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Reviewing the Book Review

A Stranger in Camelot

16 December 2007

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

There are two Yeses this week, as well as two Noes, so today's page offers a fuller glimpse of my ideas about what really does (and doesn't) belong in the Book Review. As a rule, any new edition (including translations) of a literary classic will get the nod as a Yes, even though there may be better editions out there. Unless a new edition is actually terrible, it serves the important and ongoing function of keeping the classics fresh.

Rachel Donadio's Essay, "Out of South Africa," ponders a question — why did J M Coetzee leave South Africa? — that is of very little interest apart from the consideration of his fiction, in the context of which it is a subordinate and minor point. As is, the essay is little more than high-minded gossip about a writer whose latent misanthropy makes him a less than amusing subject.


The following titles belong on your bookshelf.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation, translated by Simon Armitage. Edward Hirsch devotes the bulk of his review to the beauties of the celebrated Fourteenth-Century poem, proffering no better than adequate quotation along the way, but he does take time at the end to praise this new translation within the competitive context of other recent ones by literary eminences.

There have been dozens of translations of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” over the years. J. R. R. Tolkien’s authoritative edition was a gift to readers, though his own translation now seems somewhat flowery. Marie Borroff did an alliterative version that holds up after 40 years. Ted Hughes translated some key sections, newly available in his “Selected Translations,” which marvelously recreate the Gawain poet’s alliterative long line. Five years ago, W. S. Merwin published a learned, lyrical translation. Now Simon Armitage has given us an energetic, free-flowing, high-spirited version. He reminds us that “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” still wields an uncanny power after 600 years. We’re fortunate that “our coffers have been crammed / with stories such as these.”

Charm City: A Walk Through Baltimore, by Madison Smartt Bell. Although Mark Kamine's review is made up of enthusiastic summarizing — always difficult when space is short, because trivial details assume unwonted importance — it presents this book as the solid street-level portrait of an historic American city.

A standard tourist itinerary can be gleaned from the handful of walks Bell describes, but Frommer would serve better for those interested in simply seeing the sights and eating fine food. Bell’s Baltimore is a real city: complex, ever changing, often gritty and dangerous, always interesting.


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

Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black: And Other Stories, by Nadine Gordimer. Siddhartha Deb never comes out and says that this collection of stories by the South African Nobelist is somewhat under par, but hints abound. The concluding paragraph is a summer breeze of tranquilly low expectations.

These stories aren’t mere exercises. Even as variations, with a fixed set of characters confronting similar situations, they create discrete, pulsating worlds. None of the characters are aware that their situations echo a common theme. Their lives are unique, and the endings they stumble toward are all-encompassing, complete, inevitable. It is Gordimer’s special skill that she can both make us feel the distinct yearnings of these characters, where nothing else matters, and allow us to stand back and perceive the parts they play in a larger collective pattern. As she always has, Gordimer offers her readers a rare combination of intimacy and transcendence

Love Falls, by Esther Freud. Jennifer Gilmore's enthusiastic review is unfortunately a wad of storytelling, casting little light on the novel's qualities. We will have to take her estimate on faith:

The expectation is obvious: this girl will come to know her elusive father; she will break out from her troubled, tentative girlhood and become a confident woman. Will she find a fairy-tale love as well? While Esther Freud’s sixth novel, “Love Falls,” follows this all-too-familiar arc, her depiction of Lara is so charming and observant, her writing so dynamic, that all the clichés of a youthful summer of self-discovery are transcended.

The Squandering of America: How the Failure of Our Politics Undermines Our Prosperity, by Robert Kuttner. Noam Scheiber targets two of this book's failings in his review — a naiveté about working-class voters (who seem by all accounts to be far more motivated by social issues than economic ones, at least for the time being) and an overly bleak view of the Clinton Administration's erasure of the deficit — but he concludes that it provides a useful warning about the impact of wealthy Democratic contributors.

Still, given the influence of wealthy investors on the Clinton and Obama campaigns in particular, Kuttner is right to be worried. In May, the legendary hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones II held a 300-person fund-raiser for Barack Obama at his Greenwich, Conn., mansion. If a future Obama administration were to consider, say, reining in derivatives, could the president resist pressure from the likes of Jones? It’s possible. But, like Kuttner, I’m skeptical.

Eight O'Clock Ferry to the Windward Side: Seeking Justice in Guantánamo Bay, by Clive Stafford Smith. Reviewer Dahlia Lithwick observes that this book, by a British lawyer with clients behind the infamous bars of this country's latest paranoid blemish, contains a report unlikely to appear in the mainstream media. "Major American papers rarely cover these things, and most of us would be hard press to name a detainee held there." She winds up her guardedly favorable review thus:

But what the author does offer is a bracing opening statement from the defense team at Guantánamo, years overdue. We don’t have to believe every last claim he makes. It’s enough to be incensed that we are hearing some of it for the first time.

The Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America's First Presidential Campaign, by Edward J Larson. Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill, gives this account of the United States' first encounter with brutal factional politics an enthusiastic review — buried amidst the storytelling.

A master storyteller, Larson illustrates these conclusions through a gripping narrative rather than an explicit analysis. He does not quite deliver the broad cultural and intellectual history he promises. Still, his dramatic tale offers fascinating modern parallels as President Adams struggles with unpopular military excursions overseas and backlashes against his heavy-handed approach to dissent at home.


