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Reviewing the Book Review

Strong Poison

22 November 2009

¶ Stephen King writes, with characteristic generosity, about the stories of Raymond Carver, now "rescued," in the Library of America series, from the invasive editing of Gordon Lish, alongside Carol Sklenica's biography, Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life.

The contrast between “The Bath” (Lish-edited) and “A Small, Good Thing” (Ray Carver unplugged) is even less palatable. On her son’s birthday, Scotty’s mother orders a birthday cake that will never be eaten. The boy is struck by a car on his way home from school and winds up in a coma. In both stories, the baker makes dunning calls to the mother and her husband while their son lies near death in the hospital. Lish’s baker is a sinister figure, symbolic of death’s inevitability. We last hear from him on the phone, still wanting to be paid. In Carver’s version, the couple — who are actually characters instead of shadows — go to see the baker, who apologizes for his unintended cruelty when he understands the situation. He gives the bereaved parents coffee and hot rolls. The three of them take this communion together and talk until morning. “Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this,” the baker says. This version has a satisfying symmetry that the stripped-down Lish version lacks, but it has something more important: it has heart.

The review is utterly heartbreaking: if Mr King put only a third as much thoughtfulness into his prose as he has done here, the satisfactions of his fiction would be amplified immeasurably.

¶ Sam Tanenhaus sets a high standard for athletes' memoirs in his review of Andre Agassi's Open: An Autobiography.  

Equally hard-won self-knowledge irradiates almost every page of “Open,” thanks in great part to Agassi’s inspired choice of collaborator, J. R. Moehringer, author of the memoir “The Tender Bar,” with its melody of remembered voices. Agassi says he read it in 2006, at his last U.S. Open, and then recruited Moehrin­ger to help him write his own book. The result is not just a first-rate sports memoir but a genuine bildungsroman, darkly funny yet also anguished and soulful. It confirms what Agassi’s admirers sensed from the outset, that this showboat, with his garish costumes and presumed fatuity, was not clamoring for attention but rather conducting a struggle to wrest some semblance of selfhood from the sport that threatened to devour him.

¶ Judith Shulevitz simply wishes that Ben Yagoda, author of Memoir: A History had written a different book — one with a different subtitle.

You might expect Yagoda to follow up by speculating on why such mutations evolved. But Yagoda prefers cataloging to philosophizing, forgoing the “thematic, theoretical, generic, psychological, moral or aesthetic” approaches in favor of the strictly — and to my mind somewhat ploddingly — “historical” approach. (It’s really the “one thing then another” approach.)

It would have been enough to put it this way: "Yagoda does provide data for those who want to puzzle through the memoir’s epistemological difficulties, even if he himself is more interested in its development over time."

¶ Laura Secor gives a somewhat swamped review to Haleh Esfandiari's My Prison, My Home: One Woman's Story of Captivity in Iran. After copious storytelling, Ms Secor squeezes out the following:

With its fractured chapters and frequent subheadings, “My Prison, My Home” sometimes lacks narrative cohesion. Its most revealing passages are those detailing experiences no doubt painful and even boring at the time: the hours wasted testing the obduracy of Ja’fari’s pinched mind, and later, keeping pace with the more sophisticated Hajj Agha, whose face Esfandiari is never allowed to see. Esfandiari writes without literary affectation, to the point of flatness; but in her refusal to aggrandize or feel sorry for herself, there is an unmistakable and persistent dignity.

¶ James Fallows finds that Typhoon, an intelligence thriller by Scotsman Charles Cumming, flatters the United States a great deal less than it does China — if anyone is bothering to read it from a competitive point of view. But as this appraisal of the novel's entertainment value makes suggests —

As a thriller, “Typhoon” is easy to like. The plot is tight and complex, and the local details are accurate about the three main cities where it is set: Shanghai, Hong Kong and Beijing. The questions and tensions set up in the first 300 or so pages are resolved in a multifront action scene through the final 100 pages, as characters converge from around the country to create or thwart terrorist violence. I think of spy fiction set in Europe — by John le Carré, Alan Furst, Charles ­­McCarry — as being dark in ambiance and mood: twilight scenes, drizzle, disappointed chara­cters with their best years and opportunities behind them. Cumming’s tone is correspondingly bright, partly thanks to the pep of urban China, partly because the characters are young and on the make.

— it's not clear that the book merits coverage in the Book Review.

¶ Liesl Schillinger really likes Ludmilla Petroshevskaya's collection, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales, and she takes pains to establish their context in Russian literature. The review would not be out of place as the book's introduction.

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya was born in Moscow in 1938, at the height of the Stalinist terror, at a time when the Soviet Union was on the brink of war. For decades, censors shunned her fiction because of its impolitic bleakness, and she survived by working as an editor and translator, writing plays and television and radio scripts (when she could), and selling the occasional newspaper article. But with the rise of perestroika and the fall of Communism, she has been rehabilitated, and today is hailed as one of Russia’s best living writers.

