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Reviewing the Book Review

Who's White?

28 March 2010

Linda Gordon on The History of White People, by Nell Irvin Painter. At the end of a long patch of storytelling, Ms Gordon quibbles a bit with the author but comes round to a warmly favorable response.

In the same period, anarchist or socialist beliefs became a sign of racial inferiority, a premise strengthened by the presence of many immigrants and Jews among early-20th-century radicals. Whiteness thus became a method of stigmatizing dissenting ideas, a marker of ideological respectability; Painter should have investigated this phenomenon further. Also missing from the book is an analysis of the all-important question: Who benefits and how from the imprimatur of whiteness? Political elites and employers of low-wage labor, to choose just two groups, actively policed the boundaries of whiteness.

But I cannot fault Nell Painter’s choices — omissions to keep a book widely readable. Often, scholarly interpretation is transmitted through textbooks that oversimplify and even bore their readers with vague generalities. Far better for a large audience to learn about whiteness from a distinguished scholar in an insightful and lively exposition.

Alan Brinkley on Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs the Supreme Court, by Jeff Shesol. A fine review that awards "state of the art" status to its subject.

One of Shesol’s many important contributions to an understanding of this controversy is his powerful description of the extraordinary opprobrium the court confronted as it began to overturn New Deal measures in 1935. Indeed, it was the deep unpopularity of the court that helped embolden Roosevelt to challenge it in 1937. In those first years of the New Deal, Shesol suggests, the conservative justices were stunned by the boldness and, they thought, radicalism of the New Deal; their opinions seemed to reflect their alarm and caused them to take positions even more conservative than they had in the recent past. Two years later, similarly stunned by the criticism they were receiving, the justices began to slowly back away from their most conservative views. Roberts’s shift occurred even before Roosevelt announced his court-packing plan; but that does not mean that the political furor played no role in his decision.

Shesol also draws attention to a more mundane but nevertheless considerable factor in the shift of the court. In 1937 Roosevelt supported, and Congress approved, a bill to assure retired justices that they would continue to receive their judicial salaries even after retirement. The absence of such benefits had deterred some aged justices from retiring; once the pensions were assured, several of them resigned.

Supreme Power is an impressive and engaging book — an excellent work of narrative history. It is deeply researched and beautifully written. Even readers who already know the outcome will find it hard not to feel the suspense that surrounded the battle, so successfully does Shesol recreate the atmosphere of this great controversy. There are many ways to explain what become known as the “Constitutional revolution of 1937,” but Shesol’s book is — at least for now — the most thorough account of this dramatic and still contested event.

Nathaniel Philbrick on The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea, by Philip Hoare. The opening paragraph sets the tone of Mr Philbrick's admiration.

Moby-Dick is often viewed as a singularly American creation. Part of the beguiling genius of The Whale, a rhapsodic meditation on all things cetacean, is that Philip Hoare so suggestively explores the English origins of Herman Melville’s masterpiece while providing his own quirky, often revelatory take on the more familiar aspects of the novel. But The Whale is about much more than the literary sources of Moby-Dick. Always in the foreground of Hoare’s narrative is the whale itself, a creature that haunts and fascinates him as he travels to old whaling ports in both Britain and America, where he speaks with cetologists, naturalists, museum curators and former whalers on a quest to understand the whale, the cosmos and himself.

Pamela Paul on The Husbands and Wives  Club: A Year in the Life of a Couples Therapy Group, by Laurie Abraham. What is this book doing here?

“The Husbands and Wives Club” calls to mind Paul Solotaroff’s 1999 “Group,” another voyeuristic foray into mass therapy. Both books suffer from the same narrative constraints. Most of the action takes place in one room, and it’s talky, talky, talky, like a play that fails to kick off from page to stage. Solotaroff had the advantage of documenting a dicey bunch: a dipso rock musician, a Wall Street cokehead, a washed-up Broadway producer. Abraham faces a more pedestrian collection of middling professionals.

Bruce Weber on The Baseball Codes: Beanballs, Sign Stealing, and Bench-Clearing Brawls: The Unwritten Rules of America's Pastime, by Jason Turbow with Michael Duca. Or this one?

For true baseball-niks, the discussions of these issues won’t be especially enlightening. With so many former athletes now in the broadcast booth, the unwritten rules of the game get a pretty regular airing. (Disappointingly for a book that devotes a substantial section to cheating, there is no discussion at all of steroid use.) But the stories the authors have unearthed to illustrate ballpark justice and morality are often delicious.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein on The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time, by Judith Shulevitz. An appealingly sympathetic review from a woman who has put Sabbath observance firmly behind her.

Judith Shulevitz and I approach the Sabbath from opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. Where I am grateful to have finally escaped it — all that rest was killing me — she testifies to a lifelong yearning to enter into it. “If only I’d been raised in a fully traditional home, instead of my half-­godless one! If only I had been trained to follow rules, rather than having been spoiled by the modern disrespect for them!” But if you imagine a cynical expression distorting my face while I read such wistful counterfactuals, you would be wrong. Ideally situated to treat Sabbath-envy with a severely arched eyebrow, I found this hybrid of a book — part spiritual memoir, part religious history and sociological analysis and literary exegesis and philosophical musing — mostly irresistible.

For one thing, Shulevitz is nothing if not ambivalent, and ambivalence is a sign of an interesting mind.

Liesl Schillinger on The Irresistible Henry House, by Lisa Grunwald. Ms Schillinger takes a much-needed moment to explain the background of this intriguing novel. (A substantial extract, illustrative of Ms Grunwald's prose style, would have made for an ideal review.)

