Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


Reviewing the Review: November 18 2007

by Levi Asher on Saturday, November 17, 2007 03:32 pm

Last week we considered some evidence that New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus's apparent sympathy to neo-conservative viewpoints might color the Book Review's coverage of political books. This week's publication offers reviews of eight explicitly topical books, God and Gold: Britian, America and the Making of the Modern World by Russell Mead, Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy by Charlie Savage, The Genius of America: How the Constitution Saved Our Country -- and Why it Can Again by Eric Lane and Michael Oreskes, Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance -- and Why They Fall by Amy Chua, For Love of Politics: Bill and Hillary Clinton: The White House Years by Sally Bedell Smith, Curveball: Spies, Lies and the Con Man Who Caused a War by Bob Drogin, The Conservative Ascendancy: How the GOP Right Made Political History by Donald T. Chritchlow, and America's Three Regimes: A New Political History by Morton Keller. This is a good opportunity to see how the charges of editorial bias hold up.

First, let's make it clear (at the risk of stating the obvious) that it is no violation of journalistic ethics for a book review editor to personally hold a particular political point of view. My own feelings of outrage at the impeachment-worthy crimes of the Bush/Cheney administration aside, I have to admit that it's not even a violation of journalistic ethics for an editor to support this current administration, though it would be strange for the relatively liberal/progressive New York Times to choose such an editor for the Book Review. What would amount to an ethical violation, then? Well, a pattern of assigning controversial books to critics who are not likely to give the books a fair and open-minded reading would be an example. A pattern of ignoring review-worthy books would be another. Any attempt to actively or passively deceive the NYTBR's readership about the nature of the political thinking behind review assignments would be another. Assigning Christopher Hitchens to slam a liberal book is not a violation of anything, since Hitchens' background is well known and there is no attempt at deception. But to issue assignments like this repeatedly and not allow the opposition's well-known critics equal time would be a violation, because the average reader would not be likely to notice the pattern and would thus be implicitly deceived.

So, let's inventory today's opinions. Johann Hari is an Amnesty International award winner whose review of God and Gold takes author Mead to task for failing to represent the less sunny side of Western imperialism. Emily Bazelon of Slate reviews Takeover and The Genius of America and generally agrees with both books about the toxic nature of the Bush/Cheney administration. Chalk up two articles (or three books, depending on how you're counting) for the liberal team.

Lance Morrow writes for (historically conservative) Time Magazine and is writing a biography of Time's notably right-wing founder Henry Luce, and his review of Day of Empire skews towards the right as well. He suggests that the invasion of Iraq would have been a good idea if only Hussein had had weapons of mass destruction as he'd promised, and wonders what will happen "when -- as will undoubtedly happen -- some monster-autocrat or some gang of theological throwbacks come along who really do have nuclear or chemical or biological weapons?" Are we so sure that Dick Cheney is not that monster-autocrat, and that George W. Bush isn't part of his gang of theological throwbacks? I'm not. Score one for the conservative team.

No, score two, because Lloyd Grove (New York Magazine, Washington Post) serves up a big stale plate of anti-Clinton rhetoric in his review of For Love of Politics. But Christopher Dickey (of Newsweek, and the son of poet/novelist James Dickey) evens it up with his angry review of Curveball, a title that refers to the code name of the sole Iraqi defector who fabricated the weak evidence of weapons of mass destruction that the Bush/Cheney administration was so eager to lap up in 2002 and 2003.

A history professor named Michael Kimmage provides a non-intrusive score for the conservative side with his tame and generally non-critical review of The Conservative Ascendancy. Another professor, Fred Siegel, turns up on neither side with his historically-minded review of America's Three Regimes (which turns out to be the only book on this list that I'd like to actually read, based on Siegel's favorable description of its original thesis about American electoral history).

To sum up, today's politics-heavy issue does not turn up a smoking gun in the form of a journalistic cloud, or any smoking gun at all. I do wonder why a book of middling interest like The Conservative Ascendancy gets such cushy treatment, but I have to look within and realize that I consider this book of middling interest because I think of America-first conservatism as a cultural dead end, and others like Sam Tanenhaus fairly may not. I do wonder, also, why the NYTBR so rarely dips into America's pool of good liberal critics, and why the editors choose to regularly tap David Brooks from the NY Times Op-Ed page but not, say, Maureen Dowd.

Bias? Maybe. A pattern of deception? We don't have a strong case yet, Jim Sleeper's well-argued articles notwithstanding. Let's see what evidence rolls in next, now that we are finally only a year away from choosing the successor to the worst president in American history. I will sure as hell be paying attention, and reporting my findings here.

Enough of all that! Let's head back to the literary realms, if we can.

David Kamp's cover article is about Woody Allen, subject of a new book of interviews by Eric Lax and author of an archive collection (Mere Anarchy) and a new collection (The Insanity Defense). Kamp does a fine job, but I have to point out that I wrote my own review of the two collections here on LitKicks recently, and that the similarities between Kamp's articles and mine are remarkable. We both praise the older work as exceptional and weigh the newer work as less so, both call attention to the overlooked great film Husbands and Wives, both emphasize the importance of Allen's debt to the lesser-known humorist S. J. Perelman. Please note that I am not suggesting that David Kamp plagiarized his article from mine. I am suggesting, though, that if David Kamp writes virtually the same piece for the esteemed New York Times Book Review that some poor sap from Terre Haute Rego Park already wrote for his blog, then maybe there is not so vast a difference between the NYTBR and the litblogosphere as some snobby book critics have recently alluded to.

