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Reviewing the Book Review

Object Lessons

29 November 2009

¶ Reviewing the latest collection of stories by Alice Munro, Too Much Happiness, Leah Hager Cohen pinpoints one of the characteristic specialties of the Canadian master's fiction.

Munro’s own contrarian streak is displayed in the structure of her narratives. Many writers begin a story in medias res, but a Munro story is liable to end in the middle of things — that is, well before (or well beyond) the moment when a reader expects to find resolution. The very shape of things, along with our sense of what is important and why, seems to shift as we proceed. The real story keeps turning out to be larger than, and at canted angles to, what we thought it would be. The effect is initially destabilizing, then unexpectedly affirming.

¶ Who knew that Nicholson Baker is a fan of Google? In his review of Ken Auletta's Googled: The End of the World as We Know It, he chides the author and most of his interviewees with a churlish ingratitude that, in the businessmen's case at least, looks a lot like competitive disadvantage.

Surely no other software company has built a cluster of products that are anywhere near as cleverly engineered, as quick-loading and as fun to fiddle with, as Google has, all for free. Have you not searched?

Because, let me tell you, I remember the old days, the antegoogluvian era. It was O.K. — it wasn’t horrible by any means. There were cordless telephones, and people wore comfortable sweaters. There was AltaVista, and Ask Jeeves, and HotBot, and Excite, and Infoseek, and Northern Light — with its deep results and its elegant floating schooner logo — and if you wanted to drag through several oceans at once, there was MetaCrawler. But the haul was haphazard, and it came in slow. You chewed your peanut-butter cracker, waiting for the screen to fill.

"Antegoogluvian" is a keeper.

¶ In her warmly favorable review of Penelope Lively's Family Album, Dominique Browning discovers a new kind of unhappy ending.

The novel ends in a decay of writing, but not because Lively’s own writing is any less precise. Charles dies, and the children must come together, both to honor him and to decide what to do about the house, too large and unwieldy for their mother and the au pair. They send e-mail messages to one another. This is irritating but effective. Internet language is pared, ruthless, stripped of emotion. The language of real-estate brochures is even worse. But that’s what it comes down to in this family’s album. That and the end of the large, rich, sprawling life of a house that has somehow left a dead place in each and every full, yearning heart that once beat there.

¶ Dean Bakopoulos is largely pleased by Brad Leithauser's new, Detroit-set novel, The Art Student's War.

Still, this is a skillful novel. Often Leithauser’s books are brilliant but not quite accessible; but “The Art Student’s War” is straightforward and engaging. In fact, it is one of the finest novels about Detroit’s history to come along in years. With its generous and cleareyed vision of the city’s grand past, it will particularly resonate with readers who remember the glory days of the American Rust Belt.

Now let’s just hope someone comes along who can give us a generous and cleareyed vision of the city’s future.

¶ Louisa Thomas stops just short of stating that Jane Gardam's The Man in the Wooden Hat so completely fills in the narrative hole at the center of her last novel, Old Filth, that the two books form a whole, but any reader of the earlier book will get the picture.

One of the few feats that’s harder than doing justice to a complicated marriage is doing justice to it twice. The Man in the Wooden Hat revisits territory covered in Old Filth, but as Betty’s story instead of Edward’s. It’s not necessary to have read the prior book to enjoy this one. If anything, The Man in the Wooden Hat makes the fractured plot and chronology of Old Filth easier to understand. Still, it’s worth reading (or rereading) Old Filth. On its own, The Man in the Wooden Hat is funny and affecting, but read alongside Old Filth, it’s remarkable. Gardam has attempted to turn a story inside out without damaging the original narrative’s integrity — moving from black to white without getting stuck with gray. Little here is as it seemed in Old Filth, and both books are the richer for it.

¶ Jay Winik gives Gordon Wood's Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 a lucid and enthusiastic review.

One area where Wood makes a particularly noteworthy contribution is in tracing the surprise development of America’s democratic identity. “Surprise” is the word. Too often forgotten is the fact that America’s patrician founders harbored great fears about the “excesses of democracy.” Though the new country was to be a daring trial in self-government, it was expected to be guided less by egalitarian impulses than by the aristocratic beliefs of well-bred gentlemen. That day, however, was quickly waning.

As the South Carolinian David Ramsay put it, Americans “changed from subjects to citizens.” Throughout the 1790s the United States increasingly became filled with “ambitious middling men” — craftsmen and entre­preneurs like bakers and bricklayers, artisans and shopkeepers, goldsmiths and clock makers and teachers and tradesmen, all of whom clamored for a say in how they were governed, how they were to be addressed (“Mr.” and “Mrs.”), even how medical dissertations would be written (no longer in Latin).

¶ Gordon Marino might have worked just a bit harder to make a truly compelling case for Something in the air: American Passion and Defiance in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, but his warmly favorable review suggests an important book.

