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Reviewing the Book Review

Tour de France

4 November 2007

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

There were so many "generally favorable reviews" this week that I considered rendering the phrase as an acronym. I decline to vary it for variation's sake, acronyms must be declined as well. It's bad enough that i have my terms of art

Rachel Donadio's Essay, "Bio Engineering," is a backstage look at the difficulties of trying to write a biography about a living novelist. "I must say that I have been glad to work with the safely dead," she quotes Hermione Lee as saying. Sounds about right.


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

The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography From the Revolution to the First World War, by Graham Robb. Understandably, Caroline Weber finds the storytelling opportunities presented by this apparently very engaging book almost irresistible - but she resists, at least long enough to highlight Mr Robb's bicycle-borne achievement. Here she is on perhaps the most formidable of Mr Robb's subjects, the educators who fanned out through post-Revolutionary France and Standardized it.

These contingents had a profound if dual impact on the country’s development. They challenged the age-old, deeply ingrained provincialism that political theorists from the revolution onward have posited as incompatible with a universal brotherhood of man. But they also catalyzed the disappearance of certain habits (the worship of pagan “forest fairies” in and around Lourdes), languages (“the whistling language of Aas,” which was “an ear-splitting, hundred-decibel language” developed by shepherds of a tiny Pyrenean village to communicate with one another at a distance of up to two miles) and even peoples (the “silent populations of cretins with hideous thyroid deformities” who used to inhabit certain mountain villages in some of the nation’s more remote corners) that once contributed to France’s mind-boggling diversity. Indeed, the author observes, “modern France is not just the result of continuous traditions; it was also formed from disappearances and extinctions.”

Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism, by John Updike. It were churlish to argue for a moment that this book does not have automatic eligibility for Book Review coverage; it really doesn't matter what Christopher Hitchens has to say about the book. Which is probably why he was hired to say it. Predictably, the review complains that the critic is soft on jihadis:

This is evenhandedness taken almost to the point of masochism. (What of the “imbalance” between the jihadists and the girls’ schools they blow up?) And Updike doesn’t choose to answer any of the questions — familiar enough at a sophomore level, as is Annan’s affectless remark — that he poses. I have the suspicion that he is overcompensating for the rather lame defense of the war in Vietnam that he mounted in his memoir “Self-Consciousness.”

Soldier's Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point, by Elizabeth D Samet. Robert Pinsky's emphatic review merits extensive excerpting.

What effect does the volunteer Army have on the academy and its mission? Even more urgently, in the era of the Iraq war, the Guantánamo prison and the “rendition” of suspects away from due process, what about West Point’s mission of ethical and moral leadership? (At the academy is the Center for the Professional Military Ethic.) Samet describes a general, lecturing at West Point, who shows a slide with the headlines “My Lai,” “Tigris Bridge,” “Pat Tillman,” “Haditha” and “Abu Ghraib.” The point of his lecture — Samet describes him as “outraged” — is the responsibility of officers to speak out against negligence, abuse and criminal conduct: bound by their honor.

West Point — unlike many campuses where the English department has dwindled away from such notions — adheres to the idea that the general’s project has some relation to the student of Samet’s who reads Wallace Stevens’s poem “The Idea of Order at Key West” while on active duty in the Iraqi desert. The title “Soldier’s Heart” refers to an obsolete term ascribing actual cardiac disorder to what was later known as shell shock, then battle fatigue and then post-traumatic stress disorder. We depend on the literal and figurative hearts of Elizabeth Samet’s students, young men and women prepared to die or be maimed for the United States. Her job is to offer them a context for valor. In one of the texts she teaches, a surviving Warsaw Ghetto fighter says of a Polish police officer who risked his life to help Jews, “He was a human being — and that wasn’t a simple thing in those days.”

My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams, edited by Margaret A Hogan and C James Taylor, with an Introduction by Joseph J Ellis. There has been so much print about this all-but-royal American marriage that I'd have thought that these letters had already made their appearance. Here they are, anyway, indisputably the First Correspondence of American history. Mary Beth Norton's favorable review reminds us that the Adamses, like even the most devoted couples, did not write to each other when they were living at the same address, so what we have here is the Portrait of a Marriage as a Negative.

The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food, by Judith Jones. Like an earlier title from 2007 that might have seemed to belong in the Dining In/Dining Out section - Julia Child's My Life in France - this memoir is set against the backdrop of a cultural transformation that honored, and continues to honor, the literary value of serious writing about the appreciation and preparation of food. Dorothy Kalins's very favorable review captures the intriguing relationship between a budding icon (Child) and her editor at Knopf (Jones).

Jones endearingly titles her chapter about that relationship “Julia to the Rescue,” but who was rescuing whom? If Jones had not been so receptive to Child’s recipes and techniques that she began to test them in her own kitchen, one wonders if “Mastering” — long, complicated, intense and expensive — would ever have been published. Child, discouraged, revealed her worries in her own memoir: “Maybe the editors were right. After all, there probably weren’t many people like me who liked to fuss around in the kitchen.”

Jones responds: “But there was one. Me. And if I was convinced that, if the book was so right for me, there were bound to be maybe thousands like me who really wanted to learn the whys and wherefores of good French cooking.”

Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War, by Alan Kramer. Simon Sebag Montefiore's storytelling review expresses reservations about this occasionally "pedantic" work that are not entirely overcome by the conclusion "everyone can learn something from Kramer's nuanced and sensible conclusion,

“Total war,” he writes, “which tends towards annihilation, bears within it the potential for genocide. Yet genocide was not an inevitable consequence of total war.”

This would have made a better beginning than it does an end.


