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Reviewing the Book Review

Another World

25 October 2009

¶ Gregory Cowles's warmly favorable review of Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City, is a model. Instead of indulging in storytelling, it focuses on one illustrative scene. And it places the novel in relation to its predecessors.

In Lethem’s earliest work the tricks and extravagances and gymnastic prose sometimes seemed arch or mannered — merely clever — but they have grown steadily more confident, and here they serve the higher purpose of flinging Manhattan onto the page in all its manic energy. When style and subject merge, tics recede into invisibility.

In short, it presents the book intelligibly to first-time and familiar readers alike.

¶ David Oshinsky's favorable review of Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, by Linda Gordon, focuses on the photographer's significance and interesting life, but it also manages a nice judgment of Ms Gordon's effort.

But even a glance at “Migrant Mother” reminds us of the timelessness of her best work. “A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera,” she liked to say. Gordon’s elegant biography is testament to Lange’s gift for challenging her country to open its eyes.

¶ David Hajdu gives R Crumb's The Book of Genesis a warm but shrewd review.

Here and throughout the book, Crumb seems to be making a point to flesh out the female characters in an apparent effort to offset the relentless male orientation of the text. In the introduction, he explains that he treated the work as “a straight illustration job.” Yet his task was hardly ­straightforward.

For all its narrative potency and raw beauty, Crumb’s “Book of Genesis” is missing something that just does not interest its illustrator: a sense of the sacred. What Genesis demonstrates in dramatic terms are beliefs in an orderly universe and the godlike nature of man. Crumb, a fearless anarchist and proud cynic, clearly believes in other things, and to hold those beliefs — they are kinds of beliefs, too — is his prerogative. Crumb, brilliantly, shows us the man in God, but not the God in man.

¶ Frank Bruni's somewhat reluctant review of William J Mann's How To Be A Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood makes one wonder why the editors of the Book Review chose to cover it.

Mann, who wrote the widely praised biography “Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn,” insists time and again, on page after page, that his subject is broader and deeper than Taylor herself — that he’s investigating the very nature and stamina of stardom. Quoting the writer Maureen Orth’s hilarious observation that Taylor was “the Madame Curie of fame extension,” he casts his biography in part as an investigation into the chemical formula behind her enduring command of the spotlight.

The Discoverer, a novel by Jan Kjaerstad (translated by Barbara Haveland) may deserve reviewer Tom Shone's muted mockery, but readers deserve assurance that the book under review is worthy of their attention. The following passage, which considers Mr Kjaerstad in relation to Lorrie Moore, in funny but unhelpful. 

Wherever Moore comes from in the literary universe, Kjaerstad comes from the opposite end: megalomaniac, irony-free, possessed of an Olympian disregard for the recognizably human. Kjaerstad has said he wants to leave open the question of whether or not Jonas killed his wife. What does it say about his writing that after three books, more than 1,500 pages and as many narrators as there are members of Abba, he achieves that aim? The last we see of Jonas he is on a deck chair, alone, still sprouting fresh virtues — clairvoyance, a third lung, even the first shootlets of self-awareness. “I saw now what I had lacked in my Project X: a person at the center. A person who was someone other than myself.” It’s a little late for that.

¶ Much the same may be said of Ben Yagoda's clotted review of John Freeman's The Tyranny of E-Mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox.

Early in his book, Freeman writes, “No one can predict the future of a technology, and this book is certainly not going to try, but it is essential, especially when that technology has become as prevalent and pervasive as e-mail, to examine its effects and assumptions and make an attempt to understand it in a broader context.”

Maybe the best thing I can say about ­e-mail is that I can’t imagine anyone using it to compose such a sentence.

¶ Jane Smiley clearly likes Miklos Vamos's The Book of the Fathers (translated by Peter Sherwood), but her storytelling review leaves the impressions of a book both exotic and commonplace, which can't be what she had in mind.

The Book of Fathers is a serious novel that, while sometimes agonizing or even shocking, is never somber. Inevitably, its theme is that life goes on, and that every son is no less interesting than every father, that each generation’s search for wisdom is different but no less important or dramatic than the previous generation’s. Miklos Vamos’s literary skills are such that he can sustain the reader’s interest in each doomed generation (doomed by nature, if nothing else). His virtuoso portraits of his idiosyncratic characters are fully backed by his evocative portrayal of the world they live in and the history they live through. Note to Vamos’s publisher: More, please!

¶ Liesl Schillinger introduces Russian writer Sigiszmund Krzhizhanovsky, writing warmly of a collection, translated by Joanne Turnbull with Nikolai Formozov, entitled Memories of the Future.  

