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Reviewing the Book Review

Missile Defense

4 October 2009

¶ Michael Beschloss gives Neil Sheehan's new book about ICBMs and the man who understood their importance, A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon, a enthusiastically warm review.

A Fiery Peace in a Cold War, Neil Sheehan’s deeply researched, compulsively readable and important book, is about one of those decisions. It reminds us that, as the founders warned, the survival of the United States depends on our ability not only to choose wise presidents, but also to maintain a federal government that attracts extraordinary talent at all levels. As Sheehan shows us almost cinematically, this was particularly true in the 1950s, when American leaders had to decide whether to keep resisting Soviet power mostly with strategic bombers, or to build an awe-inspiring force of nuclear-tipped missiles.

¶ Kazuo Ishiguro's collection of music-themed stories, Nocturnes, gets a perplexed review from Christopher Hitchens.

[Ishiguro] seemed to me, in A Pale View of Hills and The Remains of the Day, to have intuited something subtle and miniature and layered, in what I read as a latent analogy between English and Japanese society. In The Unconsoled, which was heavier going, he at least showed how musical commitments could be, as one might say, a cause of “discord.” Never Let Me Go was so orchestrated as to slowly gather pace and rhythm from its varied sections. But these five too-easy pieces are neither absorbingly serious nor engagingly frivolous: a real problem with a musical set, and a disaster, if only in a minor key, when it’s a question of prose.

Mr Hitchens seems not to be interested in looking beyond the "too-easy" surface of these stories.

¶ Jay McInerney's review of Richard Powers's Generosity: An Enhancement is guardedly favorable.

At times, one can’t help wondering if Powers’s sympathies, and his sensibilities, lie entirely in the scientific camp — if he doesn’t perhaps agree with Thomas Kurton’s critique of fiction, rejecting “the whole grandiose idea that life’s meaning plays out in individual negotiations.” But Powers is, when he chooses to be, an engaging storyteller (though he would probably wince at the word), and even as he questions the conventions of narrative and character, “Generosity” gains in momentum and suspense. In the end, he wants to have it both ways, and he comes very close to succeeding.

My attention was snagged by a slight mystery: at the beginning of his review, Mr McInerney  confesses that he has not any of Mr Powers's previous novels before this assignment. But he writes as though he is familiar with the body of work.

¶ Pamela Paul's enthusiastic review of Nurtureshock: New Thinking About Children, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, make for an interesting read, but it belongs in the newspaper's weekly Science section.

¶ Andy Borowitz (himself a "funny man") writes admiringly of Craig Ferguson's American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot.

The fact that Ferguson has the Scottish version of chutzpah shouldn’t come as a surprise to regular viewers of his TV program, “The Late Late Show,” on CBS. Since his debut as host in 2005, he has evolved into something of an anti-Leno, trading the rapid-fire delivery of canned topical jokes cooked up in a writers’ room for something more idiosyncratic and risky: a loopy, seemingly ad-libbed monologue in which he talks with, not at, the audience. (I say “seemingly” because Ferguson, of course, has a roomful of writers and is working from bullet points, but his performance skills are such that he makes his monologues sound like they’re something daft that just occurred to him.) There’s no one else like him on television, and he’s achieved something unusual in late night: a sense of intimacy with his audience. In “American on Purpose” he establishes a similar bond with the reader. Like Steve Martin in his similarly engaging memoir, Born Standing Up, Ferguson tells the life story of a comedian without letting jokes get in the way.

¶ Edmund White's City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and '70s receives what can only be called a loving review from Stacey D'Erasmo.

What got White through were his friends. The lovers come and go, but over all “City Boy” is a chain of deep friendships and lifelong conversations. The eminent poet and translator Richard Howard; David Kalstone, an English professor at Rutgers; Marilyn Schaefer, model for the “Maria” in much of White’s fiction and a wildly smart, free-thinking, bisexual painter; the poet James Merrill; Richard Sennett, a legendary sociology professor and bon vivant; Sontag, until White savaged her in his novel “Caracole”; and many others. For gay New Yorkers in the ’70s, according to White, friendship had “the starring role.” He writes, “We could say strategic things to lovers and seductive things to tricks, but a friend deserved the truth.” Many of these friends, of course, are now dead. “AIDS killed off most of my circle,” White writes, succinctly. The New York that he left in 1982 was about to become a graveyard. “City Boy,” plain-spoken and knowing, is a survivor’s tale, a missive from one of those antlered boys of that era to the others who are gone: this is who we were, this is how it was, this was our city. Some stories don’t need to be embellished to glow.

