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Reviewing the Book Review

Untamed Heart

18 October 2009

¶ Liesl Schillinger sketches the story of Jeannette Wall's Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel, so skillfully that you forgive the storytelling, and only later notice that the quotations, not very numerous to begin with, are also very brief. Her conclusion suggests that the salience of the book is its documentary quality.

In an author’s note, Walls writes that she considers “Half Broke Horses” less a novel than an “oral history, a retelling of stories handed down by my family through the years.” But her grandmother’s eventful trajectory would never be known to the rest of us had Walls not set these memories down on paper. Her grandmother, many years ago, opposed Rose Mary’s marriage to Rex Walls. “My daughter needs an anchor,” she told him. “The problem with being attached to an anchor,” he retorted, is that it makes it “hard to fly.” Rose Mary got to fly, in a way; but Lily Casey Smith also got her wish. Rose Mary eventually found an anchor in the form of her daughter — the third generation of a line of indomitable women whose paths she has inscribed on the permanent record, enriching the common legend of our American past.

¶ In assigning Mark Danner's Stripping Bare the body: Politics Violence War to war correspondent George Packer, the editors have greatly complicated the readers task, trying to distinguish the book's deficiencies (if any) from the things that Mr Packer would have done differently. There are simply too many different judgments in the following paragraph; although they're not self-contradictory, they take on a canceling quality in the context of reviewing just one book.

Most of the book is a relentless exposure of American hypocrisy, weakness and illusion across three administrations and at least five wars. Danner’s dissections of the corruption of government language are devastating: he’s a great exegete of official mendacity, with apparently endless material on hand. But all this anatomizing of Washington is performed by way of Serbia, Bosnia and Iraq. Since Danner the essayist doesn’t take the care to understand these societies the way that Danner the reporter did in Haiti, violence in no way strips them bare. Without individual stories or political analysis to accompany the horrifying (and numbingly repeated) descriptions, violence reveals nothing — it’s just violence.

¶ William Vollmann's review of Philip Caputo's Crossers is intolerably and unintelligibly arch.

Once when I was so weak with amebic dysentery that all time not spent on the toilet was passed in bed, I found in my host’s house one book in a language I could read. It was one of those storm-tossed but ultimately upbeat women’s romances, a genre I had not yet sampled. I read it, then read it again and again, since there was nothing better to do. If I ever have the luxury of repeating such an experience, I hope to do so with a Philip Caputo book. For how many decades in how many used bookstores have I seen “Horn of Africa” standing steadfast, a Rock of Gibraltar compared with the mere boulders of Ken Follett and Sidney Sheldon? And only now, with a half-century of my life already over, have I finally learned whom to turn to for a good potboiler in my next wasting sickness!

¶ What is August Kleinzahler trying to tell us when he writes that, in his new book, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, Robin Kelley

makes use of the “carpet bombing” method in this biography. It is not pretty, or terribly selective, but it is thorough and hugely effective. He knows music, especially Monk’s music, and his descriptions of assorted studio and live dates, along with what Monk is up to musically throughout, are handled expertly.

If the method is "not pretty," does that mean that it's "hugely effective" in spite of being clunky to read? How would that be possible?

¶ By the time Amy Bloom winds up her enthusiastic review of Gail Collins's When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, you will have either ordered the book online or grabbed your hat and coat to head for the nearest bookshop.

Collins makes her strongest case, and showcases her finest writing, on the subject of what feminism has not been able to do. It is not easy to attentively raise your children while holding down a good and demanding job. Feminism did not remake the world of relationships. It did not change the fact that when Julia Roberts’s adorable hooker was carried off by Richard Gere’s handsome businessman at the end of “Pretty Woman,” none of us would have preferred to watch him rest his silvery head against her lovely shoulder, snuggling, safe at last in her strong arms. Feminism did not resolve the conflicting desires for passion and domesticity, familiarity and romance, and the irreconcilable differences between those who love the Marx Brothers and those who prefer the Three Stooges — but it did not fail.

¶ James Traub deals with Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity as best he can.

Goldhagen’s sense of urgency causes him to demand a revolution in human affairs. States must not only abandon the logic of national interest, but also reshape the global architecture around the goal of ending eliminationism. He heaps scorn on the United Nations, whose founding principles of respect for sovereignty and of noninterference in internal affairs have served, as he rightly observes, as a shield for leaders in Sudan and elsewhere who are bent on slaughtering their own people. He would dissolve the United Nations and establish in its place an organization of democracies dedicated to staging interventions. He does not pause to contemplate how very few takers such an organization would have.

Books such as this, strongly reminiscent of Biblical prophetic writings, would probably be better served by essays.

