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Reviewing the Book Review

Lust for Numbers

16 September 2007

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review.

Rachel Donadio’s Essay, “Revisiting the Canon Wars,” shows this literary reporter at her best, surveying current views of the can of worms opened by Allan B loom’s The Closing of the American Mind twenty years ago. Generally impartial, Ms Donadio seems slightly inclined toward the canonists, while recognizing that the multiculturalists have won the battle. Here’s a wonderful quotation from an essay by John Searle that appeared in The New York Review of Books in 1990:

In a second “Essay,” “Name Check,” Alex Beam and Christopher Beam, who it would appear are not related, compile a list, with head shots, of writers with distinctive first or last names who might easily be confused. Pin it on your corkboard for handy reference.


The following titles appear to deserve coverage in the Book Review. The reviews may still be inadequate or useless.

The Indian Clerk, by David Leavitt. Nell Freudenberger gives this historical novel, set at Cambridge during World War I, a strongly favorable review. Although she does not connect her own dots, it is clear that this is a richly satisfying novel. Having referred to the embarrassment of plagiarism surrounding While England Sleeps, Ms Freudenberger writes,

A situation remarkably parallel to the one depicted in “While England Sleeps” occurs in “The Indian Clerk”: Rupert Brooke, under the influence of his upper-class lover, Eddie Marsh, goes off to war and is killed. Bertrand Russell argues that Marsh “might as well have murdered” Brooke, having “brought him into his posh circles ... and put it in his mind to be the great hero.” While Hardy, significantly, defends Marsh’s role in the incident, it is a quiet argument for the way that stories reoccur, refusing to belong to any one person. More historically and emotionally detailed than the earlier novel, “The Indian Clerk” reprises what is obviously one of Leavitt’s primal stories: an insider betraying an outsider and struggling for the rest of his life with the consequences.

The difficulty is that the novel is about two mathematicians, R H Hardy and an Indian called Ramanujan.

Trespass, by Valerie Martin. Sue Halpern’s generally favorable review indulges in a bit more storytelling than is strictly necessary, but the novel’s literary merit emerges unambiguously.

The dialogue in “Trespass” can occasionally be stilted, the plot turns a little too convenient — and the whole thing wraps up more neatly than the package warrants. Even so, Martin’s novel is the best kind of moral fiction, the kind that interrogates morality itself.

Song for Night, by Chris Abani. Maud Casey’s review of this novella about a child soldier in an African war, is a rare example of favorable concision.

A novella can compress the sweep of a character’s life so that it is magnified, and like Flaubert’s Félicité and Coetzee’s unnamed magistrate, My Luck is both archetypal and utterly himself, thanks to Abani’s attention to detail. In the course of My Luck’s journey along the banks of a river down which corpses float “like a macabre regatta,” he gives a skeleton a proper burial. Cleaning it first, he pulls a cobweb from the bones to “drape it over my head like a cap,” a gesture simple and startling in its vividness. At another point, My Luck notices that despite the war, “every night my sky is still full of stars.” This is his fight: to continue to notice what endures when he is “lost in a war with the taste for rape.”

Hotel De Dream: A New York Novel, by Edmund White. Sophie Gee keeps her storytelling to a minimum, quotes abundantly, and, finally, heaps the following immense praise:

The descriptions of New York’s thieves, vagrants and whores have stomach-turning realism. The sordid low-life tableaux are reminiscent of contemporary prose by Stevenson and Conrad (not to mention Crane himself), but White gives us explicit descriptions of the sexual and social deviance that “real” Victorian novels could only hint at obliquely. White has conjured a missing fin de siècle novel, albeit one that could not be written for another hundred years.

Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustice of the DUke Lacrosse Rape Case, by Stuart Taylor Jr and KC Johnson. Jeffrey Rosen’s succinctly favorable review of this book about the totalitarian perils of rigorous political correctness firmly presents the book as a must-read for our polarized times. Referring to Duke president Richard Brodhead, the reviewers conclude,

In their final chapters, the authors go further. They believe that Brodhead was trying to avoid the fate of Lawrence Summers, deposed as president of Harvard for his incorrect views about gender equality, and that in the “alternative universe” of academia, no university president can challenge the conceits of political correctness that are corrupting our greatest campuses. Here the book becomes a little hyperbolic and reads more like a blog than like the meticulous narrative that has come before. But if the authors are at times carried away by righteous indignation, they can surely be forgiven in light of the consequences of the abuses they describe. Taylor and Johnson have made a gripping contribution to the literature of the wrongly accused. They remind us of the importance of constitutional checks on prosecutorial abuse. And they emphasize the lesson that Duke callously advised its own students to ignore: if you’re unjustly suspected of any crime, immediately call the best lawyer you can afford.

The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West, by Mark Lilla. According to Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s very favorable review, Mr Lilla has exploded the generally assumed link between the scientific revolution and the political overhaul that he calls the Great Separation – of church and state.

In some sense, Lilla is saying that Christianity is just too philosophically interesting. Thinkers like Hobbes, Locke and Hume were responding to “the intellectual structure of Christian political theology, which turned out to be exceptional, and exceptionally problematic,” as he soberly puts it. Or as I would less soberly paraphrase his point: Christian political theology encouraged the development of Enlightenment progressiveness the way that runaway mitosis encourages the discovery of cancer cures.

