Reviewing the Review: July 15 2007

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?

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