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Reviewing the Book Review

Lucky George

16 November 2008

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


¶ How to review George, Being George: George Plimpton's Life as Told, Admired, Deplored and Enlivened by 200 Friends, Relatives, Lovers, Acquaintances, Rivals — and a Few Unappreciative Observers? Hiring Graydon Carter to do the job is a good start. Because Plimpton invented and perfected the high-gloss but dirt-digging oral biography of creative types (Truman Capote, very creative, and Edie Sedgwick, a type if there ever was one), the only thing we really need to know is whether this book, edited by Nelson W Aldrich, is up to snuff. Mr Carter avoids such odious comparisons, but he does call the new book "superbly edited." And then he tosses in the perfect tease:

Acting on Evelyn Waugh’s adage that you can say pretty much what you want about a man, however negative, and he’ll take it so long as you say he was good in bed, Aldrich is generous in parading a procession of Plimpton “girls,” most of them admiring. His male friends incorrectly thought actual sex wasn’t part of George’s equation. Women knew otherwise. He treated sex like a sport, and once in the sack, he had great admiration for the female athlete. And like his stabs at making it on the gridiron or diamond, whatever George lacked in technique under the sheets, he made up for in enthusiasm. “He introduced me to everything,” Kathy Ainsworth remembered. “He told me what to read . . . he taught me everything. I expected there to be another George in my life, but there never was. There was either passion and no manners, or there were lots of manners and no passion, or they didn’t read, or I don’t know. He was a whole man.”

Caution: this review's extraordinary length is a sub rosa love note to Manhattan's literary life. Don't read it if you're already feeling left out.

¶ Ever since the beginning of the Twentieth Century, human beings have been laid low by a virus that makes driving cars seem attractive over and above any question of utility. Who knows how long it will take to burn itself out? According to Tom Vanderbilt's review, the futility of complaining about cars is the subject of Brian Ladd's Autophobia: Love and Hate in the Automotive Age.

Throughout the car’s life, Ladd argues, its critics have often “failed to appreciate the depth of the automobile’s hold on ordinary people,” reaching for conspiracies to help explain the ubiquity of car culture when the answers seem far simpler. The car, beyond any symbolic power, is usually the fastest — if far from the healthiest — way to get around. But this itself contains a point that the car’s boosters, Ladd argues, often ignore — a so-called path dependence. Once you started to make room for the car in the landscape — doing things that made the car “an easy, convenient, even necessary, but not always wise choice” — it was hard to turn back. /p>

Indeed, it has been a signal failing of liberal democrats everywhere to look down on the appetites of "ordinary people."

¶ My appetite for books about the charm and magic of words gets smaller every year. My fascination with the history of language is something else altogether, and it horrifies me that someone might think I'd like to read Roy Blount Jr's Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory. Thanks to Jack Shafer's warmly favorable review, I know that this is not the book for me.

Who before Blount thought to construct a complete conversation using only English vowels? Give a listen:

    “ ’ey!”
    “I. . . . ”
    “Oh, you.”

Who before Blount admired “it” as “the skinniest of all two-letter words”? Who thought to bust Buckminster Fuller for writing, “I seem to be a verb”? Because “verb” is a noun, Blount points out, Fuller was really saying, “I seem to be a noun,” when he made his famous declaration.

What makes this terrifying to read is the doubt it casts on my having a sense of humor.

¶ Another book about Andrew Jackson? Hardly my favorite President. American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, by Newsweek editor Jon Meecham, gets a largely favorable review from Andrew Cayton that is perhaps slightly infected by Jackson fatigue:

American Lion is enormously entertaining, especially in the deft descriptions of Jackson’s personality and domestic life in his White House. But Meacham has missed an opportunity to reflect on the nature of American populism as personified by Jackson. What does it mean to have a president who believes that the people are a unified whole whose essence can be distilled into the pronouncements of one man? Populist resentment is to democracies as air is to fire. But republics may endure best when leaders remain uncertain — as several dozen did in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 — as to whether the people can be entirely trusted with their own government. Was the United States really better off without the Bank of the United States? Did the removal of native peoples west of the Mississippi constitute smart policy? Should we assume that what is best for the United States (as defined by men like Jackson) is best for us all?

¶ Sarah Boxer tell us that Jackie Wullschlager, author of Chagall: A Biography, doesn't much like her subject — and then proceeds to mimic Ms Wullschlager's point of view. The review is an object lesson in the perils of storytelling. After appreciating an anecdote involving Picasso, Ms Boxer writes,

Great stuff. But the biography’s end doesn’t have many such moments. After the exit of Virginia in 1952 and the entrance of her Russian-Jewish replacement, Vava, who became Chagall’s wife and bulldog, it’s a blur of commissions, exhibitions, murals and stained-glass windows until he died in 1985. Indeed, Chagall’s description of his beloved Russia — “a paper balloon suspended by a parachute” — could fit his own inflated stardom unto death.

