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Reviewing the Book Review

Natural Man

9 August 2009

¶ Jonathan Rosen's mixed review of The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, by Douglas Brinkley, is vaguely pre-textual, suggesting that Mr Rosen was waiting for an occasion to say what he has to say, and only incidentally pinned it to the tail of Mr Brinkley's book. Even his compliments are condescending.

But this book has Rooseveltian energy. It is largehearted, full of the vitality of its subject and a palpable love for the landscapes it describes. As in Roosevelt’s own life, personality trumps all — what remains unforgettable in “The Wilderness Warrior” is the image of Roosevelt, in 1903, camping in the snows of Yosemite with John Muir. Muir set a dead pine tree on fire like a giant torch, and the two men danced before it. (Later, Roosevelt agreed to place Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove under federal control, as Muir wished.)

¶ Gail Collins, who was there (how cool is that?), looks at two books about Woodstock — Back to the Garden: The Story of Woodstock, by Pete Fornatale; and The Road to Woodstock, by Michael Lang with Holly George-Warren — and finds that they "are remarkably similar in structure, relying heavily on the voices of other people who were at the festival..." Beyond that, 

Both Lang and Fornatale try to explain what Woodstock meant, besides not killing your neighbor, but neither comes up with much beyond platitudes. “Woodstock was about the passing of the torch to the next generation,” Fornatale says. He also includes some testimony from Abbie Hoffman at the trial of the Chicago Eight, trying to tell the judge that his place of residence was “Woodstock Nation.” Hoffman defined it as “a nation of alienated young people . . . dedicated to cooperation versus competition, to the idea that people should have better means of exchange than property or money.”

Well, that didn’t quite work out. And Hoffman himself did not exactly soar like an eagle at Woodstock. Both books include a story about the moment he went onstage during the Who’s performance and tried to rally the crowd around the “political prisoner” John Sinclair. Pete Townshend bonked Hoffman on the head with a guitar, and he scurried offstage, never to be seen again.

¶ Paul Krugman reviews a pair of books that might be summarized as "Economic Orthodoxy and Its Discontents." Of Justin Fox's The Myth of the Rational Market: A History of Risk, Reward, and Delusion on Wall Street, Mr Krugman writes,

Do we really need yet another book about the financial crisis? Yes, we do — because this one is different. Instead of focusing on the errors and abuses of the bankers, Fox, the business and economics columnist for Time magazine, tells the story of the professors who enabled those abuses under the banner of the financial theory known as the efficient-market hypothesis. Fox’s book is not an idle exercise in intellectual history, which makes it a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the mess we’re in. Wall Street bought the ideas of the efficient-market theorists, in many cases literally: professors were lavishly paid to design complex financial strategies. And these strategies played a crucial role in the catastrophe that has now overtaken the world economy.

Mr Krugman is nowhere near as impressed by The Sages: Warren Buffett, George Soros, Paul Volcker, and the Maelstrom of Markets, by  Charles R Morris,  

Morris, the author of “The Trillion Dollar Meltdown,” doesn’t have much patience with economic theory, and it shows; I almost gave up on the book after Morris managed, in the space of just a few pages, to thoroughly misrepresent the ideas of both John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman. But the book comes to life with its personal profiles, especially the surprisingly endearing portrait of Warren Buffett as a young man.

Do the lives of the sages carry useful lessons for the rest of us? Soros doesn’t really seem to have a method, except that of being smarter than anyone else. Buffett does have a method — figure out what a company is really worth, and buy it if you can get it cheap — but it’s not a method that would work for anyone without his gifts. And Volcker’s main asset is his implacable integrity, which most mortals would find hard to match.

In Fed We Trust: Ben Bernanke's War on the Great Panic, by David Wessel, gets a strong recommendation for Paul Barrett.

Packaged as a book about Ben S. Bernanke, the former Princeton professor with the bad luck to assume the chairmanship of the Federal Reserve just in time for the crisis, “In Fed We Trust” actually offers a group portrait of the figures responsible for responding to the housing meltdown, credit freeze, stock market crash and economic slump. Wessel — with whom I worked in The Journal’s Washington office in the 1990s — puts us in the midnight meetings and on the endless conference calls during which Bernanke; former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson; his successor, Timothy Geithner; and a platoon of aides flail and bicker. With terrifying frequency, they don’t understand what’s going on around them or what to do about it.

The villan of the piece, Mr Barrett tells us, is Alan Greenspan — just in case you didn't know that already.

¶ Anthony Gottlieb, hardly a disinterested observer, is unimpressed by Alison Gopnik's The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life.

