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Reviewing the Book Review

The Colossus

11 November 2007


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

There are so many bad reviews this week that I thought I'd single them out. By "bad," of course, I mean "inadequate," "nasty," "useless," "territorial" and/or "inappropriate." (Jed Perlman's otherwise unobjectionable review of the latest doorstop in John Richardson's Picasso saga, for example, is inappropriately lengthy.) The difference between "Bad" and "No," in case you're scratching your head, is that the subjects of "Bad" reviews deserve coverage in the Book Review, while those in the Noes don't.

Matt Bai's Essay, "See How They Ran," is an intriguing reconsideration of Richard Ben Cramer's book about the 1988 presidential campaign, What It Takes. I'd forgotten all about Gary Hart; hadn't you?


It is impossible to tell from the following bad reviews whether the books to which they refer are in fact awful as awful as they suggest. 

The Quiet Girl, by Peter Hoeg (translated by Nadia Christensen). It is very disappointing to have to kick off this list with a review by, of all people Liesl Schillinger. But Ms Schillinger is so insistently negative about this novel, and about all of Mr Hoeg's work apart from his big hit, Smilla's Sense of Snow, that one questions the sanity of publishers on both sides of the Atlantic. I have never known this writer to produce so thoroughly unsympathetic a review.

A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932, by John Richardson. Jed Perl's essay-cum-review of the latest installment of Mr Richardson's four-volume epic biography is not bad so much as out of place. Presumably, the publication of the final volume will occasion another lengthy art piece the refreshes everyone's memory of the salient details of the towering painter's life. It is difficult to imagine what kind of review would have been more useful in the place of Mr Perl's, but a much shorter one would certainly have been more appropriate.

Cleopatra's Nose: 39 Varieties of Desire, by Judith Thurman. Kathryn Harrison was probably not the most congenial reviewer for this collection of essays, most of them published in The New Yorker — difficult as that is to imagine in light of Ms Harrison's nose for bleeding wounds. In the place of Ms Thurman's incisive criticism we have pabulum such as this:

The gifts Thurman brings to her portrait of a perplexing and easily misread artist like Beecroft are the openness of her mind and her ability to synthesize intelligently from unrelated sources.

The harder you look, the less that sentence says.

Thomas Paine's Rights of Man: A Biography, by Christopher Hitchens. Richard Brookhiser's review is too short, too tendentious, and insufficiently interested in what Mr Hitchens has to say. We are left with a shrug: both "Paine and Burke are sharp, eloquent, and, sadly, unfashionable.

Paradiso, by Dante Alighieri (translated by Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander). There ought to be a rule prohibiting poets from reviewing translations of poetry in general and of Dante in particular. James Longenbach will leave any reader who is looking for something to read dusty, parched, and lost in his thicket of comparisons to other recent translations. This is the sort of book that ought to be appraised from time to time as an edition of a classic, along with all the other available editions. It is certainly no occasion for being told that "T S Eliot said that poetry is a form of punctuation."

Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King, by Foster Hirsch. Richard Schickel doesn't think much of Otto Preminger and his oeuvre and loses no opportunity to say so in his review. Anyone capable of the following judgment ought to have declined to review this book:

Hirsch struggles honorably to impart lasting importance to Preminger’s work, sometimes marring his often shrewd critical appraisals by claiming more for the movies than they can sustain — and never quite managing to justify the cruelty Preminger so often poured into their making.

There is no room in the Book Review for this degree of toxicity.


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

Shortcomings, by Adrian Tomine. Jim Windolf's enthusiastic review is concisely persuasive.

... Tomine takes voyeuristic delight in capturing every gruesome facial expression of a couple in midargument. The author is an expert at hooking the reader without tricks or obvious effort, and you’ll be tempted to buzz through “Shortcomings” in an hour. But you’ll want to slow down to take in the detailed black-and-white panels that casually document the way we live now.

Maynard & Jennica, by Rudolph Delson. Thomas Beller likes this book a lot, and he's generous about quoting from it. Almost anybody ought to be able to come away from Mr Beller's final paragraph with a reasonably strong feeling one way or the other about it. (My own was positive.) 

