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Reviewing the Book Review

Twin Powers

27 September 2009

¶ It is difficult to know whether to attribute the following silliness of Audrey Niffenberger, author of the new novel Her Fearful Symmetry, or to Susann Cokal's review.

When Robert began his thesis, he envisioned Highgate as “a prism through which he could view Victorian society at its most sensationally, splendidly, irrationally excessive . . . a theater of mourning, a stage set of eternal repose.” In this novel, it is much more than that, a place where the symmetry of a prism yields to the natural and emotional forces that distort the careful plans of cemetery designers and, by extension, anyone who dares to feel. The growth of tree roots raises a gravestone off the ground; a jealous prank changes life (and death) for two generations of twins. Repose is overrated anyway.

The novel, which follows The Time Traveler's Wife, is any case review-proof.

¶ Emily Bazelon devotes her review of Barry Friedman's The Will of the People: How Public Opinion Has Influenced the Supreme Court and Shaped the Meaning of the Constitution to a consideration of the author's thesis, and finds that it hold up.

Friedman’s contribution to this discussion is the breadth and detail of his historical canvas, and it’s a significant one. He ends his book with a series of riveting questions. “What we ought to be asking is how much capacity the justices have to act independently of the public’s views, how likely they are to do so and in what situations,” he writes. “Is the court even capable of standing up for constitutional rights when they are jeopardized by the majority?”

This line of inquiry treats skeptically the notion that law is separate from politics. Friedman is right that the question is worthy of much more study. So is the distinction political scientists draw between “specific” support for the court based on particular decisions, and “diffuse” support based on general respect for the institution. The second kind is harder to quantify, but as Friedman argues, it “may be the measure of the length of the court’s leash.”

Often, especially in our time, it is the response to judicial rulings and the justices’ next moves that determines the shape of constitutional law. Roosevelt may have been foiled in his attempt to control the court directly. But he was prescient in insisting that his interpretation of the Constitution counted, too. And, as Friedman shows, so does ours.

¶ Alan Dershowitz writes a mash note for Melvin I Urofsky's "monumental, authoritative and appreciative biography" of Louis Brandeis.

One of Urofsky’s most fascinating revelations deals with Brandeis’s conversion from a Christmas-celebrating secular American of Jewish heritage to a committed Zionist and Jew. According to Urofsky, there was no single “aha” moment of revelation. Rather, Brandeis was convinced that Zionism was an outgrowth of his progressive values. The idea of Jews’ having a homeland, based on social justice and Jewish prophetic principles, seemed entirely natural to him. He poured his heart, soul, fortune and considerable energies into persuading American Jews, who were generally unsympathetic to European Zionism, that one could be a patriotic American while at the same time advocating a Jewish homeland for the oppressed Jews of Europe. His most important contribution to Israel’s establishment was in turning Zionism from a theory alien to many American Jews into a pragmatic program to rid the Holy Land of disease, to increase its agricultural production and to make it feasible for European Jews to live in peace with their Arab neighbors. There are many who believe that without Brandeis’s advocacy, the United States would not have supported the establishment of Israel.

¶ The choice of Joe Klein to review Taylor Branch's The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History With the President is not the wisest, but Mr Klein writes helpfully.

And that is the other great theme of this book: the struggle of a president mostly interested in policy against an opposition party obsessed with regaining power. The Republican efforts to undermine Clinton were rarely substantive and often unscrupulous. The president was impeached not because he committed anything resembling a high crime, but because the effort would cripple him at a moment when he might have gotten something accomplished — his popularity was running at 60 percent or so, the economy was booming. During the Clinton presidency, the Republicans accelerated their slide from a party of responsible conservatives to a party of antigovernment talk-show nihilists. Leaders like Bob Dole were intimidated by bomb-throwers like Newt Gingrich.

¶ Michael Greenberg's Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer's Life gets such a warm and wise review from Edmund White that one doesn't even ask who Mr Greenberg is to have had such a book published.

