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Reviewing the Book Review

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30 August 2009

¶ Jonathan Lethem's emphatically favorable review of Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs is everything that it ought to be, and keeps the storytelling to a minimum, quotes illustratively, and explains its enthusiasm:

Moore’s cast is sneaky-large (she’s like an athlete you keep wanting to call sneaky-fast, or sneaky-tough). Any of Tassie’s relationships — like that with her adoption-seeking employer Sarah Brink, or her vivid goof of a younger brother, or her exotic first love interest, Reynaldo (whom she meets in “Intro to Sufism”) — may seem this book’s essential one, at least while it assumes center stage. But the novel’s real essence is its sinuous roving spotlight, in which each character and element is embraced in Tassie’s wondering and exact sensibility, as when with her brother she revisits a childhood haunt.

¶ Now that J M G Le Clézio has won the Nobel Prize, we can look forward to better Book Review coverage of at least one French author. Elizabeth's Hawes's favorable review of Desert (translated by C Dickson) ends eloquently.

There is an element of the missionary in Le Clézio, just as there is still something of the rebel in him, in search of the new novel, trying to break loose from the traditional bonds of fiction and language to mirror a wider world — as the Nobel citation described, to explore “a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization.” Beneath his pantheism and ethnology, there is also a serious critic of contemporary Western civilization and its rationalism, pointing out the conflict between nature and cities, the disconnect between man and mythology. In “Desert,” a powerful anger erupts in his portrayal of the underbelly of Marseille and the lost people that poverty has brought to France, people who “don’t exist because they leave no trace of their passage.” Le Clézio, who has dual passports from France and Mauritius and now spends part of the year in New Mexico, thinks of himself as an exile too, who finds his home in the French language.

¶ Ron Suskind, a noted journalist himself, is fascinated by how Tracy Kidder came upon the subject of his new book, Strength in What Remains, a Tutsi refugee from Rwanda who has dropped out of Dartmouth's medical school to open a clinic in his homeland. His slightly professional approach to the book at least prevents the storytelling from mushing up, and makes for a stimulating, if less than fully helpful review.

Running in the countryside among terrified refugees, he comes across a relief worker in a truck marked “Médecins Sans Frontières” — Doctors Without Borders. Deo whispers urgently that he’s a medical student — “It is not safe for me. I’m afraid.” It’s impossible not to cry out — “Get him out of there!” But all the man can do is drive Deo to another refugee camp, so many of which are simply holding pens for Tutsis awaiting slaughter.

Deo knows to flee such places, but he’s faced with spirit-crushing horrors. A baby, sitting on the lap of his dead mother in a banana grove, locks eyes with him. “It must be wondering where it is,” Deo thinks, in Kidder’s rendering. “It must be terrified like him. But he couldn’t help the baby. He couldn’t even help himself.” Deo can only stagger away, overcome with despair, and collapse into a heavy sleep.

He’s jostled awake, a day later, by a Hutu woman about his mother’s age. She pulls Deo from the brush, discovers he’s a Tutsi and then, at extraordinary risk, saves him from beheading by telling Hutu guards that he’s her son. The scene suggests how, in the face of nightmares born of surface distinctions — of power exercising all of its destructive prerogatives — the seeds of mankind’s survival lie in the unexpected acts of kinship and kindness.

Some mention of Dave Eggers's What Is The What would have been in order.

¶ Another posthumous translation by Roberto Bolaño! What's more, Wyatt Mason begins his review of The Skating Rink (translated by Chris Andrews) by telling us what's still in the pipeline. I think it unlikely, though, that any readers who have endured the onslaught so far without yielding to Bolaño's appeal will be asking Mr Mason's rhetorical question:

At the very least, readers yet to experience Bolaño’s writing — its narrative variety and verve, its linguistic resourcefulness, its unusual combination of gravity and playfulness, brutality and tenderness — increasingly face the very practical problem of having to divine which book on the widening shelf of Bolaños should be read first.

“The Skating Rink,” the only new Bolaño appearing this year, won’t make the decision any easier: this short, exquisite novel is another unlikely masterpiece, as sui generis as all his books so far. Originally published in Spanish in 1993 and the first of Bolaño’s novels to see print, “The Skating Rink” could seem, in thumbnail, little more than a modest whodunit. A crime, the brutal murder of a woman, is committed in the Spanish seaside town of Z. As the corpse-and-culprit genre dictates, the novel establishes the sequence of events that sets the crime in motion and follows the bloody trail until, in the final pages, the killer’s surprising identity is revealed.