By the end of the book I was wallowing in a state of pleasure but also suspicion — suspicious because much of the novel is just so damn cute. But looking through its pages again I found one tiny comic gem after another, one pitch-perfect rendering of the modern moment after another. Delson brings a Nicholson Baker-like degree of precision to his descriptions; the book is always alive. I felt the odd elation that occurs when you read fiction that not only confirms your sense of the modern world but enlarges it, even if in a slightly precious way, and makes you laugh. That was my experience of “Maynard & Jennica.” But that’s just me.

The Third Sex, by Willy (translated by Lawrence R Schulz). Stacey d'Erasmo tells us a little something about this very strange 1927 book, which wasn't, after all, written by "Willy" (Colette's husband) but rather commissioned by him. But when she starts writing about the book itself, it begins to sound like much more than the curiosity it might have seemed to be.

Whoever wrote it, this slender volume offers a fascinating glimpse not so much of exotic homosexual practices but of something much more delicate and transitory: the moment just before homosexuality became an identity, before sexual acts had been organized into the solid categories we recognize and traffic in today. A collision of conflicting impulses and wildly incongruous discourses, “The Third Sex” does not know what it is — “gay Baedeker,” cautionary tale, scientific treatise, pornographic handbook, literary essay, opportunity to slander the Italians and the Germans — and that is what makes it so delightful. It’s not about the love that dared not speak its name; it’s about the love that didn’t quite know what its name was yet and was trying on many different ones, all at the same time. Reading “The Third Sex” feels a bit like flying in a veering helicopter over a rain forest that is disappearing before one’s eyes. There are life forms here — not only people, but ideas — that are now extinct. “The Third Sex” maps a lost world not only of sex, but of the myriad things we modern folk once thought sex could be, and mean.

How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, by Pierre Bayard (translated by Jeffrey Mehlman). Don't get your hopes up. Mr Bayard is hardly an advocate for slacking - and he himself has clearly read everything. The trouble with his thesis, according to Jay McInerney's favorably light-handed and amusing review, is this:

As a teacher of literature, he seems to believe that his ultimate goal is to encourage creativity. “All education,” he writes, “should strive to help those receiving it to gain enough freedom in relation to works of art to themselves become writers and artists.”

It’s a charming but ultimately terrifying prospect — a world full of writers and artists. In Bayard’s nonreading utopia the printing press would never have been invented, let alone penicillin or the MacBook.

I seriously doubt that pretending to have read this book will boost your creativity. On the other hand, reading it may remind you why you love reading.


Some of these books are not very good. Some of them don't belong in a literary review. It's hard to tell from the reviews.

The Elephanta Suite, by Paul Theroux. Having called Mr Theroux "the thinking person's James Michener," because he treats "societies as his true protagonists," Walter Kirn goes on, in a review that consists of rather too much storytelling, to write,

Theroux’s new book of three novellas, “The Elephanta Suite,” is his attempt — brought off with mixed results but distinguished by worthy intentions and sturdy tradecraft — to display and explain contemporary India in all its swarming, seductive, anachronistic, disorienting dynamism.

Mr Kirn has many interesting things to say about Mr Theroux insights, but he leaves unsettled the question whether we have a novel here or a guidebook.

The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America, by Ronald Brownstein. Alan Brinkley has mixed feelings about this book He is very unenthusiastic about Mr Brownstein's regard for the Daily Kos as in any way exemplary of the Democratic Party, and he suggests that the book misses a larger picture.

There is considerable truth in this story. But the transformation of American politics that he describes was the product of more extensive forces than he allows and has been, at least so far, less profound than he claims. Brownstein correctly cites the Democrats’ embrace of the civil rights movement as a catalyst for partisan change — moving the white South solidly into the Republican Party and shifting it farther to the right, while pushing the Democrats farther to the left. But he offers few other explanations for “the great sorting out” beyond the preferences and behavior of party leaders. A more persuasive explanation would have to include other large social changes...

The Liberals' Moment: The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party, by Bruce Miroff. Timothy Noah seems to be too interested in Mr Miroff's subject to appraise the book; rather, he quibbles with Mr Miroff's interpretation at every turn, suggesting the very different book that he, the reviewer, might have written. Mr Noah comes dangerously close to writing a Bad Review.

