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Reviewing the Book Review

Cruel Love

7 February 2010

¶ Whether or not it is "critically" correct to do so, Leah Hager Cohen points out that Louise Erdrich's new novel, Shadow Tag, is not just a novel.

But we miss something if we approach this book simply as fiction. “Shadow Tag” is a portrait of an “iconic” marriage on its way to dissolution. And Louise Erdrich has been in just such a marriage. Irene, more than a decade younger than Gil, plays a vital role in his work and he in hers. Erdrich’s former husband, the writer Michael Dorris, was a decade older than she, and both referred regularly in interviews to the extraordinary intensity with which they collaborated. We see threads of child abuse and depression in Gil and Irene’s collapsing union. Erdrich and Dorris separated amid allegations of child abuse, and a year and a half later Dorris committed suicide — a desperate act, Erdrich later revealed, that had preoccupied him for years. It’s a fool’s errand to parse fact from fiction. Even given such glaring similarities, to acknowledge them in a review would seem prurient, loathsome — if Erdrich hadn’t seeded her narrative with what feels like an imperative to do so.

¶ There is an awful lot of storytelling in Francine du Plessix Gray's warm review of Amy Bloom's new collection of stories, Where the God of Love Hangs Out, but there is also plenty of judgment.

Bloom, who is also a psychotherapist, vividly chronicles the inner lives of people caught in emotional and physical constraints — illnesses they are striving to survive, regrets they are trying to allay, desires they often dare not fulfill. She writes in beautifully wrought prose, with spunky humor and a flair for delectably eccentric details. Her narrative talents include a fine touch with flashbacks, which she handles as suavely as any writer I can think of.

¶ The pornographic tinge of Vanessa Grigoriadis's guarded review of Peter Biskind's Star: How Warne Beatty Seduced America ("unlovely but ultimately satisfying") is probably inescapable.

But this is all beside the point. What every­one has been grappling with for the past several weeks is much more straightforward: Is it true Beatty slept with 12,775 women? That’s the number Biskind floats for his subject. The calculus goes this way: He takes seriously ­Beatty’s claim that he couldn’t go to sleep at night without having sex, then multiplies 365 by three and a half decades of singledom, and poof!

So that’s pretty bogus.

So is this book's claim on the attention of Book Review readers.

¶ Will Blythe puts his finger on something that the late Roberto Bolaño does very well (and not just in Monsieur Pain).

By contrast, the evil in “Monsieur Pain” feels ominously real, despite the fact that Bolaño hardly enunciates its presence. The novel melds existential anxiety to political terror in a measure peculiar to Bolaño — imagine the protagonist of Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart” if he were being interrogated by the secret police on suspicion of having hidden subversives behind his wall. Readers know, as the characters of Monsieur Pain do not, that Paris in 1938 is a city of sleepwalkers, that a darkness soon comes its way. It is Bolaño’s great gift to make us feel the dimensions of this darkness even when we cannot see exactly what it hides.

¶ Geoff Dyer's ambivalence makes his too-short review of Don DeLillo's Point Omega difficult to follow.

He has reconfigured things, or our perception of them, to such an extent that DeLillo is now implied in the things themselves. While photographers and filmmakers routinely remake the world in their images of it, this is something only a few novelists (Hemingway was one) ever manage. Like Hemingway, DeLillo has imprinted his syntax on reality and — such is the blow-back reward of the Omega Point Scheme for Stylistic Distinction — become a hostage to the habit of “gyrate exaggerations” (the phrase is in The Body Artist) and the signature patterns of “demolished logic.” Point Omega starts out by contemplating a reprojection of a famous film. It’s barely had time to get going before it ends up reflecting on the oeuvre of which it’s the latest increment and echo: a “last flare” that — we’ve been here before, too — may not be the last after all.

¶ Joel Brouwer's lucid review of Tony Hoagland's poetry collection, Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, ought to make it easy for readers to decide whether this is the book for them.