Krzhizhanovsky’s stories are more like dream diaries than fiction. Quite intentionally, he blurs the line between sleep and waking, real and unreal, life and death. While his translators admirably convey the whirligigging quality of his narratives, Krzhizhanovsky’s peregrinations demand unstinting focus and frequent compass checks. His characters often seem half, or wholly, asleep. Sometimes, as in “The Thirteenth Category of Reason,” they are dead — which doesn’t stop them from boarding city trams and chatting with commuters. “Alive or dead, they didn’t care.” Their only concern is whether such conduct is “decrimiligaturitized” — that is, legal. “In “Quadraturin,” the man with the proliferspansion ointment never exits a state of benumbed grogginess. Lying on his bed, “unable to part eyelids stitched together with exhaustion,” he tries to sleep through the night, “mechanically, meekly, lifelessly.” When inspectors from the Remeasuring Commission drop by to make sure he hasn’t exceeded his allotted 86 square feet of space, he hovers, terror-stricken, at the door, hoping they won’t spot his infraction. It’s an archetypal nightmare, reminiscent of Kafka.

¶ It is unclear what Dexter Filkins's favorable review of The Fourth Star: Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army, by David Cloud and Greg Jaffe, is doing in the Book Review. It is also unclear what this book, which discusses a far-from terminated military misadventure, is doing codex form.

The Fourth Star is a very good book, readable, detailed and rich. The profiles of Abizaid, Casey, Chiarelli and Petraeus are nuanced and well drawn; the generals really come to life, as does the Army itself.

But I wish the authors had gone further analytically. What is missing from The Fourth Star is a sense of the magnitude of the Iraqi disaster — not merely what the generals inherited, but also what they, especially Abizaid and Casey, wrought. The Iraqi strategy conceived by Abizaid and Casey — and endorsed, it should be said, by Donald Rumsfeld and most others in the Bush administration — led directly to the catastrophe that Iraq became. Despite clear and overwhelming evidence of the disaster, Abizaid and Casey pushed on, assuring the public that their strategy was working. Even a glance into the Iraqi streets proved otherwise. Sometimes “The Fourth Star” is a little too nice — sometimes you have to tell a general he’s wrong. Petraeus and Chiarelli would be the first to say so.

¶ We take notice of David Leonhardt's ultimately unsatisfied reaction to Sixty Feet, Six Inches: A Hall of Fame Pitcher and a Hall of Fame Hitter Talk About How the Game Is Played, by Bob Gibson and Reggie Jackson with Lonnie Wheeler only to object, as strenuously as we can, to the implication that books about baseball have an integral place on the general reader's reading list.

¶ Josh Emmons cannot resist the urge to couch his review of Padgett Powell's The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? in the interrogative mood. His statements in the indicative suggests that he ought to stick with questions.

The Interrogative Mood demands to be read deliberately, for it is courageous and entertaining and interested in the essential mysteries of self and society. Powell, with his outsize romanticism and urge only to connect, shows that it is through questions rather than answers that truth can, however fleetingly, be glimpsed.

¶ Gaiutra Bahadur's warm review of Amit Chaudhuri's novel, The Immortals, makes it sound appealing and interesting, but it is not altogether intelligible.

Chaudhuri is clearsighted about what is closest to him, and he is candid without being cynical about the class of aspirants who have made India a global economic player. The Immortals confirms his reputation as a gifted miniaturist. Nothing much happens in this book, but its elegant sentences and dry, discerning portraits more than compensate.

¶ Mary Duenwald's review of Juliet, Naked, the new Nick Hornby novel, begins well, but slides almost at once into mushy storytelling. You can stop reading after the first paragraph.

Nick Hornby is again having fun with — making fun of — an obsessive music fan. What’s different now, 14 years after “High Fidelity,” is that fans live out their obsessions on the Internet, a place where distances shrink, time collapses, and it’s very easy to get lost. Hornby seems, as ever, fascinated by the power of music to guide the heart, and in this very funny, very charming novel, he makes you see why it matters.

¶ Adam Goodheart faults Cornelia Nixon for getting her Reconstruction history wong in Jarrettsville, a novel based on a forebear's career as a murderess, but he dislikes the writing even more. Reporting that an interesting-sounding book is not very good helps no one. This is also one of those reviews that begins by proposing literary axioms.

If a successful work of fiction is an illusionist’s trick, then surely successful historical fiction requires a kind of double deception. The reader’s mind must be drawn cunningly out of his body to inhabit not only an unfamiliar realm of experience but an alien time. This is tough to pull off, since the telltale colors of the author’s own era always end up seeping in. The phenomenon is similar to what happens with art forgeries: most experts say that even the cleverest fake rarely goes undetected for more than a generation. Sooner or later, that dreamy young woman in the newly discovered Vermeer will end up looking just a little too much like Reese Witherspoon.

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