The idea was that none of these jobs should be too involving or require a real commitment; Greenberg was saving himself for his serious writing, thereby becoming yet another martyr to art, like so many other New Yorkers. In talking about the workroom in the West Village he has rented for 25 years, he writes: “I figure that I have spent more than 50,000 hours in this room and wonder aloud if the products of those hours — from a first novel brought to an end because I couldn’t bear to revise it anymore, to the voice-over narration for a television program about golf — have configured themselves into a single repellent mass.” When he tries to rent the studio to a young woman “who approaches writing as if it were a rational, upwardly mobile career,” she flees, as if she can smell the odor of defeat in the shabby room.

¶ Liesl Schillinger counts perhaps too much on the reader's familiarity with the writing of Pete Dexter, whose new novel, Spooner, appears to mark an autobiographical departure from his previous books (in that it is much moreso.)

The story of Spooner is the story of how Calmer made Spooner, and of how Spooner made himself. It’s also the story of why Pete Dexter writes, and of why he couldn’t stop writing this particular book. He ended his novel The Paperboy with the words: “There are no intact men.” With Spooner, he demonstrates the impulse that keeps writers at their task: the longing to reassemble the whole; to see, however belatedly, who a person was, or could have been.

As this suggests, however, the review does make it clear that Spooner may be of greater interest for readers who believe that there are interesting and significant differences between the genders.

¶ Even if you're not looking for a graphic novel about logic, mathematics, and Bertrand Russell, Jim Holt's enthusiastic review of Loxicomix, written by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou, and illustrated by Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna will probably kindle some interest.

All of this is presented with real graphic verve. (Even though I’m a text guy, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the witty drawings.) To ginger up the story, the authors often deviate from the actual facts. As they admit in an afterword, Russell never met Frege or Cantor in the flesh. Nor, I am fairly certain, did he ever say to Whitehead, “I’m tired, man.” (You expect Whitehead to reply, “Me too, bro!”) We are assured, however, that no liberties have been taken with “the great adventure of ideas.” And for the most part the ideas are conveyed accurately, and with delightful simplicity. If you don’t know much about infinity, for instance, you are invited to check in to “Hilbert’s Hotel” — which, with its infinite number of rooms, can miraculously accommodate additional guests even when it’s completely full.

¶ Geoff Nicholson's mutedly snarky review of David Byrne's Bicycle Diaries suggests that he would rather be doing something else.

The book, then, is partly about cycling but also about whatever Byrne happens to have on his mind at the time, and fortunately a lot of it is quite interesting. He writes (not surprisingly) very well about music, saying that “singers . . . when they write or perform a song don’t so much bring to the work already formed emotions, ideas and feelings as much as they use the act of singing as a device that reproduces and dredges them up.” This must come as news to “American Idol” contestants. I also very much enjoyed this sardonic observation: “The two biggest self-­deceptions of all are that life has a ‘meaning’ and that each of us is unique.”

At other times he overreaches, wrestling with huge philosophical and ethical problems — the nature of beauty, the time limit on justice — issues that have exercised the greatest minds in the world for millenniums, and rather unsurprisingly he doesn’t come up with anything new. But then who would expect him to?

¶ Michael Hirsh likes Peter Maass' Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil, but this is clearly the reviewer of one journalist's book by another.

By the end of Maass’s long indictment, one wants the horror to end. Let’s all move on from oil already. Indeed, it is tempting to imagine what sort of globalization we might have today if Max Steineke and his exploratory team from Standard Oil of California hadn’t discovered quite so much petroleum when they pierced Saudi Arabia’s first great reservoir in 1938. If less human ingenuity had been applied to finding oil over the last 70 years, and more to developing other sources of energy, the world economy — and the environment — might be far healthier. The World Trade Center might even still be standing.