(I'm also being slightly kind by saying David Kamp wrote the same exact piece. The truth is, after careful consideration, I think both pieces are strong but mine is slightly better. You be the judge.)

David Leavitt's review of The Fall of Troy by Peter Ackroyd is interesting enough, though despite my interest in the archeological career of Heinrich Schliemann I don't find myself compelled to read this fictionalization of his life (I would like to read a fresh and well-researched biography of Schliemann, however, and I hope one is published soon).

Joe Klein's review of Jann Wenner and Corey Seymour's Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson is fairly predictable and also fails to capture my i nterest. I've already been amused by Mafia: The Government's Secret File on Organized Crime, a photo/data archive released by the US Bureau of Narcotics that I recently browsed in a store. But Rich Cohen's review of the book reveals that he knows little about the history of the Mafia, since he refers to Joseph Bonanno as one of several "exotic" and obscure gangsters found in odd locations (in Bonanno's case, Tuscon, Arizona). In fact, Bonanno is one of the most famous Mafia leaders in recent history and the author of a well-known autobiography, and Bonanno's exodus to the safety of Tuscon is a familiar tale in the annals of American organized crime.

Finally, I'll give the Book Review credit for an excellent endpaper by Jane Perlez about an Australian Aboriginial writer named Alexis Wright whose novel Carpenteria has exposed a significant cultural rift halfway across the world. It's a strong piece that stretches our literary boundaries, which is exactly what a publication like the NYTBR should always try to do. And, as far as I can remember, I didn't write the same exact piece for LitKicks this summer.

Beowulf and Other Literary Links

by Jamelah Earle on Thursday, November 15, 2007 06:46 pm

-- Here's an article that waxes effusive about digitizing books and making them available on the internet. And here's a related piece about scanning 19th century works to preserve them and make them more widely available.

-- The latest installment of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen gets a disappointing review.

-- Would you like to read a review of Umberto Eco's On Ugliness? Now you can.

-- Is the new movie version of Beowulf going to suck? I'm not sure... I saw a preview for it in the theater not too long ago and I think I said "Oh God" and not in a good way. There's some speculation on it here. Also, some English professors weigh in.

-- Simon Armitage has written a new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

-- Poet Laureate Charles Simic on Oak Park.

-- New biography of Arthur Conan Doyle.

-- Reviewing reviewers at Pop Matters.

-- Ms. has its 35th anniversary. Feministing pulls some interesting statistics.

-- Trying to pull a fast one with the title of Memories of My Melancholy Whores didn't save Gabriel Garcia Marquez's book from being banned in Iran.

-- Here's an interesting little article about myths.

-- And finally, what five books would you take with you to a desert island?

Ira Levin’s Perfect Day

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, November 13, 2007 09:02 pm

I just read on Sarah Weinman's site that Ira Levin has died. Ira Levin was the author of Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives, two bestselling novels I enjoyed greatly when I was a kid in the 70's reading under the influence of my Grandma, my mom and my sister. These books were both made into excellent movies, of course (Roman Polanksi's chic spin on Rosemary's Baby was especially good) but the books were fun to read too. Ira Levin specialized in conspiracy theories: Rosemary's Baby presented a Satanic conspiracy and Stepford Wives a male chauvinist conspiracy. But Ira Levin wrote another conspiracy novel, This Perfect Day, which I also read as a teenager and liked perhaps even better than the other two.

Why did teenage me read this strange and even then little-known book, which depicts a rebel named Li RM35M4419 (nickname: Chip) who takes on a totalitarian government managed by a giant computer named UniComp? I guess I had a lot of time on my hands, but this often paid off, and This Perfect Day was a very exciting and rewarding read. I don't want to give away the core secret conspiracy that is revealed during the course of This Perfect Day, but perhaps I can suggest that some readers may want to honor this author's death not by rereading the familiar bestsellers but by finding copies of this one instead. You can read the Wikipedia page above if you don't mind a spoiler (no, UniComp is not gay) and I'll just say that the book does come up with a good payoff and stands up to 1984, Animal Farm, Slapstick, Brave New World and other totalitarian fables. Like these novels, it touches upon fascism, Stalinism and Maoism, but Ira Levin has more fun with these concepts than any of the others (except maybe Slapstick, since nobody ever had more fun with a concept than Kurt Vonnegut).

The book also offers a highly original message that has something to do with co-optation of the underground. Dana Spiotto's recent Eat The Document tells a similar story in a very different way.

I'll update this page with more links about Ira Levin as I find them. Farewell to a highly original author, Ira Levin of New York City, 78 years old.

Reviewing the Review: November 11 2007

by Levi Asher on Sunday, November 11, 2007 10:15 am

I've often wondered (naively, perhaps) if New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus's personal political views are expressed in the publication's selection of reviewers for books about history and current events. According to this well-reasoned article by Jim Sleeper from Talking Points Memo Cafe there is a clear neo-conservative slant, specifically a slant towards political critics who believe that "hate America" liberals are to blame for our nation's current problems. Is this true?

