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Reviewing the Book Review

Lincoln Monuments

8 February 2009

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

¶ William Safire launches this week's issue with an omnibus review of books about Abraham Lincoln. The choice of magisterial and documentary volumes appears to be very sound — even if it does include a resume of Mr Safire's contribution to one book. Once the recommendations are out of the way, Mr Safire looks ahead and speculates on Lincoln's likely solutions to problems that may arise in coming decades. In so doing, he nicely puts his finger on the lack of structural integrity that has always made me inclined to doubt the merit of Lincoln's preservative war.

But daring to think such unthinkable thoughts helps put us inside the mind of a president who chose to lead the nation through what he called, in his 1862 letter to Eliza P. Gurney, the “fiery trial” of civil war (his reference to martyrdom in 1 Peter 4:12). Times change; faced with the choice of “peace, or a sword,” we might not do what Lincoln decided to do; a Lincoln reincarnate might choose otherwise. But by exploring his thought process — sifting the evidence in books and whatever future electronic platforms give us access to his motives and actions — our descendants will be better able to deal with wrenching decisions to come.

¶ Remember the Whiskey Rebellion? If you don't, there's Walter Olson's review of David Liss's "historical thriller on the subject, The Whiskey Rebels, to refresh your memory. Along the way, Mr Olson outlines his dislike of the book under review. Credibility is a problem in reviews of this kind. If it is indeed true that the novelist

indulges in a fascination — which I doubt will be shared by most readers — with the arcana of bond ­issues, collateral, short-selling and discount rates,

then it's hard to understand how Mr Liss found a publisher on Planet Earth.

¶ Erica Jong writes with warm sympathy of Diana Athill's memoir, Somewhere Toward the End. At least, I think that it's a memoir. Ms Jong writes as if it were a meditation on death, an understandable topic for any nonagenarian. It's clear, however, that Ms Athill is really writing about living.

She knows that people die, and she fully expects our species and our planet to become extinct. But this belief, rather than depressing her, frees her. All creatures are simply passing through like the dinosaurs. This is not the end of ­everything; it is the beginning of immense diversity. The universe keeps on creating new forms. Why should that trouble us? We may be perishable, but creativity and creation are not.

¶ On facing pages, two books about this country's foreign policy in the Middle East are given reviews that make the reader wonder what either title is doing in the Book Review. Adam LeBor's review of Patrick Tyler's A World of Trouble: The White House and the Middle East — From the Cold War to the War on Terror is cautiously favorable but hardly encouraging.

A World of Trouble is an important account of the White House’s interaction with a volatile and strategically vital region, but it stops too suddenly in 2008. Its episodic structure would have benefited from a thoughtful concluding chapter on the obsessive, self-contradictory relationship between the United States and its friends-turned-enemies-turned-potential-friends-again across the Middle East. Tyler briefly touches on this in the prologue, arguing that the United States’ Middle East policy has been consistently inconsistent, “as if the hallmark of American diplomacy were discontinuity,” but policy zigzags are common to all newly elected democratic governments.

¶ Meanwhile, it is hard to tell if Lawrence F Kaplan's stern appraisal of David E Sanger's The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power is directed at the book under review or at the Obama Administration and the people who expect it to usher in an era of change.

Sanger has the eye of a journalist. He does not have the depth of a historian. In one slip, he writes that by 2005 the Iraq war “was about to become America’s longest military commitment, save for the American Revolution.” Which is true enough, if one exempts Vietnam, World War II, the Philippine war and a few ­others. Too often, Sanger’s analysis shades into cliché — credibility lost, opportunity squandered. Observations like these may go down smoothly with a brandy and C-Span, but they do not advance our understanding.

As the chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times, Sanger had the luxury of flying at a high level of abstraction — occasionally, the cover suggests, on Air Force One. Perhaps the president’s airplane did not linger long enough on the tarmac in Baghdad, or perhaps the whole business of the war exasperates Sanger. But if a writer intends to make the case that Iraq has wrecked everything else, then he really ought to tackle the war on its own terms. Sanger discusses Iraq in terms of “the huge costs of distraction” and leaves it at that. An enterprise that kills and mangles tens of thousands of young Americans is many things. A distraction is not one of them, and this assertion is not the product of principled analysis. It is a glib slogan.

¶ I'm not sure why a young Yale history professor chose to write a memoir of growing up in Palos Verdes as a pioneer in the black middle class, but Sandra Lee Jamison makes the book, Jennifer Baszile's The Black Girl Next Door: a Memoir, sound very appealing.

