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Reviewing the Book Review

Drawn From Life

21 March 2010

David Carr on Backing Into Forward: A Memoir, by Jules Feiffer. There's an awful lot of (very entertaining) storytelling here, but Mr Carr does not allow the cartoonist's prose to go entirely un-assessed.

The decades go whooshing by as Feiffer becomes a playwright (“Little Murders”) and a screenwriter (“Carnal Knowledge” and “Popeye”), and the reader is left to wonder, how old is this guy, anyway? The answer — 81 — comes as a significant surprise because the voice in “Backing Into Forward” is not spry, not pretty energetic for an old person, but youthful, full of insouciance, vanity and playfulness. While other accomplished men bronze their success or dip it in amber, Feiffer treats his own as one big, wonderful caper.

Not that anxiety didn’t serve as a motor along the way. Stuck with an enormous case of writer’s insecurity at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in upstate New York where he went to write “Little Murders,” Feiffer does the math: “To go forward with a flop of such certainty would be an act of pure masochism. But I couldn’t pack up and go home and have my friends laugh at me. Better to close in a week.”

Liesl Schillinger on The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman. Ms Schillinger's lucid enthusiasm almost convinces me that the doctoral thesis has been categorically outmoded.

Hilarious, wide-ranging, erudite and memorable, “The Possessed” is a sui generis feast for the mind and the fancy, ants and all. And, unlikely though this may sound, by the time you’ve reached the end, you just may wish that you, like the author, had fallen down the rabbit hole of comp lit grad school. Batuman’s exaltations of Russian literature could have ended up in scholarly treatises gathering dust in university stacks. Instead, she has made her subject glow with the energy of the enigma that drew her to it in the first place: “the riddle of human behavior and the nature of love” bound up, indeed, with Russian. As a soulful Russian-language teacher might say as she hands out a piece of chocolate to her pet student: Molodets. Way to go.

David Leavitt on Blooms of Darkness, by Aharon Appelfeld. What's really inexcusable about this glut of storytelling is Mr Leavitt's failure to evaluate Jeffrey Green's translation. Indeed, it is difficult to understand why the editors would entrust a novel to a critic unequipped to read it in the the language in which it was written. This isn't high school.

Gregory Cowles on A Week in December, by Sebastian Faulks. In the opening paragraph, Mr Cowles raises doubts that this novel merits coverage in the Book Review. Nothing in the ensuing review clears them up.

Of all the characters Sebastian Faulks introduces in “A Week in December,” his ambitious, entertaining and often scathingly angry new novel, two merit special attention: a young Muslim plotting to attack a London hospital, and a hedge fund manager betting that England’s staunchest bank is about to fail. Guess which one is the villain? If you said the billionaire, give yourself a gold star — assuming you can still afford one. (Have you seen the price of gold lately?) It tells you everything you need to know about the politics of this book, and the reflexive populism of our time, that the capitalist is more reliably loathsome than the jihadist.

Elizabeth Royte on Silk Parachute, by John McPhee. Ms Royte confesses to being a "huge fan" of John McPhee, and claims that she "will take McPhee any day, on any subject." Perhaps this is why her enthusiastic review is incomprehensible.

McPhee’s critics say he’s too admiring of his subjects, too courteous to point out the flaws that might enrich a portrait. He is among the most dispassionate of reporters, hovering around the edges of his narrative, rarely turning attention to himself, stingy with his own history, feelings and reactions. (His long preoccupation with rocks seemed only to reinforce this rap.)

Although the foregoing makes literal sense, I have no idea, really, what it means.

Ross Douthat on Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History, by David Aaronovitch. The reviewer is entertained by this book, but ultimately unsympathetic.

At the same time, there’s a fish-in-a-barrel quality to some of Aaronovitch’s debunkings, and the book’s sprawl means that its insights into the conspiratorial mind-set often feel hopelessly general or disappointingly banal. (You will not be surprised to learn, for instance, that the paranoid often “fail to apply the principle of Occam’s razor to their arguments.”) Every conspiracy theory is not created equal: the dark ­anti-Trotskyist obsessions that produced Russia’s show trials, the subject of an early chapter, would seem to have little in common with the cheerful crankishness of a Velikovsky or an Erich “Chariots of the Gods” von Däniken. And an analysis that tries to account for them all won’t end up accounting for much of anything.

Roger Lowenstein on On the Brink: Inside the Race to Stop the Collapse of the Global Financial System, by Henry Paulson. Fascinating as some of Mr Paulson's disclosures might be (might be), I could not continue reading past the following, utterly unsurprising sentence.

