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Reviewing the Book Review

Empire of Desire

4 July 2010

¶ Dave Eggers on The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a novel by David Mitchell. Although the tone of this lengthy review is unmistakably enthusiastic, the almost unrelieved storytelling is punctuated, here and there, by remarks that don't quite add it. Having described the novel as "a straight-up, linear, third person historical novel," Mr Eggers concludes on a more puzzling note. 

If the book sounds dense, that’s because it is. It’s a novel of ideas, of longing, of good and evil and those who fall somewhere in between. And are there even nods to the story of Persephone, also born of privilege, also found plucking exotic fruit, also abducted — whose removal from the world causes the world’s seasons? Maybe, maybe not. There are no easy answers or facile connections in “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.” In fact, it’s not an easy book, period. Its pacing can be challenging, and its idiosyncrasies are many. But it offers innumerable rewards for the patient reader and confirms Mitchell as one of the more fascinating and fearless­writers alive.

¶ David Pogue on The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World, by David Kirkpatrick. Everything about this review, written by the newspaper's device guru, shouts that it does not belong in the Book Review. The idea that a book about Facebook might be premature appears not to have crossed anyone's mind. Mr Pogue is decidedly ambivalent. The good news:

No wonder [Mr Kirkpatrick] has written what amounts to two books about it: the first and second halves of “The Facebook Effect.” The first part is a fascinating but flawed corporate history, starring Facebook’s reticent creator, the Harvard dropout Mark Zuckerberg; the second is a thoughtful, evenhanded analysis of the Web site’s impact.

The bad news?

Kirkpatrick’s writing is low-key but also workmanlike, and punctuated by jarring grammatical constructions (“Everybody carried their stuff themselves”; “every Thefacebook user had their own public bulletin board”). Ouch.

¶ Stacy Schiff on Pearl Buck in China: Journey to "The Good Earth," by Hilary Spurling. A good review of an interesting life.

Spurling makes no outsize claims for Buck, who was prescient about China’s ascent as early as 1925. Nor does she make great claims for Buck’s work, with the exception of “Fighting Angel,” a life of her father, which Spurling believes “has the makings of a 20th-century classic.” Throughout her gripping account, ­Spurling’s touch is sure, light and nuanced. Generally she acknowledges the “heavy, cumbersome, potentially toxic baggage” Buck carried with her but leaves us to unpack it. We are to connect the dots between the boorish husband and the fictional scenes of marital rape; the doctrinaire father and Buck’s fierce aversion to racism, sexism and, for that matter, missionaries. Vested early on in the power of narrative, Buck waged her own battle against ignorance and superstition, powerfully bridging two cultures that seemed mutually incomprehensible. In effect, she turned her father’s mission on its head.

¶ Baz Dreisinger on Bob Marley: The Untold Story, by Chris Salewicz. Res ipsa loquitur.

All of which makes the subtitle of Chris Salewicz’s new Marley biography — “The Untold Story” — utterly comedic. What could Salewicz, a British music journalist who once interviewed Marley, have to say about this icon that hasn’t been said before? Do we really need another Bob bio?

The answer, in short, is no. But that doesn’t render Salewicz’s indefatigably thorough book entirely beside the point. To those inquiring minds — and they exist by the legion — who want to know what Marley ate for breakfast the day he married Rita Anderson (curried goat, rice, green bananas), or what name the Maoris in New Zealand bestowed on the beloved singer (“the Redeemer”), Salewicz’s book should be quite welcome; every detail is, to the Marley fan, a treasure-trove.

It's doubtful that this book merits coverage anywhere in The New York Times.

¶ Jennifer Gilmore on American Music, a novel by Jane Mendelsohn. The storytelling in this review seems to be a desperate attempt to make sense of a novel that may have eluded the reviewer — a judgment that the final paragraph amply supports.

Eventually Milo’s silence ends, and we learn how his own story of tragedy is entwined with his physical self. But why do these stories emerge from Milo? How does this soldier’s wrecked body come to express a history it can’t escape? Is all history shared? Who, then, lays claim to our separate memories? These are some of the questions posed by this wise, sad novel. Our past, the world’s past, the fleshy weight of war, are buried deep within us. How, “American Music” asks, if a little too plaintively, do we free our stories? How, in essence, do we let them swing?

¶ Sam Lipsyte on Wilson, a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes. This amiable but lucid favorable review is a model of what good graphic novels deserve.

Reading “Wilson,” Clowes’s first book to be published without prior serialization, you begin to notice something, even as you laugh and wince at each brilliantly wrought expression or exchange. There is no stable Wilson. Visually, he is sometimes rendered with a familiar comic book realism, while at others he’s squashed down like some oblivious figure from the Sunday funnies. Sometimes his nose grows large, possibly when he’s lying to himself. Once, his pants switch colors with the floor in the middle of a conversation.

Verbally, he is also in flux. Part of the book’s humor derives from Wilson’s futile attempts to find a comfortable American voice for his encounters. While he narrates his life to himself in lucid contemporary modes, whenever he reaches out to strangers in coffee shops, alleyways or trains, his idiom seems wonderfully awkward, if not outdated: “Hey brother, mind if I sit here?” “How about you, friend — kids?” “Join the club, sister. My old man’s Stage 4.” The slipperiness, the mutability of Wilson — how he talks, how he looks — creates a dimensionality we can recognize. We all fumble for a common tongue. And some days we do look squashed down.

Meanwhile the narrative sneaks up on you, and when it does, a grim but hilarious momentum carries the day.

¶ Helen Vendler on On Whitman, by C K Williams. This wretchedly unsympathetic review ought to have been scrapped by the editors. Ms Vendler is an extremely important figure in American letters, wise and generous on many subjects. But nothing can excuse the acrid air of carping and score-settling that renders this review just about perfectly useless.

