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Reviewing the Book Review

Woody Talks

18 November 2007

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

In lieu of an Essay this week, we have Jane Perlez's Letter From Australia, on the unlikely concurrence of a publishing award and political maneuvering. The prestigious Miles Franklin award went to an Aboriginal writer - Alexis Wright, for her Carpentaria - for the first time.

The success of “Carpentaria” comes at a particularly fraught moment in relations between Aborigines and the Australian government. On June 21, the day “Carpentaria” was announced as the winner of the Miles Franklin, the conservative Prime Minister John Howard announced a ban on alcohol and pornography in the Northern Territory as part of an effort to combat child abuse, which a government report found to be widespread in Aboriginal communities. Soon thereafter, small groups of Australian soldiers were dispatched by the government to Aboriginal settlements to enforce the no-drinking edict.

Suddenly, Wright, a longtime indigenous rights activist who had participated in an extended struggle in the 1980s to make the Northern Territory Aboriginal town Tennant Creek dry, found herself asked to appear on television and radio not only as a novelist, but also as an expert. In her nonfiction book “Grog War,” she documented how efforts at Tennant Creek were undermined by local white governments, the white-run liquor industry and the white-dominated police. The move by Howard was too little too late, and motivated by electoral concerns, she said.


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

Mere Anarchy and The Insanity Defense: The Complete Prose, by Woody Allen. David Kamp's review of three books by or about Woody Allen neglects the former. We deal with his coverage of the latter in the Maybes.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, by Maggie O'Farrell. If Julia Scheeres's favorable were longer, its four paragraphs of storytelling would not stand out so egregiously. And Ms Scheeres's announcement that the author "is a very visual writer, creating dead-on images like 'the arched pink rafters' of a dog's mouth..." is not as helpful as it might be. Even so, this novel emerges as a Yes.

Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter, by Phoebe Damrosch. Reviewer Sean Wilsey, who might be expected to bring a pungent, well-acquainted slant to luxury dining, likes this book about Thomas Keller's New York restaurant, Per Se, in spite of himself. Beneath his snarky comments about culinary extravagance lies an "ineffable sadness" about the transitory nature of gastronomic pleasure. There is a great deal of storytelling (including an account of Mr Wilsey's own visit to Per Se), but also a fair amount of judgment; the reviewer believes that Ms Damrosch has captured the collective fever of urging a favorable write-up from the gods, a/k/a Frank Bruni of the Times.

The Bruni chapters are cliffhangers, drawn out for drama, written in clear and at times exhilarating prose. It’s great entertainment watching professionals at the top of the field spare no eccentricity (rules for staff behavior read: “No cologne, scented lotions, scented soaps, aftershave or perfume are to be worn during service”; “No first names, no flirting, no hands on the chairs, no touching the guest”) or expense (Per Se, with its cruise liner decor, apparently cost $12 million to open): all to impress a single critic (spotted almost immediately).

Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War, by Michael J Neufeld. Alex Roland's excellent review praises this book for its understanding that Wernher von Braun spent his career in a series of morally compromised environments, American as well as German.

Neufeld is less attentive to the moral guilt of American leaders and institutions. Many of them aided and abetted the suppression and misrepresentation of von Braun’s history, as well as the histories of many others in Project Paperclip. In the heat of the cold war, they, too, subordinated their moral principles to what they saw as higher purposes. As the physicist Herbert York later said: “Some people regard von Braun’s unwavering dedication to the grand dream of space flight as heroic and farsighted. Others cannot overlook the grotesque means and unprincipled behavior he used to realize his dreams. I am among the latter, but in this instance I was glad to exploit his willingness to go, without argument, wherever the money was.”

Von Braun may have been, as the satirist Tom Lehrer said, “a man whose allegiance is ruled by expedience,” but his keepers behaved expediently as well. To paraphrase Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox’s judgment on the Pentagon in “The Imperial Animal” (1971), if you have a von Braun, you will use him, and he will use you.

The Genius of America: How the Constitution Saved Our Country - and Why It Can Again, by Eric Lane and Michael Oreskes. Emily Bazelon is enthusiastic about this book's optimistic outlook, which in her account places responsibility for the state of the nation where it belongs.

