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Reviewing the Book Review

Our War on Terror

29 July 2007

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

Piano piano, I'm beginning to think that Rachel Donadio's literary backstage pieces are actually useful. This week's Essay, "Monda's World," is about an Italian journalist who lives on the Upper West Side and who runs a toothsome literary festival at Capri. I think that the piece would have been better had it been half as long, and followed by something of equal length and interest. I'm not sure that Ms Donadio was the reporter to introduce Antonio Monda to American readers.

Then there's the Herbert page. For most of my life, "Herbert" meant "George Herbert," a highly religious Stuart-era poet from Wales. I didn't know his work very well, but I knew his name. Now the name belongs to someone else: Zbigniew Herbert. And a fine poet he is - I suppose. I don't read Polish, and I don't believe that poetry can be translated. How am I to know how good the translations are? David Orr's essay compares the old and new translations and when he's through you still have to buy both books.

Before getting to the regular reviews, I want to appraise Samantha Power's roundup of four recent books about what Tara McKelvey calls "the terror war." The review begins with a coolly scathing characterization of the Bush Administration's philosophy of such war, and then assesses each book as the suggestion of a better way of going about things. I am not at all sure that the Book Review is the place for this lengthy but cogent summary.

U S Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (Chicago, 2007). This document, brainstormed by a committee headed by Lt Gen Davis Patraeus, was initially made available on the Internet, but was downloaded so many times that the University of Chicago elicited an introduction from Ms Power's colleague at Harvard, Sarah Sewall, that Ms Powers says "should be required reading for anybody who wants to understand the huge demands effective counterinsurgency will place on the military and the voting public."

Containment: Rebuilding A Strategy Against Global Terror, by Ian Shapiro. It is ironic that the very Americans who congratulate themselves upon winning the Cold War has utterly discarded our most powerful weapon: containment.

Shapiro is at his most persuasive when he argues against lumping Islamic radical threats together. George Kennan, the formulator of the containment policy, warned against treating Communism as a monolith. Policy makers, Kennan said, ought to emphasize the differences among and within Communist groups and "contribute to the widening of these rifts without assuming responsibility. The Bush Administration, by contrast, has grouped together a hugely diverse band of violent actors as terrorists, failing to employ divide-and-conquer tactics.

On Suicide Bombing, by Talal Asad. Ms Powers regards this as a flawed book, but an important one just the same. Referring to the "difference between setting out to destroy as many civilians as possible and killing civilians unintentionally and reluctantly...," she writes,

Nonetheless, Asad's book is valuable because the legal distinctions he is challenging are especially vulnerable now. They are vulnerable sociologically, in that millions - if not billions - of people around the world do not see the difference between a suicide bomber's attack on a pizzeria and an American attack on what turns out to be a wedding party.

The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation, by Stephen Flynn. "Flynn observes," writes Ms Power,

that the twin catastrophes of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina testify to major gaps in our preparedness and competence. He calls for open debates about our vulnerabilities. Exposing our weaknesses will not empower our foes, he insists, but will help build broad support at home for a reallocation of resources.

Ms Power concludes, "None of the recommendations outlined in any of these books would be easy to achieve under the best of circumstances. But what is striking is how few have even been pursued."


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

Keeping the World Away, by Margaret Forster. Susann Cokal's review is marred by extensive storytelling, but the power of this novel, about a small picture painted by Gwen John, is clear.

Gwen John's reputation has grown recently, and so should Margaret Forster's. Out of the struggle to fulfill the "strange yearning ... for something unobtainable," she has herself created and apparently simple yet potent work of art.

The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West and the Fight Against AIDS, by Helen Epstein. John Donnelly's very favorable review is almost surprising in itself, because the "invisible" cure turns out to be - well, read it for yourself:

[Epstein's] rigorous reporting unearths new findings among old, worn-out issues. And the evidence she puts forward could provide a roadmap for comprehensive prevention programs that incorporate teaching abstinence, using condoms and, most critically, emphasizing fidelity. Indeed, Epstein’s animated consideration of debates on fidelity leaves me to wonder, and not for the first time, about the virtual silence on this issue by most African leaders. (Then again, a ruler like King Mswati III of Swaziland, who has something like 13 wives and whose country has an adult H.I.V. rate of greater than 30 percent, is not about to speak up.)

An exemplary reviewer, Mr Donnelly manages to catalogue what he considers the book's "not small faults" without denting its importance.

Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, by Eric Jay Dolin. Bruce Barcott praises this account of the rise and fall of a very important American industry.

