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Reviewing the Book Review

Eclectic Detective

15 November 2009

¶ Steven Pinker's review of Malcolm Gladwell's What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures  is not unfavorable; Mr Pinker calls the author a "minor genius." He also puts his finger on what drives so many critical readers crazy about Malcolm Gladwell's popular essays.

An eclectic essayist is necessarily a dilettante, which is not in itself a bad thing. But Gladwell frequently holds forth about statistics and psychology, and his lack of technical grounding in these subjects can be jarring. He provides misleading definitions of “homology,” “saggital plane” and “power law” and quotes an expert speaking about an “igon value” (that’s eigenvalue, a basic concept in linear algebra). In the spirit of Gladwell, who likes to give portentous names to his aperçus, I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.

¶ David Gates finds more cons than pros in the publication of the file cards that Vladimir Nabokov wrote out in the early stages of creating his final novel, The Original of Laura (Dying Is Fun) — a process cut short by the novelist's death — but concludes that no harm has been done.

The style of Nabokov’s very last work hardly seems “unprecedented” either, but especially for an aging, ailing man, he was in fine form. This, rather than imputed formal innovations or supposed insights into his writing process — we’ve known for years that he wrote on index cards, and that, like other mortals, he revised and deleted and made notes to himself — makes “The Original of Laura” worth the frustration of reading it.

¶ Kathryn Harrison's review of Philip Roth's latest book, The Humbling, begins more or less neutrally but ends on a scathing note.

Great writers write trivial books. John Updike, for example, gave us not only the Rabbit novels, but also lesser works like The Witches of Eastwick. But no matter if the plot was silly or the characters implausible, Updike presented them in language that was both considered and fluid. His minor books are almost troublingly well written. In contrast, when the conceit isn’t worth the effort, Roth doesn’t expend it. A lazy work, The Humbling lacks its author’s genius — all that would help us, as it has so many times before, to forgive him his prejudices and blind spots.

¶ It is hard to imagine how Susan Cheever could be more enthusiastic about Mary Karr's Lit: A Memoir without sounding foolish.

You always knew Mary Karr wasn’t telling you everything. There were tantalizing hints of adult life in her two coming-of-age memoirs, The Liars’ Club and Cherry. But Lit is the book in which she grows up and gets serious, as serious as motherhood, as serious as alcoholism, as serious as God. And it just makes her funnier. In a gravelly, ground-glass-under-your-heel voice that can take you from laughter to awe in a few sen­tences, Karr has written the best book about being a woman in America I have read in years.

¶ Understanding that common readers are not about to take up Chaucer's texts, Harold Bloom gives Peter Ackroyd's The Canterbury Tales: A Retelling a warmly favorable review.

Ackroyd’s novels hold me, particularly his outrageous Milton in America, but his best work is in his marvelous cultural visions: Albion, London, Thames. I say “visions” because they convey a comprehensive and frequently dark sense of the English character and its vagaries, including sudden excursions into brutality and lawlessness. That darkly ironic sense is profoundly Chaucerian and suits the poet’s major work, the unfinished yet aesthetically complete Canterbury Tales, upon which he continued to work until his death at around 57. He contrasts in this with Shakespeare, who died at 52 and chose to write nothing during his three final years, while retired at Stratford-on-Avon.

¶ David Carr manages to write favorably about Harold Evans's My Paper Chase: True Stores of Vanished Times without ever saying anything quite complimentary.

Like so many biographers of the self, Evans mistakes his textured childhood (he was born in 1928 in Manchester to Welsh parents) for something of authorial moment. Although class resentments and strivings — a persistent theme here — were formed in the crucible of his early days as the son of a railroad worker and a shopkeeper, the simple dignities of family and work are so thoroughly recollected that the reader might be tempted to set aside the book.

That would be a mistake. Like printing presses, the narrative cranks up slowly but then begins whirring as it celebrates bygone glories and dwells on the truths of good journalism that still obtain.

¶ Robert Pinsky's review of James McManus's Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker makes for very entertaining reading, but notwithstanding its frequent references to the Puritanical and entrepreneurial "streaks" in American character that apparently engendered the game, it does not belong in the Book Review.