Maybe it is, and maybe I've been oblivious since it's always been my stated purpose here to review the NYTBR on aesthetic grounds. I've always tried to apprehend each new issue, and each article in each new issue, with a blank memory. Rather than seeking out patterns, I've tried to seek out surprises, and I've never bothered to keep track of who's zooming who. So when Richard Brookhiser trashed Richard Kluger's Seizing Destiny: How America Grew from Sea to Shining Sea last August I praised his colorful insults ("I felt as if I were inside a bass drum banged on by a clown"), but I was then privately informed by somebody who knows the field better than I do that assigning Richard Brookhiser to review Richard Kluger amounted to a hit job, that Kluger's book could have never had a fair chance with this critic.

I'll have to pay closer attention to this in the future. The greatest political offense I can recall since I've begun reviewing the Review is the choice of Henry Kissinger to review a biography of Dean Acheson (which I have already complained about at length, and even managed to complain about on BookTV). But the big offense here is the fawning before celebrity, the bald desire to be associated with the "stature" of Henry Kissinger even at the cost of running an obviously compromised and self-serving article on the front page when the better choice would have been to send it back to the Kissinger office with a note saying "Try harder next time".

This was an offense against taste and against truth -- however, it was not primarily a political offense, although it is noteworthy that the Book Review editors believed Henry Kissinger to have any stature left to fawn over after he played a key role in encouraging the 2003 invasion of Iraq (forget Norman Mailer, here's your overrated buffoon).

I have also been disgusted by the wheezy, tired politics expressed in the NYTBR by critics like Stephen Metcalf and David Brooks. Yet here, again, the offense is more literary than political. And, I have at times (though not very often) been pleased to find some incisive and admirably idealistic political writing by the likes of Samantha Power in the Book Review. Conclusion: I will look harder for signs of political bias in these pages in the future, though I am not convinced I've spotted these signs yet. Consider my eyes officially opened.

All of which leaves very little time to comment on this week's publication, which contains a plethora of political articles that don't, as far as I can tell, either support or contradict Jim Sleeper's thesis. In fact, none of these articles got my heart racing at all, not even Matt Bai's appreciation of Richard Ben Cramer's 1988 election chronicle What it Takes, which Bai calls "the ultimate campaign book". Bai believes that a book this good can never be written again because candidates now "seal themselves off behind phalanxes of consultants and aides". I'm unconvinced; are we actually now feeling deeply nostalgic for the way Presidents were elected in 1988? I'm pretty sure there were phalanxes of consultants and aides back then too, and as for access, let's not forget what a lone guy with a videocamera and a YouTube account was able to do to Virginia Senator George "Macaca" Allen last year.

These political musings have already busted my length limit (yes, readers of LitKicks, I *do* have a length limit) so I'm going to move quickly through the rest of this week's Book Review. James Longenbach's review of the new Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander translation of Dante's Paradiso strikes me as way too solemn and self-satisfied:

Throughout the three-line stanzas, or tercets, of the "Commedia", the first and third lines rhyme not only with each other but with the second line of the previous tercet. As a result, the poem seems simultaneously to surge forward and eddy backward. The poem feels swift because its energy has been artfully stymied, the way well-placed rocks increase the vigor of a stream.

I'm pretty sure Lil' Wayne does the same thing, though, and the New York Times Book Review never writes about him. A cover article by Jed Perl on John Richardson's A Life of Picasso: the Triumphant Years, 1917-1932 is written with the vibrancy that Longenbach's piece lacks:

The paintings of Marie-Therese that emerged from the artist's own collection have a what-the-hell radiance, a crazy red-and-purple-hot lyricism that can make them feel like transcriptions of sex itself.

But I am surprised and dismayed that both Jed Perl and John Richardson seem to believe that Picasso did great work between 1917 and 1932. As far as I can see, even 1937's "Guernica" notwithstanding, Picasso spent the years after 1912 groping desperately for relevance, and Cubism remains his only great contribution to modern art. I will not be reading this 592-page biography, and I honestly feel sorry for anybody who seeks artistic revelation within. They may find intriguing moments of history and romantic gossip, but in artistic terms Picasso's post-Cubist career was a long indulgence, and a four-volume biography (yes, another volume is coming) of the artist's long life amounts to far more detail than any general reader needs.

Liesl Schillinger is skillfully brutal to Peter Hoeg's The Quiet Girl, which she considers so far below the standard set by Hoeg's previous Smilla's Sense of Snow that she blames the translator. Walter Kirn is also rather harsh towards The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux, though he makes the first story in this collection -- a wealthy American couple who meet disaster in India -- sound quite appealing despite the fact that he's dismissing it as a predictable Paul Bowles retread.

Jay McInerney treats Pierre Bayard's How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read respectfully, pointing out the serious purpose beyond the goofy title:

Bayard tells us, "culture is above all a matter of orientation". Being cultivated is a matter of not having ready any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to the others.

I agree with this. In fact, I personally talk about books I haven't read every weekend when I review the New York Times Book Review, so I'm glad to be able to justify this egregious ongoing act in such lofty terms. See, I'm not just mouthing off here, I'm carefully laying out "the system".

