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Reviewing the Book Review

The 10 Best Books of 2008

14 December 2008

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


Writing about Annie Leibovitz At Work, Thomas Mallon has the good sense to appreciate Ms Liebovitz's photographs, instead of reviewing the collection of images. The question is not so much whether the book is well done — it would be very surprising if it were not good enough — as why we ought to care in the first place.

“At Work” includes a picture of the photographer’s mother, Marilyn Leibovitz, shot in 1997. These days it “means more and more” to the daughter who took it, because of its honesty: “My mother is looking at me as if the camera were not there.” This is not a condition easily replicated when the photographer isn’t the subject’s flesh and blood, and it doesn’t obtain almost anywhere else in the book, which is fine, since Leibovitz’s work, apart from a 1990s foray into Sarajevo, has never really been about honesty. As At Work makes clear, it has been about performance and arrangement — of the highest and shiniest order.

¶ Robert Sullivan writes rather unsympathetically about Roads to Quoz: An American Mosey, the new book from William Least Heat-Moon. Neither tribute to the author's famous first book nor agreeably-seasoned storytelling can conceal the reviewer's disdain for a book that "feels long."

The road almost inevitably tricks a road-book author into adding sentences he will one day wince at, having only imagined they were good, like a mirage. The difference between “Blue Highways” and “The Road to Quoz” is that the author has gone from what feels like a love of the road to a love-hate of it, or at least an impatience with aspects that are unavoidable, such as other people

¶ Scott Malcomson begins his even-handed review of The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War, by Conor Foley; and The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and for All, by Gareth Evans, two books about the problem of delivering humanitarian aid today, by pointing out that they defend opposing points of view. Both agree, however, that the United Nations Security Council is the problem, and Mr Malcomson shows us why. That's not the only point in common:

Foley and Evans both end their books with rather unexpected salvoes of anti-Bush feeling, which I take to be backhanded adieus to a man who, by enabling the international community to unite against Washington, has provided it with a coherence it might not otherwise have had. It will be fascinating to see what the community does when it no longer has George W. Bush to kick around — or to hold it together.

¶ Blake Bailey is mildly astringent about Paul Mariani's Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life

Mariani, who has written biographies of Hart Crane and Robert Lowell, sketches such scenes to good effect, and writes with a deep, sympathetic knowledge of Hopkins’s sometimes dauntingly esoteric religious and aesthetic concerns (insofar as the two can be properly separated). Where he fails, alas, is in organizing his material in such a way that the reader is tempted to keep turning pages. Aside from critical discussion, the book proceeds as a more or less chronological series of diary entries and letters, boiled down by the author in so random a manner that large themes are often subsumed amid a welter of trivia. Here, for example, Mariani summarizes a crucial section of Hopkins’s ­diary from May 1865: “He quarrels with a friend and then cuts him. He spends an evening with Addis talking about nothing. He is troubled by erotic urges. He mocks Urquhart to Addis. He eats too much dessert. . . . ” I was hoping Mariani would get back to those erotic urges — since, after all, they were much on Hopkins’s mind at the time — and he does, briefly. But after a few piquant details (“He draws a crucified arm, which oddly rouses him”), the erotic bits are over, and Mariani goes on about Hopkins’s reading Poe and mimicking his father and so forth. All in the same ­paragraph.

Mr Bailey also cautions that the author is capable of writing prose in Hopkins's style of poetry.

¶ The editors of the Book Review set a new record for bizarre assignment by asking D T Max to review Geoff Nicholson's The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Literature of Pedestrianism. It doesn't, thankfully, take Mr Max long to make his astonishing confession:

A disclaimer: I can’t walk, at least not easily. I have a condition that makes it painful to do so. Nicholson writes of the pleasurable self-annihilation to be found in a purposeful stride, and another noted writer, the British novelist Iain Sinclair, tells him that “as well as hoovering up information,” walking is “a way of actually shifting a state of consciousness, and you get into things you didn’t know about, or you begin to find out about, and that’s the interesting part.” But I think only of hyper­extended knees, strained lower backs and concussed heels. In fact, the part of The Lost Art of Walking with which I most easily identify is the book’s opening, when Nicholson takes a spill on an ordinary hill and breaks his arm in three places. My heart felt not joy, to be sure, but at least the same soft oomph one experiences when Icarus falls into the sea. We were designed to move on all fours, at best knuckle-walk.

