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Reviewing the Book Review

Strange New World

20 September 2009

¶ The generosity of Jeannette Winterson's review of Margaret Atwood's latest apocalyptic fable, The Year of the Flood, is itself helpfully informative.

Atwood is funny and clever, such a good writer and real thinker that there’s hardly any point saying that not everything in the novel works. Why should it? A high level of creativity has to let in some chaos; just as nobody would want the world as engineered by Crake, nobody needs a factory-finished novel. The flaws in “The Year of the Flood” are part of the pleasure, as they are with human beings, that species so threatened by its own impending suicide and held up here for us to look at, mourn over, laugh at and hope for. Atwood knows how to show us ourselves, but the mirror she holds up to life does more than reflect — it’s like one of those mirrors made with mercury that gives us both a deepening and a distorting effect, allowing both the depths of human nature and its potential mutations. We don’t know how we will evolve, or if we will evolve at all. “The Year of the Flood” isn’t prophecy, but it is eerily ­possible.

¶ Malena Watrous's review of Little Bird of Heaven, Joyce Carol Oates's latest melodrama — her "57th novel since 1964"! — sounds so familiar that I'd like to collect the Book Reviews reviews of this novelist's work.

Little Bird of Heaven starts with the urgency of a thriller, then turns into something more existential as the years (and pages) go by with no developments in the case. This is a tragedy on a classical scale. Oates more than winks at the Greeks by naming the town Sparta, the murdered woman Zoe (which means “life”). Like the original Spartans, these people are stuck in a world where physicality dominates and runs violent. In tragedy, children are doomed to repeat their parents’ mistakes. So it’s unsurprising when as teenagers Krista and Aaron start to play a dangerous game. In one of the book’s most disturbing scenes, right after rescuing a drugged Krista from a boy who wanted to rape her by the train tracks, Aaron sexually assaults her. In the heat of the act, he ponders the “thrill of disgust” and imagines his penis as a murder weapon. Later, Krista confuses this event with the height of passion. In Sparta, passion and violence are inextricably and traumatically linked. Oates does not glorify this; rather, she traces the roots of the pathology to show how desire can degenerate.

¶ Thomas Mallon lavishes his review of William Trevor's latest novel, Love and Summer, with enthusiastic storytelling, only to end with a sermon to the choir.

Trevor’s books come around as regularly as the salesmen showing up at Number 4 The Square. “Love and Summer,” the latest item from his venerable suitcase, is a thrilling work of art.

¶ Michael Cunningham's disappointed review of Margaret Drabble's memoir, The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History With Jigsaws, is clouded by what seems to be a heartfelt lack of interest in the English novelist's concerns.

The Pattern in the Carpet — a reference to the Henry James short story “The Figure in the Carpet,” in which a celebrated author dies without having conveyed to the world at large the secret idea that links all his books — rambles a bit as it moves back and forth between Drabble’s life and the history of the jigsaw. One wonders if the book became the hybrid it is in part because the history of the jigsaw puzzle is not particularly long or enormously interesting.

¶ To the extent that she contributes to the important discussion about liberal toleration of illiberal religions, Irshad Manji gets in the way of reviewing Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity For Women Worldwide, a book about "gendercide" by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

So it comes as a disappointment when Kristof and WuDunn seem to cut short their own questions. They entitle one of their chapters “Is Islam Misogynistic?” Their answer: Because ultraconservative Saudi Arabia has outlawed slaves, the Koran must be open to progressive interpretations on other human rights issues, like women’s equality.

The trouble is, laws ring hollow if they’re not enforced, something Kristof and WuDunn robustly recognize about female genital mutilation in Africa. Why not acknowledge the same about Saudi Arabia’s often appalling treatment of female domestic workers, whose condition Human Rights Watch has deemed ­“slavery-like”? Could their silence be traced to the “scolding” that Kristof received from a group of Muslim women in Riyadh?

¶ Alida Becker loves Paul Rudnick's I Shudder: And Other Reactions to Life, Death, and New Jersey — as who wouldn't? But surely the proper approach to reviewing a comic writer is to distill a teasing comment that will make the taker mad, at least until the book has been purchased. This one sentence would have been quite enough:

Irresistible screeds against the indignities of modern urban life, they introduce us to a despotic enforcer of rigid codes of conduct, an affronted citizen eager and willing to see the most extreme, even lethal, measures used to combat cellphone addicts, people who wield credit cards to pay for cabs, and Brooklyn hipsters intent on imposing “outsider” Christmases on their hapless offspring.

¶ Ira Berlin's review of Lacy Ford's Deliver Us From Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South, is more a discussion of Mr Ford's subject than a review of his book. Mr Berlin says a few positive things about the book, and nothing overtly negative, but he seems to find himself at odds with the book's thesis.

In peering into the internal politics of Southern society, “Deliver Us From Evil” tells us a great deal about the developments that would eventually lead slaveholders, first in the lower South and then in the upper South, to break from the North. But the ownership of property-in-man upon which Southern society rested remains the place to start any such discussion.

¶ Daisy Freed's largely unsympathetic review of Franz Wright's collection of poems, Wheeling Motel, is studded with a goodly helping of extracts. It seems to me that a handful of such extracts, together with Ms Freed's opener, ought to do the job.

Franz Wright’s frank self-­absorption, combined with his ­poems’ structural vivacity and oddball precisions, may make readerly response to his poems dependent on readerly mood. Those who believe constant self-reference is the wrong procedure for poetry — those who are strenuously traditional or strenuously hipster — won’t cotton to Wheeling Motel.

¶ Gregory Beyer takes a while to get around to saying so, but he clearly believes that Jonathan Ames's The Double Life Is Twice As Good contains Too Much Information.

Amid the continuing skirmish over truthfulness in memoir, Ames poses the inverse question of an author’s responsibility to readers: just because it is true, should it be published? Much of his collection rests on the hope that readers will not ask this question, or that they will be too battered into sympathetic submission by Ames’s mix of self-­absorption and self-doubt to answer it honestly.

Not very helpful.

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