¶ Elsa Dixler's warmly favorablereview of The Sixties, a memoir by my favorite London Review of Books writer, Jenny Diski, makes so many agreeable points that I cannot judge it objectively.

Diski has fascinating — and entertaining — things to say about the differences between the ’60s generation and their parents (“we really didn’t make the distinction between work and recreation that shaped our parents’ daily existence”), drugs (eventually “getting stoned stopped feeling like I was doing something”), the sexual revolution (“sex was a way of being polite to those who suggested it or who got into your bed”), communes (“sharing the washing-up and each other’s lovers” meant “a terrible mess and a lot of anger”) and the difference between America and her native Britain (“we had only a generational war to fight”).

For an American reader, this difference is striking. The civil rights and black power movements were crucial in shaping the politics of the American ’60s, providing moral energy and lessons in organizing. Diski barely mentions them. The American antiwar movement, fueled by college students at risk of being drafted, understandably had a much smaller counterpart in Britain. A powerful chapter describes the Trafalgar Square protest of March 1968, which became violent. (Diski was knocked down as the crowd overran the fence surrounding Grosvenor Square, where the American Embassy was. “I . . . took myself home, shaken by the violence of the police and perhaps more by the military organization of the demonstrators.”)

Diski says several times that she was not political, by which she seems to mean that “I wasn’t convinced by any of the true and mutually exclusive solutions on offer. . . . I failed to join anything.”

¶ Dominique Browning madly prefers the parts of Julia Myerson's The Lost Child: A Mother's Story that concern the drug addiction of the author's son, and does not think that it was a good idea to combine the work that Ms Myerson was doing on a tubercular girl of the 1830s who left behind some very nice watercolors.

Mary and the boy are a strange, difficult pair. The switching back and forth between their stories is jarring and confusing — Mary is addressed intimately as “you”; “the boy,” nameless, is always spoken of in the third person — and mostly maddening. Perhaps there’s a problem in across-the-pond translation: I couldn’t begin to understand why I should care about Mary Yelloly. Her story pales in comparison with the boy’s. There is something tepid in its effect.

I could see what Myerson might be getting at. Mothers in any century will grieve over their lost children. Mothers in any century save little tokens of their love. ­Every era has its plagues. But the unfolding narrative of a sick child — a sick child here and now — has such inviolable urgency that I had to force myself not to skip past Mary to keep the boy in my sights. Myerson heightens the delusional nature of her quest in a moving scene that draws on her strengths as a novelist: a conversation in a church with Mary’s ghost. “He’s very lonely,” Mary tells her. “He’ll come back.” Mothers will find comfort wherever they can.

But, of course, Myerson finds no respite in her imagination.

But Ms Browning seems to be very much a parti pris.

Even as stronger varieties are being bred and marketed, medical research is linking cannabis use to behavioral and cognitive changes reminiscent of psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression and anxiety disorder. And yet we find ourselves arguing about whether pot is addictive or a gateway drug or should be legalized. We are collectively losing our minds. “The Lost Child” is a cry for help and a plea for a clear acknowledgment of the toll this drug is taking on our children.

¶ Miranda Seymour writes politely enough about Kate Cambor's Gilded Youth: Three Lives in France's Belle Époque (even comparing it to Jules et Jim) — until the end, when she opines that one of the three children-of-the-famous who are her subjects is far more interesting than the others.

Despite the many testimonies to her beauty and sweetness, to her loyalty to her family heritage (as a married woman, she signed her name Charcohugo), Jeanne can’t escape sounding spoiled and vapid. And Jean-Baptiste comes to life only in Cambor’s vivid accounts of his journeys.

Uncompromising, aggressively emotional and fiercely reactionary, Léon Daudet occupies such a dominant place in Cambor’s book that it made me wish she had simply focused on the Daudets: the promiscuous, syphilitic, inspired (and greatly loved) Alphonse, and Léon, his distorted mirror-image of a son, heir to all his father’s faults and none of his virtues.

¶ William Logan's review of Louise Glück's new collection of poems, A Village Life, is mean-spiritedly unhelpful. What Mr Logan has to say may be of interest to other poets and their coteries, but it has no place in the Book Review.

