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Reviewing the Book Review

Because They Believe

13 September 2009

¶ Leon Wieseltier's exuberantly unfavorable review of Norman Podhoretz's latest book of biblical prophecy, Why Are Jews Liberal?, is arguably unnecessary, as the lines in Mr Podhoretz's thought have not only been drawn but fortified, and every literate person knows all about them.

Norman Podhoretz loves his people and loves his country, and I salute him for it, since I love the same people and the same country. But this is a dreary book. Its author has a completely axiomatic mind that is quite content to maintain itself in a permanent condition of apocalyptic excitation. His perspective is so settled, so confirmed, that it is a wonder he is not too bored to write. The veracity of everything he believes is so overwhelmingly obvious to him that he no longer troubles to argue for it. Instead there is only bewilderment that others do not see it, too. “Why Are Jews Liberals?” is a document of his bewilderment; and there is a Henry Higgins-­like poignancy to his discovery that his brethren are not more like himself. But the refusal of others to assent to his beliefs is portrayed by Podhoretz not as a principled disagreement that is worthy of respect, but as a human failing. Jews are liberals, he concludes, as a consequence of “willful blindness and denial.” He has a philosophy. They have a psychology.

But liberal tolerance is not liberal acquiescence, and Mr Wieseltier's demonstration that this book is nothing more than an unthinking whine is a necessary record.

¶ Liesl Schillinger's warm review of E L Doctorow's latest historical novel, Homer & Langley, is very polite.

But Doctorow considers the Collyers in a less lurid fashion, casting them as sympathetic, if eccentric, players in the drama of the departed American century — sepia-tone figures in an elegiac zoetrope. Where other writers, titillated by the brothers’ ghoulish history, have asked, “How did they die?,” Doctorow asks the more respectful, and thus more surprising, question: “How did they live?” Reaching back to their Gilded Age beginnings and extending their life span into the 1980s, he resurrects 10 decades through the brothers’ imagined experience — matching the accumulation of junk within the Collyer home with the accumulation of epochal events in the world outside their walls.

But her painstaking review suggests that the last line is key, and that in matching junk with epochal events, Mr Doctorow has diminished the latter.

¶ Cathleen Shine give Alexendra Horowitz's Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know an engagingly favorable review that could have been improved only by placing the piece where it belongs, in the newspapers Science section.

¶ Dexter Filkins is perhaps a bit hard on Jon Krakauer's Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, when he writes,

With Tillman, you would think he’d have all he needed to fashion an epic narrative. Unfortunately, he fails to pull it off.

Mr Filkins's complaint about the book boils down to his sense that it ought to be nearly three hundred pages in length, not nearly four. Of all the objections that can be raised against a given book, length is surely the most subjective, and the fact that Mr Filkins is our leading war correspondent does not simplify matters. Surely his judgment is better expressed here:

Once Tillman lands in Afghanistan, though, Krakauer’s narrative lifts off.

¶ Elizabeth Royte's generally favorable review of David Owens's Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability is marred by a carping spirit: the reviewer would prefer a more radical outlook.

Of course, many environmental groups do work on building livable and affordable cities, even while others embrace a “buy it to preserve it” strategy (condemned by Owen as “Nature Conservancy brain”). Environmental groups, the author writes, should focus on “intelligently organizing the places where people are,” instead of where they aren’t. I would argue that if no one defends the places people are not, they won’t be people-free for long. Not only will we lose the idea of wilderness — which some consider essential to our human identity — but we’ll lose its invaluable services, like the protection of drinking water and the sequestration of carbon. (In general, concerns about clean water and air get scant shrift here, and New Yorkers are told they needn’t fret about conserving electricity, since they already use far less per capita than the national average. This reviewer, who is always looking for something new to unplug, is shocked. And doubtful.)

Does Ms Royte truly doubt that, if New York City were one of the United States, it would rank fifty-first in per-capita power consumption? If so, she ought to have made that expressly clear.

¶ Dominique Browning's admiring review of Sara Maitland's A Book of Silence is perhaps unavoidably less than completely lucid.

