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Reviewing the Book Review

Love Triangle

14 February 2010

¶ Dominique Browning's warmly favorable review of Cathleen Schine's The Three Weissmanns of Westport touches on ways in which this is not your ordinary chick-lit.

But “The Three Weissmanns of Westport” is much more than a romantic comedy. Or, rather, the romance is located in motherhood and in memories of childhood, as much as in a lover’s bed. Whether she’s describing tender moments with a 2-year-old or with young adult sons, Schine is perceptive, even breathtaking, in her observations.

¶ Liesl Schillinger argues that the defects of Adam Haslett's Union Atlantic don't seriously impair this first novel.

Many of the characters in “Union Atlantic” are more closely linked than is strictly probable. The high school kids Nate hangs out with include the son of Fanning’s boss, while nutty Charlotte happens to be the sister of the New York Fed chief. And yet these overly convenient connections reflect a larger truth that obtains between Main Street and Wall Street: compact or no compact, the fates of both streets are entwined. In “Union Atlantic,” swiftly and confidently, Haslett unwinds the ball of yarn that is the global financial crisis to reveal its core: a knot of ineluctable yearnings and individual needs.

¶ Dahlia Lithwick's review of capital-case defense lawyer David Dow's The Autobiography of an Execution is engagingly eloquent.

Throughout the book, Dow toggles back and forth between his capital cases and life with his wife and 6-year-old son in Houston. They have certain expectations of him: SpongeBob, T-ball practice, trick-or-treating. Sometimes he misses these things to witness another execution. Then he launders his clothes (always in a wash of their own) and joins the family for dinner. Readers who don’t care about his son’s T-ball practices or his wife’s dance classes may find this background distracting, but for Dow his family is a lifeline back from the death chamber. It can’t be a coincidence that in a book about the brutal reality of capital punishment there is — in addition to the bourbon and cigars — a piece of steak, a rare hamburger, a piece of grass-fed sirloin or a roasted chicken on just about every other page. Dow isn’t doing high constitutional theory here; this is pure red meat. What Dow exposes in this dark, raw memoir is not just a dispassionate machinery of death that cannot be slowed, reversed or mediated by truth, logic or fact. He also exposes the inner life of a man who, in the face of all that, cannot give up the fight.

¶ Joel Agee is, ultimately, unsatisfied by Peter Handke's Don Juan: His Own Version, but his review is not unhelpful. ¶

Handke’s anti-Don Juan is a creature of the mind, too disembodied to play the part of a lover. His women are phantasms; he himself is a figure in his own dream. All this is deliberate irony, of course, but here irony feeds on what is, after all, an erotic tale. It is not realism I miss but a more fully realized fiction. For all its engaging and delicate ruminations, and despite its bold, humorous claim to be “the definitive and true story of Don Juan,” the book left me wanting to hear again Mozart’s treatment of the same theme. That music has everything Handke’s prose lacks: brio, verve, declarative intensity, a vast range of emotion and, last but not least, brilliant, joyful virility.

¶ In one well-packed sentence, Jacob Heilbrunn makes it clear why The Politician: An Insider's Account of John Edwards's Pursuit of the Presidency and the Scandal That Brought Him Down, by Scott Young, merits coverage in the Book Review.

Replete with colorful anecdotes and vignettes, this forceful memoir offers a familiar, if a bit slippery, tale of lost youthful innocence. Despite Young’s bid for redemption, his only real regret seems to be that Edwards’s self-destructive conduct derailed his presidential hopes — and Young’s own very personal ambitions along with them.

¶ Jordan Goodman's book about an episode in the life of a controversial humanitarian, The Devil and Mr Casement: One Man's Battle for Human Rights in South America's Heart of Darkness, gets an enthusiastic review from Greg Grandin. 

Casement’s execution is not the climax of Goodman’s story, because this book doesn’t have a climax. It tapers off without resolution. The British directors of Arana’s company are interrogated by members of Parliament. Reports are issued, sermons are preached, politicians are outraged. Arana appears before Parliament’s committee on the Putumayo, after which he boards a steamer back to Peru untouched. The reader is left to ponder the fate of his indigenous victims.

This is an apt ending to a fine and meticulous book, for a kind of slavery still remains in force in the Amazon. Thousands of workers, for instance, trapped in conditions nearly as dismal as those documented a century ago in the Putumayo, make the charcoal used to forge pig iron, which is then purchased by international corporations to produce the steel used in everyday products, including popular makes of cars.

¶ Zachary Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey isn't the easiest book to explain, but Adam Mansbach's generally favorable review is agreeably informative.

Mason’s episodes are scattershot, as unearthed fragments tend to be, and yet there is a pleasingly programmatic under­current to the variations he plays, as if he has devised an algorithm to chart the infinite arrangements of his narrative elements, then selected a few to render. His approach embraces all of Greek mythology, and the nuance and ingenuity of his riffs and remixes confirm his command of the material. He speaks as Achilles, the Cyclops Polyphemus and the loyal swineherd Eumaios; recasts the story of Persephone and Hades with Helen and Paris in the lead roles; makes Theseus a time-traveler; sends Achilles on a mission to conquer a decidedly un-Greek heaven.

