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Reviewing the Book Review

Boxed In

11 January 2009

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


¶ Christopher Dickey works hard to make The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America, by James Bamford, sound substantial as well as interesting, but with a pair of sentences he suggests the contrary.

These are the kinds of details, or coincidences, that Bamford loves. In “The Shadow Factory” he piles one on top of another — events, addresses, room numbers — in a slapped-together text that often blends facts with speculation to evoke a pervasive atmosphere of conspiracy.

Although Mr Bamford is undoubtedly on to something, a clear case would be preferable to an exciting one.

¶ Jack Rosenthal's cautiously favorable review of The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst, Kenneth Whyte's book about Hearst's early career, is nothing but storytelling for the most part — and the telling of a very familiar story at that — but at least it pauses to comment on Mr Whyte's book.

Whyte, in his research, obviously pored over hundreds of old newspapers, including the trade press. Occasionally, he falls into a “gotcha” mode, triumphantly correcting assertions by prior biographers that seem less than consequential. At times, he seems infected by 1890s-style prose: “His manners were a tad artificial but nonetheless exquisite.”

Still, Whyte accomplishes his mission, achieving the same conclusion that Hearst himself also reached: those were the days. The early years — long before he ran for Congress and president, long before he created his media empire, long before he made that empire a megaphone for the far right — the early years were Hearst’s best.

¶ Caryn James's really rather sour review of Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London's Jazz Age, by D J Taylor, is the very opposite of what's needed. It condescends to the subject matter — made most familiar by Waugh's early novels — while scolding the author for being too serious.

Taylor’s unrelenting emphasis on the desperate, hysterical part is a problem throughout. Most members of the circle didn’t kill themselves, either deliberately like Balcairn or unwittingly like Ponsonby; they simply aged into obscurity. Taylor, a novelist and the respected biographer of Thackeray and Orwell, is so intent on his “morality play” that he nearly loses sight of why his characters were a source of fascinated delight and sniping in the first place. The distinction between the term Bright Young People, meaning the original Ponsonby social set, and the more generic Bright Young Things, also in use at the time, is important in this study; but Taylor’s tone of utmost seriousness as he parses the issue makes it seem like hairsplitting.

A sympathetic review would have been far more informative.


¶ James Campbell reviews two nested collections of Allen Ginsberg's letters; the first, The Letters of Allen Ginsberg, is a general edition, while the second, The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, comprises Ginsberg's correspondence with Gary Snyder. (Both are edited by Bill Morgan.) As usual, the thicker book is cherry-picked for colorful tidbits, as though such colorful carbuncles would motivate anyone to buy it, and the serious question of Mr Morgan's editing is neglected — we're told only that it's done with "devotion." Is the publication of a poets letters an occasion for reassessing his legacy? I'm inclined to think not.

Mr Campbell is better with the thinner book, largely because he makes Mr Snyder's half of the exchange sound solidly interesting.

As the Cherry Valley experiment sank under the weight of indiscipline — “The farm never became the escape from addictions that Ginsberg had hoped,” Morgan writes in one of the helpful notes that run throughout The Letters of Allen Ginsberg but are absent from the companion volume — Ginsberg attached himself to Snyder in a material sense, by building a small house on the 100-acre estate Snyder had purchased together with like-minded settlers in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, where he still lives. The plans for the cabin, the harnessing of expertise for its construction — “Dear Gary: Fine build 10’ x 11’ hut, sounds ideal” — and the subsequent arrangements for use when Ginsberg was absent (most of the time) form the ground of the “Selected Letters.” Snyder is revealed as a man of practical as much as mystical wisdom, with a knack for good accounting. Mutual respect is the dominant note.


¶ I couldn't for the life of me figure out what Susann Cokal was trying to tell me about Stacey d'Erasmo's new novel, The Sky Below, but I decided that she wasn't trying to tell me anything. Her enthusiasm may or may not speak to readers who will enjoy this book, but I'll give her the benefit of the doubt.

In moments like these, Gabriel’s voice is irresistible. He’s probably not much of an artist — he certainly meets with no worldly success — but he’s a brilliant narrator. Vibrant and precise, his storytelling is memorable not so much for its individual phrases (though plenty are exquisite) as for its overall sense of immersion into a distinctive world.

This is followed by the quotation of a passage about the view of an alligator's "jade-green" heart from inside its stomach. "Given such a description," writes Ms Cokal, "who wouldn't want to be eaten alive." If have an answer to that question, The Sky Below may not be the novel for you.

¶ Nothing in Matt Ruff's favorable review of Josh Bazell's Beat the Reaper suggests why this crime novel merits a full page on its own, instead of being gathered up with all the other bang-bangs. "Bazell has a knack for breathing new life into the most timeworn genre conventions," writes Mr Ruff, making the kind of statement that appears to relieve reviewers of more substantive arguments. (If the illustrative example is any guide, I would call it "jade-green alligator blood" rather than "new life.")

¶ Richard Lourie reviews a modernist novel about the Holocaust that Elias Canetti hailed as a masterpiece. If so, why isn't this novel on the cover? It's hard to tell from the review whether the interest of H G Adler's The Journey (translated by Peter Filkins) is accidental or essential.

Adler’s prose seeks to catch the whispers and chirpings of insanity rather than the lamentations of suffering. To this end, the narrative voice changes continually, and so seamlessly and logically that at first the reader can even fail to notice it. Adler will shift from a description of the Nazis, usually referred to with deadpan irony as “heroes,” to the Nazis’ own voices speaking to their victims: “Like little children, everything has to be done for you, though you arrive at the dinner table without uttering the slightest thank you.”

One is left with the question what a critic such as Susan Sontag would have said about this book — if anything.

¶ Bruce Barcott's generally favorable review of Kim Barnes's A Country Called Home is too short for all the storytelling that's squeezed into it. We're told that the story follows well-worn patterns and little is said that would distinguish it from other novels about American Easterners in search of new life in the Western wilderness.

Barnes, whose 1996 memoir of growing up in rural Idaho, “In the Wilderness,” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, currently teaches at the University of Idaho. Because she knows the territory so intimately, “A Country Called Home” is filled with exquisitely etched landscapes. The novel brims with the smell of brambles and berries along an Idaho riverbank, the gritty feel of the dust in an abandoned homesteader’s shack, the sounds of grouse and quail in the fields. But the Deracotte family saga is a cautionary tale. Nature’s beauty is a wonder, but it’s not enough. Even in the rural West, self-reliance will get you only so far. It takes other people to make a life whole.

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