Say no more!

¶ Ann Finkbeiner has a high old time with Charles Seife's Sun in a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking.

Seife writes with effortless clarity, taking readers through the complex physics and engineering. That means the reader can not only understand but, even better, evaluate Seife’s message: fusion scientists should just cut bait. By analogy to your closet, if you haven’t worn it, throw it out. If you’ve been trying it for the last half-century and it hasn’t worked, then enough already.

¶ Tara McKelvey's too-short review of The War Behind Me: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth About U.S. War Crimes By Deborah Nelson, fails to make its case that "this is an important book." If it is, then her review's tone, which makes the author out to be a bit of a crank, is seriously inappropriate.


¶ Douglas Wolk reviews three graphic books at once, but what he has to say is overshadowed by what he fails to show. The montage from David Heatley's My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down gives a fair idea of that book's style, but the title illustration from Art Spiegelman's Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!, while very strong, does not form part of a story; and there is nothing to show for Jonathan Ames's collaboration with illustrator Dean Haspiel, The Alcoholic. None of this is enhanced by Mr Wolk's overall tone of dissatisfaction. As a review, his piece is certainly unsatisfactory.

¶ Steve Coates has a lot of great things to say about Gary Wills, but as for Mr Wills's new translation of Martial's Epigrams, he is unsparing.

But in fact, Wills’s commitment to rhyme, not a significant concern for Latin poets, forces his syntactical hand and allows much of the real Martial to fall between the cracks. One neat example is a two-line poem that Wills translates: “Her teeth look whiter than they ought. / Of course they should — the teeth were bought.” A prose version reveals that Martial was able to insult not one woman but two in the same space: “Thais’s teeth are black, Laecania’s snow-white. The reason? The latter has ones she bought, the former her own.”


¶ Lorraine Adams's review of Sherry Jones's The Jewel of Medina is so dismal that one has to wonder if a thunderstorm of scandal is all it takes secure a review for one's shopping list. (In this case, the London office of the novel's publisher was firebombed, presumably by "incited" Muslims.) Asked to write a blurb, a university professor issued a caution instead, describing the novel as "soft porn." That gives Ms Adams a point of departure.

Spellberg’s characterization of The Jewel of Medina as soft porn doesn’t hold up, since the language describing A’isha and Muhammad’s conjugal relations is always euphemistic and most often juvenile. The novel is, in fact, an example of that subspecies of genre fiction, “historical romance.” Yet even judged by that standard, Jones’s prose is lamentable. Here’s A’isha as a girl, peeping at a couple in the throes of passion: “I stared at his behind, as big as my goat’s-bladder ball and covered with hair.” The Prophet isn’t spared either: “Desire? Muhammad was having so many of them at that moment, they clashed like lightning bolts on his face.”

An inexperienced, untalented author has naïvely stepped into an intense and deeply sensitive intellectual argument. She has conducted enough research to reimagine the accepted versions of Muhammad’s marriage to A’isha, thus offending the religious audience, but not nearly enough to enlighten the ordinary Western reader. Should free-speech advocates champion The Jewel of Medina? In the American context, the answer is unclear. The Constitution protects pornography and neo-Nazi T-shirts, but great writers don’t generally applaud them. If Jones’s work doesn’t reach those repugnant extremes, neither does it qualify as art. It is telling that PEN, the international association of writers that works to advance literature and defend free expression, has remained silent on the subject of this novel. Their stance seems just about right.

While The Jewel of Medina is newsworthy enough to warrant coverage by the Times, it is not literary enough (evidently) to merit a book review.

¶ Tom McCarthy gives Camera, by Jean-Philippe Toussaint (translated by Matthew B Smith) a review that's as intelligent as it is sympathetic.

