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Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers


Big books out this week--and big disagreements about them--make for a long installment of Old Media Monday:

New York Times

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Caroline Elkins on The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper: "At its heart, 'The House at Sugar Beach' is a coming-of-age story told with unremitting honesty. With her pedigree and her freedom from internalized racism, Cooper is liberated to enjoy a social universe that is a fluid mix of all things American and African.... While Cooper’s memoir is mesmerizing in its portrayal of a Liberia rarely witnessed, its description of the psychological devastation — and coping mechanisms — brought on by profound loss is equally captivating."
  • Kakutani on The War Within by Bob Woodward: "This volume contains less compelling news than Mr. Woodward’s earlier Bush books and makes for considerably less gripping reading.... Much of 'The War Within' simply ratifies the picture that has already emerged from newspaper and magazine articles and dozens of books by journalists and former administration insiders. It’s a picture of an administration riven by internal conflicts..., an administration in which the advice of experts was frequently ignored or dismissed, traditional policy-making channels were routinely circumvented, policy often took a backseat to electoral politics, accountability was repeatedly evaded, and few advisers dared speak truth to power."
  • Kakutani's knives are busy this week. Here she is on Home by Marilynne Robinson: "Whereas Ms. Robinson used her remarkable descriptive powers and pointillist prose in 'Gilead' to give the reader a keen sense of that small, Midwestern town and to conjure up the history of John Ames’s uncommon family, she focuses in this novel on the unhappy emotional mathematics of Jack’s relationship with his father, a task unsuited to her strongest gifts as a writer.... This results in a static, even suffocating narrative in which very little is dramatized, and much is recalled secondhand."
  • Ron Carlson on Fine Just the Way It Is by Annie Proulx: "All but one of the stories in 'Fine Just the Way It Is' range from the 19th century to the modern day and offer a world in which the natural elements are murderous and folks aren’t much better.... From time to time, you glimpse an Eden in Proulx’s world, and when you see it, you’d better take a photograph, because it won’t last long."
  • S. Kirk Walsh on A Better Angel by Chris Adrian: "In 'A Better Angel' Chris Adrian creates his own lexicon of grief that moves from quiet moments of anguish to sharp fits of rage. The stories in this collection feature fatal car crashes, attempted suicides, incurable illnesses and the tragic events of 9/11. But don’t be deterred by the dismal subject matter. Mr. Adrian is a gifted, courageous writer ... and with this collection he continues to take far-reaching risks. Unspeakable grief and the innate will to survive create opposing forces in these stories, producing a universe bursting with humor and life."

Washington Post:

  • Joseph S. Nye Jr. on Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas L. Friedman: "Like it or not, we need Tom Friedman. The peripatetic columnist has made himself a major interpreter of the confusing world we inhabit. He travels to the farthest reaches, interviews everyone from peasants to chief executives and expresses big ideas in clear and memorable prose. While pettifogging academics (a select few of whom he favors) complain that his catchy phrases and anecdotes sometimes obscure deeper analysis, by and large Friedman gets the big issues right."
  • Ron Charles on Robinson's Home: "Even more than their stylistic beauty, what's miraculous about Gilead and Home is their explicit focus on spiritual affliction, discussed in the hard terms of Protestant theology. Robinson uses the words 'grace,' 'salvation' and 'prayer' frequently and without embarrassment and without drifting into the gassy lingo of ecumenical spirituality. Her characters cower in the shadow of perdition."
  • Michael Dirda on Anathem by Neal Stephenson: "Everyone has gone all out for Anathem. I fully expected to join the stampede. Alas, I can't even lope slowly alongside the herd. Oh, Anathem will certainly be admired for its intelligence, ambition, control and ingenuity. But loved? Enjoyed? The book reminds me of Harold Brodkey's The Runaway Soul from 17 years ago -- much anticipated, in places quite brilliant, but ultimately grandiose, overwrought and pretty damn dull. That's an awful thing to say about a novel as formidable as Anathem, but there's no getting around it."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Laura Miller on Stephenson's Anathem: "'Anathem' is massive ... with a steep initial learning curve, but worth the effort all the same. Fiction that expertly ranges from social satire to adventure yarn to lucid explications of concepts such as configuration space is rare indeed. If Indiana Jones turned quantum physicist and took over Jostein Gaarder's bestselling novel-cum-philosophy-primer 'Sophie's World,' well, that might come close."
  • Emily Barton on Robinson's Home: "Robinson has chosen to revisit certain scenes in her new novel, 'Home,' this time writing from the perspective of Glory Boughton, one of 'Gilead's' minor characters. Yet this co-quel has a beauty all its own.... The two volumes belong together because they complement each other in so many ways. They fit with and around each other perfectly, each complete on its own, yet enriching and enlivening the other. But both are books of such beauty and power that they ultimately beggar description. If I cannot do 'Home' justice in describing it, I can, at least, commend it to you with my whole heart."
  • Susan Salter Reynolds on An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken: "This is an intimate book -- McCracken does not spare us her anger, fear, frustration or despondency. It is also a wildly important book -- we do not live alongside the dead the way we ought to: We sweep them off to the margins as quickly as possible."

