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Reviewing the Book Review

The Departed

9 November 2008

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


Hugh Eakin's predominantly negative review of Sharon Waxman's Loot: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World is a fine example of a misplaced news item. Mr Eakin thinks that Ms Waxman has got her story all wrong, and wants us to know it.

The larger problem is Waxman’s portrayal of the antiquities crisis as mainly a “tug of war” over coveted museum pieces. In fact, the more important battle concerns unprotected archaeological sites, and it is far less a matter of repatriating objects than of figuring out how to stop latter-day looters from destroying our collective past. That vital challenge remains unsolved.

The Book Review is not the place to post "Do Not Buy This Book" bills.

It would seem that, by my own lights, I'm the wrong person to be reviewing Elizabeth Royte's review of Irene M Pepperberg's Alex and Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence And Formed a Deep Bond in the Process, because I had never heard of Alex the Thinking Parrot before, and I remain categorically uninterested in material so lacking in humanist, literary quality. Ms Royte is guardedly favorable.

For a technical analysis of his feats, you’ll want to read Pepperberg’s book The Alex Studies, published in 2000. The present book, in contrast, is largely celebratory — light on science, heavy on cute animal stories and heartwarming in its depiction of what was either a fruitful professional collaboration or a weirdly dependent friendship, or both. Still, it isn’t all billing and cooing: a strain of “I’ll show them” runs through the text. Accusations against the scientific establishment, which at first denied Pepperberg funding, publication, prestigious appointments and professional respect, propel the narrative.

The publication of books that settle scores is surely, at the very least, environmentally unsound.

Alan Wolfe believes that there is a definite need for Thomas J Sugrue's Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North, but he fears that the author has missed an important point.

In addition, Sugrue pays insufficient attention to the price the Northern civil rights movement paid for its refusal to take morality seriously. Once blacks used the language of empowerment and self-determination, whites were free to do so as well: those Boston Irish-American parents resisting busing appealed to the same themes of community autonomy and rejection of outsiders that black activists did in demanding control of their schools. Lacking a moral compass, more than a handful of Northern civil rights workers became hustlers if not downright criminals. Most important of all, by insisting that everything was a struggle for power, Northern activists all too often treated whites as enemies to be fought rather than allies to be cultivated. Justified or not, black power produced a white backlash. To advance in American society, any minority needs allies. The strategies Sugrue so admires were incapable of producing them.

Miranda Seymour's review of Peter Ackroyd's biography of the Thames ought probably not to be regarded as ideal, but its enthusiasm is both brisk and nicely qualified. Having noted that the book shows Mr. Ackroyd as "a sometimes infuriating author at both his best and his worst," Ms Seymour concludes,

It’s advisable, then, not to treat Thames as an academic resource. (As with London, no footnotes are provided.) Excuse yourself from reading the passages that merit a book of their own, possibly entitled “Wisdom of the River.” Feel free to skip the lists of churches named for Mary and the inventories of the myriad deities in charge of other rivers. Few — after all — would take the risk of a deep plunge into the Thames itself; so it proves with Ackroyd’s history. A brisk dip will do you less harm — and bring you far more pleasure — than full immersion.

Ben Ratliffe leaves no doubt that Ted Gioia's Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music is a must-read for anyone interested in American popular music, not to mention the blues. "Much of this material has been covered in other books, though without so much synthesis and circumspection."

Max Byrd is enthusiastic about the factual riches that Julia Keller has packed into Mr Gatling's Terrible Marvel: The Gun That Changed Everything and the Misunderstood Genius Who Invented It, but he's not wild about Ms Keller's "rapid-fire breeziness of tone," and her book's "maddening repetitions and exaggerations." Making his point more positively might have shone a clearer light on this book, as would have trimming some of the storytelling.

Patrick Redden Keefe makes Leslie T Chang's Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China sound irresistible.

Chang’s extraordinary reportorial feat is the intimacy with which she presents the stories of these two women. Min and Chunming lack the reserve of some of their colleagues. They share their diary entries and their text messages, their romantic entanglements and their sometimes strained relationships with the families they left behind. The result is an exceptionally vivid and compassionate depiction of the day-to-day dramas, and the fears and aspirations, of the real people who are powering China’s economic boom.