There were many other dramas played out in Mexico City — involving George Foreman, the long jumper Bob Beamon and the high jumper Dick Fosbury, among others — and Hoffer gracefully brings them all into the same arena. More important, his jaunty but disciplined prose puts the wind at the reader’s back and shows us how the leaps, lifts and dashes of 1968 made a significant impact on the civil rights movement and raised the political consciousness of athletes.

¶ Clyde Haberman's intrigued review of William Langewiesche's Fly By Wire: The Geese, The Glide, the Miracle on the Hudson delicately registers the "criticism" that the book has received from a certain very famous airline pilot.

Not all pilots love fly by wire. Some believe it can induce inattentiveness in the cockpit and lead to mistakes. Sullenberger, who has criticized Langewiesche’s book, has faint praise for the A320 in his own book... (This dovetails with his belief that lower salaries and other airline cutbacks, combined with technological innovations, have reduced pilots to a status barely above that of bus drivers. “We’re the working wounded,” he writes.)

Langewiesche, a licensed pilot and the international correspondent for Vanity Fair (where parts of this book first appeared), understands that view. He simply doesn’t agree with it. When something goes wrong, fly by wire “emerges from the background to keep people safe,” he says. On Jan. 15, computers took care of the basics: keeping the plane steady. That freed the pilot to concentrate on the seemingly impossible task of a water landing. “Sullenberger was brilliant at it, as was the automation he commanded. Their roles were linked but distinct. His was to make the decisions that mattered. The automation’s was to execute them well.”

¶ Lynn Harris somewhat grudgingly concludes that what' best about The Second City Unscripted: Revolution and Revelation at the World-Famous Comedy Theatre need not be author Mike Thomas's input.

The book could use less of Thomas onstage and more behind the scenes. His prose is often laborious, his transitions groaning, his tabloidy use of alliteration (“punk-pulverizing police”) irritating. And a firmer hand was needed for organizing and editing. (Perhaps just one recounting of the cannibal rat in the couch?)

Then again, maybe Thomas is only following rule No. 1 of improv: “Always agree . . . never deny, don’t block” (Stephen Colbert). In other words: just let these folks talk. So as oral history, homage and update — of Sheldon Patinkin’s similar work from 2000 — “The Second City Unscripted” is a worthy second act.

¶ It is such a foregone conclusion that John Grisham's collection of short stories, Ford County would get precisely the sort of coverage in the Book Review that Ron Powers gives it that one would have welcomed a book report written by an admiring reader.

Such conflicted beatings, however, are seldom audible. They are drowned out by the roar of Grisham’s typically hell-for-leather plots, the skrawk of sketchy characterization, the clunk of tin-plated dialogue and (inevitably, one supposes) the ceaseless baying and barking of lawyers. Grisham’s Mississippi may contain precious few African-Americans or Christian divines or complex, resilient women, but it is well stocked in barristers, a resource generally under­exploited by the Southern Renaissance.

¶ Jonathan Mirsky raises a few quibbles with Hannah Pakula's The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Ka-shek and the birth of Modern China, but he dismisses them forthwith.

Nonetheless, Pakula’s biography is often absorbing. Madame Chiang emerges as more than just her husband’s wife; we see a brilliant, scheming, deliberately alluring, brave, corrupt chameleon of a woman who was Chiang’s main weapon in playing the Americans for nearly all they were worth. Harry S. Truman despised Chiang and the Soongs. “I discovered after some time,” he told one of his biographers, “that Chiang Kai-shek and the Madame and . . . the Soong family and the Kungs were all thieves, every last one of them, the Madame and him included. And they stole $750 million out of the $35 billion that we sent to Chiang.”

¶ Jonathan Rauch's favorable review of Michael Sandel's Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? presses home the urgency of the subject, which the author has not only taught at Harvard but explored on PBS

We were talking about federal policy, of course; but we were really talking about justice. Is justice absolute and process-driven, so that we should stick to rules, come what may? Or is it situational and outcome-aware, so that we should sometimes improvise to take account of special circumstances? Liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, are likely to disagree — often without realizing that it is justice, not just politics, that they disagree about.

¶ Deservedly or not, Darkshak Sanghavi is unhelpfully impatient with Michael Specter's Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.

But Specter isn’t much interested in the roots of denialism, much less in engaging productively with it. While his book brims with passion and many interesting facts, he repeatedly pulls rabble-rousing tricks — this in a book that accuses others of forgoing rational debate — and his annoyance is rarely focused. The opening chapter, “Vioxx and the Fear of Science,” is ostensibly about Merck’s blockbuster pain drug, which was linked to heart attacks and eventually pulled from shelves. But Specter never clearly presents the clinical data itself. Instead, he spins a tale of Big Pharma greed indirectly feeding public skepticism of science, and in an effort to push as many buttons as possible, somehow pulls in the writings of Goethe, forced sterilization of the “feebleminded,” the Unabomber, the Bhopal disaster, the Vietnam War, Chernobyl and Josef Mengele.

A book as intemperate as the one painted by Mr Sanghavi does not merit coverage in the Book Review.

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