New York Sun:

  • The pleasures I take in writing obituaries are bitter ones, and I'd rather not write another one of a good book review--this week the New York Sun announced they may have to close shop entirely at the end of the month if they don't find new investors. Please, someone with more more zeros than me, write them a check.
  • Benjamin Lytal on Robinson's Home: "Because it is told in the third person, and because Jack's sister Glory does not have Ames's fertility of mind, this new book is less meditative than 'Gilead.' If 'Gilead' resembled a devotional text, 'Home' is a play, a family drama set almost entirely on the ground floor of the Boughton home.... The faithfulness in 'Gilead' is honed by the faithlessness in 'Home.' These novels will be a bright spot in our literary history."

Globe & Mail:

  • Gale Zoe Garnett on The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews: "Miriam Toews won the 2004 Governor-General's Award for fiction for her third novel, A Complicated Kindness. While that book was fresh and charming, I found it also a bit glib: snappy one-liners that helped balance the stultifying aspects of Mennonite life. With The Flying Troutmans, Toews opens her world, producing a book of risk and range without losing any of the wit and warmth that made a bestseller of the earlier book."
  • Catherine Bush on How Fiction Works by James Wood: "One of the deepest pleasures of reading Wood, beyond the strenuous engagement that his writing consistently demands, is to watch him grapple with his own ideas about realism, and to watch these shift as he renegotiates what he means. I wish he'd allow himself to chart this journey full on, in an unabashedly personal way. I'm not convinced that every fiction writer must share his belief in fiction's ultimate referentiality, but I respond to the complexity of what he's attempting to articulate and I admire his belief."

The Guardian:

  • Richard Eyre on A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Two Remarkable Families by Michael Holroyd (out in the spring in the US): "Holroyd has a wonderful eye for detail, often almost obsessive, but never redundant. While there is a continent of social and cultural knowledge, the narrative is never buried beneath it, and meandering tributaries that appear to be trickling nowhere invariably return to the main flow. He also has a dramatist's ear for dialogue and for making all the minor characters interesting. Add to this a nose for a good story and a wit that often undermines his subjects' seriousness without ever capsizing it, and you have an entirely captivating biography which ranks alongside his Bernard Shaw and his Lytton Strachey as one of the glories of the form."

The New Yorker:

  • Claudia Roth Pierpont on The Essential Writings of Machiavelli: "Toward the end of 1513 he completed a little book about statecraft—a book of strictly practical matters, dealing with armies and fortresses, with ways of holding on to power—that he resolved would demonstrate his usefulness once and for all to Giuliano, since it discussed people and their actions 'as they are in real truth, rather than as they are imagined.' Never before or since has a writer so clearly proved that the truth is a dangerous thing."



