Reviewing the Review: September 16 2007

I’m a fool for a certain type of high-minded historical fiction, and a Nell Freudenberger cover review in today’s New York Times Book Review makes it clear that I’m on a collision course with David Leavitt’s The Indian Clerk, in which Cambridge mathematician G. H. Hardy encounters a humble accountant from Madras, India who can help him prove the famous Reimann hypothesis. Freudenberger does well to lay out the story’s setup clearly, though her concluding lines are unimpressive:

“The Indian Clerk” is a story about guilt. It’s about the impulse to save a foreign stranger (in spite of the fact that your idea of his country is no more than a couple of colorful cliches), and a story about a war in which the boys who die are most often poorer than the ones who stay at home. Reading it offers the pleasure of escape into another world along with the nagging feeling of familiarity that characterizes the best historical fiction.

Well, since the age of chivalry waned many centuries ago every war has been a war in which the boys who die are poorer than the ones who stay at home. Also, “Reading it offers the pleasure of escape” is a dull phrase that I hope will never be uttered in the NYTBR again.

This is supposed to be an exciting fall season for new books, and recent issues of the Book Review should be more dynamic than they are. Terrence Rafferty’s summary of Sebastian Faulks’ Engleby fails to maintain my attention on this brisk and sunny weekend morning, and by the time I reach the last paragraph I can’t even remember what book I’m reading about. I’m happier with Maud Casey’s short summary of Chris Abani’s Song For Night. Is it really true that children recruited as mine sweepers in West Africa routinely have their vocal cords severed so that other children won’t hear them scream as they slowly die? One of these boys narrates Abani’s novella, and Casey finds in it “an extraordinary ferocity and a vulnerable beauty all its own.”

There’s a strange appearance by hiphop journalist Toure, reviewing Restless Virgins: Love, Sex and Survival at a New England Prep School by Abigail Jones and Marissa Miley. Apparently there was a sex scandal at a Massachusetts prep school called Milton Academy, and apparently Toure was once a student at this school. I guess that’s a good reason to ask the music critic to review the book, though I find I don’t care about a word of either the book or the review.

Worst article of the week: David Plotz is working on a book based on his “Blogging the Bible” series for Slate, according to his bio blurb. He must be writing this book from a naive standpoint, because he reveals a shocking lack of knowledge about bible scholarship in his review of James L. Kugel’s How To Read The Bible. Anybody who knows the field will understand why this paragraph is a howler:

Mostly, God is called YHWH, but sometimes, especially in the earlier books, he’s known as El. According to Kugel, these are probably two diffferent deities fused into one: El may have been a god in the Canaanite pantheon, while YHWH may have been a Midianite god imported, via nomads, to the early Israelites, who made him their only god.

According to Kugel? The deconstruction of the Torah into “J” and “E” (the “Jehovah” or YHWH source and the “Elohim” or “El” source) as well as the “P” (priestly) and “D” (the book of Deuteronomy) sources is the very pillar of biblical scholarship, and the documentary hypothesis was a big hit in the late 19th century and has been widely known ever since. Imagine if somebody reviewed a Richard Dawkins’ book on atheism and said “According to Dawkins, species have evolved through genetic mutation and natural selection.” The rest of the book is similarly wide-eyed about well-known biblical issues and controversies. David Plotz makes James L. Kugel’s book sound good, but he casts much doubt on the value of his own work in progress.

This week’s Book Review ends well, though, with a funny and surprisingly accurate list of easy-to-confuse writer names (Barth and Barthes and Barthelme, Allan Bloom and Harold Bloom, Frank Conroy and Pat Conroy, Brzezinski and Kapuscinski and Rybczynski and the one I still can’t get straight to this day, Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis). Alex and Christopher Beam forgot one old standby, Thomas Wolfe and Tom Wolfe, but that’s okay. Maybe a good endpaper portends a better Book Review coming next week.

4 Responses

  1. coover and carverAnd here’s
    coover and carver

    And here’s another one: Robert Coover and Raymond Carver.

  2. That last one is a bit of a
    That last one is a bit of a stretch, don’t you think?

    I used to confuse Roger Zelazny and Samuel R. Delany when trying to recall some story I read in a Sci-Fi anthology.

  3. RaffertyI enjoyed Rafferty’s

    I enjoyed Rafferty’s review, and that he puts the book into context with Faulk’s previous novels.

    I had missed the Casey review, but after rereading it I agree, she does a nice job. Although I want to see more research, more fact-checking, & a better comparison of main character types — I think she is a good bit off in calling those two protagonists “archetypal” (I hope they aren’t, at least) & it makes me a bit wary of her overall judgments.

  4. Plotz’s reviewPlotz has shown
    Plotz’s review

    Plotz has shown a lot of naivite in his Slate series. There’s a lot of “Golly gee, the Bible says that?” sort of stuff in his blog, so it isn’t surprising that he is so uninformed about biblical scholarship or about the ability of people of faith to appreciate the Bible even if they are not literalists.

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