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Reviewing the Book Review

Stanley, I Presume?

30 September 2007

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

Stephen King's Essay, "What Ails the Short Story," might serve as an alternate introduction to the collection of The Best American Short Stories 2007 that he edited this year. It's heartfelt as well as thoughtful, but it's quirky picture of Mr King on his knees, scouting remote magazine shelves for periodicals that publish interesting short fiction made me wonder: it is the connection between short fiction and periodicals that has done the short story in? Instead of casting about for new kinds of short stories, perhaps what we need are new delivery systems. I haven't got any bright ideas, but I'm sure that I could come up with something that involved some variation on iTunes and the Sony Reader.


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

The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett. Although Jeremy McCarter finds this gently comic novella about an unnamed but very familiar British monarch discovering the joys of reading "a trifle thin," he underscores Mr Bennett's masterful capture of coiled, confused humanity.

Around this point in the story, Evelyn Waugh or Kingsley Amis would be cackling about the satiric pain they’re about to inflict, but Bennett pulls back, leaving comic avenues unexplored. (No literary critics are sent to the Tower.) As in so many of his stories — say, “Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet,” in which an aging store clerk starts a peculiar but edifying affair with her foot-fetishizing podiatrist — Bennett seems less interested in wringing out every laugh than in showing us a cosseted soul stumbling toward liberation. In a characteristically bittersweet touch, he no sooner describes how reading has made the queen less maniacally fastidious about her schedule and wardrobe — that is, more of a human being like the rest of us — than her aides start condescending to her. “Probably Alzheimer’s,” says one. At moments like these, it’s not Bennett’s comic sense or flair for language that sets him apart from his contemporaries but his empathy for the marginal and misunderstood, a legacy, maybe, of having been a socially awkward lad from Yorkshire.

Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer, by Tim Jeal. Paul Theroux is almost alarmingly favorable about what he hails as the definitive biography of Stanley, a man about whom everything you think you know is probably wrong (it's not your fault!).

Stanley’s life speaks to our time, throwing light on the nannying ambitions that outsiders still wish upon Africa. Among other things it is a chronicle of the last years of the Arab-Swahili slave trade, which was fairly vigorous as little as a hundred years ago, and which Stanley opposed. What would have happened if the Arab-Swahili slavers had remained unopposed throughout Africa? “Darfur provides a clue,” Jeal muses.

There have been many biographies of Stanley, but Jeal’s is the most felicitous, the best informed, the most complete and readable and exhaustive, profiting from his access to an immense new trove of Stanley material. In its progress from workhouse to mud hut to baronial mansion, it is like the most vivid sort of Victorian novel, that of a tough little man battling against the odds and ahead of his time in seeing the Congo clearly, its history (in his words) “two centuries of pitiless persecution of black men by sordid whites.”

The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?, by Francisco Goldman. Carolyn Curiel has nothing but praise for this investigative research, undertaken by an established Guatemalan novelist, into the assassination of Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera, "a Roman Catholic human rights advocate," in 1998. But Ms Curiel takes pains to show the book's special relevance to American readers.

It’s a familiar theme in Latin America, but in Guatemala, the violence seems to have a particularly white-knuckled grip. Goldman, whose mother is Guatemalan and who spent much of his youth in the country, explains the bishop’s murder in the context of an unfortunate history in which well-meaning American support for military and intelligence operations helped create an elite class bent on perpetuating itself.

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, by Naomi Klein. Although, like most critics of this book, Joseph E Stiglitz finds aspectts of Shock Doctrine "overdramatic and unconvincing," he argues that her well-researched chapters about the aftermath of the Asian tsunami, the privatization of Iraq, and the failure to follow through on its ideal program by South Africa "the least interesting parts of the book, but the most convincing. If nothing else, Ms Klein will have permanently tarnished the legacy of Milton Friedman.

Some readers may see Klein’s findings as evidence of a giant conspiracy, a conclusion she explicitly disavows. It’s not the conspiracies that wreck the world but the series of wrong turns, failed policies, and little and big unfairnesses that add up. Still, those decisions are guided by larger mind-sets. Market fundamentalists never really appreciated the institutions required to make an economy function well, let alone the broader social fabric that civilizations require to prosper and flourish. Klein ends on a hopeful note, describing nongovernmental organizations and activists around the world who are trying to make a difference. After 500 pages of “The Shock Doctrine,” it’s clear they have their work cut out for them.

The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944: Volume Two of the Libeeration Trilogy, by Rick Atkinson. Historian James Holland has a host of quibbles with this new look at the agonizingly slow recapture of Italy by the Allies, his review is instructively favorable.