Reviewing the Review: September 9 2007

by Levi Asher on Sunday, September 9, 2007 08:08 am

Some issues of the New York Times Book Review just don't seem to get the blood flowing as well as others. It's probably just me, but I can't rouse much feeling one way or another about today's issue.

Jess Row's cover article is on Brother, I'm Dying, Edwidge Danticat's memoir about her Haitian family. It's a respectful and informative review, but it leaves me with no desire to read the book. In what seems to be the book's key moment, a proud elderly man collapses and dies while attempting to apply for asylum in Miami. Row writes:

The story of Joseph Dantica could be, perhaps will be, told in many forms: as a popular ballad (performed, in my imagination, by Wyclef Jean); as Greek tragedy; as agitprop theater; as a bureaucratic nightmare worthy of Kafka.

I really can't see Wyclef Jean writing this song. And a simple death scene in a bureaucrat's office isn't worthy of Kafka unless, for instance, the bureaucrat lies down on the floor and pretends to die as well, after which the head of the immigration office wanders into the office and seduces the cleaning woman while Joseph Dantica and his immigration officer lie writhing on the floor. And even that's not worthy of Kafka, but the more important point is that New York Times readers are still trying to figure out why Times daily book critic Michiko Kakutani insists that Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao can only be described as "Mario Vargas Llosa meets 'Star Trek' meets David Foster Wallace meets Kanye West". Didn't someone once say that comparisons are odious?

I want to be more excited by today's somber Book Review, and it's probably just me, but I couldn't work up any passion for Liesl Schillinger's ambivalent explication of Ann Packer's Songs Without Words, though I like it when Schillinger accuses Packer of "re-gifting" her earlier novel, The Dive From Clausen's Pier. John Freeman describes Shauna Seliy's When We Get There as a worthy portrait of a dying rust-belt city, but despite Freeman's considerable praise for Seliy's skills I know I'll never read this book either.

Judy Budnitz reviews a strange novel called Sons and Other Flammable Objects by Porochista Khakpour, but I think she slips in not pointing out that this is a wretched title. And Walter Kirn has been off his game lately; the edgy critic attempts to massacre Jeffrey Lent's sexually excessive narrative A Peculiar Grace, but it's a lackluster performance and I can't get over Kirn's own off-putting phrasings, such as the use of "spasm" as a verb. I'm not even going to bother looking up whether or not the Oxford English Dictionary allows "spasm" as a verb; I don't care if it does or not, because I don't like it.

(Okay, I looked. It doesn't.)

And then we're back with the comparisons again. Kirn mocks Lent for dialogue that sounds like, hmm: "Ludwig Wittgenstein boozing it up backstage with Merle Haggard". Enough of this!

Political and historical articles are this week's NYTBR's saving grace. D. T. Max's makes Diane Ackerman's The Zookeeper (about a surprising refuge for 300 Warsaw Jews during World War II) sound fascinating. Peter Beinart flicks Norman Podhoretz's World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism away for the reactionary speck it is, and he isn't much kinder to Michael Ledeen's hysterical The Iranian Time Bomb. Susan Rubin Sulieman is more sympathetic to Norman Davies' World War II history No Simple Victory, which attempts to think past our familiar but narrow understanding of European points of view.

Finally, there's a worthwhile endpaper essay for the first time in weeks. David Oshinsky's examines the surprising rejection letters found in the Alfred A. Knopf archives at the University of Texas, where he teaches history. The results are funny (we watch Anne Frank, Vladimir Nabokov, Pearl S. Buck and George Orwell get dumped by Knopf) but Oshinsky avoids slipping into the the Parade Magazine dumb jokiness that has become standard in this space, and that's a refreshing change.

If I Invaded It

by Levi Asher on Friday, August 24, 2007 10:13 am

1. Enough with the outrage about O. J. Simpson's If I Did It. The book will be dead on arrival anyway, so who cares about it? What's really obscene, I think, is that some publisher will probably pay Donald Rumsfeld a million dollars for If I Invaded It.

2. Garth Risk Hallberg caught the new A Midsummer Night's Dream at New York City's great Shakespeare in the Park. I am upset that my late August schedule of mini-vacations, Mets games and U. S. Open tennis games leaves me no time to catch this production, which also got a nice review in today's New York Times. Midsummer Night's Dream is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, and at least I can take comfort in the fact that I already saw it at Shakespeare in the Park, many years ago, with William Hurt as Oberon. If you can catch this new (and free) production, though, what are you waiting for?

3. I'm not completely down with the selection of Jamestown, Matthew Sharpe's comic-apocalypse novel, as the Litblog Co-op's Summer 2007 pick, though I do admire this hilariously anarchic book. The author's skill is beyond question, and so is his intelligence (as is revealed in this perceptive post about Don Delillo). The book's best achievement, in my opinion, is the dizzy voice of the character called Pocahontas.

But the book reads like a string of one-liners to me. Brilliant one-liners, yes, but with no believable characters and a plot too far-fetched to be gripping, I could not enjoy sludging through all these 320 pages. Sharpe reminds me of certain comedians who specialize in twisted koans, like Steven Wright or Demetri Martin. For fifteen or twenty minutes, these performers are a revelation. But would you want to listen to a 15-hour Steven Wright or Demetri Martin show? That's what 320 pages of Jamestown felt like to me.

