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Reviewing the Book Review

The Naked and the Conflicted

3 January 2010

The cover story this week is not a review at all, but an argument in support of the proposition that the principal white, heterosexual American novelists have succumbed to a self-censorship about sex that has turned back the alleged advances in achieved by Philip Roth and John Updike. One can only wonder what Canada's principal novelist, Margaret Atwood, would make of the piece.

¶ Kathryn Harrison's uncharacteristically unsympathetic review of Anne Tyler's Noah's Compass reads like an advance reader's negative report, as if to say, "Don't publish this book — yet!"

What this novel needs is a heroine. Tyler’s heroes may not live up to the word, but the women she invents can be vivid, delightful and capable of surprising action.

This, together with Ms Harrison's comments on depressed characters in literature, is not very helpful to Book Review readers.

¶ Colm Tóibín's somewhat mixed review of the new collection of stories by Ha Jin, A Good Fall, takes the trouble to point up one of Mr Jin's great strengths.

Jin writes with a peculiar intensity and insight about money. His stories are filled with people who are emotionally disfigured because they don’t have enough or because they are desperate to get more, from one another or from an employer. He writes about money as if it were the opposite of love, and he manages to be unsettlingly precise and convincing in conveying what poverty feels like, what it does to relationships, to the way people not only experience but perceive their lives. He is at his best when he writes about what the struggle against penury and financial ruin can do to the soul.

¶ Jeffrey Rosen struggles manfully to strike as "fair and balanced" a tone in his review of Joan Biskupic's biography, American Original: The Life and Constitution of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Nevertheless, in her impressively balanced and well reported book, Biskupic, who previously wrote a biography of Sandra Day O’Connor, gives Scalia his due. She notes, for example, that he has voted to let people burn flags and to confront their accusers. And there are other, below-the-radar cases as well. Whenever I teach criminal procedure, I’m struck by Scalia opinions where his suspicion of judicial subjectivity leads him to libertarian results that he must find personally distasteful — like his decision against the use of drug-detecting thermal imaging technology on private homes without a warrant. In a few terrorism cases, too, as Biskupic notes, Scalia has broken ranks with Cheney in insisting that Congress can’t suspend the writ of habeas corpus for American citizens without doing so explicitly. These cases suggest that Scalia — perhaps no more or less frequently than the liberal justices — is able to separate his political from his constitutional conclusions at least some of the time.

¶ Alexandra Fuller enthusiastically conveys the physical flavor of Will Self's collection of essays, illustrated by Ralph Steadman, Psycho Too

Thus it is with all of Self’s work — so personal it is not always easy to know where the man ends and the words begin. Place always bores itself into his flesh and soul. There is no separation, he is telling us, between what we do to our surroundings and what our surroundings (in turn) do to us. And in order to best understand the relationship between mind and place, Self seems almost pathologically determined to walk almost everywhere. Hundreds of miles of trekking clock up in the course of these essays. Without the distancing, hermetically sealed comfort of a vehicle, Self experiences the world with shocking physicality: sweat, heat, cold, insects.

¶ Joseph Kahn gives Martin Jacques's When China Rules the Word: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order a guardedly favorable review.

This bold assertion, he acknowledges, rests on the assumption that nothing will derail the political stability and economic dynamism China enjoys today. It is not clear that even the most senior leaders in Beijing share Jacques’s faith in that forecast. But the future is unknowable, and his extrapolations are, if not provable, at least plausible. The strength of his book lies in his exhaustive, incisive exploration of possibilities that many people have barely begun to contemplate about a future dominated by China.

Much of the journalism and many of the best-selling books on China treat the country’s rise as an economic phenomenon. It is presented as a developing country, albeit the biggest one, that has opened its doors to the West, allowed a Western-style market economy to flourish and exported goods to wealthy consumers abroad. Those things are true. But Jacques argues that the focus on the economic side of the story has lulled the West into a false sense of security. “The mainstream Western attitude has held that, in its fundamentals, the world will be relatively little changed by China’s rise,” he writes. Rather, he says, “the rise of China will change the world in the most profound ways.”

As Mr Kahn notes, the assumption that China will hold together indefinitely is not the soundest.

¶ One paragraph in Adam Gopnik's favorable review of Stanislas Dehaene's Reading In the Brian: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention, encourages my hope that a sense of history will eventually smash the intensely patriarchal idea of immutable human nature to smithereens:

We are born with a highly structured brain. But those brains are also transformed by our experiences, especially our early experiences. More than any other animal, we humans constantly reshape our environment. We also have an exceptionally long childhood and especially plastic young brains. Each new generation of children grows up in the new environment its parents have created, and each generation of brains becomes wired in a different way. The human mind can change radically in just a few generations.

¶ Leave it to Roberto Colasso to argue, in Tiepolo Pink, that

Tiepolo “did his utmost to conceal, behind his blinding speed of execution, the subtly aberrant nature of his subjects to the point that he succeeded in having his most daring and enigmatic works, the Scherzi, passed off as facile amusements.” He implies that the Scherzi are, collectively, an esoteric masterpiece, dense with erudite references, disguised as so many cartoons. Fully a third of the book is devoted to the decoding of these somewhat mysterious images, and one must say that it enables the author to demonstrate his dazzling learning and his powers of observation; it is in this sense the very opposite of sprezzatura.

The book (translated by Alastair McEwen) gets a very enthusiastic review from Arthur Danto.

¶ Lorraine Adams takes enough of a break from storytelling, in her guardedly favorable review of Beneath the Lion's Gaze, to place author Maaza Mengiste among today's leading African writers.

Mengiste joins a group of other young Africans writing in English — including the Nigerians Chris Abani, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helon Habila, Uwem Akpan and Uzodinma Iweala, as well as Aminatta Forna from Sierra Leone — whose subject is the continent’s postcolonial civil wars. They are unafraid of depicting the vicious violence Frantz Fanon’s “wretched of the earth” are capable of and showing how Fanon’s colonially oppressed grew into master oppressors themselves. These writers have yet to achieve the magisterial command of this dark terrain that Nuruddin Farah, who is from an older generation, has superbly accomplished in his two trilogies about Somalia. But Mengiste understands well the unique position her country occupies in Africa’s postcolonial landscape. And her uncanny rendition of Selassie’s last moments reveals her sensitivity to the twisted singularity of his magnetism.

¶ that Frank Kermode, generous critic that he is, does not disapprove of David Rosenberg's A Literary Bible is perhaps all that one needs to know.

By the “literary” of his title, he means to say that he is looking for modern readings, free of the muddles introduced into the understanding of these works by academics and religious commentators of all descriptions, and recognizable as living speech. He must echo neither the venerable King James translation nor the many recent versions; he must somehow be modern as well as faithful to the past, reproducing where necessary the ancient, strange, “uncanny” vigor of J, the primary author. He likes what he sees of these qualities as they survive in modern Hebrew, but his remit is to translate into modern American English.

The results are disconcerting at times. Rosenberg may underestimate the difficulty of representing or imitating the ancient Hebrew; perhaps the entire problem of modern representations of the past eludes him...

One senses from the review that this is the sort of book whose very shortcomings inspire future scholarship. ¶

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