Reviewing the Review: May 20 2007

Today’s New York Times Book Review is practically a “global politics” theme issue with a few fiction reviews sprinkled within. The lack of literary material will annoy some readers, though I am grateful that the editors chose not to pound on the main theme too hard (as in recent weeks). Despite the presence of big articles on nuclear proliferation and presidential history that could just as well have run in this newspaper’s “Week In Review” section, it’s the small review of novels and short story collections that shine — lightly, if not quite brightly — in today’s publication.

I like Meg Wolitzer, who is very much at home writing about cozy Manhattan literati tableaus. It’s no big shock that she likes Sheridan Hay’s The Secret of Lost Things, a romantic pas de deux of likable lit-freaks, set in a used book store that resembles the Strand. I wish she’d pointed out that The Secret of Lost Things is a dreadful title, but I guess that’s okay.

Amidst the continuing barrage of books that carry on the stories of Rhett Butler and Michael Corleone, I’m glad to hear that a writer named R. N. Morris has produced a novel, The Gentle Axe, that carries on the activities of Dostoevsky’s detective Porfiry Petrovich (from Crime and Punishment) after throwing Rodya Raskolnikov in jail, but does so with a subtle and educated touch. Liesl Schillinger approves of the work, though she refers to it as CSI: St. Petersburg.

Maile Meloy makes Helen Simpson’s story collection In The Driver’s Seat sound appealing and worthwhile. Susann Cokal explains the setup of The Religion, another badly-titled but apparently worthy book, which follows a 16th-century Saxon boy caught in the wars between European Christians and Turkish Muslims. There’s also a useful and substantial consideration of Ralph Ellison and of a new Ellison biography by Arnold Rampersad. More than a decade after his death, a collective understanding of the Invisible Man author’s complex and often contradictory post-fame career is beginning to emerge.

Then there are the political articles, including Jonathan Raban’s cover piece on William Langewiesche’s The Atomic Bazaar, which is fine except that I read articles on important subjects like this all the time elsewhere and don’t find this treatment particularly distinctive. A book called Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America by Michael Beschloss strikes me as achingly boring, and maybe that’s why I couldn’t get halfway through Mary Beth Norton’s review.

There’s a two-article spread on two books that reach opposite conclusions on the same subject, Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years by David “” Talbot and Reclaiming History: the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy by Vincent “Helter Skelter” Buglioisi. Bugliosi believes that grassy-knoll conspiracy theorists should be “ridiculed, even shunned”, according to Bryan Burrough, who applauds this idea though he certainly doesn’t make a case for it. It’s a funny review, though, and I enjoy hearing Burrough complain about being paid a standard wage (“I can now buy that loaf of bread I’ve been saving for”) for reviewing a 1,612 page book. Tell it to the National Book Critics Circle, Burrough, and maybe they’ll get a petition going on your behalf.

On the opposite page, Alan Brinkley provides a less amusing but more measured consideration of David Talbot’s argument for the continuing investigation into the assassination. Personally, I’m about 50-50 on this big question, and I’m tired of discussing it. I’d rather talk about more current and relevant conspiracy theories, like why Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is stubbornly refusing to resign despite the overwhelming evidence against him.

Finally, Rachel Donadio’s article on an evergreen guide to structured debate, Robert’s Rules of Order, is quite interesting, and a good complement to the virtual Kennedy-book debate a few pages earlier in this issue. I’ve often hoped for a revival of the classic form known as “parliamentary debate” (which I enjoyed studying and practicing in college) and I hope this article is a sign of a coming trend.

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