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Reviewing the Book Review

To Their Own Beat

11 July 2010

¶ Will Blythe on A Visit From the Good Squad, fiction by Jennifer Egan. This model review wisely refrains from storytelling and focuses instead on the dense interrelationships, not only between characters but between times and places as well, that characterize this extraordinary. Even the "criticism" is constructive.

For a book so relentlessly savvy about the digital age and its effect on how we experience time (speeded up, herky-jerky, instantaneous, but also full of unbearable gaps and pauses), “A Visit From the Goon Squad” is remarkably old-fashioned in its obsession with time’s effects on characters, that preoccupation of those doorstop 19th-century novels. Hanging over Egan’s book is a sense that human culture is changing at such warp speed that memory itself must adapt to keep pace.

The last chapter, which literalizes this sense perhaps a little too much, depicts a futuristic New York, in which babies signal their consumer choices with handsets and audiences are manipulated by selected enthusiasts known as “parrots.” Here Egan attempts to bring a centrifugal narrative full circle, which, given the entropic exhilarations on display, isn’t really in keeping with the story’s nature. But this is perhaps the only shortcoming (and a small one at that) in a fiction that appropriately for its musical obsessions, is otherwise pitch perfect.

¶ Christopher Hitchens on The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, by Philip Pullman. The concept of a "review" of a book about Jesus Christ by Christopher Hitchens simply does not compute. Here's what we get instead.

This little book is part of a series of contemporary retellings of myths. It is not merely a reweaving of the synoptic Gospels with the supernatural dimension left out. It is an attempt by an experienced storyteller to show how even the best-plotted stories can get too far out of hand. I said earlier that Pullman was a Protestant atheist. Even so, he may well have been annoyed at the welcome given to his book by the clerical establishment in the person of the archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, who has described the “Jesus” character as “a voice of genuine spiritual authority” and the book itself as “mostly Pullman at his very impressive best, limpid and economical.” Pullman himself, echoing the common modern question of “W.W.J.D.?” — a question that in most modern contexts comes with no answer at all — claims that “my version is much closer to what Jesus would have said.” We in the infidel community do not pronounce anathemas or proclaim excommunications, or make the easy distinction between religious faith and “organized religion,” but this latest attempt to secularize Messianism is a disappointment to those of us who can never forgive the emperor Constantine, not just for making Christianity a state dogma, but for making humanity hostage to the boring village quarrels and Bronze Age fables that were drawn from what remains the world’s most benighted region.

¶ Robert Pinksy on Wide Awake: A Memoir of Insomnia, by Patricia Morrisroe. Aside from some complaints about the "yakking" tone of this book, Mr Pinsky seems willing to consider this book as having more than merely medical interest.

Sleep is overrated. That’s the weary joke repeated in my family when someone has failed to get the rest they’d hoped for: ironic bravado. Applied to a rigid paradigm — say, eight full hours every night — the defiance in that family slogan may make sense. Morrisroe interviews an anthropologist who says that in many traditional, non-Western cultures people sleep on light mats, not beds, sometimes in groups around a fire. Instead of what the anthropologist calls our “lie down and die” model, people drift in and out of slumber. Sometimes, they get up to sing or dance for a while. Intermittent sleep by individuals might provide the community with someone always ready to be on guard. Not that this has much application to a life based on getting to work or to the airport on time — except, maybe, to suggest a range of variations beyond the rigid, unproven notions useful to selling drugs, mattresses and sleep therapies, including the range of products Morrisroe experiments with in her quest.

¶ Ben Downing on Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation, by Daisy Hay. In this excellent review, Mr Downing's manages to present his somewhat different ideas about "poetry's greatest generation" without allowing them to interfere with his praise of Ms Hay's work.

Moving swiftly and purposefully, her story has no longueurs whatsoever, nor even a single lurching transition; it represents a triumph of artful selection and synthesis. If you want to read a single book of modest length on the lives (less so the work) of the later Romantics, this might very well be the one.

But if you do read “Young Romantics,” be prepared to come away outraged and depressed. The real calamities here aren’t so much the early deaths of Shelley and Byron as those of their dependents.

