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Reviewing the Book Review

The Boy Next Door

 5 August 2007


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

Far and away the best piece in this week's Review is Stephen Metcalf's Essay, "The Road to Rightville." An outfit called Threshold Editions has published Why I Turned Right: Leading Baby Boom Conservatives Chronicle Their Political Journeys; Mr Metcalf neglects to identify the editor of this collection, and he claims that it contains only two thoughtful "chronicles" (by David Brooks and Peter Berkowitz). He says that a better subtitle would have been "The Experience That Closed My Mind Forever." And he thinks that he has figured out why these generally privileged and certainly well-educated thinkers can speak so powerfully to the mass of vulgarians who share their views: they were Not Cool In School.

To be genuinely humiliated is to know how to tap into the humiliations of others. Rejecting tout court a culture of cool that prevails against him, a certain sort of person turns to campus politics. Because these conservatives were, by and large, low-status males (or the feminism-disdaining women who loved them) in high school and college, they know instinctively how to connect with the culturally dispossessed.


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

The Master Bedroom and Sunstroke: And Other Stories, by Tessa Hadley. Liesl Schillinger's extremely favorable review of this third novel and new collection of stories is not quite as arousing as the accompanying suite of sixteen photographs, but its enthusiasm is infectious. Calling the collection of short stories "miraculous," Ms Schillinger "complains," about The Master Bedroom,

Hadley’s observations of the ebb and flow of female desire and frustration are reminiscent of Virginia Woolf, but she taps sensual undercurrents where Woolf wouldn’t have dipped her toe. Hadley is so good at miniature — at close focus on a small scene that could be missed if you didn’t look twice — that it’s almost frustrating to read her longer works. A fleeting paragraph, dropped in to advance the plot, could easily have been transformed into one of her stately, enveloping short stories.

The September of Shiraz, by Dalia Sofer. Claire Messud's enthusiastic review of this novel, set in Iran and New York, is a disappointment: there is far too much storytelling and far too little literary judgment. One expects more of this great writer. But she conveys enough of the book's apparent excellence to persuade me that the book deserves coverage. "In this fickle literary world, it's impossible to predict whether Sofer's novel will become a classic, but it certainly stands a chance.

Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class and The Economic Naturalist: In Search of Explanations for Everyday Enigmas, by Robert H Frank. Daniel Gross is duly impressed by "Luxury Bob" Frank's exploration of the "consumption arms race."

Taken together, these books, which richly deserve a broad audience, show how an academic economist with wide interests, a gift for anecdote and an open mind can be a highly effective teacher and citizen. Falling Behind is a compact example of a professional economist brilliantly deploying the tools of social science to illuminate the human condition. The Economic Naturalist leaves the reader impressed with the insights of amateurs.

15 Stars: Eisenhower, MacArthur, Marshall: Three Generals Who Saved the American Century, by Stanley Weintraub; and Partners in Command: George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace, by Mark Perry. Michael Beschloss makes no effort to differentiate between these 'competent studies," but he makes it clear that both are genuine "profiles in courage." In our climate of get-along-to-go-along, strong and sensible military men such as Marshall and Eisenhower are bracing and even inspiring. Similarly, Truman's dismissal of MacArthur is an example of the kind of situation in which it is appropriate for the Commander in Chief to call the shots.

Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000-2005, by J M Coetzee. Walter Kirn is a tad too unashamed about admitting that he hasn't read W G Sebald, one of the authors that Mr Coetzee writes about in this collection of reviews, and his conclusion is almost cynical:

Inner Workings is Coetzee’s master class, and he honors us, too, by letting us sit in on it, despite our spotty preparation and the hasty ways we may use it. Knowing something about W. G. Sebald feels a lot better than knowing nothing — particularly when the little knowledge one does have comes from a source as reliable as Coetzee and inspires one to make time to learn much more.

Much as I admire Mr Kirn, I believe that this book ought to have been reviewed by someone more familiar with the "modernist European writers" whom Mr Coetzee covers.