Predictable adjectives, dull verbs, zero tension in the line breaks, no discernible effort at musicality. If you’re sufficiently attuned to Hoagland’s sensibility, you’ll see his forceful rejection of poetry’s tricks of the trade as indicative of his determination to tell the truth and tell it straight, and you’ll thank him for it. If you’re not, you’ll just be bored. A plain-spoken ­poetry like Hoagland’s can create a terrific, even conspiratorial sense of intimacy with those readers who are sympathetic to it, but offers few pleasures to those who aren’t. Hoagland often uses the first-person plural pronoun when staking out a universal claim, as in the lines from “Hard Rain” quoted above, and in poem-ending zingers like “That was the only kind of freedom / we were ever going to know” and “So we were turned into Americans / to learn something about loneliness.” On these occasions, you’re either going to have the voluptuous sensation of being included in that “we,” or you’re going to look over your shoulder, wondering whom Hoagland is talking to.

¶ John Vernon suggests that Clare Clark's novel about the French colonization of Louisiana, Savage Lands, is perhaps too much the Nineteenth-Century novel. Having quoted a particularly rich sentence, Mr Vernon writes,

This leaves an indelible impression — but it strains for effect, as does much of Clark’s writing. Indeed, the straining is a part of its effect, describing not only a swamp but the author’s language, its fecundity as grotesque as it is shameless. Throughout Savage Lands, the figurative language piles up like heavy jewelry, like layers of clothing, like armor, like. . . . You get the idea. It drags down the poor sentences forced to wear it. As H. G. Wells said about Conrad’s first novel, “His sentences are not unities, they are multitudinous tandems, and he has still to learn the great half of his art, the art of leaving things unwritten.”

¶ In view of Louis Begley's recent book about the Dreyfus Case, it's good of Susan Rubin Suleiman to offer a glancing comparison to it in her review of Frederick Brown's For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus. But her concluding line must be making Mr Brown very happy.

Like Tuchman, Brown has the rare ability to write reliable and well-researched history for a broad nonspecialized public. Francophiles, in particular, will love this book.

¶ In an unhelpfully unsympathetic review, Anthony DeCurtis charges David Kirby, author of Little Richard: the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll, with overreaching.

Indeed, exploring the significance of “Tutti Frutti” is another of the book’s projects. Perhaps because the song has long been acknowledged as one of the detonating blasts of the ’50s rock ’n’ roll explosion, Kirby feels compelled to up the stakes. “Tutti Frutti,” he maintains, is “a seminal text in American culture, as much as ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ ‘Song of Myself’ and the great documents of the civil rights era are. In a sense, it’s America’s Other National Anthem.”

“Tutti Frutti,” in plain fact, is a groundbreaking rock ’n’ roll single by one of the music’s peerless singers, a locomotive of unrestrained joy and freedom that has lost none of its power since its release more than half a century ago. If that’s not enough, none of Kirby’s fancy comparisons make any difference. The lesson of Little Richard’s greatest recordings — “Long Tall Sally,” “Miss Ann,” “Lucille” and, yes, “Tutti Frutti” — is that less is more. It’s a lesson Kirby should have taken to heart.

¶ Kevin Phillips's review of Joseph Stiglitz's Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy follows a by now familiar formula: the book's crackerjack analysis is hobbled by politically unviable recommendations.

The second half of “Freefall” turns to proposals for getting America out of the crisis. Unfortunately, some are far-fetched — a new socially aware method for calculating the gross domestic product, for example — and the final chapter is platitudinously entitled “Toward a New Society.” Yet surely part of the reason Stiglitz has to try so hard to find upbeat solutions lies in the enormous damage done by the Bush and Obama administrations: “because of the choices that have already been made, not only will the downturn be far longer and deeper than necessary, but also we will emerge from the crisis with a much larger legacy of debt, with a financial system that is less competitive, less efficient and more vulnerable to another crisis.” Instead, Stiglitz says, “the government should have played by the rules of capitalism and forced a financial reorganization” — conservatorships or the like that would have put the burden of mismanagement and malfeasance on share­holders, managements and bondholders, not the taxpayers.

