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Reviewing the Book Review

Holiday Books (2007)

2 December 2007

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

'Tis the Holiday Season — and the Book Review stretches to eighty pages. In addition to the standard reviews, we find roundups of the usual categories of books that make nice presents: chestnuts such as food and travel, alongside the newer rubrics of "visuals" and comics. Quite a few of these "omnibus" reviews, however, deal with only one book, and if you can tell me why any of the four reviews that I've singled out for attention weren't presented in the standard format, I'll be grateful for the insight. 

History books and, even more, biographies often receive a certain kind of inappropriate treatment in the Book Review. I have complained about it before, but I've never given the treatment a name. Now I've got one: "Subject Matter Validation." Where a subject is taken to be ipso facto fascinating - take Marco Polo, as one of this week's examples - the reviewer indulges in a high old time retailing momentous events and intriguing anecdotes — I call this storytelling — without, apparently, feeling the slightest obligation to tell us whether or not the book under review actually does the subject justice. Reviewers who attempt to salvage such frolics by tossing out a word or two of commendation are not doing their jobs. We know that Marco Polo is fascinating. We can link straight to his curriculum vitae at Wikipedia and elsewhere. Instead of trying to sell the famous Venetian, Bruce Barcott (the reviewer in the case) ought to have judged author Lawrence Bergreen's attempt to do so. That's why we're here.

A string of Subject Matter Validation reviews in this week's Book Review inspired me to group them separately.

Holiday Omnibus

Not Pretty: On Ugliness, by Umberto Eco. "Selecting stark visual images of gore, deformity, moral turpitude and malice, and quotations from sources ranging from Plato to radical feminists, Eco unfurls a taxonomy of ugliness. As gross-out contests go, it’s both absorbing and highbrow." — Amy Finnerty.

Ashcan School: John Sloan's New York, exhibition catalogue curated by Heather Campbell Coyle and Joyce K Schiller. "Indeed, this volume aims to consider Sloan apart from the usual Ashcan School narrative, and to view him as an important artist in his own right. The contributors are too polite to comment on his artistic decline in his last three decades, but by concentrating so intently on the fresh, vibrant New York street scenes he painted between 1904 and 1919, they make a strong case for his best work. The resulting volume is an irresistible jewel box of a book, a treat for connoisseurs of early American modern art and New York City buffs alike." — Philip Lopate.

The Greeks: Great Moments in Greek Archaeology. The Getty Museum. "The 21 archaeologists who have contributed essays to Great Moments in Greek Archaeology (J Paul Getty Museum, $75) would have us know that their calling is much more than the unearthing of beautiful objects for the delight of public display. But the photographers and designers who have assembled this opulent large-format volume — to say nothing of the artistic genius of the ancient Greeks themselves — threaten to undermine this crucial scientific point at nearly every turn. For a generous share of the hundreds of color photographs that overflow its pages exhibit uncontested masterpieces of Greek art in all their glory. Some, just to scratch the lustrous surface, are as familiar as the bronze charioteer from Delphi or the Victory of Samothrace, which now stands atop the Daru staircase in the Louvre. Other objects amid the profusion of wall paintings, sculptures, vases, mosaics, furniture and metalworks on display here are less instantly recognizable but scarcely less breathtaking. These ancient treasures, together with historic photographs of the major excavations, aerial panoramas of splendid sites, old watercolors and lithographs, and 19th-century architectural renderings, are enough to leave a deep impression on anyone with a drop of philhellenic blood." — Steve Coates.

Fashion: The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947-1957, exhibition curated by Claire Wilcox. "Indeed, as Wilcox rightly observes, “the attraction and paradox” of the New Look was that although it “established a modern identity for couture between 1947 and 1957, its practice and philosophy were rooted in the past.” Dior and his imitators “nurtured a predilection for 19th-century touches, using fabric knots, fringed bows and artificial flowers as finishing touches on garments of stiff taffeta, duchesse satin and wool, which were as firmly structured as those of Worth, the founder of haute couture.” Aesthetically and technically, these corseted, crinolined dresses harked back to an earlier era, when clothes, in Dior’s words, were “constructed like buildings” and encased their wearers in structured, hyper-feminine shapes that flappers and Fascists alike had threatened to destroy for good. The fact that the designer himself called his postwar heyday the “golden age” of couture attests to the nostalgia that informed his work." — Caroline Weber.