But Maass doesn’t fully deliver on the promise of his subtitle. Is this really the twilight of the oil economy? We still seem utterly drenched in the gunk, and the author’s occasional hints at the alternative history that might have been — if only Ronald Reagan hadn’t dismantled those solar panels that Jimmy Carter put on the White House roof! — are not terribly satisfying.

¶ Morris Dickstein's Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression gets a guardedly favorable review from Adam Begley, who complains, however, that the book is perhaps too high-minded. 

One of the paradoxes of “Dancing in the Dark” is that despite its laudable ambitions, it’s not particularly in tune with the temper of the ’30s. As Dickstein points out, this was a period of unprecedented national self-scrutiny — and our gaze was most often fixed on the things we had in common, on the culture of the people. Whereas Dickstein wants to tell us about Henry Roth’s “Call It Sleep,” which he hails as “one of the great novels of the century” (I’m unpersuaded), or draw attention to the populist elements in Aaron Copland’s ballet scores, a contemporary critic might have been more inclined to analyze the wild popularity of Monopoly, the board game patented in 1935, or the “candid camera” craze (production of cameras in the United States jumped 157 percent from 1935 to 1937 — no slump there), which Frederick Lewis Allen, writing in 1940, linked to the haunting photographs of “dismal streets, tattered billboards and gaunt, sad-eyed farm women” by Walker Evans and others. With every click of the shutter, the documentary impulse was democratized.

¶ Francine du Plessix Grey is kind to Tad Friend, author of the new memoir, Cheerful Money.

A successful family memoir relies on selectiveness, on the art of omission. Friend’s often engaging work is too crowded: an overabundance of cousins, step-grand-uncles, Mother’s friends et al. sweep by so fleetingly and confusingly that one is constantly, tiresomely driven to study the genealogical chart wisely included in the book. Yet these shortcomings, however diminishing, do not manage to sink “Cheerful Money.” The author’s warmth and pleasant wit, his reliably graceful prose style, usually manage to carry the day. When he woos and wins the irresistible New York Times food writer Amanda Hesser, every gentle-hearted reader will cheer. And when, for the first time in their lives, the habitually frosty Theodore Friend père and his 40-something son overcome WASP inhibitions and say “I love you” to each other, many of us might even shed a tear.

¶ Josh Bazell's brief review of Tom Gilling's Seven Mile Beach is largely about itself.

This kind of explicit grappling with plot mechanics is a bit like speech during sex: it will entertain some and embarrass others. A good test of what it might do for you would be to ask this: Can you tolerate a character inhabiting the identity first of a stranger named Chambers and then of one named Truman?

If you can, you will probably love this book, which is unusual, fast, light, short, suspenseful, meaningful and filled with an immigrant’s pointed observations about identity and the possibility of changing it.

¶ Kate Grenville's historical novel, The Lieutenant, gets a warm if too-short review from Alison McCulloch.

As with many of Grenville’s characters, Rooke is an outsider, an awkward child genius who grows into an awkward man. A whiz at math, astronomy and lan­guages, he plays a bit part in Britain’s battle against the American revolutionaries before joining the expedition to Australia. There, he manages to isolate himself from the rest of the colony in a makeshift observatory where he contemplates the Southern constellations and gets to know members of the indigenous Cadigal clan. One of them is a young girl who, just as in Dawes’s story, helps Rooke take a few faltering steps into an alien culture.

¶ Saïd Sayfrafiezadeh's review of Sarah Hall's How To Paint a Dead Man is unhelpful about the aspects of the book to which he is unsympathetic.

The author’s attitude toward her Italian characters reminded me of a friend who recently visited Jamaica and talked at length — based on a week at the beach — about how cheerful everyone seemed. In How to Paint a Dead Man, the viewpoint is unmistakably that of a tourist looking in with sentimental nostalgia, not that of a native looking out with a story to tell.

The reviewer's lack of interest in Ms Hall's thinly-veiled portrait of the painter Giorgio Morandi suggests that he may not be aware of it.

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