Reading Matter
Books On the Side
Books In Brief

Reviewing the Book Review

Human Orbits

18 April 2010

¶ Walter Kirn on Solar, a novel by Ian McEwan. A monument of antipathy, this review finds Solar to be too well-written to be any good. "Instead of being awful yet absorbing, it’s impeccable yet numbing, achieving the sort of superbly wrought inertia of a Romanesque cathedral." Mr Kirn seems entirely unaware of the novel's dark comedy

What makes “Solar” such a noble nullity is that it answers these challenges so easily, with such a quotient of stress-free mastery that they feel less like challenges than like problems in a literary exam the author has devised as a means of proving his own prowess. This may be Beard’s story, but it’s McEwan’s vehicle, constructed to let him pull all the showy turns of the major contemporary novelist and ambitious public intellectual: personalizing the political, politicizing the personal and poeticizing everything else. The tip-off is Beard, who’s endowed by his creator with precisely the vices — apathy, slothfulness, gluttony and hypocrisy — that afflict the society the book condemns, threatening to cook the human race in the heat-­trapping gases released by its own arrogance. Because a fictional character can exhibit only so much awareness of his own thematic utility, Beard doesn’t notice any of this, merely regarding himself as a colorful eccentric. But readers will see him for what he is: a figure so stuffed with philosophical straw that he can barely simulate lifelike movement.

The final statement betrays a misreading so profound as to be darkly comic itself.

¶ Elif Batuman on The Line, a novel by Olga Grushin. The first half of this review is all but a rave; the complaints and qualifications that fill the second render the whole somewhat incoherent.

I was also distracted by several flashes of anti-philistinism in the style of the early Nabokov, where bad ethics conveniently convert to bad aesthetics, symphonies are replaced by patriotic jingles, and sensitive souls wishing to make life-saving calls to ambulances are inexorably shut out of telephone booths by enormous-stomached boors who are calling in an order for some kind of cheese. But, in fairness to Grushin, such moments aren’t the only ones that remind the reader of Nabokov: maybe still the early, Russian Nabokov, not quite the one we love yet, but nonetheless a writer of tremendous talent and promise.

¶ Maggie Scarf on Every Last One, a novel by Anna Quindlen. This too-short review seems blighted by fear of spoilers. Nothing prepares the reader for the brief finale.

It would be unfair to reveal what happens to the Lathams, other than to say that tragedy of an outrageous, almost unbelievable, dimension strikes at the heart of the family. The events leading to this catastrophe, and then its painful aftermath, make for a spellbinding tale.

As a result, the tale doesn't sound very spellbinding.

¶ Curtis Sittenfeld on The Bradshaw Variations, a novel by Rachel Cusk. This long review is not very lucid, whether out of fidelity to Ms Cusk's book is hard to tell.

At times Cusk analyzes social under­currents to the point of senselessness, and sentences like “It is the extension of want and pretense into the sufficiency of love that is symbolic” left me scratching my head more than nodding it. Yet she is frequently trenchant in describing fleeting moods and unspoken transactions. Toward the end, one of the Bradshaw wives watches as her elderly mother-in-law furiously sneaks up behind her husband and lands “a blow on the top of his head.” The daughter-in-law reflects on this startling incident in terms that appear to summarize Cusk’s outlook on humanity. “It was not, as she thought, an emergency. What she saw was much worse: it was intimacy.”

Cusk also provides an indictment of suburban consumerism that successfully avoids self-righteousness. This isn’t a book for everyone, but if you’ve ever found yourself plunged into existential despair while shopping at a department store, you’ll enjoy the scene in which one Bradshaw brother becomes quietly unhinged while trying to buy a coat.

¶ Julie Meyerson on Imperfect Birds, a novel by Anne Lamott. Ms Meyerson seems to like this book well enough, but maybe she doesn't. The review reads like a letter to an old friend — someone capable of understanding why anyone would want to "sweat toward" conclusions.