Lane, a law professor at Hofstra, and Oreskes, the executive editor of The International Herald Tribune, also single out Cheney’s 1987 report as a prime example of executive power gone off the rails. To them it’s a link between Ronald Reagan’s message that “government is the problem” and the “institutional deterioration” of the present. Their overriding concern is that in our frustration with gridlock and long-running political battles, we’ve lost sight of the Constitution’s irreplaceable strengths. The genius of the founders was their recognition that Americans had no exceptional ability to rise above their own interests, and inevitably would splinter into factions. And so the framers hammered together a form of government built to absorb the shocks of division, by subverting pure majority rule, forcing compromise and generally gumming up the works whenever a whiff of radical change comes along.

Today, however, we’re too weary of our own strife to remember all of this. “The message we are hearing is that our government does not work,” Lane and Oreskes write. “The message we should be hearing is that our government is a reflection of our own divisions.” If Congress is supine, that’s because we’ve helped to beat it down. If we recalled the lessons of the nation’s founding, on the other hand, we’d quit looking for shortcuts and falling for imperially-minded presidents. We’d see the Bush-Cheney march of executive power for the threat that it is. And we’d put a halt to it. A rallying cry, perhaps, for the post-2008 era.

Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance - and Why They Fall, by Amy Chua. Lance Morrow, of Time, likes this book up to a point - at which he wishes that he were a different book.

Chua, the John Duff Jr. professor of law at Yale Law School, unfolds an agreeably plausible case with clarity and insistent simplification, like a lawyer pacing before the jury box, hitting the same points (tolerance, diversity, inclusion) for emphasis as she clicks off centuries and civilizations. Always in the back of her mind is the drama of America.

The problem, for Mr Morrow, is that existing examples of empire have been neutralized by globalization. "But in the 21st century, 'empire' and 'superpower' and 'hyperpower' are terms that may require rethinking." Mr Morrow's review gives disproportionate space to arguing this foundational disagreement with Ms Chua's thesis.


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

Blonde Faith, by Walter Mosley. Walter Mosely belongs to the club of high-end mystery writers that includes Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen in its American chapter, and Ian Rankin, P D James and Ruth Rendell from the Atlantic Isles. To the basic ingredients of the crime fiction, these writers add fully-developed central characters who are capable of reflection. As such, they are forever being proposed as models of literary eminence by their more serious readers. As big a fan as anyone, I'm nonetheless doubtful that this sort of fiction merits inclusion in the Book Review, and I also wonder if it even benefits from the coverage. As no particular expertise is required to evaluate even the most literate mysteries, readers are probably better off consulting friends who share their interest than heeding the opinions of strangers. These books really belong among the Noes; eventually, I'll have the courage to put them there.

As for Jabari Asim's review, it indulges in the storytelling that is all too common in these precincts. Here, however, is a patch of judgment from the conclusion:

Mosley has been accused of writing purple prose, a charge the sex scenes in “Blonde Faith” are unlikely to dispel. Outside the bedroom, though, his compact dialogue continues to sparkle, and his scene-setting is as skillful as ever. It could very well be that we critics fail to fully appreciate Mosley’s talents because his Rawlins mysteries appear to come off so effortlessly. They bring to mind a former N.B.A. All-Star’s modest attempt to explain his otherworldy playmaking to a group of ordinary mortals. “If it looks easy,” he said, “it’s not.”

A Man of No Moon, by Jenny McPhee. Sabrina Murray's ambivalent review is such a thicket of storytelling that it is difficult to tell where the critic shades into the novelist. We are told that the novel presents scenes of postwar Rome, glittering in the early days of an Italian film renaissance, against much grittier recollections of wartime resistance.