Subject Matter Validation

Because the subject of each of these books is deemed to be interesting, the reviewer doesn't seem to care whether the book itself is any good.

Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu,  by Lawrence Bergreen. Bruce Barcott's review never once suggests why you would want to read this book instead of reading Polo's own Travels, although presumably Mr Bergreen's text is more immediately "readable." Notice, however, how neatly the following verbiage manages not to pronounce judgment.

Marco Polo opened Asia to European trade, so we’re told, but we generally don’t know much else. Laurence Bergreen remedies that by bolstering Polo’s reputation and arguing for his historical importance in a book as enthralling as a rollicking travel journal. Bergreen, who has written biographies of Louis Armstrong, James Agee and Irving Berlin, turned his attention to ancient explorers with “Over the Edge of the World,” which tracked Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe. I was a fan of that book, but “Marco Polo” far outshines it, and not surprisingly. Marco Polo, unlike Magellan, left his biographers a masterpiece of a memoir to work with.

Ethel Merman: A Life, by Brian Kellow; and Brass Diva: The Life and Legends of Ethel Merman, by Carol Flinn. According this review, Mr Kellow's book is zippy but hostile, while Ms Flinn's is adoring but flat-footed. Neil Genzlinger declines to express a preference.

Read either author’s presentation, though, and there can be no dispute: this was one heck of a life, a great 20th-century story whether told with the character flaws or without.

Nureyev: The Life, by Julie Kavanaugh. Nearly three full pages, with two large photographs, are devoted to this "authorized" biography - or rather, to "reviewer"Toni Bentley's essay on Nureyev's life and achievement. Reading the fine print, we learn that Ms Karavaugh's book is "superbly researched."

But amid all the reportage Kavanagh offers little of her own illumination of his genius, and amongst the foliage, the great sequoia is lost.

The book itself hardly seems to merit the allotted column inches.

The Wreck of the Medusa: The Most Famous Sea Disaster of the Nineteenth Century, by Jonathan Miles. One of the most famous paintings in the world, Géricault's very large representation of the 1816 shipwreck was politically motivated, and Florence Williams tells us why. But she does not bother much with Mr Miles's book except to say that "At times Miles's language is overwrought."


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

The Holiday Season, by Michael Knight. Floyd Skloot's review of this pair of novellas, although too short, conveys the unmistakable impression of an interesting, well-crafted fiction.

There is a long tradition of fiction using holiday gatherings as a vehicle for examining relationships under stress. Richard Bausch recently used Thanksgiving this way; Truman Capote, Charles Dickens, Dylan Thomas all used Christmas. Michael Knight’s “Holiday Season” joins this crowded table and, especially in its title piece, makes itself at home.

Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote. Speaking of Truman Capote: Now that two major motion pictures have informed everyone too lazy to read that Capote was "undone" in some way or other by what turned out to be his magnum opus, In Cold Blood, it seems particularly unimaginative of Charles McGrath to regurgitate the "poor, poor Truman" theme. The disappointment of Capote's career is not news. It is as much a part of the man's literary figure as his gamin charm and his hyperarticulate delivery. There is no call for the churlish dismissal of his achievement, as here:

"You don't read him here so much for character (most of his people are types) or for vivid description as for atmosphere and filigreed prose.

"Filigreed"? Tut, tut!

Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life, by Steve Martin. Alex Witchel's ultimately dissatisfied review rests on the rather provincial hypothesis that "People who read memoirs are looking for a story in which to find themselves." Oh, really? It is not enough for her that Mr Martin carefully (and compellingly) traces the small steps in which he completed his long apprenticeship; she wants the inner man himself, preferably on a toothpick. The implications of the subtitle appear to have whizzed right over her head.

