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Reviewing the Book Review

Fallen Angels

7 March 2010

¶ Susann Cokal clearly likes Danielle Trussoni's Angelology; given the opportunities for klutzy storytelling presented by this first novel, it's a pity that the review was not cut down to its final paragraph.

Sensual and intellectual, “Angelology” is a terrifically clever thriller — more Eco than Brown, without the cloudy sentimentalism of New Age encomiums or Catholic treatises. It makes no apologies for its devices, and none are necessary. How else would it be possible to bring together the angels of the Bible and Apocrypha, the myth of Orpheus, Bulgarian geography, medieval monastics, the Rockefellers, ­Nazis, nuns and musicology? And how splendid that it has happened.

¶ Joseph O'Neill waxes warm and generous about Christopher de Bellaigue's Rebel Land: Unraveling the Riddle of History in a Turkish Town — a book motivated by its author's desire to rectify some earlier blunderings about the Armenian genocide.

De Bellaigue responds with outstanding energy and courage. Lodging at Varto’s Teachers’ Hostel, he is tailed by the police and military intelligence and suspected of being a spy. Nonetheless, he perseveres, talking to, on the one hand, the captain of the gendarmerie, the police chief and the district governor and, on the other hand, herdsmen and Kurdish guerrilla fighters. He tracks down descendants of famous and infamous figures in Varto history, and in Germany, he speaks to exiled Kurdish nationalists. He constructs an unflinching and painstaking history of the local Armenian apocalypse and deconstructs the Kurds’ inevitably shaky versions of their past.

¶ The conclusion of Lydia Millet's favorable review of Sam Lipsyte's new novel, The Ask, will help you decide if this is the book for you.

So let’s read Lipsyte and rejoice; let’s celebrate the laugh-producing Milo Burkes who are all too rarely brought to us by brave and bitter men — let’s celebrate the canny, well-educated yet perpetually failing furtive Internet onanists, the dark, half-­crippled, doughnut-gobbling man-apes of the literary world, who cast their lumpen shadows across the rest of us.

These are the kind of unlikable, lovable protagonists we miss; these are the self-loathing, mediocre secret geniuses who can set our people free.

¶ It is difficult to assess the measure of Ken Kalfus's sympathy for The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight.  

For writers of the present moment, Russian and non-Russian, the Yeltsin years have become a caldron for a wildly imaginative, surreal literature grounded in post-Soviet exigency, a chilly Macondo stretching over 11 time zones. Viktor Pelevin, Vladimir Sorokin, Tatyana Tolstaya and Olga Slavnikova have emerged with distinctive, revelatory fantasies. Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s fine new collection of terrifying stories, “There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby,” employs gothic sorcery to populate these years with zombies and demons and ghosts. Gina Ochsner, an Oregon native, sticks her ladle into the same overheated pot and, with luminous writing, affection for her characters and, especially, faith in language’s humanizing power, manages to find a portion of hopefulness.

This Book Is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All, by Marilyn Johnson, gets a generally favorable but mildly antagonistic review from Pagan Kennedy.

This is one of those books, in the vein of Mary Roach’s “Stiff” (about human cadavers), that tackle a big topic by taking readers on a chapter-by-chapter tour of eccentric characters and unlikely locations. Given Johnson’s attractions to wild tangents, the journey often dissolves into a jumble. It is a testament to her skill as a writer that she remains fascinating, even in the throes of A.D.D.

¶ Laura Miller's irritable review of John Banville's new novel, The Infinities, is not very helpful.

If “The Infinities” has the bones of a novel of ideas, it’s fleshed out and robed as a novel of sensibility and style. Its drapery is velvet and brocade — sumptuous and at times over-heavy. Banville is the sort of writer, drunk on Joyce, who wants to nail down every fleeting moment and sensation with some strenuously unprecedented combination of words: the “slurred clamor” of a startled heartbeat, the “humid conspiracy” of a grandmother, the “lumpy wodge of stirabout” that is cereal left too long in its bowl of milk. He will tell you how every room smells, and is forever pausing to liken a character’s gestures or stance to a scratching cat or the queen of diamonds or a mummified pharaoh. The high quality of these flourishes doesn’t entirely justify their sheer volume as they assail the reader. At the very least, there’s a plausibility issue when you’re writing from various points of view: the minds of ordinary people (that is to say, nonwriters) aren’t preoccupied with a continuous flow of extravagant metaphors and conceits.

Fortunately, lavish demonstrations of literary virtuosity don’t bog down “The Infinities"...

¶ Elizabeth Samet's dissatisfied review ought to have been replaced by one more sympathetic to Nancy Sherman's project in The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds, and Souls of Our Soldiers.

Like the work of some of the ancient philosophers on whom Sherman relies, this book comprises a series of energetic lectures rather than an organically developed whole. That fact, by itself, is not a negative, but it has the effect of leaving some discussions, especially those involving the morality of war, feeling unfinished. Sherman proposes that our current engagements are “dirtier than most,” but she is reluctant to pursue the stakes of that claim for the moral accountability of soldiers. Her discussions of professionalism largely exclude the extant literature on the “professional military ethic” and fail to pursue potentially illuminating analogies to medicine, law and policing.

¶ Allison Glock's somewhat gassy review of Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen leaves one surprised that the editors saw fit to cover the book.

In the end, despite McDonough’s strenuous efforts, it is difficult to muster much empathy for Wynette. More distressing, she isn’t enough of a diva for her antics to be a guilty pleasure. She comes off as garden-variety petty, less tragic than pitiful. Nothing as crazy-cakes camp as the beautiful train wreck that was Judy Garland and her dolls, or Joan Crawford and her wire hangers. Wynette is more like Courtney Love, with talent.

¶ Mick Sussman, who produces the Times's home page, has been asked to review Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw's Adventures in Moonshine, by Max Watman. It could be worse.

Watman hints at some grand themes. “Small-scale distilling was a part of America that was lost along the way,” he says, but microdistillers are a sign that “the tide is turning” toward “the local, the small.” Perhaps, but Watman isn’t systematic enough to prove it. He doesn’t pursue some basic questions, like the size of the market for microdistilled spirits. And as attuned as he is to the absurd, he plays his thesis too straight. There are farcical and bittersweet aftertastes he seems to miss in the transformation of homemade liquor from a vital commodity in early agrarian America to a yuppie lifestyle accessory today.

But if Watman lacks the patience for heavy analysis, he’s still a merry companion, with a fondness for down-home wisdom and hell-raising. A day spent at a distilling conference in Kentucky is typical: after being enthralled by a tasting with the whiskey writer Jim Murray (“he leads your palette, refines your understanding”), Watman later finds himself “in front of a very questionable bar, having been urged to leave by the bouncer.”

¶ Having dismissed Helen Simonson's characters as implausible, Alexander McCall Smith tries to make amends with a sweet final paragraph for his review of Major Pettigrew's Last Stand.

That love can overcome cultural barriers is no new theme, but it’s presented here with great sensitivity and delicacy. We want this couple to find romance — and they do. We want the major to survive the machinations of his scheming relatives — and he does. “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” is refreshing in its optimism and its faith in the transformative possibilities of courtesy and kindness. Although pitched toward those wanting a gentle read, it also slides a powerful moral message into the interstices of village politics. And as for happy endings, it deserves all available prizes.

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