Maybe I also think the Litblog Co-op (a group I belong to, by the way, and of which I'm very fond) tends to favor postmodern marvels over readable works of fiction. Michael Martone and Skinny-Dipping in the Lake of the Dead were also impressive experiments, but I bemoan the lack of realistic characters and engaging plots.

4. Speaking of postmodern marvels who I admire but don't personally read, here's Ed Champion on John Barth. I don't have to agree with Ed to appreciate his enthusiasm for this writer.

5. With this post, Mark Sarvas singlehandedly persuades me to try The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt. I haven't been in the habit of reading David Leavitt, but any novel with a cast of characters like this is worth a look.

6. This article follows Jonathan Franzen in dividing readers into two categories: "modeled-habit" readers learned to read from their parents, whereas "social-isolate" readers did not. As much as I love to think of myself as a "social-isolate" in every sense, I have to admit I fall into the first category, because my parents did enthusiastically teach me to love books. I guess it worked.

7. Some recent tributes to Grace Paley have made me realize I barely know her work, outside of an anthologized short story or two. I'm going to remedy that situation now.

Reviewing the Review: August 5 2007

by Levi Asher on Sunday, August 5, 2007 09:37 am

The problem with me reviewing the New York Times Book Review each week is that I start (start?) to repeat myself. It's pretty much a sure thing that I'll enjoy a book review written by either Liesl Schillinger or Walter Kirn, because Liesl approaches each book with the joy of fresh discovery, and Walter will not consider his job done until he has unearthed at least a couple of surprising insights or connections. So, yeah. They both show up in this week's issue, and they both do a fine job yet again. Hey, it's not my fault if they're consistent.

Schillinger's got the cover piece, on The Master Bedroom and Sunstroke by Tessa Hadley:

In "The Master Bedroom," no relationship is as solid as it might seem, no course of action necessarily makes sense, and motivations are buried. Yet Hadley's favorite theme emerges clearly: the heart has no logic, the brain cannot always keep it in rein and nature controls human behavior -- not the other way around. The novel is a chess game of slow-burn erotic maneuvers that produce tantalizingly unpredictable outcomes.

That's a mixed metaphor, but she does better here:

Hadley never fails to surprise, but her surprises are understated -- not the "aha" fakery of some gimmicky short fiction but the small shift in expectations or results that's deeply felt but doesn't show, like the twitch of a rudder that sets a boat gliding on a new course.

I doubt I'll read either book, though I liked the review. However, I definitely will browse/read Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000-2005 by J. M. Coetzee, which Walter Kirn walks us through in a slightly too-short piece:

Coetzee compares "The Arcades Project" to "another great ruin of 20th-century literature, Ezra Pound's 'Cantos.' " With the tongue-and-groove precision of someone who machines his thoughts to the finest hair's-breadth tolerances, Coetzee shapes this comparison into a model for a type of literary lunacy that held a peculiar intellectual allure once, back in the heyday of the great isms.

Unfortunately for all of us, I think we're still living in the heyday of the great isms (conservatism, liberalism, fundamentalism, athiesm ...), but that's a minor point. I'm also not sure why Kirn talks more about W. G. Sebald than J. M. Coetzee throughout this review, and all in all this doesn't turn out to be one of Kirn's better pieces. But even on an off day, he delivers the goods.

This is a slightly dull (though fiction-filled) Book Review, perhaps due to the subdued selection of new books under consideration. Ligaya Mishan approves of Nicholas Christopher's The Bestiary, a postmodern fantasy about the search for a Borgesian book about all the animals lost because they didn't make it onto Noah's ark. I recently spent some time trying to read The Bestiary myself; I admire the author's inventiveness, but overall I'd rather catch Eddie Murphy in a remake of "Doctor Doolittle".

Terrence Rafferty calls George Hagen's Tom Bedlam "a terrific book", though strangely he doesn't persuade me to want to read the book, especially when he presents it as:

... the sort of novel that tends to be described, not always admiringly, as old-fashioned. But it's odder, and better, than that: a strange convergence of the English novel's estimable past and our own, rather less confident, present.

I can look at twenty brand new literary novels coming out next year and see the English novel's estimable past all over them, so this hardly strikes me as a selling point. Find me a novel that isn't old-fashioned, please.

Claire Messud does alert me to a book I will read, The Septembers of Shiraz, a first novel about a Jewish family in 1980's Iran by Dalia Sofer. I'm already reading (and enjoying) a soon-to-be published novel about a Jewish family in Iran, Caspian Rain by Gina Nahai. I guess this is the hot new trend.

This week's NYTBR is also heavy with political articles, none of them nearly as good as last week's cover piece. Stephen Metcalf's analysis of a new anthology called Why I Turned Right: Leading Baby Boom Conservatives Chronicle Their Political Journeys by Mary Eberstadt had me skidding with disagreement from sentence to sentence:

As I grow older, I avail myself more and more of the ancient prerogatives of old men. I hitch my pants high, shake my head at the barbarous young and drive a stone-cold 55 on the highway. I'm risk-averse and dress as I please. (In my beginning is my end: I've evolved from slob to hipster slob to ironic slob back, finally, to slob.) I distrust change, labor unions and Al Sharpton and believe that at high enough rates income taxes become confiscatory. In short, I am white, privileged, middle-aged and boring. But one thing I am not, and never will be, is a conservative.

