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Reviewing the Book Review

The Ten Best Books of 2007

9 December 2007

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

Best Books The editors of the Book Review publish their list of the ten best books of 2007, five fiction and five non-. It's not a bad list, and yet I can't say that I feel very badly about having read only one entry, Joshua Ferris's wonderful Then We Came To The End. Three of the other novels, Man Gone Down, Out Stealing Horses, and Tree of Smoke, were all given favorable reviews that strongly suggested that these were books that I wouldn't care for. As for The Savage Detectives, I was still digesting a collection of Robert Bolaño's short fiction, and the novel, by all accounts, struck me as willful.

As for nonfiction, I groaned when I saw The Rest Is Noise — I'll read that when it comes out in paper. Even though Alex Ross writes brilliantly about the performance of classical music, there is something undeniably buzzy about the attention that his book has received, and I strongly suspect that fewer than fifteen percent of those in possession are reading it.

The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh, likewise, seems to have benefited from a certain breeze of political correctness. See Dr Johnson on walking dogs.

Imperial Life in the Emerald City and The Nine are both fine books, but they belong rather on a list of Best Books About 2007. The editors ought to have greater concern for what will and what won't date.

The presence of Little Heathens on the list comes as such a surprise that I'll have to look into it.

New Regime (Provisional) Ever since I began dividing the books that are covered each week in the Book Review into Yeses, Maybes, and Noes — reflecting my judgment as to whether a given book deserves coverage in what ought to be an important literary journal — there has been a structural instability among the Maybes. There have always been two very distinct groups of Maybes: first, books that I wouldn't include in the Book Review even though I know that other persons of sound mind very well might. and, second, books whose reviews are so poor — and their authors so unknown — that it is really impossible to determine their quality. If there were two groups of Maybes, then the Maybes ought to be split into two groups, no?

I shall spare you the pilgrim's process of my further thinking on the subject and proceed directly to the outcome. There are now four groups of books. They are:

Yes. These books are better than good; they're indispensable. Everyone ought to read them. (In other words, Super Yes.)

Okay. How condescending is that? (The first class of old Maybes swamps the old Yeses.)

Maybe. Books given unclear reviews. (The second class of Maybes stays put.)

No. The Book Review is not the place for talking about these books.

This week, there are only Okays (15) and Maybes (2). Let's see how the new classification works.

Essay. In "Soviet Deadpan," George Saunders argues the case for Daniil Kharms, an absurdist Soviet writer who died during the siege of Leningrad. A medicinal aura floats from the page: Kharms is good for your addiction to narration.


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

Lost Paradise, by Cees Nooteboom. Tom Barbash's too-short review, having noted that the author is "a cerebral, experimental writer renowned in his native Netherlands (indeed throughout Europe)," goes on to demonstrate the perils of trying to storytell a non-linear narrative.

Tokyo Year Zero, by Daniel Peace. Christopher Sorrentino seems to like this mystery novel, set in Japan at the very end of World War II, primarily because of its literary antecedents — which certainly are literary.

There is constant oscillation between waking and dreaming, past and present, memory and fantasy. The resulting effect owes little to Raymond Chandler — Peace’s masters would seem to be Dostoyevsky; postmodern collagists like William S. Burroughs and Kathy Acker; and practitioners of the French nouveau roman like Alain Robbe-Grillet, who borrowed from the conventions of American detective fiction to draw the reader into the ratiocinative process. As in Robbe-Grillet, the mystery lies not within the crime but within the detective: while Minami moves steadily closer to the unbearable revelations at the book’s denouement, the narrative mirrors his disintegration, splintering into the various Tourette’s-like repetitions, the slightly out-of-phase allusions that have dotted it.

The Rowing Lesson, by Anne Landsman. Michael Gorra indulges in a fair amount of storytelling this novel about a South African who ends up in New York, but he steps back for a moment to assess its literary quality.

Most readers will spend the book’s first chapter trying to locate themselves in relation to its “you” — the “you” that implies a largely absent “I.” Although later chapters will bring Betsy’s own circumstances more fully to the foreground, Landsman’s shifting pronouns are what gives this book its febrile and uncanny life, in which the barriers between self and other appear at moments to dissolve. Betsy’s persistent invocation of “you” allows her to comment and question and judge, to conduct a conversation in which her father’s physical silence matters not at all, so vocal does he seem in her mind. In that conversation, Landsman makes us see Harold Klein with a clarity she could not have achieved in a more conventional first- or third-person account.

Counterculture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism, by Andrew G Kirk. In their largely favorable review, Jane and Michael Stern give implicit notice that they may tackle Stewart Brand's landmark book themselves.

