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Reviewing the Book Review

Rough Crossing

4 January 2009

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


¶ Leah Hager Cohen's intensely enthusiastic review of The Mercy Papers: A Memoir of Two Weeks certainly lets the reader know what Robin Romm's memoir is like to read.

But The Mercy Papers is no blind rant. In Romm’s hands, anger becomes an instrument for pursuing truth, an extremely effective crowbar with which to pry back nicety and expose “something unfettered, something darker.” Often, it’s from this unfettered darkness that the author delivers her best lines, the words strung together with a kind of plain-mouthed beauty. Right in the midst of eviscerating Barb, for example: “She’s building a boat to sail my mother out. . . . Barb will build the boat of morphine and pillows and then I will have no mother and the days will be wordless and empty.” This is just accurate and eloquent and hard.

Nothing in the review, however, alters my conviction that books about illness and grieving have no place in the Book Review. There is another section of the paper for this sort of thing.

¶ Peter Keepnews's blasé account of Tim Blanning's The Triumph of Music: The Rise of Composers, Musicians and Their Art seems designed to underscore the reviewer's lack of qualification. His assertion that Mr Blanning's mistake about the identity of a supporting pianist on a famous Coltrane recording "is roughly equivalent to saying that Mozart wrote the Ring cycle" cannot be allowed. One can only guess at the reasons for not assigning this book to a critic of serious music. Presumably we should have been spared the following condescension:

Tim Blanning, a professor of modern European history at Cambridge University, explains in his introduction that “The Triumph of Music” is meant to be “an exercise in social, cultural and political history, not musicology.” I’d characterize it more as a grab bag of anecdotes and trivia. Whatever you want to call it, it’s very entertaining.

¶ Dominique Browning's rather severe review of Meryl Gordon's Mrs Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of a Family Beyond Reproach fastidiously washes its hands of the sordor surrounding the late philanthropist's family — but only after a good soak.

“There’s nothing in the world so demoralizing as money,” according to Sophocles. I took no pleasure in reading this book. Perhaps it’s a matter of taste: for mine, the story is too tawdry, too pathetic. I felt heartsick by the end, for all concerned. There are no redeeming figures, no interesting tragic flaws, no sympathetic characters. Not even Annette de la Renta and Philip Marshall seem heroic — they managed to do too little too late, and then too much too soon, in their rush to the district attorney’s office before Mrs. Astor’s funeral. Both insist they had no idea of the criminality lurking in Mrs. Astor’s wills, but in the context of Gordon’s reporting this is difficult to believe. The only thing I now understand better is why Warren Buffett has announced that his children will not inherit (all of) his money. He has taken out insurance against such nefarious doings. Mrs. Astor regrets — and so should we all.

Ms Browning prudently notes that Anthony Marshall's trial is set to begin in a week or two, thus signaling that the story is far from over.

¶ Jeremy McCarter's handling of Stefan Kanfer's new book about a late, great star, Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando, is a classic instance of the displaced culture note. Everybody's interested in the late actor, right? The fact that Mr McCarter does not regard the new entry as on a par with earlier books does not restrain his own discussion of Brando's career. The book is simply a pretext, an occasion for holding forth on a popular figure. It ought to have been covered in Arts and Leisure.

¶ Sensationalism lurks in the background of Jacob Heilbrunn's review of a curious title, Hitler's Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life, by Timothy W Ryback. It is hard to see the interest that such a book might have for the general reader, particularly in light of Mr Heilbrunn's observation that

As the historian Ian Kershaw has observed in his biography of Hitler, this response indicates that he adhered unswervingly, from the end of World War I until his final days in the Berlin bunker, to nationalism and radical anti-Semitism. In short, Hitler’s brooding over texts seems far more likely to have confirmed rather than created his virulent hatreds.

¶ Pankaj Mishra's deeply disappointing review of Graham Greene: A Life in Letters completely fails to tell us the one thing that we want to know: how has Richard Greene (no relation) constructed his book. Nor are we offered an assessment of the letters themselves, which seem instead to have been mined by the reviewer for material showing their writer in an unflattering light. The review is transparently the occasion for the usually scrupulous Mr Mishra to lob some anti-colonialist shots at an imperfect anti-colonialist.

¶ The more one learns about the Western Front of the First World War, the less imaginable it seems. According to Max Boot's enthusiastic review, Peter Hart has done an excellent job of humanizing an inhuman nightmare in The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front.

