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Reviewing the Book Review

What A Night!

21 December 2008

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


¶ Alex Witchel gets a lot of space in which to gush about Christopher Plummer's In Spite of Myself: A  Memoir. (She does so as coolly as possible, it's true; but she gushes all the same). When she writes,

Make no mistake, Plummer’s master story­telling is also a master diversionary tactic. There is little introspection here, though every once in a while he looks at himself with eyes wide open and tells nothing but the truth.

This is the very thing that one would expect. Storytelling aside, there is little in the review that mightn't have been ventured by anyone familiar with the actor's work. What the memoir is doing on the cover of the Book Review remains unexplained.

¶ Kathryn Harrison does not come to mind as a likely reviewer of Kathleen Norris's Accedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life. Her lack of sympathy for Ms Norris's point of view steps into the light when she writes that, in "The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker more convincingly reveals these discontents as proceeding from our terror of mortality." Not a very helpful comparison for readers who might prefer, at least in this context, a warmer guide than Becker. Even though one might well agree with the review's final paragraph, it clearly marks Ms Harrison's unsuitability as a reviewer of this book.

“Loss and death are worthless from a secular perspective,” Norris asserts, a perplexing if not offensive statement, and one that should disturb the devout as well as the atheist. If mortality inspires fear, it also provides meaning. Without the promise of eternal life, isn’t there greater impetus to care — to cherish the days we are given and the people we love and will lose?

¶ Geoffrey Maguire clearly admires The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia, Laura Miller's book about the fantasies of C S Lewis, but too much of his review is given over to accounts of his own interest in fantasy. The result is an exceedingly insiderish account that may make little sense to the general reader.

Miller’s book is itself a welcome bit of magic: part reader’s log, part biography, part literary criticism. She relates much that is familiar about Lewis’s life and a little that is less well known, concentrating on his childhood traumas and his adult friendship with J. R .R. Tolkien, who considered Narnia “a disgracefully slapdash creation,” Miller writes, rather than the kind of painstaking self-enclosed world he created in Lord of the Rings. She discusses the virtues as well as the uglier sides of Narnia — its classism, racism, sexism, and its depiction of a godhead whose mercy extends only to those pure enough to deserve it (known in some circles as the Problem of Susan, after the Pevensie sister who is expelled from Narnia for her interest in “nylons and lipstick and invitations” and other intimations of sexual blooming). Miller’s most daring conceit, likening the mutually influential friendship between Tolkien and Lewis to that between Coleridge and Wordsworth, is persuasive. Miller has learned much from Lewis, not least a bracingly colloquial, honest, intimate tone.

¶ Scott Stossel is openly disappointed by Jonathan Engel's American Therapy: The Rise of Psychotherapy in the United States; he would have done a much better job.

Engel gestures at, but doesn’t directly address, some of the most interesting questions prompted by the rise of psychotherapy. Is the enormous growth of the field over the last century simply a case of supply surging to meet demand, or does the volume of neurosis fluctuate over the years? Are anxiety and alienation always symptoms to be treated, or are they sometimes appropriate — even healthy — responses to the vicissitudes of late modernity? Is psychotherapy an art or a science, a subcategory of humanism or of biology?

Although the review ends on a positive note, it remains unaware of Peter Gay's important claims about Freud's humanism. Wheels are re-invented...

¶ Anthony Gottlieb enjoys telling the story of Giordano Bruno: Philosopher, Heretic, but wishes that Ingrid D Rowland had taken a more rigorous look at his thought.

Though it can be hard to follow the story line in Rowland’s early chapters, where the background to Bruno’s later work is jumbled in with biographical fact, her telling of his end is gripping. As an intellectual biography, however, the book has too little examination of his ideas. Although Rowland would like us to see Bruno as a martyr to science, his work comes across more as theologically inspired science fiction. He was a poetic speculator, not an empirical or systematic investigator. Thus it is still not clear what the great master of memory should be remembered for.

What's hard is to tell how Kenneth L Woodward managed to review Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America, by Gustav Niebuhr. He clearly thinks so little of the book that one can only imagine the turning of pages in a cloud of exasperation.