What an unenlightening way of looking at it.

Also on the political front, Michael Crowley reviews Nigel Hamilton's Bill Clinton: Mastering The Presidency and concludes:

... it's hard to imagine who, besides fans of gratuitous literary references, will choose Hamilton's unjustifiably long retread of the first half of Clinton's presidency.

I was thinking the same thing. So why is the Book Review covering this book at all?

Reviewing the Review: July 29 2007

by Levi Asher on Sunday, July 29, 2007 04:52 pm

I'm back from vacation, having not looked at a New York Times for exactly one week, and I find the New York Mets still ahead of the Atlanta Braves (good), Dick Cheney still alive (no comment), and the rest of the world generally in the same lousy shape it was when I left it. I had a chance to contemplate life's big issues out on the beaches of Long Island, though, and I got into a few enlightening political discussions with family members of widely-ranging viewpoints as well, so Samantha Power's cover article "Our War on Terror" in this week's New York Times Book Review is a welcome starting point for my return.

Power is discussing a number of books about the USA's current situation in Iraq, such as the U. S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which I am very glad to learn about. I had no idea that a trade version of this military manual existed, or that:

The leading architect of the manual was the David Patraeus, then a lieutenant general, who commanded the 101st Airborne Division in the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 and took responsibility for governing Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, immediately thereafter. He is now the overall American commander in Iraq.

Which makes this a hell of a relevant book, much more relevant than the glut of journalistic or opinion-based books currently cluttering store shelves, and so I think the Book Review editors do a good thing by putting this unusual volume on the publication's cover. Patraeus and his collaborators on this manual seem much more enlightened than, say, the Bush/Cheney administration, according to Power:

The fundamental premise of the manual is that the key to successful counterinsurgency is protecting civilians. The manual notes: "An operation that kills five insurgents is counterproductive if collateral damage leads to the recruitment of 50 more insurgents."

Amen, but if Patraeus understands this, how is he going to communicate with the White House? I'm going to hope for the best, and I'm going to read this book.

All of the books Powers reviews -- Containment: Rebuilding a Strategy Against Global Terror by Ian Shapiro, On Suicide Bombing by Talal Asad, The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation by Stephen Flynn -- seem to be groping for political and military sanity in our unhinged age, Shapiro by laying out the case that we must understand and respect foreign cultures to have a credible foreign policy (amen, again), Asad by "showing the hypocrisy of rules that permit murderous conduct by states but deny it to nonstate actors", and Flynn by focusing on keeping the home front ready to handle emergencies. A related article by Jonathan Mahler on Tara McKelvey's Monstering: Inside America's policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War, largely a study of the Abu Ghraib exposure, presents another sane voice. We seem to have a lot of book writers who've figured out how to fix the world. The only problem is, I don't know if anybody is reading these books except Samantha Power.

I hope they are. And let's also read The Maytrees by Annie Dillard, ably reviewed by Julia Reed. I'm not sure about Aoibheann Sweeney's Among Other Things, I've Taken Up Smoking, confusingly reviewed by Maria Flook, but I sure like looking at the author's first name.

David Orr's analysis of a recent volume of Zbigniew Herbert's collected poems translated by Alissa Valles with a similar earlier volume edited by John and Bogdana Carpenter offers worthwhile insights into the odd ways a translator's frame of reference or approach can change everything about a work.

Today's Book Review is capped off by a look at Austin Grossman's super-hero pastiche Soon I Will Be Invincible by Dave Itzkoff. When Itzkoff concludes "we come to dread the chapters that focus on the Champions and wish we were reading more about Doctor Impossible" I can only feel grateful that I don't have to read either. I have a feeling this book will turn out to be popular, but I haven't even seen it and I already don't like it.

Then, finally, there's a revolting display of name-dropping by the always shallow Rachel Donadio, who in twelve mediocre paragraphs manages to celebrity-spot Antonio Monda, Annie Proulx, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Ethan Coen, Michael Cunningham, Colum McCann, Claire Messud, Chuck Palahniuk, Davide Azzolini, Nathan Englander, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Elie Wiesel, Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, Jane Fonda, Spike Lee, Toni Morrison, Bill Murray, G. K. Chesterton, Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, Bernando Bertolucci, Arthur Miller, Philip Roth, Riccardo Misasi, Susan Sontag, Isabel Fonseca, Cormac McCarthy and Alice Munro. Did somebody lose Salman Rushdie's cell number? This article belongs in Vanity Fair at best.

Reviewing the Review: July 15 2007

by Levi Asher on Sunday, July 15, 2007 07:16 pm

Colin Thubron, the dean of British travel writers, would hate being called the dean of anything.

Thus begins Lorraine Adams' New York Times Book Review cover piece on Shadow of the Silk Road, a book about the ancient mercantile route that once connected China to Afghanistan. I hate hearing a writer called "the dean" of anything too, but there aren't too many other trite moments in this generally engaging review that touches on the most significant points in this book (such as why the Silk Road "closed" in the mid-15th century). I will be reading this book.

