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Reviewing the Book Review

The Home Place

1 July 2007

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

When are publishers going to drop preposterous subtitles? I'm talking about Sally Denton's book about the Frémonts. "...Who shaped America," blah, blah, blah.

Martha Southgate's moving Essay, "Writers Like Me," is about the extra drag that black literary novelists must contend with as they contemplate their third or fourth novels. "It saddens me to think of the dreams that have been ditched, the stories that haven't been told because of racism, because of fear and economic insecurity, because that first novel didn't move enough copies."


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

Free Food For Millionaires, by Min Jin Lee. Liesl Schillinger's informed review - it begins with a word about the Korean word, han - makes reference to Trollope's Can You Forgive Her? and generally praises this novel as cut from the same sturdy but questioning cloth. Here is one of the many quotations - an entire paragraph:

“Every minute matters,” Sabine tells her. “All those times you turn on the television or go to the movies or shop for things you don’t need, all those times you stay at a bar sitting with some guy talking some nonsense about how pretty your Korean hair is. ... Your life matters, Casey. Every second. And by the time you’re my age — you’ll see that for every day and every last moment spent, you were making a choice.”

Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression, by Mildred Armstrong Kalish. Elizabeth Gilbert's rave review of this memoir, which she says is truer to the spirit of 1935 than to that of 2007, is more enthusiastic than intelligent, but there's just enough quotation to convey the flavor of what already looks like an American classic.

A Russian Diary: A Journalist's Final Account of Life, Corruption, and Death in Putin's Russia, by Anna Politkovskaya. Anna Politkovskaya, murdered late last year, was an advocacy journalist who rushed in where colleagues feared to tread. Her coverage of Chechnya went largely unread but irritated the Kremlin nonetheless. Andrew Meier's review makes the case that this book is "a C-Span reel of the dismemberment of the Russian body politic." I had the awful feeling that Politkovskaya would have felt right at home in the United States.

The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It, by Paul Collier. Niall Ferguson praises this diagnosis of African poverty for its depolarizting analysis. "If [Jeffrey D] Sachs seems too saintly and [William] Easterly too cynical, then Collier is the authentic old Africa hand: he knows the terrain and has a keen ear."

Passion and Principle: John and Jessie Frémont, the Couple Whose Power, Politics, and Love Shaped Nineteenth-Century America, by Sally Denton. Mimi Swartz calls Ms Denton a "wonderful writer," but gets so involved with storytelling that the texture of this book about an important, if forgotten, American and his wife never emerges.

Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece, by Joan Breton Connelly. Steve Coates's review does more than simply point out that this book is a corrective to the widespread view that Greek matrons lived in purdah. He raises the significant tension between classicists, who regard Antiquity through its authors, and archaeologists, who assess the material remains. Ms Connelly belongs to the latter camp. 

Twice As Good: Condoleezza Rice and Her Path to Power, by Marcus Mabry. Jonathan Freedland's favorable review summarizes this book so acutely that one is tempted to quote it as a source on the subject of the current Secretary of Defense's intellectual limitations. Mr Freedland's reminder that Ms Rice harbors presidential ambitions, however, is a spur to reading Mr Mabry's timely forewarning.


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

House Lights, by Leah Hager Cohen. Kathryn Harrison's reviews have a way of getting in the way of the novels that they're covering by sounding like the writer's notes on book projects. Here, we have is a lot of high-toned talk about the Bildungsroman, and some very unpersuasive gabble about how "artfully constructed" the novel is. Ms Harrison's extensive storytelling merely makes Ms Cohen's characters sound willfully strange. 

The Shadow Catcher, by Marianne Wiggins. Richard B Woodward's review makes this high-concept novel about an early Twentieth-Century photographer of Native Americans sound formidable rather than appealing. What is one to make of the following?

But if the novel fails to integrate all the cosmic elements she summons up - her digressions on maps, aerial perspective, Western land rights and Los Angeles traffic are strained - Wiggins ably challenges the smug idea that we can easily distinguish truth and falsehood in telling anyone's story, especially our own.

I Love You, Beth Cooper, by Larry Doyle. Mark Sarvas, who publishes The Elegant Variation, seems conflicted about this novel.

That a 48-year-old is so up-to-the-minute with teenage vernacular is either impressive or creepy, depending on your point of view. How you’ll respond to “I Love You, Beth Cooper” can probably be forecast by how much, if anything, names like Enid Coleslaw and Tommy Turner and song lyrics like “Tattoos of memories and dead skin on trial” mean to you. Either way, you’ll need a high tolerance for frequent appearances of Doyle’s inner Butt-Head while you await the more rewarding glimpses of his inner Bart.

No One Belongs Here More Than You: Stories, by Miranda July. Sheelah Kolhatkar writes of this debut fiction, "Reading it is less like taking a narrative journey than undergoing a sort of occult experience." That's not very helpful.

Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming, by Chris Mooney. Lisa Margonelli's storytelling review gets going with a kiss of death: "Mooeny has written a well-researched, nuanced book that suffers from poor organization and a lack of pizazz." This is possibly the worst review in the issue.


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

The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism, by Michael J Behe. What, I ask you, is the point of asking noted atheist Richard Dawkins to "review" a book about "intelligent design"? Watching Professor Dawkins shred this nonsense is no more edifying - or illuminating - than watching a cat kill a mouse. A sympathetic review would have made me sit up and argue.

Dog Days: Dispatches From Bedlam Farm, by Jon Katz. David Updike's largely favorable review complete fails to suggest why this book, which about a writer and television producer who chucked Manhattan for an upstate farm where he herds sheep and other animals, merits our attention.

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