It would be far more helpful of the critic to review, not the faulty book, but the far faultier body politic. In the current economic adversity, fresh ideas ought to be embraced, not dismissed.

¶ Richard Thompson Ford's admires Bettye Collier-Thomas's effort in Jesus, Jobs, and Justice: African American Women and Religion, but his doubts about the benignity of black churches, particularly on the point of sexism, get in the way of the review that he ought to be writing.

Collier-Thomas rightly insists that the church “represents a way of life and has been at the center of black life.” But that very centrality makes obscure the role of religious faith as such in the struggle for racial justice. Because churches were the most important autonomous organizations in the black community, they were the natural places for oppositional social movements to form; in a sense, the church played the same role in the civil rights movement that the tavern and the cafe did in many European social ­movements.

And if faith inspired the struggle against injustice, it may also have discouraged the critical posture that would have allowed people to detect and challenge malfeasance, abuse and prejudice by those in positions of religious authority.

¶ Terrence Rafferty's review of William Boyd's latest novel, Ordinary Thunderstorms, is breezy but indicative.

He’s a novelist of a kind that’s fairly unfamiliar in this country, less rare in Britain: a debonair, versatile, casually philosophical literary entertainer — clever and thoughtful, but not so dauntingly brilliant that you suspect him of being, as Jeeves would say, “fundamentally unsound.” Ordinary Thunderstorms is, like all his books, ambitious in an offhand, almost insolent manner, bringing home once again Boyd’s favorite ideas about identity and the tribulations of the beleaguered self while also smuggling in a good deal of information about pharmacology, the Thames, homelessness in modern London, the formation of clouds, the internal politics of Blackwater-like private security companies and the peculiar charm of cult religions.

¶ Lisa Margonelli does a fairly good job of writing intelligibly about the uncanny and harrowing story of He La — cancer cells, still going strong in test tubes today, taken from a black Virginia woman who died in 1951 — in Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Skloot didn’t know what she was getting into when she began researching the book as a graduate student in 1999. The first time she called Lacks’s widower, then living in Baltimore, the person who answered the phone simply heard her voice and yelled, “Get Pop, lady’s on the phone about his wife cells.” Over the years it took Skloot to gain the family’s trust, she came to understand that the only time white people ever called the house was when they wanted something to do with the HeLa cells. Some of the family feel they’ve been ripped off, cheated by either Johns Hopkins (though the hospital never sold the cells) or the entire medical establishment, which has made enormous profits from the cells.

¶ Elena Lappin generously lets Elena Gorokhova' memoir of growing up Soviet, A Mountain of Crumbs, speak for itself.

Although this is her first book, Gorokhova writes from the vantage point of a mature writer who has allowed many years to pass before concentrating her attention on the first two decades of her life. This distance is both emotional and linguistic. At the age of 24, she left Russia after marrying an American student, and this book was written in her adopted language. Gorokhova had been attracted to English words and cadences since childhood — as a pupil in an exclusive secondary school where many subjects were taught in English, and later at Leningrad University, where she studied and then taught it to others. But English was more than a foreign language; it was Gorokhova’s secret inner path to personal freedom. “I like the English compartment of my head because it feels like theater,” she confides. “It feels like I’m playing a role, pretending to be someone confident and bold, . . . liberated from everyday drudgery and imbued with the power to be someone else. It is thrilling and a little dangerous.”

¶ Claudia Goldin's flattish review of Jonathan R Cole's compedious appreciation the American research institution, The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why It Must Be Protected, makes not the slightest attempt to show why this book merits coverage in the Book Review.

Today, the greatest threats to American higher education probably do not concern any of the things Cole discusses. Rather, they relate to the openness of the system and the academic preparedness of its students, who, as Cole acknowledges at the outset, play almost no role in this volume. But teaching and research cannot be so easily separated. The great research universities educate a substantial fraction of all four-year undergraduates and produce more than three-quarters of all Ph.D.’s. As Cole acknowledges, “excellence in teaching and excellence in research” are “mutually reinforcing.”

Or, for the matter of that, publication as a book.

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