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Reviewing the Book Review

Summer Reading

6 June 2010

¶ Jonathan Franzen on Christina Stead's 1940 masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children. This laudable effort to expand the readership of a book that has always been highly-regarded in my time would have been more helpful if Mr Franzen had shared a good block of text — surely not too much to ask of a lengthy appreciation such as this.

And yet the culture isn’t monolithic. Although “The Man Who Loved Children” is probably too difficult (difficult to stomach, difficult to allow into your heart) to gain a mass following, it’s certainly less difficult than other novels common to college syllabuses, and it’s the kind of book that, if it is for you, is really for you. I’m convinced that there are tens of thousands of people in this country who would bless the day the book was published, if only they could be exposed to it. I might never have found my way to it myself had my wife not discovered it in the public library in Somerville, Mass., in 1983, and pronounced it the truest book she’d ever read. Every time I’ve been away from it for some years and am thinking of reading it again, I worry that I must have been wrong about it, since the literary and academic and book-club worlds make so little of it. (For example, as I’m writing this, there are 177 Amazon customer reviews of “To the Lighthouse,” 312 for “Gravity’s Rainbow” and 409 for “Ulysses”; for “The Man Who Loved Children,” a much more accessible book, there are 14.) I open the book with trepidation, and then I read five pages and am right back into it and realize that I wasn’t wrong at all. I feel as if I’ve come home again.

Here's what I mean: "...and it’s the kind of book that, if it is for you, is really for you.." This reminds me that I have tackled the book twice, without success, because I found Stead's prose unappealing. Perhaps Mr Franzen, elucidating his chosen text, might have fashioned a key.

¶ Jay McInerney on Walks With Men, a novella by Ann Beattie. This review is a study in dissipated enthusiasm: Mr McInerney admires Ms Beattie and clearly wants to think better of this work, but his disappointment is torn between a longing for her to write the sort of thing that made her famous, over thirty years ago, and for her to cast aside the relics of the old manner.

Given Jane’s passivity and her reluctance to look deeply into her own heart, it is disappointing not to get more of the kind of surface topography in which Beattie specializes. Beattie’s short stories can be richly textured and studded with cultural detritus, but here, except a cameo by Rollerina, or a Champagne-drenched book party that Woody Allen almost attends and Harold Brodkey leaves after a brief appearance, we get a kind of generalized 1980s New York. “Carter was committing adultery in his heart and not getting the hostages freed from Iran, and everyone felt unsettled.”

Beattie’s refusal to overdetermine her characters, her reluctance to explain their behavior, is a hallmark of her style, and one of the reasons she came to be identified as a minimalist in the early ’80s. It was part of what made her fiction seem so knowing and hip. Stuff happens. And it’s not always explicable. Let’s not make too big a deal about it. In “Walks With Men” (a title I am still scratching my head over), we are pretty much living in a universe of accidents and unexplained events; Beattie’s unwillingness to explain or connect seems almost perverse. Jane’s old hippie boyfriend from Vermont, now known as Goodness, comes to the city and visits her, only to be pushed under the wheels of a subway train. Jane learns of his grisly death when she’s watching the evening news. I will not divulge Neil’s fate, except to say that I suspect it will leave most readers as mystified and unsatisfied as I was.

Ann Beattie is a national treasure, the author of short stories that will endure and continue to inspire. This slim novel will ultimately be reckoned as a minor part of her oeuvre.

Aside from the not minuscule interest of sharing a lively writer's impressions, this review is useless.

¶ Danielle Trussoni on The Same River Twice, a novel by Ted Mooney. A rave review that would have been more effective without the burden of less-than-entirely-ept storytelling.

To shape the everyday happenings of the world into a good story — isn’t that what novelists are supposed to do best? Yet readers must often choose between “literary fiction,” understood to be works of well-written but meandering prose about the “real world” of human relationships, and “commercial fiction,” fast-paced novels in which plot is everything. The literary is assumed to be cerebral and artistic, the commercial mindless and entertaining. One suspects that nobody is completely happy with this divide. So it is a joy to discover, every once in a while, a writer whose prose and plotting take something from both camps. As Ted Mooney proves in his nuanced literary thriller “The Same River Twice,” it is perfectly possible to find a novel that has it all.

Except when, here and there, it doesn't: "Perhaps that is why, when the details feel off, the effect is disorienting."

