Reading Matter
Books On the Side
Books In Brief

Reviewing the Book Review

The Architect of Love

1 February 2009

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


¶ Professor of Mathematics John Allen Paulos starts off by calling Lewis Carroll in Numberland: His Fantastical Logical Life: An Agony in Eight Fits a "fine mathematical biography," but, from then on, his review is almost as much of a tease as "Jabberwocky." "Despite his voluminous output," he writes, "Dodgson, who never married, remains inscrutable as a person, at least to me." Mr Paulos also suggests that Robin Wilson's determination to write about Dodgson qua mathematician and to disregard Carroll the fabulist is forced.

Wilson’s aim is to concentrate on Dodgson’s scholarly work rather than on the whimsical “Alice” books, but when pushed too hard the dichotomy between them breaks down. Even Dodgson’s mathematical work contained wordplay and humorously literal interpretations. Contrariwise, his popular work, always under the pseudo­nym Lewis Carroll, refers obliquely to serious mathematical and philosophical issues.

¶ Jonathan Mahler's review of Securing the City: Inside America's Best Counterterrorism Force — the NYPD, by Christopher Dickey, is a classic of disappointment. Although the book is "informative and even valuable," Mr Mahler wants something else.

For the most part, though, that insider feeling proves elusive over the remainder of the book. Instead of atmospherics and access, what we get is solid newsmagazine reporting rendered in straightforward prose, interrupted by the occasional out-of-key pulp flourish. (“The kid needed a handler,” Dickey writes of Majid Khan, an enthusiastic young jihadi whom Khalid Shaikh Mohammed took under his wing.)

Mr Mahler is especially sorry that we don't get "inside" Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. In other words, Securing the City is too much like a nonfiction book (which is exactly what it is) and not enough like a novel. Go figure.

¶ Mr Mahler's disappointment is as nothing, however, compared to Joe Queenan's bewilderment in the face of The Billion Dollar Game: Behind the Scenes of the Greatest Day in American Sport — Super Bowl Sunday. It would appear that Alan St John has set out to write a book about the executives and the organizations that bring the year's most important football game onto millions of screens; something, you know, "behind-the-scenes." Mr Queenan, who cannot imagine why anyone would be interested in such stuff, is absolutely the wrong reviewer for this book. Just the same, he does offer a pertinent criticism:

St. John professes to have corralled “unprecedented behind-the-scenes access” to the “movers and shakers” — those “at the top of the food chain” — responsible for the Super Bowl. But as with many journalists provided such access, the trade-off seems to have been an agreement signed in blood to conduct the interviews in the genuflective mode. A TV producer and a director are “at the very top of their game.” The style of camera work used by NFL Films is influenced by Picasso and Braque. The Fox Sports producer Richie Zyontz — he of the “unique worldview” — “is like a law professor utilizing the Socratic method.” Smitten by big shots, St. John asserts that Troy Aikman — the bringer of “gravitas” to the broadcasting booth — and the snide, yappy Joe Buck “have emerged as a surprisingly good team” since Cris Collinsworth left them, gliding past the fact that Collinsworth is viewed by many as the most insightful and charismatic analyst in pro football, while Aikman is dismissed by his detractors as being slightly more exciting than yeast.

For my part, I won't disappoint by failing to point out that there are two Times newspaper sections that would accommodate this review more appropriately.

¶ As if to make up for the quotidian nature of the two previous books, the editors surprise the reader who turns the page with a smackdown between Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin. A great deal of what used to be called "remedial" material is presented for the reader's refreshment. Nowhere, however, does Debbie Applegate get round to pointing out why Spencer is forgotten today; nor does she let us know whether Barry Werth, whose book, Banquet at Delmonico's: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America, she has been asked to review, offers an explanation for the total eclipse of the Nineteenth's Century's intellectual counterpart to Oprah Winfrey. Ms Applegate complains about that Werth's treatment of Spencer's reception in the United States (as a thinker, not a dinner guest) entails his letting "two aspects slip from his grasp," but I'm not quite sure what they are.

¶ Christopher Benfey's review of two new books about Darwin is far more enlightening — about the books, that is. The books are Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution, by Adrian Desmond and James Moore; and Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life, by Adam Gopnik. Mr Benfey writes:

Gopnik is as convinced as Desmond and Moore that Darwin was no kind of racist. “The one thing that you could not read into Darwin’s writings was racism,” he writes. And yet, in another sense the books seem directly opposed. What Gopnik finds in Darwin’s early career is not some overarching moral principle but rather “pure plain looking.” What set Darwin apart was that “he liked to look at things the way an artist likes to draw, the way a composer likes to play the piano, the way a cook likes to chop onions.” Desmond and Moore think the key to Darwin was the lowly slave; Gopnik thinks the key to Darwin was the lowly earthworm, the subject of his last book. Darwin’s emphasis on “the homely, the overlooked, the undervalued” made him, in Gopnik’s view, both a great scientist and a great writer.