By delving so deeply into the lives of her subjects, Chang succeeds in exploring the degree to which China’s factory girls are exploited — working grueling hours in sometimes poor conditions for meager wages with little job security — without allowing the book to degenerate into a diatribe. There is never any doubt that the factory owners in Hong Kong and Taiwan — and the consumers in American shopping malls — have the better end of the bargain. But for all the dislocation, isolation and vulnerability they experience, Chang makes clear that for the factory girls life in Dongguan is an adventure, and an affirmation of the sort of individualism that village life would never allow.

If only every review could be as lucid!

Robert Kagan largely admires Carlo d'Este's Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945, but he feels that the book's emphasis on Churchill's career as a soldier is somewhat oversold.

He loved danger, and he was daring sometimes to the point of absurdity. But whenever the young Churchill threw himself into peril he calculated, even as the bullets flew and the swords cut the air, how the latest bit of derring-do would bring his name to attention back in England. And indeed, by 1900 his fame as a soldier, along with his best-selling books, catapulted him into Parliament. That year Mark Twain introduced him in New York as the “hero of five wars, author of six books and future prime minister of England.” Churchill was 26 years old.

Richard B Woodward's review of Antoine's Alphabet: Watteau and His World, Jed Perl's book about his favorite painter, just gets worse and worse and worse. The final dismissal is painful: "If only Perl’s own musings were as cogent and illuminating as the writers he quotes." There is no call for this sort of thing. All we learn from this review, really, is that Mr Woodward didn't like the book.


August Kleinzahler's review of a new, distilled collection of James Merrill's work, Selected Poems (edited by J D McClatchy and Stephen Yenser), is everything that it ought to be except long enough. That aside, it offers a comprehensible account of the poet and his work, suitably illustrated with a choice poem, "The Kimono."

Merrill’s poetry will not be to everyone’s taste. He never intended it to be. He insists too often on being clever; he can go on too long and wreck what begins and continues for quite a few stanzas as a splendid poem written in ballad meter, “The Summer People,” or he can choke a poem with detail, as he does in “Yánnina.” Many readers will find the poetry mannered. It is, by design. The poet is an aesthete, a dandy in the Baudelairean sense, unabashedly so. One critic has referred to Merrill’s style as “New Critical Baroque.” Rococo would probably be more apt. Where a straight line would do, Merrill cannot resist using filigree. But if one were to bypass his work, one would be missing some of the finest poems written in English in the middle of last century...

As a bonus, Mr Kleinzahler names eight of his favorite poems.

Peter Stevenson's review of Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry is nothing but a tissue of the worst sort of storytelling. As if Donald Hall couldn't be trusted to do the job himself, Mr Stevenson runs over the highlights of the poet's career, noting inanely that

No matter how glamorous his associations, Hall still had to cobble together the usual sources of income for a poet: doing varied freelance work, editing anthologies, some years teaching. In the late 1950s he joined other poets in satisfying the country’s sudden hunger for poetry readings, as “the skies turned thick with poets traveling to say their lines.”

The review appears to take it for granted that Mr Hall's celebrity as a poet guarantees the interest of his memoir. I am sure that the poet would be the first to disagree.


Jonathan Lethem's favorable, and very extended, review of 2666, by Roberto Bolaño (translated by Natasha Wimmer), bolts the posthumous novel securely in the current pantheon of Big Boy Fiction. I call it that for two reasons. First, the review describes the book as a kind of game or quest, one with semi-magical powers.

At last, and with the blunt power of a documentary compilation, comes Part 4, “The Part About the Crimes.” Bolaño’s massive structure may now be under­stood as a form of mercy: 2666 has been conceived as a resounding chamber, a receptacle adequate to the gravity — the weight and the force — of the human grief it will attempt to commemorate. (Perhaps 2666 is the year human memory will need to attain in order to bear the knowledge in 2666.) If the word “unflinching” didn’t exist I’d invent it to describe these nearly 300 pages, yet Bolaño never completely abandons those reserves of lyricism and irony that make the sequence as transporting as it is grueling. The nearest comparison may be to Haruki Murakami’s shattering fugue on Japanese military atrocities in Mongolia, which sounds the moral depths in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Bolaño’s method, like Murakami’s, encapsulates and disgorges dream and fantasy, at no cost to the penetration of his realism.

