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Reviewing the Book Review

The Way West

15 July 2007

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

This week's Book Review comes with an unlooked-for bonus: the central pages unfold to reveal a large Harry Potter poster. Let's hope that posters don't become a regular "feature." They make the Review hard to handle.

Rachel Donadio's Essay, "Fighting Words," is quirkier than usual. Her topic is the sympathy that many British writers expressed with not Salman Rushdie but the Muslim clerics who pronounced fatwa against him.

Le Carré's reference to the "dignity" of the publishers versus the "insensitivity" of the author reflects another strain evident in the British response: disdain for an immigrant arriviste who is unapologetic about his ambitions and who criticizes the British government rather than, say, expressing gratitude, as if that were the essential role of the artist. "The British government, the British people, do not have any affection for the book," Sir Geoffrey Howe, then the foreign secretary, said in a BBC interview. "The book is extremely critical, rude about us. It compares Britain with Hitler's Germany. We do not like that any more than the people of the Muslim faith like the attacks on their faith contained in the book. So we are not sponsoring the book. What we are sponsoring is the right of people to speak freely, to publish freely."


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

Twenty Grand: And Other Tales of Love and Money, by Rebecca Curtis. Curtis Sittenfeld vastly prefers Ms Curtis's realistic stories to her surreal ones, but she insists that the "greatness of Curtis's best stories far exceeds the mediocrity of her middling ones."

If Curtis’s surreal stories are hardly more than sketches, the realistic ones are complex and bracing and ambitious, and perhaps most impressive, they are all these things without ever showing off. Indeed, much of what Curtis does best draws little attention to itself. Her dialogue is crisp and economical; her scenes are beautifully controlled without feeling overdetermined; and her characters are as nuanced as real people. She favors a spare, clear, colloquial style that’s much harder to pull off than it looks. You rarely read a sentence and think, “Oh, how exquisitely written!” But you often think, “My God, how true!”

Be Near Me, by Andrew O'Hagan. Amidst the extensive storytelling this novel about a fallen priest in a derelict town, Stephen Metcalf manages a few lines of meaningful praise. He calls Mr O'Hagan "a youngish Glasgow-born novelist of astonishingly assured gifts," and nicely observes,

O’Hagan has a second extraordinary gift — the evil twin, in a way, of his touch with a learned conversation: with a cool diagnostic precision, he understands how a crowd can march in lockstep up the terraces of its own hysterical indignation.

Shadow of the Silk Road, by Colin Thubron. Lorraine Adams's review is warmly favorable. Having noted that Mr Thubron "travels without a camera," she concludes,

With its elegiac tone, “Shadow of the Silk Road” is moving in a way that’s rare in travel literature, sidestepping nostalgia even as it notes its pull. Thubron goes to places most other sojourners can’t — because they’re not so much geographic locations as states of mind, formed from the lifelong accretion of intriguing facts, mistaken hopes, mysteries. Here, on civilization’s oldest and longest road, which isn’t quite a road, he has found his way into that kingdom and brought it into focus for us.

The Secret History of the American Empire: Economic Hit Men, Jackals and the Truth About Global Corruption, by John Perkins. Joe Queenan's slightly tongue-in-cheek review does not get in the way of this important book, a successor to the remarkable Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.

After all, it was Perkins’s work for a Boston consulting firm that allowed nefarious multinational corporations to plunder Indonesia, Perkins’s acquisition of for-your-eyes-only population data from the mysterious “Dr. Asim” that enabled the Secret American Empire to take over Egypt, Perkins’s covert missions in Saudi Arabia that sealed Saddam Hussein’s fate, and Perkins’s invention of an ingenious payment system that led directly to the destruction of Bolivia’s economy. Thus, while the average person may think George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin are the ones who pull the strings on this planet, Perkins disabuses his readers of such naïveté. It is the economic hit men (E.H.M.’s) and their rough-and-tumble cousins, the corporate “jackals,” all of them in the employ of the “corporatocracy,” who decide who prospers, who starves, who lives, who dies. And, as is so often the case with deceptively omnipotent organizations, it is the Secret American Empire’s ability to dominate the world without having an official address or even a fax number that makes it so sinister, so powerful, so deadly.

Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World, by Joan Druett. Florence Williams storytells just enough to make this unusual book about two near-simultaneous Nineteenth-Century shipwrecks in the Auckland Islands seem tempting.

Druett wants to make the case that the castaways’ different outcomes were the result of leadership and “moral caliber,” and for the most part, she succeeds. To be fair, though, the Scottish group has it tougher from the beginning. They wreck in winter, when there are fewer seals and shellfish; they have no gun; they are unable to salvage anything from the boat in the way of shelter or clothing, not even their boots.

till, should the occasion arise, hope to be marooned with a Shackleton or a Musgrave. Druett shows that real leadership is rare and powerful. In this age of sonar and satellites, her take rings both foreign and true.


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

Rules for Saying Goodbye, by Katherine Taylor. Elissa Schappell's review begins with a positive statement but quickly heads downhill. It's hard to imagine how this book got past the editorial stage. Maybe it was given a pass.

Were Taylor to fully develop any number of the interesting plotlines she introduces — the mother’s serious depression, which one day just seems to lift; the aunt’s abuse of her teenage cousin, which is commented on, then ignored; the brain cancer of her best friend, the charming Clarissa, the gravity of which never seems to hit her — the novel might not feel like such a tease. After all, part of the joy of reading fiction is seeing writers explore ideas and write truthfully about life in a way they couldn’t in nonfiction. Had Taylor not explicitly invited us to imagine her novel as autobiography, we wouldn’t feel so cheated.

Presence: Stories, by Arthur Miller. Jeremy McCarter's review is stern. "After weaving through Miller's writing for decades, nostalgia moves front and center" in this collection.

The knowledge that Miller ached for his own lost convictions, and struggled for decades to match the writing he did in his 30s, lends these stories some poignancy. But it doesn’t elevate them to the ranks of his major work.

A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton, by Carl Bernstein. As I rule, I judge biographies of active politicians out of bounds, as indeed I have the other book covered in this review. But Jennifer Senior points to something actually intriguing about Mr Bernstein's book: in addition to explaining the somewhat grim household in which Ms Clinton grew up, it suggests that she became far more flexible when she finally held office directly, and, with it, the power to compromise.

Gone to the Crazies: A Memoir, by Alison Weaver. Kathryn Harrison, who is something of the Book Review's guide to books involving seriously behaving women, fails to find much value in this account of addiction. "Whatever one calls it, the impulse to flee introspection is part of what disables" this book.

American Food Writing: An Anthology with Classic Recipes, edited by Molly O'Neill. A slam-dunk Yes, you'd think. But the more I read of Roy Blount Jr's unfunny funny review, the more bizarre (and less exemplary) this collection came to seem. For example:

Alfred Kazin's recollection of Jewish mothers force-feeding their families in Brooklyn between the world wars thrums with cultural tension: "Eat! East! May you be desstroyed if you don't eat? What sin have I committed that God should punish me with you! Eat! What will become of you if you don't eat! Imp of darkness, may you sink 10 fathoms into the earth if you don't eat! Eat!"

What's that doing in a book of food writing?

1967: Israel, the War, and the Year That Transformed the Middle East, by Tom Segev (translated by Jessica Cohen). Although David Margolick finds Mr Segev's study of the origins of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank "invaluable," he judges the book to be "way too long."

Non-Israelis, even those who read Haaretz daily online, will find 1967 slow going. Indeed, if ever a book reflected the widening chasm between Israel and the Diaspora, it is this one.

One wishes that Mr Margolick had characterized that chasm.

The Best of Friends: Two Women, Two Continents, and One Enduring Friendship, by Sara James and Ginger Mauney. Heather Byer's review is favorable on the whole, but she cannot counter the doubts that she raises about this book's triviality.

The adventures described in The Best of Friends are fascinating, but the women's voice are virtually indistinguishable, and sometimes it seems we're reading a script for a sitcom, with the obligatory repartee about men and dating and clothes peppered throughout the narrative.


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

Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton, by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr. According to Jennifer Senior's review, this book is plodding and underwhelming, minutely chronicling the Whitewater "scandal," for example, without finding that the current Senator did anything wrong.

But this is the stuff, ultimately, of magazine and news articles, not a 438-page biography. From these observations, we can't get a more enlightened sense of what kind of president Hillary might be.

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