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Reviewing the Book Review

Mr Wizard

26 October 2008


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

In their oddly mistitled Essay, "The Coming Anti-Bush-Book Bust," Alex and Christopher Beam look back on the impact of fourteen sharp books on the Age of Dubya. As if we didn't already know.

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!)


After some entertaining storytelling, Stacy Schiff lowers the boom on Laura Claridge's Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners, faulting it for a pervasive disengagement that dubious name-dropping doesn't help. The result, I'm afraid, is the rare bad review that actually seems to be helpful.

And while acknowledging that Post was not always engaged in topical issues — she was often fully out of step with her time — Claridge seems intent on summoning every figure of the age onstage. Freud, Marie Curie, Helen Keller, Caruso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bonnie and Clyde, Joe McCarthy all parade past. It’s a crowded production, also difficult to hear over the screech of scenery. There are few immutable rules of biography, but I would hazard this one: If the Triangle fire erupts and the subject in no way feels the heat, the Triangle fire does not belong in the biography. What exactly is Gene Autry doing here?

Jay Winik not only really likes David S Reynolds's Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson, but he makes it sound quite timely as well.

With its deeply sensationalist strain, this era also bore more than a faint resemblance to our own time. Much like today’s tabloids, penny papers peddled articles about whoredom, divorce, even infanticide, and when stories ran dry, the newsmen simply made them up, once writing about talking man-bats on the moon. At a time of near ubiquitous triumph of image over substance in politics, P. T. Barnum resolved to make a living from the public’s craving for the melodramatic, opening a museum that housed a medley of freaks, including a creature half woman, half fish; two-headed animals; and a number of midgets. Still, there was a countervailing strain to the national mood as well; Henry David Thoreau spoke for many when he longed for a simpler, more contemplative time, as did Edgar Allan Poe, who opined, “Democracy is a very admirable form of government — for dogs.”

More ominously:

Yet if the heart of this book is the cultural ferment of the age — which Reynolds persuasively argues stems from its militant reform spirit — there is no escaping its darker side. Harriet Tubman, the former slave who helped ferry thousands to freedom, insisted, “Dead niggers tell no tales.” But in the passions they aroused, they did tell tales. Within little over a decade after Zachary Taylor’s inauguration, Thoreau’s civil disobedience had given way to John Brown’s belligerence, the heady optimism of the feminists of Seneca Falls to the despair of diplomats failing to mediate the differences between North and South, and the Era of Good Feelings to the blood-soaked fields of Manassas, Antietam, Gettysburg and the Wilderness.

Something about David Hajdu's praise for Hallelujah Junction suggests that John Adams's Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life might be more than of merely musical interest.

Although the sojourner scheme is a cliché among books by creative artists, politicians and pretty much everyone else, Adams plays it lightly. There is no more self-aggrandizement in this wry, smart and forthright memoir than there is in the venturesome but elegiac music of Adams’s maturity. Indeed, Hallelujah Junction stands with books by Hector Berlioz and Louis Armstrong among the most readably incisive autobiographies of major musical figures.

Mr Hajdu hastens to note that Mr Adams can "write prose" and "even be droll."


David Kirby's vivid review of Human Dark With Sugar, Brenda Shaughnessy's new collection of verse, may actually sell a few copies. After placing the poet's work in context, he lets out a Bronx cheer.

David Orr wrote in these pages recently that a lot of poetry these days reads like a heap of John Ashbery with a few Gertrude Stein-isms sprinkled on top. There’s some of that in Shaughnessy’s work, though she goes both deeper and broader than her trendy contemporaries. There are nods to the zeitgeist, sure: she name-checks Roland Barthes in an epigraph, Susan Sontag in a dedication. But there’s a ton of Emily Dickinson’s curiosity here as well as some of the stridency of Sylvia Plath, and even a faint echo of the Coleridge whose hopped-up singer in “Kubla Khan” makes those who hear him cry “Beware!”

As I read Shaughnessy’s poems, I can’t help hearing not only her poetic ancestors but Abbott and Costello as well: not the film bumblers being chased by Franken­stein but the double-talkers whose “Who’s on First?” routine is often imitated, never duplicated. People are funny. Words are funnier. And poems, when they’re at their smartest and best-made, are funniest of all.

Sam Tanenhaus rolls out the barrel for John Updike's new sequel, The Widows of Eastwick.

All this provides the background for “The Widows of Eastwick,” Updike’s predictably ingenious sequel, set 30-plus years later. The mood and tone are very different — relaxed and contemplative. The witches, having fled Eastwick and dispersed for second marriages, more or less satisfying, have lately lost their husbands. They tentatively renew their sisterhood on overseas travels in which they test their creaky skills. These opening pages form a long, rather aimless set piece. But it doesn’t matter. Who can resist Updike on veiled heads glimpsed in a Cairo market (“lively liquid eyes glared like the bright backs of captured beetles”) or on Mao in his coffin (“evenly coated with orange makeup not quite the color of living skin”)?

As Mr Tanenhaus says, it doesn't matter.

The critics don't seem to be liking Diane Johnson's new novel, Lulu in Marrakech — not at the Times, anyway. The other day, Michiko Kakutani called it "ridiculous," and Erica Wagner, in the Book Review, isn't any kinder — although, for once, she is coherent. Coherent, but not helpful.

Perhaps Lulu’s cultural insensitivities — describing Gazi in her black abaya as looking like “the wicked godmother at a christening” and her husband’s robes as “tablecloths” — are inserted to make the reader feel superior; they don’t. The reader feels simply glum, locked in a window­less world of preconceptions never shattered and lessons never learned. I can well believe Johnson might have wanted to show that Lulu never does truly go to ­Marrakesh — there’s a hint of irony in her title. The trouble is that the reader doesn’t get there either. This Lulu simply can’t live up to her name.

I wish I could think of a literary character who finds herself on vacation with the wrong books, wishing that she'd brought others. Then I could name complaining reviews such as this one (whose writers would not share her excuse) after her.

Clyde Haberman, one of the nicest guys at the Times (at least on paper), is only very slightly impatient with Dermot McEvoy's "comic, jaundiced" novel about New York politics, Our Lady of Greenwich Village.

Perhaps it takes a New Yorker to appreciate all the grenades McEvoy hurls at the city’s political class. It may also help the reader to be Irish — and maybe not even then — to sustain interest in O’Rourke’s tediously long search for his family roots in Dublin. It surely would not hurt to have been a habitué of the old Lion’s Head.

Mr Haberman goes on to explain that the Lion's Head was a tavern "for drinkers with writing problems."

D T Max complains that 85 year-old Nobel laureate José Saramago appears to have phoned in his latest book, Death With Interruptions (translated by Margaret Jull Costa)

Indeed the feel of this book is really the sound of no sound, of the unsaid and the unsayable and the too tired to say. Maybe this is just Saramago growing old. Writing novels is hard work. Or maybe even this committed novelist has thrown up his hands at modern life. “Love one another were the words once spoken, and now it is time to begin,” Saramago wrote in Ricardo Reis. Eleven years later, a writer in the midst of the plague of sightlessness in Blindness is asked, “Do you mean that we have more words than we need?” He responds: “I mean that we have too few feelings. Or that we have them but have ceased to use the words they express. And so we lose them.” So 10 years later, is “Death With Interruptions” Saramago’s effort to show that we have lost a few more?

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