¶ Josh Emmons on The Lovers, a novel by Vendela Vida. After a few paragraphs too many spent trying to capture Ms Vida's protagonist, the review concludes with a cogent judgment.

Vida is a subtle writer whose voice is spare and authoritative, at times sounding like a less gothic Paul Bowles, and her third novel is further evidence that she can fashion characters as unpredictable as they are endearing. Although its ending is a little rushed (some situations feel arbitrarily abandoned), the book is a satisfying, often brilliant portrait of a woman searching for relief from things that will not, she discovers at last with something like acceptance, go away.

¶ Holly Morris on No Way Down: Life and Death on K2, by Graham Bowley.

The sweet and salty details we learn about the climbers make their demise — when it comes, by avalanche, slip or in a courageous rescue effort — all the more devastating. Three (one of whose baby boy was born only hours before in Katmandu) are gruesomely strung upside down tangled in ropes for 24 freezing hours. They escaped that torturous predicament only to be avalanched later on the descent, along with Pasang Bhote, who had ventured up to save them. Were the three ultimately freed from their icy entanglement by Gerard McDonnell, the Irish-drum lover from Limerick? We’ll never know, as a thundering chunk of glacier swept him to his death as well. And there is the harrowing story of the Dutch tough guy Wilco Van Rooijen, who, nearly blind and hallucinating, endured two nights exposed above 25,000 feet. He managed to call his wife, who contacted colleagues in the Netherlands, and they tracked his cellphone coordinates. Only then could Pemba Gyalje and Cas van de Gevel set out to rescue him. He lost most of his toes, but miraculously, not his life.

This review ought to have appeared, if at all, in the newspaper's sports pages.

¶ Brenda Wineapple on The More I Owe You, a novel by Michael Sledge. This disappointed review by an apparently vexed reader is not helpful.

Respectful of its characters, even tender toward them, his book nonetheless errs on the side of Bishop’s reticence. Though wonderfully evocative, the surfeit of description in “The More I Owe You” overwhelms its characters. The novel’s delicately wrought detail — the stones in the jungle, the cruelties of drunkenness, the beauty of love-making — leaves the reader wanting more than linguistic grace. Surrounded by images of childhood and children, both Bishop and Soares are perhaps too predictably borne back into the past and, hence, a mutual dependency. But through poetry, or because of it, Bishop acquires a tensile strength: “You endured, and you found fellowship in the endurance.” Thus her sojourn in Brazil allows her to convert memories of Nova Scotia into prose and verse: “One’s art should act as the prism through which all of life might be thoughtfully observed.”

Sledge’s Bishop is, on the whole, a convincing creature of his (and her) making, but the novelist is far less adroit when he turns from Bishop to other characters, whether it’s Lowell, making the occasional stiff cameo appearance or, more significantly, Soares herself.

¶ Lynn Harris on Lay the Favorite: A Memoir of Gambling, by Beth Raymer. This lively, sympathetic review strikes just the right humanizing note.

Technically, “Lay the Favorite” is not 100 percent memoir. It’s also a tragicomic biography of Raymer’s misfit-math-whiz boss-slash-father figures: first Dink, and then — after an incomplete attempt to leave gambling for, well, boxing — Bernard Rose of Ronkonkoma, N.Y., a manic rac­onteur with a Rabelaisian appetite for garlic knots and pedicures. Raymer is an ace at description: from American neo-gothic detail (her sister lived with “an abusive drug addict who had a Lee Press-On Nail for a front tooth”) to gambling patois (“Gimme the Bulls first half, over oh one minus the oh nine for two dimes”). The generous emphasis on her mentors underscores her even greater strength: compassion. She never condescends or indulges in ­reality-show caricature; she finds charm in the charmless, a point of light in the most lost of souls. (Sometimes to a fault: said souls include a violent, amoral co-worker who brags about his sexual exploits and searches the Web for penicillin to administer to his thieving, penicillin-allergic dad.)

