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Reviewing the Book Review

Hiding In Plain Sight

20 December 2009

¶ Jeanette Winterson devotes three full paragraphs of her review of Joan Shenkar's literary biography, The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith, to a discussion of the book's merits. Will wonders never cease?

Schenkar has a wonderfully bold approach: not worrying about a linear chronology (although this is meticulously supplied in the appendices), but choosing instead to follow the emotional water­course of Highsmith’s life, allowing her subject to find her own level — to be tidal, sullen, to flow without check, so that events in one decade naturally make an imaginative tributary into turbulence ­before and after.

Schenkar’s writing is witty, sharp and light-handed, a considerable achievement given the immense detail of this ­biography. Highsmith was a detail junkie. Schenkar’s nonlinear organizing method was a brilliant idea to save herself — and the reader — from data overload.

This is a biography of clarity and style. A model of its kind.

The review may not be a model, but it is certainly an inspiration.

¶ The first sentence of Lisa Scottoline's review of Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town, by Elyssa East, ought to be the only one.

Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town is a true-crime story, an art appreciation course and an American history lesson stitched together, and it succeeds as all three, albeit with a few seams showing.

What follows is carping, mostly.

¶ Suzanne Vega's warm and witty (but unfavorable) review of Peter Ames Carlin's Paul McCartney: A Life, tells us why this book does not warrant coverage in the Book Review.

“So dry your eyes and blow your nose, because now we’re going back to the basements of our youth. Coming full circle to those sweaty young boys, so full of life and joy and not even suspecting where all of this is about to take them.”

Yes, let’s do that. Our eyes dry in a hurry as we careen from breathless fan-boy writing to dusty travelogue descriptions of Liverpool at the turn of the 20th century, while Carlin describes some immigrants flooding in and others flooding out, “departing for the untrammeled shores of the New World.”

Yawn. Why are shores always untrammeled? No one ever seems to write about how trammeled most shores actually are these days.

¶ I cannot guess at the editorial self-justifications that must have accompanied the publication of Nellie McKay's review, written in Lennonese patois, of John Lennon: The Life, by Philip Norman.

So anoddy at arts pool he was a contradictionary type, gouche ole misfit and one who always pound a gang, a genius whose girlfriend did his wark for him, the young sham thaking thun tuf criddles from a wilde who’d tallways play Indian — “That was typical John, to support the underdog,” sed Shimmy.

"Fun," you say. You must have a lot of free time. 

¶ Marie Ponsot's new book of poems, Easy, gets a favorable but qualified review from Stephen Burt.

Buttressed by years, Ponsot can give advice worth pondering: “Go to a funeral / as to a wedding: / marry the loss. / Go to a coming / as to a going: / unhurrying.” Age yields, sometimes, reasons for new delight: it is like touring Europe without a guide or a list of must-see locales, “stopping & starting, off-season, / off-peak, on time, on our own.” Unintimidated by strangers’ opinions, Ponsot can sound enthused or merely precious, sincerely awestruck or simply naïve. She can also permit herself frank comments about other people’s lives: in a sonnet about a rich old man and his second wife, “he / does look awkward, playing young, playing lord. / She’s bored. He’s scared. She’s scared. He’s bored.”

¶ According to James Oliver Cury's warmly guarded, Peter Mayle's latest book about the good life in the South of France, The Vintage Caper, comes packaged as crime fiction.

At times, the characters become caricatures: the rich and rude Americans versus the flirtatious and jingoistic French. Mayle’s women, though smart and sophisticated, all experience some form of sexual frisson when in Levitt’s presence. A bar owner in Marseille, described as “an impressive sight” with a “truly monumental bosom, much of it visible, with the rest struggling to escape from an orange tank top two ­sizes too small,” fixes her eyes on Levitt and propositions him in French. Readers may also be surprised at how well every hunch and scheme works out. We’d all be wine thieves if crimes were this easy.

For Mayle fans and oenophiles, however, these shortcomings may not matter: wine is clearly the main character.

