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Reviewing the Book Review

Twice Accused

16 May 2010

¶ Terrence Rafferty on Innocent, a novel by Scott Turow. This warmly enthusiastic review praises the author for capturing the ambiguities that the ostensible clarity of the law seems only to deepen.

The book’s real distinction, though, is its stubborn, powerful undercurrent of regret, mostly felt by Sabich but also, to a lesser degree, by everybody else in this murky world, where even the bright light of the law can’t show people, or their desperate acts, as they truly are.

¶ Dexter Filkins on War, by Sebastian Junger. This guardedly favorable review includes a statement that explains why, from a geopolitical standpoint, Afghanistan probably ought to be depopulated: "too ­remote to conquer, too poor to intimidate, too autonomous to buy off." Mr Filkin all but declares his regret that Mr Junger's book is not more like his own (The Forever War).

Junger has found a novel and interesting lens through which to view the conflict in Afghanistan, and he captures many things a lesser writer might miss.

But he pays a price for it. For one thing, the characters of Second Platoon sometimes disappear in Junger’s digressions. Apart from the group’s tough but vulnerable noncommissioned officer Sgt. Brendan O’Byrne, none of the men of the platoon come to life for very long. And for all the discussion of combat, there isn’t enough of it in the book to sustain Junger’s discussion. There’s too much telling, not enough showing. The result is that for all its closeness to the men in the field, “War” lacks the emotional power it might have had if its characters had been described in more depth. Junger risked his life to be with the men of Battle Company’s Second Platoon, but I would have liked to have heard a little more from them and a little less from Junger himself.

¶ Miranda Seymour on Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put On My Pajamas, and Found Happiness, by Dominique Browning. A model review.

The most sensitive parts of “Slow Love” describe the triumph of spirit over circumstance. I could have done without the goody-goody quotations from the poet Mary Oliver. (“You too can be carved anew by the details of your devotions.”) But I will return — with a little of the refreshed pleasure I can still get from reading about Walden Pond — to Browning’s sublime account of what she calls “the intertidal years,” and of a slow twilight journey by kayak across a pond near her Rhode Island home. Here, triumphantly, she makes the case for slow love achieved, a process she describes as the flip side of nostalgia: the state of “knowing what you’ve got before it’s gone.”

¶ Sven Birkerts on Private Life, a novel by Jane Smiley. This tantalizing review, replete with artful storytelling, seems determined never to betray the reviewer's final opinion. We're left with this scrap at the end:

As the years pass, history bears down. “Private Life” reflects the pressures of the larger world on the most intimate aspects of personal existence. Andrew’s delusions intensify, and Dora and Pete become Margaret’s most important emissaries from the outside. As World War II breaks out, there are more wrenching developments. Smiley lets these events infiltrate her narrative even as she keeps Margaret’s sad marriage squarely in the foreground. Through every scene and revelation, she keeps in mind the moment she’s building toward: the completion of Margaret’s long-deferred self-recognition. What she finally delivers has a Jamesian twist of the unforeseen, but it’s achieved with a sureness of hand that’s all her own.

¶ Julia Scheeres on Jesus Boy, a novel by Preston Allen. In her tonally somewhat flat but favorable review, Ms Scheeres makes it clear that she has been entertained.

Surely no one does church sexy like Allen. In his worship services, the Holy Ghost descends on women who collapse in the aisle with “spasming legs” and preachers whip their flocks into orgiastic frenzies. The middle-aged widow gazes soulfully at her teenage lover as he strokes the piano during a hymn, “so tight and so fresh and so full of juice,” and calls out an “orgasm shout” that is lost among the holiness shouts.

¶ Tom LeClair on The Dead Republic, a novel by Roddy Doyle. This enthusiastic review, somewhat burdened by storytelling, handily places the novel in literary context.

