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The Hacker and the Hack

30 May 2010

¶ David Kamp on The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, a novel by Stieg Larsson (translated by Reg Keeland). This high-spirited review — which includes overviews of the first two Girl titles — is amiable about these best-sellers' shortcomings.

There are moments in “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” as there are in the two earlier books, in which Larsson the pamphleteer gets the better of Larsson the novelist. The original Swedish title of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” is “Man Som Hatar Kvinnor,” or “Men Who Hate Women,” and this sort of ham-handed didacticism at times interferes with Larsson’s natural storytelling ability. Near the end of Book 3, Blomkvist is actually made to speak the words “When it comes down to it, this story is not primarily about spies and secret government agencies; it’s about violence against women, and the men who enable it.” Save it for the study guide, Stieg! Likewise, Berger is assigned a subplot — in which she takes a new job as editor of a major newspaper and acquires a stalker who leaves notes that address her as “whore” — that has no bearing whatsoever on the main story, and seems to exist only to demonstrate how down Larsson is with all the oppressed ladies in the house.

But these transparently “activist” moments are forgivable, as is the pathological coffee drinking, a tic that recurs so relentlessly that I don’t think Larsson realized it was a tic. A thought on this subject: Many of the Larsson faithful subscribe to a belief that the author’s premature death was not of natural causes. He had been threatened in real life by skinheads and neo-Nazis; ergo, the theories go, he was made dead by the very sorts of heavies who crop up in his novels. But such talk has been emphatically dismissed by Larsson’s intimates. So let me advance my own theory: Coffee killed him. If we accept that Blom­k­vist is, in many respects, a romanticized version of Larsson, and that Blomkvist’s habits reflected the author’s own, Larsson overcaffeinated himself to death. Of course, the cigarettes and junk food to which both men are/were partial couldn’t have helped, either.

¶ Francine du Plessix Gray on The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir (translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier). Nearly sixty years later, Beauvoir's classic makes its first complete appearance in English. Comparing the translations, Ms Gray is obliged to prefer the elder.

Should we rejoice that this first unabridged edition of “The Second Sex” appears in a new translation? I, for one, do not. Executed by two American women who have lived in Paris for many years and taught English at the Institut d’Études Politiques, it doesn’t begin to flow as nicely as Parshley’s. A few instances: Writing about the aggressive nature of man’s penetration of woman, Parshley felicitously translates a Beauvoir phrase as “her inwardness is violated.” In contrast, Borde and Malovany-­Chevallier’s rendering states that woman “is like a raped interiority.” And where Parshley has Beauvoir saying of woman, “It is she who defines herself by dealing with nature on her own account in her emotional life,” the new translators substitute, “It is she who defines herself by reclaiming nature for herself in her affectivity.” In yet another example, man’s approach to woman’s “dangerous magic” is seen this way in Parshley: “He sets her up as the essential, it is he who poses her as such and thus he really acts as the essential in this voluntary alienation.” But in Borde and Malovany-Chevallier, “it is he who posits her, and he who realizes himself thereby as the essential in this alienation he grants.” Throughout, there are truly inexcusable passages in which the translators even lack a proper sense of English syntax: “Moments women consider revelations are those where they discover they are in harmony with a reality based on peace with one’s self.”

Never mind. Despite this new edition’s shortcomings, one should be grateful that Beauvoir’s epochal work will be drawn to the attention of another generation. “What a curse to be a woman!” Beauvoir writes, quoting Kier­kegaard. “And yet the very worst curse when one is a woman is, in fact, not to understand that it is one.” No one has done more than Beauvoir to explain the conditions of that curse, and no one has more eloquently, irately challenged us to turn that curse into a blessing.

¶ Ted Conover on three books about peace and quiet: Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence, by George Michelsen Foy; The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise, by Garret Keizer; and In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, by George Prochnik. It would appear from this review that the only title that's worthy of book format is the one that Mr Conover prefers.

