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Reviewing the Book Review

Feverish Liaisons

21 June 2009

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

¶ Katie Roiphe gives an enthusiastic review to Cristina Nehring's A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century; what's more, her quibbles with the book bring it into more sympathetic focus.

If there is anything unsatisfying about this fierce and lively book, it is a slight evasiveness at its core. Nehring does not quite take on the vast continent of quietly married people who must be her target. She attacks the blandness of our current forms of love without directly describing or explaining that blandness. Instead she spends too much time on self-help books like “He’s Just Not That Into You” and not enough on the specifics of the way we live now. Yet in spite of this tactfulness, this polite vagueness at the heart of the book, she brings to life riveting stories and offers creative interpretations that, taken together, challenge current convention. /At various points, Nehring allows her rhetoric to outrun common sense. “To be respected as a thinker in our world, a woman must cease to be a lover,” she writes. This is a nice flourish, but is it true? When one glances back at the women intellectuals of the last century, it seems not. Mary McCarthy, Rebecca West and Susan Sontag, for instance, all had colorful and irregular romantic lives and nonetheless managed to be taken quite seriously.

¶ Tim Rob Smith's novel about the post-Stalinist thaw, The Secret Speech, gets an affirmative review from Dennis Lehane — I think. With all that storytelling, there's not much room left for judgment, and terms like "Acela of a plot" are glib rather than informative.

But for all the excitement, we never lose sight of the mourning. In a country that lost between 10 million and 20 million lives during the three decades of Stalin’s rule, melancholia and a bitter sense of the absurd become as much a staple as black bread and vodka. The guilt that pervades The Secret Speech is boundless — it moves from the global to the personal with stops everywhere between. Smith, like J. M. Coetzee in Disgrace, asks whether “reparation” has lost its viability as either a word or a concept. Is it fair to ask your victims to absolve you of the crimes you perpetrated against them? Late in the novel we meet a man who has gotten away with an act of artistic theft on a national scale. He is revered as a genius for work he never created but instead stole from the dead, and he has begun to buckle under his guilt. Yet he asks of Leo, “What would you have me do?”

¶ Toni Bentley's wryly mordant review of Richard Bernstein's The East, The West, and Sex: A History of Erotic Encounters, is worth reading, even if Mr Bernstein's topic doesn't interest you.

Bernstein defines the East as “most of the world’s territory from North and East Africa to South, Southeast and East Asia.” If your geography is a little fuzzy, this includes Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Tunisia, Yemen, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Japan, and, oh yes, China and India. I must protest. Isn’t this so broad a definition of the East as to be rendered both meaningless and insulting — and, in our post-9/11 world, rather irresponsible, not to mention retro? (It’s like saying that Los Angeles is all about movie stars, medical marijuana, unreadable screenplays and gargantuan lips — O.K., not a good example.) I hate to spoil the fun, but is it really appropriate to throw all these incredibly numerous and varied countries, not to mention their women, into one big bouillabaisse called “the East”?

The review is warmly favorable, but note well:

In one of his well-meaning attempts to look at the female side of things in this very male-oriented book, Bernstein states that in the age of exploration “it would seem implausible, if not entirely impossible, for there to be a story of, say, a Frenchwoman who falls in love with a Persian or Arab adventurer.” But if you want to know what the girls were doing while the boys were indulging themselves, try Lesley Blanch’s transporting classic The Wilder Shores of Love, where you will find the (Caucasian) ladies of Arabia doing even more brave and interesting things than the gentlemen, as well as having plenty of sex with Bedouin sheiks.

¶ Queen Victoria may have loved Prince Albert, but Gillian Gill doesn't, according to Megan Marshall's review of We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals.

Albert was the enforcer of the new code, and Gill explains that the Victorian era, with its celebration of a bland domesticity, should more accurately be called “Albertian” in its origins. Gill shows Victoria herself straining at the bonds, sometimes shockingly so. The ever-pregnant queen was “like a fat tiger,” Gill tells us, “content with the cage, answering to the whip, but lashing out from time to time, and daring her tamer to get careless.” The woman who became known as “The Grandmother of Europe” for the offspring she sent into royal marriages all across the continent, disliked motherhood intensely. On the eve of her daughter Vicky’s wedding she wept, telling Albert: “It is like taking a poor lamb to be sacrificed.”

¶ Ginia Bellafante's review of Reif Larsen's The Selected Works of T E Spivet leaves me scratching my head, whether from impatience or incomprehension I can't tell. The only thing that I can be sure about here is that the book has pages.

