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Reviewing the Book Review

Feminine Mystique

14 June 2009

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

¶ It is impossible to tell from Leah Hager Cohen's review whether Kate Walbert's A Short History of Women is a novel or a feminist tract; one senses that the reviewer doesn't regard the distinction as an important one.

“A Short History of Women” ingeniously suggests the fallacy of the war/drawing room dichotomy. Its various settings include neither battlefield nor whaler, yet masculine power and influence pervade these pages, from Havelock Ellis, Charles Darwin and the “good men of Lloyd’s” in belle époque London to the young soldiers patrolling Dover Air Force Base in present-­day Delaware. What’s remarkable is the way Walbert uses male preoccupations to illuminate the lives of her female characters — and there’s nothing “little” about them.

If, indeed, "[t]his spare novel manages, improbably, to live up to its title: it delivers what feels like a reasonably representative history of women," then a review that invites men to take an interest would make for a more intelligent presentation.

¶ Kathryn Harrison becomes so enthralled by the unsavory facts of Byron's life that her review of Byron In Love: A Short Daring Life leaves no air for the "mischievously complicit" character of Edna O'Brien's work to breathe. After all, for most of today's readers — to whom Byron's work is mostly unknown and unmissed — it is Ms O'Brien, and not her subject, who merits the attentions of a reviewer.

¶ Maria Russo couches her disappointment with J Courtney Sullivan's Commencement in terms of such light-handed candor that her review will probably not deter readers who will like the book as it is.

For all its insights into female psychology, “Commencement” doesn’t know what to make of men, who are presented as at best benevolent blanks, at worst menacing nonentities. This bafflement in the face of maleness is Celia’s central conflict. And while that disconnect — wanting a male partner but not really enjoying spending time with a man — is an underexplored theme in many women’s lives, Commencement doesn’t probe it deeply. Likewise, Celia’s heavy drinking — the novel opens with a scene of her not remembering whether she’d had sex with a guy she wakes up next to — is curiously unanalyzed. This undertow of denial and avoidance is unfortunate in a novel with so much verve, making it feel overly tame, as if Sullivan wants to soothe and reassure her characters rather than letting them face the truths that might have elevated Commencement into a league with, say, that paragon of women’s college novels, The Group. Still, Sullivan’s gifts are substantial. By the end you’re rooting for her to let her storytelling talents roam out into less protected territory.

¶ Ron Lieber covers two books about the fall of Bear Stearns, Street Fighters: The Last 72 Hours of Bear Stearns, the Toughest Firm on Wall Street, by Kate Kelly; and House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street, by William D Cohan, giving both titles guardedly favorable reviews, but concludes, reasonably:

Both of these books must have seemed like great ideas in the spring of 2008. Who could have imagined, though, that we’d have a few days in September that were exponentially more important? First, Lehman Brothers failed; then Merrill Lynch, worried that it was next, persuaded Bank of America to acquire Merrill outright. The government spent $85 billion to bail out A.I.G., one of the world’s largest insurers. In the following month, the stock market fell by about a quarter. At that point, the financial system really was at the brink. And as things worsened throughout 2008, we were reminded that as storied as Bear Stearns was, it was a second-tier bank, making its failure a second-tier event. Now, we have not just one but two books about the company. What the average reader really wants to know is how our economy went to pieces and what we can do to keep it from happening again. Kelly barely attempts to analyze the bigger picture, and Cohan’s efforts aren’t much more complete. That wasn’t what they were trying to do, but it still leaves us waiting for a definitive autopsy of our latest Gilded Age.

¶ While we might question whether the Bear Stearns books merit coverage in the Book Review, Paul Barrett's review of Gillian Tett's Fool's Gold: How the bold Dream of a Small Tribe at JP Morgan was corrupted by Wall Street Greed and Unleashed a Catastrophe leaves no doubt that it does not. Although he calls the book "one place to start" in the attempt to figure out what went wrong on Wall Street last year, his paragraphs of storytelling fail to show why Fool's Gold might be of interest to the general reader.

Because I have read the book, however, I'm obliged to point out that it is Mr Barrett's flat-footed disapproval of banking generally that is out of place in the Book Review. He faults Ms Tett for "absolving" the JP Morgan bankers who invented the financial instrument that, abused for more than a decade, contributed to the financial meltdown. This position is motivated by a naked animus toward bakers.

Based on Tett’s account, most former members of the Morgan derivatives squad haven’t acknowledged similar regret. That’s ominous, because while many on Wall Street have lost their jobs, a lot of the Morgan alumni are still out there, as are many of their competitors who displayed even greater irresponsibility during the derivatives madness. This book leaves one wondering whether we’ll be smart enough to rein them in with tougher regulations before they open their next bag of tricks.

In fact, Fool's Gold convinced me (no friend of Masters of the Universe) that the squad had no reason to regret what they had done.

¶ What is Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography doing in the Book Review? It hardly sounds like a book, much less a book for general readers.

Hound Dog tells the Leiber-Stoller story in a straightforward, conversational manner. The third co-author is David Ritz, who has collaborated on memoirs with Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Don Rickles, among others. In what may be the best thing he has written, Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, Ritz didn’t have to worry about pleasing his subject: the book started out as a collaborative venture, only to end up an unauthorized biography after Gaye was shot dead by his own father.