¶ Taylor Antrim on Alone With You: Stories, fiction by Marisa Silver. This generally favorable review is clouded, toward the end, by a suspicion that Mr Antrim is looking for something to complain about.

Lust can be all of those things, but to me the sentences’ abstractions pull the idea out of focus. It is, alas, a habit of Silver’s. She’s capable of satisfyingly precise description, as when one character crunches fresh snow between her teeth. But she seems drawn over and over again to a generalized language of feeling, even lazy cardiology prose: “His heart split open”; “Helen felt as though her mother had . . . squeezed her heart”; “Connie felt her heart fill with gratitude for her sister”; “Connie’s heart shrank”; “His heart tossed this way and that.” Silver deploys other forms of shorthand too: “The cat was already out of the bag”; “Her mother threw caution to the wind.” Using the occasional cliché isn’t a mortal sin; still, in the demanding confines of the short story, generic language stands out.

Silver’s stylistic lapses don’t diminish her talent for revealing the frayed bonds of relationships, for harnessing our sympathy toward characters who fall short.

One might easily argue that the stories' abstractions and clichés reflect the dulled, degraded condition of Ms Silver's characters' consciousness, which the author handles with a countervailing precision.

¶ Jonah Lehrer on The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. Instead of heaping contempt upon this pop-science fret about (when you get down to it) kids today, Mr Lehrer generously looks for the bright spots.

While Carr tries to ground his argument in the details of modern neuroscience, his most powerful points have nothing do with our plastic cortex. Instead, “The Shallows” is most successful when Carr sticks to cultural criticism, as he documents the losses that accompany the arrival of new technologies. The rise of the written text led to the decline of oral poetry; the invention of movable type wiped out the market for illuminated manuscripts; the television show obliterated the radio play (if hardly radio itself). Similarly, numerous surveys suggest that the Internet has diminished our interest in reading books. Carr quotes Wallace Stevens’s poem “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm,” in which stillness allows the reader to “become a book.” The incessant noise of the Internet, Carr concludes, has turned the difficult text into an obsolete relic.

Or maybe even these worries are mistaken; it can be hard to predict the future through the haze of nostalgia. In 1916, T. S. Eliot wrote to a friend about his recent experiments with composing poetry on the typewriter. The machine “makes for lucidity,” he said, “but I am not sure that it encourages subtlety.” A few years later, Eliot presented Ezra Pound with a first draft of “The Waste Land.” Some of it had been composed on the typewriter.

It must be noted that Mr Lehrer is second to none as a multitaskoskeptic.

¶ Joshua Hammer on Not Untrue and Not Unkind, a novel by Ed O'Laughlin. Notwithstanding a sprinkling of fault-finding, Mr Hammer bestows warm praise indeed.

Still, with its intensely evocative language and atmosphere of looming tragedy, “Not Untrue and Not Unkind” is a book that far transcends the usual literary efforts of the former combat reporter. It stands as an elegy not only for Simmons’s band of colleagues but for a golden era of journalism.

¶ Anthony Doerr on Three Delays, by Charlie Smith. An incoherent review, this piece entire neglects to tell us what kind of story Mr Smith has to tell us.

“Three Delays” is not the kind of book you can synopsize in three sentences to the stranger in the airplane seat beside you. I’d rather appreciate it for what it is: a cataract of gorgeous sentences, a paean to a lurid, lavish, buzzing and heart-pulping world. A poet as well as a novelist, Smith can dash off drug-marinated riffs as well as any living writer: “The grass looked as if the sunlight soaked 10 feet down into it.” He has a particular gift for amusing repartee, and he can do wisdom, too: “I understood there were times when we had to have death and violence,” Billy concludes, “just as we had to have sex, or the bright fair face of a child looking straight into ours, or we had to notice, as we fell a thousand feet, what a beautiful morning it was.”

We're not in flight, Mr Doerr; give summary a try. ¶

¶ Peter Keepnews on Duke Ellington's America, by Harvey Cohen. Although Mr Keepnews finds that Mr Cohen has little of interest to say about Ellington's music, he is impressed by the author's grasp of a cultural giant's delicate footing during the turbulence of civil righs advances in mid-century America.

