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Reviewing the Book Review

Original Sins

30 November 2008

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


¶ David Leonhardt's favorable review of Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Outliers: The Story of Success, contains a very shrewd observation:

For all these similarities, though, Outliers represents a new kind of book for Gladwell. The Tipping Point and Blink, his second book, were a mixture of social psychology, marketing and even a bit of self-help. Outliers is far more political. It is almost a manifesto. “We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that 13-year-old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur,” he writes at the end. “But that’s the wrong lesson. Our world only allowed one 13-year-old unlimited access to a time-sharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today?”

The suggestion, fully backed up by the substance of Mr Leonhardt's review, is that this book is less an analysis of success than a history of bad ideas about it.

¶ Writing about The Worthy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell's book about the Pilgrims — or is it the Puritans? — Virginia Heffernan gives us one of those I-couldn't-stand-this-book-but-I-couldn't-put-it-down-either reviews. Having called the author "annoying," she proceeds to be very annoying herself. The piece reads like an unusually solipsistic blog entry.

¶ Richard Holbrooke's review of Gordon M Goldstein's Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam is everything that one might hope for: an informed and intriguing window on a momentous subject, the role of one brilliant but strangely incurious mind in the conduct of one of this country's Cold War disasters.

As it happens, I was part of a small group that dined with Bundy the night before Pleiku at the home of Deputy Ambassador William J. Porter, for whom I then worked. Bundy quizzed us in his quick, detached style for several hours, not once betraying emotion. I do not remember the details of that evening — how I wish I had kept a diary! — but by then I no longer regarded Bundy as a role model for public service. There was no question he was brilliant, but his detachment from the realities of Vietnam disturbed me. In Ambassador Porter’s dining room that night were people far less intelligent than Bundy, but they lived in Vietnam, and they knew things he did not. Yet if they could not present their views in quick and clever ways, Bundy either cut them off or ignored them. A decade later, after I had left the government, I wrote a short essay for Harper’s Magazine titled “The Smartest Man in the Room Is Not Always Right.” I had Bundy — and that evening — in mind.

The more flawed the review makes Bundy sound, the more one wants to read the book.

¶ Caroline Weber's enthusiastic review of Susan Pinkard's A Revolution in Taste: The Rise of French Cuisine, 1650-1800, is at least as appetizing as the most well turned-out plate of food. The story of Parisians' rejection of Hippocratic humors in favor of the potagers at their country houses is perhaps too good to resist, but Ms Weber makes the book sound as good as she can without providing more ample quotations.

With Bonnefons and his confrere La Varenne, whose influential work “Le Cuisinier François” (“The French Cook”) appeared in 1651, vegetables assumed pride of place in French cooking, served only with mild seasonings and smooth, emulsified sauces that allowed for their essential flavors to shine through. Meat, fowl and fish soon received the same treatment, most notably with the development of “basic preparations” like roux, jus, coulis and marinade, as well as sauce blanche and sauce veloutée. Still essential to countless canonical French recipes, these enhancements represented a move away from old culinary practices in that they served “to accent the natural characteristics of principal ingredients, not to transform them chemically, nutritionally or aesthetically.”

¶ Ann Norton Greene's Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America is a book about the increase in horsepower that, counterintuitively, accompanies the rise in steam power throughout most of the Nineteenth Century. Reviewer Caleb Crain says that Ms Greene "has an easy time proving her point," and proceeds to have a fine time storytelling. One comes away wondering if the mistake was not so much allowing automobiles into cities as allowing horses.

¶ Noam Scheiber more or less frankly accuses Robert J Samuelson, author of The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath: The Past and Future of American Affluence, of tendentious cherry-picking.

Put simply, it makes no sense to scold Walter Heller without scolding Alan Greenspan. Why Samuelson fails to do so is unclear. Perhaps his definition of inflation is overly narrow, or he’s loath to complicate his historical narrative. I favor the most charitable explanation — that he wrote most of his book before the housing bubble became evident. In which case I’ll happily finish the job for him: Beware oracular Fed chairmen bearing easy fixes.

That seems fair enough.