Rick Atkinson proved what a determined and assiduous researcher could achieve in “An Army at Dawn,” his best-selling account of the North Africa campaign, and he has been no less thorough in “The Day of Battle,” the second part of a projected “liberation” trilogy. But while there is new material here — like information about the deaths of Allied servicemen from American mustard gas at Bari — it is his ability to ferret out astonishing amounts of detail and marshal it into a highly readable whole that gives Atkinson the edge over most writers in this field.

Other Colors: Essays and a Story, by Orhan Pamuk (translated by Maureen Freeley). Pico Iyer's grandly favorable review is so full of rich quotations about the remarkable Turkish writer's work that one simply wants to reprint the entire essay. As it is, I've chosen a passage that touches on the difficulties of Mr Pamuk's aesthetic, which ought not to be overlooked even by big fans such as myself who have long since come to appreciate them.

When he was brought to trial and faced the prospect of three years in jail (until his acquittal), Pamuk became a hero to many in the West. Yet “Other Colors” makes clear (even in its title) that he has always been more at home in the world of the imagination, hanging out with Nabokov or Calvino, than in the doctrinaire position that circumstances pushed him into. He has no shyness about speaking out against censorship, or even about calling his country “a world leader in state- sponsored murder by unknown assailants, not to mention systematic torture, trammels on freedom of expression, and the merciless abuse of human rights.” Yet his heart lies very much, one feels, in opening up possibilities rather than in closing them off, and in what he calls “allegory and obscurity.” In some ways, all his books are about his sense that two souls are better than one. As he told The Paris Review in the context of cultural eclecticism: “Schizophrenia makes you intelligent.”

The Great Upheaval: American and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800, by Jay Winik. Reviewer and fellow historian Joseph Ellis finds a few fundamental faults in Mr Winik's approach to his subject - why revolutionary impulses played out so differently in the United States, France, and Russia, all with the space of a few years - but his generous review is largely sympathetic, and his conclusion is extremely apt.

If you want a comparative analysis of the revolutionary movements in America and Europe, you should look elsewhere. If you want to understand, intellectually and emotionally, what it was like to experience this historic upheaval, this is the book for you.


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

Run, by Ann Patchett. Leah Hager Cohen's mixed review is interesting for as long as she resorts to storytelling. The judgments that she offers at the end, about this novel about a somewhat far-fetched-sounding story of the adoption of African-American brothers by an Irish politician in Boston, are much cloudier.

If Patchett had exhumed her characters’ motivations more thoroughly, she might have persuaded readers of the circumstances that led to such a choice. And in so doing she might have elicited deeper sympathy and interest. The Jesse Jackson lecture turns out to be little more than a set piece, and the characters’ racial identities are either ignored or too broadly indicated. (Kenya and her mother live in a housing project; Kenya, Tip and Teddy are all endowed with a stereotypical black athletic gift, a talent for running.) It’s difficult to understand why an author would seed her story with potentially rich material only to refrain from exploring it. But this might explain why Patchett’s characters ultimately feel less real than symbolic, as wooden as the Virgin’s statue.

I must fault Ms Hager Cohen for that "exhumed," which seems an entirely inappropriate verb for any novelist's exploration of human character.

The Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. According to A O Scott's largely favorable review, this novel about the Dominican diaspora in the New York Metropolitan Area, and the disasters (eg, Trujillo) that were its impetus is an "unconvincingly" resolved attempt to make the past explain the present.

This is, almost in spite of itself, a novel of assimilation, a fractured chronicle of the ambivalent, inexorable movement of the children of immigrants toward the American middle class, where the terrible, incredible stories of what parents and grandparents endured in the old country have become a genre in their own right.

The Air We Breathe, by Andrea Barrett. Readers of Ms Barrett's previous works may take caution from Kevin Baker's observation that "Barrett seems less interested in her story and characters than in her novel's metaphors and the science that generates them."

The Gathering, by Anne Enright. Liesl Schillinger likes this book a lot, but her review is such a parade of emotional spikes - suicide, poor parenting, possible child-abuse, poverty, the absence of God and such - that despite the numerous quotations I could not get a sense of the story, and the following passage, suggesting that The Gathering might be a pleasure to read, did not persuade me.

In a word: heavy. Or so you might think. But in this mystery of past causes, the transformative power of Enright’s language keeps the story’s freight from burdening the reader. Veronica’s reminiscences have an incantatory power that makes them not depressing but enthralling — as evocative and unanswerable as the laments of the woman “wailing for her demon-lover” in “Kubla Khan,” except that Veronica wails for her demon-brother.

