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Reviewing the Book Review

Sir Noël's Epistles

25 November 2007

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

Rachel Donadio's Essay, "Movie Deals," discusses the impact upon novelists of the forays of their publishers into the movie-making business. Diane Johnson, Tom Perrotta, and John Sayles all claim that the experience of screenwriting has, in different ways, made them better novelists.

Puzzling over Walter Kirn's review of Ha Jin's new novel, I had an epiphany of sorts. Mr Kirn seemed to be knocking himself out, trying to pin down the exact nature of Mr Jin's fiction, as though it were a pinned butterfly in need of a taxonomist. I find myself doing the same thing sometimes. But a review is not a monograph, and readers of the Book Review are probably not looking for such analysis. What they'd like to know — what I wanted to know — is whether Mr Kirn liked the book, and why. What makes reviewers so shy?


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

The Pleasures of the Damned: Poems 1961-1993, by Charles Bukowski (edited by John Martin). Jim Harrison is thoughtful enough to conclude his favorable review with a useful observation: "It is hard to quote Bukowski because there are virtually none of those short lyrics with bow ties of closure that are so pleasant for a reviewer to quote."

I am not inclined to make elaborate claims for Bukowski, because there is no one to compare him to, plus or minus. He wrote in the language of his class as surely as Wallace Stevens wrote in the language of his own. This book offers you a fair chance to make up your own mind on this quarrelsome monster. It is ironical that those who man the gates of the canon will rarely if ever make it inside themselves. Bukowski came in a secret back door.

I do think that Mr Harrison mentions himself and his own work a tad too often.

A Free Life, by Ha Jin. A fine novel emerges from the mists of Walter Kirn's generally favorable review, which overtires itself in an attempt to classify Mr Jin's fiction.

Impeccable kitchen-sink realism? Not really. The two steps forward, one step back progression of the Wu’s acculturation may be true to the actual experiences of countless naïve, non-native English speakers, but it feels here more like a monastic meditation or a ritual breathing exercise than a fictional documentary. Jin’s simple sentences, familiar sentiments, and uneventful three- to five-page chapters that typically end with such pulse-suppressing non-cliffhangers as “the day before the Wangs returned, the Wus moved out of the bungalow and set up their residence at 568 March Drive,” appear to derive from a highly refined aesthetic of anti-excitability.

The Farther Shore, by Matthew Eck. Uzodinma Iweala gives this novel, written by a veteran of the Somalian fiasco, a decidedly mixed review, but the shortcomings that he notes are not those of a bad book, but rather those of a good book that might have been better.

Eck’s writing could also use more rhythm, and more emotional emphasis. Sometimes awkward and stilted, his prose can stumble over itself. While this ungainliness is partly due to Stantz’s deliberately numbed voice, it hints at a larger problem. The mental landscapes Eck’s characters inhabit are mostly two-dimensional, and the reader keeps hoping to see both the Americans and the Somalis as more than mere victims of circumstance. Life in Mogadishu may rob people of options, but it’s difficult to feel connected to those who appear to have no agency. We want to see at least a gesture of struggle against circumstance, not an adaptation to horrible circumstance after horrible circumstance.

A Pigeon and a Boy, by Meir Shalev (translated by Evan Fallenberg). Sarah Fay likes this novel about "an Israeli tour guide who sees himself as a casualty of modern life."

As Yair escorts travelers in safari vests “full of pockets, the kind that tourists and foreign correspondents love to sport while in the Middle East,” he points out the Valley of Hinnom, gets them settled in their hotel rooms, reminds them of the story of Moses on Mount Nebo and orders them coffee — all with the same urgency and import. But just when he thinks he has had enough of both his thankless job and his enervating marriage, his mother gives him some money and advice: go off and find the only two things you really need, a story and a place of your own. The novel serves as his report back to her, telling the tale of a mysterious soldier and pigeon-handler known as the Baby, who died during Israel’s war of independence, and of Yair’s own search for a home.