A Book of Silence is a brilliant exploration of something — or is it a nothing? — that right at the start is impossible to define precisely. Is silence the absence of words? Or is it the absence of sound altogether? Is there even such a thing as silence that we can experience? Isn’t there always the swoosh of blood through the body? Is silence dependent on external conditions? Or is it a quality of mind? What would you call the visual effect of something like a Rothko painting?

¶ Lisa Scottoline thinks that, in Shake the Devil Off: The True Story of the Murder That Rocked New Orleans, Ethan Brown may judge disturbed veteran, murderer, and suicide Zackery Bowen a trifle leniently, but she praises the book's "examination of a tragic crime."

A more nuanced analysis would consider Bowen’s drug and alcohol abuse, his cover-up of and confusion about his sexuality, his reaction to his parents’ divorce and his unhappy adolescence, during which he exhibited low self-esteem and dropped out of his California high school. Although Brown has reported all the facts that would support a fuller explanation, his sympathy for his subject has led him to a shakier conclusion. There is a difference between explaining and explaining away.

Interestingly, Bowen himself didn’t blame either Iraq or Katrina for the murder. In his last note, he alone assumed the responsibility, referring to the life “I took.”

¶ By the time that Louise Gilder gets round to mentioning that the subject of Graham Farmelo's new book, The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom, might have been autistic, the suggestion does not come as a surprise.

A senior research fellow at the Science Museum in London, Farmelo gives us the texture of Dirac’s life, much of it spent outdoors — from long Sunday walks as a young man, looking like “the bridegroom in an Italian wedding photograph,” “dressed in the suit he wore all week, his hands joined behind his back, both feet pointing outwards as he made his way around the countryside in his metronomic stride”; to late-life canoeing trips with Leopold Halpern, a physicist even stranger than he, “through forests of sassafras and American beech trees, draped with Spanish moss. The alligators made scarcely a sound: the silence was broken only by the rhythmic sloshing of the paddles, the cry of a circling osprey, the occasional shuffling of wind passing through shoreline gaps in the forest.” (After lunch, they swam and paddled back, “scarcely exchanging a word.”)

The review does not convince me that it belongs in the Book Review.

¶ Baz Dreisinger gently chides Adam Bradley for rehashing, in Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop, settled questions. 

Bradley wants to legitimize rap by setting it in a canonical context, but aren’t we past the point of justifying it? True, CNN is clueless enough to ask, as it did on a 2007 program, “Hip-Hop: Art or Poison?” But no one is really still debating whether hip-hop is a bona fide art form. “Rap rhymes are often characterized as simplistic,” writes Bradley, who admits to finding himself “in the position of defending the indefensible, of making the case to excuse the coarse language and the misogynistic mes­sages.” He needn’t try so hard; in his tone of unwarranted protectiveness, he seems to forget that hip-hop now earns highbrow props worldwide. After three decades, it doesn’t require a defense attorney.

[Insert throat-clearing bark, indicating that the world has already gone to the dogs.]

¶ Nicholas Thompson's dual intellectual biography, The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War gets a strong and lucid review from Mark Atwood Lawrence.

Who was right? Did the United States put too much stock in military preparedness, unnecessarily antagonizing the Soviets while guaranteeing that the East-West rivalry would play out in the sole arena where Moscow could compete? Or did Americans act sensibly in response to a clear and present danger of Soviet aggression? Nicholas Thompson insists in “The Hawk and the Dove,” his thoroughly engrossing, if not altogether satisfying, dual biography of Nitze and Kennan, that both men had valid points.

“Each was profoundly right at some moments and profoundly wrong at others,” Thompson asserts of their long, inter­twined careers as statesmen, policy makers and public intellectuals. The two men “pulled in different directions” but “complemented each other” and, Thompson suggests, contributed in distinct ways to America’s victory in the cold war. They even managed to remain friends despite their differences.

The "not altogether satisfying" problem appears to have to do with the reviewer's feeling that the Soviet response to these competing policies must be examined in a more primary way, but that's to put too much weight on Mr Lawrence's question, arguably extraneous to Mr Thompson's brief, "Who was right?"

¶ B R Myers really dislikes the politics of The Old Garden, by Hwang Sok-yong (translated by Jay Oh), so much so that he hasn't got the patience to explain the book as a novel.