Jennifer Senior gets the admittedly fun assignment of reviewing two new Hillary Clinton biographies, A Woman in Charge by Carl Bernstein and Her Way by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta. Senior spends a little too long (for my tastes) working a theory that Carl Bernstein was attracted to this project because Bill's troubles with Hillary reminded him of his own past with Nora Ephron. Considering that Hillary Clinton is a frontrunner for the next President of the United States, I don't think her love life is as relevant to readers' interests as many other topics covered by these books. But Senior's review is useful enough in summarizing how Carl Bernstein's generally pro-Clinton book seems to have a firmer foundation in established fact than Gerth and Van Natta's moderate diatribe.

I don't know what the talented playwright Arthur Miller ever did to deserve the mugging his new posthumous collection Presence: Stories gets from Jeremy McCarter. McCarter, a theater critic, tells us the classic dramatist is hopeless in the fiction genre. I say the author of Death of a Salesman deserves a critic who will dig deeper, because Miller was a careful and selective writer whose rare fiction outings (in the New Yorker and Harpers and elsewhere) are not likely to be worthless. I haven't checked this book out yet, and when I do I'll tell you what I find, but I would be very surprised to find it as bad as McCarter says.

Kathryn Harrison does a fine job with the appealingly titled Gone to the Crazies: A Memoir by Alison Weaver. I might check out this book. David Margolick's coverage of Tom Segev's 1967: Israel, the War and the Year That Transformed the Middle East is incisive (he considers that the book is designed for a native Israeli sensibility, and that non-Israeli readers need a shorter and more global-minded history). Elissa Schappell and Curtis Sittenfeld provide fairly sharp and enjoyable considerations of, respectively, Rules for Saying Goodbye by Katherine Taylor and Twenty Grand by Rebecca Curtis.

Finally, there's another endpaper by Rachel Donadio, who I have criticized so often in these pages that it's not even fun anymore. At this point I just feel sad when I see an article of hers heading my way. Her endpaper about notable past reactions to the ongoing Salman Rushdie controversies is a perfect example of what the problem is, and I think this may be what Sarah Weinman is alluding to here. Rachel Donadio's articles have no point of view. I've read at least ten of her essays or interviews in this publication in the last two years, and I have never once felt I had the slightest indication what she thought about her subject. She is the only regular NYTBR writer who does not ever deign to share a point of view with the reader.

In theory, this type of dispassion could have some value -- perhaps some sort of Joan Didion-esque blank journalistic resonance -- but it would have to be handled more artistically to achieve this effect. When I read an article like today's Donadio piece on Salman Rushdie, I simply feel empty and unsatisfied. I expect a New York Times Book Review writer to communicate some type of point of view to me, or else I'm eating a bowl of flavor-free ice cream. Rachel Donadio, what do you think about Salman Rushdie?

Walden, or Life in the Woods, by Henry David Thoreau

by Levi Asher on Thursday, July 5, 2007 07:43 pm

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when it came time to die, to discover that I had not lived.
-- Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Last Monday afternoon I asked you to help me name the greatest American book of all time. There've been many replies, and the (serious) suggestions include, in order, Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, A Movable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, The Adventures of Hucklebery Finn by Mark Twain, The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams, On The Road by Jack Kerouac, Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, Black Elk Speaks by John G. Neihardt, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 by Hunter S. Thompson, The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer, Pragmatism by William James, The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, The World According to Garp by John Irving, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, Madame Rosa by Romain Gary (which makes no sense since Romain Gary was French), To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe, The Federalist Papers, Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin, Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Baby and Child Care br Dr. Spock, The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, The Recognitions by William Gaddis and Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger.

I'm surprised that nobody but me mentioned Moby Dick by Herman Melville, and I also thought there'd be more support for The Book of Mormon, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, Poems by Emily Dickinson, Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey and Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. But that's fine with me, because it happens that several people did mention the book I believe to be the greatest by a citizen or resident of the United States of America: Walden, or Life in the Woods, written by Henry David Thoreau and published by Ticknor and Fields in 1854.

We each have our own favorites, of course. But I'll stake a guess -- for whatever these guesses may be worth -- that future literary historians will consider this book to have the highest stature of any book published in my country so far. I can't tell you everything I want to say about Walden here today, but here are three things that I find exceptional about this book.

The Artistry

You may have to slow your body speed down a bit to catch Henry Thoreau's wavelength, but once you do there is no denying the pure delight found in these words. No other writer -- not even my beloved Henry James -- crafts sentences sharper than those you'll find in Walden.