It should be noted Ms Goldstein’s assertion, offered as a criticism of Mr Lilla’s theory, that “Japan and India, among other non-Christian countries, have embraced the Great Separation,” is seriously open to argument.  

How To Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, by James L Kugel. David Plotz’s amused and amusing review, critical but not unfavorable, of this serious deconstruction of the Hebrew Bible, written by an Orthodox Jew on the Harvard faculty, is best summarized by the following droll paragraph:

But vanquishing the literalists is only half of Kugel’s project. He also seeks a safe haven for rationalist believers. In other words, having broken all the windows, trashed the bedroom, stripped the wires for copper, sold the plumbing for scrap, and jackhammered into the foundation, Kugel proposes to move back into his Bible house.


It is difficult to tell whether these books are actually as indifferent or pointless as the reviews suggest.

Engleby, by Sebastian Faulks. Terrence Rafferty writes lucidly about this novel about a creepy Cambridge undergraduate in the Seventies. His judgment, fundamentally negative, is apparent in every paragraph, and yet it never occludes the novel’s interesting possibilities.

The disturbing thing about this book is that it seems less an honest, fumbling attempt to explore fresh creative territory than an act of rebranding by a novelist who wants to prove that he’s more than a conscientious plodder working with the sturdy but worn tools of 19th-century fiction — that he can do dazzlingly ironic, Nabokovian modernism too. (He carries out this demonstration with his customary doggedness.)

Red Rover, by Deirdre McNamer. The individual sentences in Sven Birkerts’s favorable review of this novel, based on the life of the author’s uncle, an FBI agent whose death has yet to be explained, make sense, but they don’t add up to make a cogent judgment.

The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History, by Linda Colley. Megan Marshall’s enthusiastic review fails, for me, to lift this biography of an Eighteenth-Century author (of one book) about whom there is very little surviving documentation, from the morass of Might Have/Must Have/Don’t Know For Sure speculations about exotic figures from the past. Nonetheless, her final paragraph suggests that Ms Colley may have hit on such a new way of going about things that her book is worth a look.

Gifted, by Nikita Lalwani. Ligaya Mishan tells the story of this novel, which is apparently based on the true-life story of a Cambridge prodigy, without passing a word of judgment. The reviewer – or perhaps the editors - appears to find the story so interesting that evaluating the novel’s literary merit. This is the sort of thing that happens in single-column reviews.

The Spanish Bow, by Andromeda Romano-Lax. Although Susan Cokal does tell us that the author is “good at deflating the myth of artistic inner angst,” her review is solid storytelling, innocent of judgment.

Letter From Point Clear, by Dennis McFarland. Reviewer Richard Woodward is disappointed that this novel about a rich family confronting evangelical fervor fails to “play this as a Shavian comedy, exposing hardened and faulty assumptions on the parts of all concerned. He concludes:

In early novels like “The Music Room” and “School for the Blind” (where the ancestral home was in Florida), McFarland was able to draw realistic figures with odd problems. His flowing sentences took their time reaching a conclusion but still held their shape and took care of business along the way. Not here, where the Southern heat seems to have wilted the muscle tone of his prose and his characters. Let’s hope this novel is an anomaly.

Number Crunchers: Why Thinking-by-Numbers Is the New Way to Be Smart, by Ian Ayres. David Leonhardt’s critical review of this book about the authority of statistics is well-tempered.

The best stories in the book are about Ayres and other economists he knows, whether they are studying wine, the Supreme Court or jobless benefits. He’s less convincing when he writes about doctors advocating “evidence-based medicine,” Hollywood executives who use “neural networks” to predict box-office receipts, or almost anyone else outside a university. The reason is clear enough: Ayres didn’t talk to most of them, relying instead on accounts from newspapers and magazines, and his reproduction of these sources can be quite troubling. I realized this when I came across two sentences about a doctor in Atlanta that were nearly identical to two sentences I wrote in this newspaper last year. The sources show up in the footnotes, but many readers will surely assume that Ayres witnessed some events, like the scene at a call center from an article in Fast Company magazine, when he in fact did not. They will also assume the words are his. “A phone call that might have taken 20 or 30 seconds, or even a minute, now lasts just 10 seconds. Everyone wins,” Charles Fishman wrote in Fast Company, describing the center’s data-centric customer service. Ayres reproduces the exact words, without quotation marks.


These books, if they deserve coverage at all, ought to grace other sections of The New York Times.

Restless Virgins: Love, Sex, and Survival at a New England Prep School, by Abigail Jones and Marissa Miley. Touré’s review is great fun, but this book about fellatio at a prominent prep school has no place in the Book Review.

If listening to teenagers you don’t know discuss the minutiae of high school life — the hookups, the weight obsession, the spoils of popularity, the despair of lacking it — if that’s your thing, then this is the book for you. If it came with a companion CD, you’d be listening to the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard. We are told, in detail, about instant-message flirtations between boys and girls; hockey games won and lost; and group sex acts called ski-poling and the Eiffel Tower, which can’t be described in these pages

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