Reading Matter
Books On the Side
Books In Brief

Reviewing the Book Review

Man of Darkness

27 December 2009

¶ Christopher Cardwell understandably devotes the bulk of his review of Michael Scammell's Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic to reminding the gentle reader of Arthur Koestler's accomplishments as an author, but he does not forget to appraise Mr Scammell's.

Scammell’s is an authorized biography and a sympathetic one. But the Koestler he depicts is consistently repugnant — humorless, megalomaniac, violent. Like many people concerned about “humanity,” he was contemptuous of actual humans.


Scammell argues here that “the exercise of male strength to gain sexual satisfaction wasn’t exactly uncommon at that time” and that “Craigie’s story and Cesarani’s embellishment of it have left a stain on Koestler’s reputation far larger than he deserves.”

He is wrong. Posterity has let Koestler off lightly. Every scrap of evidence that Scammell himself has so impartially gathered argues in favor of crediting Craigie’s story. Bertrand Russell’s wife claimed Koestler tried to rape her, too. “Without an element of initial rape,” Koestler wrote the woman who would be his second wife, “there is no delight.” One girlfriend called him “an odd mixture of consideration, thoughtfulness and extraordinary brutality.” Certain aspects of Koestler’s sexism — in particular, his expectation that his girlfriends serve him as stenographers and maids — are indeed mitigated by the era in which he lived. His pattern of predation and violence, though, is a vice of a different order. It shocked those who encountered it.

¶ In his guardedly favorable review of When Giants Walked the Earth: A Biography of Led Zeppelin, Rick Moody complains that Mick Wall's writing can be "both rushed and repetitious," and that there isn't enough about the band's music in the book.

Wall is conflicted enough about the facts that he allows this mythologizing title to be appended to his work: “When Giants Walked the Earth.” But these were no giants, these were just young people, like you, who for a time happened to have more power and influence than was good for them. In the midst of it all, they made extraordinary music.

The review is so engaged, however, that it is not at all clear that Mr Wall's book does not, against all the odds, merit coverage in the Book Review.

¶ Toward the end of his review of Summertime, Jonathan Dee remarks that "many, this reviewer among them, would consider the greatest living novelist in English" to be the book's author, J M Coetzee. For the life of me, however, I cannot find a single statement in the review that even suggests the supportability of this bizarre claim.

Why obfuscate such things? What is the purpose of supposing readers’ interest in one’s own early life only to subvert that interest via manufactured, undergraduate­-level coyness about Truth and Self? For all its self-deprecations, there is no contesting that the “Scenes From Provincial Life” trilogy is a fundamentally narcissistic project. But the vandalism Coetzee commits upon the easily checked facts of his own life ultimately serves to sharpen a question that does seem genuine, and genuinely self-­indicting: Doesn’t being a great artist demand, or at least imply, a certain greatness of spirit as well?

This is not very different from hailing Mr Coetzee as a great writer because he has won the Nobel Prize.

¶ Christopher Benfey appears to be ambivalent about Sheila Kohler's Becoming Jane Eyre. First the con, then the pro.

But the Brontës seem diminished in Becoming Jane Eyre. One ­wearies of their incessant questions and exclamations, meant to reproduce their thoughts but sounding a bit too much like 21st-century anxieties. “Can she own these words,” Charlotte wonders, “which speak of the longings of a woman for fulfillment, for love, for the same rights as a man?”

Kohler was wise to pitch the novel in a subdued mode, not vying with the passions unleashed in the Brontë novels or in Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys’s excruciatingly gorgeous fictional evocation of the first Mrs. Rochester’s life. She has written instead a small, uncluttered novel about sibling rivalry and the various meanings of “publication” for women writers in a straitened world where women were supposed to stay private.

¶ Christopher Byrd likes Jean-Philippe Toussaint's Running Away (translated by Matthew B Smith) better than his storytelling coverage might suggest. His conclusion:

While such contrivances may irk readers who look to novels for believable characters, they shouldn’t bother those who place a premium on elegance and artistry. Indeed, one might find in Toussaint’s truncations an admirable rebellion against a world that’s submerged in too much information and too little beauty.

