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Reviewing the Book Review

Another Roadside Attraction

21 February 2010

This week's issue of The Book Review wearied me more than most do, and once I noted this I saw why: a preponderance of the reviews follow the same formula, which is to up-front some interesting facts about the book but then to pull back with regrets and misgivings that dissipate into something very like whining. This, coupled with clumsy and unhelpful storytelling, makes for tedious reading in any one review. An issue full of such stuff makes one question the editors' intellectual acumen. Who wants to read this sort of thing?

Capable of lazy strokes myself, I decided simply to extract the pivotal paragraph from each offending (*starred) review, and thus to up-front the generally piddling objections that might very well have gone unstated. What do you think?

¶ For all his nitpicking, William Vollman gives The Routes of Man: How Roads Are changing the World and the Way We Live Today, Ted Conover's visit to six far-flung arteries, a very affirmative review.

As I read this book, I grew increasingly impressed not only with Conover’s bravery and hardihood, which he underplays, but, more important, with that quality one associates with Steinbeck: heart. Here is a man who cares about people everywhere, not merely that convenient abstraction, humanity, but people in particular — not to mention this American toad and that Peruvian sloth. His quotidian consideration for his guides, drivers and companions shines steadily through. If this occasionally seasons his prose with the flavor of a National Geographic article (his Ladakhi interpreter, for instance, is “both a deeply religious Buddhist and a worldly Renaissance man, fluent in Harry Potter and eager to discuss the recent eclipse of the sun”), I for one can forgive him. The six road situations he describes are undeniable quandaries, and we owe it to the people caught up in them, not to mention to our planet, to consider what policies, if any, should engineer the roads through everyone’s lives. Meanwhile, because of this liking and caring, Conover almost makes us believe that we too could have had something like fun shooting the breeze with the nurses Rasheedat Lawal and Florence Bada as we sat waiting for accidents and injuries at Ambulance Point 5 next to the down ramp of the ­Apapa-Oworonshoki Expressway in Lagos, Nigeria.

¶ Richard Berke thinks highly of Ken Gormley's The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs Starr, and writes lucidly about it.

Yet the sobriety of “The Death of American Virtue” also offers a relief from the familiar overheated chronicles. Unlike some other commentators, Gormley allows for the possibility that even the most rabid-seeming players might have acted out of honorable considerations. Starr, for one, comes across not as a zealous partisan but as the wrong choice to prosecute the case. Despite his impressive résumé — he had been a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and then solicitor general under George H. W. Bush — he had never run a major criminal investigation. His missteps handed both sides in the case ample cause to distrust him. Yes, he gave running room to a clique of lawyers driven by a deep antipathy toward Bill Clinton. But he also initially opposed subpoenaing the president, invoking the duty “to be respectful of the presidency.”

¶ Frank Bruni conveys all that needs to be said about Robert Harris's Conspirata: A Novel of Ancient Rome, in three brisk paragraphs.

Harris, whose previous novels include “Pompeii” and the World War II thriller “Enigma,” doesn’t take the path of many other writers of historical fiction and provide copious, painstaking descriptions of meals, wardrobes, palaces and the like to summon a long-ago, far-away past. He’s from the slam-bang school, quickly ticking off a few geographical signposts — there’s the Esquiline Hill, and over there the Palatine — as he lets the characters’ names, a great many of which end in the same two letters, bear the brunt of establishing a bygone era.

The reader meets Pompeius and Pomptinus, Roscius and Rabirius, Servius and Sulpicius and — my favorite — Valerius Flaccus, whose name sounds like an ailment so embarrassing you’re loath to tell even your doctor about it. Keeping the characters and their alliances straight isn’t easy, even with the help of the glossary in the back, and Harris muddles things further by assuming a reader’s familiarity with the basic architecture and processes of Roman government.

But he’s a bluntly efficient storyteller, aware that what works at the start of an episode of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” can also set his tale in motion. And so, in the first sentence, there’s the body of an adolescent boy pulled from the Tiber, throat slashed and internal organs missing, suggesting a human sacrifice.