The bleakness and humanity of these flashbacks are underscored when contrasted with the descriptions of Dante’s glitzy late-’40s Rome, which I’m assuming is the author’s intention. Unfortunately, the past is more moving than anything the postwar scenes provide, including the love triangle with Gladys and Prudence. We are told more than once that Dante has already given up, but his flirtation with suicide is not as interesting — or convincing — as his struggle to survive. Gladys and Prudence are no more capable of providing him with a will to live than he is of making their lives whole. Dante says: “I didn’t exactly know why I wanted to die. I didn’t think it was solely because I couldn’t bear the pain and humiliation of being alive, although that certainly was a challenge.” How can Prudence or Gladys argue with so vague a motivation? Luckily, Dante’s present is infused with the past, and the book is ultimately saved by its deeper subject matter. In the end, an easy death is just not as exciting as the problem of staying alive.

The Fall of Troy, by Peter Ackroyd. David Leavitt likes the idea of this book, and even its principal character (an plutocrat obsessed with Troy, patterned on Schliemann), but he feels obliged to sound a note of caution.

Not surprisingly, “The Fall of Troy” moves toward the resolution of these and other questions in a readable, rather old-fashioned way. The novel is impressively lean; it never lags or bogs down. And yet, for all the skill Ackroyd deploys in structuring his narrative, “The Fall of Troy” sometimes has a tinny, hollow quality that undercuts its rich subject matter. A sense of missed opportunity pervades. Emotion and sex are generally avoided. Even when Sophia’s admiration for Obermann becomes contempt, and she finds herself drawn to another man, Ackroyd seems to turn away from the possibility of the erotic. Nor does his reliance on plot twists that might have come straight from a primer on how to generate suspense (in particular a rather gratuitous nod to “Jane Eyre”) help to give the novel heft.

Waiting to Surface, by Emily Listfield. According to Sarah Towers's review, the events of this novel, in which the husband of a magazine editor goes missing, mirror as yet unresolved events in the author's life. One's suspicion that it is too soon for Ms Listfield to tackle her story in fiction is confirmed by the review.

Sadly, Listfield (the author of five previous novels) may be too close to this material. Instead of laying bare Sarah’s painful emotions, she tends to fall back on flatly expositional dialogue (“Sarah, you’ll always miss Todd. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get on with your life”) and overreaching metaphors: “She felt herself dancing on the lip of a bottomless pit, teetering, every muscle, every fiber spent from the effort it took to keep from falling in, where there was only blackness, that night without end, a life without finality, without answers.”

Throughout, we’re kept at too great a distance. Sarah’s guilt, anger, sadness and fear remain abstract nouns rather than viscerally felt states of being. Listfield’s impulse to put into language the sickening sensation of not knowing is a worthy one. But it’s very difficult to achieve, particularly when her need to explain overpowers the reader’s ability to connect with the experience itself.

God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World, by Walter Russell Mead. Johann Hari's mixed review winds up dismissing this book in a passage of fatal economy.

Then comes the most surprising omission. A book written today, calling for the United States to become a self-conscious empire, surely has to reckon with the hemorrhaging of American power in Iraq. Yet the reader waits — and waits. Iraq is first mentioned as a target for America’s critics. It takes Mead 362 pages before he notes that the war has brought “untold grief and pain to innocent victims.” Iraq does not, it seems, have strategic implications worth discussing at any length. The United States should continue to attempt to rule the world, regardless of its inability to rule one collapsing country.

Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, From White House Princess to Washington Power Broker, by Stacy A Cordery. The subject of this biography certainly deserves the attention, but Thomas Mallon (a literary insider in the nation's capital - insofar as that phrase makes any sense at all) suspects that Ms Cordery is guilty of overreaching. Worse, however, is the clatter of latter-day jargon.

One wishes her biographer more closely matched her pith and concision. It’s doubtful the slyly adaptive Alice would ever have been as comfortable as Cordery is with phrases like “gender-specific duties” and “women-identified women,” any more than she would have written that a “convention convened” or stumbled into a sentence like “Nick navigated the middle, fast becoming his chosen place.” Cordery worries that Alice’s famed facility with one-liners has prevented a full appreciation of her “amazing mind,” which the biographer assures us even made her “a self-taught expert on nuclear fission.” Eleanor Roosevelt — made merciless fun of by her cousin — certainly appreciated Alice’s intelligence, but also understood, early on, that her life seemed “to be one long pursuit of pleasure and excitement and rather little real happiness.” Shrewd enough as the years went by to cultivate her tart-tongued, antique public persona, Alice Longworth herself may have come closest to a correct evaluation of her life when she noted that “the secret of eternal youth is arrested development.”

