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Reviewing the Book Review

Thomas Agonistes

17 June 2007

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

The three novels of John Williams are the subject of Morris Dickstein's Essay, "The Inner Lives of Men," with special attention focused upon Stoner. Essays like this, in which passionate cases are made for undeservedly neglected writers, ought to be a regular feature of the Book Review (with at least one Dawn Powell promo every five years.)

I hope that no one will be unduly upset about my banishing The Gravedigger's Daughter to the bottom. It's been a long time since I attempted one of Joyce Carol Oates's violent but generic novels, which she turns out with incomprehensible speed, as if haste were a virtue. I admire her criticism greatly, but I don't at all understand her appeal as a novelist.


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

Divisadero, by Michael Ondaatje. Michael Ondaatje's fiction is not my cup of tea, possibly because I find his writing "poetic" rather than "musical" - I must work out what I mean by that some time. But I know that he is very good at what he does, and if Erica Wagner finds this novel "frustrating" at times, she can put that into perspective.

It’s no good wishing a novel were different than it is; but the brokenness of Ondaatje’s tale can be frustrating. Still: “Divisadero.” What did we expect? It’s possible to believe that Ondaatje’s method of mosaic more accurately reflects the untidy turns life tends to take; his characters make unfortunate decisions but then, so do we. There is something endearingly human about this book, for all its art: who can’t forgive a hopeless romantic?

(Finally, an Erica Wagner review that didn't bewilder me!

Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas, by Kevin Merida and Michael A Fletcher. Orlando Patterson regards this as an excellent Life, but as a "pedestrian" account of Justice Thomas's jurisprudence. Ultimately, he locates the value of the book.

Nonetheless, the book remains invaluable for any understanding of the court's most controversial figure. It persuasively makes the case that "the problem of color is a mantle" Thomas "years to shed, even as he clings to it." In doing so, it brilliantly illuminates not only Thomas but his turbulent times, the burden of race in 120th-century America, and one man's painful and unsettling struggle, along with his changing nations, to be relieved of it."

Nature's Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick, by Jenny Uglow. Dominique Browning's review tells us why we might be interested in a biography of a prolific, early Nineteenth-Century illustrator, and praises the one that Ms Uglow has written, calling it "refined and engaging ... as beautifully wrought, in its way, as Bewick's woodblocks."

The Last Mrs Astor: A New York Story, by Frances Kiernan. Having read this book, I can cheat a little and pronounce Liesl Schillinger's review spot-on.

In The Last Mrs Astor, Kiernan acquaints readers with Mrs Astor's long, rich back story, soft-pedaling her subject's flaws but taking care not to exaggerate her stature. While praising Mrs Astor for being "attractive, gay, fun to be with, and a great flirt," Kiernan assesses her philanthropic contributions more cautiously.

I recognize that my inclusion of this biography of a grande dame in this category betrays my Gothamocentrism.

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa, by Peter Godwin. Mark Gevisser's review of this book is qualifiedly favorable. Mr Gevisser, a South African, finds Mr Godwin's tone about black Zimbabweans somewhat unenlightened, and overinclined to speak in abstractions, making heavy use of "Africa."

"I feel like weeping ... at the way Africa does this to you." One minute, you're scared to death, "the next you're choked with affection." Of course, Africa has done nothing at all. It is an inanimate landmass. The work is the author's and he has done it beautifully, even if not always with a full enough awareness of his own people's agency.

I've Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad, by Karolyn Smardz Frost. In the early 1830s, a Canadian court ruled that fugitive American slaves need not be sent back to the United States, and this book is about the couple whose escape led to the decision - which, in turn, led to the establishment of the Underground Railroad. According to David S Reynolds, Ms Frost has done a fine job of recreating the adventure of Thornton and Ruthie Blackburn.


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

Throw Like a Girl: Stories, by Jean Thompson. Jennifer Egan is cautiously favorable about this collection of stories, which she feels succeeds, despite a cramped and "scourged" canvas.

Thompson appears to have made a pact with her crusty protagonists to renounce every literary convention traditionally perceived as feminine: sentimentality, pathos, sincerity, melodrama.

The Nature of Monsters, by Clare Clark. Miranda Seymour waxes nearly ecstatic about this book, but everything that she says about it makes it sound, well, excessive. The last line makes absolutely no sense to me.

As a storyteller, Clark is endowed with verve and intelligence, but her larger gift, dazzlingly in evidence throughout both her fine novels, lies in the originality of her imagination. She gives us a world that feels alive and intense, magnificently raw.

As a storytelling reviewer, moreover, Ms Seymour all but makes hash of Ms Clark's plot.

The Reagan Diaries, by Ronald Reagan. Kevin Phillips's review is quite inconsistent, which not surprising in a political economist who voted for Reagan twice. On the one hand, he writes that the diaries show that Reagan was really in charge of his Administrations; on the other, he writes of "Reagan's tendency to view the presidency and its challenges in terms of personal media performance and people-to-people salesmanship." Mr Philips makes no claim suggesting that this is an important book to read.

Taxi!: A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver, by Graham Russell Gao Hodges. This may be a very fine book, but Pete Hamill's review unaccountably makes no mention of the disgraceful arrangements that the powers that be and the rentiers who own taxi medallions have imposed on a largely foreign-born force of drivers. The review is oddly preoccupied by hostilities between driver-owners and just plain drivers up to forty years ago.

Cape Wind: Money, Celebrity, Class, Politics, and the Battle for Our Energy Future on Nantucket Sound, by Wendy Williams and Robert Whitcomb. Robert Sullivan's review only engages with this book (as opposed to its very important topic) in a negative manner, so it's hard to say whether this is the book to read about marine wind farms.

Cape Wind is less an argument for wind power than an indictment of our money-soaked political process, but the indictment suffers when Williams and Whitcomb match the snarkiness of the alliance with snarkiness of their own. ... Even for a wind book, there's too much about Romney's unrufflable hair.


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

The Gravedigger's Daughter, by Joyce Carol Oates. Ms Oates is a fine writer of important criticism. Her fiction, however, seems to miss many of the elements that distinguish literature from pulp. Lee Siegel writes, in a favorable review that is highly charged with exasperation,

By that point, you might just forgive writing that has become so rushed it sometimes appears semiliterate. Oates's maddening habit of using "that" instead of "which" in a nonrestrictive clause - "most of the papers continued to run Chet Gallagher's column, that had won national awards" - is too ugly and incoherent to be an attempt at stylistic innovation. Such indulgence is surprising in a writer of Oates's caliber.

Unfortunately, it ceased being surprising many books ago.

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