¶ There is something recessive about David Gates's review of Toni Morrison's new novel, A Mercy. The book itself is interred in talk about "the American Pastoral," as a literary form.

To Europeans of the so-called Age of Discovery, the whole North American continent seemed a sort of Edenic rod and gun club, and their descendants here still haven’t gotten over their obsession with the pure primal landscapes they despoil with their own presence.

By his account, the book layers "PC cant" over misanthropy, giving the strong impression that this is one of those books that finds human beings more trouble than they're worth. When he writes, "A Mercy has neither the terrible passion of Beloved — how many times can we ask a writer to go to such a place? — nor the spirited ingenuity of Love, the most satisfying of Morrison’s subsequent novels," he seems to be squirming as gracefully as he can around an uncomfortable assignment.

¶ It's hard to tell, from Ben Macintyre's review, whether John Vernon's Lucky Billy is flawed masterstroke or just a dud. Centering his novel on the historical vacancy of Billy the Kid, is Mr Vernon shrewdly appraising the desert of the American West, or is he attempting to make something out of nothing?

The novel’s strange chronology — hopping back and forth in time — further confuses the miasma of murder and retaliation, capture and jailbreak. It’s frequently hard to work out which gunman is which, which posse is hunting which, and whose side they’re on — probably just what the participants themselves were wondering. The narrative reads in part like an account of a modern gang war among the cactus and sagebrush, a battle for position and prestige, overlaid with a skewed sense of honor but underpinned by animal brutality and a careless approach to the value of a life. “Alls I ever did was shoot a few people,” Billy complains.

I suspect, by squinting at the review, that Lucky Billy is a prose graphic novel.

¶ We're told that reviewer Gaiutra Bahadur is the great-granddaughter someone about whom she is writing a book, a woman who left India on a "coolie ship" like the one in Amitav Ghosh's novel, Sea of Poppies. It would be nice to say that this gives her special insight into the book under review, but unfortunately she brings something more foreseeable to the task: the conviction that she would write a different book. Having told Mr Ghosh's story, she faults him for his manner of telling it.

Deeti, for one, is hard to believe in. And not just because Ghosh gives her a back story as overwrought as the script for a Bollywood movie: wedded to an opium addict too enervated to consummate their marriage, impregnated in lieu by his brother and resigned to die on her husband’s funeral pyre until rescued by a hunky untouchable, with whom she elopes. Many of the women who fled India as coolies were indeed upper-caste ­widows, but there were no brawny heroes to snatch them from their fates. They simply left, alone — an act dramatic enough for that time and place that it shouldn’t need the enhancements of pulp plotting.

What were the editors thinking? This review, however correct, is unreliable on its face.

¶ Francesca Mara's far-too-short review of Kristen Menger-Anderson's collection of linked stories, Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain, succeeds only in making the book sound extremely odd. It also winds up with a passage of vintage eyewash:

Fortunately the most time-honored treatment happens to be the best. Time and again, Menger-Anderson’s doctors heal, or at least alleviate, through their charisma and confidence, a placebo’s active ingredients. Their faith in science drives them to take control of a situation, to treat it, by turning it into a story — a little dry, maybe, and insistent on foreshadow­ing and clear causality. But improbable as the doctors’ plots may sometimes be, their patients appreciate these narrative attempts at order — and often feel better because of them.

¶ Tom Bissell takes a manly-man approach to David Vann's Legend of a Suicide, a collection of stories, with a novella, about a father, a son, Alaska, and a "fish-trauma-per-page ratio" that "makes The Old Man and the Sea seem like a paean to ichthyophilia."

The reportorial relentlessness of Vann’s imagination often makes his fiction seem less written than chiseled. One cannot say that Vann does not do humor well because — here, at least — he does not do humor at all. What he does do well is despair and desperation. In spite (or maybe because) of this, he leads the reader to vital places. A small, lovely book has been written out of his large and evident pain. “A father, after all,” Vann writes, “is a lot for a thing to be.” A son is also a lot for a thing to be; so is an artist. With “Legend of a Suicide,” David Vann proves himself a fine example of both.

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