¶ Catherine Rampell's review of Jerry Muller's Capitalism and the Jews would be far more lucid if it expanded on a phrase that appears in the following paragraph, "somewhat unevenly."

Most of Muller’s strongest arguments are in his first essay, which draws on everyone from Voltaire to Osama bin Laden to illustrate how the world came to conflate the negative stereotypes of Jews with those of capitalism’s excesses. The book’s remaining three essays deal somewhat unevenly with the fallout of the Jews’ economic success, and in particular the resentment it inspired among history’s economic also-rans. Muller explores, for example, how Jews improbably became associated with both abhorred poles of political economy: hypercapitalism and ­Communism.

¶ Todd Pruzan clearly likes Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever, Justin Taylor's collection of short fiction, but the book threatens to undo his coherence.

This spare, sharp book — Taylor’s debut collection — documents a deep authority on the unavoidable confusion of being young, disaffected and ­human.


Like the Pixies’ inscrutable songs, the most affecting stories in “Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever” are as unpredictable as a careening drunk. They leave us with the heavy residue of an unsettling strangeness, and a new voice that readers — and writers, too — might be seeking out for decades to come.

Or perhaps the review is addressed to insiders.

¶ Patrick Somerville's enthusiastic but unhelpful review of Hot Springs, a novel by Geoffrey Becker, is almost wholly given over to storytelling.

Of all the reasons to be excited about Hot Springs, though, the book’s strange and fresh treatment of love itself is the best. The reader gets occasional glimpses of the chaotic gravitational cyclones that grow from Bernice’s pain and desire. These forces shape her greater goals. They buffet her on her idiosyncratic, twisted path of learning how to be a mother, but can be unleashed during meaningless altercations at the grocery store, too. When a “rhinoceros” of a stranger criticizes Bernice’s plan to dye Emily’s hair, Bernice tells the woman just where she can put the cans of soda she’s buying. “She knew the switch had been thrown,” Becker writes. “She could feel herself losing control. She wished Landis were there.”

¶ Amy Finnerty appears to agree with the thesis of Lori Gottlieb's Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr Good Enough.

Gottlieb’s triumph of experience over hope is not as depressing as it sounds. She skewers herself and her post-­feminist peers so accurately and disarmingly that we wish we knew an unattached man to fix her up with. She convinces us that we women are simply too fussy, entitled and downright delusional about our own worth in the mating marketplace. We overanalyze and seek undiluted sexual and intellectual fulfillment, thus setting men up for failure.

If we may be permitted a moment of obiter dicta, it seems from this review that women have taken too much to heart the truth that genuinely troublesome character traits cannot easily be fixed, and overlooked the fact that the good-enough man can be improved through training.

¶ The uninterrupted storytelling in Lisa Fugard's review of Amy Greene's Bloodroot makes renders it all but useless.

¶ Jon Caramanica's review of two new collections of rock criticism — Corn Flakes With John Lennon: And Other Tales from a Rock 'n' Roll Life, by Robert Hilburn; and Blues and Chaos: The Music Writing of Robert Palmer, edited by Anthony DeCurtis — manifests a clear preference for the latter. This is useful only to the extent that it enlightens us as to the reviewer's personal aesthetic as a pop critic.

Jajouka became Palmer’s obsession. He traveled there as often as time and assignments would allow — “the Mother Ship,” he called it. Those trips are the subject of two of the most fascinating and vibrant essays in this collection. The second one, from 1989, also contains Pal­mer’s most peaceful, contemplative writing. Jajouka and its music were, in a way, the logical end of his criticism, of all his years of digging. For him, it felt like the source. Mission accomplished.

Hilburn, on the other hand, kept pressing forward until his retirement from daily journalism in 2005, steadily seeking out new crushes and trying to keep the old flames alive. At a U2 concert at the Rose Bowl, shortly after the release of Hilburn’s book, Bono, who contributed the introduction, paid his respects from the stage. “Bob Hilburn’s here,” he said. “He’s a great writer.” Again, mission accomplished

¶ Gary Rosen raises some interesting points in his review of The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature, by Timothy Ferris, but he is so unsympathetic to Mr Ferris's premise that he winds up making the book sounding like a waste of time.

The scientific community may be open to everyone, in principle, but it has steep and familiar barriers to entry, as any layperson who has tried to read the research papers at the back of journals like Nature or Science can attest. When not distorted by its own personal and political rivalries, modern science is, in the most admirable sense, an aristocracy — a selection and sorting of the best minds as they interact within institutions designed to achieve certain rarefied ends. Experiment, equality and freedom of expression are essential to this work, but it is the work of an elite community from which most people are necessarily excluded. Thankfully, participation in the everyday life of democracy does not require a Ph.D., nor are theories and ideas its basic medium.

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