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Reviewing the Book Review

Dangerous Obsession

14 October 2007

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

Richard Pevear's Essay, "Tolstoy's Transparent Sounds," is about the efforts that he and his wife, Larissa Volokhonsky, have made to translate War and Peace as faithfully as possible while still making sense. The piece appears to be intended as an introduction to an online discussion of the novel that the Times will sponsor this month (beginning the other day, on 15 October).


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

The Bad Girl, by Mario Vargas Llosa (translated by Edith Grossman). Reviewer Kathryn Harrison hails this novel as a postmodern updating of Madame Bovary, but she makes the temptress at the heart of the story sound a lot more like Lola Montès, and the novel itself reminiscent of Of Human Bondage. Whatever the comparisons, however, she's talking about a powerful tale.

The heroism of both women is that they refuse to be diminished by modest, reasonable hopes or by respectable society. Creatures of appetite — for sex, money, excitement, life — bad girls serve their hunger first, and last. They are terrible and they are enviable, because they won’t settle for less than everything they want. Because, in the end, they accept not only their essential nature, but also the consequences of their choice to fulfill rather than deny it.

In the Pines, by Alice Notley. Joel Brouwer's glowing review of this new book of verse is almost infectious. There's an acceptable modicum of quotation to back up the Mr Brouwer's judgment.

Notley’s recognizable subjects — among them personal losses, the malfeasance of politicians, gender inequality, the failings of language — aren’t particularly new or surprising, for her or anyone else. The radical freshness of her poems stems not from what they talk about, but how they talk, in a stream-of-consciousness style that both describes and dramatizes the movement of the poet’s restless mind, leaping associatively from one idea or sound to the next without any irritable reaching after reason or plot. Each turn Notley takes seems to make its own kind of sense, though after a few sentences you’re not sure where you are, how you got there or how you might get back.

The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantaasy in Post-9/11 America, by Susan Faludi. Reviewer John Leonard remarks that "there are other ways to look at 9/11," but he's still impressed with Ms Faludi's take.

But feminism is Faludi’s compass and her lens, her furnace and her fuel. Feminism — fierce, supple, focused, filigreed and chivalrous — has steered her inquiries and sensitized her apprehensions of a celebrity/media culture and national security state that honors men more as warriors, actors, cowboys, athletes and killers than for skilled labor, company loyalty, civic duty, steadfast fatherhood, homesteading, caretaking and community-building, and that tells women to lie down and shut up. Feminism, like a trampoline, has made possible this splendid provocation of a book, levitating to keep company with Hunter Thompson’s fear and loathing, Leslie Fielder’s love and death and Edmund Wilson’s patriotic gore.

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the bible as Literally as Possible, by A J Jacobs. Mr Jacobs's parents are such good friends of my ophthalmologist and his wife that I was immediately reminded by Hanna Rosin's review to make an appointment for an eye exam. My reasons for placing this book among this week's Yeses were no less literary. And no more literary, either. Hey, a little corruption every now and then keeps the pillows fluffed. Ms Rosin writes,

After a year of praying every day he becomes by no stretch a believer, but someone who at least accepts “such a thing as sacredness.” Sometimes he can even envision a God who might watch over him and care what happens. As a teenager he convinced himself that even when he was alone in his house, the girls he had a crush on could see him, so he listened to David Bowie and brushed his teeth in a “rakishly nonchalant manner” to prove he was worthy of their attention. This is how he experiences God now.

God as Mean Girl. It’s not exactly biblical, but it’s not nothing.

For all I know, Jacobs is already back to his old ways He never gives the impression that, God forbid, his soul is at stake, or anything else of much importance. Certainly his isn’t the kind of transformation any real fundamentalist would accept. But for many of us who would never even try, walking with Jacobs is the closest we’ll come to knowing what it feels like to be born again.


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

The Gum Thief, by Douglas Coupland. Marcel Theroux's review, heavy on the storytelling, is not particularly sympathetic, and its one or two compliments are swiftly withdrawn with remarks such as this:

While “The Gum Thief” aims for a polyphonic effect, its characters often sound disconcertingly similar. The prose and arch banter of “Glove Pond” are distinct, but outside it the characters’ voices and preoccupations tend to blur. “I woke up every morning with my stomach clenching. Why? Because I felt like a useless member of society, and I could feel the ghosts of the people who built the Brady Bunch suburb surrounding me.” That’s Bethany’s mother, DeeDee, writing, but her tone of hip, cosmic weariness — brand-conscious Samuel Beckett — could belong to virtually anyone in these pages.

The Street of a Thousand Blossoms, by Gail Tsukiyama. This novel of "epic proportions" but "reassuringly small-scale style" is too short for Louisa Thomas to produce a cogent judgment, especially given her penchant for rather idle storytelling. She says nothing that justifies her review's presence in the Book Review. As that is really the only thing that the review of a relatively unknown novelist's work must offer, Ms Thomas's review is a useless failure. 

Strange As This Weather Has Been, by Ann Pancake. Jack Pendarvis calls his a "fine, ambitious first novel," but his description makes it sound like a tract, complete with acknowledgments that "direct the reader to Web sites 'to find out more about moutaintop-removal mining'." Worse, he presents the novelist's verbal tics almost as a mouthful of poorly-tended teeth.

Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography, by David Michaelis. As a cartoon strip long on pathos and short on wit, Peanuts never appealed to me, and I have always taken its immense popularity as yet another indicator of my lack of a truly American soul. The Book Review and former Book Review editor Charles McGrath seem to take the Peanuts phenomenon very seriously, but they don't persuade me to do the same.

In another way, though, Schulz’s is a classic American story: the lonely, misunderstood genius who clings to his dream, finds riches and fame, and discovers that they don’t make him happy after all. He was like Gatsby or Citizen Kane.

This comparison to two famous fictional characters sounds very interesting at first but ends up seeming wrong-headed; Schulz was, after all, a real person who never quite outgrew the resentments of his youth. (And isn't The Great Gatsby far more concerned, in the end, with the moral horror of the Buchanans - with Daisy as a siren of Wagnerian enormity who sears Jay with an incurable desire - than it is with the title character himself?).

The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World, by Alan Greenspan. Michael Kinsley's review of Mr Greenspan's memoir is one of the most profoundly ambiguous pieces that I have encountered in the Book Review. It seems to hold the former Fed head in awe for the very awfulness of his monetarist policies - which were, it's true, awfully successful. Mr Kinsley writes as though moral perspective were juvenile and naive; his judgment is untethered by any sense of right and wrong. I don't know what to make of the final paragraph.

Half this book — the half that is getting no attention — isn’t memoir: it’s what Greenspan calls “detective stories”: just Alan riding the data wherever it takes him, having the time of his life, trying to solve all the world’s economic puzzles, like why it took so long for computers to affect productivity, why incomes are becoming more unequal and what to do about it, the energy crisis, immigration, entitlements and so on. Not all of this is wildly original, but there are great nuggets and aperçus. And it is all written in English and fully comprehensible.

Mr Jefferson's Women, by Jan Kukla. Almsot everything that Stacy Schiff has to say about this "study" of Jefferson's amorous entanglements makes Mr Kukla's book sound like the kind of scurrilous trash that John Adams's flacks used to turn out by the ream. There will always be a contingent of Americans who doubt that Jefferson is quite the Founder than Washington, Franklin, and the other eminences were; his all-too-human failings seem to erode the plinth of his Augustan bust.

What the archives do reveal, despite some exasperating lacunae, is a pronounced ability on Jefferson’s part to make himself wretched; a vexed battle with self-control; and a vast capacity for self-deception, or what we might today call compartmentalization. Insecure, self-conscious, high-minded, he had no great gift for intimacy and no time for the unpalatable. He placed a premium on female modesty. He was more at ease on paper than in person, except perhaps with his daughters, with whom we can only hope the reverse was true. As the last few years have made abundantly clear, Thomas Jefferson was rather less sterling than his prose. But sometimes — even for the man who first identified life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as unalienable rights — a broken heart is just a broken heart.

There is only one word for this: piffle.

The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman, by Nancy Marie Brown. This book, Elizabeth Royte's review, is a big s-t-r-e-t-c-h. The Viking Woman in question is one Gudrid, a character in two Icelandic sagas who seems to have been based on an actual woman. Nonetheless, nothing is known of her apart from the sagas; Ms Brown's attempt to line up that "information" with archeological findings is almost schoolgirlishly romantic. Indeed, Ms Royte betrays the true appeal of this book:

Brown pursued Gudrid out of admiration for a woman bold and wise. I eagerly pursued this book, which is as much about Brown's adventures as Gudrid's, for the very same reasons.

Lords of the Land: The War Over Israel's Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007, by Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar. Adam LeBor complains that this book is too one-sided.

It is also curious, especially considering the authors’ leftist perspective, that the Palestinians barely feature in their book, other than as passive victims of rapacious Zionist settlers and expansionist Israeli governments. The Palestinians have been greatly wronged, but they have also had choices available to them and too often chose badly.

The Bulldozer and the Big Tent: Blind Republicans, Lame Democrats, and the Recovery of American Ideals, by Todd Gitlin. This book almost certainly has to be better than Michael Crowley's review makes it out to be, even though he rather likes it. H presents it as a tired rehash of now-familiar accounts of Republican discipline and Democratic loftitude.

Now, with liberalism resurgent, Gitlin asks his fellow liberals not to blow it again. But while his history offers a cautionary tale, the way forward is not as clear.

The gentle reader will forgiven for failing to stifle a mighty yawn.

Cavalier: The Tale of Chivalry, Passion, and Great Houses, by Lucy Worsley. Judith Flanders remains fundamentally dissatisfied with this synecdoche of a book, in which descriptions of the great houses of the Seventeenth Century and the adventures of William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne "fail to cohere." The attempt to exploit Bolsover Castle as a lens through which to consider the English Civil War is an idea that only an agent or a publisher could love. Two books for the price of one. In Ms Flanders's view, however, only the architectural chapters work.


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

Beans: A History, by Ken Albala. John T Edge's review raises only one question: would this review be more at home in the Times's Dining Out/Dining In or Sunday Styles sections. It certainly has no place in the Book Review. Consider:

The matter is not only gas but class. Because beans are cheap to raise and offer a protein payoff that is comparable to meat’s, poor people have traditionally eaten them. The plants that bear beans don’t appeal to the aspirational bourgeoisie. Beans are, in the developed world, markers of a hand-to-mouth lifestyle best left behind. “In any culture where a proportion of people can obtain protein from animal sources,” Albala observes, “beans will be reviled as food fit only for peasants.”

Guns, Germs, and Steel this ain't.

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