Nearly all the great philosophers have been men, and Gopnik claims that this helps to explain why the nature of children’s minds has almost never been discussed in philosophy. But there is an alternative explanation: perhaps children have been left out simply because they are on the whole not all that relevant. Although many philosophers have been childless men, not all were — Descartes developed a strong bond with his daughter ­— and Bertrand Russell ran a school. Are we really to suppose that merely being male has blinded philosophers to the gold that has been lying at their feet? Gopnik’s exposition of philosophical problems is sometimes sketchy, and in the absence of more solid examples of missed great ideas than she provides here, I am not convinced that the history of philosophy would have found more useful inspiration from the study of children if only its luminaries had included Mrs. Plato, Emmanuelle Kant, Renata Descartes and Joan Locke.

This sort of dismissal is not helpful.

¶ Christopher Caldwell's review of By His Own Rules: The Ambitions, Successes, and Ultimate Failures of Donald Rumsfeld, by Bradley Graham, is largely a piece of storytelling, but it does begin with this helpful observation:

Graham’s By His Own Rules is less a biography of Rumsfeld than a study of Rumsfeld as a Washington archetype: the operator, the insider, the bureaucratic infighter. It does cover Rumsfeld’s life from childhood on — his enthusiasm for wrestling and squash, his attitudes toward money, his marriage — but only cursorily. At the book’s heart is Rumsfeld’s behavior in committee meetings and boardrooms, with the focus on the skirmishes that marked the gradual deterioration of the war in Iraq.

¶ David Matthews's storytelling review of Danzy Senna's Where Did You Sleep Last Night?: A Personal History can't be bothered to tell readers why they should be bothered to read this book. Without intending to be negative (I sense), he provides a good argument for not being bothered.

But as the story progresses, it becomes clear that Senna’s search — the spine of the book — now extends to how best to conclude the narrative. Once she’s cracked the case, she can’t (or won’t) close it. Turning what should have been the final three chapters into seven or eight (luckily, they’re not long), Senna transforms a potential sprint toward a well-earned climax into a ponderous “But wait! There’s more!” marathon. It’s only by dint of momentum, carried along by the economy and beauty of all that came before, that we stick around.

¶ Michael Shae's neutral review of Thomas Wright's Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde itches with unpleasant disdain.

Wright explains that he was so bedazzled at 16 by The Picture of Dorian Gray that he resolved to make up the deficiencies of his education by reading everything Wilde had read. He admits that he hoped to find in Wilde not just a Virgilian guide to the world of ideas, but “a sort of Socratic mentor, who would help me give birth to a new self.”

If this “new self” is anything more than a Wilde aficionado, Wright’s book gives no evidence of it. Still, tackling such a reading list is a noble personal goal, though Wilde’s life and writings may have few secrets left to give up. Wright commingles the intellectual — books as repositories of ideas, whether lofty, silly or pornographic (and frequently French) — with the material aspects of reading, revealing not only Wilde’s love of beautifully bound editions and his practice of sending handsome volumes to handsome young men, but also such odd facts as his habit of tearing off and eating the top corner of a page as he read it.

¶ William Grimes appears to have confused Gabriel Lightfoot, the chef at the heart of Monica Ali's new novel, In the Kitchen, with the novelist herself.

The brilliant debates animate an otherwise meandering, overstuffed narrative that, for long stretches, goes nowhere in particular. With Zola-esque diligence, Ali plunges the reader into the workings of a professional kitchen and the arcana of the weaver’s trade. These seminars become tedious, as does Gabriel, whose personal problems are largely irrelevant to the novel’s more serious concerns. Obsessive, narcissistic and vacillating, he offers yet another variation on the commitment-shy modern male. About custard he holds firm opinions. Everything else flummoxes him. His long-suffering girlfriend, a mildly talented nightclub singer who would dearly love to settle down, dangles at the end of his string while he worries his small but growing bald spot with a neurotic fore­finger. Dither, dither.

¶ John Vernon gives Glen David Gold's novel about Hollywood's early days, Sunnyside, a warmly favorable review.

Gold, whose first novel was the well-­received Carter Beats the Devil, employs a voice that ranges from ironic omniscience to close third-person narration. His greatest strength lies in his ability to strain his story through a merciless interior monologue that springs from something deeper and more incriminating than sympathy, and bares every turn of his characters’ thoughts and feelings. He accomplishes this with protean, smart and appropriately Chaplinesque writing.

I am not sure what that means, but it sounds impressive.

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