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Behind Obama's Cool

11 April 2010

¶ Garry Wills on The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, by David Remnick. Perhaps unavoidably, Mr Wills presents The Bridge as a deconstruction — albeit a respectful one — of Dreams From My Father.

Obama is such a good storyteller that his biographer might well be intimidated by the thought of competing with his own version of his life. But Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, has many important additions and corrections to make to our reading of “Dreams From My Father.” Obama makes his mother sound naïve and rather simple in his book. Remnick shows that she was a smart and sophisticated scholar, whose studies for her doctorate were aided by her friend Alice Dewey, the granddaughter of John Dewey. Though Obama becomes disillusioned by the end of the book with his hard-drinking and bitter father, Remnick shows that another of Barack Sr.’s sons has even darker tales to tell of him — how this African son, Mark, gave up his father’s name out of memories of the way his mother screamed as her husband cruelly beat her.

¶ Jennifer Senior on A Ticket to the Circus: A Memoir, by Norris Church Mailer. Ms Senior explores the things that the former Wilhelmina model has in common with the current Secretary of State.

One imagines that Norris Church stayed with Norman Mailer partly for the same reasons that Hillary Rodham stayed with her own ill-tempered, narcissistic, brilliant and seductive mate: what woman who dreamed big could resist someone who promised so colorful a life? The difference is that Norris Church dreamed big but still retained the passive habits of a traditional Southern girl. But like Hillary, she found herself contending with anger and frustration. She tells a story about how she once spent an entire day making a neglected bedroom in her husband’s apartment suitable for habitation, only to have him come home and scold her for forgetting to hang up his suit. Her response was to slug him in the jaw.

For Norman Mailer haters, this moment will doubtless stand out as a sublime example of wish fulfillment. But for those who’ve grown fond of Norris Church Mailer over the course of her memoir, the only kind of fulfillment they’ll be wishing for is her own — which with any luck she’ll find in the years ahead.

¶ Barbara Kingsolver on Anthill, by E O Wilson. This warmly favorable review suggests why a scientist might take to writing novels.

Like most innovative thinkers, Wilson has been “whipsawed . . . with alternating praise and condemnation,” to use his own words in describing the response to his landmark synthesis “Sociobiology” (1975) and its follow-up, “On Human Nature” (1978). His work reset the ground rules for evolutionary biologists and comparative psychologists, but some people were enraged by the suggestion that human behavior is driven by the same forces that govern all of life — for example, that males are genetically rewarded for sowing wild oats, while a female’s best repro­ductive bet is to secure a faithful partner to help rear her acutely needy young. Socio­biology, as a unifying theory of behavior, is profoundly more nuanced than any simple construct about men and women. But sound bites have consistently over­simplified it and raised the ire of a public ever eager to mistake an observer’s statement of “This is” for a moralist’s “This is what should be.”

Fiction is a safer place for drawing on nature to illuminate the human condition, for it is generally understood as metaphor rather than recommendation. Melville gave us whales and obsession, Orwell gave us pigs and politicians. Now Wilson suggests with winning conviction that in our own colonies, we proceed at our peril when we cast off mindful restraint in favor of unchecked growth. It’s hard to resist the notion that as we bustle around with our heads bent to the day’s next task, we are like nothing so much as a bunch of ants.

¶ Peter Beinart on Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents, by Ian Buruma. Is it waspish to detect a substratum of grudgery beneath the placid approval of this review's surface? 

Despite these nitpicks, “Taming the Gods” is an admirably learned book. Buruma’s writing is spare and careful, and one never feels that he is stretching his material to fit some all-­encompassing theory. But if that is the book’s virtue, it is also its failing. Buruma is a fox, not a hedgehog, offering up lots of small insights rather than any overarching one. When covering so much terrain in so little space, that’s more honest. As a result, however, “Taming the Gods” seems more like a set of related essays — about Christianity in the United States and Europe, about religion in China and Japan, about Islam in Europe — than a unified book. Near the end, Buruma does express a preference for a state that regulates its citizens’ public behavior but doesn’t try to influence their private beliefs. Yet that argument comes through clearly only in the final pages. In much of the rest of the book, the trees are lovely, but the forest is nowhere to be seen.

¶ Richard Howard on Why Translation Matters, by Edith Grossman. One eminent translator gives praise for a colleague's expression of a philosophy of translation — something that every serious reader must grapple with.

I believe — and I sense from her later chapters that Grossman also believes — that the effective audience for her appropriately sharp-tongued revelations about translation and its commercial ventures and venues is actually the occasionally resistant, occasionally cynical reader-as-listener who may want to become the next Edith Grossman. Translation’s fate must be determined in those ears and minds, not in the offices of various foundations and publishers; hence her essay.

So it is heartening, even comforting, to learn that Grossman spends her hours, when she is not translating, in those arduous yet often ardent university classrooms where she can expound and clarify the nature of her art. Her clues, seeded throughout this essay, as to how to go about creating, completing and correcting a translation as an authentic work in another language (she writhes at the metaphor of “the target language”) are exactly what a reader, especially a nontranslating reader, requires.

¶ Liesl Schillinger on The Solitude of Prime Numbers, a novel by Paolo Giordano (translated by Shaun Whiteside). Notwithstanding her admiration, Ms Schillinger does not convey the quality that has caused this very unlikely-sounding book to be translated into thirty languages.

The fascination of Giordano’s writing lies in his deft delineation of the personalities congealed in these frozen figures. Mattia and Alice emerge like ice sculptures against a human backdrop that the author animates, but which the characters themselves don’t treat as real. They stand apart, outside — by choice and by compulsion. Writers and filmmakers have mined the romance of the “outsider” for decades and longer. But Giordano deromanticizes social alienation. Much of the pathos in these pages comes from the pain his emotionally crippled characters inflict on the people who care about them, people who don’t understand that Mattia and Alice are unreachable. Trapped in closed circuits of self-involvement, they resemble intelligent, defective automatons who inspire emotions in others that they cannot return.

¶ Floyd Skloot on Even the Dogs, by Jon McGregor. An unhelpfully unsympathetic review.

The result of all the literary pyro­technics, and the way they call attention to the writing itself, is that scenes that should be unbearably emotional — as when Robert is visited by his teenage daughter for the first time in many years and she sees the squalor of his life — fall flat, because we have no visceral connection with the characters. The author has imagined a story filled with vital, gripping material, but he is too busy claiming our attention to let us lose ourselves in it.

¶ Daisy Fried on All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems, by Charles Bernstein. This warm review is also handily candid.

This selection of Bernstein’s work doesn’t neglect his early experiments. “Lift Off,” apparently transcribed from a typewriter correction tape, begins “HH/ ie,s obVrsxr;atjrn dugh seineopcv i iibalfmgmMw.” A sympathetic reader appreciates the grunting “dugh,” the fortuitous trip to Paris implied by “seine,” the broken “s ob,” the loneliness of the lowercase “i.” This is a conceptual poem — you may be more excited to know it exists than to read through it.

A hilarious, addictive untitled series of sentences sounds cribbed from TV Guide: “Comradery turns to rivalry when 12 medical students learn that only seven of them will be admitted to the hospital. . . . Henrietta Hippo believes she can predict the future by reading the letters in her alphabet soup.” No mere joke, this prose poem gets at the strange dream-normalcy of television, the absurdity of narrative, the tragicomedy of human desire.

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