Throughout this admirable novel, Lamott’s observations are pitch perfect — likably, even brutally unsentimental, not just about parental hopes and anxieties but about the particular and touching fragility of simply being a teenager. I blushed at the description of the mother, seen through her daughter’s eyes, who is “so intent on keeping everyone around her calm, so desperate for everyone to love and forgive her and be happy and trust her that sometimes she vibrated with it, like brass wires.” And you ache with the truth of Elizabeth’s visceral longing for her strong, beautiful, frightening daughter: her fear at what Rosie is becoming, mixed with — so honest, this — an irrational and perpetual hunger to please her. As this hunger threatens to damage Elizabeth’s relationship with her husband, you sense James’s righteous fury at what he sees as the “whole contemptuous lie machine of Rosie.”

If the novel has a fault, it’s that it almost works too hard, insisting on doing a little too much of our thinking for us. Occasionally I craved a bit more space, the room to slow down and analyze things for myself, to sweat toward my own, perhaps more ambiguous, conclusions. If I didn’t know Lamott was herself a recovering alcoholic, I think I would have guessed it. Just occasionally, all the supportive hugging and talk of higher powers made me want to pull back.

¶ Thomas Mallon on Parrot and Olivier in America, a novel by Peter Carey. Mr Mallon persuades me that Tocqueville's voyage in America is a deeply uncongenial subject for Mr Carey.

Sentence for sentence, Carey’s writing remains matchlessly robust. Sailors cling “to the rigging like soft fruit in a storm,” while inside a dark parlor old ladies sit “wetting their hairy chins with stout.” But as the book’s bravura paragraphs grow into chapters, the author seems unable to decide whether it’s “Democracy in America” or “Martin Chuzzlewit” or, once more, “Great Expectations” he’d like to inflate and transform. The local units of invention rarely disappoint, but if Tocqueville were to survey the book’s overall imaginative structure, he might recommend a stronger sort of federalism to the enormous literary talent presiding here.

¶ Joseph Salvatore on The Escape, a novel by Adam Thirlwell. Mr Salvatore's technical objections to this book's structure do not function as literary insight.

This is fine psychological insight. And it demonstrates how powerfully Thirlwell can dominate the world of his story. This insight comes not from Haffner, however, but from the book’s actual narrator, an unnamed friend of Haffner’s, 60 years his junior, who, a decade after Haffner’s adventures in the Alps, steps up to tell us the story in the present. It is because of this narrator that, in the end, “The Escape” feels less like Haffner’s story than an experiment in narrative stylistics. No one would argue that experimenting with narrative isn’t the right of every author; and in fact Philip Roth, whose influence is all over this book, routinely pulls off precisely this kind of framing device. But the effect here is to make Haffner’s story seem too filtered, as though a scrim has been hung between reader and story.

¶ Ligaya Mishan on The Lake Shore Limited, a novel by Sue Miller. On the whole, the reviewer finds this novel something of a letdown, in light of the author's previous novels. Thanks to a long extract, though, we can situate the story's moral climate.

The Lake Shore Limited” is perhaps best appreciated as an extended character study. In places the prose drags, and there’s too much filler detail, as if Miller weren’t sure how to move the story forward without a proper plot. Still, the novel is worth reading for the ruthlessness of its revelations. One character holds “every small kindness she performed for her mother against her”; another balks at reconciling with his estranged wife, considering it “an admission of failure, . . . of being old and used up.” In a showstopper of a speech, a husband fillets his marriage:

“You know how it is when you’re tired and don’t feel like having sex. . . . You undress carefully, you expose only a little flesh at a time, so as never to be fully naked, never to seem to be issuing some kind of invitation with your body. . . . There’s a parallel thing that happens emotionally after you’ve lived too carefully around each other too long, always hiding some part of yourself. You stop caring. . . . There’s nothing you can say that will charm the other or, for that matter, hurt the other, because nothing you say is ever of any importance at all. Your conversations remain polite, fully clothed, as it were, at all times.”

¶ Joel Turnipseed on The Sandbox, a novel by David Zimmerman. Mr Turnipseed seems to think that, because it's war story, it's enough to hand us a thumbnail of its setting and a hint of its hero's predicament.

