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Reviewing the Book Review

Critical Care

6 September 2009

¶ Health care reform is so very much the leading topic at the moment that I'm not sure that discussions about it ought to be packaged in books. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich argues persuasively, however, that The Heart of Power: Health Care and Politics in the Oval Office, by David Blumenthal and James Morone, is a useful history of the matter since 1930.

The book was written before President Obama began his push for universal health care, but he seems to have anticipated many of its lessons. He’s moved as quickly on the issue as this terrible economy has let him, and he has outlined his goals but left most details to Congress. Nor has he been too rattled by naysaying economists (although the cost estimates of the Congressional Budget Office set him back). The question remains whether, in the months ahead, he can knock Congressional heads together to clinch a meaningful deal, and overcome those who inevitably feed public fears about a “government takeover” of health care and of budget-busting future expenditures. “The Heart of Power” suggests that the odds are not in his favor.

¶ Assigning Nicholoson Baker's The Anthologist, a book about a fictional poet who is having a hard time writing the introduction to a poetry anthology, to in-house poetry critic David Orr means that the following paragraph (or something like it) is inevitable.

There are, of course, objections to be made. Baker is a beautiful writer, and a bracing reader of poetry, but his depiction of the American poetry ecosystem itself is often a little odd, and perhaps has more to do with the experience of Nicholson Baker than of Paul Chowder. For instance, Chowder discusses The New Yorker and its past and present editors well over a dozen times, often at length, while somehow avoiding mention of any literary magazine other than Rain Taxi. (Yes, this is a book in which names like Troy Jollimore get dropped — and hurrah for that! — yet somehow journals like The Paris Review, Ploughshares and New England Review do not appear, and Poetry Magazine is mentioned only in passing, in one of the riffs on Pound.) The New Yorker is a terrific magazine, but placing a poem there is like finding a hundred bucks in an old coat pocket: it’s great, but you can’t build your world around it. You build your world around what’s there for you on a daily basis, which for poets, famous or otherwise, means literary journals. Along similar lines, when Chowder finally arrives at the climactic panel discussion in Switzerland, here’s how he describes the arrival of Paul Muldoon: “Then suddenly word flew through the room like wildfire — Paul Muldoon was there! Paul Muldoon! Paul Muldoon! He was besieged.” Muldoon is a superb writer, but this is ludicrous. For a poet like Chowder, who apparently has enough status to write introductions to major anthologies, a poetry conference isn’t like a Star Trek convention. In general, poets have all seen one another before, they’ve all heard one another before, and the closest anyone’s coming to being “besieged” is a wheedle-­laced gin and tonic at the hotel bar. None of this would matter, except that we aren’t just being asked to believe that Baker’s protagonist knows poetry, we’re being asked to believe that he lives in the poetry world.

Even though as Mr Orr observes in the very next line of this favorable review, "these [reservations] are vanishingly minor."

¶ Tom Vanderbilt gives Rebecca Solnit's catastrophe book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster a warm review, seizing on the point that disaster relief would work much better if it weren't for officials, who appear to be the only folks who actually panic. But in the end he charges Ms Solnit with wishful thinking.

For all its power, “A Paradise Built in Hell” leaves a number of questions unresolved. How are disaster communities, here romantically depicted as harbingers of utopia, different from other forms of spontaneous and deeply felt community operating under real or perceived duress, from combat units to millenarian cults? If the worst events can bring out the best in people, why can’t that impulse be sustained in everyday life? As Solnit notes, “the real question is not why this brief paradise of mutual aid and altruism appears but rather why it is ordinarily overwhelmed by another world order.” Is it, as Solnit too glancingly notes, the “conundrum we call human nature”? In a fascinating aside, she considers the traditional Carnival, described by Mikhail Bakhtin as the “temporary liberation . . . from the established order,” and compares it to the communities created in disaster. As heady as it can be, would Carnival feel so energizing if it were the norm, and not the brief subversion of that norm?

¶ Although Blake Wilson seems to like Nick McDonell's An Expensive Education, he does not make it sound like a novel that merits coverage in the Book Review.

