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Reviewing the Book Review

That Summer in Italy

23 May 2010

¶ Graydon Carter on The Pregnant Widow, a novel by Martin Amis. In what amounts to a very kind State of the Martin address, Graydon Carter writes with a gusto that perhaps betrays his glee at having taken the longer-playing editorial route. Mr Amis is no more one's image of grandfatherhood than Mick Jagger is. As for the novel under review:

The London Observer called this book a “romantic farce,” but don’t go expecting Michael Frayn or Peter De Vries. As in many real summer idylls, not a whole lot actually goes on. The book describes a European country house vacation, after all: there is a lot of reading, there are visitors and there are trips into town. And although there are also endless sexually charged afternoons by the pool, you’ll get more real action in a Republican romance novel. As much as “The Pregnant Widow” is Amis’s account of the sexual battlefield and its aftermath — as much as it contains explicit talk and yearnings and legs and breasts to ache over; as much as it describes dainty washables and other tantalizing elements of the opposite sex’s kit to fantasize about — there’s not a heck of a lot of actual sex in the book. It almost took me back to the Canada of my youth.

¶ Baseball Books: Sam Tanenhaus on The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron, by Howard Bryant; and Michael Shapiro on Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball, by Bill Madden. Neither of these titles merits Book Review coverage. Of the first, Mr Tanenhaus writes, "Much of this has been told before — most vividly in Aaron’s autobiography, 'I Had a Hammer'.” Mr Shapiro gleefully palpates the "devastating" nature of Mr Madden's portrait, and finishes with a send-up of motivational eyewash.

This, however, does not lessen the impact of the blow to Steinbrenner’s legacy. In the end, the man who felt it necessary to apologize to New York when the Yankees lost a World Series understood almost nothing about a game whose subtleties seemed beyond his comprehension.

But then, this wasn’t about baseball. It was, ultimately, all about him. There may be no I in “team.” In the world of George Steinbrenner, though, there was, above all else, an M and an E.

¶ Lloyd Grove on War at the Wall Street Journal: Inside the Struggle to Control and American Business Empire, by Sarah Ellison. This favorable review presents Ms Ellison's saga sound like a high-end beach book.

Ellison, a former reporter at The Journal, covered the takeover in real time for the very newspaper Murdoch was scheming to acquire. She gracefully slips back and forth across enemy lines, gathering intelligence from all sides and using her precious face time with Murdoch and his adult children more profitably than did the media critic Michael Wolff for his self-referential biography, “The Man Who Owns the News.” She spins an absorbing yarn played out on super-yachts and in corporate jets, populated by an irresistible cast of characters — and not only the relentless Murdoch, with his “auburn-dyed hair.” Especially eye-catching is the Katharine Hepburn­esque horsewoman Elisabeth Goth Chelberg, a direct descendant of Clarence Barron’s son-in-law Hugh Bancroft and a beneficiary of the largest family trust, which held $350 million in stock. She had been agitating against Dow Jones’s troubled management since the mid-1990s. Warren Buffett encouraged her to seek a seat on the board, airily dismissing her worries about her checkered past of drug abuse and brushes with the law. “Well, who are they comparing you with, Jesus Christ?” the Oracle of Omaha declared. “Everybody’s got skeletons in the closet. That’s ridiculous.”

¶ Liesl Schillinger on Agaat, a novel by Marlene van Niekerk (translated by Michiel Heyns). This glorious review shows that storytelling can be done well. Ms Schillinger's account swells with the urge to do honor to Ms van Niekerk's text.

Books like “Agaat,” the second novel by the South African writer Marlene van Niekerk, set in the last five decades of the departed century, are the reason people read novels, and the reason authors write them. It’s a monument to what the narrator calls “the compulsion to tell,” expressing truths that are too heartfelt, revelatory and damaging for proud people to speak aloud — or even to admit to themselves in private. Observed from the distance of time, they present a pattern of consoling completeness. Through incantatory visual and aural imagery (van Niekerk is a poet as well as a novelist), “Agaat” brings to life a landscape whose significance lies not only in its outward appearance (“deep kloofs overgrown with protected bush, the old avenue of wild figs next to the two-track road, . . . hills with plots of grass and soft brushwood for the sheep to overnight”) but in the inward imprint it has left on its inhabitants. How startling, how awe-­inspiring, how necessary it is that the ­story van Niekerk assembles here is relayed by a woman who cannot speak.

¶ Emily Bazelon on The Beauty Bias: the Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law, by Deborah Rhode. It is difficult to understand why a book-length position paper on an aspect of Constitutional law is doing in the Book Review. It would be far more effective to discuss this important but not urgent issue in the Week in Review section.

If you fear that civil rights law is already bloated, you’ll probably be unmoved. But Rhode insists that she’s not conjuring up an overlawyered world in which aspiring models sue for losing work. She would allow businesses to select employees based on appearance in the same way they can legally select on the basis of sex: if it’s a “bona fide occupational qualification” for the job.

Rhode is also ready to concede that “on the reform agenda of women’s rights advocates, appearance does not deserve top billing.” She just wants to talk about the perils of high heels and weight requirements along with the wage gap. Ladies, think about it the next time your feet ache.

Indeed, I wonder if Ms Rhode is doing her argument any favors by publishing it in book form.

¶ Robin Romm on What Becomes: Stories, by A L Kennedy. A straightforwardly helpful, favorable review.