Toussaint’s writing is comic in a very formal sense — the sense in which, for example, Henri Bergson used the term. For Bergson, comedy entailed a tendency ­toward the mechanical. People, gestures and events become like automata — compressed, sprung, interlocked and endlessly repeating. Not for nothing does the action in “Camera” take place among auto­mobiles: contraptions whose very name encodes self-generated motion without end. The hero’s repeated trysts with the driving-school secretary (the book’s only — and magnificently derisory — nod in the direction of plot) play out amid a mechanized landscape whose kinetic and linguistic rules must be learned and negotiated: gear-shifting, reverse-parking, street signage and game moves, on and off the board.

¶ Louisa Thomas makes a sincere effort to appraise the virtues of The Hour I First Believed, by Wally Lamb, but in the end she is obliged to conclude that the book is something other than a novel.

Oprah Winfrey has said of I Know This Much Is True that it’s “not just a book, it’s a life experience.” But this new novel does more than simply evoke a life’s experience (including horrifying actual events) and leave the reader to do the hard work of understanding it. Instead, it offers to do the interpretive work for us, suggesting that in the aftermath we’ll be stronger and happier, more deeply engaged with those whose lives touch our own.

That’s certainly a noble aim. But Lamb doesn’t trust his storytelling to pull it off, and he’s right not to. Near the end of the novel, during a discussion of the legend of the Minotaur, one of Caelum’s students “summed up what they’d learned”: “Life is messy, violent, confusing and hopeful.” Heartened, Caelum gives all his students A’s. Reading this, I felt the A was being extended to me too. I hadn’t earned it. Fiction can indeed deepen our understanding of trauma; it can expand our capacity for empathy and provide consolation. But its highest achievement is to complicate, not simplify — to leave us better students of our messy lives, not to graduate us with honors and send us blithely on our way.

¶ Sophie Gee's review of The Northern Clemency, Philip Henscher's much-buzzed novel, seems to get deadlier with every word. Nice enough at the start, it rises to the following slightly disingenuous claim.

The striking thing about The Northern Clemency is that it doesn’t do anything new. It resembles a Victorian drama, Middlemarch or Barchester Towers, but there’s plenty of Modernism too, Woolf and Forster and even a Waugh-indebted cruelty. A touch of Alan Hollinghurst, notes of Ian McEwan — Hensher’s edifice is built solidly from the bricks and mortar of English social realism. No wonder that a central expressive device of the novel is the mushroom vol-au-vent (“flaking, soft and clothy”) — thrilling in the ’70s, scorned and despised in the ’80s, finally rehabilitated in the ’90s.

"Striking"? Just because a novel is written in the style of late, great authors, however, does not mean that it has nothing new to say. That possibility does not appear to interest Ms Gee.

¶ Jay Parini admires Benjamin Markovits's historical novel about Byron and his wife, Annabella Milbanke, A Quiet Adjustment.

Such language is ultimately the main pleasure of this novel. Phrase after phrase winks for readerly attention, as when Markovits sets a party scene with this deceptively simple sentence: “Musicians scraped themselves into tune.” Time and again, the metaphorical aptness of the imagery is striking. Consider, for example, Annabella’s thoughts as she walks the snow-covered grounds of a country estate, weighing the greater influence that will come to her through marriage to Byron: “A layer of white brought out the irregularities in the ground, in the gravel and grass — a thin crust like toast, she thought to herself absurdly, as she stepped upon it. She took a quiet satisfaction from making her mark on the road.”

The review addresses any doubts that the savvy reader might have about the appeal of the great poem as a figure in a novel:

In the end, a sour feeling about Byron predominates. Though a marvelous poet, he was also a monster, abusive and recklessly selfish. Although Markovits asks us to spend relatively little time in his company, Byron’s depredations come through loud and clear: to know him is to dislike him. Luckily, Annabella stands at the center of the narrative — a beautifully drawn character, portrayed with moral clarity as well as complexity.

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