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Reviewing the Book Review

The Boy Who Lived

12 August July 2007

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

With only eleven titles receiving ordinary coverage, the Book Review signals the other priorities of the middle of August. I'm not complaining.

Paul Greenberg's Essay, "A Fish Tale," is a borderline piece about the impact of Hemingway's writings on the subject of blue-water fishing upon now-endangered populations of marlin and tuna. I cannot imagine that very many people have been moved to head out to sea with fishing rods by Hemingway's writing alone; he did not, after all, invent the sport. It seems somewhat ungracious to blame him for the "78,000" blue marlin that don't exist today thanks to his voraciousness.  


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

The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family's Exodus From Old Cairo to the New World, by Lucette Lagnado. According to Alana Newhouse's review of this "crushing, brilliant book," Ms Lagnado's memoir does not tell the tale that a reader might expect. The author's Jewish family, forced out of Egypt in 1962, settled in Brooklyn, but her father was broken by the experience.

But an easy union between Leon and America was not to be. Heartbroken and infirm, he failed to impress the social workers and bureaucrats in charge of helping new immigrants, leading to a string of humiliations and failures. The “boulevardier of Cairo” never regained his footing, and the already thin threads holding his family together frayed irrevocably. Lagnado recounts the irony of their Passover Seder in Brooklyn: “No matter how loudly we sang, our holiday had become not a celebration of the exodus from Egypt but the inverse — a longing to return to the place we were supposedly glad to have left.”

Amerigo: The Man Who Gave His Name to America, by Felipe Fernŕndez-Armesto. Nathaniel Philbrick praises the book that Mr Armesto has built upon the skimpy scaffolding of what we know of Amerigo Vespucci, the Florentine merchant and sailor whose first name was first used to label the New World in 1507.

But “Amerigo: The Man Who Gave His Name to America” is much more than an occasional throwaway. Using the bare bones of what is known about Vespucci to expatiate on subjects as diverse as the brutal world of Renaissance Italy, the importance of trade winds to world history and the poetics of travel writing, Fernández-Armesto has written a provocative primer on how navigators like Columbus and Vespucci set loose the cultural storm that eventually created the world we live in today.


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

The Headmaster Ritual, by Taylor Antrim. Darin Strauss's review wants to be favorable but is largely unsympathetic: Mr Strauss doesn't "get" this book. Instead, he makes supercilious complaints.

I feel bad writing this, because it seems as if I’m giving Antrim demerits for ambition. Not long ago, the creaky laureate V. S. Naipaul said in these pages that fiction is of “no account” when measured against the larger global political situation. In the face of such pronouncements, who can blame a young novelist for trying to give his readers fiction supercharged by current events — for trying to offer the news and emotional weather?

Afterwards, by Rachel Seiffert. Kathryn Harrison likes this book, and the very fact that she is reviewing it is informative. Unfortunately, Ms Harrison has a good old time storytelling, and conveys almost nothing of the flavor of the novel.

Flower Children, by Maxine Swann. Lydia Millet's review, crammed into a single column, makes this novel about a hippie family in the Seventies out to be a gauzy beach book, "light and appealing, conjuring the entropy of summer's end and of a dewy rural utopia."

A Hatred for Tulips, by Richard Lourie. Elena Lappin likes his "intriguingly ambiguous novel" about the man who turned in Ann Frank and her family (a surmise on the author's part), but wastes its time on storytelling and rather portentous quotation.

Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul, by Karen Abbott. This book about whorehouses in Chicago at the turn of the last century may be special, but Ada Calhoun's review suggests a colorful but ultimately banal look at America's battle of vice and virtue.

The elegant Everleigh Club was especially remarkable given its neighbors. Down the street, the House of All Nations offered $5 and $2 entrances (in a typical example of Levee duplicity, “the same girls worked both sides”). At houses like the California, operated by Blubber Bob Gray, girls slipped morphine into clients’ drinks, the better to rob them. The brothel run by the Everleighs’ inept nemesis, a woman named Vic Shaw, offered “strip-whip” matches in which girls, naked or just wearing boots and corsets, whipped each other bloody. Slumming parties, and the occasional millionaire playboy, whooped their way through the district.

The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Lanugage, by Christine Kenneally. Emily Eakin's review is mostly taken up with rehashing the abstruse and somewhat calcified "argument" between Noam Chomsky and evolutionary biologists about the nature of speech. Of the book at hand, she writes,

Alas, just as the science gets interesting, Kenneally inexplicably loses her way. She notes that more than a thousand studies on language evolution have been published since 1990, and she seems determined to cite as many as possible. Much of what she describes is fascinating: “gesture researchers” who train hidden cameras on apes in order to capture their repertoires of “muzzle wipes” and hand signals; neuroscientists who recently isolated the first gene known to play a role in communication; and a British linguist who studies the evolution of language by creating computer models in which a population of virtual humans must learn to communicate. But as a whole her book feels disjointed and repetitious, weighed down by superfluous details and lacking a narrative line that could braid the various strands together.

The which is not particularly helpful.

Seizing Destiny: How America Grew From Sea to Shining Sea, by Richard Kluger. Richard Brookhiser's nastily unsympathetic review doesn't make its own case: the passages that are quoted are not as ill-written as the reviewer asserts.

I cannot recommend this book, however. Kluger’s writing is some of the worst I have ever had to read. Let facts be submitted to a candid world. Kluger on the French Revolution: “French grievances were vented in alternating waves of liberation and repression that swept the overwrought masses toward the cauldron of anarchy.” Kluger on James K. Polk: “Perhaps, if one favors a Freudian frame of reference, Polk’s almost reckless aggressiveness in office ... was symptomatic of a form of sublimated libido, stemming from the cruel effects of a chronic bladder ailment that surgeons tried to ease by removing urinary stones but in the process damaged his genital equipment and likely left him sterile and possibly impotent from late adolescence on” (and I shortened this). Then there’s Kluger and the Homeric epithet, as in “Dixie-dominator Ulysses S. Grant” (Grant as a stock car, or a hooker). If I had not agreed to review this book, I would have stopped after five pages. After 600, I felt as if I were inside a bass drum banged on by a clown.


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

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J K Rowling. It is difficult to understand what literary judgment inspired the editors of the Review to give this book adult treatment. It is a book for children. From time to time, the Review covers books for children in a special, inner section. I believe that the space could be put to better use, but in any case the Harry Potter books do not belong outside of it, no matter how many grown-ups read and love them - and no matter how many children they teach to love literature. I am not sure that, if it were published today, Jane Eyre would belong in the Book Review.

Quite aside from all of that, Christopher Hitchens gives the book a vacant scratch. Reviewing it was clearly an assignment for him.

Love Without: Stories, by Jerry Stahl. From Tom Shone's review, the final paragraph:

That is not Stahl’s way. His fantasists dream up some sticky scenario for themselves and then — bingo! — it gets enacted. (Some of these stories appeared first in Playboy.) In “The Age of Love” a horny teenager finds himself seated next to a recently widowed woman on a plane and, before you know it, he is up to his elbows in her underskirts. “Howzabout I teach you how to love right now so you’ll be ready for it?” she offers, helpfully. Ah, the sound of a woman rocked by grief. Would that she had actually taken the kid aside and told him a thing or two about love, which is something of a four-letter word in this collection, as its title hints. For all their rococo oddity, Stahl’s stories lie curiously flat on the page: they shock, but do not surprise.

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