Reading Matter
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Reviewing the Book Review

Social Historian

7 October 2007

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

England is famous for its wildly biased defamation laws, which require of a plaintiff no more than the assertion of injured reputation; everything else is up to the defendant. Globalization in general, and on-line bookselling in particular, are altering the hitherto insular character of the draconian libel laws. In her Esssay, “Libel Without Borders,” Rachel Donadio focuses on the highly successful (not to say lucrative) maneuvers of Saudi banker and businessman, Sheikh Khalid  bin Mahfouz, to block publication of books claiming that he and his family have been “funding terrorism” – and how Rachel Ehrenfeld, one of his American defendants, is seeking to vacate British judgments against her in Federal District Court here in New York. So often, the Essays at the back of the Book Review have a padded, frivolous air, but this one doesn’t.


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

Fire and Knowledge: Fiction and Essays, by Peter Nadas (translated by Imre Goldstein). The short stories in this collection please reviewer Sophie Harrison a great deal more than the “chewy” essays do, so much so that, while that latter may be interesting glimpses of Hungarian life in a grim period, the stories light up with the magic of fairy tales for adults.

Set mainly in small-town and village Hungary, the stories have many of the adornments of fairy tale: mysterious houses, roads curling off into the distance, peculiar old women, pigs. His characters, especially his children, have the monstrous clarity of fable. Yet he never feels old-fashioned. He has Lawrence’s symbolic facility without his thumping self-consciousness, and an endless tenderness for the detail of overlooked lives.

Journals: 1952-2000, by Arthur M Schlesinger Jr (Edited by Andrew Schlesinger and Stephen Schlesinger. Maureen Dowd has a lot of snarky fun going though Arthur M Schlesinger Jr’s somewhat star-struck journals. “His diaries are a Tiffany’s window of name-dropping.” It’s the combination of political gravitas and social registration that makes these diaries priceless records of the values and prejudices of elite America in the postwar era. Schlesinger’s half-conscious snobbery, more arriviste than the historian probably estimated, seems to embody – at least on the basis of Ms Dowd’s generous quotes – precisely the mind-set that two generations of conservatives have struggled to extirpate. Quote from “Melodramatically,” p 12.

Melodramatically, Schlesinger paints his defection to Kennedy at the ’60 convention as Faustian, declaiming: “I feel that as a consequence of Kennedy’s victory and Stevenson’s defeat something I greatly value has gone out of national politics.” His pleasure in politics, he says nobly, “is coming to an end.”

“The thought of power induces in Stevenson doubt, reluctance, even guilt,” he says. The diaries from the ’50s are an inadvertently hilarious record of the prissy Stevenson’s coy tango with his party. The year after Adlai loses to Ike, he has dinner with Truman, who urges him to take hold of the party. Adlai disingenuously demurs about a lack of qualifications. “Well, if a knucklehead like me can be a successful president,” Truman replies briskly, “I guess you can do it all right.”

But Stevenson is stuck on the same mental pedestal that Barack Obama is on — “split between his desire to win and his desire to live up to the noble image of himself.”

Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man, by Jonathan Spence. Christopher Benfey gives Mr Spence’s latest nonfictional re-creation of ancien régime China a nicely favorable review.  Zhang Dai, his hero this time, is a comfortable aristocrat enjoying late Ming pleasures who is taken entirely by surprise by the advance of the Qing (Manchus) in the mid-Seventeenth Century.

But then came the unthinkable, as a military coalition of tribes from along the Korean border, calling themselves the Manchus, collaborated with disaffected Chinese to occupy the capital city, Beijing, and inaugurated the Qing dynasty. While Zhang remained loyal to the feckless last Ming ruler and briefly served (without distinction) in the imperial forces, he could hardly be called a resistance fighter. As Spence remarks in his somewhat muted account of this gloomy period, “Zhang Dai made no claims to be a war hero.” Instead, he took to the hills, a scholar-recluse on the move, “hair hanging wild” and often starving, his only sustenance derived from manuscripts and memories.

The Future of Conservatism: Conflict and Consensus in the Post-Reagan Age, edited by Charles W Dunn; and Democratic Capitalism And Its Discontents, by Brian C Anderson. Jonathan Rauch, formerly a writer for Harper's and an advocate of gay rights, makes a strong case for each of these expositions of the state of traditional conservative thinking in the United States today. It is possible that he admires both books because, unlike the strategies of Karl Rove, the ones outlined here will never appeal to masses of voters. On Mr Dunn's collection:

Apart from the unaccountable omission of contributor biographies, Dunn’s volume is as smart and stimulating a collection of political essays as I’ve read in years, in part because it soars above the partisan potshots and petty maneuvering that preoccupy the political commentariat. “Conservatism’s strength has always rested in the realm of ideas,” Dunn writes in his introduction. This bracingly self-critical collection, at least, supports his boast.

