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Reviewing the Book Review

A Beast in the Jungle

23 December 2007

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

With one exception, all of this week's books fall under the "Okay" rubric. At the same time, none of them seems to be absolutely pressing. Only one of the fiction reviews is favorable. David Leavitt's coverage of the second volume of a biography of Henry James is symptomatic of the Book Review's penchant for exploiting such works — no matter how many the installments — as occasions for extended chats about their subjects.

Leah Price's Essay, "You Are What You Read," almost has something new to say about Why-Nobody-Reads-Anymore-(Do-They-?), but it doesn't quite get there. It is almost suggested that the gentle readers whom Nineteenth-Century moralists warned against the perils of too much reading (yes! it's true!) have transferred their attention to visual entertainments, interactive and otherwise. So: no great loss. Ms Price notes, in connection with Benjamin Franklin, Famous Printer, that "what he didn't print, with a handful exceptions, was anything we would recognize today as literature." Watch your sniffing, O Editors.


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

Windcatcher: New and Selected Poems, 1964-2006, by Breyten Breytenbach. David Kirby's review is so taken up with the South African poet's political sufferings that he hardly bothers to quote a line — and when he does, in one instance, it's rather impertinently to suggest a rewrite. Poetic evaluation is completely swamped by moral considerations.

But a government that imprisons and tortures those who would change it is capable of shattering a single identity into that of Dick, Antoine, Hervé, Jan Blom, Christian Jean-Marc Galaska, the Professor and Mr. Bird, to list the names the poet used in his years of hiding. “Windcatcher” is less Breyten Breytenbach’s tormented attempt to find himself than it is the discovery that, in the end, such a self no longer exists.

Foreigners, by Caryl Phillips. Adam Goodheart's review gets off on the wrong step by talking of a BBC list of "100 Greatest Britons" — and how everyone on it is white. This has nothing to do with Mr Phillips's interest in three black Britons (or British residents) who ended up badly. Mr Goodheart is flatly unsympathetic to the book.

Phillips is a thoughtful and innovative writer who has covered many of the same themes — especially the unwelcome persistence, if not repetitiveness, of history — in his previous books, often blurring the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction. “Foreigners,” however, fails to satisfy as either storytelling or history.

After a remark like that, it's hard to know what Mr Goodheart might have to add of interest.

Signed, Mata Hari, by Yannick Murphy. Calling Ms Murphy "an extraordinarily gifted fabulist," reviewer Liesl Schillinger lets herself get so caught up in the demythologization of the ill-fated Margarethe Zelle that one begins to wonder if the story is all hat and no cattle.

In “Signed, Mata Hari,” a fictionalized memoir steeped in essence of mimosa and wreathed in mists of intrigue, Yannick Murphy suggests that whatever Mata Hari got up to when the lights were low, it was the public’s lurid imagination that convicted her. “Everyone wants to believe you are a spy,” Mata Hari thinks to herself as she festers in the dank prison of Saint-Lazare. “Sit with your left leg crossed over your right in a restaurant, then uncross them, then cross them again,” she muses, “then voilà, you are a spy and the waiter has reported you to the authorities.”

Laura Warholic: Or, The Sexual Intellectual, by Alexander Theroux. David Bowman did not enjoy reading this book, claiming that he felt as if his "heart were encased in a hair shirt" by the end. His review rather unhelpfully tots up reasons not to bother with this novel, not least because of the author's apparent insensitivity to racial slurs (having compared the Central Park Jogger's rapists as "monkeys"):

Apparently, neither Theroux nor Eyestones considers the “M word” fraught with racial overtones. The misogyny and social/religious criticism in the novel are blindly relentless. I don’t want to linger longer than necessary on monkey business, but the treatment of women is another story. In a 1978 interview with The New York Times Magazine, Theroux called “Darconville’s Cat” a “great misogynist treatise,” and said he’d written it to take revenge on a young woman down in Virginia who dumped him at the altar. Eight years later, Theroux’s third novel, “An Adultery,” again told the tale of a man betrayed by a woman he considered his inferior. Here we are, 20 years later, and “Laura Warholic” pancake-pounds the same territory.

