot, My Self," is a miscellany of literary anecdotes about talking birds. Its presence in the Book Review ought to be inexplicable.

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 got it); Maroon (Big Literary Deal); Black (Out!)


¶ Richard Hell is not the right man to review Edmund White's Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel. He wants you to read a full-length biography of the precocious poet, preferably the one by Graham Robb. His condescension for the book's "digest version" format renders his review just about useless.

Still, this book irritates a bit with some of its complacent assertions, such as that Rimbaud’s famous declaration (in a letter written at age 16), “Je est un autre” (“I is someone else”), “meant that in the act of introspection we objectify the self, we experience our self as if it belongs to another person,” which takes banality to the point of distortion. It’s self-evident that examining oneself predicates a pair. But “I is another” is exhilarating, a revelation, which, at the very least, acknowledges one’s undifferentiated human substance or collectivity, as for a child . . .

This is not what readers of the Book Review need to wade through.

¶ Kevin Boyle's review of Jacqueline Jones's Saving Savannah: The City and the Civil War, commits the cardinal sin of book-reviewing: expressing disappointment that the author didn't write a different book.

Jones, who teaches history at the University of Texas at Austin, traces this tragic story with the thoroughness and sophistication that have marked her distinguished career. But she doesn’t employ her imposing scholarship in ways that might have made the rice kingdom come alive. For a book so rooted in a particular locale, “Saving Savannah” has very little sense of place: there are no evocative descriptions of the city’s graceful streets, the islands’ fetid swamps. More fundamentally, Jones rarely evokes the passions that such extraordinary events must have stirred. She makes us understand the burdens of cultivating rice, but she doesn’t make us see the slave standing hour after hour in muck, his bent back blistering under the summer sun. She describes Sherman’s remarkable offer of free land in the first few days of freedom, carefully noting the political calculation that lay behind it, but we don’t feel the unbounded joy of a freedman walking through his former master’s fields and claiming them as his own.

¶ Germaine Greer's review of The Enemy Within: 2,000 Years of Witch-Hunting in the Western World, in contrast, wishes that John Demos had written the book to go with his title. Her attack on his analyses is brisk but scholarly. It makes for great reading but unhelpful reviewing.

Demos tells us in his introduction that the plan for the book came from his publisher, but he does not really explain why he accepted the challenge. To paint so vast a picture requires a broader brush and rather more intellectual arrogance than Demos has at his disposal. As he dispatches three-quarters of his time-span in a mere 70 pages, so that he can get down to the detailed discussion of events in early America that takes up most of the book, it could be said that he has ducked the challenge.

¶ J R Moehringer doesn't like each of the fifty essays in State By State: A Portrait of America, a collection edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey, but he likes enough of them to decide that there's a right way to read this book:

I can imagine the typical reader jumping around in this collection, checking out his or her home state, then skipping to other states that are familiar. That’s what I did at first. But it’s an impulse to be resisted. “State by State” is best read chapter by chapter, as a picaresque journey, with a new narrator taking the wheel every five or six pages. There is a harum-scarum energy, a crazy logic, in going coast to coast alphabetically, from Point A to Point Z.

Writing about a few of the essays that appeal to him (but nothing about the ones that don't, except to say that they're dull — good show!), Mr Moehringer samples the collection's styles. His chuckling over Heidi Julavits's joke about the good people of Maine filed a flag in my mental Moehringer folder.

¶ From what little Gal Beckerman has room to say in his too-short review — pinched almost to the point of incomprehensibility — My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq deserves to be written about by someone who appreciates the full range of its topics, from father-son problems to the history of Aramaic.

As long as the focus stays on Yona Sabar, a last of the Mohicans for Kurdish Jews, the book is graceful and resonant. It falters only when the author extends too far beyond this narrative, imagining a bit too color­fully village life in Zakho or obsessively self-analyzing his dissonant relationship with his father. What holds our attention is that last bar mitzvah boy of Zakho, who, by helping to save Aramaic, managed to find a rare equilibrium between past and present. Or, as his son elegantly puts it, he “sublimated homesickness into a career.”

This review seems somewhat unpleasantly grudging, as if published to discharge a favor.