¶ William Giraldi's warmly favorable review of Thomas Lynch's Apparition and Late Fictions manages to avoid making Mr Lynch's concerns sound overly lugubrious.

In “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” Tolstoy demonstrated how we die. In “A Death in the Family,” James Agee explained how we assimilate the sudden loss of a loved one. Lynch’s expertise is his own: how the flesh both betrays and redeems. A girl’s murdered body autopsied on a steel table, a dying woman’s lust for a younger woman’s beauty, a lonesome divorcé appreciative to tears for the unexpected intercourse with his children’s sitter: in this collection Lynch has written a masterly homage to the flesh, to the frail mortality we spend our lives abhorring and to the sexual union capable of lifting us above doctrinal despair. Lynch’s characters might be Christian — a worldview with crucified flesh at its core — but they find no consolation in the Christian God. Relief comes, if it comes at all, not from the gated beyond but from one another.

* ¶ Sylvia Brownrigg on February, by Lisa Moore.

But there are difficulties, in part with the novel’s pacing and in part with Cal himself. Moore is adept at conveying the emptiness that followed the accident, but not what had filled it. Although Helen and Cal were married for 10 years and we are told often of their abiding love, the man himself remains hard to grasp. The various flashbacks contain few traces of Cal’s conversation, so we don’t even know how he sounded (in contrast to Helen, who has a wonder­ful brusqueness). Potentially revealing references — to Cal’s love of reading or his “pretensions,” as Helen considers them, like making his own yogurt and tofu, or growing pot — go undeveloped. Moore is better at describing Cal’s physical rather than his emotional presence, which finally makes Helen’s protracted grief, although noble, hard to share.

* ¶ Caryn James on The Secret Life of Emily Dickingson, by Jerome Charyn.

And sadly, Charyn’s greatest risk, Emily’s voice, resembles a clotted mosaic, pieced together from bits of Charyn and shards of Dickinson. She once called herself “the only kangaroo among the beauty”; Charyn’s Emily too bluntly describes herself as a kangaroo who kicks and punches, evidence of her feisty nature. He picks up the nature metaphor “blonde assassin” from one of her poems and applies it to Tom.

The voice doesn’t have to be authentically Dickinson’s, but it ought to sing. In rare moments, it does.

* ¶ Dominique Browning on The Poker Bride: The First Chinese in the Wild West, by Christopher Corbett.

On the whole, Corbett handles a great deal of sordid material with sensitivity. There are, however, moments of peculiar and breath-taking obtuseness. “It is possible that few women resented this fate,” he writes about the Chinese women’s bondage. He also reports that in her old age, Polly Bemis never expressed anger about having been a survivor of the sex slave trade: “It is quite possible that she thought nothing of it.”

But these are doubtful conclusions in light of the newspaper reports, also mentioned in Corbett’s narrative, of prostitutes committing suicide by overdosing on opium and laudanum. He concludes that “Polly Bemis was always lucky, as someone who was won in a poker game ought to be.” I suppose you could call it luck that having been sold into bondage, she didn’t die of disease or abuse.

* ¶ Jennifer Egan on Eight White Nights, by André Aciman.

But the overlay of Proustian nostalgia onto modern New York can also feel mannered and artificial — a substitute for some more organic voice that Aciman never quite found. Here is Oskar, having met Clara only moments before and already slipping into a reverie of imagining himself years later, without her: “I suddenly stopped myself, knowing, by an inverse logic familiar to superstitious people, that the very foretaste of sorrows to come presumed a degree of joy beforehand and would no doubt stand in the way of the very joy I was reluctant to consider for fear of forfeiting it. I felt no different than a castaway who, on glimpsing a sailboat from a high perch on his deserted island, omits to light a pyre because he’s spied too many such ships before and doesn’t want his hopes dashed again. But then, on urging himself to light a fire just the same, he begins to have second thoughts about the strangers on board who could prove more dangerous than the pythons and Komodo dragons he’s learned to live among.”