¶ Brenda Wineapple's favorable review of Madison Smartt Bell's Devil's Dream works at getting past the Civil War butchery to the art of this historical novel.

Yet it’s not in Forrest but in the intricate structure of the novel that Bell has powerfully placed its moral center, which is a recoiling horror at the carnage of war. “Devil’s Dream” is narrated in the third person, largely from the perspective of Henri, a Creole who joins Forrest’s rangers in the summer of 1861. Yet Henri is killed at Chickamauga in 1863, during the book’s second chapter. From the beginning, scenes veer back and forth in a shifting time frame.

¶ Hendrik Hertzberg's ¡Obamanos!" The Birth of a New Political Era gets a warm review from Jonathan Freedland — one that addresses the fact that the book's contents are old magazine articles.

Indeed, in common with the best political columnists, Hertzberg keeps a vigilant eye on language. He is amused by politicians’ “ ‘experimented with marijuana’ dodge, with getting zonked spun as a science project.” He similarly refuses to be duped by the use of “misspoke” as a blanket get-out-of-jail-free card: “It is a word that is apparently thought capable . . . of isolating a palpable, possibly toxic untruth, sealing it up in an airtight bag and disposing of it harmlessly.”

But it is not only Hertzberg’s wit that prevents him from being a left wingnut. He may stake out radical positions — like denouncing the war on drugs as an utterly futile “disgrace” — but he is, more often, a spokesman for those unsung soldiers in the progressive army: the brokers of the messy compromise.

¶ Sean Wilentz almost convinces us that we want to know more about James K Polk, the subject of Robert W Merry's A Country of Vast Designs: James K Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent.

Merry’s historical rebuttals are not, however, his book’s chief distinguishing feature. “A Country of Vast Designs” is mainly a thorough, well-wrought political history of Polk’s presidency. The origins, conduct and results of the war with Mexico necessarily dominate the narrative, but Merry covers all of the other major issues and events, and many of the minor ones as well. The president and editor of Congressional Quarterly, Merry is well aware of how intrigues and manipulations have always held sway in Washington, and he reports the machinations of the Polk years with clarity and an insider’s verve. Filled with intricate stories of personal conflict, psychological gamesmanship and unintended consequences, his book, although bound to stir controversy, is one of the most astute and informative historical accounts yet written about national politics, and especially Washington politics, during the decisive 1840s.

¶ Elizabeth Samet gives a deeply unsympathetic review to The Remains of Company D: A Story of the Great War, by James Carl Nelson. One wonders what the editors were thinking, either about the book or the reviewer.

Nelson ultimately falls victim to the civilian’s temptation to sentimentalize someone else’s war — to imagine that mysterious “nightmares and knowledge” must inevitably texture the veteran’s every moment. I am reminded of a helicopter pilot who concluded a matter-of-fact account of being shot down over Iraq by explaining to me that it is not the experience by which he defines — or wishes to define — his life. “Sentimentality,” Wallace Stevens wrote, “is a failure of feeling.” It is this failure that betrays the honorable intentions of “The Remains of Company D.”

¶ Mary Gordon's Reading Jesus: A Writer's Encounter With the Gospels gets a pallidly favorable review from Benjamin Anastas.

Each chapter of “Reading Jesus” begins with multiple passages from the Gospels, chosen for what they reveal about Jesus’ teachings and how they compare in different tellings. Gordon then gives her own commentary, some of it autobiographical — the strongest, most affecting passages in the book — some based on scholarship, and some featuring rather shopworn attempts at social criticism.

¶ Don Waters calls Twisted Tree Kent Meyers's "impressive third novel," but his storytelling succeeds at making it sound merely odd.

Meyers isn’t squeamish about tough subject matter. He doesn’t shun life’s synchronicities, either. He embraces the “invisible filaments” that connect one thing to the next. People and objects disappear and reappear for different purposes — including that big blue Lincoln Continental. It’s a dirty, haunted shell by the time Leonard Sends For Him, a quietly noble Lakota man, purchases it. Leonard “is a kind of heyoka” (in Lakota culture, a sacred trickster or jester endowed with a special purpose). When Leonard parks the Continental on a frozen stretch of Lostman’s Lake, to ice fish, the ice buckles and he maroons the car.

¶ Perhaps in keeping with its subject, Geoff Nicholson's review of Will Self's Liver: A Fictional Organ With a Surface Anatomy of Four Lobes skates near to incoherence.

Is life worth living? The corny old answer, that it all depends on the liver, is one that Will Self, in this smart, beguiling and occasionally stomach-turning book of four linked stories, finds only partly adequate. Certainly his characters’ lives and livers are in very bad shape, but it would take more than a good detox, or even a transplant, to return them to health.

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