Like many soldiers, Toby obsesses over the gap between the good life and the soul-sucking, latrine-dump-burning duties of low-ranking warriors. After his stateside girlfriend breaks up with him, he smokes a fine cigar he received from a sympathetic sergeant: “The cigar is good. It tastes like a better life. One I might have had if my parents had taken a left instead of a right, if I had said no instead of yes, if I had kept my eyes on the ball, if I had cleaned my plate, brushed my teeth and said my prayers. It tastes so good I can barely smoke it. The better life makes me choke a little.”

For a character like this, in a war as full of indiscretion, deception and savage violence as Iraq’s, there can really be only one destiny: the wrong end of a bad deal. But Zimmerman has more in mind than merely getting a hard-luck soldier into trouble. “The Sandbox” is loaded with an M.R.E. caseful of plot elements, all pulled from Iraq war headlines — lost billions in cash, prisoner interrogations, soldier indiscretions, failed counterinsurgency plans — and all play their part in bringing Toby’s story to its terrible conclusion. That every question in this novel interrogates every other is one of its great strengths and will keep you turning the pages of its short chapters, as each weaves the insistent first-person mystery of “Why me?” with the larger mystery of “What are we doing here?”

¶ David Shields on Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir, by Ander Monson. I'm definitely nowhere near cool enough to understand Mr Shield's breathless review.

Elsewhere in the book, Monson acknowledges his long-held desire to vanish and his predilection for “periodic alcoholic obliteration.” Found texts proliferate: a photo of an infant, a Post-it that says “Wiped 2/4/08,” some hilariously undergraduate marginalia on “To the Lighthouse,” Monson’s own youthful and self-serious outline for a cyberpunk novel (which he eviscerates), a psychological (self-?)assessment of someone named Mrs. Jenetta Woodward, a page ripped from a notebook, a list of young women who have vanished. “The essay perishes. It perforates, is perforated by bullet holes. As the body perishes so does the essay, which is like a body. . . . And what of you, you who are already forgetting?” This essay, like this book, is both theory and practice. “Vanishing Point” argues for the demolition of the neat resolution of much memoir at the same time it embodies in its very form and freedom the literary and existential excitement of which the open-ended essay is capable.

¶ Daniel Gross on The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, by Michael Lewis; and The End of Wall Street, by Roger Lowenstein. This review nicely shows the same disaster from two sides, assuring us that both views are compelling.

Wall Street didn’t end because, after the big shorts came good, the Federal Reserve and American taxpayers stepped in with extraordinary assistance. In a somewhat discordant note, Lowenstein concludes that the bailouts mean the “government is playing a conspicuous role in formerly private affairs” and that there’s a throwback to “industrial planning of the ’70s.” But we’ve always had an industrial policy of incentivizing, subsidizing and bailing out the housing and credit industries. Whether we realize it or not, the public has always been long onWall Street.

“The Big Short” also circles around to a lunch with a banker. Lewis sits down with his former boss, John Gut­freund, the former chief executive of Salomon Brothers, who tartly sums up Wall Street’s enduring philosophy. Laissez-faire is all well and good until something goes wrong.

¶ Virginia Postrel on The Art of Choosing, by Sheena Iyengar. A sympathetic and lucid review.

Unlike “provocative” books designed to stir controversy, “The Art of Choosing” is refreshingly thought-provoking. Contemplating Iyengar’s wide-ranging exploration of choice leads to new questions: When is following custom a choice? How costly must a decision be to no longer qualify as a choice? Did Calvinism spur worldly achievement because its doctrine of predestination removed all choice about the hereafter? Do con­temporary Americans adopt food taboos like veganism because they crave limits on an overabundance of choices?

Human beings, Iyengar suggests, are born to choose. But human beings are also born to create meaning. Choice and meaning are intertwined. We use choice to define our identities, and our choices are determined by the meanings we give them, from advertising-driven associations to personal relationships and philosophical commitments. Some meanings we can articulate, while others remain beyond words. “Science can assist us in becoming more skillful choosers,” Iyengar cautions, “but at its core, choice remains an art.”