It would take courage to approach whaling as a literary subject — everything ever written about it lives in the shadow of “Moby-Dick” — and “Leviathan” doesn’t really aspire to those heights. Accurate details and a full historical scope, not drama, are the book’s driving virtues. At times that approach results in wonderful insights into whaling: a real taste of the vile life aboard a whaleship and a cleareyed analysis of the cutthroat tactics of the whale-oil trade. At other times, the details become overwhelming. In the end, though, Dolin succeeds admirably at what he sets out to do: tell the story of one of the strangest industries in American history.

This is another strong review.

Last Harvest: How a Cornfield Became New Daleville: Real Estate Development in America From George Washington to the Builders of the Twenty-First Century, and Why We Live in Houses Anyway, by Witold Rybczynski. Technically, I ought to list this review among the Maybes, because Penelope Green's review is a morass of rather lackluster storytelling. It is noted that Ms Green reports for the paper's House and Home section, and the review would work perfectly well as a news story about large-scale development. I list the book here, however, because I'm too familiar with Mr Rybczysnki's cogent and provocative writing to doubt that this book is worth the reading.


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

Up High in the Trees, by Kiara Brinkman. Madison Smartt Bell's review wavers, at least as I read, between praise of this first novel, about a boy afflicted with something like Asperger's, and a muddled storytelling that makes the novel sound simply odd. The praise, however, is very high.

Like Faulkner's Benjy, Sebastian is most unusual for the lyrical intensity of his inner life, and the strongest impression this fine debut leaves is his nicely achieved voice, which is moving without being precious.

The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard. Julia Reed gets a lot of space for her savaging of Annie Dillard's venerable reputation, and the first half of her review is great fun to read. The second half, however, is more muddled storytelling, with a few favorable comments tossed in for good measure. Call it bi-polar? I didn't know that Ms Dillard had any detractors (although Ms Reed quotes from Eudora Welty's waspish 1975 review of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek), but they're unlikely to be any happier about this review than Ms Dillard's fans.

Among Other Things, I've Taken Up Smoking, by Aoibheann Sweeney. Maria Flook's review summarizes instead of storytelling, but nowhere does it suggest that this novel stands out in the heavily-worked genre of tales about children in search of their parents' secrets.

Soon I Will Be Invincible, by Austin Grossman. Dave Itzkoff's favorable review of this comic-book-without-pictures is difficult for me to follow. But I am intrigued by the character of Doctor Impossible, whose "most maniacal pronouncements ooze with charisma." 

Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans, by Jean Pfaelzer. Patricia Nelson Limerick notes the importance of Ms Pfaelzer's subject, but doesn't much like the book itself. A sympathetic review would have been much more helpful.

The stories Pfaelzer tells deserve our attention, and yet this is not a particularly well-written or well-organized book. In the end, her tireless and thorough research ... has left her with a nearly impossible narrative out of tales in which the same miserable events unfold over and over again. ... This is, in other words, the literary genre the rest of a call a list.

Monstering: Inside America's Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War, by Tara McKelvey. Jonathan Mahler clearly likes this book very much, but he suggests that there is little new in this report on American outrages at Abu Ghraib. In addition to quoting the book hardly at all, Mr Mahler fails to make the crucial judgment: after all that we know, do we really need this book?

Motherland: A Philosophical History of Russia, by Lesley Chamberlain. Mark Lilla's review is unhelpful. He ends on a soundly favorable note:

At its best, Chamberlain's account sheds light on the complex cultural reaction set off when modern Western ideas wash up on the shores of cultures simultaneously ashamed of their social and scientific backwardness and convinced of their moral superiority.


What did the Russians learn from the Germans? This is hard to make out from the badly confused accounts of Kant, Fichte, Hegel and Schelling given by Chamberlain, an English journalist and novelist. The main story, though, she gets about right.

What, exactly, is confused about Ms Chamberlain's accounts of the Germans? Mr Lilla doesn't say. Confusion would seem to be a very serious flaw in a book on this topic.


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

No Excuses: Concessions of a Serial Campaigner, by Robert Shrum. Review Timothy Noah storytells Mr Shrum's "indiscreet memoir" of Democratic Party campaigns, most of them lost, it appears, but he claims to be "too beguiled by his narrative" to assess the ethical issues raised by the author's tattle-taling.

Robert Shrum's idea of self-criticism is not to question the wisdom of his advice, but rather to regret that he didn't impose that advice more forcefully.

Political gossip of this stripe does not deserve coverage in the Book Review.

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