Cohen’s in-depth examination of Ellington and civil rights is especially fascinating. Those who don’t know much about Ellington might assume from his charming but aloof public persona that he floated serenely above worldly matters like the struggle for racial equality. Cohen demonstrates otherwise, expertly detailing Ellington’s contributions to the cause — as a composer who addressed racial pride in ambitious works like “Black, Brown and Beige” and “My People,” and as a high-profile exemplar of dignity in the face of prejudice. (“I started my own civil rights movement in the ’30s,” Ellington said in 1965. “I went down South without federal troops.”) But even the aficionado might be surprised to learn that those contributions were not always universally applauded, or even acknowledged, by Ellington’s own people.

In 1951, a number of African-American newspapers printed an article in which Ellington was quoted as saying that blacks “ain’t ready” for integration and that segregation was “something that nothing can be done about.” Ellington was quick to respond that he had been misquoted (­Cohen agrees that at the very least his words were taken out of context), but not quick enough; the article, Cohen writes, “tarnished his long reputation as a race leader in the black community” for years.

¶ Paul Bloom on The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. This warmly favorable review suggests that, instead of wondering what the Internet is doing to our brains, we ought to worry about how badly our brains manage on their own.

Other illusions discussed by Chabris and Simons concern knowledge and confidence. We tend to think that we know more than we do and that we are better than we are. We suffer from what psychologists call the “Lake Wobegon effect,” based on Gar­rison Keillor’s fictional town where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average.” (According to the authors’ own survey, 63 percent of Americans consider themselves more intelligent than the average American, a statistical impossibility. In a different survey, 70 percent of Canadians said they considered themselves smarter than the average Canadian.) Then there’s the illusion of cause: people tend to infer cause-and-effect when all that really exists is accident or correlation.

Chabris and Simons also propose an “illusion of potential”: the belief that “vast reservoirs of untapped mental ability exist in our brains, just waiting to be accessed.” They use this to introduce a fascinating review of urban legends of modern psychology, including well-publicized claims that watching certain videos, like the Baby Einstein series, will make your child smarter; that classical music makes everyone smarter (the so-called Mozart effect); that older adults can keep their minds limber by doing Sudoku and crossword puzzles; and that people use only 10 percent of their brains. It turns out that none of this is true.

¶ Kyla Dunn on The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexptected Benefits of Defying Logic and Work and at Home, by Dan Ariely. This book might be regarded as an antidote to the preceding one: if we're all unreasonable by nature, we may find some of Mr Ariely's tips to be handy. If it were not for the accidental conjunction of these reviews, however, I would overlook this review as covering a book not meriting coverage.

The result is more than just a handbook for business managers or a collection of snippets to relay at cocktail parties. “To get real value from this book,” Ariely tells us, “consider what you might do differently, given your new understanding of human nature.” How, for instance, can we get more out of online dating than a succession of one-time, semi-frustrating meetings for coffee? The problem, Ariely writes, is that most sites reduce potential mates to a few short essays and a set of vital statistics, giving no clue what it’s actually like to spend time with a person (the real basis for our decisions about potential partners). It’s as useless an exercise as “trying to understand how a cookie will taste by reading its nutrition label.” By contrast, when Ariely and colleagues created an online “virtual dating site” where daters used instant-messaging to share an experience found on the site, like a movie clip or a piece of abstract art, this more relevant insight into potential mates doubled the likelihood of a real-world date.

Those who resort to online dating facilities are likely beset by problems too urgent to admit calm perusal of the Book Review.

¶ Joseph Salvatore on The November Criminals, a novel by Sam Munson. Mr Salvatore's storytelling is difficult to follow, but his final judgment promises an enthusiastic if youthful readership for this book.

Munson may know his character, but at times he has trouble controlling him, straining the plot and the reader’s patience with digressions and outrageous opinions. But Munson is a writer with something to say; and if saying it slows the pace, well, given the brash voice of this audacious new writer, I wonder if he’d have it any other way.

* * *

¶ In an issue devoted to seasonal roundups, the editors nonetheless give no fewer than five baseball-related books stand-alone reviews. I cannot protest emphatically enough. ¶ It is rare to encounter a discontented review by Liesl Schillinger, but her disdain for Danielle Ganek's The Summer We Read Gatsby is only heightened by the title's pretensions: "Make no mistake: the operative word in the title is 'summer.' As in, 'How I spent my summer vacation'." ¶ Neil Genzlinger's chatty approbation fails to make a case for "Sex Symbols Squared," a review of memoirs by Raquel Welch and Pam Grier. ¶ Caroline Weber's efforts on behalf of the books reviewed in "Shopaholic Confessions" are more literary, certainly, but no more successful.

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