¶ Books about famous books are difficult to review, and Jennifer Balderama isn't given enough space to recommend Mark Garvey's Stylized: A Slightly obsessive History of Strunk & White's The Elements of Style without reviewing its subject in the process. .

For a book extolling brevity, “Stylized” is baggy in parts. Between chapters, Garvey trots out extended meditations from a few of his “favorite writers,” which contain amusing bits (Frank McCourt, we learn, was “terrified of semicolons”) but disrupt the flow and leave one pining to return to Strunk and White. So if you read “Stylized,” stick to the meat of it. Skim or skip the bumper sections. Linger over White’s letters. And do not resist the urge to go back and read the little book.

¶ At the beginning of her review of Colin Harrison's Risk, Amy Finnerty calls it a "slim, satisfying crime novel." The storytelling that follows does not support this judgment — which does not mean that it's incorrect. The same is true of the review's final statement.

The message is clear: marry wisely, then count your blessings and never leave New York.

From the review, nothing is clear at all.

¶ David Kamp's favorable review of Michael Chabon's Manhood For Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son comes fully-equipped with cautions for the attentive.

Ultimately, what makes this collection so melancholically pleasurable is not the modern-dad stuff but Chabon’s ready and vivid access to his own childhood. A chance radio encounter with the opening riff of Toto’s 1978 hit “Hold the Line,” he tells us, instantly summons “the radiant shins of a girl named Jennifer Dagenais.” He’s in lament mode again — will today’s kids, cocooned in the virtual listening booths of their iPods, be able to make such song-scene associations? — but his analysis is wondrous, wise and beautiful. “It’s simply the magic of an accidental conjunction,” he writes, “a flitting moment and the resin drop of a pop song transformed by luck and alchemy into amber.”

¶ Steve Coates's favorable review of Caroline Alexander's The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer's Iliad and the Trojan War takes a lot for granted, but it pauses eventually for lucid assessment.

Alexander is best known as the author of The Bounty and The Endurance, well-received books about sea voyages that took place long after the Achaeans set out to avenge Helen. But she is also a trained classicist, and The War That Killed Achilles suggests a joyful re-embrace of an early love. In its bones and sinews, the book is a nobly bold, even rousing, venture, a read-through of the Iliad, from beginning to end, always with a sharp eye to half a century of revealing scholarship, by great Hellenists like Gregory Nagy, Jasper Griffin, M. L. West and many others. The book’s best ideas won’t be new to readers versed in this work, but it would be hard to find a faster, livelier, more compact introduction to such a great range of recent Iliadic explorations.

¶ Even the mention of Charlotte Rampling's "beguilingly aqueous gaze" does not help Jim Holt's review of Jonathan Nossiter's Liquid Memory: Why Wine Matters to clear the bar. The piece belongs in Dining in/Dining Out.

¶ Alexandra Jacobs's not unsympathetic review of No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process, by Colin Beavan, puts the book in its place.

The book exemplifies an increasingly popular subgenre that involves setting oneself a task, usually for a year, and writing about it in an online diary before committing the account between covers. The approach has its advantages: narrative boundaries are clearly defined; an author can build a following; live reader feedback informs his ideas. But why buy the cow — that is, the book — if you can drink the (hormone-free) milk for free at ­ The writer strikes an anguished, defensive tone that suggests not only ecological concern but also repeated buffeting by anonymous commenters. He tries to be Zen, quoting Buddhist monks, but has trouble subduing well-developed urban traits of competitiveness and aggression. “Maybe if their food-acquisition radius was 100 miles, I should make mine 75,” he thinks after consulting a devoted pair of Vancouver locavores. Struck by a BMW while on a bicycle, he fantasizes briefly about mowing down the driver with an S.U.V.

¶ Probably unintentionally, Robert Sullivan's moderately favorable review makes Elizabeth Marshall Thomas's The Hidden Life of Deer: Lessons From the Natural World sound like a very silly book.

She will confound, too, as when she claims to respect (some) hunters but, while out hunting with one, leaves before catching up to a deer he shoots. (She also lies to the game officer about who did the shooting, to help the hunter exceed his quota.) Then again, the book is really about finding a vantage point, a place from which to see the entire natural world, and in finding hers, Thomas sometimes mistakes the observational high ground for the moral kind. How does she know what’s best for deer, even when, next winter when the acorns return, the deer still show up panhandling for corn at her farm? “The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said that if a lion could talk we wouldn’t understand him, meaning that the minds of animals are beyond our reach,” she writes. “This was probably true for Wittgenstein, but it isn’t true for me. As far as I am concerned, compared to many other life-forms, deer and people are practically the same thing.”

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