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Reviewing the Book Review

Family Blessings

26 August 2007

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

Summer is almost over, and, with it, I fear, the agreeably thin Book Reviews that have made my August easy. I've been dismayed to see that the editors have revived the Chronicles, or roundups of five or more books, reviewed by the same writer on one page, with a picture taken from a sixth. These summaries are much too short to be worth appraisal by the likes of me, but they're also much too long.

Gerald Howard's Essay, "Mailer Gets Hammered," is about the making of Mr Mailer's experimental film, Maidstone, in 1968. It does not make me want to run out and rent the video.


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

Bearing the Body, by Ehud Havazalet. Francine Prose hails this first novel about a prickly father-son encounter in search for a brother's murdereer, with a review that fully supports her claims. A paragraph from the novel that describes the teasing languor of a summer night is quoted entire.

It can hurt to be shown reality, to be told the truth. But Bearing the Body reminds you that there's nothing else like it.

The Bloodstone Papers, by Glen Duncan. Liesl Schillinger is enthusiastic about this book by a writer whose novels she describes as "painfully lucid, bereft books about modern men obsessed with sex and death." This one, she suggests may be richer, for opening up a vista into the preceding generation and suggesting that "Every man is in charge of his own story."

Circling My Mother, by Mary Gordon. Darcey Steinke gives this searching memoir, which focuses on Ms Gordon's Irish-Italian Catholicism, a thoughtfully favorable review, linking it to mid-Twentieth-Century books by Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day.

These days, we seem to have two kinds of religious books. Those like The Purpose-Driven Life, the pastor Rich Warren's self-help book, insipidly set out conservative precepts, encouraging us to join churches, obey their doctrines and center our spiritual lives around them, no matter how limiting those lives might be in that context alone. At the other end of the spectrum are gleeful repudiations of religion like Christopher Hitchens's atheist manifestor, God Is Not Great. But Hitchens's definition of religion is childlike and reductive; he completely discounts the longing many of us feel for divinity. What's inspiring about Circling My Mother is Gordon's deeply personal portrayal of her mother. Anna Gagliano is not someone who feels she must have large ideas about what's wrong with Catholicism.

India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy, by Ramachandra Guha. Isaac Chotiner takes time out from his cascades of storytelling to praise Mr Guha's "expert" grasp of the political history of modern India. "Guha paints a convincing portrait of Nehru's good political sense (if never really giving us much insight into his personality."

Julia Child: A Penguin Life, by Laura Shapiro; and Backstage With Julia: My Years With Julia Child, by Nancy Verde Barr. Julia Child's claim to importance has shifted in recent years, but it's a stronger claim than ever. She used to be famous because she produced both an almost liturgical treatise on cooking French food and an endless entertaining television show on the same subject. Nowadays, however, we know that Child had a a grip on how to live that can inspire people with little or no interest in haute cuisine. The Penguin Life, necessarily brief (185 pages) is praised by Dorothy Kalens for its "enormous grace and food savvy." Ms Barr's book is "packed with endearing anecdotes."


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

Spook Country, by William Gibson. Dave Itzkoff seems wrong-footed by the attempt to distinguish this novel from the futuristic fare that has been Mr Gibson's specialty in the past. There is a great deal of storytelling and not much quotation. The review winds up with this uncertain judgment:

When the three narrative strands of “Spook Country” at last converge, almost 300 pages into the novel and just in the nick of time, they culminate in a climactic prank meant to deliver an accountability moment to some shadowy off-screen figures who have so far avoided blame for the world’s ills. And you may wonder, as I did, briefly, if this slick, “Seinfeld”-ian resolution was really worth all the events that preceded it.

The Camel Bookmobile, by Masha Hamilton. Claire Dederer's too-short review wants to muster more enthusiasm than it can.

Hamilton can be infuriatingly pedantic. While she has a journalist's instinct for storytelling she lacks a novelist's feel for the open-ended, the evocative, the absurd. All too often, The Camel Bookmobile seems to see Africa and literacy as problems to be solved rather than subjects to be explored.

Bad Monkeys, by Matt Ruff. I'm tempted to stop with the first sentence of Jonathan Ames's review, which is unchallenged by anything that follows: "Bad Monkeys is something of a science-fiction Catcher in the Rye."

The Song Before It Is Sung, by Justin Cartwright. Jascha Hoffman's brief review suggests that this novel, about the earlier life of one of the conspirators in the 1944 conspiracy against Hitler's life, who as a young man studied with an Isaiah Berlin-like Oxford don, is worthwhile, but his storytelling gets in the way, and the fact that a sixth novel gets such short shrift suggests editorial uncertainty.

Oh the Hell of It All: A Memoir, by Pat Montandon. Reviewer Alex Kuczynski can't help comparing this book unfavorably to Ms Montandon's son's memoir, Oh the Glory of It All.

While Montandon is sympathetic - and up-by-her-bootstraps gal who was cruelly dumped for a snob who terribly hurt her child - it becomes hard to muster much love for her by the end of the book. For all her talk of peace and forgiveness, of mending herself and her relationship with her son, she is still so angry the pages fairly smoke

The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, by Drew Weston. Ordinarily, I'd find David Brooks's dismissal of this pro-Democratic Party playbook tendentious, but I happen to agree with it. We don't really need a book that

builds on the work of Antonio Damasion, without applying Damasio's conception of how emotion emerges from and contributes to reason.

In this more sophisticated view, emotions are produced by learning. As we go through life, we learn what cause leads to what effect. When, later on, we face similar situations, the emotions highlight possible outcomes, drawing us forward some actions and steering us away from others.

In other words, emotions partner with rationality. It's not necessary to dumb things down to appeal to emotions.

Well said, and much more worth considering than Mr Weston's revelations about political neurobiology.

Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, by Dana Thomas. This is a book for the Business Section. Or perhaps for Sunday Styles. It's thesis - well if condescendingly argued, according to reviewer Caroline Weber - is that operators such as Bernard Arnault have gutted their expensive products of all true craftsmanship. That's very interesting, but utterly unliterary.

The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, by Amity Shlaes. David Leonhardt claims that this book's "argument is somewhat more subtle than the usual critique from the right," but everything else that he says about the book suggests that it is little more than a speculative, free-market screed.


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

The King of Methlehem, by Mark Lindquist; and Leaving Dirty Jersey: A Crystal Meth Memoir, by James Salant. Reviewer Nicholas Kulish is not keen on either of these books. The prosecutor who wrote the first, a novel, is advised that he "needs to inhabit his junkies more..." The second is a readable memoir about the bad life, but Mr Kulish detects no literary merit. Science Times, if anywhere, is the place for this review.

Bad Girls: 32 Writers Misbehave, edited by Ellen Sussman. What a Bad Idea. Lynn Harris does her best to find value here, but concludes, "Perhaps the most successful bad girls are those who know just when, and how, to play by the rules.

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