Gay Artists in Modern American Culture: An Imagined Conspiracy, by Michael S Sherry. Thomas Mallon turns in a book report rather than a judgment: that's what happens when reviewers get caught up in storytelling. While his review makes for very interesting reading, it does not provide a firm sense of Mr Sherry's work. Wrapping things up with a quarrel about Richard Nixon was perhaps not the most astute expository strategy.

The Blueprint: How the New England Patriots Beat the System to Create the Last Great NFL Superpower, by Christopher Price. Jay Jennings reviews this book together with one of this week's Noes (by Roger Director). He suggests that The Blueprint describes the nexus of business and sports in a way that makes for good social history.

Price’s acknowledged model is Michael Lewis’s “Moneyball,” the best seller about how the small-market Oakland A’s won consistently with a slim payroll and no-name players. If Price can’t match Lewis’s narrative skill or ability to turn a phrase, he nevertheless delivers a brisk narrative of the snakebit early years of the Patriots and a thorough examination of the personnel deals and philosophy that have lately brought in the players who won Super Bowls for them.

American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic, by Joseph J Ellis. After pointing out that Mr Ellis's thesis appears to be that "America was constructed to foster arguments, not to settle them," Jon Meacham makes a few observations about the book's structure that give one pause.

Instead of loosely linked portraits in the manner of his “Founding Brothers,” Ellis offers loosely linked moments and issues, from Valley Forge to Indian policy to the Louisiana Purchase. “American Creation” is not a seamless narrative; it is allusive rather than immersive. In a way, the fragmentary nature of the book mirrors one of Ellis’s key points. The past itself is fragmentary, and the fundamental task for any generation at any given moment is to bring order to intrinsically chaotic forces and events. History is messy because life is messy, and politics is provisional because life is provisional. Ellis shares the founders’ tragic sensibility, finding redemption in seeking the good rather than in achieving the perfect. The wisdom of the American founding lies in the recognition that the former is possible, and the latter is not.


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

I Dream in Blue: Life, Death, and the New York Giants, by Roger Director. Mr Director may have interesting things to say about football, but, according to Jay Jennings's review, he can't say them very well.

Throughout, Director peppers the narrative with sitcom-worthy jokes (and I mean that in the worst possible sense). When he tells the linebacker LaVar Arrington during training camp, “Have fun,” Arrington “just looks at me like the hairs in my nostrils have come to life and begun doing the Charleston.” And he reports that women in the locker room were “checking out Tiki’s tiki.” Perhaps those kill in the writers’ room, but in print they fall as flat as a blocker pancaked by Lawrence Taylor.

The Humble Little Condom: A History, by Aine Collier. Neil Genzlinger's review is every bit as funny as you would hope it might be, given the topic. Unfortunately, some of his best remarks go after the book itself. "Collier seems to realize that this core story is repetitive and tries to liven up the book by making it graphically chirpy."

Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism, by James Piereson. The fact that Jacob Heilbrunn has been kept to half a page speaks columns. Half a page is just enough space for Mr Heilbrunn to classify this wingnut treatise in the "Oh, Please" department.

Piereson confidently concludes that Hofstadter might have “found his way into the neoconservative camp had he not died prematurely.” No, he wouldn’t have. Instead, Hofstadter, who described the 1960s as the age of “rubbish,” would most likely have used the same word about this book.

A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life, by J Craig Venter. Every now and then, reviewers utter doozies that simply obliterate whatever else they've said. Here is Peter Dizikes:

Venter took a circuitous path to science. An underachieving student, he was shipped to Vietnam as a Navy medic. In a crisp chapter, Venter recounts the war as an unrelenting nightmare of enemy attacks and broken bodies. Out of desperation, Venter once embarked on an ocean swim off China Beach intending to kill himself, he says, before changing his mind. (In one of many sidebars on his personal genome, Venter traces his aptitude for long-distance swimming to the lack of a common mutation causing muscle fatigue.)

Relieved to return home — “life was my gift,” he writes — Venter raced through college, earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and by the 1980s landed at the National Institutes of Health, studying adrenaline. All the while, he pursued various seafaring adventures; here he details boat races, shark encounters and a storm-tossed voyage through the Bermuda Triangle. Score another Venter breakthrough: this is the first science memoir that should have been serialized in Men’s Journal.

The last sentence is such a doozie, especially given what one knows from other sources of the author's very, very powerful ego. One warrants that Mr Venter's life is much too interesting to be left to his devices.

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