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For somebody who loved Gilead so much, its painful to see such a harsh review by Kakutani for The Home.

I cannot say it better than William McGurn does:

Generals Behaving Badly
September 9, 2008; Page A23

When Abraham Lincoln famously sent word to Gen. George McClellan that he'd like to "borrow" the army if the general wasn't planning on using it, the commander of Union forces likely did not take it kindly. McClellan, after all, was a man whose letters home referred to Lincoln as an "idiot," "a well-meaning baboon" and other colorful language.

In the first few pages of "The War Within," Bob Woodward opens with another presidential remark that offended another wartime general. This time the recipient was the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. George Casey. During a videoconference with Baghdad, the president said, "George, we're not playing for a tie. I want to make sure we all understand this." Gen. Casey, Mr. Woodward writes, took this as "an affront to his dignity that he would long remember."

Whether or not Gen. Casey long remembered, "The War Within" makes clear his disdain for his commander in chief. If the views and remarks attributed to Gen. Casey are not accurate, Mr. Woodward has done him a grave injustice. If they are accurate, they come as further evidence of the obstacles President George W. Bush had to overcome to get his commanders to start winning in Iraq.

Opening with Gen. Casey also says something about Mr. Woodward. There's a case, I suppose, for using the general who opposed the surge to open what is hailed as the definitive account of that surge (not to mention using Robert McNamara, the Defense secretary who helped lose Vietnam to end the book). Surely, however, that would be the same case for wrapping the definitive account of the strategy that brought Robert E. Lee to Appomattox around Gen. McClellan.

Gen. Casey, after all, was the commander who all along maintained that the solution in Iraq was for America to draw down its forces -- even after the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra. He was the commander who later that year was given his own chance to secure Baghdad with Operations Together Forward I and II, and failed. Most of all, he is the commander who was wrong when the president was right to insist that Baghdad could be secured and al Qaeda dealt a harsh blow with more troops.

Gen. Casey's continued adherence to a failed strategy does not make him a dishonorable man. It does make him an odd choice to serve as the foundation for the charge that the president was out of touch with the war. As evidence, both the general and the journalist point to questions about how many of the enemy we were killing as a sign that "the president did not get it."

Then again, maybe it's Gen. Casey and Mr. Woodward who did not get it. The questions the president asked were driven by something everyone in the West Wing worried about. Every night for years, Americans tuning into the evening news were greeted by the same image from Iraq: a burning car or Humvee, accompanied by a fresh report about soldiers or Marines who'd been blown up by an improvised explosive device or suicide bomb.

Nor did these images exist in a vacuum. A media obsessed with body counts featured grim roll calls of the dead, marking each macabre "milestone" -- 1,500 war dead, 2,000 war dead -- along the way. In this context, was it really unreasonable for a president to ask his commander on the ground if we were fighting back, when it sure didn't look that way to the American people?

The same might be said of the one truly original take offered by Mr. Woodward. This is his curious assertion that it's not the surge that has produced the great reduction in violence in Iraq. The reduced violence, he says, is the result of the increased lethality of covert operations against terrorist leaders and operatives.

Which brings up two interesting points. First, we are led to find fault with a president allegedly obsessed with a "kill the bastards" approach to Iraq. But then we are asked to accept that the reason we're now seeing success in Iraq because we're . . . killing the bastards.

Second, the surge was a shift in mission, not simply an addition of five brigades. Until the surge, we had pursued a political solution, hoping that the answer to Iraq was the rise of a democratic government that would persuade Iraqis to come together for their future. The surge, by contrast, finally recognized the obvious: Until Iraqis started feeling safe in their own homes and neighborhoods, there would be no compromise or rebuilding.

Sophisticates have never liked Mr. Bush for his preference for words like "win" and "victory" to describe what America is trying to do in Iraq. And if Mr. Woodward's latest contribution is any clue, they'll never forgive him for doing something even worse: proving it can be done.

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