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Reviewing the Book Review

In a Lonely Place

24 June 2007

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

Yes

The following titles appear to deserve coverage in the Book Review. The reviews may still be inadequate or useless.

Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson (translated by Anne Born). Thomas McGuane is persuasive about this novel's merits, but he takes a long time to achieve that effect. There is a great deal of storytelling. The review ends with a pithy judgment: Having listed a number of writers of whom Mr McGuare was reminded by the author, he writes, "But nothing should suggest that his superb novelis so embedded in its sources as to be less than a gripping account of such originality as to expand the readers own experience of life."

Harriet Tubman: Imagining a Life, by Beverly Lowry. Madison Smartt Bell writes, in his excellent review of this book,

Lowry, a white Southerner, makes painfully sure we know she knows that slavery was a Bad Thing. The hardships Harriet Tubman suffered in the North come through just as clearly through uncommented description. Though she insists her work is not scholarly, Lowry’s dramatic retelling seems thoroughly researched, and she succeeds in animating the icon that Tubman helped to make of herself. “I am as proud of being a black woman,” she told the conductor of the train where she was beaten, “as you are of being white.” That pride shines through in the marvelous photographs of Tubman that illustrate the book — images that, amplifying Lowry’s words, show forth her indomitable desire to be herself in freedom

Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles, 1910-1939, by Katie Roiphe. Tina Brown's thoughtful review suggests why we might find this book restorative.

In a sense the book's title is a misnomer. These unions were not arrangements in any static sense; they were vibrant works in progress, exercises in passionate experimentalism. The encrusted inhibitions of the Victorian era had at last fallen away, allowing the intellectual elite to regard matrimony as a lifelong seminar in ways of loving. It's hard to imagine now the successful management of so many creative permutations in martial compromises. ... Today, when the invasiveness of media has largely put an end to such uninhibited pursuit of definitive emotion, it all seems not just interestingly adventurous but refreshingly tolerant. One can't help feeling the sanctimony bred by publicity has made grown-up romance, marital and extra-marital alike, at once more boring and more hazardous.

Bravo.

Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality From the Human Anatomy Lab, by Christine Montross. Mary Roach gives us a great review of a book that she clearly admires enormously. Her quotations convey the flavor of the richly thoughtful reflections of a medical student.

The anatomy lab is the place where the student of medicine begins to master that balance: concealing one's emotions and discomfort yet taking care not to extinguish wholly one's humanity. "The afternoon of the penis dissection, I came to understand that I will have to touch the penises of strangers soon, and the breasts, and the wounds, and the fat, and the growths, and not those of dead people. They will be those of patients with keen perceptive ability, ready to pick up from me any sign of disgust or discomfort." As with much in medicine, better to practice on the dead than the living.

The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945, by Saul Friedländer. Richard J Evans wishes that Mr Friedländer looked as closely at the perpetrators as he did at the victims.

The practical consequences of Friedländer's stance are apparent: the personal testimonies of Hitler's Jewish victims create and overwhelming impression of suffering and cast a lurid light on the policies and actions of the Nazis and their helpers. The downside of this is that the experiences of the perpetrators are presented perhaps less fully than they might have been. Their testimony is generally used to describe the conditions they created rather than (with the obvious exception of Hitler himself) to chart their personal beliefs, motives or impressions. 

Mr Evans stresses, however, that this comprehensive study of the Holocaust's process stands firmly for the proposition that nothing more rational than Hitler's rabid anti-Semitism inspired the horror.

Songs of Ourselves: The Uses of Poetry in America, by Joan Shelley Rubin. Tom Sleigh lurches a bit in his review of this defense of popular poetry. Why does he tell us so much about Mary Antin? And who was Edgar Guest again? Mr Sleigh, a poet, appears to take this information for granted. Nevertheless, his praise is lucid.

This humane, at times exhaustingly detailed literary history dignifies, against the critics' aesthetic judgments, the comfort, pleasure and emotional richness readers found in popular poetry. And as a social historian, Rubin ... succeeds in showing how this poetry was adopted by educators, churches, immigrant groups and other organizations to promote various social and cultural goals.

Confessions: An Innocent Life in Communist China, by Kang Zhengguo. Judith Shapiro's warmly favorable review is largely storytelling is sorely lacking in quotations, and if it weren't for the importance of the author's story (surviving the Cultural Revolution with one's culture intact), I'd have to group this book with the Maybes.

Maybe

It is difficult to tell whether these books are actually as indifferent or pointless as the reviews suggest.

Michael Tolliver Lives, by Armistead Maupin. David Leavitt likes this new collection of "Tales from the City," although he finds that, for all its "transgressiveness, it is "a little too nice."

The Archivist's Story, by Travis Holland. Elena Lappin indulges in a fair amount of storytelling before finally getting round to judging this hommage and finding it wanting, mostly because the author's "intense attachment to [Isaac] Babel can be detrimental to his own fiction."

The Motel Life, by Willy Vlautin. John Wray writes, after a lot of storytelling,

Slighter than Carver, less puerile than Bukowski, Vlautin nevertheless manages to lay claim to the same bleary-eyed territory, and, surprisingly - perhaps even unintentionally - to make it new.

Mr Wray also cites as "wino stand-up comedy" an anecdote that I didn't begin to find funny.

Consequences, by Penelope Lively. Nancy Kline's favorable review is incoherent hot air.

This braiding of personal life and historical event is a familiar aspect of Lively's fiction, as is the related theme of contingency. In Consequences, crucial encounters occur by sheer chance, by a hair's breadth. And just as familiar is the way Lively embeds physical objects in her narrative to suggest its larger structure.

If this makes sense, it is only as academic criticism that's of no use to a prospective reader.

This Time, This Place: My Life in War, the White House, and Hollywood, by Jack Valenti. Thomas Mallon's review is lukewarm at best. Among other things, "The book contains plenty of errors." Mr Valenti, who died recently, was never more than a very highly-placed public relations worker, and, as such, unreliable by definition.

Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity, by Elaine Pagels and Karen L King. Stephen Prothero complains that the authors of this book have bent the text of the newly-discovered, uncanonical gospel to suit modern multiculturalism.

I prefer to take my religious history free from demands for contemporary relevance, so whenever someone in the historical-Jesus fraternity makes Jesus mutter moral maxims that might as easily been uttered by President Bush or Oprah Winfrey, my anachronism antenna goes up.

Faust in Copenhagen: A Struggle for the Soul of Physics, by Gino Segrè. George Johnson's review fails to provide a compelling reason for reading this book, which it on the contrary renders trivial. A group of young physicists, fresh from working out quantum theory, wrote and staged a parody of Faust in 1932. In Copenhagen.

The Snoring Bird: My Family's Journey Through a Century of Biology, by Bernd Heinrich. David Barber's review is a hopeless tissue of "clever" storytelling. It emerges in jolts that this is a book about father-and-son entomologists who came to this country from Germany in 1951.

No

These books, if they deserve coverage at all, ought to grace other sections of The New York Times.

Way Off The Road: Discovering the Peculiar Charms of Small Town America, by Bill Geist. Marvin Kitman writes of this "breezy account," which his review makes out to be utterly ephemeral, "Admittedly, his studies of American culture are not in the same league as Robert and Helen Lynd's Middletown. But they're a lot funnier."

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