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Reviewing the Book Review

Death Match

27 June 2010

¶ Scott Turow on Mr Peanut, a novel by Adam Ross. The gist of this warmly favorable review appears to be that the sum is not equal to its parts. The final two paragraphs

Going back to my days in Scowcroft’s seminar, I have taken it as an article of faith that a novel fully transports us only when it presents a coherent imagined world. Pigs may fly or authors may interrupt their own stories, but the ground rules must be consistent so that readers may step confidently outside of themselves for a while and, as the book goes on, draw a line between the author’s created universe and their own. This may not be a precept Ross shares, but for me the spell of “Mr. Peanut” fractures occasionally — for example, when it veers from Dr. Sheppard’s house in Ohio, rendered with mesmerizing verisimilitude, to Mobius’s jail cell in New York, where the same Sheppard, inexplicably transformed into a detective, endures a Karamazov-style inquisition from a murderer who can kill himself by holding his breath. Each piece is a tour de force, but they’re hard to reconcile in the same novel.

Yet this one qualm is far outweighed by the trove of rewards to be found in “Mr. Peanut,” especially its audacious and moving honesty about one of society’s fundamental institutions, and its hard-won hopefulness. This is a brilliant, powerful, memorable book.

¶ Erica Wagner on Imperial Bedrooms, a novel by Bret Easton Ellis. If Mr Ellis's new book has received one favorable review, we have yet to see it. We had no trouble, for a change, following Ms Wagner's appraisal.

“Imperial Bedrooms” is more violent than “Less Than Zero.” It goes without saying, I suppose, that’s it’s not as violent as “American Psycho,” but it is infused with the same toxicity. Toward the end of the novel, Clay buys himself a boy and a girl: “The girl was impossibly beautiful — the Bible Belt, Memphis — and the boy was from Australia and had modeled for Abercrombie & Fitch.” He does terrible things to them, and makes them do terrible things to each other. Why? Maybe because, as the novel’s closing line has it, “I never liked anyone and I’m afraid of people.” Didn’t we know that already? The reader has to wonder what Ellis is trying to prove. That people numbed by the poison of a society based solely on money, fame and beauty are capable of practically anything? If that’s not news to us it’s thanks, in large part, to Bret Easton Ellis. But what purpose can simple repetition serve?

¶ David Carr on Portrait of An Addict As a Young Man: A Memoir, by Bill Clegg. Mr Carr has the decency to remind us that he has published a recovery memoir of his own, but of course there's a warning wrapped up in the disclosure. .

Still, it’s not as if Clegg ginned up the elements of his life to fit some literary motif. “Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man,” however pretentiously titled, rings true in brutal, blunt strokes. We can all take some measure of happiness that Clegg’s durability and his talents have left him as a literary agent with big-name authors at a big-name agency.

As millions of people who sit in church basements and meeting rooms hearing what it was like for other addicts and alcoholics understand, there is a certain, very practical value in everyone’s story. When that story is pressed between the covers of a book, some in the culture at large can identify while others can resolve to never become that person. But the genre is built on far more carnal imperatives. People want to drive slowly by and see the blood and abasement. Once they get a good, hard look, they can thank their lucky stars they aren’t the ones upside down in a ditch with the wheels spinning above them.

¶ Robin Marantz-Henig on How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like, by Paul Bloom. An excellent, concise review.

But stick with it and trust the author, Paul Bloom, to use these weird digressions to get us someplace interesting. Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale, has written a book that is different from the slew already out there on the general subject of happiness. No advice here about how to become happier by organizing your closets; Bloom is after something deeper than the mere stuff of feeling good. He analyzes how our minds have evolved certain cognitive tricks that help us negotiate the physical and social world — and how those tricks lead us to derive pleasure in some rather unexpected places.

¶ Sylvia Brownrigg on Dear Money, a novel by Martha McPhee. Ms Brownrigg apparently wants more angst in her novels. The problem with her disappointed review is that it leaves you suspecting that she missed something.

McPhee’s aim is a promising one: to show us a woman undergoing a radical identity shift, from artist seeking some form of truth to trader seeking the best deal, along with the reward of “gobs of money.” And though we may have little sense of what India loses in the transformation — the novel’s only felt betrayal has to do, pointedly, with real estate — McPhee proves better on what has been gained. She takes pleasure in describing India’s stylish new clothes, her touches of home improvement and, after some dense explanatory paragraphs on the mortgage business, the trading floor itself. The best of these scenes is a raucous showdown between India and another female trader, vying to see who can eat the most hamburgers in an hour. India wins this one too, without regret, chowing down 21 burgers as a horde of young men shout their encouragement. In that moment, more vividly than any other, we have a sense of how far this spirited woman has traveled from a decorous life of letters.

¶ Stacey d'Erasmo on Double Happiness: Stories, by Mary-Beth Hughes. This is the very best sort of favorable review, its praise full of implicit caution.