¶ Jacob Heilbrun's favorable review of John Farmer's The Ground Truth: The Untold Story of America Under Attack on 9/11 throws a very disturbing spotlight on the quality of security that United States officials were and presumably still are capable of providing to the homeland.

Perhaps nothing perturbs Farmer more than the contention that high-ranking officials responded quickly and effectively to the revelation that Qaeda attacks were taking place. Nothing, Farmer indicates, could be further from the truth: President George W. Bush and other officials were mostly irrelevant during the hijackings; instead, it was the ground-level commanders who made operational decisions in an ad hoc fashion. The memoirs of the White House terrorism expert Richard Clarke, which Farmer credits with good faith, make it sound as though a dramatic video­conference that Clarke led played a crucial role in organizing a response to the hijackings, but Farmer says that “this account does not square in any significant respect with what occurred that morning.”

To bolster such contentions, Farmer focuses minutely on newly available transcripts from the Federal Aviation Administration and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (Norad). He shows that, perversely enough, the one defense agency that had suffered draconian budget cuts was Norad, which had seen its alert sites reduced from about two dozen to a pitiful seven and, in any case, was unable to view large areas of the continental United States owing to its antiquated radar system.

¶ Paul Barrett succinctly compares the strengths of two books about last year's credit crisis, Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big To Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System From Crisis — and Themselves and John Cassidy's How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities.

Although Sorkin doesn’t attempt much deep analysis, he does concisely summarize what he thinks all the maneuvering and sweaty panic add up to: “The calamity would definitively shatter some of the most cherished principles of capitalism,” he writes. “The idea that financial wizards had conjured up a new era of low-risk profits, and that American-style financial engineering was the global gold standard, was officially dead.”

Cassidy’s much shorter “How Markets Fail” offers a brilliant intellectual framework for Sorkin’s narrative. In the process, Cassidy, a writer for The New Yorker, also sheds skeptical light on Sorkin’s conclusions. The calamity of 2008 didn’t shatter principles of capitalism; there isn’t a static set of capitalist principles to destroy. Capitalism has meant different things to different thinkers and economic players.

¶ Although it is too short, Michael Greenberg's review of Kay Redfield Jamison's Nothing Was the Same: A Memoir is lucid and helpful.

Much of Nothing Was the Same is an account of this dance with impending death and its aftermath. Inevitably, it will be compared to Joan Didion’s memoir of her husband’s death, The Year of Magical Thinking. But “Nothing Was the Same” is a very different kind of book, told with less writerly detail than Didion’s but more direct emotion.

After Richard is gone, Jamison is left with her grief and the frustration of memory. Jamison uses her predicament to deliver a captivating riff on Freud’s seminal essay Mourning and Melancholia. As one who has experienced clinical depression, she is in a singular position to compare it with grief. A startling and essential difference between them: “In grief, death occasions the pain. In depression, death is the solution to the pain.”

¶ Clancy Martin is surprised to find that he really likes Paul Auster's new book, Invisible.

For years now there have been two Austers waiting to embrace: the psychologist/­storyteller of novels like Leviathan, and the metatextual trickster of The New York Trilogy. Freud once claimed that our greatest frustration was that we could never kiss ourselves — well, Auster has knotted the pretzel, he has brought his two loves together (it is, after all, a novel about incest). So if, like me, part of why you read is the great pleasure of falling in love with a novel, then read Invisible. It is the finest novel Paul Auster has ever written.

¶ Rawi Hage's Cockroach gets a textbook example of the useless review from Mary Gaitskill, who doesn't like the writing, the construction, or the characters. And that is all that we learn from the piece: why Ms Gaitskill doesn't like a book.

Having read both of Hage’s books, I see his talent. However, I wonder at how extravagantly he’s been praised and at how fast he’s been elevated to the status of an internationally important author.

Surely the review ought to have written by someone who understands the "extravagance."

¶ Jess Row is rather more lucid about Maureen Howard's The Rags of Time than Mary Gaitskill is about Cockroach, but he appears to be crippled by an age difference.

Rather than a sustained narrative, which it never really tries to be, this novel is a time capsule of manners, fascinations, prejudices and blindnesses, a kind of last gasp of the Upper West Side intelligentsia, whose descendants — literally and figuratively — have decamped elsewhere, seeking cheaper real estate and better coffee.

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