And on Mr Anderson's book:

Like his intellectual mentor Alexis de Tocqueville, and unlike so many of today’s red-meat, red-state right-wingers, Anderson is no triumphalist tub-thumper for capitalism or democracy. Both, he recognizes, are far better than the alternatives; but both, unchecked, can set in motion cultural forces — anomie, dependency, ruthless egalitarianism — that corrode soul and society alike. Like Jouvenel, Anderson holds with a worldly-wise anti-utopianism whose lineage goes back to the very origins of conservative thought. If more of today’s conservatives had heeded its cautions, they might not have been so surprised to see Iraq’s unstructured liberation turn sour.

Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet, by Christian Wiman. Ken Tucker is not entirely pleased by this critical memoir, whose author is a firm believer in “traditional” prosodic values and well able to make a case for them, both in prose and in verse. Nevertheless, Ambition and Survival comes off as a strong, resilient book about poetry, not poets.

As for the modern imperative to express the chaos and anguish of our era, Wiman argues that “it’s sometimes precisely in those works that exhibit the greatest degree of formal coherence, the greatest sense of closure, that a reader may experience, and thereby likely endure, the most intense anxiety and uncertainty.”

King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema, by Amupama Chopra. Charles Taylor gives Ms Chopra’s biography of the leading Muslim Bollywood star the very best kind of critical review: he wants more.

Chopra hints that Khan’s extraordinary confidence may shade over into arrogance. And she hints of the horrendous pressure Khan finds himself under, referring to himself at one point as “just an employee of the Shah Rukh Khan myth.” And I wanted Chopra to examine how Khan, who can be a charming presence or an overbearing one, might be limited as his career proceeds. Most of all, I wanted to know if Chopra believes that a country contemplating greater corporate diversification might find its film industry damaged as ours has been by the triumph of a corporate mentality that possesses none of the old studio moguls’ love for movies.

But I wouldn’t have wanted any of this if Chopra weren’t good enough to raise the questions in the first place. “King of Bollywood” evokes a film industry that, whatever perils it faces, right now does what Hong Kong cinema did in the 1980s and ’90s, what Hollywood only intermittently does: approach the job of entertaining an audience without embarassment or apology, treating making movies as more than a future entry on a balance sheet.

The Immortalists: Charles Lindbergh, Dr Alexis Carrel, and Their Daring Quest to Live Forever, by David M Friedman. Reviewer Kyra Dunn gets her knickers in a twist about Charles Lindbergh’s interest in eugenics, which is not really the principal topic of Mr Friedman’s book. Who knew that Lindbergh was the great-grandfather of the stent? Lindbergh’s very disagreeable sympathy with the Nazis is all the more reason to confront the totality of his scientific achievement, not just the flashy aeronautical part.

Salem Witch Judge: The Life and Repentance of Samuel Sewall, by Eve LaPlante. David Waldstreicher’s review makes the most of the complexity of Ms LaPlante’s subject, of whom she is a descendant. Samuel Sewall condemned twenty colonists to death for witchcraft, but then he had second thoughts, which might have been inspired as much by a shift in popular opinion as by religious doubt. Once his mind was changed, however, Sewall became the author of the first anti-slavery treatise to appear in print in North America – at the turn of the Eighteenth Century.

Perhaps Sewall realized that his fellow worshipers had projected political as well as spiritual concerns onto personal affairs. There is no other way to explain the intensity of his interest in Indian and black rights after Salem. In the wake of crisis and fear, at least one leader’s admission of failure actually helped him expand the circle of grace.


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

Exit Ghost, by Philip Roth. Reading reviews of Philip Roth’s late books always reminds me of the advice that I got from aunts and uncles when an elderly cousin developed an unholstery-challenging incontinence: “If I ever get that way, please shoot me.” In other words, no advice at all. Clive James’s review of Exit Ghost does everything but walk a tightrope between the Trade Towers to show us how clever the latest hall of mirrors is. Who is Nathan Zuckerman, Philip Roth’s alter ego or somebody else? No answer is forthcoming. 

How can we fail to ask whether or not Roth still has what it takes, if he presents us with a central character based on himself who has it no longer? But is the character really based on himself? Let’s go back to the beginning.

Mr James tries this gambit three or four times, but the rabbit remains in the hat.

The Worth Thing I've Done, by Ursula Heigl. A borderline “No” if ever there was one. Having charactized Ms Hegi's dialogue is prone to "soap-opera quality," Jennifer Gilmore concludes,

“The Worst Thing I’ve Done” works hard to delve deep into the destructive nature of passion, but in the end the novel can’t bear the weight of its unbelievable plotting — or its unfortunate title.

Tomorrow, by Graham Swift. David Leavitt is disappointed by the extent to which this novel exploits its suspenseful possibilities, as a woman lies awake rehearsing the secret that her husband will pass on to their twins in the morning.

More crucially, the postponement of the crucial revelation irritates even as it compels. Had Swift chosen to come out with it at the beginning, the novel might have been more of a pleasure to read, allowing us to focus on the question of why Paula and Mike made a very particular (and in some ways very dubious) decision. Instead the drum-roll promise, constantly alluded to, of a Big Twist to Come manages to be a distraction even as it keeps us turning the pages. Given this degree of buildup, practically any revelation would come as a disappointment, leaving readers wondering whether it was worth all the fuss — and whether the true object of our frustration should be Paula and Mike or their creator.