Even so, I found that much of Prochnik’s and Foy’s books did not stick with me; both cover perhaps too many basses, er, bases. It’s Keizer, a contributing editor for Harper’s, who has really wrestled with the noise question and comes away with the most to say. Much of it is cultural analysis, beginning with the observation “A person who says ‘My noise is my right’ basically means ‘Your ear is my hole.’ ” He questions why American culture in general seems to be on the loud side, examines “the historic relationship between noise and violence, between the arrogance of power and contempt for the weak.” He happily cites other sources in generous footnotes, everyone from the music critic Alex Ross to the historian Emily Thompson, who was “undoubtedly correct in pointing to the concept of ‘noise pollution’ as an outgrowth of the environmentalist mind-set that emerged in the 1970s.”

What kept me engaged in Keizer’s book was a succession of unexpected ideas about the links between noise, politics and technology.

¶ Ken Kalfus on Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace, by David Lipsky. In this generally favorable review Mr Kalfus writes sensitively about the nature of Mr Lipsky's "useful contribution" to the "vigorous scholarship" about the late great writer.

celebrity reporter and the savvy celebrity-­shy subject, each aware that their encounter serves an exterior purpose, yet each also sensitive to the possibility of a real human connection, even friendship. “It’s kind of intense,” Wallace observes. But on the last leg of the journey, after the two seem to have become close, Lipsky ventures that there’s something false in Wallace’s persona. The reporter suggests that Wallace believes he’s really smarter than other people, and that his amiability is a species of condescension. Disappointed, Wallace shoots back: “You’re a tough room.” Lipsky is hurt in turn after they reach the house, when Wallace tells someone calling on the phone that he’s still with “this guy.” Lipsky wishes that he would have referred to him at least as the “Rolling Stone reporter.” Then, four pages later, Wallace says, shyly, “It’ll be very interesting before you leave, I really would like, if we could trade address data.” Yet the writers never meet again, nor even correspond to commiserate about the killed article.

¶ Andrew Ervin on The Invisible Bridge, a novel by Julie Orringer. Mr Ervin has not been given the space that he needs for supporting this reviews grand claims for Ms Orringer's book; storytelling is no substitute for criticism.

Orringer has accomplished much in this novel, despite occasional outbreaks of purple prose. Then again, the vocabulary available to any artist to evoke the Holocaust is severely limited. Some things can never be adequately described. The strength of “The Invisible Bridge” lies in Orringer’s ability to make us care so deeply about the people of her all-too-real fictional world. For the time it takes to read this fine novel, and for a long time afterward, it becomes our world too.

¶ Jed Perl on My Queer War, by James Lord. This warmly favorable review makes Lord's posthumously-published memoir sound eminently engaging.

Although democratic spirits would prefer to believe otherwise, many writers, from Shakespeare onward, have concluded that the human condition is best studied among the lives of the wealthy, the privileged and the supernaturally gifted. Lord is surely of this opinion. When, in one of his earlier memoirs, he turns his attention to Peter Watson — the millionaire who financed Cyril Connolly’s magazine, Horizon, and had a series of exceedingly handsome and improbable boyfriends — the man’s wealth and élan serve only to magnify the extent to which constructive and destructive impulses exist in the same person, perhaps in any person.

¶ Kathryn Harrison on Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature, by Emma Donoghue. Although not entirely convinced of its soundness, Ms Harrison gives this book a generous review.

Donoghue’s adroit commentary, along with her chronologically organized bibliography, makes “Inseparable” necessary for scholars and enlightening and often amusing for anyone else. As an introduction to literature most of us would never find for ourselves, it corrects the cultural myopia that has limited the average reader’s knowledge of lesbian fiction to Rita Mae Brown’s “Rubyfruit Jungle” and Radclyffe Hall’s “Well of Loneliness,” “by far the most famous coming-out novel.” Though the heroine’s “gender troubles” have, Donoghue notes, reclassified Hall’s novel as “a transgender narrative rather than a lesbian one,” its single, abbreviated and frustratingly inexplicit sex scene — “ . . . and that night they were not divided” — might have been written expressly as an epigraph for “Inseparable.”

¶ Jacob Heilbrunn on The Promise: President Obama, Year One, by Jonathan Alter. Warmly sympathetic, this review is nonetheless unable to locate a raison d'être for this book, as a book.

