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Reviewing the Book Review

Eat, Pray, Marry

10 Janury 2010

¶ One knew that they were making a movie of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, but it took the reviews of Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage to bring home the formidable scope of the earlier book's success. Curtis Sittenfeld's measured approval conveys the sense that the two memoirs, taken together, constitute more of an event than a reading experience.

By the end Gilbert had indeed convinced me that “the book that I needed to write was exactly this book.” Because really, in the wake of “Eat, Pray, Love,” wasn’t she damned if she did and damned if she didn’t? If this book were too similar to that one, some readers would say it was repetitive. If it were a complete departure, other readers would say she ought to have stuck to what she does well. By bringing along some elements, like exotic international locations, and leaving behind others, like a certain emotional rawness, she will no doubt displease those who will think she brought along what she should have left behind and left what she should have brought. But I’ll bet most fans of “Eat, Pray, Love” will be quite content, book clubs nationwide will have a grand time debating “Committed,” and even those of us with grouchier dispositions — including those of us who review books — can appreciate the closure of knowing that Gilbert and Felipe live happily ever after.

¶ And if the fuss over Committed made one feel out of it, that was as naught compared to one's response to Liesl Schillinger's review of All Things At Once, by Mika Brzezinski with Daniel Paisner; for one had at least known about Eat, Pray Love.

All Things at Once follows Brzezinski through her professional chutes and ladders — the freelance gigs, the graveyard shifts, the drama (covering 9/11), the dreariness (puff segments on shoes) — the only constant being the precariousness of her employment. In 2006, on her 39th birthday, she was abruptly and “arbitrarily” fired from CBS. Her stunned reaction was to quit the work force and become a full-time mother. But soon after opting out, she found her younger daughter, then 8, sitting on the floor in a “knees-up fetal position,” distressed over her mother’s lost career. She decided, she writes, that “it was important for them to see me fail and then come out the other side.”


¶ Thomas Mallon is unimpressed by Sally Denton's The Pink Lady: The Many Lives of Helen Gahagan Douglas.

Despite its concision, a rare and usually admirable thing in biography, the book doesn’t achieve the tonal or interpretive modesty that might give Douglas her due without inflating claims for her significance and her victimization at the hands of Richard Nixon, who defeated her in their 1950 California Senate race. Douglas’s life was more richly and judiciously presented by Ingrid Winther Scobie less than 20 years ago, in a biography called “Center Stage.”

But then, the review makes it clear that Mr Mallon isn't very impressed by Douglas, either. Such bored (or at any rate blasé) reviews are not helpful.

¶ It is unlikely that many readers of Jim Krusoe's review of Siamese, by Stig Saeterbakken (translated by Stokes Schwartz) will be inspired to run out and buy a copy of the novel.

In other words, we are traveling here though the bleakest territory of Beckett, the haunted compulsions of Thomas Bernhard, the desperation of Saeterbakken’s countryman Knut Hamsun. But missing are Beckett’s closely reasoned wit, Bernhard’s rigor, even Hamsun’s frantic grasping. Instead, Saeterbakken holds up for our edification a nasty and petulant individual who never was all that much fun in the first place. Not only do we have to hear Edwin’s unceasing complaints, we also have to witness his brutalization of Sweetie, which she doggedly reports:

“ ‘Look at me, you bitch!’ His tongue had gone back into his mouth so that he could shout again, at the top of his lungs. ‘Look at me! Don’t you think I’ve been a bad husband?’

Toward the end of the piece, Mr Krusoe calls Siamese "difficult and brilliant." Evidence for the former is ample, but, for the latter, nonexistent.

¶ Robin Romm's warm presentation of Ali Shaw's The Girl With Glass Feet makes the book — one hesitates to call it a "novel" — sound fey and weird.

The hybrid form of the book — fairy tale, myth, psychological realism and fantasy — impresses. But Shaw’s most delightful offerings are the vivid details he provides to make the magical real. One character raises moth-winged cattle (insect-size flying cows) deep in the woods. “Some of the larger bulls had curving horns and flew with heads bowed as if charging impish matadors,” Shaw writes. “Threadlike tails flowed behind them in a breeze created by their flight.” When Ida first touches one, she feels the faint heartbeat “like that of a newly hatched chick.” So plausible and winsome are these tiny cows (complete with miniature brandings), that the actual world feels less fun without them.

Maybe it would be better to say that it's the reviewer who sounds fey and weird. A match, in any case.

¶ Dominique Browning's warmly sympathetic review of Gail Godwin's Unfinished Desires hints at literary depths but is too taken up with storytelling to sound them. One of the characters, however, gets an insightful sketch.