This falling of interest may be the painter's fault, but it is certainly his biographer's. Not a very helpful review.

¶ As a passionate believer in the Great Books curriculum, I tried to disapprove of James Campbell's very amusing (and favorable) review of Alex Beam's A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books, but I'm afraid that I'm going to have to read the book. Mr Beam, of course, is writing primarily about the pretentious publishing venture that filled Midcentury bookshelves with formidably dense and unannotated texts — many of them of exclusively historical interest. Mr Campbell sounds Mr Beam's droll vernacular, tacitly suggesting that a newspaper columnist may not be the best imaginable student of the work of Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler — of whom Mr Beam is quoted as saying, "From the culture's poing of view, Adler was a dead white male who had the bad luck to still be alive." The picture accompanying the review, showing Adler, pipe asmoke, sitting behind dozens of card catalogues of his Great Ideas — of which he counted 102.

¶ It is difficult not to sympathize with Susan Cheever's children, who suggested a dedication that Ms Cheever didn't use: "To my children, who died of embarrassment." Reviewer Chelsea Cain tells us that the book, Desire: Where Sex Meets Addiction,

— like a manual on crabgrass control — is divided into three parts, “What is it?” “What causes it?” and “What can we do about it?” The definition of sex addiction is tricky to pin down. What separates the addict from what Cheever terms the “passionate amateur”? It all comes down to how you feel in the morning. “Addiction,” Cheever writes, “is always a broken promise, whether it’s a promise made to oneself or to another person.” If you promise yourself you won’t do it — won’t drink, won’t have sex with the doorman — and you do it anyway, it might be time to start going to 12-step meetings.


David Orr's consideration of the new Letters of Ted Hughes (edited by Christopher Reid) looks mordantly forward to a time when people might read the poetry of Hughes and his erstwhile wife, Sylvia Plath, without getting stuck on their unhappy relationship.

It’s a pity not only because many people might enjoy the poetry if they were to read it on its own merits, rather than for the customary vicarious frisson, but also because many people might not enjoy it. They might instead find themselves wondering why so much time has been spent on two writers whose most notable shared feature is the ability to write a poem dripping with blood, moons and psychic violence about anything from soccer to provincial beekeeping clubs. They might wonder whether the supposed primal intensity of the poetry isn’t lessened by the fact that there’s an awful lot of it: more than 300 pages in Plath’s “Collected Poems” (and she died at 30); more than 1,300 pages in Hughes’s (with the “Complete Poems” yet to come).


¶ Christopher Benfey appears to like The Delivery Room, Sylvia Brownrigg's new novel about A Serbian expatriate living in London, but his storytelling review is one of those pieces that stresses a book's oddness without making it sound at all engaging.

Much the same could be said of Ethan Bronner's review of A B Yehoshua's Friendly Fire: A Duet; trying to compress the novel's evidently dense and ambitious plot into a few columns can't be a good idea. But although Mr Bronner doesn't seem to like his assignment as much as Mr Benfey, he does tell us something about the book (as distinct from its story):

One of the novel’s strengths is its careful inspection of the nature of familial relationships, rendered through exceptionally accurate dialogue.

¶ Marcel Theroux takes pains to advise readers that getting through James Kelman's Kieron Smith, Boy will be a painstaking experience.

Kelman is a profoundly political writer, concerned with the way that representing speech or policing speech can be a form of social control. Throughout the novel, Kieron’s mother and other authority figures try to make him forsake the marked Scots features of his language and use more socially prestigious forms. “Ye had to speak right all the time, Oh it is not cannay it is cannot, you must not say didnay it is did not. If it is the classroom it is not the gutter. It is the Queen’s English, only you must speak the Queen’s English.”

It’s clear, by contrast, that Kelman wants his creation to speak in his native idiom, even at the risk of banality. He goes out of his way to avoid anything that smacks of fine writing. There’s not a memorable sentence in the entire book. Occasionally, the result is a moving artlessness or a pungent, rhythmic vitality. More often, the effect is one of eye-watering dullness; the words just aren’t doing enough heavy lifting to keep the reader interested. Kieron rambles on like the worst kind of bore, in repetitious, loosely connected flights of fancy.

Since the review also suggests that Kieron Smith, Boy rumbles with craggy literary merit, it seems somewhat fatuous of Mr Theroux t4o conclude, "Still, this isn't a bad book."

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