Second, the women who figure in the book (by Mr Lethem's account) are victims of one kind or another, and almost as enchanted as unicorns. It would be gravely incorrect to dismiss this kind of fiction as "macho," but it does seem addressed to men for whom women are a wonderfully incomprehensible mystery.

My encounter with Bolaño's short fiction has decided me against exploring any further, and I am fairly sure that, were I to read 2666, any heartfelt review that I wrote would be apoplectically impatient. There is no need for such reviews, and I am grateful for Mr Lethem's sympathetic enthusiasm. It warns me away from a book that I'm almost certain to dislike by praising (and thereby illuminating) what the reviewer takes to be its virtues. Especially when I have no idea what Mr Lethem is talking about:

A novel like 2666 is its own preserving machine, delivering itself into our hearts, sentence by questing, unassuming sentence; it also becomes a preserving machine for the lives its words fall upon like a forgiving rain, fictional characters and the secret selves hidden behind and enshrined within them: hapless academic critics and a hapless Mexican boxer, the unavenged bodies deposited in shallow graves. By writing across the grain of his doubts about what literature can do, how much it can discover or dare pronounce the names of our world’s disasters, Bolaño has proven it can do anything, and for an instant, at least, given a name to the unnamable.

Akash Kapur's review of The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga's Man-Booker prizewinner, strives valiantly to speak well of a book that Mr Kapur clearly disliked. Having called it "a penetrating piece of social commentary," he all but demolishes it as a work of fiction.

The characters can also seem superficial. Balram’s landlord boss and his wife are caricatures of the insensitive upper classes, cruel to and remote from their employees. Although Balram himself is somewhat more interesting, his credulousness and naïveté often ring false. When he goes to buy alcohol for his employer, he finds himself “dazzled by the sight of so much English liquor.” When he visits a shopping mall, he is “conscious of a perfume in the air, of golden light, of cool, air-conditioned air, of people in T-shirts and jeans. . . . I saw an elevator going up and down that seemed made of pure golden glass.”

The problem with such scenes isn’t simply that they’re overdone. In their surfeit of emblematic detail, they reduce the characters to symbols. There is an absence of human complexity in The White Tiger, not just in its characters but, more problematically, in its depiction of a nation that is in reality caught somewhere between Adiga’s vision and the shinier version he so clearly — and fittingly — derides. Lacking this more balanced perspective, the novel feels simplistic: an effective polemic, perhaps, but an incomplete portrait of a nation and a people grappling with the ambiguities of modernity.

Nancy Kline's review of Martin Corrick's By Chance is either too short or too long, depending on your point of view. Too hasty to convey a sense of the book's texture, it is so dismissive that one wonders why the editors bothered assigning the title. According to Ms Kline, the "hapless protagonist," a "grieving middle-aged engineer with metaphysical tendencies," "is all too accurate when he observes: “What a dull fellow I am!” Not helpful.

The Wettest County in the World, a novel the moonshine- and mayhem-soaked novel apparently inspired by author Matt Bondurant's memories of his grandfather and great-uncles, gets a guardedly favorable review from Louisa Thomas. Noting that the device of interpolating Sherwood Anderson as a character "works, but only up to a point," Ms Thomas concludes,

Anderson’s vision is bleak. Bondurant’s is not. Despite the bloodshed and the poverty, his Franklin County is no dystopia, and despite the violence of his plotting, Bondurant’s language tends to be optimistic and buoyant, almost boyish. Innocence and pleasure can be hard to justify in such a world, but who can deny the power of a narrative so deeply rooted in childhood imaginings, when a mild and quiet grandfather hung those brass knuckles on the wall?

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