Each of these exceptional characters is someone you’d want to learn more about, but the panoramic scale of Kirk’s book reveals little beyond their roles in this grand cultural revolution. Even Brand, the nexus of the narrative, is seen from a frustratingly respectful distance. Kirk goes to great lengths to explain the idiosyncratic nature of his worldview, which will surprise readers expecting a left-leaning environmentalist cliché. An unruly activist instrumental in staging the Trips Festival, which was, in effect, LSD’s coming-out party, he was also an anti-Communist who expressed no regret about training troops to go to Vietnam (when he was in the Army in the early ’60s). He welcomed Herman Kahn, the futurist, nuclear optimist and model for Dr. Strangelove, to the pages of his CoEvolution Quarterly. Kirk describes Brand as one of those “prescient few” who “stay two steps ahead of their peers, creating and riding the crest of important trends.” And while the book vividly documents his role in “the creation of the American counterculture, the birth of the personal computer, the rise of rock and roll, the back-to-the-land and commune movement, the environmental movement, and a critical reorientation of Western politics,” it doesn’t say what he eats for breakfast. Where does he live, what does he wear, which vehicle does he drive? Does he have a love life, and if so, with whom? What makes him tick?

It was not Andrew G. Kirk’s intention to answer these questions, and he fully succeeds in what he set out to do: creating a whole catalog of the Whole Earth phenomenon. It is a measure of his success that we yearn to know more.

Dirty Diplomacy: The Rough-and-Tumble Adventures of a Scotch-Drinking, Skirt-Chasing, Dictator-Busting and Thoroughly Unrepentant Ambassador Stuck on the Frontline of the War Against Terror, by Craig Murray. I'm not sure that reviewer Tara McKelvey "gets" this book well enough to write about it. The word "mess" is usually the tip-off of a fundamentally unfavorable reviewer.

Unfortunately, the book is a mess. It elicits two reactions: First, it’s great that someone is telling the truth about Uzbekistan. Second, it’s too bad the someone is Murray, who seems to give the same weight to girlfriend troubles as to arbitrary arrest and detention. Still, he manages to present startling facts about Uzbekistan: More than 99 percent of its trials end in conviction. At least 7,000 people are in prison for religious and political beliefs. This grim reality could be altered, he says, if Westerners worked for systemic reform.

Head and Heart: American Christianities, by Garry Wills. Patrick Allitt's generally favorable but largely unsympathetic review seems to envision and prefer a different book — one that Mr Wills, who has already written a great deal about Catholicism, may very well write, when he gets round to it.

Particularly disappointing is that the Catholic Church, about which Wills has written brilliantly at many points in his career, gets short shrift here. An early passage promises a discussion of Dorothy Day and Cesar Chavez as exemplars of both head and heart. When it comes to the point, however, Chavez gets just a page and Day is forgotten completely. Catholicism seems altogether not to fit very well into Wills’s principal categories. These shortcomings make the end of the book less rewarding than the ingenious and thought-provoking 400 pages that precede it.

Bernard Malamud: A Writer's Life, by Philip Davis. Lee Siegel is so enthusiastic about the reputation of Bernard Malamud — which he feels must be rehabilitated from the scoffings of successors such as Philip Roth — that he never quite passes judgment on Mr Davis's book.

Davis is out to remove the slur of moral uptightness and narrow virtue from Malamud’s reputation. Gratifyingly, he wants to restore him to the pantheon of great American writers in which Malamud, in our flash-in-the-pan culture, once belonged.

Does Mr Davis achieve his objective? If so, Mr Siegel doesn't say how well.

The Voyage That Never Ends: Fictions, Poems, Fragments, Letters, by Malcolm Lowry (edited by Michael Hofmann). Stephen Metcalf's summary of Lowry's career and the big novel that it produced, Under the Volcano, passes only glancingly over the contents of this new collection — which he does, however, neatly assess:

A fuller portrait of Lowry is now available, thanks to “The Voyage That Never Ends,” a collection of stories, poems, letters and pure oddment assembled by the poet Michael Hofmann. “Under the Volcano” is the only fully realized work of fiction Lowry wrote; “Ultramarine” is no “Typee,” an immature classic, and turning over this collection reveals no hidden “Bartleby.” But a pile of false starts and fragments somehow gets at Lowry, perhaps better even than a chef-d’oeuvre. He was an existentialist he-man: he lived out a set of beliefs that we inherit mostly as clichés. He thought that life was an open-ended journey, absurd, shot through with death, and that to master it through literary accomplishment was a kind of lie.

Mirage: Napoleon's Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt, by Nina Burleigh. Katherine Bouton's excellent review not only engages with the author's interesting approach but suggests that this book may be particularly timely in view of the current dispute about repatriation.

The book’s legacy — and the legacy of Napoleon’s Egyptian adventure — was enormous, prompting the half-century of Egyptomania that swept Europe. The resulting decades of plunder brought Cleopatra’s Needle to New York, the Luxor obelisk to the Place de la Concorde, and room after room of mummies to the Metropolitan Museum, the British Museum and the Louvre. Two hundred years later, a new struggle over national cultural heritage may in the end restore at least some of this magnificence to its country of origin.