Time and Materials: Poems, 1997-2005, by Robert Hass. Stephen Burt’s generally favorable review does not begin to quote enough of Mr Hass’s version to allow for the formation of an opinion. The entire thrust of the review seems to be an entirely irrelevant undertaking to “place” the poet among today’s poets. We would be better served by Mr Hass's poetry itself than by the celebrity-ish news that he has been a long-time translator of Czesław Miłosz's poetry.

The Florist's Daughter, by Patricia Hampl. Danielle Trussoni clearly loves this memoir, the fifth, apparently, in a series about an adulthood spent caring for fragile parents. The father has died by now, and the mother is dying. After a number of dubious pronouncements about death, Ms Trussoni comes down to an appreciation of Ms Hampl’s Midwestern virtues.

In many ways, Hampl’s emotional range brings to mind Vivian Gornick’s classic memoir, “Fierce Attachments,” particularly its unsentimental portrayal of the contradictory feelings a daughter harbors for her mother. As Gornick is both proud and horrified to realize she has become similar to her mother, so Hampl admires and abhors the prison-hold her parents have had on her. Both writers distance themselves from family drama enough to look closely, without judgment, upon it. And yet “The Florist’s Daughter,” with its blighted Midwestern provinciality, mystical yearning and the sense that home (despite its comfort and familiarity) is not quite home, is uniquely Hampl. Like all of her work, this book demonstrates that life is much bigger than it appears. One only has to look long enough.

Perhaps this is why the title is so unfortunate: it suggests a smaller, narrower book than the one Hampl has written. The title is not only one of the few flat notes in this uniformly high-pitched book, it is also misleading. Hampl is as much her mother’s daughter as her father’s. In fact, in many ways this is a book about the complex and passionate love between a daughter and her difficult, charming mother. But maybe this tendency to downplay is another Midwestern trait that Hampl cannot shake. After all, in the Midwest, where lives are “little; our weather big,” it is bad form to play the drama queen. Everyone west of Ohio and east of Nebraska knows that drama is “all just weather.”

Indeed, this review does a fine job of capturing the suffocating smallness of even the largest Midwestern American cities.

The Braindead Megaphone: Essays, by George Saunders. This book almost certainly belongs among the Yeses, but Will Blythe’s review is so insufferably cute about what’s already cute about Mr Saunders’s writing that one can’t be entirely sure that an egg hasn’t been laid. Mr Blythe says a lot of nice things about Mr Saunders, but their literary value adds up to zero.

The Journals of Joyce Carol Oates: 1973-1982 (edited by Greg Johnson. James Campbell’s review of these diaries bears all the fingerprints of the critic who is determined to keep his heartfelt poor opinion of the book at hand to himself, while laying out enough evidence to force the reader’s conclusion.

Oates wishes to avoid distress: she decided early that her journal would not be “a place in which to vilify others” and suggests that diaries are, “unless aphoristic, eminently and necessarily forgettable.”

In this selection, drawn from “more than 4,000 single-spaced typewritten pages,” according to the editor, Greg Johnson, she rarely attempts to be aphoristic, and when she does the results are seldom memorable: “Feb. 28, 1980. ... I oscillate between thinking I am crazy, and thinking I am not crazy enough. ... March 8, 1980. ... To embrace one’s fate — as if it were ‘destiny.’ ... April 18, 1980. ... Things we desire to share, and to share immediately: ecstasy, sorrow, renown.” In a brief introduction, Oates discloses that she has barely read Johnson’s selections, since “to revisit the past in this way is somehow so excruciating, I haven’t the words to guess why.”

Even Mr Campbell's praise for Ms Oates's concern for the wellbeing of her family is faintly sarcastic, as if he couldn’t possibly expect his words to be taken at face value. There is in any case no attempt whatever to engage with this most prolific of our literary authors.

Hugo Chavez, by Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka (translated by Kristina Cordero); and ¡Hugo!: The Hugo Chavez Story From Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution, by Bart Jones. Daniel Kurtz-Phelan does a lot of storytelling in this dual review. He tells us that one book is pro, the other contra, Chavez, but he doesn’t appear to think enough of either book to recommend it. His review winds up with the conclusion that, under Chavez, not all that much has changed for the better within Venezuela.


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

Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, and Disease, by Gary Taubes. Although Gina Kolata praises the research that went into this book, she remains ultimately unpersuaded by its thesis. Even if she were to endorse it, the review would still belong in Science Times. Even the most high-falutin’ footnoted diet books have no place in the Book Review.

You Cnn Lead a Politician to Water, But You Can't Make Him Think: Ten Commandments for Texas Politics, by Kinky Friedman. Bill Scheft's review of Kinky Friedman’s account of his quixotic participation in a recent Texas gubernatorial race is incomprehensibly provincial, written as if without a thought of readers as far away as Oklahoma. Mr Scheft does assert that Mr Friedman’s jokes are, for the most part, very funny. That just about does it. A Sunday Styles piece at best.

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