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

The Prince of Darkness: Richard Perle: The Kingdom, the Power, and the End of Empire in America, by Alan Weisman. The best thing that James Traub has to say about this book is that it has "effectively humanized a figure at the heart of the neoconservative enterprise who is usually rendered in cartoon terms, showing how Perl's personal gifts contributed to his impressive success." Mr Traub does not say whether studying the portrait is worth anybody's time.

Starbucked A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce, and Culture, by Taylor Clark. Between them, Joe Queenan — whose curmudgeonly opinions are not too violently out of sync with mine — and P J O'Rourke — whose are — do such a fine job of obscuring the virtues and the vices of the books that they review with a thick wash of ha-ha humor that they could easily operate their own comic literary review. I wish they would.

I never came to like “Starbucked.” But I grew very fond of its writer. Most books about social and business phenomena give the reader something to think about. This book gave the author something to think about. Reading “Starbucked” produced an odd reversal of roles and left me, at least, feeling less like a student of the subject than a teacher. Not that I mean to instruct Clark. But I experienced the pleasure a teacher must feel when he watches a kid with promise outgrowing the vagaries and muddles of immaturity (and the jitters of too many coffee-fueled all-nighters) and coming into his own as a young man of learning, reason and sense.

In other words, Taylor Clark shows every sign of becoming a fine capitalist pig. Mr O'Rourke's gift for presenting American business as a fundamentally insalubrious enterprise is unparalleled. PS: He's not ironic!

Godly Republic: A Centrist Blueprint for America's Faith-Based Future, by John J DeIulio, Jr. On its merits, as assessed by Noah Feldman, this appears to be an indifferently-argued case for "faith-based initiatives."

Most unforgivably, DiIulio persistently misrepresents James Madison’s view that a multiplicity of sects, not a bill of rights, would protect religious liberty. In DiIulio’s telling, Madison “preached” that multiplicity could be used to support the financing of faith-based charities. But Madison’s core political activity in the years before the drafting of the Constitution was opposing a bill in the Virginia Legislature that would have given aid to multiple religious sects on perfectly nonpreferential terms. DiIulio’s misuse of Madison’s legacy would be troubling even if it were not accompanied by the shockingly ignorant statement that Justice David Souter, the closest exponent of the Madisonian vision on today’s Supreme Court, “has not really read his Madison.”

A Secular Age, by Charles Taylor. It is unclear from John Patrick Duggins's review whether this book is provocative or merely cranky.

A Roman Catholic who is convinced that life lacks meaning without belief in God, Taylor is also a communitarian who questions the value of an individualism supposedly indifferent to the concerns of the larger society. He commands wide admiration for his ecumenical attitude toward world religions, his favorable view of identity politics and his commitment to the idea of human beings as contesting agents, always situated in conflict and thereby deserving of rights. He also appeals to postmodernist thinkers who trust less in the power of philosophy to prove the existence of truth than in the power of language to persuade us of the possibility of belief.

It is also unclear exactly to whom Mr Duggins is aiming his review.

The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History, by Katherine Ashenburg. Having called this book "breezy," Sara Ivry launches into storytelling, pausing near the end to render a sort-of-but-not-really judgment.

With its whimsical line drawings and gee-whiz marginalia (heard the one about the ordinance decreeing that feces be removed from hallways at Versailles at least once a week?), “The Dirt on Clean” is an amusing if somewhat haphazard primer. Ashenburg pays too little attention to the development of soap and sewage systems, and none to trends in household cleaning. We learn that maxipads were invented from bandages used during World War I but never discover the origins of the tampon. Fond of the bold statement, Ashenburg sometimes fails to defend or elaborate it, as when she suggests, rather mysteriously, that Romanticism played a part in loosening the fear of bathing.


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

Never Enough, by Joe McGinnis. Nothing in Bob Shacochis' full-length review suggests that this true-crime story merits Book Review coverage. On the contrary!

If McGinniss never quite finds the depth in these people, perhaps it’s because it isn’t there. They flourish and fail on a one-dimensional plane of avarice, contemptuous of common decency. Their hearts are oblique, their souls unfathomable. We would be compelled to feel sorry for them if they weren’t hellbent on gobbling up the world, spending, along with everything else, our compassion.

Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream: A Day in the Life of Your Body, by Jennifer Ackerman. There is a place for this sort of thing, and it is called Middle School. Reviewer Kyla Dunn:

In Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream, Jennifer Ackerman gives us an enthusiastic tour through 24 hours in the life of a typical human body. She demystifies our internal “clocks” and the genes that wind them, but also goes far beyond — revealing what science has to say about everything from whether you can catch a cold from being cold to the hows and whys of the orgasm. Such wide-ranging material has the potential to get out of hand, but here it is nicely tamed by the book’s lucid structure — with section headings that take us from “Morning” through “Afternoon” and into “Night.” An imaginary drive to work provides an opportunity to talk about multitasking behind the wheel (and why we are so very bad at it). An after-work party raises the topic of how our brains recognize faces, and how wafting pheromones may help to inflame sexual attraction.

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