The Baby story can initially feel distant and contrived when compared with the vivid characters and sharp dialogue of Yair’s present-day wanderings, but as the novel proceeds, these two plots create interesting friction. By working stories in the present and the past against each other, Shalev brings into question the validity, and the reliability, of memory. “This is my story,” Yair reminds us, “and I shorten it and lengthen it, I fabricate and confess.”

Ms Fay is to be commended for packing such an effective review into half a page.

The Letters of Noël Coward, Edited with commentary by Barry Day. John Simon gives this annotated collection a very favorable review, taking time from his storytelling to praise Mr Day's enhancement of the already-sparkling letters of one of the great entertainers of the Twentieth Century.

Such eminent epistolarians are hardly second bananas. But especially important is what Barry Day does with all these letters to and from Coward: he provides copious amplifications and explanations, biographical data and background material. The result is a first-class biography right up there with those by Cole Lesley and Sheridan Morley. There is also a lot of juicy gossip, some of it documented, some speculative, such as whether Noël and the Duke of Kent were lovers.

The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger, by Jonathan Schell; and Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race, by Richard Rhodes. Martin Walker gives both of these compelling books favorable reviews, and is careful to point out the different aspects of the Cold War and its aftermath that interest the respective authors. As to what they have in common, Mr Walker is forceful:

These two books share the view that most of the current difficulties with Iran, Iraq, North Korea and even Russia can be traced back to a fundamental misapprehension — that the United States won the cold war and the Soviet Union lost it. This misreading of history led, in turn, to the perception that American wealth and technology, along with the righteousness of its motives and the self-evident truths of the founding fathers, could cut through any strategic tangles and dilemmas. Iraq has been the result.

Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, by John Gray. Scott McLemee admires this latest achievement of the famous contrarian — who usually turns out to be running ahead of the pack, not in the opposite direction.

“‘Humanity’ does not exist,” he announced in “Straw Dogs.” “There are only humans, driven by conflicting needs and illusions, and subject to every kind of infirmity of will and judgment.” This may be the key to all of Gray’s thought, and it is no accident that he echoes Margaret Thatcher’s famous statement that there is no such thing as society. (As she put it, “there are individual men and women, and there are families” — but nothing else.) The irreducible plurality of human “needs and illusions,” Gray argues, means it is utopian to imagine that any single kind of political or social order could ever be good for everyone. “If there is such a thing as spontaneous social evolution,” he writes in “Black Mass,” “it produces institutions of many kinds.”

Gomorrah, by Roberto Saviano (translated by Virginia Jewiss). Rachel Donadio hails this harrowing account of the Neapolitan mob as "an important book," and makes it clear that the "harrowing" is at least as economic as it is bloody.

In Saviano’s account, today’s Camorra — or “the System,” as its members call it — has no ideology beyond economics of “the most aggressive neoliberalism.” Women, especially widows, are often promoted to high-ranking positions. Some even travel with their own circle of female bodyguards, dressed in yellow like Uma Thurman in the Tarantino film “Kill Bill.” The clans diffuse responsibility and blame through a complicated network of part-time workers, many of them teenagers. “The System at least grants the illusion that commitment will be recognized, that it’s possible to make a career,” Saviano writes. Indeed, the System appears as quick and adaptable as Italy’s mainstream economy is intractable and bureaucratic. A study released last month found that organized crime accounted for 7 percent of Italy’s gross domestic product, or $127 billion in receipts a year — the largest segment of the Italian economy.


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

Redemption Falls, by Joseph O'Connor. Max Byrd struggles to evaluate this novel, but it's too clear that he just doesn't like it.