Unbeknownst to many of us, for 50 years in the last century, before and after the time of the monkey studies, human babies were used as guinea pigs on American campuses, imported from orphanages to home economics programs to help college students hone their mothering skills. The consequences of treating a baby like “a human baton, continually handed off in the grueling relay of the first hundred weeks of life,” weren’t taken into account, Grunwald explains. A popular novelist (Whatever Makes You Happy, New Year’s Eve) and a former magazine editor (Life, Esquire), she came upon this startling chapter of our social history a few years ago when she noticed a photograph of a smiling practice baby on a Cornell University Web site. For decades, she learned, the school had maintained a practice house where students “learned homemaking, complete with a live baby whom they took turns mothering.” Similar programs existed across the country: “Hundreds of infants started their lives being cared for by multiple mothers.” Grunwald asked herself what might have become of such a baby, once he grew up. This novel is her answer.

Malena Watrous on The Hole We're In, by Gabrielle Zevin. Although Ms Watrous appears to like this book, her review touches on aspects that may make it repellent to other readers.

Zevin is a concept-driven writer. In her previous novel, the whimsical “Margarettown,” a man falls for a woman who has splintered into versions of herself at different ages, showing how hard it is to sustain love when identities are constantly changing. The idea behind “The Hole We’re In” is that an absence of thought is what leads people to behave so stupidly, so zombielike. Roger, George and Helen Pomeroy consume to the point of numbness. Their bad decisions hardly qualify as decisions, since they don’t make them consciously. When George receives a credit card application in the mail, in her son’s name, she unthinkingly fills it out for him and doesn’t intend to use the card — until her own is denied. Her lack of reflection enables her to defraud her son without remorse. The problem is, it’s hard to care about zombies. Eventually, you just want them brought down.

But in this novel, as in life, bad deeds often go unpunished.

Stacy Schiff on Mrs Adams in Winter: A Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon, by Michael O'Brien. A warm review that appears to have a nice feel for a book based on the memoir of a voyage from Petersburg to Paris taken by the second of the Adams first ladies.

Only 21 years later did Mrs. Adams attempt to set down her account of the adventure. She wished she had done so earlier; now her details were off. A woman who titles her memoirs “The Adventures of a Nobody” may not be the ideal narrator for such a feat in the first place. To the rescue comes the historian Michael O’Brien, who sets out to both correct and amplify the record. Mrs. Adams has left him only limited material, so as she makes her daunting way across the Continent he darts backward and forward in time, fleshing out the geographic and historical details. As a tour guide to l8th-century eastern Europe he is without equal. He always knows where the best hotel is, even if he cannot say whether Mrs. Adams stayed in it. Her trip through Yiddish-speaking Russia elicited no comment in the original but sends O’Brien off to meditate on John Adams and the Jews. Although Mrs. Adams was unlikely to have attended, we have a meticulous re-creation of the Riga theater. A church spire appears in the distance; a survey of Mrs. Adams’s religious formation follows.

Daniel Bergner on Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire, by Robert Perkinson. This guardedly favorable review is almost as harrowing to read as Mr Perkinson's book undoubtedly is.

By documenting relentlessly, almost without counterpoint, the inhuman­ity that has defined Texan and Ameri­can incarceration, “Texas Tough” leaves us wondering, despairingly, whether there is any way our society can rise to the godlike responsibility that suffuses prison air, whether there is any way we can rehabilitate our prisons so that we can reliably reform the convicts we lock inside.

Emily Bazelon on The Male Brain, by Louann Brizendine. The opening paragraph of the review suggests a horror that Ms Bazelon seems to be too polite to admit.

Many scientists are cautious to a fault when it comes to telling us what they’re unsure of, playing down any novel finding that hasn’t been verified by another scientist. Not so Louann Brizendine. She is a neuro­psychiatrist (the prefix makes any title sound smarter) who has put her professional training behind a breezy, incautious account of how the brain, urged on by hormones, makes men and women act completely differently. You’d never know from reading Brizendine that beneath the sea she blithely sails are depths that researchers have only just begun to chart.

Peter Campion on The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems, 1975-2010. An intelligent and sympathetic summary of the poet's career.

In his most recent work, Hirsch decants his language down to a tonic simplicity. The newest poems in “The Living Fire” have the sparseness and inevitability of epigram or haiku, even when they don’t inhabit those forms. The title poem of Hirsch’s most recent stand-alone volume, “Special Orders,” offers a fine example. The poem begins by recalling the poet’s father, now deceased, working at a paper company. Here’s how it ends:

I don’t understand this uncontainable grief.
    Whatever you had that never fit,
        whatever else you needed, believe me,

my father, who wanted your business,
    would squat down at your side
        and sketch you a container for it.

What makes this ending so poignant is the ambiguity Hirsch creates, while keeping his language utterly clear. The memory of the father both answers the son’s search and fails to. The poet and the reader are left not with a cure for grief but with something much realer — a living image of a genuine, practical, admirable person.

Jane and Michael Stern on Appetite For America: How visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire That Civilized the Wild West, by Stephen Fried. Preoccupied with storytelling, the reviewers can't be bothered to tell us much about the book itself. Here is the only crumb:

Fried isn’t just dropping names when he writes of all the famous people who are part of the Fred Harvey story. As the gold standard of hospitality, Harvey played host to everyone who was anyone. The company dispatched Hopi Indian employees to greet Albert Einstein when he visited the Grand Canyon. Harvey’s La Posada in Winslow, Ariz., had a special room reserved for Howard Hughes. M. F. K. Fisher wrote that dinner in a Fred Harvey dining car with her Uncle Evans when she was 19 years old inspired her to care about food. Walt Disney, who created his most famous cartoon character, Mickey Mouse, while riding the Santa Fe from Chicago to California, included a replica of a Fred Harvey restaurant in the original Disneyland. “It was no coincidence,” Fried writes, “that Walt Disney used his name alone to brand his company, just as Fred Harvey had.

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