Fans of Doyle’s quick-stepping earlier novels may find “The Dead Republic” slow in comparison, but it offers aesthetic compensations. When Doyle wrote “A Star Called Henry,” he identified it as the first volume in a trilogy he called “The Last Roundup.” Readers of the first two books can now see the mythic structure of his project more clearly: departure from home in the first book, in the second an initiation into another kind of life in America, and then in the third the return to Ireland. On the record as unimpressed by Joyce’s “Ulysses,” Doyle has written his own response. Clever and daring like Odysseus in his youth, Henry becomes, like Leopold Bloom, smarter with age, giving the lie to the Yeats who wrote, “An aged man is but a paltry thing.”

¶ Jennet Conant on Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory, by Ben Macintyre. This enthusiastic review seems to take it for granted that readers will jump at a well-told real-life espionage story. It would have been more interesting to use the new book to examine that assumption.

The unlikely hero of this wartime tale was Ewen Montagu, a shrewd criminal lawyer and workaholic with a prematurely receding hairline and a penchant for stinky cheese — proving once again that not all spies are dashing romantic figures. At 38, too old for active service, Montagu was recruited by Godfrey and joined what Godfrey called his “brilliant band of dedicated war winners.” Just as he had relished the cut-and-thrust of the courtroom, Montagu delighted in matching wits with his new opponents: “the German saboteurs, spies, agents and spy masters whose daily wireless exchanges — intercepted, decoded and translated — poured into Section 17M.” Macintyre’s thumbnail sketches of Montagu and company are adroit, if at times dangerously close to being over the top. He ignores Godfrey’s warning about the danger of “overcooking” an espionage ruse, but for the most part all the rich trimmings and flourishes make for great fun.

¶ Alan Wolfe on The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, by Diane Ravitch. This notable book gets a notable review that takes its responsibility seriously.

Some may ask whether we should trust someone who was once widely viewed as a conservative but now actually says nice things about teachers’ unions. But for all the attention paid to Ravitch’s change of heart, she has always been less an ideologue than a critic of educational fads, whether the more touchy-feely forms of progressive education popular in the 1960s and ’70s or the new nostrums of choice and testing. Ravitch now supports ideas associated with the left not because she is on the left. She does so for the simple reason that choice and testing had their chance and failed to deliver

¶ Mary Jo Murphy on Good to a Fault, a novel by Marina Endicott. This review makes comparisons to the fiction of Barbara Pym, but without ever touching on the surprising power of Pym's disciplined cadences, evidence of which in Ms Endicott's novel is not forthcoming.

“That cancer card trumps everything,” Clara thinks. But it doesn’t really. Not in this story, anyway. Although Lorraine’s illness casts its shadow over everything, it’s the quieter introspective dramas, provided by Endicott’s skillful rotation among the characters’ points of view, that hold your attention. The clearest observations are saved for moments of suffering less obvious than Lorraine’s. “Telephone poles clicked past the bus window,” Endicott writes of the lonely vicar, “tallying the distance, the wires swooping him on from point to point, back to his empty house.”

¶ Jeff Vandermeer on The Dream of Perpetual Motion, a novel by Dexter Palmer. This too-short review fails to present a clearly ambitious book as more than a stunt.

In his tragicomic first novel, “The Dream of Perpetual Motion,” Dexter Palmer takes elements from Nabokov, Neal Stephenson, Steven Millhauser and “The Tempest,” tosses them into a retro-futuristic blender and hits “purée.” The result is a singular riff on steampunk — sophisticated, subversive entertainment that never settles for escapism.

Palmer imagines an alternate 20th-century America “filled with machines,” including steam-powered contraptions, mechanized orchestras and omnipresent robot servants. Machines do all the work; people do all the buying.

¶ Eric Weinberger on The Lonely Polygamist, by Brady Udall. Mr Weinberger gambles that treating this novel about "a family of thirty-two sharing three houses" will be rendered intriguing by a comparison to science fiction.