Hound Dog is a coupla white guys swapping stories, with Leiber and Stoller serving as dual narrators. In the first ­pages, Leiber is a kid from a Yiddish-speaking household in Baltimore. At the age of 9 he smokes Old Golds. Neighborhood toughs pick a fight with him, shouting, “Jewboy, get that Jewboy!” as police officers look on, doing nothing. Stoller spends his childhood in Sunnyside, Queens. He rides the subway and bus to take piano lessons from the boogie-­woogie great James P. Johnson. In the mid-to-late ’40s, the families of both budding songwriters move to Los Angeles.

That sly crack about Mr Ritz's doing his best work with dead subjects is worth a thousand words.

¶ We all have our limitations; I for one cannot imagine that anyone in the world would want to pick up Joe Meno's novel, The Great Perhaps, after reading Jonathan Dee's not-unsympathetic review. The dense storytelling is inexplicably tedious; the longest extract from the book reports a simulated article in the New England Journal of Medicine. And what Mr Dee has to say about the novel's workings is not inviting.

Meno’s plain style is set off nicely by his taste for modernist formal daring: the novel makes room for drawings, long transcripts of old radio serials, declassified government documents and several chapters consisting of exactly 26 short sections, each headed by a letter of the alphabet. There is an occasional streak of fancy to events as well. We are first introduced to Jonathan via his curiously specific disability: ever since childhood, he has been so terrified by clouds, or pictures of clouds, or things that appear in the shape of clouds, that the sight of one causes him to seize and pass out. This, it has to be said, is a disappointingly unsubtle strategy for the motif-conscious novelist to adopt: imagine Mrs. Ramsay fainting every time someone mentions a lighthouse. Having thus established by fiat that clouds equal the terrifying unknown, the novel works that metaphor like a dray horse. Madeline herself spends much of the book observing, and ultimately chasing in her car, a mysterious man-shaped cloud that appears in the treetops of their backyard; the place to which this apparition ultimately leads her is so metaphor-convenient that no mere human presence could credibly have pulled it off.

¶ Beverly Gage awards a strongly favorable review to Jackson Lears's Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920.

Lears is hardly the first scholar to address these themes. But he is among the most far-reaching, seeking to redefine an era known for its reformist energies as a time when militarism and racismall too often triumphed over more pacific, democratic ideals. Like any good synthesis, “Rebirth of a Nation”dutifully covers the major trends of the age: the rise of industrial capitalism, the expansion of American empire, the tightening chokehold of Jim Crow. What brings new life to this material is the book’s emphasis on how Americans’ “inner lives” came to shape their outer worlds. Events that appear to be struggles for conquest and plunder turn out, in Lears’s view, to be animated by a personal search for meaning. “The rise of total war between the Civil War and World War I was rooted in longings for release from bourgeois normality into a realm of heroic struggle,” he writes. “This was the desperate anxiety, the yearning for rebirth, that lay behind official ideologies of romantic nationalism, imperial progress and civilizing mission — and that led to the trenches of the Western Front.”

¶ Judith Newman's review of Beverly Hills Adjacent is too short to comment directly on the fact that this novel has been written by two women. Perhaps the following delivers and oblique comment:

As a satire, Beverly Hills Adjacent has that shooting-fish-in-a-barrel feel. Still, we New Yorkers can’t help appreciating the facile Los Angeles/New York comparisons. (Los Angeles is “where everyone was trying to Botox, exercise and juice-fast his way toward immortality,” while New York is “where people ate and drank and stayed out late, accepting the joyous toll of life.”) And it is a nice twist on chick lit for the moral compass of the story to be not just an actor, but a guy: Mitch Gold, all-around mensch. Unfortunately that very decency, which precipitates Mitch’s awakening and a reverse-Hollywood fairy-tale ending, can feel as genuine as a sitcom laugh track. Pity. If “Beverly Hills Adjacent” should become a film script (as is probably intended), one senses it might linger in turnaround.

¶ Alexander McCall Smith's pleased review of Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlife, by David Eagleman, places the book about as well as can be done:

This delightful, thought-provoking little collection belongs to that category of strange, unclassifiable books that will haunt the reader long after the last page has been turned. It is full of tangential insights into the human condition and poetic thought experiments, as in the final essay, where death leads to our lives being lived backward. It is also full of touching moments and glorious wit of the sort one only hopes will be in copious supply on the other side.

How very curious of the editors to place this book under "Fiction"! Think about it.

¶ Eric Ormsby takes his time, but eventually he gets to the point that will distinguish readers who might enjoy Andrew Wheatcroft's The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans and the Battle for Europe from those whom it would irritate.

Wheatcroft, the author of several earlier books on both Habs­burgs and Ottomans, states that he set out here to portray the Ottoman “face of battle,” borrowing a phrase from the classic work by John Keegan, and in this he succeeds; his narrative is thrilling as well as thoughtful, a rare combination. Even so, a subtle imbalance prevails. The Ottomans inspired dread in their enemies; fear was part of their arsenal. But, as Wheatcroft repeatedly demonstrates, the Habsburgs were fearsome too, and perhaps even crueler than their opponents, engaging not only in full-scale massacres but in flayings, beheadings and impalements.

Perhaps because Wheatcroft hasn’t drawn on Ottoman Turkish sources, his Ottomans, for all his skill at depicting them, appear oddly imperturbable. After Kara Mustafa’s debacle before the walls of Vienna, he retreated to Belgrade; there, on Christmas Day 1683, he greeted the sultan’s executioners, kneeling with “stoic Ottoman calm,” and even courteously lifting his beard to expose his throat to the silk garrote. The story is legendary, and Wheatcroft recounts it well. Still, here as elsewhere, we’d like to hear the fierce heart beating beneath the legend.

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