But too much rhetorical cleverness leads O’Connor to narrate his violent climax at a distance, through formal transcripts and official reports, at the cost of immediacy and drama, as if we were observing the action through the wrong end of a telescope. And far too often his language collapses from the poetic into the absurd (making love, O’Keeffe and Lucia “clunk like the couplets of a youthful sonnet”) or grows unbearably pretentious (“And on lurches the boy, gangly in his drabs, stumbling over cairns of the unseen eyes, which lie around the stubbles like the umlauts in the depths of a type-compositor’s drawer”).

Not very helpful.

Origin, by Diana Abu-Juber. Brian Hall is not impressed by this first thriller. He writes of the author, "One senses early on that the's at sea." It gets worse, as Mr Hall expresses his impatience with the want of verisimilitude.

The cops in “Origin” behave less like cops than like novelists — they’re short on legwork, long on waiting for inspiration. Lena’s the same. Curious about her past, she nonetheless seems to have spent little time researching it in the ways that any moderately resourceful person would know how to do, let alone a forensic specialist. At one point, she learns that a mentally unsound neighbor knows who the murderer is, but after one conversation with him, she never questions him again, nor do any of the detectives. Even her intuition deserts her if the plot requires it — when the poison shows up again under her nose, so to speak, she’s unaccountably oblivious of the danger.

Fun to read — sort of — but ultimately unhelpful.

Options: The Secret Life of Steve Jobs: A Parody, by Fake Steve Jobs (Daniel Lyons). Katie Hafner is amused by this spoof, at least until "the narrative spins out of control and veers a little too close to science fiction" toward the end, but if the famous Siliconian is half the narcissist that he's made out to be here (as well as by Mr Lyons), then a parody can only be silly stuff for Valley insiders.

The Last Great Fight: The Extraordinary Tale of Two Men and How One Fight Changed Their Lives Forever, by Joe Layden. Despite everything, from the subject to the subtitle, Gordon Marino persuasively argues that this is an exceptional book. (The fighters are Buster Douglas and Mike Tyson.)

Tyson’s descent has been dissected many times over. But, with Douglas’s cooperation, Layden is the first to take the full measure of the David in this David-and-Goliath story. Delving into Douglas’s complex relationship with his tough-as-nails father, the onetime pro fighter Billy Douglas, he offers a rich portrait of a softhearted former basketball standout who would secure the heavyweight crown only a few weeks after his mother died. Layden also describes the byzantine promotional and managerial shenanigans that followed the fight and helped derail Douglas’s career. He was knocked out by Evander Holyfield in his first title defense.

Young Stalin, by Simon Sebag Montefiore. It is difficult to appraise Mr Montefiore's book on the basis of this review, because Richard Lourie is simply uncomfortable with its style.

Many Georgian boys were beaten by their drunken fathers, but only one grew up to be Stalin. What were the factors of character and circumstance that made the crucial difference

You won’t find out here. Simon Sebag Montefiore, the author of “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar,” is not one historian but two. The first is capable of serious research and insight, but he is eclipsed by the second, who sees history as scandal and its writing as gossip. Vanity Fair goes to Lubyanka.

Mr Lourie is especially upset that Mr Montefiore has Stalin's future wife, Nadya, pose that great adolescent question (she was in her teens at the time), "What's up?"

Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite, by D Michael Lindsay. Alan Wolfe's characteristically measured review only barely avoids the conclusion that Mr Lindsay is far too embedded in the Evangelical mindset to write a dispassionate account of political overhaul. "But too much of his book is uncritical," Mr Wolfe writes.

Lindsay, though, accurately reflects the evangelical subculture he describes. He is not given to theological reflection. He has no sense of irony. He is modest in demeanor but ambitious in purpose. He is credulous on the one hand and intensely loyal on the other. He works hard, incredibly hard, to get across his points that evangelicals are present in all our prominent institutions and that we should get to know them better. He is clearly on a mission, one, moreover, he obviously loves. Unfortunately for Lindsay, if you do not agree with him beforehand, you are unlikely to agree with him after he has had his say.