Although Mr Benfey has done a much better job of managing his material than Ms Applegate, I can't help thinking how wonderfully Mr Gopnik himself would have handled all three books (assuming, of course, that he hadn't written one of them).

¶ While we're talking about biographies of canonical Englishmen, let's deviate from SOP for a moment and turn two pages, where Leah Price reviews two new books about James Boswell's subject: Samuel Johnson: A Biography, by Peter Martin; and Samuel Johnson: The Struggle, by Jeffrey Meyers. A great deal of space, needless to say, is devoted to Ms Price's thoughts about the author of the Dictionary, the Idler, and the Rambler; happily, they are rather more acute than Ms Applegate's about Spencer and somewhat moreso than Mr Benfey's about Darwin. Ms Price very interestingly presents Johnson as a blogger ante lettera; I, at least, felt a shock of recognition. But/And she is just about the books.

Both authors contrast Johnson’s abject youth with his adult fame, his physical awkwardness with his conversational fluency, his self-diagnosed “indolence” with his super­human literary output. Both feature a politically correct hero who opposed slavery, protected animals and encouraged ­women writers. Both give shorter shrift to political issues that might bore 21st-century readers (Johnson’s Jacobite sympathies) or repel them (his attacks on republicanism and religious dissent).

She does not care for Mr Martin's vernacular, or for Mr Meyers's penchant for rephrasing quotations; but she amiably welcomes both books to the shelf:

But Martin offers a convincing psychological study, and Meyers a lively group portrait of Johnson’s friends. Johnson, who acknowledged that most writers “perceive no particular summons to composition except the sound of the clock,” would have been the first to under­stand why a tercentenary calls for two more retellings.

Top marks.

¶ The editors leave no doubts about their regard for Denis Dutton's ardors at the well-known Web site, Arts and Letters Daily: they allot slightly more than half a page to Anthony Gottlieb's breezy sketch of the author's conviction, worked out in The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, that the aesthetic impulse is sexually adaptive.

Dutton quotes Darwin’s hope that in the distant future, psychology “will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation.” Note those last two words. What makes a genuine piece of Darwinian science — like the explanation of the development of the eye — so powerful is the way in which a large number of intermediate steps are shown to lead gradually from humble beginnings to a magnificent result. No such progression of intermediate steps seems to be available for inspection in the case of evolutionary explanations of the instinct to make art. Still, Dutton’s eloquent account sheds light on the role art plays in our lives, whatever its ultimate origins.

This book would appear to have merited more in the way of elbow grease.

¶ Thomas Mallon's review of Cari Beauchamp's Joseph P Kennedy Presents: His Hollywood Years might have spelled out the meaning of "FBO," Kennedy's studio ("Film Booking Offices"), and it might have been a teeny bit less interested in Gloria Swanson. In short, a less insidery piece would have been more appropriate for the Book Review. Mr Mallon's ambivalence about Kennedy makes his review difficult to decipher; in the same paragraph, Kennedy is described as "visionary" and preoccupied by "the grosses." Well, so were most of the studio pioneers (Kennedy didn't stick around to become one) — but then most of them were also Jewish immigrants. The review rarely alludes to the interesting story that one hopes Ms Beauchamp is telling.

¶ John Muir — environmentalism — Christianity — money. John Wilson tells us that Donald Worster, author of A Passion For Nature: The Life of John Muir lacks "the ability to tell a story."

Readers with a merely casual interest in Muir aren’t likely to persist. But the doughty ones who stay the course will be rewarded. The record of Muir’s life that Worster has scrupulously assembled, fascinating in its own right, takes on added significance as Worster sets it in context.

That's all very well, but as a reader with a merely casual interest in Mr Wilson's review, I found myself lacking in dought.

¶ <sigh> Henry Alford has a new funny book out. It's called How to Live: A Search for Wisdom From Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth). Alex Beam tries to be nice. But there are limits. Regular readers know that I am a big believer in the positive review. One of the exceptions to that preference is the book that would be better off unreviewed.

Unfortunately, my interest had started to flag about 40 pages earlier, when the author took this big chance: “Did I mention that I had been living all this time with a 17-year-old cat?” He adds a parenthetical plea, “Please, reader, keep reading.” My marginal notation was: “Check, please!”

