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Reviewing the Book Review

The Highwayman

17 January 2010

¶ It's hard to pick a more congenial reviewer of Sam Shepard's collection of stories, Day Out of Days, than Walter Kirn, and Mr Kirn does not disappoint. 

Shepard’s book has no normal beginning, middle and end. Its structure is not sequential but vertical. Using fanciful anecdotes, lyric riffs, seemingly lifelike reminiscences and quotes from our nation’s founding thinkers, he drills down through the strata of our history into the bedrock of American myth. He sinks his wells at random, in offbeat spots, taking core samples from all over the country that often contain fossils of shared experience, some of them heavily crusted over with legend. His words have a flinty, mineral integrity, especially when he describes the people around him, who come off as distinctive individuals but also have an enduring archetypal feel, like the iconic figures in Whitman poems. His crackpot vagabonds, working-class survivors and footloose fellow wanderers have been with us always and probably always will be. Their names may change over time but not their souls, which eventually form the ground we’re forced to cover us as we fan out to seek our fates. But their moans are still audible over our engine noise — if we only slow down enough to hear them in the way that Shepard does.

¶ Roxana Robinson's warmly favorable review of Jonathan Dee's The Privileges is intoxicatingly enthusiastic.

At the core of this intelligent and ambitious book are questions about values. Dee’s primary message — that the family is essential to society, that we abandon it at our peril — is persuasive. Less so is the notion that uxorious idealism, not greed, might lie behind insider trading. But part of Dee’s appeal is his sympathy for his characters, and his generous tendency to endow them, no matter how foolish or contemptible, with a certain nobility. In any case, Dee’s writing is so full of elegance, vitality and complexity that I’m happy to entertain any notion he comes up with.

¶ Reviewing Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, Pankaj Mishra suggests that Zadie Smith may still have some growing up to do — but also that he doesn't much mind the wait.

Smith’s intellectual ambitions are remarkably consistent with those of the postcolonial writers and academics who have settled into the abstractions of a posh postmodernism. “Changing My Mind” displays many of its virtues: a cosmopolitan suavity and wit that often relieves intellectual ponderousness. Smith’s native intelligence, however, seems so formidable that you can’t help hoping she’ll change her mind yet again.

¶ Edmund White's review of Sir Frank Kermode's Concerning E M Forster reads like a hymn of praise — until you start looking for quotations. Mr White is vastly more interested in writing about Forster, right up until the end.

Kermode has a good, clear grasp of literary theory, which he has written about extensively and which he touches on in Concerning E. M. Forster. But he also has wide literary experience (one of his many books is subtitled “From ‘Beowulf’ to Philip Roth”) and an ear attuned to poetic nuance (another of his best books is called “Shakespeare’s Language,” about a subject that — amazingly — has seldom been treated). Although“Concerning E. M. Forster is not very long, it is rich and suggestive and written with quiet authority. Anyone interested in all the “aspects of fiction” (cultural, thematic, formal and technical) will find it wonderfully stimulating and consequential.

¶ Susan Pinker seems to like The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives, by Shankar Vedantam, but as the review proceeds it appears that she would have mounted a different thesis.

In a chapter on the psychology of suicide bombers, Vedantam draws parallels among obsessed sports fans, a Jonestown crackpot, violent extremists and striving executives. “The hidden brain’s drive for approval and meaning, and the ability of small groups to confer such approval and meaning, is what is common to the world of” all four, he writes. Social “tunnels,” which block out input from the outside world, direct some people toward public service and heroism, others toward ­violence.

True, we all want to belong. But the evidence Vedantam offers for his claims is often too scant or streamlined, with contradictory or ambiguous results and dissenting interpretations left out. Meanwhile, the biggest bias of all — confirmation bias, which makes us notice only what supports our own opinions and tune out everything else — hardly gets a mention. All this secret stuff can be very disconcerting. But we need more than we get here to know if it is true.

¶ Tom Shone's snarky review of Rebecca Keegan's The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron leaves you feeling that it does not belong in the pages of the Book Review.

Keegan visited Cameron on the set of “Ava­tar” for Time magazine in 2008 and decided to turn her article into a book, which is less a biography proper than a set visit by someone who got carried away with access to the great and mighty Oz: “Cameron’s brain is formidable, fascinating and equally developed on both sides.” That’s nice to know.