The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia, by Orlando Figes. Joshua Rubenstein's generally favorable review is unusually unhelpful, not least because it also seems to be unreliable. What looks very much like Hannah Arendt's analysis of the socialization of totalitarian oversight is summarized without any reference to Arendt. Aside from that, Mr Rubenstein simply storytells, waiting until the last sentence to "thank" Mr Figes for his efforts. This is probably a much better book than it is made out to be here.

Dough: A Memoir, by Mort Zachter. Anne Mendelssohn's favorable but too-short review is almost hermetically discreet: when she writes, near the end, of the author's uncle as "the brains of the enterprise," the reader may be forgiven for not having much of an idea of what that enterprise was. Her topic sentence —

Mort Zachter’s small, wry memoir suggests that with the right sort of talent a man can not only rob and ill-treat his nearest and dearest, but also convince them it’s his just prerogative.

— is not, so far as I can tell, fleshed out in the body of the review.

The Confidante: Condoleeza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy, by Glenn Kessler. Whose idea was it to confine Anthony Lewis to half a page? Mr Lewis is predictably dazzled by the incongruity of Ms Rice's story, and too much of his review is given over to a kind of storytelling accounting. When he does tackle Mr Kessler's book, it's to make a point about Ms Rice's change of views over time that is so important that it merits a full page on its own. At least the following paragraph conveys a judgment.

Glenn Kessler, a diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, was star-struck when he first met Rice, at the 1992 Republican National Convention. “She was poised and elegant, charming but forceful — and utterly sure of herself.” In “The Confidante,” a brilliantly reported book, he treats her like a star; but he also looks unflinchingly at her record in office. And the picture he gives is dismal.

Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches, by John W Dean. Gary Rosen's review is unsympathetic and fundamentally uncritical.

Political apocalyptics of this sort command a wide audience these days, and Dean has many fans in the left-wing blogosphere (“See, even John Dean thinks Bush is a fascist!”). But his reflexive hostility to executive power adds nothing to the current debate, and his rendering of presidential history is incomplete at best and often tendentious.

Mr Rosen writes as though, in "having thrown in his lot with the Democrats," Mr Dean has simply lost credibility.


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

My View From the Corner: A Life in Boxing, by Angelo Dundee with Bert Randolph Sugar. Gordon Marino, a philosopher who writes about boxing, interrupts his storytelling to complain about the famous trainer's discretion, which would appear to neuter the book.

Early on, Dundee noted that his charge’s ego was so colossal he could not give him direct instruction. Instead, if he wanted Clay to bend when he jabbed, for example, Dundee would simply praise him after a workout for bending as if he really had, and let him think it was his idea.

Dundee also had to flow with the fact that when Cassius Clay joined the Nation of Islam, there was pressure to get rid of the “honkie.” But Ali would never hear of ditching his maestro, in part because the ever-discreet Dundee knew his professional bounds. There are pages here where this same discretion can frustrate. For instance, Dundee closes the door on discussions he must have had with Ali about retirement during the tragic fifth act of his prolonged career.

Avoid Boring People: Lessons From a Life in Science, by James D Watson. This book belongs among the Noes not because of Dr Watson's recent indiscretion (which, I quite agree, was misunderstood), but because the co-discoverer of DNA chooses to present himself as a robust (if frustrated) skirt-chaser. George Johnson throws up his hands.

Imagine more than 300 pages of this. Gossiping at the Piping Rock Club on Long Island with a Neiman Marcus heiress. Sleeping over at Abby Rockefeller’s and admiring Daddy’s Derain. Motoring to a book party at Woods Hole, Mass., “with a pretty Radcliffe senior with short blond hair called Joshie Pashler, who also had something to celebrate in the recent discovery of her first RNA phage R17 mutant.” When you decide to call your third book about yourself “Avoid Boring People,” you’re kind of asking for it. What worked wonderfully in Watson’s earlier books has worn translucently thin.

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