Other characters in these stories design hypermodern furniture that looks like “a tossed handkerchief suspended forever just before descent”; work away for years on books about Basquiat; are oddly sexually disaffected; sometimes move to France; become fathers at 45 (and still feel it’s too soon); publish in very small journals with names like Heron’s Flap Quarterly; and so on. How are they? They’re O.K. You’ve no doubt seen them, or been them, in the aisles of Whole Foods, choosing among various chutneys. “At the art-movie theater in the West Village,” says the mostly modern dancer, “we took failure for granted.” But these failures are never especially devastating, never the last word. Both the good and the bad news is that, as in Chekhov’s stories, these characters just . . . go on.

Hughes is a quietly gorgeous writer, lavishing startling metaphors on her half-lost souls. The eyebrows of a stranger glimpsed on the subway are “two tiny boomerangs” fixed “midflight, above her startled eyes.” A mother in an “ivory coat and off-white stretch pants” looks to her daughter like “a big wishbone strained to the limit.” A man’s younger mistress is described as having a “come-hither-no-prisoners face.” Hughes’s tone is often hushed, lending the collection a discreet, old-fashioned quality reminiscent of a restrained writer like Mavis Gallant.

¶ Max Rodenbeck on Faith and Power: Religion and Politics in the Middle East, by Bernard Lewis; and Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam, by Fred Donner. The point of this double review seems to be to discredit the ageing and anxious Mr Lewis while hailing Mr Donner, an historian in his prime. There is a place for such comparisons, and it is not the Book Review.

If it were only the present that Lewis perceived through a gently distorted mirror, this might not detract from his distinction as a historian. But he gets the past subtly wrong, too, often by omitting vital context. He says that when the Arabs rejected the partition of Palestine in 1947, it was simply because they refused to accept having a Jewish state next door. Yet Arabs were not alone in questioning the United Nations plan to allocate 56 percent of Palestine’s territory to a minority consisting mostly of recent immigrants, which made up barely a third of the population and owned just 7 percent of the land. Greece, India and Cuba, among others, also voted no, while China, Ethiopia, Colombia, Chile and Mexico abstained. The overriding motive of all these doubters was presumably not bigotry, as Lewis implies, but concern about Palestinians’ rights.

Modern history may not be Lewis’s forte. Yet even regarding older eras, his views sometimes seem at odds with those of another distinguished historian. Fred M. Donner is a professor of Near Eastern history at the University of Chicago. His new book, “Muhammad and the Believers,” is a learned and brilliantly original, yet concise and accessible study of Islam’s formative first century.

In our view, the proper course would have been to overlook Mr Lewis's book altogether.

¶ Joseph Berger on Still On Call, by Richard Stern. Neither author nor reviewer is well-served by this somewhat impatient piece.

But to find these gems the reader has to wade through observations that seem dashed off, self-indulgent ruminations about often trivial matters. The book includes disconnected blog posts that Stern wrote for The New Republic between 2006 and 2009, some on barely remembered dust-ups. (One provocative exception: his description of Condoleezza Rice, whose charm, “sheer delight in the ele­gance of power” and “complex devotion to the president and his family fused in a conscience deeply formed by racial insult and injury,” and made for “the kind of character she has read about in the pages of her favorite Dostoyevsky.”)

There is no coherent theme to carry a reader along and make up for momentary lapses of interest. While scattered thoughts could have been tolerated with a writer like Saul Bellow (Stern’s longtime friend), whose every foible and quirk seems to excite curiosity, Stern has not drawn that kind of attention. Indeed, this book sometimes gives the impression of having been written by Bellow’s marvelous Hamlet-like creation, Herzog, a man of ideas who writes letters into the void to rail against life’s letdowns.

¶ Mike Peed on The Passage, by Justin Cronin. Having written two "literary" novels, Mr Cronin has now published a vampire blockbuster. The half-page allotted to Mr Peed's review suggests an understandable reluctance on the editors' part to handle this "766-page doorstop," which in any case is all but review-proof. (The most important news is that there are two more of these in the pipeline.)

Cronin leaps back and forth in time, sprinkling his narrative with diaries, ­e-mail messages, maps, newspaper articles and legal documents. Sustaining such a long book is a tough endeavor, and every so often his prose slackens into inert phrases (“his mind would be tumbling like a dryer”). For the most part, though, he artfully unspools his plot’s complexities, and seemingly superfluous details come to connect in remarkable ways.

Not surprisingly, the story is infused with biblical undertones. The military calls its experiment Project Noah, intending its creations to live for 950 years; the original test subjects were 12 in number, just like Jesus’ apostles. “The Passage,” then, is fundamentally an investigation into the creation and destruction of a flawed race. And the characters’ inquiries have a sophisticated ambiguity: they ask about destiny and God (“Looking at the stars from the station roof, he’d felt something — a presence behind them, their vast immensity”) and debate the reasons for persisting in a seemingly forsaken world.

An inadvertently silly review.

¶ Reviews by Chrystia Freeland, Paul Barrett, Felix Salmon, and Graham Bowley, all well-written, cover books of varying quality about the late calamity in Wall Street investment banking. It is impossible to ignore how much better The New York Review of Book's coverage would have been, with all five titles handled by a single reviewer — Mr Salmon, perhaps, or, deliciously, John Lanchester. Even better: an overview by one of the Times's excellent business columnists (Floyd Norris would be our choice), published in the Business Section. The Meltdown of 2008 is still news, not history, and not yet ripe enough for coverage in the Book Review.

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