Reviewing the Review: April 1 2007

I can’t complain (and you know I like to complain) about a New York Times Book Review whose cover article informs me about a literary patron and publisher I’d never heard of, jazz-age ocean-liner heiress Nancy Cunard, who apparently published Samuel Beckett, anthologized W. E. B. DuBois, made love with T. S. Eliot and took her political idealism to such an insane extreme that she ultimately lost all her wealth and most of her friends. I may or may not ever get around to reading Lois Gordon’s Nancy Cunard: Heiress, Muse, Politican Idealist, but Caroline Weber’s review of the book is certainly a refreshing and informative piece.

I also can’t complain about a Book Review packed with articles about poetry, baseball and politics (though today’s issue is admittedly light on fiction). Emily Nussbaum reviews Deborah Garrison’s motherhood-themed The Second Child mainly by comparing it to all the other forms of mommy chatter that inundate us, from blogs and magazines and television to the famous verses of Sharon Olds, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath (who Nussbaum strangely refers to as an “unsung poet of motherhood”; I don’t think Plath is an unsung poet of anything). Nussbaum concludes that Garrison’s work is too trivial and cheery, and “too self-congratulatory by half”. I think the phrase “too __ by half” is too trite by half, and I’m not sure if this negative review is completely fair, but at least the critic’s opinion comes through clearly.

Floyd Skloot is more benevolent towards Elaine Equi’s Ripple Effect: New and Selected Poems, and the critic reaches for a poetic voice in sympathy with Equi’s as he considers her work: “Ripple Effect offers a broad sampling of Equi’s career, 159 poems, proving her as capable of a memorable four-line epigram as she is of an elegant pantoum, jokey self-interview, surreal meditation on the color yellow or tender lyric sequence.”

Leon Wieseltier is a superb writer, but his review of Sari Nusseibeh’s Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life, a remarkably conciliatory book from an outspoken champion of compromise in the Holy Lands, shows more skill than wisdom. The critic, who openly declares his general sympathy towards Israel, spends the first half of the article praising Nusseibeh’s important belief in the possibilities of peace, then closes the review by citing a few points where he doesn’t think Nusseibeh fairly represents Israel’s side. I wish Wieseltier had addressed a much more pressing question instead: how is the work of this groundbreaking peace activist being received in the lands where it matters most, the lands of Israel and Palestine? Farrar, Straus and Giroux is publishing this book in the United States of America, but who is publishing Nusseibeh in the Middle East, and who is reading him? I wish Wieseltier had reached for relevance in his closing remarks, instead of reverting to the tiring and pointless game of point-by-point debate that seems to smother every other argument about this topic. Nusseibeh’s book seems to truly represent something special; Wieseltier’s review of the book seems to represent the same old back-and-forth.

Stephanie Giry’s evaluation of Tariq Ramadan’s In The Footsteps of the Prophet also seems a bit narrow-minded. Ramadan’s biography of Muhammad aims to establish the prophet’s tolerance and humanity, and my own prior research into this topic leads me to agree with Ramadan that the love of violence that currently grips many loud Islamic voices cannot be traced to Muhammad himself or to the Koran. But Giry doesn’t go that far: “Some will challenge Ramadan’s understated, if not euphemistic, treatment of the Muslims’ conquest of the Arabian Peninsula and his claim that armed jihad is justified only in self-defense.” In fact, the Muslim conquest of Arabia was nowhere near as violent or intolerant as comparable conquests in Europe and Asia, so Giry’s objection to Ramadan’s point does not stand up to inspection.

Elsewhere, we get a couple of timely baseball book reviews by George Will (on Cait Murphy’s historical Crazy ’08) and Jim Bouton (on Derek Zumsteg’s The Cheater’s Guide to Baseball).

The most amusing passage in this week’s Book Review comes from David Leonhardt, writing about Brian Doherty’s Radicals For Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, which focuses on Ayn Rand’s legacy in contemporary politics:

Doherty, a senior editor at Reason magazine, acknowledges he has written “an insider’s history,” but it is also a sloppily written history. In a single chapter, Milton Friedman is described both as an active writer at Stanford University and, accurately, as deceased. And almost everything about “Radicals for Capitalism” is too long: the terms (“Popperian falsificationist”), the sentences that sometimes run more than 100 words, and the book itself, at more than 700 pages. Evidently, its editor also had libertarian tendencies.

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