Half campus novel, half geopolitical thriller, “An Expensive Education” proceeds at this pace for 300 almost unerringly entertaining pages. McDonell skips from Washington to Nairobi as easily as he crosses the river between Cambridge and Boston, usually by means of short chapters and skillful cuts, but sometimes joining his characters in the comfortable ­business-class cabins of their transcontinental flights. Which is also to say, for all the fine reportorial detail about African dialects and the best way to negotiate with bandit militias, McDonell’s true subjects are the status markers and status obsessions of his beautiful young cast. This makes for great scenery.

¶ Caroline Weber struggles manfully to make The Secret Wife of Louis XIV: Francoise d'Aubigné, Madame de Maintenon sound like a genuine history book, and not one of those memoirs-of-the-court books that you don't see too often these days, but the best that she can do is to place the author's views on a par with those of an eminent gossip.

In his well-known chronicle of Louis XIV’s reign, the Duc de Saint-Simon demonized Madame de Maintenon as a ruthless schemer whose devoutness was a ruse, devised solely to exploit her lover’s fear of sin. While likewise revealing that her faith was a matter of strategy rather than of substance, “The Secret Wife of Louis XIV: Françoise d’Aubigné, Madame de Maintenon,” by Veronica Buckley, offers a lively, sympathetic portrayal of the woman who, against all odds, succeeded in taming the royal tomcat.

"Tomcat" is particularly infelicitous.

¶ Ross Douthat gives measured praise to Steven F Hayward's The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution, 1980-1989, but does nothing to budge one's abiding skepticism about the extent to which Ronald Reagan's personal contribution to the events of his Administration exceeded dutiful acting.

But “The Age of Reagan” demonstrates the strengths of partisan historiography as well. Because he takes for granted that Reagan’s presidency was successful, Hayward is free to explore, as few authors have, exactly how he did it. Reagan the wordsmith gets his due — the book is filled, appropriately, with extensive quotations from the Great Communicator’s addresses, television chats and press conferences. So does Reagan the savvy diplomat, whose rapport with Mikhail Gorbachev played a significant role in easing the cold war to an end. But Hayward’s most timely portrait is probably Reagan the wheeler-dealer, who came to office with the presidency’s influence at a modern nadir and maneuvered sweeping domestic legislation through a Congress that was often controlled by the opposition party.

¶ Amy Finnerty storytells her way through an unhelpful review of Anna In-Between, by Elizabeth Nunez, offering the verbal equivalent of a travel poster.

The plot is as languorous as the Sinclairs’ retirement, with Nunez, whose previous novels include “Bruised Hibiscus” and “Prospero’s Daughter,” taking detours into the island’s social history and Anna’s multiethnic ancestry. Africans, Asians and Europeans have mixed, but subtle resentments and snobberies endure. The East Indians are perceived by some as “clannish,” more willing than blacks to sacrifice to send a family member to college. The Hindus and Muslims who arrived as indentured workers have thrived and are “competing with each other in a show of religious fervor,” building ghastly shrines on their suburban lots.

¶ Speaking of manful struggling, Caroline Alexander strives to make Janet Soskice's new book about a pair of adventurous Nineteenth-Century twins from Scotland, The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels, not sound like a genuine history book.

Herself a professor of philosophical theology at Cambridge, Soskice deftly positions the twins’ story in the wider and more profound context of ideas and discoveries of their age. With great clarity, she steadily and captivatingly unwinds the complicated threads of her narrative, explicating formidable scholarship while keeping the twins at the fore. The twins themselves, although well described, remain enigmatic — possibly a symptom of the reticence of their age — and Agnes especially so. In her youth, she had written two sentimental novels, and a whiff of unexpected romance can be detected in her own account of her discovery, “In the Shadow of Sinai,” published in 1898: “Darkness brought on a vision of loveliness. . . . A blazing fire beside us showed a group of hardy Bedawîn sitting within a ring of spectre-like camels.” Surely some yearning for romance per se, for adventure, as well as for righteous enlightenment, inspired her many travels to the holy lands.

Still, the redoubtable twins — sturdy, steady, passionately curious, generous as well as thrifty — will win the reader.

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