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Reviewing the Book Review

A Soldier Once

8 July 2007

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review.

There have been more Yeses than Maybes lately, but all good things, it seems, must come to an end. I daresay that most of this week's Maybes (with the exception of David Markham's "novel"), and perhaps even the lone fictional No, would be Yeses if they had received more sympathetic, insightful reviews. Christopher Hitchens's piece on Jeremy Paxman's book about royalty is nothing but sputter.

Günter Grass's Peeling the Onion survives an extraordinarily self-regarding slab of prose by John Irving. It is nothing less than a condensed "Memoir of Good Times With My Main Man Günter." John Irving knows Mr Grass, and appears to know him well. You probably don't. You may, therefore, find the review rather irritating.

In his Essay, "Jazz Messenger," Japanese novelist tells how he became a writer by listening to jazz for seven years.

Practically everything I know about writing, then, I learned from music. It may sound paradoxical to say so, but if I had not been so obsessed with music, I might not have become a novelist. Even now, almost 30 years later, I continue to learn a good deal about writing from good music. My style is as deeply influenced by Charlie Parker's repeated free-wheeling riffs, say, as by F Scott Fitzgerald's elegantly flowing prose. And I still take the quality of continual self-renewal in Miles Davis's music as a literary model.


The following titles appear to deserve coverage in the Book Review. The reviews may still be inadequate or useless.

New England White, by Stephen L Carter. Christopher Benfey's favorable review is somewhat confusing: is this book, by the eminent professor of law at Yale a best-selling crime novel? Or is it serious literature? It seems to be both. Mr Benfey suggests that the novel has real heft in the race-relations department, but I can't deny that I've put this book - the lone novel this week - among the Yeses because of the author's reputation for thoughtfulness, more or less in spite of Mr Benfey's mixed signals.

Peeling the Onion, by Günter Grass (translated by Michael Henry Helm. John Irving's impassioned defense of Günter Grass, who revealed only recently that he served the Nazi regime in various capacities - but without ever firing a weapon - as a teenager, is persuasive but faintly embarrassing. Eventually, the defense gives way to a favorable review of the memoir in which Mr Grass makes his revelations, which are startling only for having been withheld for so long. The defense/review's extraordinary length along speaks volumes.

Statecraft: An how to Restore America's Standing in the World, by Dennis Ross. Jacob Heilbrunn calls this "an important and illuminating book," and backs up his praise with examples drawn from Mr Ross's text that show how very effective diplomacy has been in the recent past. As for Mr Ross's suggestions for the future, Mr Heilbrunn is skeptical:

The most basic problem is that Ross simply assumes that America can restore its standing abroad by performing a U-turn. He never addresses what is perhaps the largest issue: whether America's influence has already passed its meridian. It's certainly a question worth pondering. Yet since his book seems written, in part, as a trial balloon for aspiring Democratic presidential candidates, it's one that's probably too somber for him to confront, at least for now.

Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World, 1940-1941, by Ian Kershaw. Max Boot quibbles with some of Mr Kershaw's choices (which he enumerates), but he concedes that "Kershaw does an excellent job of synthesizing a great deal of scholarship and thereby helping to further our understanding of this epic struggles - as well as of the role of contingency in the making of history.

Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936, by David Clay Large. The Olympics were revived in 1896 with the somewhat Utopian idea of bringing the nations together in peace, but, as Geoffrey Wheatcroft quotes George Orwell, "sport is an unfailing cause of ill-will." Surely the 1936 Games in Berlin were the most heavily politicized. Mr Wheatcroft calls this book "informative and stimulating."


It is difficult to tell whether these books are actually as indifferent or pointless as the reviews suggest.

The Last Novel, by David Markham. Catherine Texier is thrilled with this novel, because it's experimental. "As the witty playful surface and the spellbinding incantations accumulate, the faint contours of a story reveal that Novelist is not only worried about getting old but almost certainly sick." Now, an unfavorable review would not have been nearly so informative.

The Mother Garden: Stories, by Robin Romm. Gregory Cowles admires this collection, praising its "ordinary incantation of words and stories to help us navigate the darkness and finally - for all that this impressive collection protests otherwise - to hold the end at bay."

North River, by Pete Hamill. Buzz Bissinger's unfavorable review (he calls this novel a "blip" in Mr Hamill's career) is confusing. I'm still trying to decode this sentence:

But the puzzle of North River is that it reads like the kind of first novel you would expect from a journalist, in which observation and eye for detail and reportage have been replaced by sentimentality and dead-on-arrival descriptions.