Hotel: An American History, by A K Sandoval-Strausz. Dominique Browning's largely sympathetic review is quite droll about the author's academic déformation professionielle:

Let’s dispense with the “human geography of capitalism” immediately. It is nowadays to be expected, sadly, that an author familiar with Kant’s work will also feel obliged to use language like “domestic ideologies,” “microgeography of labor” and, my personal favorite, “gendered dynamic.” This kind of talk is not cheap, and this history is not for the faint of heart. Luckily, with any aptitude for foreign languages, a reader can slip into a pseudo-fluency in academic jargon, such that one quickly forgets to even wonder how, exactly, to translate “a patterning device.” (A type of building? A blueprint? Yale?) By the time I got to the 1850s I was zipping along; the author’s natural voice, unencumbered by jargon, is lucid and concise.

At the end, Ms Browning concludes, "I will never again check into a hotel without thinking of myself as an ambassador of peace; that alone, with its profound implications, makes this thoughtful book worthwhile."

Cartographia: Mapping Civilizations, by Vincent Virga and the Library of Congress. Felipe Fernández-Armesto praises this catalogue insofar as it is a gorgeous collection of maps, but he is very unhappy with the text, because he seems to have had something else in mind.

The text, moreover, does the images less than justice. And one of the oddest things about the book is that readers cannot be sure who wrote it. The title page says nothing about authorship. The cover includes an attribution to “Vincent Virga and the Library of Congress,” but Virga is a commercially successful picture editor and popular writer with no pretensions to scholarship. Unencouragingly, he tells us in a signed note that he didn’t “get” maps for a long time. Did library curators contribute draft text, which an editorial hand then ham-fistedly homogenized? Perhaps in consequence, wayward judgments, annoying stylistic tics and repellent prejudices seem to have been pea-shootered into what is otherwise a generally informative and often insightful commentary.

Mr Fernández-Armesto is particularly incensed by "ill-informed denunciations of Catholicism" that would seem to merit discussion, not further denunciation.

The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters, edited by Charlotte Mosley. Caryn James's favorable review of this doorstopper starts out on the right foot:

In this age of blogs and celebutantes, the aristocratic, letter-writing Mitfords may seem snobbish, quaint, even kitschy. But to dismiss them as dusty relics would be to miss out on a great deal of eccentric charm, wit and historical resonance. Those features are drolly captured in a 1933 letter from the 13-year-old Debo — later Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire — to Diana, who would soon become Lady Mosley (wife of Oswald), thanking her for the gift of a heavenly evening bag. “Thank you SO much for the HEVERN eveninger,” she wrote in Mitford family shorthand. “I even forgive you being a fascist.”

The Great Funk: Falling Apart and Coming Together (on a Shag Rug) in the Seventies, by Thomas Hine. Joe Queenan's amusing, if necessarily somewhat politicized review includes a handy catalogue of errors that ought to serve readers well; whether or not they share his reservations will probably be a good predictor of the book's likely appeal.

Hine, strong on fashion, architecture and design, is weak in other areas. He does not seem to understand that a society that worships both David Bowie and Carole King is not a monolithic one, that “Rocky” — which he never mentions — is a far more important movie than “Logan’s Run” or “Soylent Green,” that the plot of “Jaws” is probably not heavily influenced by public disillusionment with politicians. He elevates Dolly Parton to a questionable role as a feminist icon and ignores John Denver, whose career cast a long, dark shadow over the entire decade. An even more notable omission is Hunter Thompson, the second-most gifted journalist of the period (after Tom Wolfe, who named the ’70s “the Me Decade”). He also leaves out Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, the Eagles — whose “Greatest Hits” is the best-selling record in history — and EST, and, blinded by his enthusiasm for the dapper men’s fashions in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” movies, he overlooks that same director’s potent Watergate allegory, “The Conversation,” one of the most chilling films ever made. It’s not that Hine gets everything wrong; it’s more that he omits or sloughs off a number of things it would have helped to get right.

Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years, by Michael Palin. Peter Keepnews's enthusiastic review makes it clear that Mr Palin has not only caught a pop culture phenomenon but rendered a moving, unselfconscious self-portrait.