Taste: The Story of Britain Through Its Cooking, by Kate Colquhoun. Ian Jack's review is mostly storytelling, and when he addresses Ms Colquhoun directly he is a tad unclear.

The story is well known, and Kate Colquhoun tells it well in “Taste.” But because Colquhoun is a writer of lively detail rather than argument — you might say her book is too busy stuffing its face, one course after another, to pause for conversation — the question of why Britain developed such a poor cuisine is never fully addressed.

Nevertheless, according to the rest of the review, the question would appear to be adequately addressed.

Touch and Go: A Memoir, by Studs Terkel with Sydney Lewis. Dan Barry makes an ideal reviewer for this latest title from the ninety-five year-old Chicagoan, who he says "writes like the jazz enthusiast he is."

What emerges is an engrossing stream-of-consciousness meditation on the 20th century by a man who, it seems, never forgave himself for being born three weeks after the sinking of the Titanic, and so he vowed in the crib to bear witness — to everything. Imagine his life’s checklist: the Roaring Twenties in Chicago, the Depression, World War II: done, done, done. The golden age of radio? Yep. The advent of television? Had his own show. The blacklist? Was among the so-honored. It goes on.

A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, by Gregory Clark. Benjamin M Friedman has a few quibbles with Mr Clark's thesis, but his review is generally quite favorable.

Right or wrong, or perhaps somewhere in between, Clark’s is about as stimulating an account of world economic history as one is likely to find. Let’s hope that the human traits to which he attributes economic progress are acquired, not genetic, and that the countries that grow in population over the next 50 years turn out to be good at imparting them. Alternatively, we can simply hope he’s wrong.

The Boys From Dolores: Fidel Castro's Schoolmates From Revolution to Exile, by Patrick Symmes. Guy Martin's favorable review makes the case for this "superb" history.

As brilliantly hued as their appearances are, the Castros — especially Fidel and his brutal, bullwhip-wielding Spanish father, Ángel — are actually éminences grises in this book, catalysts of the narrative. In tracking the cadets at the Colegio de Dolores, Symmes, the author of “Chasing Che,” brings us to the point at which human fates cross, and modern Cuba, as we know it in all its misery, is born.

This means that both the reporter and the reader must confront the vagaries of human memory. But Symmes has luxuriously researched this book over a period of years, commuting to Havana and Miami to track down the people with the goods. He’s also a rarity among journalists, humorous and wise enough to report the historiographical obstacles he faced. As a result, he brings us a ground truth, apolitical in the best sense, and a great depth of vision. We can see Batista’s corruption and the necessity of his demise. We can see the inevitability of Fidel.

The Killing of Major Denis Mahon: A Mystery of Old Ireland, by Peter Duffy. Calling this book about a dark chapter in the history of the Great Hunger "intricate and absorbing," Cormac Ó Gráda writes,

Thanks to Ireland’s Famine Museum, which has been located in the former Mahon home in Strokestown since 1994, the outlines of the story are well known. Duffy adds little new information, but he weaves the rich raw material available into a fair-minded and intelligent narrative. By the end there seems little doubt that those convicted had killed Mahon. Some of the “mystery” of Duffy’s subtitle remains, however. Several conspirators escaped the noose, and by mid-1849 their ringleader was reported to be “in the neighborhood of New York.”

Bamboo: Essays and Criticism, by William Boyd. David Haglund is not terribly taken with this collection of reviews, but, as he says, this may be "a matter of temperament." As to his own temperament, Mr Haglund writes,

Temperament aside, however, Boyd’s approach also reflects his most basic ideas about fiction and art. He sees a surprisingly self-regulating logic in these endeavors. “The novel,” he says, “has taken on board the lessons of Proust and Joyce, has filleted what little it likes from Virginia Woolf and decided to spit out much of what, say, B. S. Johnson and Alain Robbe-Grillet served up.” It has, in other words, “grown up.” For Boyd, literature itself is a fairly sensible enterprise. And criticism is less a personal engagement with literary expression — whether it be surprising, revolting or inspiring — than an objective appraisal of verbal craftsmanship.

This may be a “grown up” attitude. But those of us who find the best literature unsettling, riotous — even, sometimes, immature — will have to turn elsewhere for a guide.


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

The Swing Voter of Staten Island, by Arthur Nersesian. Maud Casey's review is a tissue of storytelling underpinned by disapproval; she is particularly unhappy with the ending, where "vast and puzzling convolutions remain. This short, unsympathetic review does nothing to connect the novel with readers who might like it.

Now Voyagers: The Night Sea Journey: Some Divisions of the Saga of Mawrdew Czgowchwz, Oltrano. Authenticated by the Persons Therein. Book One, by James McCourt. Michael Shae's mixed review of this insidery, camp-operatic extravaganza stresses its nostalgia for "a vanished gay world remembered as far more variegated — and educated — than today's," immediately cautioning, "but here again abandon hope of following everything."

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