Maybe that's what you'd expect, but it's not what I'd expect. Amidst a great deal of storytelling, that is the core of Mr Bissinger's judgment of the novel. I wish it meant something to me.

More Sex Is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics, by Steven E Landsburg. David Leonhardt, an economics columnist at the Times, is dismissive of this apparently entertaining book, but his review, although unfavorable, is not uninformative.

This problem plagues many of the new economic imperialists: like the overly chaste singles who are supposedly contributing to the AIDS epidemic, they don't get out enough. They are asking good questions about epidemiology and psychology, but they are not spending much time with epidemiologists and psychologists, let alone with the people who are the subjects of their academic research. As a result, they arrive at conclusions that can be clever but lack wisdom..."

The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering, by Michael J Sandel. William Saletan's mixed review is too busy arguing fine points with Mr Sandel to give a clear idea of just what's inside this book. The review ends flippantly: "Sandel got it half right, which ain't bad. Nobody's perfect." But some reviewers are too breezy.

Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours, by Noga Arikha. Sherwin B Nuland's review is mixed, praising the historical part of s Arkha's book ("a thoroughly documented account of the ways in which a wrong-headed theory dominated medical thinking for more than 2,000 years") but dismissing her suggestion that the doctrine of the humors persists in modern medicine ("the analogies have become tenuous and the conclusions overstretched").

Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America, by Andrew Ferguson. Joshua Wolf Shenk is probably not best suited to review this book, which is apparently about the "visibilia" of Lincoln's legacy - shrines, re-enactors, monuments and whatnot - because Mr Shenk believes that Lincoln's important contribution to American life is, as it were, scriptural - his body of writings and speeches.

Ferguson seems to want an unambiguous Lincoln. But that search is bound to go unfulfilled. Consider his last great speech - the second Inaugural - in which he told embittered partisans in a bloody war that God might be punishing both sides for their wrongs. No wonder the guy wasn't really popular until decades after his death. And no wonder people struggle to understand him still. That's good. The struggle to understand him is the best way to encounter Lincoln for real.

On Royalty: A Very Polite Inquiry Into Some Strangely Related Families, by Jeremy Paxman. Guess what. Christopher Hitchens does not think much of the institution of monarchy, especially in Britain. He calls this book "fascinating and amusing" and then forgets all about it as he romps like a Blue Meanie among the antics of crowned heads in recent history. Pointing out that Mr Paxman is "Britain's anchor of all anchors" - as in newscasts - is obliquely informative.

Alexis de Toqueville: A Life, by Hugh Brogan; and Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy's Guide, by Joseph Epstein. Christopher Caldwell has only nice things to say about Mr Epstein's book, calling it "brisk and admirably accessible" (that is, slight) - and he's done with it in one paragraph. The rest of this review is a confusing quarrel with Mr Brogan. Mr Caldwell is not a big fan of the French aristocrat, and he praises Mr Brogan for judging "many of Tocqueville's misgivings about democracy as specious and reactionary." He wonders, therefore, why Mr Brogan never misses a chance to hail Tocqueville as a great thinking.


These books, if they deserve coverage at all, ought to grace other sections of The New York Times.

Confessions of a Wall Street Shoeshine Boy, by Doug Stumpf. I don't think that John Leland meant to give this novel a bad review, but by his account it is a failure, with its plot's old-hat interests in gossip and insider trading, and incapable of making more of its best material, which concerns a skeptical Brazilian shoeshine boy.

The WASP's clubbiness naturally begets insider trading, a crime so passé even the novel's law enforcement agents can't get worked up. As Gil notes, in a long gastric tangent, the traders are literally breathing their own fumes. They're still masters of the universe, but all the fun and passion are elsewhere. Their laurels are empty sheen. As a secretary tells Greg: "I love Glossy [Magazine]... The ads are really outstanding."

Choking on Brando: A Memoir, by Antonia Quirke. Alexandra Jacobs takes it for granted that I know who Antonia Quirke is. Apparently, she's a "celebrity journalist," and apparently English. Ms Jacobs praises the author's "critical powers" but deplores her "gooey rhapsodizing."

Energetically, she changes the format of these homages. There's a protracted personal ad written to Tom Cruise, a Looney Tunes fairy tale about Nick Nolte and a virtuoso, if tasteless, parody, "The Love Song of Michael J Fox" ... But the overall effect is cringe-inducing.

This book belongs in Sunday Styles, if anywhere.

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