Thoreau was a social reformer with a distinct philosophy, but nobody might have ever cared about his philosophy if he didn't crystallize it with such artistry and skill. A Harvard graduate and obsessive reader, he learned from the best of the brilliant "New England Transcendentalists" who were his older friends and neighbors in Concord, Massachusetts, and he eventually developed a voice richer than any of theirs, richer even than that of his more famous friend and hero Ralph Waldo Emerson. High-toned, alive to all the human senses, Thoreau's prose presents an attitude that combines humorous warmth with merciless sarcasm. Sarcasm is certainly the top note in Walden, a book designed to attack the mores of polite New England society. Here he is, for instance, on the subject of clothing:

Kings and Queens who wear a suit but once, though made by some tailor or dress-maker to their majesties, cannot know the comfort of wearing a suit that fits. They are no better than wooden horses to hang the clean clothes on. Every day our garments become more assimilated to ourselves, receiving the impress of the wearer's character, until we hesitate to lay them aside, without such delay and medical appliances and some such solemnity even as our bodies. No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience. But even if the rent is not mended, perhaps the worst vice betrayed is improvidence. I sometimes try my acquaintances by such tests as this, -- who could wear a patch, or two extra seams only, over the knee? Most behave as if they believed that their prospects for life would be ruined if they should do it. It would be easier for them to hobble to town with a broken leg than with a broken pantaloon. Often if an accident happens to a gentleman's legs, they can be mended, but if a similar accident happens to the legs of his pantaloon's, there is no help for it; for he considers, not what is respectable, but what is respected. We know but few men, a great many coats and breeches. Dress a scarecrow in your last shift, you standing shiftless by, who would not soonest salute the scarecrow? Passing a cornfield the other day, close by a hat and coat on a stake, I recognized the owner of the farm. He was only a little more weather-beaten than when I saw him last.

Thoreau's writing style is too thick and fanciful for some, but I find he has no equal. Often his imagination carries him towards connections or metaphors no other writer could possibly find. In Walden every small human transaction, such as the borrowing of an axe, is examined for meaning:

Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber. It is difficult to begin without borrowing, but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise. The owner of the axe, as he released his hold on it, said that it was the apple of his eye, but I returned it sharper than I received it.

Other times Thoreau becomes downright poetic, or else he shouts "Simplicity! Simplicity!" His voice takes getting used to, but so does his moral message, and they are each a perfect match for each other. Not for nothing is the first chapter of Walden called "Economy".

The Audacity of the Experiment

There's a mistaken belief that Walden is a book about nature. It is incidentally so, but this does not describe the book's essential aim.

Walden takes place in a cabin in the woods, but Thoreau's goal in life was to be a social reformer, and this is a book about society. If you don't believe me, please consider the fact that Thoreau did not actually retreat from civilization to live in the woods, but rather built a cabin in the woods right in the middle of Concord, Massachusetts. In fact, Walden Pond was on the property of Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the most popular and well-known intellectuals of 19th Century America. Emerson had constant visitors, including many important intellectuals of this age, and Thoreau's purpose in building a cabin to live in for two years on Emerson's property was to make a spectacle of himself. (It's certainly to Emerson's credit that he allowed, and even encouraged, this experiment).

Thoreau could have left civilization behind if he wanted to. He knew where to find the much deeper forests of Maine and New Hampshire, where for all we know other Harvard graduates may have disappeared into lives of true solitude and never been heard from again. Thoreau had no intention of never being heard from again. To build a cabin and live "like a savage" in the center of a celebrated and prosperous New England town is a pronouncement. It's like sitting down on the floor of a fancy party and going into a fetal position; you only do it if you want attention.

Why did Thoreau want attention? Because he had something to say:

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.

This is one of the bleaker (though most well-known) passages in what is generally an optimistic book of philosophy and observation. Which brings us to the third exceptional characteristic of this book.

The Message

Like Emerson, Thoreau was fascinated with Buddhism and other eastern religions, and in fact his basic message -- "Simplicity! Simplicity!" -- is consistent with the deepest philosophies of the Buddhist religion. Thoreau believed that Americans consumed too much, worked too hard and enjoyed too little. His diatribes against the ingrained American culture of hard labor and grave responsibility make up some of the most memorable passages in this book:

I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattles and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in. What made them serfs of the soil? Why should they eat their sixty acres, when man is condemned to eat only his peck of dirt?

When he was not occupying himself as a writer, a natural scientist and a critic of social mores, Henry Thoreau worked fervently for the Abolitionist cause (as, of course, most of the New England Transcendentalists did). Slavery was the hot issue of the day -- the American Civil War began seven years after Walden was published -- and Thoreau's other famous "publicity stunt" was to get thrown in jail for refusing to pay taxes, on the grounds that he chose not to support an economic system that tolerated slavery. Many decades later and halfway across the world, the writings and life story of Henry David Thoreau would inspire Mohandas Gandhi to begin a massive public campaign for self-determination among colonized peoples that remains one of the most successful social protest movements of all time. Decades later again, the same thread of civil disobedience was picked up by Martin Luther King back in Thoreau's United States of America. Now, even more decades have passed but our nation and world remain highly confused. Perhaps we all need to pick up this thread once more.

Literary judgements are subjective, but it is perhaps only because I so badly want people to read Walden that I feel compelled to name it as the greatest American book. I should also mention that I don't particularly agree with those who find Thoreau a uniquely American writer. Some critics have said that his personal individualism and love of open space make him a representative of the American soul, but I think that most Americans -- and most people in the world -- could stand to appreciate the wisdom of Thoreau a lot more than they currently do.

But Walden is essentially an optimistic book -- the last line tells us:

The sun is but a morning star.

And there is plenty of hope that someday a large number of people may read and be inspired by this wonderful book.


Subscribe to Politics