Rory Stewart’s chronicle of a journey through wartime Afghanistan gets a rave review from Tom Bissell on the front cover of today’s New York Times Book Review. The book sounds intriguing, though I wish the reviewer didn’t spend so much column space on speculative tangents like this:
Pity the contemporary travel writer: routinely viewed as a kind of overstuffed guidebook author, struggling to explain what he or she does. Specialists pounce on the tiniest “mistakes” and ideologues condemn the whole enterprise as colonialism with a guidebook.
Actually, that pretty much describes how many of us treat and feel about the New York Times Book Review. Luckily, this week’s issue is better than average, by which I mean that several articles are worth reading. Stephen Metcalf provides a thoughtful consideration of Michel Houellebecq’s futuristic satire The Possibility of an Island that aptly references Plato’s Republic and concludes that Houellebecq’s sinister sense of libertinism is more banal than shocking in today’s hedonistic world. This is a good, solid article that develops a clear, relevant and coherent argument (and has only one clunker line, an obligatory joke about french writing and french toast, which somebody should have simply excised). Still, it’s a good piece.
Mark Costello gives us an appealingly brief and informative summary of the career of British essayist Will Self and enthusiastically recommends his new Junk Mail, and Daniel Swift argues convincingly that there’s not much substance to Richard Davenport-Hines’ Proust at the Majestic, about a legendary 1922 dinner party where Igor Stravinsky, Marcel Proust, Sergei Diaghilev, James Joyce and Pablo Picasso famously met for a dull evening (“Proust … made a dramatic entrance in white gloves and a fur coat, and tried to engage Stravinsky in conversation about Beethoven, to which the composer snapped back, ‘I detest Beethoven.’ Joyce arrived drunk, and either fell asleep at the table or pretended to.”)
It’s a pleasure to read Garrison Keillor’s thoughts about Harper Lee and her new biography, Mockingbird by Charles J. Shields, even if he ignores the book to write his own one-page consideration of this newly-talked-about Alabama recluse. I guess big-shot reviewers don’t actually need to write book reviews, as long as they show up. In this particular case, I really didn’t mind.
I was sorry Claire Dederer didn’t oblige my hopes with a favorable review of Matthew Pearl’s The Poe Shadow, since I enjoyed Pearl’s The Dante Club and would like to look forward to Pearl on Poe. She informs us that the book’s a dud, which is a shame if it’s true (and possibly more of a shame if it’s not — I’ll let you know).
Troy Patterson is similarly dismissive of E. Lynn Harris’s I Say A Little Prayer, though his reasoning isn’t very convincing, and I have to gripe about his sideswiping comparison to John O’Hara, who he characterizes as a “famously clueless brand-name-dropper”. Not so fast, there … O’Hara’s literary reputation is currently nowhere, but then so was Harper Lee’s until recently; O’Hara was a superb writer and there is nothing clueless about his best books and stories.
There’s more excitement in today’s Letter section, as John O’Connor, co-author of the recent A G-Man’s Life with Mark “Deep Throat” Felt, dukes it out with John Dean, who recently described the O’Connor/Felt book as “riddled with errors” even though a comparison with the historical record turns up no errors at all (thanks, by the way, to GalleyCat’s Ron Hogan for acknowledging that I had this scoop a month before the Daily News). Both men have privileged access to Watergate history: O’Connor is a long-time friend of Mark Felt, and Dean is the former White House counsel who directly managed the Watergate cover-up for Nixon in 1972 and early 1973. Both men show up in today’s Letters section to toss facts around, appealing to “informed sources” to support their arguments.
Well, gentlemen, I’d like to volunteer myself as an informed source, since it just so happens I’m an obsessive Watergate buff the way some people are obsessive Civil War buffs. The fact that I own all these books doesn’t make me an expert:
But the fact that I’ve read them all at least twice, I think, does. So here’s my verdict: John O’Connor is right and John Dean is wrong. Example: Felt and O’Connor wrote in the book that John Dean had influenced the choice of a new F.B.I. chief after L. Patrick Gray’s disastrous confirmation hearings, and John Dean mocked this as an error. The historical record proves Felt and O’Connor right, and so in today’s letter to the Book Review Dean tries to explain his position by pinpointing a single incident in which the succession was discussed, and explaining that he could not have been influential during this particular discussion because he was already out of the White House inner circle at the time this discussion took place.
However, the selection process for Gray’s successor was not limited to this one single discussion. The selection process, naturally, began as soon as it became clear that the Senate was not going to approve Gray for the position. This was earlier in April, when Dean was still the active White House counsel, and still on reasonably good terms with the President. Dean’s rejoinder cannot withstand any scrutiny at all; it’s simply a desparate attempt to squirm out of a mistake.
I’m sorry to have to beat up on John Dean like this, since he is generally one of my favorite Watergate figures (he’s no Bob Haldeman, of course, but who is?). I respect Dean’s books Blind Ambition and Worse Than Watergate, and I’m disappointed to see him turning out this kind of performance in public. He was supposedly one of the sharpest lawyers in Washington D. C. when he worked for the White House. Well, defense is obviously not his strong point. Come to think of it, it wasn’t his strong point in 1973 either.