Williams knows that the real meat and drink in Whitman’s work lies in the poet’s unprecedented assembling of rhythm, sound, language and images. He pays lavish tribute to what he refers to as Whitman’s “music,” the surge and flow of the lines; he also delights in Whitman’s eye for the telling detail. But in the end, for Williams, the didactic trumps the aesthetic: we are brought back to the poetry’s moral demand that we be “greater than we are.” This, however, cannot be the purpose of poetry, which necessarily subsumes even the ethical under whatever it has set up as the aesthetic law governing a particular construction. Ethics — like landscape, or anecdote, or history, or psychology — is part of the raw material of some (but not all) poetry. Like other ingredients it plays a necessarily subordinate part.

When Ms Vendler, in the next paragraph, calls the book "winning," you want to check the hilt: Henkel or Sabatier?

¶ Ben Marcus on The Frozen Rabbi, a novel by Steve Stern. Although not altogether coherent, this pleasantly favorable review may inspire a few readers to have a look at the book itself.

After a self-administered crash course in the most obscure tenets of Jewish mysticism, Bernie sheds his baby fat almost overnight to become an expert on kabbalah and an adept of astral flight. In a recurring comic conceit, Bernie regularly leaves his body just before consummating his relationship with his girlfriend, his desire endlessly thwarted by a higher spiritual calling. As the rabbi gathers groupies and seeks to make up for a hundred years of erotic inactivity, Bernie climbs to loftier religious summits, functioning as the agonized conscience for the cheapening of religious meaning the rest of his family is party to. It is Bernie’s fervid embrace of the family tradition, snuffed out now in his parents, along with his potential martyrdom, that lends a chilling gravity to “The Frozen Rabbi.”

Stern’s intimacy with Jewish mysticism does not seem to come from Internet research. He writes with piercing zeal about religious concepts that are, by their very definition, impossible to describe — impossible, perhaps, even to understand. (I’d always heard that if you understand kabbalah, you’ve probably got it wrong.) Yet Stern brings the esoteric ideas handily to life and lodges them, often hilariously, in the unlikely body of Bernie Karp, holy teenager of Memphis.

¶ Nicholas Confessore on Rough Justice: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, by Peter Elkind; and Journal of the Plague Year: An Insider's Chronicle of Eliot Spitzer's Short and Tragic Reign, by Lloyd Constantine. These books are so out-of-place in the Book Review that they make the editors look embarrassingly provincial.

Elkind does not venture much in the way of analysis, political or psychological. But his account implicitly links Spitzer’s sojourns with prostitutes to his political problems. Could it be that the more Spitzer compromised himself in private, the less he was willing to do so in public?

Constantine confronts that question more squarely, though not necessarily more convincingly. He presents Spitzer as a tormented man whose judgment was warped by the shame of his secret dalliances. To the arguments and occasional tantrums already in the public record, he adds a few more.

¶ James Traub on The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macoris, by Mark Kurlansky. Mr Traub's generally favorable review suggests that this book's subtitle may be an editorial backstop rather than an informative handle.

Kurlansky is not particularly illuminating on the familiar, American end of that transaction, where players whack homers and swallow ster­oids. His heart is really in San Pedro’s lazy, sun-baked afternoons, and in the city’s storied past, when it was the home of poets as much as of shortstops, a strikingly polyglot place where migrant workers from the Anglophone Caribbean mingled with Haitians, Cubans, Americans and the native Macori­sanos, a creolized world with its own cuisine, games, patois. There is something of San Pedro itself in Kurlansky’s ambling and sidelong narrative pace, and in his tone, which is sympathetic, perpetually amused and judgmental only as he confronts the great maw that is Major League Baseball.

The game played in the streets of San Pedro was, and to some extent still is, baseball returned to its origins: the ball a sock wrapped around more socks and then soaked for density; the bat a stick of wood or sugarcane; the glove a flattened milk carton. (Rico Carty ascribed his ability to hit a curveball to the fact that socks tend to be aerodynamically unstable.) This version of the game looks far more charming to us than it does to the Ma­corisanos, who can see all around them, in the fancy cars and villas of the big lea­guers, the rewards possible at the glittering end of the rainbow. It is a culture with bitter disappointment, and resignation, built into it; Kurlansky is a connoisseur of tropical stoicism.

¶ Andrew Cayton on At the Edge of the Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise That Saved the Union, by Robert Remini; and Henry Clay: The Essential American, by David Heidler and Jeanne Heidler. Mr Cayton's quarrel with these books is an important one, but it doesn't quite belong in a book review.

The problem with these informative books runs deeper than the criticism that they concentrate on dead white men. The stress on individuals, especially on whether they were likable or not, and the emphasis on compromise as an unqualified good, assumes that issues can — and should — be resolved politically. Good men (Clay) compromise; bad men (Calhoun) don’t. That approach obscures the obvious fact that some human conflicts are structural and that sometimes people value a sense of justice above everything else. After all, had the founders of the Republic pursued compromise in 1776, there might never have been a Union to save. Similarly, the price of compromise in 1850 was prolonged enslavement for millions.

No one admired Henry Clay more than Abraham Lincoln. Still, while Lincoln’s fervent attachment to the United States never waned, he was persuaded that slavery was a moral offense that Americans could no longer ignore. Lincoln’s achievement lay in his ability to lead his fellow citizens toward doing the right thing in ways that increased rather than diminished respect for their political institutions. We remember Lincoln more than Clay, in short, not just because he saved the Union, but also because he insisted that a Union worth saving was a Union that stood for something more than itself.

This is all very tricky. If the Philadelphia Convention hadn't compromised in 1789, there might have been no Constitution — but there would also have been no Constitution countenancing slavery.

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