¶ There is little in Ishan Taylor's brisk review of Shooting Stars, by LeBron James and Buzz Bissinger, and nothing at all in Harvey Araton's breathy reviews of Game Six: Cincinnati, Boston, and the 1975 World Series: The Triumph of America's Pastime, by Mark Frost, and Lew Paper's Perfect: Don Larsen's Miraculous World Series Game and the Men Who Made It Happen on refute the argument that these pieces belong in the newspaper's Sports section.

¶ Scott Stossel reviews the "viral obesity" book that has been a sturdy thread of Internet conversations for some time now, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social networks and How they Shape Our Lives, by Nicholas Christiakis and James Fowler. He seems somewhat dazzled by the book's bright ideas.

As among primates, those humans who are best able to manipulate social networks to their advantage thrive, and that ability may be genetically encoded. Using a clever study of young twins, the authors observed that genes accounted for “46 percent of the variation in how popular the kids were.” (This is either brilliant or the reductio ad absurdum of genetic analysis or both.) And in a series of “cooperation game” studies, in which altruistic behavior among a social network was rewarded with money, the most popular girls ended up with four times as much money as the least popular, proving once again the propensity of the rich to get richer — not to mention the compounding cruelty of unpopularity.

¶ Ross Douthat gives Karen Armstrong's The Case For God a favorable review — with strong but clear reservations.

Which is to say that it’s considerably more difficult than Armstrong allows to separate thought from action, teaching from conduct, and dogma from practice in religious history. The dogmas tend to sustain the practices, and vice versa. It’s possible to gain some sort of “knack” for a religion without believing that all its dogmas are literally true: a spiritually inclined person can no doubt draw nourishment from the Roman Catholic Mass without believing that the Eucharist literally becomes the body and blood of Christ. But without the doctrine of transubstantiation, the Mass would not exist to provide that nourishment. Not every churchgoer will share Flannery O’Connor’s opinion that if the Eucharist is “a symbol, to hell with it.” But the Catholic faith has endured for 2,000 years because of Flannery O’Connors, not Karen Armstrongs.

This explains why liberal religion tends to be parasitic on more dogmatic forms of faith, which create and sustain the practices that the liberal believer picks and chooses from, reads symbolically and reinterprets for a more enlightened age. Such spiritual dilettant­ism has its charms, but it lacks the sturdy appeal of Western monotheism, which has always offered not only myth and ritual and symbolism (the pagans had those bases covered), but also scandalously literal claims — that the Jews really are God’s chosen people; that Christ really did rise from the dead; and that however much the author of the universe may surpass our understanding, we can live in hope that he loves the world enough to save it, and us, from the annihilating power of death.

¶ Willing Davidson's review of Love In Infant Monkeys: Stories, Lydia Millet's first collection, is not especially intelligible.

Love in Infant Monkeys is Millet’s first story collection (after six novels), and it centers on the interactions between celebrities and animals. But of course it’s really about plain old humans — life lurks in the civilian under­world, it’s clear. We may get David Hasselhoff’s dog and his walker, Noam Chomsky and a rodent cage, Thomas Edison and the elephant he filmed being electrocuted, but these setups are often decoys; the narrative mostly belongs to those beneath the headlines.

¶ Christopher Beha seems disappointed that John Gilkey, the sociopath at the heart of Allison Hoover Bartlett's The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession did not confine his theft to books. 

Given the problem at the heart of The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, it is a testament to Bartlett’s skill that it reads as well as it does. “Every man must die,” explained that murderous Spanish monk, “but good books must be conserved.” His story and others Bartlett tells really are about “intimate and complex and sometimes dangerous” relationships to books. Gilkey’s story, on the other hand, is mostly about the crimes.

¶ Peter Keepnews insists that We'll Be Here For the Rest of Our Lives: A Swingin' Show-Biz Saga, by Paul Schaffer with David Ritz, "is not deathless literature, and Shaffer knows it. But it is tremendous fun.' Even more:

But mostly We’ll Be Here for the Rest of Our Lives is about music. Shaffer’s love of comedy and comedians shines through in his stories of friends like Martin Short, who “showed me that life could be lived out in comedy sketches,” and of course Letterman, with whom he has worked since 1982. But he is at his most effusive when writing about the musicians who have inspired him, of whom there are many: not just the legends like James Brown, Ray Charles and Dylan but also non-household names like Mike Smith, the singer and organist for the Dave Clark Five, and Tisziji Muñoz, the avant-garde jazz guitarist who was one of Shaffer’s first employers. I don’t know Muñoz’s music, but Shaffer describes it so vividly, and so affectionately, that I am eager to seek it out.

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