¶ John Simon finds occasion to play his Ming-the-Merciless act with Nicholas Fox Weber's The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism. Having charged the author with having, as a Yale graduated student, contracted a case of "hero worship" for Josef and Anni Albers (two members of the eponymous sextet), Mr Simon continues

Although there are some good color reproductions, what use are the numerous black-and-white ones, especially for abstract works where color is all­important? And how can architectural details be conveyed in words without becoming too technical? Other details, about the Alberses, are too personal. Do we care about what Josef saw from the car window when young Weber was chauffeuring them? Or about what Anni wore on varied occasions? Finally, there are contradictions. Was Gropius’s hair fair or dark? Did Anni’s trouble with her feet partly stem from unusually high arches or their absence?

This is amusing but also somewhat obfuscating.

¶ Joanna Smith Rakoff's favorable review of Lauren Grodstein's novel, A Friend of the Family, is brief but persuasive.

If this sounds tawdry, it’s not. Grodstein — whose previous books (a novel, “Reproduction Is the Flaw of Love,” and a great short story collection, “The Best of Animals”) have been in a more comic vein — is a terrific storyteller and an even better ventriloquist. She beautifully captures Pete’s sly self-deceptions: the man-of-the-people persona that masks his deeply rooted elitism, the liberal pose that hides an almost pathological conservatism. Midway through the novel, it becomes clear that Grodstein is pulling a Ford Madox Ford: Pete is, perhaps not surprisingly, an utterly unreliable narrator. He’s not a good man who’s been wronged, but one whose delusions of goodness have blinded him to the needs of others.

¶ Patrick Cockburn gives Joe Sacco's graphic history of a long-ago massacre of Palestinians, Footnotes in Gaza, a rave review.

Gaza has changed radically since Sacco did his research. In 2005, Israel unilaterally dismantled Jewish settlements and withdrew its military forces, although it remained in tight control of Gaza’s borders. In 2007, Hamas seized control, and in 2008-9 the enclave came under devastating Israeli attack. In this bewildering torrent of events, Sacco’s investigation into the 50-year-old killings is one of the surest guides to the hatred with which Palestinians and Israelis confront one another.

¶ William Saletan's lengthy but curiously neutral review of Michael Belfiore's The Department of Mad Scientists: How DARPA Is Remaking Our World, From the Internet to Artificial Limbs seems determined not to express an opinion about the book. Instead, Mr Saletan ladles on the gee-whiz stories without so much as quoting a single complete sentence.

Fun reading, but, as a review, fairly useless.

¶ Bryan Burrough's reservations about Gerald Posner's "slumming" Miami Babylon: Crime, Wealth, and Power — A Dispatch From the Beach are enlightening, not confusing.

That said, there’s value here for anyone genuinely interested in Florida. Where Posner thrives is telling the stories of the first developers and artists who foresaw what Miami Beach would become and worked against all odds to build it. There’s Barbara Capitman, the activist who rallied interest behind preserving the city’s Art Deco buildings, and her son Andrew, who bought a few before losing them. Every­one tells his or her own story; at times “Miami Babylon” feels like oral history or a very long Vanity Fair article.

"A very long Vanity Fair article" — sounds like a perfect match for Mr Posner's subject.

¶ Judith Shulevitz gives a good-as-far-as-it-goes review to The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures.

Wade argues that our religious disposition can enhance social and national unity, manage scarce resources, even solve the tricky problem of how to get young men to die for the greater good when that’s called for. But Wade also knows that the faith-based preference for the group has engendered genocide, mass suicide and maladaptive cargo cults. Perhaps that is why he declines to draw one inference that proceeds from his arguments: that individual religions can be compared and ranked and, well, approved or disapproved of, since a religion can be good only insofar as it’s useful.


The problem, to my mind, is not that Wade has overambitiously linked genetics and religion. It is that he has underambitiously portrayed religion as less encompassing and consequential than it is. Can we really isolate as distinct adaptations the magnificently bizarre and oddly satisfying behaviors and feelings crammed into that drab pigeonhole of a word, “religion”? I would have thought that would amount to explaining what makes us human.

Ms Shulevitz approach makes for an interesting discussion that, unfortunately, gets in the way of the book itself.

Permalink  Portico About this feature

Copyright (c) 2009 Pourover Press

Write to me