Throughout, he seeks to avoid what he refers to as the “polemics of punditry.” This endows his narrative with a lapidary tone that is mercifully free of the breathless sensationalism of recent campaign books, but it also results, at times, in a somewhat cloistered quality. Alter never really discusses the larger ideological battles that have buffeted Washington. The Tea Party movement, Sarah Palin and Fox News have only walk-on parts. Instead, the spotlight shines firmly on the intricate maneuverings of the White House’s inner circle. Alter’s informative but detached narrative, you could even say, is itself Obamaesque.

¶ Alan Dershowitz on Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law, by Gabriel Schoenfeld. Mr Dershowitz's disagreements with this book's arguments, far from getting in the way, work to increase its apparent weightiness.

Schoenfeld does not believe the press or Congress can be relied on to strike the appropriate balance. Surprisingly, and wrongly in my view, he places his greatest reliance on the exercise of prosecutorial discretion and in the common sense of juries. History has not vindicated this trust, especially in times of national turmoil and fear. For me, a better democratic answer is for the courts to demand that legislatures enact clear, precise and extremely limited prohibitions on the real-time disclosure of only the most necessary of secrets.

In vibrant democracies there will always be tensions between the government’s need to keep secrets and the news media’s need to reveal them. There will never be a perfect solution or an agreed-upon balance. This is as it should be. Constant tension between the government and the press is an essential requisite of our system of checks and balances.

¶ Nicholas Kristof on Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Despite a measure of pleasant surprise, Mr Kristof objects to this book's "overheated and overstated" judgments about Islam.

Since Hirsi Ali denounces Islam with a ferocity that I find strident, potentially feeding religious bigotry, I expected to dislike this book. It did leave me uncomfortable and exasperated in places. But I also enjoyed it. Hirsi Ali comes across as so sympathetic when she shares her grief at her family’s troubles that she is difficult to dislike. Her memoir suggests that she never quite outgrew her rebellious teenager phase, but also that she would be a terrific conversationalist at a dinner party.

She is at her best when she is telling her powerful story. And she is at her worst when she is using her experience to excoriate a variegated faith that has more than one billion adherents. Her analysis seems accurate in its descriptions of Somalis, Saudis, Yemenis and Afghans, but not in her discussion, say, of Indonesian Muslims — who are more numerous than those other four nationalities put together.

¶ Ligaya Mishan on Ether: Seven Stories and a Novella, fiction by Evgenia Citkowitz. This too-short review verges on incoherence.

At times the stories seem too short for what Citkowitz wants to achieve, the epiphanies orchestrated too swiftly. The most fully realized is the title novella, “Ether,” which starts almost primly: a writer and his editor meet for lunch, eat sole, drink wine and gingerly discuss his novel in (very slow) progress. Having sex afterward “had not been inevitable,” the reader is informed. In the blistering pages that follow, Citkowitz sweeps from New York to Los Angeles, bringing together an ensemble cast worthy of a Robert Altman film, including a Hollywood beauty “into civil rights and whatnot”; the short, flabby, balding writer she makes the mistake of marrying; the autistic young man who stalks her; his truck-stop-waitress mother; an itinerant con man; a gurulike mountaineer; and an octogenarian Holocaust survivor. If it sounds like too much for a novella, it almost is.

Citkowitz has an impressive literary pedigree: her mother was the novelist Lady Caroline Blackwood, her stepfather the poet Robert Lowell. But her voice, particularly her rhythm — half staccato, half headlong rush — is wholly her own. She doesn’t sound like anyone else you’ll have read in a very long while.

¶ Tom de Haven on Elliot Allagash, a novel by Simon Rich. This review makes it hard to understand why the book merits coverage in the Book Review.

If I were in the eighth grade, I’m pretty sure I’d love Simon Rich’s first novel, “Elliot Allagash.” I might even press it on my friends. (“It’s about this 13-year-old evil genius who does whatever he wants because he’s, like, a billionaire. And it’s funny. And short.”) But since more than 45 years have passed since I took up space in a middle school, I simply like it, very much — while wishing this flippant little parable about the puerility of greed had a deeper, sharper bite. Rich is a writer for “Saturday Night Live,” and his fondness for the broadest kind of sketch comedy is evident on almost every page.

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