Hart superbly depicts these months of brutal combat in all their complexity. As promised, he does not focus only on victims. He also features heroes like Lt. Albert Jacka of Australia, who had already won a Victoria Cross at Gallipoli and was wounded on the Somme. Even after being hit multiple times he managed single-handedly to kill at least five “Huns.” Admittedly four of them had already tossed down their rifles and put up their hands, but such episodes were all too common in this inglorious conflict. Nor does Hart slight the relatively unheralded but vitally important contributions of artillerymen, logisticians and medics.

¶ Elaine Sciolino appears to regard Iranian writer Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, as so self-evidently interesting that there is no need to discuss the merits of Things I've Been Silent About: Memories. The crux of her review is the observation that "[w]riting the book was a very un-Iranian thing to do." That's not very unhelpful.


¶ Peter Meehan's review of Chuck Klosterman's Downtown Owl makes one thing clear: literary merit had nothing to do with the choice of this first novel by the editors of the Book Review. Indeed, Mr Meehan appears to be unconcerned about making sense to readers unfamiliar with "his magazine writing or his four books of reportage and cultural criticism." Of a reference that Mr Klosterman makes to the film work of Robert Altman, Mr Meehan writes,

It’s an unambiguous signal that he’s aiming for a cinematic feel in “Downtown Owl.” But to the extent he achieves one, it’s less like Altman than like “Slacker” or “Drunks,” or any of the meandering ’90s ensemble films that my local video store lumps together as “indie.”

¶ Liesl Schillinger is at the top of her game reviewing Louise Erdrich's short-story collection, The Red Convertible: Selected and New Stories 1978-2008. She begins with a spirited defense of "the very Americanness of our literature, proceeds to show that Ms Erdrich is a worthy figure in the national profile, and winds up with a magnificent accounting:

Can these moods, these voices, spark feelings of recognition in non-Americans? If not, that may be less the fault of the author than a symptom of changes both beyond and within our country’s borders. Consider the barrage of movies and news, Internet and travel options — images and innovations that simultaneously satisfy and dull one’s curiosity, replacing reflection and reverie with quick sensation. If contemporary audiences prefer to watch “The Last of the Mohicans” rather than to read it, is Fenimore Cooper diminished? If foreign readers find no affinity with Updike, Roth or Oates, does that mean our men and women of letters have lost their art? And, by the same token, if American readers would rather watch cable television to get their Tolstoy and Austen, and choose to skip “The Magic Mountain,” “The Brothers Karamazov,” Elfriede Jelinek and Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, is Europe to blame? Or is the capacity for the quiet use of leisure, something essential to reading, on the wane? Isolation and insularity can afflict any land. One of the best cures is to read the finest literature from as many places as possible. Louise Erdrich might call it “life medicine.”

Furthermore, although very little of what Ms Schillinger likes about Ms Erdrich appeals to me, I came away soundly exhorted to reconsider reading these stories.

¶ If I had been the one to review Alaa Al Aswany's new novel, Chicago, I'd have made most of Ligaya Mishan's points, but from an opposing perspective. Instead of scolding the author for failing to capture authentic American speech, I'd have admired his having captured what his cast of Egyptian immigrants actually hear. The fact that his group portrait of people who have not left their homeland entirely behind see an America that natives don't is is cause for praise, not complaint. The review's conclusion is deeply illiterate:

In “The Yacoubian Building,” Al Aswany traced the overlapping lives of the residents of a historic building in downtown Cairo. Through the bountiful accumulation of detail, a portrait of an entire society came into focus. He has attempted a similar collage in “Chicago,” but the American urban landscape, with inhabitants sealed off from one another in private lives, seems to have defeated him: there is none of Egypt’s noise, color and seethe of life in close quarters to be found here. It’s Al Aswany’s loss — and, perhaps, ours.

¶ Sarah Fay's too-short review of Amélie Nothomb's Tokyo Fiancé suggests a playfully well-constructed novel, but the suggestion is not very clear. Nor is there an extensive quotation (always helpful with novels in translation). The ending is perversely inconclusive:

For the most part, this spare, elegant novel unravels much the way Amélie describes the snow when she climbs Mount Kumotori: “Nothing is more mysterious than that which is unfolding before your eyes.”

¶ Andrew Ervin's scant and somewhat simple-minded review of Canvey Island, by James Runcie, daubs a chunk or two of storytelling and then complains that the excitement of the novel's beginning never recurs.

That said, Runcie fully understands that the lingering trauma after a major disaster is often far more devastating than the disaster itself. He has written an insightful novel about the perils of survival.

Strikingly uninformative.

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