¶ George Anders quibbles about Charles D Ellis's handling of some of his material, but on the whole his review of The Partnership: The Making of Goldman Sachs synchronizes nicely with the book's unwonted timeliness. A sympathetic history is doubtless the only kind that could be written now, and Mr Anders seems myopically not to understand that this is not a topic to be exhausted in one book.

Ellis writes as a Wall Street loyalist. He ran Greenwich Associates for 30 years, providing research and consulting to securities firms, including Goldman Sachs. That experience graced him with a sure hand in writing about the world of traders, analysts and deal makers. But it makes it harder for him to put Wall Street’s great moneymaking abilities into a broader context — either as a key part of American progress or just an unwelcome form of profiteering.

The book nods briefly to the ways that Goldman officials shuttle into powerful government jobs. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson used to run Goldman; so, too, did former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and former Deputy Secretary of State John Whitehead. More insights on this pathway would have been welcome.

In the wake of Mr Ellis's book, however, criticisms of Goldman Sachs will make more sense to readers.

¶ Gary J Bass is enthusiastic about Jamesw Traub's The Freedom Agenda: Why America Must Spread Democracy (Just Not the Way George Bush Did):

Appalled by Bush’s hubris, Traub still sees the need to protect individual rights by building liberal democracy, but in a “more honest, more modest, more generous” way. Many new democracies have stalled in their liberalization, hampered by corruption, public disenchantment, ill-functioning states or foolish social and economic policies. Traub understands that democracy should mean more than just elections; it should also mean the rule of law, individual freedoms, checks and balances, accountability and civilian control of the security forces. This book is a nuanced guide for reaching a complicated, differentiated world. After Bush’s certitudes, this is oddly thrilling.

¶ Although Thomas Quasthoff's The Voice: A Memoir sounds like a book that I'd very much like to read, it didn't seem to belong in the Book Review. As a book about singing and birth defects — Mr Quasthoff began life as a "thalidomide baby" but grew up to be one of world's most admired and beloved baritones — it struck me as both too specialized and too sensational for the general reader. It appears from John Rockwell's favorable review, however, that the book testifies to a singular triumph over adversity.

He works to overcome his resentment of envious musicians “who believed I got things only because I was different.” He resents “being presented as a model handicapped person,” given how his life has been uniquely elevated above those of so many others. By the end, he tells us he has learned “to accept my physical deficits as fact, much as others see their bunions.”

¶ Who knew? Anna Leonowens, governess to the children of the King of Siam, was an Anglo-Indian! Leah Price gives Susan Morgan's Bombay Anna: The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of the "King and I" Governess a warmly favorable review that is itself a delight to read.

In 1861, Mongkut, the king of Siam, asked his agent in Singapore to find his children a governess. A former Buddhist monk and an accomplished scholar who had earlier allowed American missionaries access to the harem, Mongkut was seeking a woman who would teach English without trying to proselytize. With few unmarried British ladies on the spot, Anna Leonowens — apparently ladylike and genuinely widowed — was chosen. From this point on, Morgan’s heroine will remind readers of Becky Sharp, the governess who schemes her way through Regency society in Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair.” Unlike Becky, however, Leonowens turned out to be a good teacher.

¶ Jacob Heilbrunn has a field day, praising Barton Gellman's Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency.

As governor of Texas, Bush hewed to a centrist course, working, as he often boasted, with the Democratic­-led State Legislature. As a candidate for the presidency, he promised more of the same. But as president, he struck out on a more radical and polarizing course, one that Barton Gellman, in his engrossing and informative “Angler,” suggests he would not have followed absent Cheney. (Angler is Cheney’s Secret Service code name.) Gellman, a reporter at The Washington Post, has interviewed numerous associates and antagonists of the vice president, offering the most penetrating portrait of him yet. The result is that Cheney doesn’t seem as bad as you might think. He’s even worse.

So much worse, that I worry about not having heard much about Mr Cheney in recent weeks. What on earth can he be up to?

¶ Another cardinal sinner: Bill Hayes complains that Avery Gilbert's What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life is not the book that he wanted to read.