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

Tom Bedlam, by George Hagen. Terrence Rafferty really likes this historical novel, but he makes it sound forced and stilted.

What Hagen is doing, I think, is mounting a kind of protest against the insanity of war, imposing the benign control of a novelist on the chaos and horror of armed conflict, and opposing his own personal sort of madness — a delirium of narrative orderliness — to the general madness that seized Europe in the second decade of the last century. The book’s temperate style and its apparently old-fashioned structure are deceptive: this is an angry novel, and although it’s set in the past it seems angriest about things that are happening right now. (Not such a strange convergence, that.) Hagen stages a few brief combat scenes — Tom’s son has enlisted and has been sent to France — but mostly he expresses his contempt for the war by trying to plot it out of existence. As the unignorable coincidences pile up, enhanced by some fairly shameless foreshadowing — the date Nov. 11, 1918, seems to figure in everybody’s plans — you begin to recognize what a huge effort this intricate narrative represents, and finally to be moved by the writer’s obsessiveness, his crazed tidiness. In a world at war, it takes a hell of a lot of work to make things come out right. Even in a novel.

I suppose that nothing short of reading the novel will make sense of "plotting the war out of existence."

The Bestiary, by Nicholas Carpenter. Ligaya Mishan isn't given a lot of space to write about this book, and once she tells us that the hero is a Bronx boy called Xeno Atlas, the tires just spin in the sand.

The Life Room, by Jill Bialosky. Amy Finnerty quite clearly doesn't want to dismiss this novel as "too precious," but her review does it anyway. "Yet her run-ins with men," Ms Finnerty writes of the novel's heroine, "involve an excess of Deep Thinking, with more wear and tear on book bindings that on bodices.

Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman's Skiff, by Rosemary Mahoney. Lisa Fugard's enthusiasm for this book is not catching, because it is so taken with the extreme oddness of a Western woman's paddling down the Nile in the heat of the Egyptian sun and the glare of a hostile patriarchy. "The author has a gift for revealing apparently unremarkable moments in such a way as to make them utterly engrossing." It's hard to believe that this book could cover any "unremarkable moments."

To My Dearest Friends, by Patricia Volk. Ann Hodgman's brief review of this novel is favorable but unconvincing. "There are few surprises; indeed, for the alert reader there may not be any."

The Verneys: A True Story of Love, War, and Madness in Seventeenth-Century England, by Adrian Tinniswood. Adam Goodheart writes with apparent favor of this story about a family one of whose members' dates span from 1613 to 1696 - until he makes an odious comparison to Samuel Pepys.

Charisma is a strange and volatile chemical compound, but it has a very long shelf life. Pepys had it and still does; the Verneys didn't and don't. Whether fair or unfair, it's the Pepyses of this world, rare though they may be, who make the history we remember.

An unhelpful review.

F5: Devastation, Survival and the Most Violent Tornado Outbreak of the Twentieth Century, by Mark Levine. Nothing in Troy Patterson's non-committal review rescues it from the indictment of its dreadful subtitle.

Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only: The Life of America's First Black Filmmaker, by Patrick McGilligan. Philip Lopate's review leaves no doubt that Oscar Micheaux is a figure for film historians to study, not the reading public. "Micheaux was simply not a very good filmmaker, on any technical level."

Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came Into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming, by Paul Hawken. Robert Sullivan seems to be dazed by this book, which, in case you didn't know, is about contemporary environmental awareness. He can't point to anything in the book that isn't already well-known by its likeliest readers.

Warm Springs: Traces of a Childhood at FDR's Polio Haven, by Susan Richards Shreve. According to Abbott Combes review, this memoir somewhat awkwardly straddles the history of an institution that was made famous by Franklin Roosevelt and the story of one young woman's polio, and is both too much and not enough.


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

Bill Clinton: Mastering the Presidency, by Nigel Hamilton. According to Michael Crowley, "Hamilton, an Englishman, views American politics with an anthropological remove that leads to sweeping overstatements." Of the book, he writes that it "offers no significant new revelations."

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