Gonzo: the Life of Hunter S Thompson, by Jann S Wenner and Corey Seymour. Reviewer and Rolling Stone alum Joe Klein remains unsatisfied by this book.

The structural defect of oral history is that it is easy, given a life like Hunter’s, to lose track of the reason he was special in the first place: the inimitable, hilarious whoosh of words, the cascading skeins of hyperbolic invective that came so close to replicating the disoriented epiphanies of a drug trip. The authors occasionally lay in samples of Hunter’s writing, but not really his best stuff — although the rejection letter he donated to Rolling Stone to handle the hordes of would-be imitators does sing. “You worthless, acid-sucking piece of illiterate” you-know-what, it began. “Don’t ever send this kind of brain-damaged swill in here again.”

Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy, by Charlie Savage. Emily Bazelon, pairing her dislike of this book with her praise for The Genius of America (see above), puts her finger on what's unbalanced about Mr Savage's thinking: "Addington and Cheney are so perfectly perfidious that if they didn't exist, Savage (and a lot of other writers) would have had to invent them." Ultimately, Ms Bazelon is impatient with this kind of conspiracy yarn. Even if it's true, as far as it goes, it doesn't go far enough.

Curveball: Spies, Lies, and the Con Man Who Caused a War, by Bob Drogin. This book about a slippery Iraqi who took refuge in Germany and claimed to be "defector" from the regime of Saddam Hussein ought to be a great read, but it's impossible to tell from Christopher Dickey whether Mr Drogin has done his subject justice or merely exploited it - an important difference in books of this stamp. On the rare occasions when he and his book are mentioned, Mr Drogin is praised, but the review is a quagmire of storytelling.

The Conservative Ascendancy: How the GOP Right Made Political History, by Donald T Critchlow. Michael Kimmage's too-short review is difficult to comprehend, undoubtedly because of recklessly truncated complexities. Here is what seems to be the nub of the reviewer's opinion: "A dubious guide to the future of American politics, Critchlow's study helps frame the past." It is not easy to see why this book was granted coverage in the Review.

America's Three Regimes: A New Political History, by Morton Keller. Fred Siegel's review is an unhelpful mashup of storytelling and unsubstantiated compliments: if you trust Mr Siegel, then this is the review for you. Otherwise, you may want second and third opinions before so much as picking up Mr Keller's book, which in Mr Siegel's telling sounds like both sides of the coin: interesting and eccentric.


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

Mafia: The Government's Secret File on Organized Crime, by the United States Treasury Department, Bureau of Narcotics. This is not a book. It is a collation of government files, printed without redaction. Rich Cohen likens it to "a piece of found art." Driftwood on the beach may be art but it is never literature (which always requires an angle of intent). I do not even reach the issue of the volume's subject matter, which, without being at all carnal in nature, nonetheless seems to invite a prurient response.

For Love of Politics: Bill and Hillary Clinton: The White House Years, by Sally Bedell Smith. After noting that Ms Smith "has arrived on the scene too late to collect uncontaminated new evidence but too early to dig into private White House files," and subjecting "a long-standing mystery for political buffs" to microscopic review, Lloyd Grove steps back dismissively.

While providing a useful and engaging primer on the highs and lows of the first Clinton presidency, no doubt helpful to readers who were too young or weren’t paying attention the first time, Smith offers little analysis or predictive insight concerning what kind of president Hillary might be. She also gets a few nuances slightly wrong... And compared with previous Clinton chroniclers, Smith struggles against the disadvantage of not having covered her subject in real time, leaving her largely dependent on the reporting of others. It reminds me of the Israeli novelist Amos Oz’s famous — and, when it comes to Bill and Hillary Clinton, entirely apt — lament about reading literature in translation: it’s “like making love through a blanket.”

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