¶ Jacob Heilbrunn's guardedly favorable review of Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, makes the case that this is not a throwaway book.

Heilemann, a columnist for New York magazine, and Halperin, the senior political analyst for Time, have conducted hundreds of interviews to provide the inside story of the 2008 campaign, longer on vignettes and backstage gossip than on analysis. But if their racy account provides little context for Obama’s rise, it vividly shows how character flaws large and small caused his opponents to self-destruct. The narrative also reinforces the familiar argument that a presidential campaign provides one important test of a candidate’s ability to govern.

¶ Writing about Javier Marías's Your Face Tomorrow: Volume 3: Poison, Shadow and Farewell taxes Stacey d'Erasmo's imagination rather sorely.

Javier Marías’s magnificent, sui generis three-part novel, Your Face Tomorrow — all 1,200-plus pages of it — is consumed with the attempt to locate, parse and make music out of the deep grammar of language and power. While the prose is exquisite and never less than fluidly, balletically pleasurable, the project is both fundamentally troubling and fundamentally troubled. Every chamber of its heart is dark and uneasy, and though Marías brings matters to a close in the final volume, “Poison, Shadow and Farewell,” one might say that instead of coming to a definitive point, he has, instead, expanded the unanswerable questions to their farthest extent. The very last sentence merely pulls the pin on the final grenade. It’s as terrifying as it is beautiful.

“Your Face Tomorrow” is a difficult novel to describe, occupying as it does a liminal zone between genres, discourses and styles...

Of course, there are undoubtedly readers who hunger for fiction set in liminal zones.

¶ Daniel Drezner makes Gregg Easterbrook's Sonic Boom: Globalization at Mach Speed sound like a radio broadcast, not a book.  

As for the rest of the arguments here, Easterbrook tends to contradict himself or make sweeping declarations that don’t hold up to scrutiny. At one point, he writes that the Internet is largely responsible for “much faster, more compelling and more accurate news.” Fine, except that just a paragraph earlier he characterizes the Internet as “a source of befuddlement rather than enlightenment.” Easterbrook makes both statements with equal conviction, leaving the reader himself a bit befuddled. He similarly goes back and forth on the utility of alternative energy subsidies and neoclassical economic theory

¶ Serge Schmemann begins his review of Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment, by Stephen Kotkin with a contribution by Jan Gross (?), with an apt personal recollection of the Fall of the Wall

I was there that night, and it was a moment of such intense exhilaration that it takes an effort today to recall how spontaneous and startling it really was — and how mundane the motives. The people who charged the checkpoints were not led by brave freedom fighters, and the apparatchiks who changed the rules were not visionary reformers. It was more that the hard-bitten old Communists had run out of steam.

That, in brief, is the thesis of this splendid and compact study of the demise of Communist systems across the Soviet empire in 1989: these were not grand victories of what we now call “civil society” — organizations and movements outside the structures of the state — but rather the implosion of what Stephen Kotkin terms the “uncivil society” — the bureaucrats, ideologues, political police, managers and other members of the Communist elite who ran the states of the Soviet bloc in partnership with the Kremlin. “It was the establishment — the ‘uncivil society’ — that brought down its own system,” Kotkin explains. “Each establishment did so by misruling and then, when Mikhail Gorbachev’s Kremlin radically shifted the geopolitical rules, by capitulating — or by refusing to capitulate and thus making themselves susceptible to political bank runs.”

¶ Jincy Willett's affection for Alice Tatnall Ziplinsky, the narrator/heroine of True Confections, by Kathryn Weber, is infectious enough to support the concluding paragraph.

True Confections isn’t a rollicking novel, since Alice isn’t the rollicking type, but it’s got everything: humor, treachery, class struggle, racism, murder, capitalism and mass quantities of candy. Dieting readers may suffer. Others, after turning the last page, may find themselves online, researching the origins of their own dimly remembered childhood treats. Wax lips, it turns out, owed their waxiness to paraffin supplied by, among others, the Quaker State Oil Refining Company. The business of America is candy. True Confections is a great American tale.

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