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Reviewing the Book Review

The Revelator

2 September 2007

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

Fun's over. The Book Review is stuffed with titles this week. There's a wonderful picture of the Mountbattens, with Nehru standing between them. I don't know what to make of Paul Sahre's pencil portrait of Denis Johnson on the cover; it's powerful but unappealing, and I found it rather bullying, as though I must prepare to pay the consequences of declining to read Mr Johnson's latest novel. Pagan Kennedy's Essay, "A Space for Us," assesses the impact of the Internet in general and MySpace in particular on writers, who have hitherto "deaf readers to mute listeners." Thomas Porostocky's graphic is wry.

There are eight Yeses, ten Maybes, and three Noes.


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

Tree of Smoke, by Dens Johnson. Jim Lewis's extremely favorable review of this Vietnam-era novel is clear about Mr Johnson's writerly vices and virtues, which is exactly what it ought to be.

Many of the themes from Johnson’s earlier books are recapitulated here, large and small: the American unleashed on the world and the world rendered opaque to Americans; tenderness as unexpected swerve and thuggishness as uninflected animus; death as the palm at the end of the mind.

The Maias: Episodes From Romantic Life, by Jose Maria Eça de Queirós (translated by Margaret Jull Costa). Alan Riding nicely presents this novel from 1888, appearing in English for the first time.

The Maias must have seemed shockingly contemporary in its verismo: its narrative ends in 1887, just a year before the book was published. But it is not a revolutionary tract. Rather, in Margaret Jull Costa’s excellent translation, its appeal remains its strongly etched characters, not only the beloved and enlightened patriarch, Afonso da Maia, and his no-less-wealthy grandson, Carlos, but also assorted snobby aristocrats, drunken writers, greedy politicians, self-important businessmen, social climbers — and beautiful women.

Linger Awhile, by Russell Hoban. Terrence Rafferty gives this novel a touchingly favorable review, touching because it is so infused with a sense of the novelist's age (82). It doesn't sound like the work of an old codger, though.

The pop-culture mythology of “Linger Awhile” has the welcome effect of tamping down Hoban’s instinct for profundity. But it gives him room to show off his true gift for dark farce, with just a spritz of music-hall metaphysics. The pleasantly cheesy Borges-on-Viagra tone suits Hoban’s peculiar talent well.

Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire, by Alex von Tunzelmann. Ben MacIntyre's review is one of those unhelpful productions that go at a historian's given topic from a slightly different angle, telling the story while tut-tutting the historian for telling it differently. Even so, it's clear that this book is a must read. 

This is a book more concerned with the smaller, more colorful threads of individual character than with the broader tapestry of history and retrospective judgment. Woven through it is the poignant love affair between Edwina Mountbatten and Nehru. Whether that relationship was ever consummated is unknown, and unimportant. What is certain is that it was intense.

Dickie knew about the relationship, and was not only tolerant but encouraging. Edwina’s passion for Nehru was echoed in her determination to help his people, and as the carnage spread, she plunged fearlessly into the squalid refugee camps and hospitals. Countess Mountbatten hated the fripperies of her position as much as her husband adored them; her highly visible campaign to improve the lot of ordinary Indians is remembered today, long after Mountbatten’s flags and medals have been forgotten.

Novels in Three Lines, by Félix Fénéon (translated by Luc Sante). These extremely droll faits divers, composed at the beginning of the last century, strike Marilyn Johnson as "layered, ironic, amused" - "swift as captions, tasy as lyrics." We shall make an exception and quote from the book.

Lit by her son, 5, a signal flare burst under the skirts of Mme Roger of Clichy; damages were considerable.

Thanks to Ms Johnson, we can do so.

The Blair Years: Extracts From the Alistair Campbell Diaries, by Alistair Campbell. Although James P Rubin berates Mr Campbell for refusing to include extracts touching on the Iraqi misadventure, he makes it clear that this is one of the liveliest books of the season.

Not that Campbell spares himself. His own foibles extend across page after page. He details his depression, his bouts of crying, his never-ending ruminations with everyone from Blair on down about whether he should resign, his inability to relax even among friends. Still, all the tribulations and conflicts contained in this volume are leavened by all the entries that allow a reader to share the sense of camaraderie inside the Blair government — its common purpose, its satisfaction at having done, in one of Blair’s favorite phrases, “the right thing.”

Jews and Power, by Ruth R Wisse. Anthony Julius thinks very highly of this book

It has always been an aspect of Zionism’s utopianism, this vision of Jewish-Arab cooperation, a mutual flourishing in the one region. This book is both an acknowledgment of that openhearted, clearsighted desire for peace, but also — and so to speak — in the meantime, a celebration of the new Jewish ability to await its arrival. If there is not to be peace, Jews at least will be able to defend themselves against their self-declared enemies. This, in the end, is what it means for Jews to have power.