¶ Liesl Schillinger on The Nobodies Album, by Carolyn Parkhurst. This sympathetic but somewhat odd review seems inordinately interested in the interior life of principal character, and conveys little of what appears to be, at least in part, a murder mystery. It reads like a passage ripped from a much larger essay. Here, at any rate, is the conclusion:

In “The Nobodies Album,” with a light but sure hand, Carolyn Parkhurst joins together four disparate literary forms: the family drama, the short story, the philosophical essay on language and, yes, the whodunit. Her weave is smooth, a vigorous hybrid of the old-fashioned, the modern and the postmodern. She reminds us what an act of will and imagination it has always taken for a writer to convert nobodies into somebodies in any genre, whether at the desk or in the world.

¶ Frans de Waal on The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness, by Oren Harman. Mr de Waal's enthusiastic review makes it clear that this is as much a history of scientists as it is of evolutionary theory.

Haldane was one of the architects of the now familiar “gene’s-eye view” of evolution. Looked at from the gene’s perspective, altruism seems a little less perplexing. When an organism sacrifices its life to save a relative, it helps perpetuate the genes they share. Haldane is said to have hit on this insight sitting in the pub, exclaiming, “I’ll jump into a river for two brothers and eight cousins,” thus foreshadowing the theory of kin selection proposed by William Hamilton, one of the brightest — and nicest — biologists since Darwin himself.

I add “nicest,” because Harman reveals some of his scientist characters to be less than altruistic. The descriptions of Maynard Smith, in particular, are not too flattering. Maynard Smith coined the term “kin selection” in an article that ran off with Hamilton’s idea without giving him much credit. In the meantime, Maynard Smith was one of the anonymous reviewers on Hamilton’s seminal 1964 paper elaborating on the idea, which was delayed for nine months while Hamilton made the requested changes, thus allowing Maynard Smith’s article to appear first — something Hamilton harbored a grudge about his whole life. Price almost suffered a similar fate but instead ended up as Maynard Smith’s co-author on the 1970 paper about ritualized combat (why don’t venomous snakes use their fangs against each other?) that made him famous.

¶ Lauren Winner on Faith, Interrupted: A Spiritual Journey, by Eric Lax. This review, guardedly favorable but ultimately unsympathetic, fails to explain why Mr Lax's spiritual journey merits coverage in the Book Review.

Yet Lax does not seem interested in cultivating a spiritual life shot through with doubt. He doesn’t want an ambivalent (or, one might say, mature) faith; rather, he writes, recalling the aftermath of his parents’ deaths, “what I wanted to have was what I’d always had, but the faith I had accepted without question and could articulate with catechismal rote could not be recaptured.” Of course, many of us come to a place where such faith is neither possible nor even desirable; I suspect my own small Episcopal church would be largely empty on Sundays if anyone who ever questioned the Creed, anyone whose faith life included seasons of aridity, stayed home.

Memoirs that succeed do so in part because the writer’s question is also, somehow, the reader’s. I am a reader who has — amid many doubts — clung with tenacity to faith, and I found that my questions hovered around this sympathetic and engrossing book, too. The explicit question is, How did one man drift away from faith? But for me the book provoked another question as well: What kind of faith might be possible even after the verities of childhood have passed away?

¶ Isaac Chotiner on Sugar: A Bittersweet History, by Elizabeth Abbott. Mr Chotiner's lack of sympathy for this book — "Still, too much of the material about sugar’s role in domestic life is dull" — makes for a tedious review.

And even if Abbott’s perspective is generally sound, her overarching theory of sugar’s importance is too grand. “Sugar slavery’s most insidious creation,” she writes, “was the racialism that justified enslaving Africans and forcing them into the cane fields.” Her source here is Eric Williams, the great Caribbean historian (and first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago), who himself was much influenced by the Marxist C. L. R. James’s groundbreaking work. Williams noted that “slavery was not born of racism; rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.” One can appreciate the economic role in the creation and perpetuation of an evil system, but it is much too glib to claim that sugar bears responsibility for racism. There was racism before slavery, and there was cruelty before the rise of the sugar economy.

Not so fast, Mr Chotiner; not so fast!

¶ Armond White on The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks, by Nicole LaPorte. Mr White's distaste for this book is so intrusive that it becomes hard to believe that Ms LaPorte found a publisher.

