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Reviewing the Book Review

The Night Belongs to Us

31 January 2010

¶ Tom Carson's enthusiastic review for Patti Smith's memoir, Just Kids, places the book very nicely.

At one level, the book’s interest is a given; to devotees of downtown Manhattan’s last momentous period of 20th-century artistic ferment, Patti Smith on Robert Mapplethorpe is like Molly Pitcher on Paul Revere. The surprise is that it’s never cryptic or scattershot. In her rocker incarnation, Smith’s genius for ecstatic racket has generally defined coherence as the rhythm section’s job. The revelation that she might have made an ace journalist had she felt so inclined isn’t much different from the way the lucidity of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas upended everything Stein was renowned for.

¶ Antonya Nelson gives Robert Stone's collection of stories, Fun With Problems, a model review. In the space of a single paragraph, she shows how Mr Stone jags to one side of the Hemingway-Carver line of "male American story writers."

Those writers create heroes who operate under self-designed codes: inarticulate, dumb brutes or stoic brooders who long to give voice to the complex contents of their noble souls but who, alas, are left only to perform their clumsy gestures as if with paws. They are damaged goods — veterans, addicts, failures at love — with hearts of gold. That’s not quite the case in a Robert Stone story. Although his protagonists are frequently those same veterans and addicts and romantic failures, they are far from brutes or stoics. They revere history and literature and music; they cite ancient as well as modern philosophers and artists. In this collection you’ll find lawyers and writers, collectors of antiques and owners of splendid houses. They are highly articulate. They are often scathingly critical of the coarse or ugly, the common and unbeautiful, the unrigorous, and they frequently feel superior to the ordinary healing remedies — Alcoholics Anonymous, say, or the social agencies and agents of aid. They’ve been there, done that, and still their problems persist. If you thought that Raymond Carver’s men would be happier if only they had a little help — if they’d been educated, cultured, programmed, employed in white-collar rather than blue-collar jobs, sent to talk therapy and prescribed antidepressants — well, Robert Stone is here to tell you that none of that guarantees anything.

¶ Wells Tower likes the title story in T Coraghessan Boyle's new collection, Wild Child, but that's about it.

With a few exceptions, the stories here continue Boyle’s career-long interest in science, and in man’s vexed tusslings with the natural world. Though the book’s imaginative breadth is impressive — it includes cloned house pets, a school-board squabble about intelligent design, a doctor’s story of a boy who feels no pain — most of the tales suffer in comparison with “Wild Child.” Boyle’s story lines are inventive, but his characters often feel implausible and feeble, drained of vitality by the surgeries necessary to fit them into procrustean plot contraptions.

This is not helpful; as usual, the unfavorable review tells us more about the reviewer's tastes than the writer's achievements.

¶ Some sort of culture clash seems to be at the bottom of Toni Bentley's méchante review of Catherine Millet's Jealousy.

Don’t, by the way, buy this book for the sex: there is little to none, but for one dire masturbation situation. Millet tells us about the tremendous loss she bore, during her crisis, of her formerly very elaborate fantasy life. While jealous she developed masturbatory “inhibitions,” and was demoted to a bit player in her own sexual fantasies: “I was the extra, ignored and shunned by the lead.” For a woman not even to be the star of her own homespun porn is a very real indicator of just how far she has fallen. The only thing that could bring Millet to orgasm, she tells us, was the image of Henric’s back as he thrust into another woman “with the determination of someone struggling with a stubborn drawer in a dresser.” Ah, the perverse effect of jealousy on one’s libido, not to mention on one’s metaphors! How wondrously the dogged erotic mind will take a painful image of humiliation and yet still find its way to triumph. And how perfectly it mirrors the psychic loss of self when the beloved’s gaze turns elsewhere — and worse, how easily the self vanishes from its own faithless gaze.

¶ Liesl Schillinger gives Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's new novel, 36 Arguments For the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, a guardedly favorable review.

But the lay reader need not quail; Goldstein’s lofty psycho-religio-philosophical subtext, or rather metatext, doesn’t gray her roman à clef about love, Jewish cultural identity and academic infighting. She sews her philosophical inquiry to the material of everyday life. For instance, why has Seltzer’s ex-girlfriend Roz popped up at Frankfurter all of a sudden? All the same, the stitches that join Goldstein’s men, women and themes show more in this novel than they do in her others. The chronology floats back and forth across two decades according to no particular scheme; some characters are less developed than others; and the insertion of e-mail correspondence and inside jokes can strike the reader as unhelpfully random. Curiously, for a novel that asserts the irrelevance of God, the unifying thread that knots all the pieces together, however loosely, is Orthodox Judaism.

¶ Thanks to Michael Bérubé for teaching me that the "liberal arts" have become "general education." (Or maybe not.) Mr Bérubé's impatience with Louis Menand's book on the subject, The Marketplace of Ideals, is fairly well concealed until the very end.

Students (and parents) who may not notice the creation of a new Interdisciplinary Institute on campus may well wonder whether a system in which instructors’ annual reappointments are dependent on student evaluations is likely to produce professors willing to challenge their students and uphold high academic standards. But that is a question for another book, perhaps, a book less sanguine and more pugnacious than “The Marketplace of Ideas.”

But it colors the entire review, flattening one's impression of Mr Menand's arguments.