¶ On the face of it, Martin Indyk's Innocent Abroad: The Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East is a tract, not a book, a provisional account that will at some point be superseded by a book that takes a longer view of recent events. I am not sure that diplomats of lesser caliber than George Kennan ought to try their hands at books in the first place, and David C Unger's review suggests that Mr Indyk is no Kennan:

Indyk’s own grasp of these ­larger Middle Eastern realities sometimes falters. He is too quick to reduce complex Arab societies to trite historical stereotypes about pharaonic traditions and desert kingdoms. He considers it legitimate for Israel to modify peace proposals to satisfy domestic constituencies but rarely thinks it legitimate for Arabs to do the same. Israel is a democracy, and the Arab societies it negotiates with are not. But no Arab leader is free to disregard public opinion on the fate of Palestinian refugees, sovereignty over Muslim religious sites in Jerusalem or the return of territories conquered by Israel in 1967.

¶ Finally — I'm just asking — what is Luc Sante's review of Susan Sontag's Reborn doing posing as an Essay? It's an interesting review, certainly; and Mr Sante is very much on the ball about the tension between Sontag's famous self-assurance in public and her private uncertainties and ambivalences.

Reborn is in some ways less like a normal book and more like a person — it is consistent in its deepest reaches, but subject to enormous mood swings. Some very large matters are barely glimpsed, whizzing by at terrific speed, while sundry smaller ones are examined in exhaustive detail. Motives often have to be guessed, and important players enter and exit summarily, without introduction. Various opinions and exhortations — or crotchets or tics — are repeated to the point where it takes a great deal of good will or simple affection to tolerate them. But Sontag does successfully elicit the reader’s good will and affection. We may never have seen her in quite this light — fully human and as flawed as any of us. We may want to go reread some of her more lapidary work, now appreciating the vulnerable soul that shared a body with that radical will.

I might wish that Mr Sante had come out and said that what distinguished Sontag from a regiment of brilliant contemporary neurotics was exactly that decision to be self-assured in public, and damn the ambivalences. But my quibble with the reviewer is not as interesting to me as my question for the editors: why and essay and not a review?


¶ Fans of T Coraghessan Boyle will be delighted to learn that the specialist in "antics generated by bursting passions" has tackled that old shaman, Frank Lloyd Wright. Joanna Scott is enthusiastic about The Women, calling it "Boyle at his best."

The portrait of Miriam, while the most complex of the women in the novel, paradoxically relies most on a set of stereotypes: she’s a femme-fatale, Mommy-dearest, pet-rabbit-in-the-stewpot kind of figure. And yet, in fascinating ways, she keeps proving to be more. She seems to be straining to become what she thinks others expect her to be. In one indicative passage, she spends hours trying on outfits in preparation for meeting Wright. She takes one last glance in the mirror. “Then she straightened up and gave her daughter a fervent smile, feeling like an actress waiting in the wings for her cue, the whole dreary apartment suddenly lifted out of its gloom and irradiated with light.” It’s a bid for attraction that hints of mixed emotion — confidence compromised by desperation, joy perilously close to gloom.

¶ Marilyn Stasio's review of Blindspot: By a Gentleman in Exile and a Lady in Disguise, by Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore, reads like a collection of impressions that reminds one of the blind men of Hyderabad. What sort of novel is this? Historical? Crime? Both? With two authors? Is it a stunt — an entertainment — or is it to be taken seriously, as a novel? These questions may strike some sophisticated ears as philistine, but the reader has a right to an appraisal as sophisticated as the book under review.

¶ The editors have some 'splainin' to do about how Elle Newmark's historical crime novel, The Book of Unholy Mischief, worked its way into the pages of this week's Book Review. Clare Clark writes, "It's in the kitchens of Venice that Newmark's novel finds its heart. Though the caged leopard pacing in the corner of the Borgia kitchen adds a distinct flourish of the macabre..." How about unappetizing?

¶ Does Josh Emmons get so involved comparing Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum's last novel to her new one that there's no room in his too-short review to make sense of Ms Hempel Chronicles, a novel, about a teacher, told in stories? Or are we dealing here with a work of fey imagination?

And Bynum offers one, in a way: in Ms. Hempel’s eyes, the period between childhood and adulthood effects a reverse metamorphosis. One starts off a parti-­colored butterfly and emerges a monochromic caterpillar. “When you are in school, your talents are without number, and your promise is boundless. . . . But at a certain point, you begin to feel your talents dropping away . . . until one day you realize that you cannot think of a single thing you are wonderful at.”

Permalink  Portico About this feature

Copyright (c) 2009 Pourover Press

Write to me