Reflection is not Paulson's strong suit.

Books by people not given to reflection have no place in the Book Review.

Kevin Boyle on The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations, by Ira Berlin. Mr Boyle's warmly favorable review stresses the larger context in which the author has positioned his narrative.

Not that Berlin sees victimization as the main theme of black history. “The Making of African America” is primarily a story of the resilience, creativity and courage African-Americans drew upon as they engaged in the difficult process of piecing together new lives in an unfamiliar land. That’s my parents’ story too. And more than likely, it was the story of that young black couple that moved in down the block: ordinary people looking for a decent house, a measure of security, a piece of land no matter how small, a home of their own. People like us — except for the color of their skin. And as this brilliant book shows again and again, that made all the difference.

Justin Cartwright on Occupied City, by David Peace. This excellent review is as interested in the rich textures of Mr Peace's novel as it is in the crime story.

At times the novel’s prose takes on an almost hypnotic rhythm as it settles into a kind of modernist repetition of ­phrases: “Tear by drop-drop, foot by step-step . . . drop-drop, step-step.” For pages at a time, sentences start with “In the occupied city.” Peace presumably intends for all this repetition to lend his book a lyrical authenticity and poetic exoticism, but really it makes him sound like Rain Man. But stick with him. Once you get past the irritation and the claustrophobia the language sometimes induces, this is a truly remarkable work. It is hugely daring, utterly irresistible, deeply serious and unlike anything I have ever read.

Annie Murphy Paul on The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong, by David Shenk. The acknowledgment of one or two shortcomings in Mr Shenk's book does not dampen the excitement that this book rouses in the reviewer. 

It’s ambitious indeed to try to overthrow in one go the conventional ideas and images that have accumulated since 1874, when Francis Galton first set the words “nature” and “nurture” against each other. Yet Shenk convinces the reader that such a coup is necessary, and he gets it well under way. He tells engaging stories, lucidly explains complex research and offers fresh insights into the nature of exceptional performance: noting, for example, that profound achievements are often driven by petty jealousies and resentments, or pointing out the surprising fact that great talent seems to cluster geographically and temporally, undermining the assumption that it’s all due to individual genetic endowments. Just how tall a task Shenk took on is evident in his voluminous endnotes, which go on as long as the main text and are just as interesting. Here the author allows us to watch him working his way through the literature, inquiring, arguing, marveling, as he wrestles a new understanding into being.

Fiona Maazel on What We Are, by Peter Nathaniel Malae. There is little to this review besides storytelling — rather unattractive storytelling. It is hard to know what the reviewer makes of it all.

Predictably, Paul doesn’t take to conformity all that well, and gives it up. But he does grow more empathetic for the exercise. Even so, in testament to how hostile this novel is to empathy, much of its climactic dialogue is in Spanish. You can get the gist of it without knowing the language, but you miss out on the exact voice of our hero at his most generous and self-affirming. It’s a wasted moment that makes it hard for us to care about Paul’s future. And yet we have to care, since his is the voice of the Me Generation, which needs a lot of help.

Mary Jo Murphy on The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered In a New Age for America, by Don Lattin. This review stresses the "unexpectedly grounded" nature of the author's authority on the subject.

Anyone expecting “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” has come to the wrong book but might want to stick around anyway. Lattin lacks the Wolfean verbal ­razzle-dazzle, but Tom Wolfe was “off the bus,” in that he apparently didn’t partake, and he needed all his writer’s tricks to conjure an extra-reality he hadn’t experienced. Lattin mostly skips the Day-Glo word pictures, but then, as he says in the afterword, he has been there, most definitely done that. If he can’t paint a scene — and what a scene — the way Wolfe can, he does manage to make sense of a complicated movement so often reduced to its parody-ready costumes, haircuts and groovy lingo. And he does it with authority and an evenhanded understanding of the good, the bad and the crazy of it.

Mika Brzezinski on Keeping the Feast: One Couple's Story of Love, Food, and Healing in Italy, by Paula Butturini. This review manages to grow less lucid with every paragraph. Here is the penultimate one:

In the face of these bleak odds many would abandon the marriage or succumb to depression themselves. Butturini perseveres, and you can’t help admiring her courage and stamina. In the end, it is Butturini, not her husband, who is healed by food. “All of us cook, I think, in part to feed our daily hunger, but just as important, and perhaps more so, we cook and eat to feed our spirits, to keep us all in the same orbit of life,” she writes.

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