The Best American Comics 2007, edited by Chris Ware. Having nicely interposed a caution about the impact of Alison Bechdel's very good work (she makes it look easy), Hugo Lindgren observes,

It would be wrong to expect comics to provide the highly constructed, didactic narratives that are supplied in abundance by other art forms, like, say, television. But reading through this book, you see how autobiography becomes a trap, a limit on creativity. Readers have their own existential torpor to sort through; they don’t necessarily need someone else’s. Most of the stories here are so internally focused that they bear little or no marking of the time in which they were created. If there is, for example, a single reference to the war in Iraq, I missed it. There is one beautifully composed, poignant story about a woman and her child fleeing a terrifying regime, and another pretty interesting tale about a real-life flood, but they are works of historical fiction, drawing from the Holocaust and the Louisville flood of 1937. It would have been nice to see contemporary issues dealt with in this manner.

Vanilla Bright Like Eminem: Stories, by Michel Faber; and Gold, by Dan Rhodes. Because Eric Banks prefers Mr Faber's book, perhaps, it gets more space in the review, but as this comes in the form of storytelling the advantage is mixed. The titles were bundled for review, it seems, because they are both set in Britain and involve some scruffy characters. Despite the positive note struck at the very end of the following, I don't suppose that the passage has Mr Rhodes handing out cigars.

Against the currents of this slight tale, Rhodes creates an atmosphere so banal that its homey familiarity becomes its charm. Like the jokes one character memorizes to impress women, most of the dialogue and description consists of clichéd speech, stale humor and passed-along familiars. Yet there is something affecting and affectionate in the way Rhodes manipulates, ever so faintly, the “Groundhog Day”like feel of the story. “Gold” may lack the existential drama of Michel Faber’s work, but its empathy is just as well earned.

Henry James: The Mature Master, by Sheldon M Novick. David Leavitt's views on Henry James's sexuality are very interesting, and would probably be moreso outside the confines of a book review. I'm not sure that the second volume of Mr Novick's biography despites quite the attention that it is given here. Buried toward the end of long discussion of Did He Or Didn't He, however, we find the following apt judgment.

Still, this biography has its distinct virtues. Novick superbly parses James’s sometimes contradictory political views and his acquaintance with the politicians of the day. He is also very good on James’s approach-avoidance relationship to the world of the theater and on his highly ambivalent attitude toward his own Americanness. And when Novick discusses the late novels — which he clearly loves — the genius of James sometimes inhabits and energizes his prose. Describing the notoriously difficult syntax of “The Ambassadors,” he writes: “Shadows are not black but infused with color: double negatives take the place of bare assertions — each quality that is denied adds a dimension to one that is affirmed.” This is an eloquent and extremely helpful observation, as well as one worth keeping in mind when trying to bring the elusive James into focus. It’s also a comment that left me eager to reread James’s novels.

(Click here for the most sinister image of Henry James! He looks like an emanation from one of his more ghoulish ghost stories.)

Psychogeography: Disentangling the Modern Conundrum of Psyche and Place, by Will Self. Matt Weiland's review is so good that, simply by describing Mr Weiland's reaction, it punches a hole through the miasma of the titling and captures the virtues of Mr Self's actual book.

As with Self’s novels, the ideas behind his long walks can be more engaging than the walks themselves. This may be because on the page Self is a sprinter, not a distance man; certainly he is at his most perceptive and convincing when writing short and focused little pieces. Which is to say: Self is a natural and excellent columnist.

So skip the introduction and proceed directly to the short pieces, all of which originally appeared as the Psychogeography column in the London newspaper The Independent. They cover a lot of ground: Liverpool, Marrakesh, Chicago, Siena, with forays into Australia, India, Turkey, Brazil and Thailand. “There’s more to Singapore than meets the eye,” a cabby tells him. But Self’s subject is precisely what meets the eye, the way things look — which is no small thing in an age in which everything everywhere looks increasingly the same.



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

There Is A God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, by Antony Flew with Roy Abraham Varghese. It is only the ambiguity of Anthony Gottlieb's review that saves this strange book from the Noes. "Far from strengthening case for the existence of God," writes Mr Gottlieb, "it rather weakens the case for the existence of Antony Flew." What is one to make of this:

Instead of trying to construct a coherent chain of reasoning in Flew’s own words, the authors present a case that often consists of an assemblage of reassuring sound bites excerpted from the writings of scientists, popularizers of science and philosophers. They show little sign of engaging with the ideas they sketchily report. And they don’t seem much bothered whether readers understand what they are trying to say: one crucial passage refers to a “C-inductive argument” for God, but doesn’t explain what a C-inductive argument is. The pattern of the reasoning is always the same: a phenomenon — be it life, consciousness or the order of nature — is said to be mysterious, and then it is boldly asserted that the only possible explanation for it is “an infinitely intelligent Mind.” It is never said how or why the existence of such a mind constitutes an explanation.

What, indeed?

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