Chloe is a gifted artist, able to capture, with quick strokes of her pencil, the essential gestures of those around her. And as she draws page upon page of portraits of her mother “in favorite remembered poses,” she is even able to imagine herself into her mother’s own childhood. A loyal daughter whose love is truly boundless, Chloe becomes her mother’s “guardian angel,” making a radical decision to help her mother’s soul move on to heaven. When Chloe’s stepfather surfaces to reclaim her, insisting she leave the school and come to live with him and his new wife, the grown-ups tiptoe around with lawyers. But Chloe, in a memorable and shocking scene, goes to his home and bravely confronts him. Politely devastating, Chloe is the embodiment of one of Godwin’s major themes, the idea of “holy daring,” of action that “lets itself be guided by divine improvisation.”

¶ The odd thing about Adam Liptak's double-barreled review of Seth Lipsky's The Citizen's Constitution: An Annotated Guide and Jack Rakove's The Annotated US Constitution and Declaration of Independence is the way in which it mirrors Mr Liptak's complaint:

The annotation is a curious genre. The reading experience is by nature unpleasant, with the eye forced to shuttle back and forth between text and commentary. The document under scrutiny is constantly interrupted, its unities dismembered. This is particularly unfortunate in the case of the Constitution, which is too often read as a series of clauses rather than an organic whole. At the same time, there is a great deal to be said for reading every word of the Constitution, and being made to pause and consider each one.

Substitute "double-barreled review" for "annotation" and you have a good idea of distracting back-and-forth of the review's choppy coverage. Mr Liptak does, however, flesh out the contrast between Mr Lipsky's taste for facts and Mr Rakove's for "animating principles."

¶ Dalia Sofer is very pleased with Kim Echlin's novel, The Disappeared.

There is something of Marguerite Duras in these pages, something of the lust between the young Western girl and the Asian man that drove novels like The Lover and The North China Lover. But while Duras focuses mostly on desire, Echlin focuses on absolute love — physical desire coupled with the need to know ­everything about the beloved, to follow him even to the grave and beyond. For Anne, knowing Serey means trying to understand Cambodia, with all its dire secrets. As Serey says to Anne’s father during a brief, uncongenial meeting, “My country is my skin.”

¶ It is unclear from Megan Marshall's enthusiastic review just how much of Charles II's reign is covered in Jenny Uglow's A Gambling Man: Charles II's Restoration Game — an unimportant detail, perhaps. .

While her literary talents are everywhere evident in her exuberant prose, with “A Gambling Man” Jenny Uglow proves she is as much historian as biographer. She writes here in the grand tradition of historical pageant, albeit with a 21st-century canniness, and as an heir of much-admired popularizers like Barbara Tuchman and Antonia Fraser — whose own 1979 volume, “Royal Charles,” still stands up, companionably, to Uglow’s thoroughly engaging Restoration drama.

¶ It is difficult to tell whether David Holloway's admiration for Wayne Biddle's Dark Side of the Moon: Wernher von Braun, the Third Reich, and the Space Race outweighs his dissatisfaction.

This is a passionate book that raises important moral questions, but it hints at more than it accomplishes. Biddle, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the antimissile program, focuses on the social and political context in Germany in order to illuminate the choices von Braun made. But he says very little about the implications of his analysis for the space race he mentions in his title. Did von Braun’s experience in Nazi Germany inscribe itself in some way onto the American program, or is his story an example of the United States as the country of second chances? Citing Thomas Mann, Biddle argues that German rocketry was a form of technological Romanticism with strong cultural connections to right-wing politics. The United States, like the Soviet Union, built on what Germany had done. Did it inherit more than the technology? Biddle points to these troubling questions but hardly addresses them.

¶ Nicholas Thompson gives Michael Gordin's Red Cloud at Dawn: Truman, Stalin, and the End of the Atomic Age a favorable review, even though he disagrees with one of the book's central arguments.

In fact, the most striking conclusion a reader may take from “Red Cloud at Dawn” is just how ineluctable the arms race was. Yes, grooves were carved in which foreign policy flowed for four decades. But the prime moments to alter the trajectory of the conflict didn’t come during the reign of the ever manipulative and paranoid Stalin. They came later: right after he died or in the early, non­senile, regime of Leonid Brezhnev. The years when things went wrong may not have been years when things could have gone right.

¶ Joseph Salvatore is so unsympathetic to Douglas Coupland's style that his unhelpful review of Generation A is also somewhat fatuous.

For a novel concerned with the saving power of story, “Generation A” turns out to be remarkably slight on narrative. Coup­land’s mission is admirable, but his meta methods fall short. Whatever it is we enjoy about stories, we enjoy them because we forget they are stories. We have given ourselves over to something greater than mere form. And, no matter how cleverly you try, if you point that out to us, you break that fragile spell. End of story.

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