These are the thoughts of a 28-year-old male of this century, hot for a woman he’s just met?

* ¶ Joshua Hammer on The Room and the Chair, by Lorraine Adams.

Yet despite her incisive descriptive passages, few of Adams’s characters emerge as full-blooded creations. It’s hard to care much about Mabel Cannon’s unhappiness or the rivalries between a couple of newsroom heavyweights or Mary’s relationship with her wing man, who’s critically injured in the sledding accident. The biographical back stories — Mary’s father is serving a life sentence for murdering her mother; Stanley, the night editor, turns out to be concealing his African-American background — sometimes feel tacked on, mere devices to give the characters some depth.

* ¶ Alan Wolfe on The Politics of Happiness: What Governmant Can Learn From the New Research on Well-Being, by Derek Bok.

Wise Bok may be, but persuasive, at least in this book, he is not. For Bok’s argument to work, two conditions have to be met. One, empirical in nature, is that the findings of the economic psychologists must be shown to be trustworthy. The other, a normative issue, requires a demonstration that happiness is indeed something government ought to maximize. The Politics of Happiness satisfies neither one.


* ¶ Ben Ratliff on All Hopped Up And Ready to Go: Music From the Streets of New York 1927-77, by Tony Fletcher.

But he seems so inured to the rhetorical lather of music journalism that in “All Hopped Up and Ready to Go,” particularly when writing about sacred documents, he turns on his autopilot. Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” has “a sax solo straight out of a Harlem street corner at midnight”; the Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat” is “one of the most uncompromising records ever to have stood the test of time.” At times the book reads like a 400-page article for Mojo magazine. In rock criticism, a certain pitch of measured enthusiasm quickly grows monotonous.

Fletcher has a rock fan’s prejudice: a lot of his book boils down to tales of middle-class transgression. And that’s O.K., given how much he knows about rock. But why spend so much energy describing the history of the Velvet Underground — a band little known in its time but painfully over­analyzed since — when you could be writing about the evolution of New York salsa, a popular movement still not adequately treated by historians? The reason is that the Velvets were part of a larger story: the East Village and Lower East Side rock scene of the ’60s, a scratchy little world that he documents well.

Then again, for the very reason the book’s thesis makes sense — the fact that vastly different communities jostle together in New York, spilling aesthetics on one another — it might have been good to push it further, and within the individual chapters.


¶ Robert Boynton appears to like Gerald Boyd's posthumous autobiography, My Times in Black and White: Race and Power at The New York Times, but nowhere does he convey a feel for the writing. We get this instead:

Unfortunately, Boyd’s reputation will forever be paired with that of Jayson Blair, the former Times reporter whose fabrications incited the events that led to the departure of Boyd and ­Howell Raines, the paper’s execu­tive editor, in 2003. Boyd argues that the accusation that he gave Blair special treatment — something each man denied — rested on little more than the fact that both were ­black. “As soon as controversy arises concerning an ­African-American reporter,” he told a meeting of the National Association of Black Journalists two months after he left The Times, “the senior ­African-American is automatically viewed as ­suspect

Which anyone who know about Mr Boyd and prospectively might care about his book already knows.

¶ As is so often the case when specialists review their colleagues' books, Wendell Steavenson gives Lee Smith's The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations an argument, not a review.

The premise of the book, the quote from which the title is taken — “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse” — is Osama bin Laden’s. Perhaps I just don’t want bin Laden to be right, but I don’t believe Arabs prefer the strong horse; it’s just that it’s all too easy for the violent few to hold the majority hostage.

Smith sees this as an embedded cultural inheritance. I prefer my history less dogmatic; after all, for hundreds of years the Ottoman Empire presided over a relatively peaceful Middle East. Arabs aren’t necessarily doomed forever, but their political miseries are not likely to be ameliorated anytime soon. Smith is probably right to conclude, “There is no alternative, not yet anyway, to the strong horse.”

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