A Village Life is a subversive departure for a poet used to meaning more than she can say. All these years that Glück has been writing her stark, emaciated verse, there has been an inner short-story writer itching to break out. (The publicity optimistically refers to the new style as “novel­istic”; but there is no novel here, only patches of long-windedness.) The lines are long, the poems sputtering on, sometimes for pages, until they finally run out of gas, as if they were the first drafts of a torpid afternoon. Even so, there’s a faith in speech, as well as a generosity of instinct, apparent in these laggardly lines, though the reader may be forgiven for thinking that some charities are impositions.

¶ Liesl Schillinger's warm review of Lyanda Lynn Haupt's Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom From the Urban Wilderness, gives us a nice idea of what this book is like:

And while she may hesitate to anthropomorphize the bird, she is unable to avoid, in one instance, caninifying it — comparing a brood of fledglings who landed on her lawn and uprooted her seedling carrots to playful Labrador puppies. She gently spritzed the young crows with a hose, hoping they’d flutter away and spare her crop. “Instead,” she writes, “all four of them gathered under the spray, flapped their wings and opened their bills, in what appeared to be absolute joy. I laughed, but in that slightly imbalanced way that could turn into crying if someone looked at me the wrong way.” Over the next few days, she brought out the hose again so they could play some more. Perhaps, then, it’s time to update the grisly collective noun (so unlike “an exaltation of larks” or a “paddling of ducks”) that’s been applied to these birds: not a “murder of crows” but a “litter.” It’s an apt expression in more ways than one.

¶ Donald E Westlake's posthumous finale to the Dortmunder series, Get Realthe caper, this time, involves a television "reality" show — gets a free-standing rave from Marilyn Stasio.

As much as Westlake is tickled by the impious hypocrisy of “unscripted” reality shows, this master craftsman can also appreciate the hard work that goes into the production of such garbage. And, fake or not, there’s also something sweet about the pride Dortmunder and his fellow crooks take in their own work. Even Tiny, the gang’s big, dumb muscle man, is “impressed” by their nonacting teamwork. “I looked at those guys in that back room, I believed them,” he says of the roles they slip into when they’re at the OJ, the Upper West Side bar where the gang always meets. And where, death be damned, they’re planning their next job right now.

¶ Jess Row write as guardedly warm review of The Thing Around Your Neck, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's first short-story collection.

Adichie is keenly aware of the particular burdens that come with literary success for an immigrant writer, a so-called hyphenated American. Though in this book she strikes a tricky balance — exposing, while also at times playing on, her audience’s prejudices — one comes away from “The Thing Around Your Neck” heartened by her self-awareness and unpredictability. She knows what it means to sit at the table, and also what it takes to walk away.

¶ Mark Lewis's too-short review of No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864, by Richard Slotkin, is somewhat crabbed by the range of issues that are touched upon, including the somewhat odd fact that Mr Slotkin has already written a novel about this battle — which, like the Union defeat at Fort Wagner, was taken by Lincoln's critics as proof of blacks' inferiority.

Slotkin’s book is well timed. A group of historians made news this spring by petitioning President Obama to cancel the wreath the White House traditionally sends to a Confederate monument on Memorial Day. Obama sent it anyway, but he sent another to a memorial honoring black Civil War troops — including those who fought at the Crater.

¶ Laurie Winer's pleased review of Lucinda Rosenbeld's I'm So Happy For You nicely supports her conclusion

Rosenfeld builds a sturdy plot complete with a red herring and a climax that, while convenient to her heroine’s redemption, is not resolved in an easy or sentimental way. Like its protagonist — whose idea of relaxation is to get under the covers with the copy of OK! magazine she has lifted from a nail salon, but not the current issue because that would be unethical — the novel errs a bit on the shallow side. “I’m So Happy for You” may not transcend its genre, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable and somewhat rare specimen of chick lit that stays focused on the chicks.

¶ Philipp Meyer seems to like Jim Lynch's Border Songs, but he finishes with a helpful caveat or two.

The novel’s appeal is in the characters and in Lynch’s obvious love for them. Like Annie Proulx, he conveys a strong sense that we are Reading a Novel, that Lynch the writer, armed with his smart metaphors, is lurking right under the surface of his characters. Although its storytelling meanders a bit, “Border Songs” charms you into following along, rather than yanking you in. The quirkiness of the characters can be a little overwhelming, and it’s occasionally difficult to tell how seriously we’re meant to take them, but they remain engaging. In the end, they’re what makes Lynch’s novel such an enjoyable portrait of life along our northern edge.

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