Palin’s wife, his three children and his parents all figure prominently in these pages; his account of his father’s death, after a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease, is unsentimental and extremely moving. His family helps him maintain perspective, and maintaining perspective becomes more and more important as Palin and Python become more and more famous.


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

Zeroville, by Steve Erickson. Liesl Schillinger's favorable review, which seems to stumble along in pursuit of Mr Erickson's hectic novel, strongly suggests that Zeroville may be of far more interest to some readers than to others.

Nearly a decade ago, the longtime executive editor of Premiere magazine, Peter Biskind, recapped the same era in his nonfiction book “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ’n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood.” “Zeroville,” with its dizzying, in-the-know, name-and-place dropping (and its incessant allusions to famous movies and their stars, both cryptic and explicit) is a kind of novelistic refutation of Biskind’s book — without an index. Its very title is a cinematic inside joke, drawn from the New Wave Godard film “Alphaville.” In that movie, the private eye cries, “This isn’t Alphaville, this is Zeroville!” Vikar, with visions of “Blade Runner” zipping through his head, thinks Hollywood is Zeroville because “there’s no sunlight in this Los Angeles; every day is reset at zero,” and “the movies have been reset at zero.” For him, that isn’t necessarily an indictment, since “the movie is in all times, and all times are in the movie.”

Aldous Huxley: Selected Letters, edited by James Sexton. James Campbell writes aptly about the appeal of this once-eminent writer's correspondence.

In his capacity as both letter writer and novelist, Huxley was most comfortable when communicating ideas about how to save the world, or to save Aldous Huxley, no matter how eccentric. By the time the war was over, he was dabbling in Scientology and giving credence to rumors of Martians in the skies above California. The reason scientists were not receiving their signals was simple, he told his son Matthew: “They are not using radar, but electro-gravitational waves, which will not be picked up until the suitable instrument exists.” Two “remarkable men” from Caltech were working on the problem.

You decide.

The Devil's Gentleman: Privilege, Poison, and the Trial that Ushered In the Twentieth Century, by Harold Schechter. Edward Lewine's mixed but too-short review is matted with storytelling that doesn't leave much room in which to dilate on his slightly contradictory judgments.

Without giving away the ending, I will say that “The Devil’s Gentleman” isn’t much of a page turner. The drama level sags when the story hits the courts, and Schechter misses various opportunities to create suspense out of what might have been quite suspenseful material. (“Get me Hitchcock on Line One!”)

Where Schechter does succeed, however, perhaps as well as any of the numerous writers who’ve trod this turf before, is in marrying a historian’s understanding of the 19th century to a literature professor’s insight into how people felt and thought at the time. His book is full of quirky surprises.

The Beatles' Second Album, by Dave Marsh. David Kirby charges Mr Marsh's writing with "gassiness," but his review is pretty gassy, too, especially given its brevity. What kind of book is this? An extended essay of general interest or a partial catalogue of the cabinet of curiosities? According to the review, a great deal of it is taken up with the maladroitness of record producer Dave Dexter Jr. Do we care?

Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries That Ignited the Space Age, by Matthew Brzezinski. Mark Atwood Lawrence comes very close to stating that the only reason for publishing this book in the first place is to have something about Russia's wake-up call in print.

There is nothing especially new in “Red Moon Rising,” which is heavily indebted to painstaking research by legions of historians who came before. But Brzezinski, a former Moscow correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, tells the story of American and Soviet decisions with remarkable dramatic — even cinematic — flair. Tension builds as the scene shifts from Moscow to Washington, from the Soviet launching site in Central Asia to the American missile research station in Huntsville, Ala. Resolution comes only in the final pages with the first American satellite launching on Jan. 31, 1958, America’s belated answer to the Sputnik challenge.


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

Love and Sex With Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships, by David Levy. This book does not warrant coverage in the Book Review. Why? Because it discusses "dildonics" and "teledildonics"? No, because it doesn't - it can't. The "evolution" promised by the subtitle remains very largely hypothetical and — premature. Surely we have all developed a healthy resistance to jolly books about Things To Come. When someone pens an articulate memoir of sex with a robot, then the subject may be ripe for the attentions of the Book Review.

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