We don’t hear about these things, the reader has to assume, because Niebuhr does not consider them important. “The world’s major religions,” he writes, “are essentially neutral systems in the way they affect human temperaments.” To the contrary: religion, for those who take it seriously, has enormous power to shape not only who we are and how we relate to others but also which virtues we privilege, which course of action in any situation we find right and worthy. Compassion, to cite one common inter­faith topic, has a very different meaning for Buddhists than it does for Christians. Were differences like this not important, the interfaithful would have nothing much to discuss, nothing to learn from one another.

Not helpful.


¶ Karl Kirchwey's warmly favorable review of Jeffrey Yang's new poetry collection, An Aquarium: Poems, seems to locate Mr Yang's work in a loose tradition of Browne, Pound, and Rexroth. If for no other reason, at least one poem ought to have been quoted in its entirety. The snippets that we're given are gnomic and almost cute.


¶ Maria Russo's generally favorable review of Peripheral Vision, by Patricia Ferguson, ends on a puzzling note:

It’s something of a mystery that Ferguson isn’t often mentioned in the top ranks of British writers. Equally strange is that this is the first of her books to be published in the United States. “Peripheral Vision” has shortcomings, to be sure: For all the precision of its emotional insights, stylistically it can be slack. And given the unabashedly happy ending Ferguson bestows on her present-day characters, one wonders if a little more awareness of the irretrievable — of the injustice of so many of our losses — might have elevated this book into, say, the Pat Barker realm. Still, Ferguson has done something significant: her characters live, and they have much to teach us.

The best sense that I can make of this is that Ms Ferguson writes very well, except when she doesn't.

¶ Jeanette Winterson might have been more room to work out her very favorable review of Forrest Gander's new novel, As a Friend; compression does not enhance its intelligibility.

Forrest Gander is a poet with seven collections to his credit (along with essays, translations and collaborations), and in this novel he returns words as meaning instead of blurring them as data. So much writing is just about conveying information, using words that are readily interchangeable, underpowering language so that it never reaches the point of calibration; the right register of what we feel, or of how it feels to feel. “As a Friend” is never sentimental, but it is all feeling, and that might be uncomfortable for readers who prefer language dwindled to defeat. This is language that is potent — it has a strong voice, so the reader has to sit down and listen to that voice, taking time, just as you would with a friend.

Brisk storytelling does not open up the thinking in this intriguing paragraph.

¶ Erica Wagner's enthusiastic review of Stewart O'Nan's Songs for the Missing fails to take notice of Francine Prose's recent Goldengrove, even though, according to her own storytelling, it's clear that this novel works up a very similar backbone: the impact of the death or disappearance of a young woman on her surviving younger sister.

Ms Wagner writes,

O’Nan has a remarkable ability to pinpoint the ways in which hope and suffering are intertwined — and he does this while shifting easily between the viewpoints of his characters, so smoothly that the joints are invisible, yet so clearly that the reader is never lost.

This is quite a claim, and it ought to be the review's topic sentence. Instead, Ms Wagner tosses us what we're to take an illustrative passage, thus outsourcing the effort for which she is reponsible.

¶ Liesl Schillinger's warm reviews of Settlement, by Christoph Hein (translated by Philip Boehm), and New Lives: The Youth of Enrico Türmer in Letters and Prose, by Ingo Schulze (translated by John E Woods) — two new novels  by writers hailing from the former German Democratic Republic — are bogged down by a lot of storytelling. About the quality of the writing itself, we're told only that the translations are "assured but not always elegant," that the central chapters of Mr Hein's book are "gripping and colorful," and that the setting of Mr Schulze's novel is "cartoonishly quaint."

¶ It is not clear why Bruce Jay Friedman's Three Balconies warrants coverage in the Book Review. Nothing in Charles Taylor's review suggests that this book would be of any interest to readers not already besotted by Mr Friedman's writing.

“The Great Beau LeVyne” — the very name conjures up someone who’s half good old boy, half gigolo — is one of those pieces of writing rife with the names of cities and restaurants and the people who inhabited them. But Friedman isn’t name-dropping. He’s evoking the glamour and cachet they once possessed, and doing it in the name of affectionate, though cleareyed, remembrance. On the last page he writes of LeVyne, “If his intention was to make us feel his absence, he succeeded brilliantly.” That’s what Friedman has done for the era he remembers so vividly.

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