It is not always entirely clear which of the two goals he is embracing. The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet is ultimately a novel to be appreciated rather than adored, devoured or even acutely analyzed, for it is not a narrative that brims with big ideas, and in fact, there is little narrative to speak of. The story is a kind of children’s book version of Roughing It, in geographical reverse (I say this not to compare Larsen favorably to Twain as a commentator, but to make a simple thematic analogy), with Spivet vagabonding it on his own to Washington to receive an award for which he is too young by decades, and to learn that the East he has mythologized as a great intellectual frontier is in many ways just a place of self-interested climbers and sound-bite hooey. The novel is full of these easy demystifications: that brilliance doesn’t nurture, that attraction is more than a compatibility of I.Q.’s, that life surprises us, that people aren’t always what they seem. It would not be necessary to consult the author bio to know that Larsen has an M.F.A. — the novel is creatively written, sometimes quite beautifully so. But it is plagued by that sense of writers’ workshop insularity: it doesn’t aim to mean much.

¶ Ross Douthat's slightly condescending review of Mark Helprin's dyspeptic defense of copyright,  , ends with a suggestion that I hope will be taken up.

Why not, then, simultaneously extend copyright and narrow its scope? Let the Helprins continue to earn royalties into the distant future, but let adaptations, derivations, parodies and borrowing flower more quickly and completely than the current system allows. Leave the Tolkiens the rights to The Hobbit in perpetuity, but not the right to prevent two enterprising film companies from going forward with competing adaptations. Leave the Mitchells the rights to Gone With the Wind, but not the right to tie up a would-be parodist in court for years on end because they don’t like what she’s doing to their Scarlett. Leave the Lucas family the right to Stars Wars, but not the right to prevent me from writing my own competing version of Anakin Skywalker’s life story.

In the course of the review, however, Mr Douthat all but observes that Mr Helprin's book is too deformed by the anger with which it was written to be of much long-term use.

¶ Uh-oh: another one of those subtitles ending in the superlative: Marshall John Fisher's A Terrible Splendor: Three Extraordinary Men, A World Poised for War, and the Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played. Liz Robbins gives the book a neutrally not-unfavorable review.

But some of Fisher’s digressions (into Schmeling’s career, into previous ­matches) slow down the flow. At other times, he leaves the reader wanting more: about von Cramm’s brief despair when he was eventually imprisoned, or about the United States’ refusal to let him immigrate, even after he married the heiress Barbara Hutton in 1955. Fisher, who has written for Harper’s Magazine and The Atlantic, culls spirited dispatches from Alistair Cooke, then an NBC radio commentator, and James Thurber, then The New Yorker’s tennis columnist. But his own writing can be strained (he calls extended sets “extra innings” and says that “Gott­fried drank Weimar Berlin in like the Champagne that he forwent”), and the dialogue and thoughts he recreates to “dramatize a moment” do not always work (“Anyway, he’s not going to make it easy for me, that’s for sure”).

¶ Gary Rosen's encouraging review of Joshua Cooper Ramo's The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It sketches a Weltanschauung struggling to be born: a world view that can look beyond the nation-state without dismissing the Henry Kissingers of recent history as "a bunch of dodos." A little more reflection and a little less hyperbole is Mr Rosen's prescription.

The formula on display here — reported vignettes, grand theorizing, surprising juxtapositions — will be familiar to readers of Thomas L. Friedman and Malcolm Gladwell, and Ramo executes it with verve. But his hyperbolic thesis and often breathless presentation don’t help his case. It is hard to find a serious observer of the international scene who denies the novel dangers he describes or the need to think creatively about how to address them. Even with the example of Iraq, Ramo’s textbook case of old thinking gone awry, he notes that there were many (ignored) government experts who predicted the likely complexity of the postwar situation and that American policy makers over the past several years have made sophisticated adjustments. Ramo’s “revolutionary” thinking, it would seem, has already taken hold in the halls of the Pentagon.

¶ Several years ago, I decided that the reviews in the Book Review's various roundups, usually collected five to a page, were too brief to be of any value and yet too long to be of any interest. This week, I was disappointed to see that a novel that I read with great pleasure, my friend Vestal McIntyre's Lake Overturn, was covered in the Fiction Chronicle. I was surprised to discover that Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow's long paragraph about Lake Overturn is the most effective review in this week's issue. Her brisk thumbnails of the three foremost characters open a window on the book itself and resist storytelling. Her conclusion is especially satisfying.

McIntyre establishes the idiosyncratic cultures of their minds — their tics and imaginative flights, the bargains they strike with themselves. An author is lucky to bring one character so vividly to life; the gifted McIntyre, who previously published a story collection called You Are Not the One, has done it for all of his. It may seem odd praise for a writer, but it’s among the highest: as you drink in this book, you barely notice the words.

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