Young Jennifer capably fights for herself when she’s called “nigger” and challenged to fisticuffs by three white boys. She emerges victorious and manages a smile that day for her class picture, with spoiled braids and wayward ribbons as her badge of courage. And there’s the story about Jennifer winning an innocent footrace: the next day her dad must make a trip to school, outfitted in his suit coat, to refute a classmate’s assertion that she won because “black people have something in their feet to make them run faster.” Even her teacher will not deny the racist claim, until her father shows up; only then is the classmate set straight. It’s her father again who fights for an apology when his jealous brother levels a flippant insult at Jennifer. A father protecting his daughter is cause for celebration, of course, but he is also revealed as a man of foibles and fears in this new racial landscape.

¶ At first glance, I dreaded reading about Daniel Bergner's The Other Side of Desire: Four Journeys Into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing, but Lori Gottlieb's review brought out the humanity of Mr Bergner's inquiry into sexual desires that are generally thought to be unusual, and did not emphasize its inescapable prurience.

On one level, this book has all the elements of a top-rated HBO series — provocatively graphic sex, humorous dialogue and moral ambiguity. But what makes it so powerful is that it’s as much about desire and what’s normal as it is an exploration of why we are the way we are, whether we like it or not.

“How do you turn it off?” Roy asks, referring to the fact that he can’t stop thinking about his stepdaughter. It’s a tribute to Bergner that long after reading these disturbing stories and as much as I’d like to, I can’t seem to turn them off either.


¶ Erica Wagner's review of Abraham Vergese's first novel, Cutting for Stone, is lucid, for a change, but insufferably patronising.

This is a first novel that reveals the author’s willingness to show the souls, as well as the bodies, of his characters. In Verghese’s second profession, a great surgeon is called an editor. Here’s hoping that in the future the author finds stronger medicine in that line.

This is not at all helpful.

¶ Adam Kirsch not only likes Antonya Nelson's collection, Nothing Right: Short Stories but writes clearly about it, summarizing stories with an attentiveness to capturing their flavor that will bring Ms Nelson new readers.

Nelson operates on Robert Frost’s unsentimental principle that “home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” People in Nothing Right seldom like their families, but they’re usually ready to defend them. Above all, women are prepared to defend their sisters and children against the husbands and fathers who let them down. In the title story, Hannah’s 15-year-old son, Leo, has a baby with his emotionally disturbed girlfriend, Niffer (a brilliantly horrible nickname for Jennifer). The teen­agers break up, inevitably, and Niffer sinks back into the “bleak, black miasma” of her depression, but Hannah remains at her post, taking care of the sickly infant. She “woke at the first rustle, the first minor squeak; she would never not be a mother, she deduced. . . . It was a pleasure to know something so surely, to do a job so well.”

¶ Why the editors give David Gates more than a page — or even a page — for his cordially unsympathetic review of Joe Gores's estate-authorized Spade & Archer: The Prequel to Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon is beyond me.

I have to admit, though, Gores got a nostalgic smile out of me twice. Once was when Sam Spade adopts the alias Nick Charles, the protagonist of Hammett’s novel “The Thin Man” (a much better-written novel than “The Maltese Falcon,” by the way). The other was at the end, when Gores reprises — well, I’d better not say, but I wasn’t smiling just because the book was over at last.

¶ Dalia Sofer devotes her review of Daniyal Mueenuddin's short story collection, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders to a lavish description of the dysfunctionality of the author's Pakistan, but has not a word to say about the writing.

¶ Alex Berenson's thriller, The Silent Man, gets a backhanded review from Richard Lourie. Having claimed that Mr Berenson's novel does indeed arrest the reader's attention, he proceeds to present it as a rather indifferent production that hardly seems to warrant coverage in the review.

Yet none of these drawbacks do much to slow the locomotive of the plot, which keeps hurtling along until [the hero] brings it to a neat and violent end. At his best, Berenson puts the genre through its paces; at his worst, he’s just generic.

Finally, Jan Stuart writes glowingly about Marie Arana's Cellophone as a way of casting the author's new book, Lima Nights, in an unfavorable light.

Arana’s characters are much more memorable, finally, for the fragrances that define them than for anything they say. Where readers might have eagerly inhaled great gusts of Cellophane, they’ll most likely sniff through Lima Nights in search of elusive ­surprise.

Not helpful.

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