Reviewing the Review: August 31 2008

Fiction New York City Politics Russian
I like Joyce Carol Oates, who lists novelists who've written about one "The American" or another from Henry James and Theodore Drieser to Bret Easton Ellis and Philip Roth before diving into Curtis Sittenfeld's The American Wife on the cover of the current New York Times Book Review. Sittenfeld's novel is about the secret inner life of first lady Laura Bush, a topic Joyce Carol Oates would have gotten around to sooner or later herself if Sittenfeld hadn't first. It's an unusual experiment, and it's good to see the author of Prep stretching her scope, though her timing is off: in just over four months we'll have a new President, and once we do I think many Americans will not want to see or hear from a Bush -- not George W., not Laura, not Jeb, not Barbara and Jenna -- for a long, long time. So I've been confused what this book's purpose could be, though Oates provides a helpful explanation: the fictional "Alice Blackwell" finds her husband dumb and phony but marries him anyway, and thus she symbolizes the American voters in 2000 and 2004 who find him dumb and phony but marry him anyway.

Rose Tremain's The Road Home appears to be an empathetic multi-ethnic panorama of modern society, perhaps like Netherland by Joseph O'Neill; that book got a rave review in the NYTBR and The Road Home is well-treated by Liesl Schillinger today. I feel slightly guilty about the fact that I didn't want to read that book and don't want to read this one either.

Who can explain why one positive review compels my interest and another does not? Christine Schutt's All Souls presents a privileged girl's school with a cancer-stricken student; this book is hardly up my alley and yet Maud Casey's enchanted description draws me in.

I'm also intrigued by Irina Reyn's What Happened to Anna K., a modern-day retelling of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina set in my own humble neighborhood of Rego Park, Queens (which has a large Russian population, thus the Tolstoy connection), favorably mentioned in a fiction round-up by Jeff Turrentine. The local interest alone is enough to motivate me to read this book -- I'll let you know what I find there once I do.

Michael Scammell's endpaper urges us to appreciate Alexander Solzhenitsyn as a prose stylist. Scammell's argument is persuasive, though it runs contrary to my own experience. I found even the short and straightforward A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich a thick and slow read, and couldn't wade far into the Gulag Archipelago, as impressive as I found the book's intent, without slowing to a dead stop. Scammell is writing Solzhenitsyn's biography, so I'm glad he likes the author's prose style more than I do.

I've been meaning to read Daniel Levitin's science-minded This Is Your Brain On Music, and after reading Dave Itzkoff's annoying review of Levitin's follow-up The World In Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature I'll stick with my plan to read that one but will probably skip the new title, though it's not Levitin's fault that Itzkoff swims in jokey generalizations about "Caucasian musical style" (I don't listen to much music from the Eurasian mountain range myself) and our "vanilla tastes" (speak for yourself).

Gary J. Bass's Freedom's Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention examines the 19th century equivalents of current humanitarian crises from Bosnia to Rwanda to Darfur, certainly a worthwhile effort. Many of the cases examined here -- Bulgaria, the Greek war of Independence -- have to do with Ottoman atrocities against Christian populations, but reviewer Adam Hochschild misses the chance to place this curious fact in helpful context. Indeed, it's hard to believe that Russia's motivation was "humanitarian" when:

Railing against the massacre of fellow Slavs, Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire.

Wasn't Russia simply continuing its eternal rivalry with its regional enemy? Why should we believe that humanitarianism had anything to do with it? Likewise, the photo accompanying this article ("The United States military delivering humanitarian aid to Georgia on Aug. 14") is either an example of deadpan sarcasm or should be: that humanitarian aid sure seems to arrive quickly when oil pipelines are nearby.

Adam Hochschild is the author of King Leopold's Ghost, a definitive account of European atrocities in the Congo, so it's especially inexplicable when he summarizes thus:

And everything else should be tried first: “If international pressure gets the Sudanese government to restrain the Janjaweed militia from mass murder in Darfur, that would be far better than an invasion.” So far so good.

No, not good. Adam Hochschild must know that it is the Sudanese government, not the Janjaweed militia, who continue to orchestrate the genocide in Darfur, and he must know that oil resources are the key motivator in Sudan too. Gary J. Bass's book sounds important, but Adam Hochschild's clueless review raises more questions than it answers.
This article is part of the series Reviewing the New York Times Book Review. The next post in the series is Reviewing the Review: September 7 2008. The previous post in the series is Reviewing the Review: August 24 2008.
1 Response to "Reviewing the Review: August 31 2008"

by TKG on

I thought Itzkoff's review was wildly uneven, not annoying necessarily, but that caucasian thing was weird and bizarre and I gess annoying. I don't understand the tought process of people who'd write something like that.

On the other hand, he did great at describing the now ultr-common attribution of anything and everything to ostensible Darwinian principles.

Throughout the book, Levitin builds many hypotheses upon logical if essentially unverifiable extrapolations of evolutionary theory, using it to account for almost any widespread trait in humans or other animals that is beneficial to mating or survival, so that his faith in the explanatory power of Darwinism becomes almost religious.

That was well said and succinct in describing something all too true nowadays. Englab especcialy is rife with this sort of thing.

But Itzkoff ends up very enthusiastic even saying that a story at the end will leave the reader awestruck. Praise doesn't come much higher than than.

I also was interest in reading Levitan's early work and Itzkoff's review actually did picque my interest in this book but seemed to serve fair warning that the book is mainly filled with silliness but has excellent sections when it veers in to what woulod seem to be metafiction directions.

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