Reading Matter
Books On the Side
Books In Brief

Reviewing the Book Review

Capital Secrets

11 October 2009

¶ Maureen Dowd's review — if that is what it is — of Dan Brown's new book is very entertaining, but it would be out of place in the Book Review even if it were not, egregiously, on its cover. The fact that Ms Dowd's take is hardly favorable does not compensate for the gratuitous publicity given by the editors to this adolescent's comic book manqué.

¶ Doug Stanton writes warmly about The Good Soldiers, by David Finkel, but rather strangely does not compare it to Dexter Filkins's prize-winning The Forever War, also an on-the-ground report from the Iraqi misadventure. His concluding note is somewhat incoherent.

By immersing himself so thoroughly in the soldiers’ experience, ensuring that he himself is not a “character” in their story, Finkel brings the art of storytelling back to the drama of war.

He asks not so much why the Iraq war is being fought (although this question is integral, smoked into the very grain of the narrative), but how the soldiers survived. “The strategy of winning an enduring peace had failed,” he writes. “The strategy of defeating terrorism had failed. The strategy of spreading democracy throughout the Middle East had failed.”

For many writers, this might have seemed a jumping-off point: a geography of apparent utter military failure. But as Finkel also writes, he explained to the soldiers that his intent “was to document their corner of the war, without agenda.”

¶ Elizabeth Samet writes very sympathetically of William Styron's posthumous collection of stories, The Suicide Run: Five Tales of the Marine Corps.

Except for the novella The Long March and the play In the Clap Shack, Styron’s work usually treats military culture obliquely. The Suicide Run tackles that culture head-on while, for the most part, avoiding the trap of reductiveness into which too much late-20th-century American war literature tends to fall. Styron chronicles what happens to those damaged by battles they did not fight — those who must dwell always in anticipation of the horrors to come.

¶ Megan McArdle admits that she is "probably not the natural audience for Lauren Weber's new book," In Cheap We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood American Virtue. Ms McArdle's strictly practical interest in thrift leaves her fundamentally unsympathetic to Ms Weber's worldview.

This idea of thrift as a moral virtue, rather than a prudent one, has some problems. Some Catholics see anorexia as a form of gluttony, because stuffing and starving yourself both elevate food to an inappropriate importance in your life. The freegans and many of Ramsey’s followers are gorging themselves on parsimony.

As it happens, Ms McArdle is far more interested in conservative frugalista Dave Ramsey, which makes this an interesting, but ultimately unhelpful review.

¶ Jack Shafer's admiring review of Peter Richardson's A Bomb In Every Issue: How the short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America is very long on storytelling, but it closes with a brief and not unconvincing argument that the book's subtitle is merited.

The lessons Ramparts taught American journalism are still being studied wherever investigative reporting is practiced. The magazine showed that the rarest asset in journalism is picking the right set of questions, usually the ones nobody else has the sense to ask. This book satisfies on every level and whets the appetite for a big, fat Ramparts anthology.

¶ Jennifer Schluesser's warm review of A S Byatt's new literary-historical novel, The Children's Book, might be faulted for politeness, but the texture of the book is adequately intimated.

While Byatt’s engagement with the period’s over­lapping circles of artists and reformers is serious and deep, so much is stuffed into “The Children’s Book” that it can be hard to see the magic forest for all the historical lumber — let alone the light at the end of the narrative tunnel. The action is sometimes cut off at awkward moments by ponderous newsreel-style voice-over or potted lectures in cultural history. Startling revelations are dropped in almost nonchalantly and not picked up again until dozens or even hundreds of pages later. Byatt’s coda on the Great War, dispatched in scarcely more pages than the Exposition Universelle, is devastating in its restraint. But too often readers may feel as if they’re marooned in the back galleries of a museum with a frighteningly energetic docent.

¶ Joshua Hammer's generally favorable review of Francine Prose's Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife would be sharper if it grasped a little better the last word in the subtitle. That would have spared us some of the did-you-know storytelling.

It’s hard to find much fresh to say about a book that has been scrutinized as much as Frank’s diary. Prose valiantly attempts to solve the problem by linking an exegesis of the text to a look at its reverberations in the media and academia — and to the oft-told back story of the Franks’ journey into hiding.

At the risk of talking academic jargon, I'd say that this book is a reception study.

¶ Paul Barrett's enthusiastic review of Peter Goodman's Past Due: The End of Easy Money and the Renewal of the American Economy makes it a bit difficult to distinguish between Mr Barrett's strong feelings about, inter alia, Alan Greenspan and Mr Goodman's analysis.

Greenspan, in one of history’s most galling now-you-tell-us moments, confessed last October that his magical thinking had turned out to be false. Thankfully, he’s gone from the public stage. Bernanke and Summers remain in positions of tremendous influence, and they have failed, so far, to articulate specifically just how wrong Greenspan was, and how they intend to reshape the worlds of banking and financial regulation. The Obama administration’s initiative to stiffen the spine of the Securities and Exchange Commission and curb derivatives speculation is apparently losing momentum. Goodman’s book reminds us that this situation contains the seeds of future fiascoes.

¶ It takes Nicholas Wade the length of his favorable review of Richard Dawkins's The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution to warn us that the brilliant professor is still shooting himself in the foot with bullets of impoliteness.

This brings me to the intellectual flaw, or maybe it’s a fault just of tone, in Dawkins’s otherwise eloquent paean to evolution: he has let himself slip into being as dogmatic as his opponents. He has become the Savonarola of science, condemning the doubters of evolution as “history-­deniers” who are “worse than ignorant” and “deluded to the point of perversity.” This is not the language of science, or civility. Creationists insist evolution is only a theory, Dawkins that it’s only a fact. Neither claim is correct.

¶ George Anders gives Joyce Purnick high marks for good reporting in Mike Bloomberg: Money, Power, Politics. But the lack of heroic consciousness seems to befuddle him.

But fitting it all together is maddeningly difficult. Purnick calls Bloomberg “stubbornly elusive” and “allergic to introspection.” Traits that seem to define him at one point in his life nearly vanish at another. All we are left with is what she describes as “Bloomberg’s Zelig-like ability to fit in, to make himself part of a new universe.”

A case in point: Purnick argues that the greatest spur to Bloomberg’s ambition came in college, when his father died at 57 without having achieved his life dreams. Yet when grieving families expressed worries that their loved ones’ remains might never be salvaged from World Trade Center debris, Purnick writes, “he told them coldly that he had only visited his own father’s grave once.” And he advised 9/11 survivors to “move on.”

Responding to a father's disappointing death by turning one's back at him in the energetic pursuit of success is not puzzling behavior.

Permalink  Portico About this feature

Copyright (c) 2009 Pourover Press

Write to me