If You Liked School, You'll Love Work..., by Irvine Welsh. Reviewer Stephanie Zacharek is not crazy about this collection of stories, although she somewhat grudgingly admires the novella that makes up half of the contents. Hers is one of those rare bad reviews that don't block out all sense of the book itself. Consider this - by no means the harshest thing that she has to say about If You Liked School - but not unsympathetic, either:

To call these stories “short” is a bit of a misnomer. Several of them are like the baggy, longish shorts so many men have taken to wearing these days, garments that can’t decide if they want to grow up to be actual pants, hovering anxiously between the comfortable familiarity of the boys’ department and the grave uncertainty of the men’s. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of machismo at work in Welsh’s writing: this is prose where the men like a nice set of breasts flopping about, and the women often smell funny. As one male character observes about a female acquaintance, “She kissed me on the cheek and I screwed up my nose a little; there was a strange rank odor comin from her that I hadn’t noticed on my first visit.” Another character blathers, in a manner that’s obviously supposed to make us gasp at its overt sexism, “A skinny tart pushing 40 is usually a dirty slag ; pretty game for anything once you get past the first hurdle.”

Well-Behaved Woman Seldom Make History, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Although I came away from Kathryn Harrison's review feeling that this book is a clear "Yes," there was nothing in the piece that rose above tired complaints about the patriarchy. What we need today are oven-fresh complaints about the patriarchy. Om other words, the oppression of women has become a less vital matter of study than the oppressiveness of men - work that seems hardly to have begun. Ms Harrison writes interestingly enough about Ms Ulrich's principal figures, Christine de Pizan, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Virginia Woolf, but she does not say anything that I wouldn't feel a tad naive in singling out for quotation.

Ike: An American Hero, by Michael Korda. Reviewer Douglas Brinkley makes his admiration for the subject of this book very clear, but he is also quite impatient with its author. Of this "fluid and fundamentally doting biography," Mr Brinkley concludes,

Korda scolds crass American culture for splashing “graffiti” on “heroes” like Eisenhower; reversing this ugly trend, he suggests, is what compelled him to rescue Ike from near oblivion. This is self-aggrandizing bunk. Dozens of historians have lauded Eisenhower for his hands-on style as president — for ending the Korean War, promoting NATO, balancing budgets, appointing Earl Warren to the Supreme Court and warning us about the military-industrial complex. Indeed, Eisenhower’s reluctance to commit American troops to Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern conflicts was controversial at the time, but in the wake of our Vietnam and Iraq debacles seems very enlightened. A biographer needs to adequately explain these presidential accomplishments. Like Bartleby the Scrivener, Korda simply prefers not to.


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

King's Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World's Most Dangerous Game, by Paul Hoffman. Michael Weinreb goes to great lengths to attribute quasi-literary heft  to this book, but his ultimate judgment clears away all but one question: does this review belong in Sports or Science Times?

Whether Hoffman’s book is further proof of the growing popularity of chess or, given its quirky (and often dark) subject matter, an argument that the game will forever be relegated to a musty corner of American culture, I cannot say. But this much is true: Hoffman’s is merely the latest nontechnical entry in a section of your local bookstore that has long been dominated by dense instructional manuals with titles like Challenging the Sicilian With 2.a3!?

Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts: The American Military in the Air, at Sea, and on the Ground, by Robert D Kaplan. Here we have a textbook example of a book that ought to be covered, and far more extensively than it is in Philip Carter's Book Review review, in the pundit and policy sections of the The New York Times. Mr Kaplan's paean to the rank and file of American servicemen ends precisely where it ought to begin: with an explanation of the distaste that American elites have for all things military. According to Mr Carter, he puts his finger on a plausible explanation: the protracted ("lingering" is too weak a word) antipathy that exists between North and South in the United States. But he does not explain this mutual distaste. For too long, Yankees have carried the bad rep of having stomachs too weak for war. In fact, they have scruples too intense for thoughtlessness of Southern honor. 

How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else, by Michael Gates Gill. Neil Genzlinger is right, I think, to dismiss this book as an opportunistic snatch at reversal of fortune. When I first read about it, I blushed every color known to the bloodstream, because the author grew up in "a house on the hill" (Lawrence Park) in my home town, up in Bronxville. The Gill kids were all older than I was, but I still couldn't believe that the religiously philistine bedroom community that I grew up in harbored the likes of Brendan Gill, of New Yorker fame. (Jack Paar lived there, too, but that seemed altogether more typical.) Always painfully but gratefully aware of the undeserved material advantages that have seen me through my life, I am horrified by the possibility that I might be as clueless as the younger Mr Gill, who now, it seems, actually works in Bronxville - Starbucks in Bronxville! - and has a room or two in a little Victorian house in the village. He claims to have found happiness in dispossession, but reviews other than Mr Genzlinger's suggest that this is just Mr Gill's latest advertising campaign. (He was at J Walter Thompson for twenty-five years.) And how dispossessed can he be, now that Tom Hanks has optioned his book? How Starbucks Saved My Life is really too embarrassing for me to write about, which is why I can't shut up.

I'd have put this review in the Sunday Styles section, but Joyce Wadler covered it for House & Garden two weeks ago. That ought to have been enough.

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