This narrative is meandering and diffuse, an overawed yet cynical response to Spielberg’s pre-eminence. In LaPorte’s telling, he is reduced to a blockbuster adept and tycoon. Had she used mere chess metaphors to clarify Hollywood gamesmanship, the DreamWorks initiative would seem no different from the precedent-setting efforts of D. W. Griffith, Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford in 1919, when they created United Artists. The author looks at Hollywood not as an enthusiast or a critic, but as someone who sees things strictly in terms of box-office success and industry accolades.

LaPorte’s gossipy perspective is inimical to true artists, yet feels submissive to boastful, flamboyant big shots. She emphasizes Spielberg’s business inadequacies and concentrates on corporate intrigues, thereby making his remarkable success and singular personality seem common. LaPorte says that “the studio’s creative promise rested with Spielberg,” but she plays up the studio’s noncreative mix-ups and combustible characters. Katzenberg is described as “the kind of always-on achievement junkie that Hollywood considered its own breed.” Geffen, who left DreamWorks in 2008, is called “a cunning ­macher who lived to maneuver all the players on the board according to whatever scenarios he was advancing.” Spielberg, however, remains confounding throughout.

¶ Joanna Hershon on Work Song, a novel by Ivan Doig. This generally favorable review feels somewhat eccentric, as if something important about the novel were being left out of the discussion. The likelihood that Ms Hershon would never have read this book had it not been assigned, perhaps?

Doig is a Montana native and an accomplished author of 13 works of fiction and nonfiction. Though sometimes his prose veers toward the clichéd (“I felt like an author drawing a scene to a successful close”), not one stitch unravels in this intricately threaded narrative. And while Doig lays out the plot somewhat predictably, he also makes room for reflective moments in which Morrie confronts fears both real and imagined; it’s through these reflections that we get fine glimpses of his darker persona. “With the single-­mindedness of the inebriated,” Morrie says, “I crept cautiously past, as if the yawning pit, darker than dark, might empty itself upward over me in an eruption of shadow.” In conjunction with Morrie’s interactions among the ­other characters, these more introspective passages help to build an appealing storytelling rhythm.

And rhythm, in the world of this novel, is anything but incidental. As the title suggests, music is as alive in these ­pages as it has been in any of Doig’s previous books, ennobling the miners in their struggle. When Morrie hears one “sweet damn tune” for the very first time, he makes an observation that could just as easily describe the novel itself: “It was distinctly old-fashioned, it was not particularly profound, but most of all, it was infectious.”

¶ Anderson Tepper on Rock Paper Tiger, a novel by Lisa Brackman. Writing that this book "isn't the most subtle or penetrating of mysteries," Mr Tepper makes it sound rather too potboilerish for Book Review coverage.

Throughout, Ellie tries to find out who’s after her and why. Which might lead the reader to ask an equally important question: Just what, if anything, distinguishes Brackmann’s suspense novel from the competition? First, there are the flashbacks to Ellie’s earnest attempts to deal with Abu Ghraib-style abuses at the American base in Iraq, interspersed with the headlong flight of the Chinese narrative. There are also some vivid if quickly drawn portraits of contemporary China, as if captured through the windows of a fast-moving train. Brackmann bears witness to the whirl of the country’s hyper-­development and its repercussions: the land seizures and razing of neighborhoods; the hurriedly-built high rises and tourist attractions; the metro stations with hordes of “migrants from the countryside clutching their cardboard suitcases and faded striped shopping bags, the giggling students sharing iPod earbuds and ringtones, the middle-class Beijingers in their Polo shirts and fake Prada.”

¶ Dana Jennings on Eating Pomegranates: A Memoir of Mothers, Daughters, and the BRCA Gene, by Sarah Gabriel; The Council of Dads: My Daughters, My Illness, and the Men Who Could Be Me, by Bruce Feiler; and If You Knew Suzy: A Mother, A Daughter, a Reporter's Notebook, by Katherine Rosman. One owuld think that this review belongs in the newspaper's science pages, but Mr Jennings writes as though none of the titles is particularly worthwhile.

The authors of these three new cancer memoirs, knowingly or not, employ narrative strategies that distract us from the potentially important stories they have to tell. They use literary flourishes and the tools of journalism as a kind of placebo to avoid delivering the strong medicine the reader craves. When it comes to cancer books, we need the thing itself, not the window dressing.

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