What the Nose Knows contains many such interesting facts and insights; indeed, interesting is the word that often came to mind as I read Gilbert’s book. In a dozen discrete chapters, he writes about the physiology of the nose, the connection between taste and smell, trends in scent marketing, so-called scent prodigies (not that Gilbert thinks they really exist), and other smell-­related topics. But is “interesting” enough to sustain one’s interest over nearly 300 pages? For me, no. I craved a more fleshed-out narrative, whether personal, historical or chronological, to pull me through the book and give it a discernible shape. Oddly, we learn very little about Gilbert himself; why he became so entranced by the sense of smell, what his training entailed, and exactly what a sensory psychologist does day to day. In his brief introduction, he writes that he’s “traveled to London, Zurich, Paris and Cannes” for his work. It might have been fun if he’d taken the reader along for a ride — setting a scene at one of the “perfume planning meetings in corporate suites” he mentions, or at the Osmothèque, the perfume museum in Versailles, so we could vicariously smell what he’s smelling.

Happily, however, Mr Hayes rattles on sufficiently to give the reader a good idea of what Mr Gilbert's book is like.


¶ Alan Furst gives John Le Carré's A Most Wanted Man a heartwarmingly rave review, tribute from one pro to another. Having called this book Mr Le Carré's best, the reviewer closes with a bit of fine strong tuning

Something said earlier in this review might better be amended. The concept of “best book” is difficult for the writer and reader; there are too many variables. Truer to say that this is le Carré’s strongest, most powerful novel, which has a great deal to do with its near perfect narrative pace and the pleasure of its prose, but even more to do with the emotions of its audience, what the reader brings to the book. There the television has once again done its work, has created a reality, and John le Carré has written an extraordinary novel of that reality.

In other words, Mr Le Carré's readers know (and care) more about his subject (espionage and terrorism) more than ever before.

¶ On the face of it, the Book Review is no place for writing about Kate Atkinson's When Will There Be Good News? But Elissa Schappell's sympathetic review suggests that the novel is only superficially a mystery:

Despite an arresting first chapter, what seems of most interest to Atkinson isn’t the solving of crimes, but the solving of the problem of being alive. What happens to those left behind, the ones held hostage by sorrow and disappointment? How do we pull ourselves out of the rubble of grief? How do we cope with the death of a loved one, transcend a childhood worthy of Dickens, survive the accident of having married the wrong person? How do we get what we need?

I See You Everywhere, Julia Glass's new and, apparently, semi-autobiographical novel, gets a warm review from Liesl Schillinger, who notes that "the new novel marks a return to more serious ambition."

In this novel, Glass has used the edges and color blocks of her own life to build an honest portrait of sister-love and sister-hate — interlocking, brave and forgiving — made whole through art, despite missing pieces in life. “There are many kinds of memorial and memento which bring us closer to those who are far away and those who have departed,” Goethe wrote in “Elective Affinities,” “but none is more meaningful than the portrait. . . . You have the pleasant feeling that you are divided, and yet can never be separated.”

¶ Lorraine Adams is guardedly favorable about The Wasted Vigil, by Nadeem Aslam:

There is moral complication on display in The Wasted Vigil, but this novel is more expansive than his previous ones, documenting several decades intensely and several centuries tangentially. It seeks to reveal the psyche not just of one rural village or one immigrant community but of Britain, the Soviet Union, the United States and Afghanistan. The revelations throughout are artful, at times carrying a dramatic emotional impact.

Ms Adams complains of overwriting. Happily, she includes several passages that strike her as too purple. They didn't bother me. A good review!

¶ Per Petterson's To Siberia gets a favorable review from Jonathan Miles, although one that is clouded by an anxious awareness of Mr Petterson's runaway hit, Out Stealing Horses, plus a lot of unhelpful storytelling.

In its best, most lucent moments, To Siberia evokes the same reflective grandeur that made “Out Stealing Horses” burn so brightly, with the memories this time coming from a 60-year-old woman whose present situation — unlike that of Trond Sander, the narrator of Out Stealing Horses, whose accounts of household doddering acted as a pressure valve on the crush of his remembrances — is never revealed.

¶ For a change, I am not going to complain about not being able to understand Susann Cokal. It seems clear, finally, that I am probably never going to find her reviews to be helpful, and that they will always raise questions in my mind that it doesn't interest the reviewer to answer. I conclude from the fact that her concluding paragraph is favorable that her take on Emma Donoghue's The Sealed Letter, an historical novel about a Victorian divorce, is favorable, too.

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