¶ Alan Light notes the disconnect between what rock musicians seem to find interesting in their careers and what fans want to read about, but it doesn't occur to him that the musicians — in this case Stewart Copeland (Strange Things Happen: A Life with the Police, Polo, and Pygmies), and Clarence Clemons (Big Man: Real Life and Tall Tales, with Don Reo) — might have their reasons. 

To be fair, it has to be tough trying to write when the underlying question on every page is “What is Mick/Axl/Ozzy really like?” So it’s easy to sympathize with the Police drummer Stewart Copeland and the E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons, both clearly smart guys who are struggling with a way to write something beyond the standard rock bio. Ultimately, though, the resulting books aren’t satisfying as either literary efforts or historical documents.

¶ Jim Windolf's genial review of two new books about comedians — Last Words, by George Carlin with Tony Hendra; and David Bianculli's Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" — ends with an interesting observation: you don't need a television to sample the work of both George Carlin or the Smothers Brothers.

Carlin and the Smothers Brothers have a presence these days on YouTube, and Carlin holds up especially well in his digital surroundings. He spoke directly to his audience, with an almost imperceptible show-business filter, in the manner of many vloggers and bloggers. “Last Words” is an extension of his plain-spoken oeuvre. The “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” clips now available online, by contrast, seem more like historical curiosities. Tom and Dick did their best stuff in a context all but gone, so Bianculli’s book, while singing the act’s praises, serves as a testament to a lost comedy world.

¶ Despite extensive (and understandable) storytelling, Ben Macintyre's pleased review of Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5, by Christopher Andrew, offers a lucid assessment.

“Defend the Realm” fills in a chapter of history that has been unjustly neglected, in part because that history has been unjustifiably secretive. Andrew may not silence the conspiracy theorists, but he performs the inestimably valuable job of making their theories a great deal harder to sustain. If this important book required a degree of compromise in order to be published, that is hardly surprising. For the work of a security service in every democracy involves a delicate balance between openness and secrecy, a bargain between the public’s right to know and its need for protection.

¶ Kaiama Glover's quibbles with Chinua Achebe's The Education of a British-Protected Child: Essays don't clutter her judgment. Taking off from Mr Achebe's condemnation of Joseph Conrad's racism, Ms Glover writes,

Paradoxically, this essay illuminates both the strength and the weakness of the entire collection. While the inclusion of these comments on Conrad underscores the coherence and consistency of Achebe’s thought over the last several decades, it also reminds us that much of the work collected here was originally aimed at smaller, more specific audiences. Achebe has lived in the United States for the past 20 years, and almost half of these essays are transcriptions of lectures he has given at universities and conferences in America, Europe and Africa from the late 1980s onward. In addition, then, to a certain dated quality, the book has something of a recycled feel. This is not helped by the fact that several of Achebe’s more affecting anecdotes are repeated from one essay to another.

The Education of a British-Protected Child does, however, succeed in presenting an eclectic and thorough view of Achebe in his longtime roles as writer, father and teacher. With the same generosity and humility that have always distinguished his work, Achebe once again shares his thoughtful perspective on a world about which, despite his privileged placement in the “luxurious” space of the middle, he remains more than a little wary.

¶ Felix Salmon's review of two books about the American automobile industry — The Selling of the American Economy: How Foreign Companies Are Remaking the American Dream, by Micheline Maynard; and Crash Course: The American Automobile Industry's Road From Glory to Disaster, by Paul Ingrassia — would have been far more successful as a longer essay in the newspaper's business section. It also inadvertently questions the utility of binding these texts in dead-tree products.

And if Maynard is too gushing about Toyota, Ingrassia is too harsh on G.M. and Chrysler, especially when he extends the metaphor of them “careening down the Niagara River, heading toward the falls and the terrifying plunge toward bankruptcy,” across an entire chapter. (Yes, it’s Chapter 11.)

The fact is that the quick and elegant dip in and out of bankruptcy court was the best thing that had happened to either company in decades, and is being looked at with great jealousy by many auto industry officials in Europe, where governments extend emergency loans to carmakers not on the condition that they make tough decisions to close loss-making plants, but rather on the condition that they don’t. Not a single European auto plant has been permanently shut since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008, and the new, slim-look Detroit appears a great deal healthier than, say, its French counterparts.

¶ Caroline Weber's review picks up a point made by Jeffrey Jackson in his Paris Under Water: How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910.

“Maybe,” he suggests, “Paris can serve as a beginning point for thinking about how urban residents can reconnect with one another, since it is impossible to know when nature may present an unexpected challenge and when depending on one’s neighbors may determine one’s survival.” At once pragmatic and inspiring, this proposal has much to recommend it, if like the survivors of the great Paris flood, one would rather swim than sink.

¶ Andrew Wheatcroft finds a timely theme in Matthew Carrs history, Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain.

Carr, the author of A History of Terrorism, charts this steady breakdown, though without demonizing either Christian or Muslim. He suggests that the growth of mutual mistrust and the spiral of increasing violence were the igniting spark of the final expulsion. Yet it is impossible to read this book without sensing its resonance in our own time.

In his epilogue, “A Warning From History?,” Carr’s message is stark. The current language of outrage in Europe — indulging prophecies of imminent demographic doom brought on by fertile Muslims — is heading toward the idea of an “agreeable holocaust,” which is what a 17th-century Dominican friar called Spain’s final solution to its insoluble problem. We should know better.

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