¶ Although characteristically earnest, Liesl Schillinger is uncharacteristically unsympathetic to Jim Thompson's new collection of stories, The Farmer's Daughter. One senses an awful struggle to find a bright side in the final paragraph.

In the third story, “The Games of Night,” Harrison employs magical elements to make his themes more palatable. When the unnamed 12-year-old protagonist is seduced by a lubricious seventh-grade classmate, the author tenderly records their underage play. A little later, during a bird-watching expedition to Mexico with his ornithologist father, the boy is bitten by both a wolf and a hummingbird. Through a mysterious transformation — like the one in which Peter Parker turns into Spider-Man — he becomes a demon lover, and satisfies his new cravings posthaste with a sensual, willing, older, married woman. After their tussle, he fortifies himself by feasting on a bowl of tripe. Not that long before, the boy, like the farmer’s daughter in Montana, had felt oppressed by the demands of physicality. “I was getting my nose rubbed in the animality of people,” he fretted. But if there’s one thing Harrison knows, it’s how to teach his characters to share his sensual hunger and relish their role in his supernaturally charged natural world. Whether his readers can tuck in with similar gusto is a question of taste — and perhaps of glands.

¶ Aside from dissatisfaction with the American publisher's decision to alter Richard Overy's original title — The Morbid Years — for the worse — The Twilight Years: The Paradox of Britain Between the WarsAlex von Tunzelmann's review reports nothing but pleasure

Whatever it may be called, Overy’s study of British culture between the wars is absorbing and unexpectedly moving. Some of its stories may haunt the reader long after the book has been closed, and not just the morbid ones. This reviewer has been unable to forget the June 1939 survey sent out to all medical personnel of the British Psycho-Analytical Society, asking them to state preferences for their wartime service — whether they would rather do hospital work, emergency work, work with children or work with adults. Ernest Jones, the 60-year-old doyen of British psychoanalysis, sent back his form with a simple declaration scrawled at the bottom: “Ready for anything. E. J.” Perhaps that is a clue to why, despite the all-pervading sense of crisis, Britain survived its twilight years — and the catastrophic war that followed

¶ Pete Hamill begins his review of Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson, by Wil Haygood, with an entirely inappropriate claim: "He was certainly the greatest prizefighter I ever saw." The review continues as a series of further claims in derogation of Mr Haygood's book.

There are some curious omissions, too. Haygood doesn’t mention the historic cultural role of Minton’s Playhouse, on 118th Street, where young musicians (including Miles Davis) gathered for jam sessions and invented the freer, more original and absolutely urban music called bebop. He doesn’t even mention bebop.

The review, in short, is a tissue of harassments.

¶ Although she clearly likes it, Andrea Wulf never shares enough of the writing in Amanda Vickery's Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England for us to form a personal opinion; more ominously, she does little to one's fear of academic jargon and obviousness.

There is a plethora of studies about male patronage of architecture and the decorative arts in the Georgian period, but it may come as a surprise that bachelors, husbands, widowers and brothers had such obsessions with the home front. “Those who are incapable of relishing domestic happiness can never be really happy at all,” one husband declared after more than 30 years of marriage.

An entire chapter is devoted to bachelors who, instead of parading around town as frivolous dandies — as they have been portrayed in the past — often longed for marriage. Many despised their makeshift accommodations and take-away meals (by 1700, the commercial provision of food employed more people than most other sectors), as well as crowded taverns and a maid who might take “my sheets to her own use.” When comparing bachelorhood to marriage, Dudley Ryder, the son of a linen draper, decided he wanted a “constant companion” who would be “always ready to soothe me, take care of me.” Marriage, Vickery writes, “announced and confirmed men’s adulthood” and marked the beginning of a well-managed domestic life. Just because men didn’t fill their diaries with their notion of “homeliness” doesn’t mean they weren’t interested in it, nor does it deter Vickery from trying to find out the details. Few writers have such a talent for transforming the driest historical source into a gripping narrative, for teasing stories from account books, inventories, ledgers and pattern books.

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