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Reviewing the Book Review

Here to Stay

22 July 2007

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

If you'd like to know something about the late philosopher, Richard Rorty, James Ryerson's Essay, "Thinking Cheerfully," is a good place to begin. Mr Ryerson notes "the contrast between the buoyancy of his written persona and his slightly depressive and weary mien."

James Longenbach's survey of four recent books of poetry is a roundup with not a single block of verse. This is not the way to handle poetry.


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

The Exception, by Christian Jungersen (translated by Anna Paterson). Marcel Theroux writes a persuasively favorable review of this new Danish novel, which appears to be too multifocal for the thriller that it sounds like at first.

The Exception is excellent on so many things: the texture of office life, the appalling inconsistencies and lacunas in our perceptions of our own characters, the way intelligent people use the insights of psychology not to deepen their self-awareness but to calumniate one another with more sophisticated accusations. But most of all, one comes away feeling there is a hugely empathetic imagination behind this novel, one that resists allowing us to fall into the simplifying judgments that are a necessary prelude to cruelty. Its characters seem deeply true to life in that they are not unitary, but a web of fluctuating motivations that combine good intentions, self-deception, generosity, selfishness and malice.

The House That George Built: With a Little Help From Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty, by Wilfred Sheed. Garrison Keillor's excellent review of this narrative overview of the composers of the American Songbook is infectiously enthusiastic. Studded with quotes, it gives a good sense of Mr Sheed's fresh writing. "Sheed is in peak form, and the book just gets better and better."

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, by Tim Weiner. Evan Thomas's review - much like Mr Weiner's book, I gather - makes one wonder how the CIA ever got its reputation for undercover derring-do.

In Weiner's telling, a president trying to use the CIA resembles Charlie Brown trying to kick the football. The role of Lucy is played by scheming or inept directors. Dulles is particularly egregious, a lazy, vain con artist who watches baseball games on television while half-listening to to top-secret briefings (he assesses written briefings by their weight). Casey mumbles and lies and may have been almost made from a brain tumor by the end. Even the more honorable directors, like Richard Helms, can't resist telling presidents what they want to hear.

Charging the Net: A History of Blacks in Tennis From Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe to the Williams Sisters, by Cecil Harris and Larryette Kyle-DeBose. Reviewed along with another book (see Breaking Back, in the Maybes, by Touré, a former tennis champion himself, this books comes across as a vital addition to the bookshelf of profound, almost invisible, racism.

Whereas Blake glosses over the subject of race, Harris, a sportswriter, and Kyle-DeBose, an author and photojournalist, make racism a recurring theme, arguing that it has dealt a devastating blow to black tennis dreams. They write, "The unspoken, but persistent vibe that you are not welcome, that others would be happier if you went away, a vibe that black tennis players have sensed on the main tour for decades, makes it difficult to find the rhythm and comfort zone needed to perform at your best.


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

Sammy's House, by Kristin Gore. Ross Douthat's snarky review is as blank as it is mean. "Indeed, only the assumption that Gore intends her protagonist to be appealing and her adventures to be madcap and winning and laugh-out-loud funny, leads me to see this book as an exceedingly tedious comedy of manners rather than a cutting, realistic portrait of a rising young hack." I hope that this hack isn't going to be making regular appearances in the Review.

Peony in Love, by Lisa See. Sven Birkerts has a big problem with this novel.

Though the libraries are full of works about ghosts and wandering souls, few feature them as protagonists. This is for a good reason. The narrative of a human confronting the unknown generates fear and tension and nudges open the door to the mysteries. A ghost trafficking with human offers less dynamic potential, Alice Sebold's Lovely Bones notwithstanding. Our interest in Peony is rooted entirely in who she was when living, and as that memory dims we register the diminishing returns.

This isn't "theory," but it does use theorizing to diminish the appeal of a book. A well-written positive review might have suggested what Mr Birkerts sees as a flaw while concentrating on other strengths.

Landing, by Emma Donoghue. Sylvia Brownrigg deserves praise for reviewing this novel without mentioning the obvious, central fact that it's about a same-sex romance, but her account of the book fails to lift it above the level of pleasant blandness. In fact, she makes it sound like a book that young lesbians ought to read but probably wouldn't.

Breaking Back: How I Lost Everything and Won Back My Life, by James Blake with Andrew Friedman. Touré writes, "The problem with memoirs by active athletes is that guys still in the locker room feel bound to keep that world a secret." He finds enough merit in the book, however, to rescue it from the Noes.

Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1863-1900, by Jack Beatty; and West From Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America After the Civil War. Mark Lewis's tepid reviews of these books makes Mr Beatty's sound one-dimensional and very angry, and Ms Richardson's abstract and theoretical.

An Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Green's Journey From Prejudice to Privilege, by Heidi Ardizzone. Noting that this first book about Greene "aims to revive this fascinating woman for posterity," Caroline Weber finds that its "repetitive prose often prevents her from telling Greene's story in an engaging way."

Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television, by Lee Siegel. Caryn James complains that the essays collected herein (written between 2003 and 2006) "don't begin to approach a sustained argument about the complex way television both shapes and reflects society." She ten continues, "But at their best, Siegel's scattershot observations offer a kind of drive-by brilliance."

Pop! Why Bubbles Are Great for the Economy, by David Gross. Virginia Postrel wishes this book were a little better thought-out, because she thinks that Mr Gross has a few very interesting ideas (which she names).

But the book is deeply unsatisfying. Its good ideas are underdeveloped and its history is sloppy. As befits its title, Pop! is as airy as cappuccino foam. It tickles the intellectual palate but provides no real nourishment.


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

The Unknown Terrorist, by Richard Flanagan. Uzodinma Iweala (who deserves a better assignment) writes,

Flanagan's writing is a brilliant reflection of Gina's world. Full of steamy sex, drugs and violence, with a touch of high-status voyeurism, packaged into short chapters perfect for readers with limited attention spans. The Unknown Terrorist mocks the thriller genre even as it fulfills its expectations.

Testimony: France in the Twenty-First Century, by Nicolas Sarkozy (translated by Philip H Gordon. Bernard-Henri Lévy's essay on the politics of the new French president is first rate, but it is not a book review. It's an opinion piece that belongs in the current events section of the newspaper (which is probably where it would appear in France). Whatever the virtues of Mr Sarkozy's book might be, "literary" is unlikely to be one of them, and BHL never suggests that it is.

No Retreat, No Surrender: One American's Fight, by Tom DeLay. Norman Ornstein finds something to like in this self-promotional screed (namely, Mr Lay's analysis of his own "brand of leadership"), but then he writes,

This passage shows an admirable self-knowledge - something that is hard to find anywhere else in the book. But DeLay's hard-core partisans, who get their news from Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity (who contributed a swooning preface, most likely won't notice or won't mind.

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