And she writes marvelously about sex. In “Sympathy,” a pert and absorbing story told entirely in dialogue, two strangers meet in a hotel room to have an explicit, tawdry encounter. The woman’s psychological vulnerability peaks as the tryst gets dirtier. Is it permissible to say, here in the 21st century, that it still feels daring when a woman writes potent, aggressive, downright sexy sex?

Kennedy can do redemption, too. And toward the end of the book, she does offer a dose of it. The penultimate story, “Another,” finds a widow secretly delighting in her second chance at love.

¶ Joshua Hammer on The Nearest Exit, a novel by Olen Steinhauer. The thrust of this favorable review seems to be that spy fiction can be "literary." In this case, the effort is unpersuasive.

Steinhauer’s tale has its weaknesses. His cardboard villains, including the conspiratorial senator and a Chinese spymaster who may be running the mole, will make readers long for an opponent like Smiley’s Karla. Steinhauer also has a tendency to delineate his characters with a few trademark idiosyncrasies, then repeat them over and over, to annoying effect. The unhappy German spymaster Erika Schwartz (“a big woman since the 70s, an obese one since the fall of the Wall”) snacks incessantly on Snickers bars and washes them down with bottles of cheap riesling. Weaver’s own eccentricities — he pops Dexedrine like Pez, struggles with an addiction to Davidoff cigarettes and carries an iPod loaded with the music of Serge Gainsbourg and David Bowie — sometimes feel more like tacked-on ­accessories than genuine outgrowths of his personality.

Yet these minor drawbacks are far outweighed by Steinhauer’s brisk pacing, sharp dialogue and convincing evocation of a paranoid subculture.

¶ Jeanne Vanasco on Molly Fox's Birthday, a novel by Deirdre Madden. This favorable review of a novel about the possibility of knowing an actor would have benefited from a touch of intensifying editing.

Molly’s artistic discipline provides her sense of self. It is what draws her to the narrator, but it is also what makes them more like acquaintances than intimates. Yet “I would not be the writer I am without Molly,” the narrator confesses. For almost 20 years and almost 20 plays, the best roles she has written have been invented “with Molly in mind.” Wandering through Molly’s house, the narrator attempts to parse what she can of her friend’s life outside the theater. By means of a few clues — a book, a table, a flood of morning light — the narrator situates us firmly in the past. Sometimes one memory “in turn triggered another memory,” she explains, “something that I had forgotten.”

The novel is structured as if the narrator were walking through a dark room, feeling the walls for a light switch. Nonetheless, it has form: the conflict, crisis and resolution are interior. It engages our attention and sympathy because the narrator wants to understand Molly. It is the intensity of the wanting that keeps us reading.

¶ David Oshinsky on Last Call: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition, by Daniel Okrent. According to this enthusiastically favorable review, Mr Okrent has written a compelling, authoritative, and timely study of a problematic chapter in American history. 

There have been many studies that follow the rapid growth of the temperance movement in this era — the colorful saloon-busting of Carry Nation, the tent-revival magnetism of Billy Sunday — but none can match the precision of Okrent’s account. Momentum, he notes, depended on both a keen understanding of the political process and a ruthless approach to elected officials, who either joined the cause or found themselves under endless assault. Knowing that alcohol taxes accounted for about one-third of all federal revenue, temperance leaders campaigned successfully for a federal income tax to make up the difference. Believing that women were more likely than men to support restrictions on alcohol, these leaders strongly supported women’s suffrage. And when America entered World War I in 1917, they helped fan the flames of anti-German hysteria by accusing the Busch family and other brewers of harboring sympathies for the kaiser (a charge, not entirely untrue, that turned beer drinking into a disloyal act).

¶ Russell Shorto on Making Haste From Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World: A New History, by Nick Bunker. Mr Shorto, who has written an evidently very different book about New Amsterdam, is perhaps not the ideal critic for this book.

It is difficult, however, to follow some of this book’s flow of facts and arguments. Bunker is better at digging in archives than in steering a narrative. He has many directions he wants to go in, and a great deal of information at his disposal, but he does not help the reader much. As an example, early in his book he describes the Mayflower leaving Plymouth Harbor on Sept. 6, 1620, for its voyage to America, only to abandon it at this momentous point to spend several pages discussing other ships that came into and out of the harbor around that time. Then he returns to the Mayflower, but promptly leaves it again to mention a fishing boat called the Covenant that was in the harbor as the Mayflower departed. This ship was returning from Newfoundland, which leads Bunker into discussions about the types of ships that fished for cod; the business of cod fishing; the uses of cod, walrus and whale oil; and Capt. John Smith and his efforts to promote New England. Having twice set up the historic voyage and twice distracted us from it, Bunker then takes yet another detour, yanking the Pilgrims off the deck of their ship and putting them back on dry ground in Plymouth to engage in conversations about where they should settle, so leaving the reader truly at sea.

¶ Katharine Noel on Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto, a novel by Maile Chapman. This review lavishes enthusiastic praise on an odd-sounding book, without making it sound odder. Most helpful!

Chapman often writes beautifully, her language almost laparoscopic in its closeness and precision. If occasionally her descriptions try too hard — the “multiple black pollutions” of a crying woman’s smeared mascara, for example — her details are more often startling and exact, as when she describes the patients walking out onto a frozen bay, the ice “crisp under the boots but with the motion of water always underfoot, a subtle fullness, a shifting.” Just as striking is the novel’s voice, a Greek chorus of up-patients who narrate as though giving an orientation. “Pay attention to details,” the narrators warn us at one point. “You must, for example, have good house shoes and warm socks to see you through.”

The collective narration has a hallucinatory quality, and Chapman impressively imagines the physical and emotional world of Suvanto.

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