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

Last Night at the Lobster, by Steward O'Nan. Perhaps if there had been more quotation from this "minute-by-minute account" of the last night of a Red Lobster franchise, I'd seen something beyond the realist schmalz described by Nathaniel Rich in his generally favorable review. It's not enough just to state that:

O’Nan’s empathy for his characters is one of his great gifts as a novelist, and it is an impressive achievement that Manny’s misplaced affection for Red Lobster is not risible, but tragic.

Even a reviewer must show and tell.

Bridge of Sighs, by Richard Russo. It is so rare to read an unfavorable review of a new novel by Mr Russo that shock alone may explain my inability to make sense of Stephen Metcalf's review, which is much taken up with the theory - Dostoevsky's? John Gardner's? - that "there are only two possible stories." He never gives a very clear idea of this novel's. He expresses disappointment together with a vague feeling that Mr Russo has overreached in attempting to persuade an expat artist living in Venice.

The Ghost, by Robert Harris. According to Jonathan Freedland, this roman à clef about Tony Blair "works as a thriller" but not as a political critique. Tracking the correspondences between the novel and Downing Street history proves to be distracting flypaper for Mr Freedland. It would seem that he did not like the book but would rather not tell us why.

Ghost, by Alan Lightman. (Not to be confused &c) Did David Kurzweil, the protagonist of this novel by an MIT physicist whose earlier book, Einstein's Dreams, was "a delicately Calvino-esque treatment of a genius on the verge of a historic discovery," see a ghost in the slumber room of the mortuary where he finds work after having been downsized from banking? Ed Park's uncertain review left me unable to care, and mildly resentful on account of the short time that it had taken to read.

Proust Was a Neuroscientist, by Jonah Lehrer. D T Max is much taken with Mr Lehrer's precocity, which is indeed  almost pungent: at twenty-five, he has worked in Nobelists' labs and in the kitchen of Le Cirque. His generally favorable review, however, suggests that Mr Lehrer may profitably employ the years to come in Calming Down. Consider:

Lehrer is smart, and there are some fun moments in these pages. But while he is good at showing that Artist A’s work preceded Biologist B’s, he only rarely shows that A influenced B. So what he’s written is not quite intellectual history, more like intellectual patterning. At the same time, I’m not sure all his conclusions follow from his data. What the N.Y.U. memory researcher showed, it seems to me, is only that memories fade when they are not used, which we hardly need Proust to confirm. And Herz herself did not think she had proven the accuracy of Proust’s proposition: she found that smells produce emotionally intense memories but not particularly intricate ones. Proust’s “confidence in the precise contents of his odor-cued recollections may have been ill founded,” she concludes in her 2002 paper.

Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis, by Ed Sikov. According to Rex Reed, there is no need for this book. He should know.

Sikov, who has written biographies of Billy Wilder and Peter Sellers, displays scant information about her life and career that we haven’t come across before. From yellow newspaper clippings, corporate memos, Warner Brothers archives, passages extracted from other books (most notably her autobiography, “The Lonely Life”), interviews with peripheral associates and old Louella Parsons columns, Sikov recycles the suspensions, marriages, affairs and abortions, and her feuds with Miriam Hopkins, Errol Flynn (she once told me his idea of art was the fruit in a slot machine) and, of course, her archnemesis, Joan Crawford. Sikov’s juiciest implication is that Bette’s legendary hatred of Joan was based on the fact that Davis, because of her uptight Yankee sensibility, refused to have any part of a lesbian affair with her broad-shouldered, bisexual rival.

I may be a serious admirer of Bette Davis, but I do find myself wondering why I haven't slotted this book among the Noes.

Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W Bush, by Robert Draper; and The Terror Presidency: Law and Order Inside the Bush Administration, by Jack Goldsmith. Although these may be worthy books, and although I quite agree with reviewer Anthony Lewis's critique of the Bush Administration (and then some), I don't know what Mr Lewis's review is doing in the pages of the Book Review. It is essentially an essay that's too long for current conventions at The Week in Review, which favor the short and snappy. The conventions ought to be reconsidered.


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

Rhett Butler's People, by Donald McCraig. If this new authorized sequel to Gone With the Wind is indeed a work of genuine literary merit - unlike the last one, Alexandra Ripley's Scarlett - only time will tell, and the Book Review must wait. To arguments that Gone With the Wind is an American monument, I reply, "not of literature." Take the pop culture elsewhere.

City Lights: Stories About New York, by Dan Barry; and The World in a City: Traveling the Globe Through the Neighborhoods of the New New York, by Joseph Berger. These are almost certainly good books, and there's nothing wrong with Meryl Gordon's generally favorable reviews. Had either title been given its own page, I might have been spared the sense of taking care of the home team that inspired me to conclude that, except in cases of great and urgent public interest, books by New York Times columnists are hors de concours when it comes to the Book Review. Ms Gordon's piece squarely belongs in Sunday's City section.

Revolution of Hop: The Life, Faith, and Dreams of a Mexican President, by Vicente Fox and Rob Allyn. This sort of book has no place in the Book Review, as Ginger Thompson's review makes very clear:

Sermons about the benefits of free trade and the nobility of Mexican migrants run through just about every chapter of the book, whether Fox is writing about crossing the border with his brother to sell vegetables in McAllen, Tex., sipping wine at the governor’s mansion with Arnold Schwarzenegger or bracing for the fallout of Sept. 11.

Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine, edited by Barry C Smith. I'm unable to say, on the basis of Michael Steinberger's somewhat compressed review, just where in the Times this piece belongs, but it's a toss-up between the weekly food section and the Saturday Arts & Ideas pages. It certainly doesn't belong in the Book Review.

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