¶ Gordon Marino on Tales From the 5th St Gym; Ali, the Dundees, and Miami's Golden Age of Boxing. Nothing in this review suggests the the book merits coverage in the Book Review.

The structure of this collection creaks like an old gym floor. Pacheco will start out with a story, follow it up with a chapter by a Fifth Street confrere, and then chime in with commentary on that chapter. Still, the combination of tenderness and candor, especially concerning the conflicts over the sad last lap of Ali’s career (Pacheco wanted the champ to quit after his third fight with Joe Frazier), makes up for the problems with the book’s ­organization.

It could be that some of the author’s tales are a mite tall, but they serve to make the reader feel party to a warm and vibrant conversation among old friends about the sweat factory their lives used to swirl around. Some of the photographs are taken from family albums, and enhance the sense of intimacy. By the last page, it is easy to understand why the wrecking ball that went through the gym in 1993 also went through the hearts of Ferdie Pacheco and his boxing brethren.

¶ David Reynolds on Tocqueville's Discovery of America, by Leo Damrosch. Mr Reynolds is far more interested in talking about Tocqueville than about Mr Damrosch's book.

Humanizing Alexis de Tocqueville ­poses special challenges. His magnum opus, “Democracy in America,” has gained prophetic stature since its publication in two volumes (1835 and 1840). Its grand pronouncements about America roll before us in chapter after sweeping chapter, each ringing with authority. Tocqueville covered many topics — government, commerce, law, literature, religion, newspapers, customs — in elegant prose that captured the essence of democracy. His insights, while sometimes debatable, are often eerily prescient.

In “Tocqueville’s Discovery of America,” Leo Damrosch, the Ernest Bernbaum professor of literature at Harvard, reveals the man behind the sage. Damrosch shows us that “Democracy in America” was the outcome of a nine-month tour of the United States that Tocqueville, a temperamental, randy 25-year-old French apprentice magistrate of aristocratic background, took in 1831-32 with his friend Gustave de Beaumont.

¶ Neil McFarquhar on Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978, by Kai Bird. A warm and largely favorable review.

By the end, the book has succeeded in explaining the perspectives of two peoples who view the Middle East conflict through different lenses. One filters it through the Holocaust, or Shoah, the other through the Nakba, the Arabic word for the disaster wrought by Israel’s war of independence. Bird tells the sad twin stories of Mrs. Goldmark, his mother-in-law, being unable to reclaim her lost home in Graz, just as Dr. Vicken Kalbian, a Palestinian family friend in East Jerusalem, cannot recover his confiscated Jerusalem house.

These are mirror images, but the trauma engendered blocks each side from seeing its reflection in the other. What’s more, Bird argues, outsiders, in Washington in particular, have exploited the conflict for their own interests rather than pursuing true reconciliation.

At the age of 5, Bird attended a ­reception with his parents at Jerusalem’s landmark Ameri­can Colony Hotel, where an elderly American heiress offered $1 million to anyone who could solve the Arab-Israel dispute. Tugging on his father’s sleeve, he says, “Daddy, we have to win this prize.” Sadly, more than 50 years later, no one has.

¶ Sophie Gee on Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World, by Claire Harman. Unfortunately, this review does not find a place on the continuum between obsession and soundness at which to pin Ms Harman's book.

The strongest arguments come early on, when Harman presents Austen as anything but an amateur. An extremely canny writer, the most talented member of a surprisingly literary family, Austen read her contemporaries and predecessors rigorously, thinking deeply about her own style, about her aspirations for her writing. Amazingly, Austen came up with technical breakthroughs that would take the novel well into the modern era.

“Jane’s Fame” isn’t aimed at specialists, but its repackaging of existing academic research attracted controversy in Britain when the Oxford scholar Kathryn Sutherland told The Observer that Harman had used her work without attribution, remarking that it felt “a bit like identity theft.” Harman registered a defense through the Press Complaints Commission, which advised the newspaper to publish her reply. Their exchange, a reminder of how overwrought Austen skirmishes can be, recalls once again her prophetic quip: much labor, little effect.

This is having it both ways.

Permalink  Portico About this feature

Copyright (c) 2010 Pourover Press

Write to me