However, Udall has struck on something significant: By avoiding questions of contemporary relevance, he can highlight the very normalcy, at least in theory, of a culturally alien and abhorrent practice. Polygamists, nowadays, are vilified for things either absent in this book (like child rape and under-age marriages) or subdued (like violence and the expulsion of boys and nonconformists). But Golden’s brood is a lot like ours. When his first wife says, “This family needs to grow, to evolve; we’ve become stagnant” — a family of 32 sharing three houses! — it somehow makes perfect sense. The numbers aren’t working out; the relationships are off. A fifth wife, and more children from the fourth and youngest to “give her a place in this big, ridiculous family”: we understand it’s a perfect solution. As in good science fiction, this world is no less recognizable for the strangeness of its people.

¶ Evan Thomas on A Measureless Peril: America in the Fight for the Atlantic, the Longest Battle of World War II, by Richard Snow. This warm review cannot resist the temptation to retell Mr Snow's story, which it describes simply as "evocative and at times moving." Happily the final paragraph conveys an idea of the virtues of the book.

One of the American seamen portrayed is the author’s father, Richard B. Snow, a lieutenant aboard a destroyer escort. An architect before the war, the elder Snow had great trouble returning to civilian life. He just sat at his drafting table, unable to work. “Everything he’d wanted to get back to seemed opaque, cold, changed,” Snow writes. “My mother told me that one afternoon he telephoned her. . . . ‘I called to say goodbye,’ he said.” Mrs. Snow got her husband home and somehow rescued his psyche from the perils of sea. He went on to be a successful architect, not unlike Herr Todt, though on a less grandiose scale. He specialized in college buildings; his legacies are the libraries of Barnard, Princeton and Amherst.

¶ Anthony Julius on The Flight of the Intellectuals, by Paul Berman. It is impossible to read this favorable review as anything but yet another broadside in the Zionist strife.

Another part of the problem with Ramadan lies in his political and family pedigree, which he has not repudiated, but which he misrepresents. It is in his analysis of this pedigree that Berman’s book really takes off. Ramadan is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is a “terrible fact” that Ramadan’s “personal milieu — his grandfather and his father, his family contacts, his intellectual tradition — is precisely the milieu that bears the principal responsibility for generating the modern theory of religious suicide-terror.” Like his grandfather, Berman writes, Ramadan desires a return to a distant age, one characterized by religious purity, in which all dissent will necessarily be absent. It is an imagined past, of course, and an impossible political program. And it supposes the ideal intellectual posture to be “supine.” Furthermore, “in a modern political world shaped by the rise of the Islamists,” Berman writes, “even some of the most attractive of thinkers tend, if they have come under an Islamist influence, to have a soft spot for suicide terrorism. And a soft spot for anti-Semitism.”

¶ Bryan Burrough on Hellhound On His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr and the International Hunt for His Assassin, by Hampton Sides. This guardedly favorable review takes pains to distinguish Mr Sides's book from standard histories.

There’s still a line between narrative history and entertainment, in other words, and Hampton Sides flirts with it in his new book about James Earl Ray and Martin Luther King, “Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for His ­Assassin.” If that sounds like a graphic novel, well, you’re getting the drift. Sides, whose books include “Ghost Soldiers,” a World War II drama, and “Blood and Thunder,” on the conquest of the American West, is not overly interested in new research, thorough­going analysis or traditional bio­graphy. He wants to deliver a heart-pounding nonfiction thriller. This must be the first book on King that owes less to Taylor Branch than Robert Ludlum.

¶ Elyssa East on Finding Chandra: A True Washington Murder Mystery, by Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz. This warmly favorable review will persuade many readers to revisit the Big Overkill of 2001.

Nonetheless, Higham and Horwitz have written a remarkably detailed, straight-up exposé of bureaucratic incompetence and human folly, set against the alluring backdrop of Washington. Inspired by a series of articles that appeared in The Post in 2008, the book sheds new light on this sex scandal turned murder mystery and media circus. It builds suspense through the careful articulation of the things that the police and the media botched, and through the revelation of how various players in the case had a hand in their own undoing. It’s an impressive feat of reporting and storytelling, full of the kind of plot elements that seem unbelievable and are made all the more engrossing because they’re true.

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