Reading Matter
Books On the Side
Books In Brief

Reviewing the Book Review

True Believers

21 October 2007

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

An interesting issue, with lots of Yeses (eight) and more Noes (three) than Maybes (two). I'll try to remember that when I'm tearing my hair over the more typical, Maybe-loaded issue. It's true that, in one case, I overrode a reviewer (William Boyd) who allowed his obsession with a fatuous taxonomy of short stories to occlude his judgment of William Trevor's latest collection. I hereby confess to bending the rules.

Alan Wolfe's Essay, "Mobilizing the Religious Left," discusses the liberal but not-so-liberal politics of an early Twentieth Century evangelist, Walter Rauschenbusch. An attractive figure these days, Rauschenbusch was something of a bigot about Jews and Catholics, seemingly unaware that many of his proposals had been voiced years earlier by Leo XIII (in Rerum Novarum). Nevetheless, Wolfe writes,

A century ago, the case for the inevitability of inequality was made by secular thinkers strongly influenced by Darwin’s theory of evolution, while those who argued on behalf of social justice took their Bible reading seriously. Nowadays it is the reverse, and the republication of “Christianity and the Social Crisis” could help restore the balance. Rauschenbusch may have been too steeped in his own vision of Christianity and too unwary of the dangers of blending religion and politics, but he was right that society needs powerful and prophetic voices. It is just that we need to find sources of prophecy appropriate for our own times, rather than borrowing them from the earnest but limited thinkers and activists of 100 years ago.


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

The Abstinence Teacher, by Tom Perrotta. Liesl Schillinger's strong review implicitly argues that this is a book that, whether meant for the ages, is too timely not to be required reading for literate Americans. She ends with very high praise indeed.

As in Orhan Pamuk’s “Snow,” a novel that devotes hundreds of pages to a heated battle between religious fanatics and educated secularists in a Turkish town without explicitly taking sides, Perrotta does not spell it out. Instead, he gives space and speeches to proselytizers and scoffers alike, letting readers form their own conclusions. Religion is no less controversial a subject to weave into fiction in this country than it is in Turkey. In any case, Perrotta has never been one to cast stones.

Fire in the Blood, by Irène Némirovsky (translated by Sandra Smith). This "elegy of the French countryside," according to reviewer Christopher Benfey, may be modest (and therefore Maybe), but together with the writer's other novels that are in the process of being re-issued, Fire in the Blood helps us to assess an intriguing but overlooked voice with a highly complicated provenance.

One can’t help wondering whether the deeply held secrets at the heart of the plot had anything to do with Némirovsky’s own double life as she tried desperately to blend into an ordinary village in extraordinary times.

Cheating at Canasta, by William Trevor. William Boyd's review is perhaps a little cute, a bit preoccupied with the somewhat twee question of whether Mr Trevor is or is not the Irish Chekhov, but then, he would be.

A few years ago, in an essay on the short story, I tried to establish a notional taxonomy of the genre, arguing that there were essentially seven types of short story.

Fascinating, but not on point. And what is one to make of this lambent observation:

Trevor doesn’t want us to leave his stories without deriving their import.

There are times when I must decline to judge a book (for the purposes of this review) solely by what has been printed in the Times. Cheating at Canasta is presumably a Yes.

The Last Chicken in America: A Novel in Stories, by Ellen Litman. Although too short to avoid the pitfalls of storytelling, Maud Newton's review is emphatically positive. Comparing the collection to less successful stabs at the recent genre of the novel-in-stories, Ms Newton writes,

Litman’s elegantly constructed web of stories about Russian-Jewish immigrants living in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh is the converse of such aimless solemnity. It’s warm, true and original, and packed with incisive, subtle one-liners.

Foreskin's Lament: A Memoir, by Shalom Auslander. Benjamin Anastas's review underscores the pathos of this vivid account of one young couple's attempt to remain more-or-less Jewish in a community that doesn't know from "more-or-less." Having their son circumcised by a doctor in the hospital instead of by a mohel at home means that the grandfather won't look at his grandson "in the face." A funny book that in places reminds the reviewer of David Sedaris, this is even so not just a funny book.

One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life - A Story of Race and Family Secrets, by Bliss Broyard. Joyce Johnson compresses the highly historical (that is, transitory) pressures that faced the young, light-skinned Anatole Broyard in the late Thirties, when he entered metropolitan intellectual life at Brooklyn College.

Profound changes in attitudes about race in America had occurred since 1947, when Anatole Broyard, who during the war had been the white officer in charge of a regiment of black stevedores, left his parents and sisters behind him in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, having made up his mind to continue to pass as white in the bohemian milieu of Greenwich Village. Because of his charm, carefully honed conversational brilliance and success in seducing one impressionable young woman after another, the circles of hipster intellectuals he moved in would have accepted him whatever he called himself — and did whenever he selectively revealed the truth. But Broyard, less hipster and existentialist than an innately conservative young man ambitious to become part of the literary establishment (then exemplified by The Partisan Review), justified the choice he’d made by refusing to have any limits put on his freedom or to be tagged as a black writer like James Baldwin.

All we need to know beyond this is that his daughter's book is not poorly conceived or written, and, as Ms Johnson wraps up her review by calling it "brave, uncompromising and powerful," we've no good reason for not embracing this extraordinarily important case study of that increasingly meretricious-looking but still deadly-stinging concept, "race."

Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life, by Robert Reich. Cornell's Robert Frank has a few quibbles with some fine points of Mr Reich's argument, but by and large he agrees wholeheartedly that financial competition has metastasized into a cancer that may kill democracy and free-market economy alike.

Indeed, the main thrust of Reich’s argument is right on target. Those who seize their opportunities in highly competitive environments tend to survive and prosper. “To confuse greed with opportunity,” he writes, “is to confound desire with availability.”

It’s often useful to get angry when things aren’t going well. But moral outrage is counterproductive unless directed at the right targets. By focusing our attention on those who continue to block effective campaign finance reform, Reich shows that he can spot a worthy target when he sees one.

The Slave Ship: A Human History, by Marcus Rediker. According to Adam Hochschild's enthusiastic review, this work of "history from below" concentrates on the actual ships that sailed the Middle Passage, packed with rebellious slaves and mutinous crews. Mr Hochschild also finds a positively embarrassing number of parallels between Then and Now:

Respectability is not the only resemblance to international trade today. Rediker points out many others. One is the highly globalized nature of the business, and even of the ships’ construction: he traces how one major British slave-ship owner ordered his vessels built in New England, which had the best timber, but sent the builder nails, rope and anchors from Liverpool, where their price was lower. Like executives today, British slave merchants pressed their government for deregulation, and finally it obliged, canceling the Royal African Company’s guaranteed monopoly. Just as corporate officers now get stock options, slave-ship officers received the extra compensation of a few “privilege” slaves they were permitted to buy, transport and sell for their own profit. Sometimes there were executive bonuses tied directly to performance, based on the number of slaves delivered. And finally, those who succeeded in the business could seamlessly make the transition to politics, the way tycoons still do: former slave-ship captains sat in both the British House of Commons and the United States Senate (James D’Wolf of Rhode Island). This complex tissue of normality makes one wonder what aspects of our own everyday business-as-usual people will, a century or two from now, be considered as horrendous as we think the slave trade was.

Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy, by Eric D Weitz. What Brian Ladd likes most about this book is that it accentuates the positive. The republic of which Germany was constituted between the Great War and the Nazi Surprise is usually condemned for bearing the seeds of its own destruction, but its possibilities, like its culture, were much richer than simply self-destructive.

Despite the book’s subtitle, the tragedy of Weimar is not Weitz’s story. Instead he invites us to appreciate some of the era’s most exhilarating attempts to master the flux of modernity. In the end, Weitz favors the inspiration of Weimar over its drama.


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

The Sabotage Café, by Joshua Furst. Field Maloney's review is what I'll call gallantly unsympathetic. It tries hard to speak well of Mr Furst's novel, but its gestures at capturing the unpleasant flavor of this story about a schizophrenic mother and her rebellious daughter simply add to the confusion of an already unappealing summary.

The Conscience of a Liberal, by Paul Krugman. David M Kennedy writes, unsurprisingly, that Mr Krugman's book is really too one-sided to be of much use.

Like the rants of Rush Limbaugh or the films of Michael Moore, Krugman’s shrill polemic may hearten the faithful, but it will do little to persuade the unconvinced or to advance the national discussion of the important issues it addresses. It may even deepen the very partisan divide he denounces. Where is the distinguished economist when we need him?

The review faces Mr Frank's, above; one almost wishes that Mr Krugman could be made to digest Mr Reich's wisdom.


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

The Almost Moon, by Alice Sebold. Lee Siegel writes as though he'd been waiting for this book ever since a tsunami of praise swept Ms Sebold's first novel, The Lovely Bones, into best-stellardom five years ago - leaving more than a few critics feeling as raped and dismembered as that novel's heroine. Mr Siegel assiduously denudes The Almost Moon of any literary pretensions:

Sebold sashays blithely from ludicrous descriptions of sex (“I bit my lip. I writhed ... and hoped that no one’s God was watching”) to ridiculous shifts in tone (“Her voice hit the still house with its usual force factor”) to “we’re sorry but we cannot offer you any M.F.A. funding for next year”-type sentences (“I felt the tears in my eyes and knew they would fall”). There’s no plot in this novel. It’s all free disassociation.

Harold Robbins: The Man Who Invented Sex, by Andrew Wilson. Although Tom Carson asserts that "Francis Ford Coppola's movie version of the Goodfather, a novel that wouldn't exist without Robbins's example," proves "that greatness can be spun from sensationalist claptrap," "The real pity is that, stamina aside, Robbins was talentless..." If ever a book was worthy of coverage in the Thursday Styles section, this is it.

Strides: Running Through History With an Unlikely Athlete, by Benjamin Cheever. Having storytold a few of Mr Cheever's more interesting bits, Holly Morris lowers the boom:

The Kenyans’ athletic grace, and the soldiers’ unique reprieve from the banal horrors of wartime, offer a few stirring stories amid a text fatally weighted toward factoids about running and the musings of the author. Perhaps, in the hands of a suppler writer, the book could have been a worthy totem to a sport with genuine history, health benefits and a singular ability to fast-track a practitioner into the relished “zone.”

This book belongs in Sunday Sports.

Permalink  Portico About this feature

Copyright (c) 2007 Pourover Press

Write to me