The striving for simplicity and emotionality among students bewildered by long reading lists is, as the historian Ernst Nolte once wrote, “almost disgustingly easy to explain.” Harder to understand is why a man of Hwang’s age and experience would want to present this striving as something the world needs more of. (According to the publisher, Hwang is organizing a “peace train” that will go from Paris through North to South Korea — though I suspect he wants to stay on until Stockholm.) Having studied in Seoul in the mid-1980s, and witnessed the bravery of the demonstrators on many occasions, I was ready to like Hwang’s characters for helping to end military rule. Alas, he has so little apparent respect for the ensuing bourgeois democracy that he describes them cursing the transition to it. The hunch that we are dealing here with an ideology even sillier than Marxism is confirmed in one of Yoon Hee’s lines: “It’s a fight that has continued for over a hundred years since we opened up the port.”

¶ Andrew Ervin's too-short review of Helen Oyeyemi's White Is For Witching begins hopefully —

Helen Oyeyemi’s eerie third novel features a young woman who has a strange eating disorder and lives with her twin brother and widowed father in a haunted house across the street from a cemetery full of unmarked graves. On the surface, this setup might appear best suited to the young adult fiction market, but Oyeyemi (who was born in Nigeria and educated in England) knows that ghost stories aren’t just for kids. And “White Is for Witching” turns out to be a delightfully unconventional coming-of-age story.

 — but it settles into a murky discontent:

For a while, Ore’s story takes center stage. Subplots abound (including attacks against Kosovan refugees and violent happenings at an Immigration Removal Center), but they rarely advance the main plot or refer back to Miri’s life in any meaningful way. Throughout, however, the theme of displacement, both cultural and personal, recurs. Miri’s illness — the “pie-kah” of the British title — provides a clue as to how the apparently disparate story elements relate. Could it be that England, as a body, is systematically rejecting its foreign population? Perhaps a statement is being made about English xenophobia. What’s more likely is that Oyeyemi’s story is suffering ever so slightly under the weight of a political agenda.

¶ Also too short: Caryn James's review of Brodeck, a novel by Philippe Claudel, a respected novelist in France who is better known here for his recent film, Il y a longtemps que je t'aime.

In both works, the central character suffers from survivor’s guilt for a crime that is horrific yet understandable. But the novel’s mythic style couldn’t be more different from the film’s taut psychological realism. “Brodeck” is the Brothers Grimm by way of Kafka. Set in an unnamed, isolated village where people speak their own Germanic dialect, the story is unmistakably about the Holocaust, yet never establishes a specific time or place. Although its characters have a jump-off-the-page cinematic vitality, they are drawn in the broad strokes of a parable (helped by John Cullen’s faithful translation).

¶ William Giraldi clearly likes Terrence Holt's story collection, In the Valley of the Kings, but he does little to place the writer's apparently formidable stylistic demands.

Writers should know the names of things, and Holt knows more than most: purpura, glossolalia, vena cava, leukocyte, medulla, occiput. His narrators fear the might of words, their frightening ability to assemble and destroy. They assert “emphasis on the physicality of the word, its translation from thought to sound to durable object.” The population in the opening story, “‘O Λoγoς,” perish gruesomely when a disease appears in the form of a single incomprehensible term that writes itself in bruises, in stigmata, on the victims’ bodies — shades of Kafka — and then spreads to anyone who beholds it. The story is creepier than satanic sacrifice, thoroughly horrific, an allegorical masterpiece about the potency of religious texts, of literature, of language.

¶ In the final sentence of his favorable review of Lev Grossman's The Magicians, reviewer Michael Agger asks the question that his review answers.

The Narnia books and the Harry Potter series captivate the young by putting young people in a world where adults are a distant, unsteady presence. “The Magicians” is a jarring attempt to go where those novels do not: into drugs, disappointment, anomie, the place and time when magic leaks out of your life. Perhaps a fantasy novel meant for adults can’t help being a strange mess of effects. It’s similar to inviting everyone to a rave for your 40th-birthday party. Sounds like fun, but aren’t we a little old for this?

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