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Reviewing the Book Review

Meet the Supremes

23 September 2007

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

Dale Peck’s Essay, “The Outsiders: 40 Years Later,” hails S E Hinton as a visionary recycler of literary motifs in books meant for young (and disaffected) adults. It is out of place.


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

The Nine: Inside the Supreme Court, by Jeffrey Toobin. Not surprisingly, David Margolick’s review is full of storytelling. But he does register enough substantiated praise to herald it is a timely and useful read. He is actually quite astute about “why another book, and why now.”

The cartel is not only closed, but, as television news has withered, it is also shrinking. And scholars aren’t much help. Many top law professors once clerked on the court; cherishing their relations with the justices, along with the power to pull strings from Cambridge or New Haven or Palo Alto to land similar positions for their students, few dig deeply into court affairs. It all works very neatly; the only ones hurt are the American people, who know little about nine individuals with enormous power over their lives.

That is why, every decade or so, an enterprising and intelligent outsider like Toobin can come along and shine a much-needed spotlight on the place. He’s pedigreed (Harvard Law School), well connected (The New Yorker, CNN) and visible, the kind of person immured justices like to say they know. Most important, he’s not in one of those cubicles. He has an independence and perspective the lifers don’t. He’s not in awe of the place, not prone to covering it in hushed tones or to writing endlessly about red velvet curtains or black robes.

The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, by David Halberstam. I am just old enough to remember how Americans dealt with the stalemate at the end of the Korean War: they blacked it out. This left them fresh to begin the Vietnam misadventure with tough-minded optimism. It was the late Halberstam’s genius to go back to the forgotten war and unearth the patterns that would be repeated over and over and that are even now covering us in choking disaster. How familiar does this excerpt from Max Frankel’s burnished review sound?

War in Korea was provoked by “a colossal gaffe” — the failure of Secretary of State Dean Acheson in a routine speech to include non-Communist South Korea in America’s Asian “defense perimeter.” That oversight caused a reluctant Stalin to unleash North Korea’s army for what Kim promised would be a three-week blitzkrieg to reunite all Korea. He very nearly succeeded.

Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories, by Katha Pollitt. Tony Bentley isn’t happy with this book, finding it sentimenttal and un-self-respectful, but her disliked charmed me into thinking that I might want to read more writing like the pieces that in The New Yorker– all of them utterly engrossing, and still very much in my head. Writing about the texture of her own Manhattan life, instead of politics, Ms Pollitt is quite appealing.

The Israeli Lobby and US Foreign Policy, by John J Mearshimer and Stephen M Walt. At last, the Book Review gets round to the most controversial text of the past couple of years. Ever since the nucleus of this book appeared last year in the London Review of Books, it has been trashed and denounced and anathematized as “anti-Semitic.” Leslie Gelb wishes that the authors had done a better job of scholarship; instead of making their case, they handed their opponents an arsenal of wipeouts. But the furious opposition seems to strengthen the book, and one concludes that the authors were not as concerned with making an ironclad case as they were with forcing a previously-unmentionable argument into public discourse. It is to be hoped that sympathetic students will do the scut work and bolster future editions.

To the Castle and Back, by Vaclav Havel (translated by Paul Wilson). Vaclav  Havel isn’t perfect, but it’s hard to imagine a Twentieth-Century public figure who approached perfection anything like so closely. Paul Berman’s very favorable review suggests why:

But mostly the flickering anecdotes and commentaries illuminate the implausible incongruities that make up Havel’s strange and appealing personality. Self-effacement is his first instinct. He insists that he has never entertained political ambitions. And yet, as if to show that his modesty is never false, and that self-effacement is not his only instinct, he goes on to remark that most of the historic statements and documents of the anti-Communist dissident movement in his corner of the world were written by himself, and that his rise to leadership followed simply from his superior talent for cool and orderly thinking. He began as a playwright and a man of the arts, and his earliest friends in the non-Communist West, back in cold war times, leaned in pacifist and anticapitalist directions, artsy-style. Yet those were not his own leanings. He never doubted, for instance, that military action was a good idea against the Serbian nationalism of Slobodan Milosevic


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

Pontoon: A Lake Wobegon Novel, by Garrison Keillor. Thomas Mallon’s favorable review is mostly storytelling, but he puts in a few pious words to show that he respects this American icon. I’m reminded of a review in The New Yorker, in the late Sixties, in which someone (probably Naomi Bliven) wrote of the latest translation of Hermann Hesse: “This isn’t literature; it is incense.” Mr Mallon’s phrasing is different, but it boils down to the same thing. “Gentle humor and basic humor may light Lake Wobegon’s grid, but Keillor’s imagination, the town’s only power source, is ever mindful of darkness within and without.”

Like You’d Understand, Anyway: Stories, by Jim Shepard. Daniel Handler’s feverishly favorable review taught me nothing about Mr Shepard’s collection. The review itself is too much a type to shed any light on it subject. Once it has praised the author for not being like New York writers who specialize in urban anomie and suburban boredom, it settles down to a few gnomic quotations that must have meant something at the time. It is a High Guy vodka cocktail, and if you’ve got the right sensibilities, you’ll run right out for a litre of the stuff in book form. It’s too fancy for Men’s Health, but that, really is where it belongs. I wish Mr Shepard better luck with his other fans.

An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, by Brock Clark. This book’s literary merit, David Bowman’s review implies, owes entirely to the device of burning down shrines formerly inhabited by the likes of Emily Dickinson. As a crime book, An Arsonist’s Guide may or may not be satisfying. As literature, there is a term for its sort of thing: borrowed plumes.

Children at Play: An American History, by Howard P Chudacoff. Dominique Browning’s sympathetic review cannot mask her impression that this book  has a certain overheated, Chicken Little quality. Maybe we should simply stop worrying so much about play. It defeats the purpose.

The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics, by Jonathan Chait. Roger Lowenstein’s favorable review of this doubtlessly sound book fails to suggest why anyone interested in reading isn’t already familiar with at least the rough guide to big-time three-card monte.

Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan. Not even Liesl Schillinger can conceal the fact that this book’s draw is the scandal of a married mother’s abandoning her hearth to run off with Frank Lloyd Wright.

The problem Ellen Key wrestled with in her philosophy, and that Mamah could not solve in her life, had no solution in 1907 and still has none in 2007. In “Loving Frank,” bringing the buried truths of the ill-starred relationship of Mamah Borthwick Cheney and Frank Lloyd Wright to light, Horan only increases her heroine’s mystery.


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

The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, by Stephen Pinker. In the Nineteenth Century, Herbert Spencer turned out wow after wow, more or less persuading his Victorian contemporaries that he was the go-to guy for scientific low-down. In fact, he was an armchair theorist, talking plausibly through his hat. How long it will take the reading public understand that Mr Pinker, in all innocence no doubt, is repeating Spencer’s trick, I cannot say, but William Saletan’s very positive review leaves utterly undisturbed my conviction that extrapolating theories from the things that people say, when neurobiologists are only seeing the first glimmers of how it is that people speak at all, is arrant nonsense.

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