I am puzzled, however, that the editors did not give Mr Julius (concededly a busy lawyer) more space in which to make the case for this book.

Art and Sex in Greenwich Village: Gay Literary Life After Stonewall, by Felice Picano. Catherine Texier gives this book a good review, and sums it up fairly well in one sentence.

In spite of a tendency to self-aggrandize, calling attention to his own talent as publisher, art director and writer — and as an indefatigable, irresistible and “classically proportioned” lover — Picano has assembled a tremendously entertaining collection of anecdotes and portraits that only a witness (and a good writer) could report in such vivid detail.


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

Heartsick, by Chelsea Cain. Kathryn Harrison likes this book a lot, and she writes about it very well. But her account renders it a sensationalist serial-killer thriller in the tradition of The Silence of the Lambs. As such, it does not fit in at the Book Review.

Away, by Amy Bloom. Louisa Thomas gives this novel a favorable review, but she doesn't distinguish it from the run of sentimental historical fiction that its plot suggests.

Strawberry Fields, by Marina Lewycka. Liesl Schillinger tells the story of this novel and then concludes that it's "cartoony." I am puzzled by the last two of the three final sentences.

[T]he compassion the author undoubtedly feels for the literary-minded Ukrainian girl in the strawberry-stained jeans could have used more water, more sun and fewer stereotypes. As the schoolyard gibe goes, it takes one to know one. But writing what you know and writing what you think you know are often two very different things.

The Last Chinese Chef, by Nicole Mones. Heidi Julavits spends far more time complaining about this novel's "framing device," a Chinese-American love story set in modern Beijing, than she does on the "meatier interior" story that she claims to like very much. She ought to have done just the opposite. 

ABC, by David Plante. Siddhartha Deb calls this a "quiet, cerebral new novel" - and eventually concludes that it is too cerebral. The single column allotted to the review renders the review almost as "perfunctory" as Mr Deb claims the novel's characters are.

Forgery, by Sabina Murray. Bee Wilson doesn't think much of this book.

The trouble is that the characters with whom Murray peoples this otherworldly setting are jarring. There are too many of them, for a start — most of the main characters are introduced only halfway through — and they seem ill at ease in 1963. It’s not that a novel set in the past needs to be littered with time-specific references. But we do need to believe that the characters could plausibly belong to their times, and here, we don’t. Murray’s interchangeable cast of slackers, a few native Greeks but mostly expat New Yorkers, listen to Bix Beiderbecke records on a scratchy Victrola, wear “undershirts,” debate Communists instead of Al Qaeda and drink whiskey instead of lattes, but otherwise their voices are those of modern America. They speak of a “fashion icon” and of being “caffeinated.” Mostly they speak of their own emotions in a sophomoric whinge.

The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics, by Matt Bai. Nick Gillespie's roused review gets in the way of the book. Between his storytelling and his lamentations, he lets us know what he thinks of the Democratic Party these days (it's short on ideas). But he doesn't give us much in the way of analysis of Mr Bai's coverage of the scene. The material sounds too perishable for book form.

Learning to Fly: A Writer's Memoir, by Mary Lee Settle. Alex Kuczynsky's review belongs in a women's magazine, consisting as it does of storytelling that is uninflected by literary appraisal. The handful of quotations feature a rather grumpy writer.

Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President, by Stpehen F Hayes. According to Carl M Cannon's review, Dick Cheney was once "a popular figure on Capitol Hill, widely praised for his candor and sense of humor." What happened? 9/11. In other words, 9/11 was a success: it brought about the erosion of civil liberties over which the Vice President has so grimly presided.

Making War To Keep Peace, by Jeane J Kirkpatrick. Ordinarily, I regard political apologias as unsuitable material for coverage in the Book Review, but Geoffrey Weatcroft's review suggests that this one stands out from the pack. For one thing, it appears to trace the evolution of the former UN Ambassador's thinking on the use of force in world affairs. Evolution - that's a new one.


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

The Cleft, by Doris Lessing. Nancy Kline storytells the gist of this fable about parthenogenesis in human history, and then bangs the lid shut by telling us that Ms Lessing's characters are "symbols, not people. And, as such, not very interesting."

Vie Française, by Jean-Paul Dubois (translated by Linda Coverdale). William Deresiewicz's review appears to capture the ill-tempered, self-absorbed whine of this novel, a tale that not even actual soixante-huitards can be counted upon to enjoy.

The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman. This book, according to Jennifer Schuessler, is a "morbidly fascinating nonfiction eco-thriller." If its review belongs anywhere in the Times, it's in the Science section.

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