11 May, 2009Issue 9.3Review of Reviews

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Review of Reviews




All the big book reviews in the US celebrate Mother’s Day (apostrophe after the “r”)—though none of them explains why North Americans honour the occasion on the second Sunday of May (whereas the British Isles do so on the fourth Sunday of Lent). The Brits have been at it longer: Mothering Sunday dates back at least as far as the 17th century, when servants and apprentices would take the day off from work to visit their mothers and present a plum cake as a gift. In Britain’s North American colonies, Mothering Sunday—like blood pudding, cricket, and the monarchy—fell by the wayside, but it was revived in a different form in 1858, when a West Virginian woman named Anna Reeves Jarvis instituted “Mothers’ Work Days” to clean up unsanitary areas of Appalachia. Jarvis’s daughter sought (successfully) to revive the custom at the beginning of the 20th century—though she would spend the rest of her (childless) life protesting the commercialisation of the occasion. (She was so outspoken on this point that New York cops once arrested her for disturbing the peace.) Controversy still swirls around the holiday: last year, 178 Republican members of Congress voted against a resolution “celebrating the role of mothers in the United States and supporting the goals and ideals of Mother’s Day” (though as the Washington Post pointed out, “they actually voted for motherhood before they voted against it“).

The Telegraph celebrated Mothering Sunday this year with a list of the “50 most memorable mums” in literature and film. Mamma Mia! of Abba fame is #33, behind the Virgin Mary, Medea, and Marge Simpson—although the Swedish rockers might be displeased: “Second Best to None” is the name of their new single track (the first in 15 years). The Guardian honours North American Mother’s Day this week with an essay by Elaine Showalter on the matriarchs of American fiction. Showalter declares that there are “at least 50 outstanding contemporary American women novelists” and proceeds to list eight: Joyce Carol Oates, Jane Smiley, Annie Proulx, Marilynne Robinson, Anne Tyler, Jayne Ann Phillips, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Gish Jen. (According to Showalter, “Toni Morrison is so well known she does not need to be included.”) American newspapers mark the occasion with reviews of Bad Mother, an anthology of essays by Ayelet Waldman. The anthology expands on the author’s 2005 public proclamation: “I love my husband more than I love my children.” (Though to be fair, her children are at a significant starting disadvantage: the Washington Post points out that Waldman’s husband is the immensely loveable novelist and short-story writer Michael Chabon.) The San Francisco Chronicle mocks Waldman’s disclaimer that she obtained the consent of her four children to make “sure they’re not uncomfortable and don’t feel exposed” by the book. (Her children are six to 14 years old, raising new questions about the age of consent). But evidently, no age is too young to learn about contraception: as the New York Times notes, Waldman has placed “a colorful bag of condoms on one of the top shelves in the kids’ bathroom, just so they get used to the idea for when the time comes.”

DEAD NOVELISTS SOCIETY? With plans for the posthumous publication of novels by Michael Crichton, Jack Kerouac, Vladimir Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, and David Foster Wallace, along with posthumous short stories by JG Ballard and Mark Twain and a posthumous National Book Critics Circle award for Roberto Bola√±o, 2009 is shaping up to be the Year of the Late Author. JRR Tolkien joins the game from the grave with The Legend of Sigurd and Gudr√∫n, his newly published version of an Old Norse epic (accompanied by critical commentary from his son Christopher). The Times Literary Supplement sings Legend‘s praises (albeit in English prose rather than Eddic verse). The Telegraph is less impressed: it describes the two poems in Legend as “the equivalent of 500 Twitter messages” and concludes that “everyone involved is simply flogging a dead Norse”. The Guardian tracks down Christopher Tolkien at his home in France and finds out that he doesn’t twitter but still faxes. The reclusive son seizes the opportunity to debunk rumours that he maintains “a whole troop of wild boars…in order to chase off Tolkien fans who…lurk in the woods that surround my house“.

GERALD FORD: SWINE FLU VICTIM? Speaking of boars (or their porcine cousins), Hugh Pennington of the London Review of Books adds to ORB’s list of swine flu-related literature and predicts that The Swine Flu Affair (1983), by Harvard professors Richard Neustadt and Harvey Fineberg, will be re-read. (Pennington’s predictions are not borne out by Amazon.com’s sales figures: as of Sunday, the book ranked #26,349 overall.) As the New Yorker also notes, the US Centers for Disease Control ordered a nationwide immunisation after an 18-year-old Army recruit died of a supposed swine flu. But ordinary Americans spurned the CDC’s pleas; the disease did not spread, and some speculate that the backlash cost Gerald Ford the 1976 presidential election.

While LRB and the New Yorker search for swine-flu-related literature, the Guardian‘s Tristam Hunt argues that in a recession, it’s time to re-read Engels. More direly, the Times says it’s time to read survival literature—specifically, Neil Strauss’s new book Emergency. (He recommends that everyone buy a Monopoly set: “Pounds, dollars, Monopoly money—one day, they’ll be the same anyway.”) The NYT noted recently that, in fact, everyone is reading romance novels: general adult fiction sales are down, but romance novel sales are up. Apparently, everyone is writing romance novels too—even Napoleon. A 40-page “chick lit” manuscript by Bonaparte has resurfaced and will appear in English translation this fall.

THE WORST WORST PLACE. One week after ORB argued that Guant√°namo Bay was the “least worst place” for al Qaeda detainees, the New York Review of Books suggests that Diego Garcia is the absolute pits. In the early 1970s, the US and UK governments evicted all of the island’s several thousand residents, who now live in the slums of Mauritius and—in smaller numbers—Sussex. After the 11 September 2001 attacks, depopulated Diego Garcia became a “black site” that housed suspected terrorists who—according to allegations from one human rights group—”were beaten even more severely than in Guant√°namo“.

NO HOLDS BARRED. Two weeks after ORB‘s Navid Pourghazi took Con Coughlin to task for the latter’s one-dimensional analysis of modern-day Iran, the New York Times Book Review launches an all-out attack on Coughlin’s latest book: “Coughlin is careless with names, associations and even basic facts.” Speaking of ruthless reviews, TLS blogger Mary Beard presents her own etiquette for evaluations: “never say anything in a review that you wouldn’t say to the author’s face“. Beard writes this “with some feeling, having just had what I considered an onslaught, rather than a review, from a colleague in California that certainly did not pass the ‘Beard nastiness test!'”. As Beard’s hyperlinks make clear, the review in question is Thomas Habinek’s take on a Beard book in the December 2008 issue of the American Historical Review. If Habinek fails the “Beard nastiness test”, then it’s not clear who passes. One choice excerpt from Habinek’s review:

the book she has produced is a comprehensive and reliable account of the Roman triumph within the framework of a positivist (and postmodern) approach to the writing of history. It will be a big success within ancient studies.


GAUGUIN vs. VAN GOGH: THE FIGHT OF THE (19th) CENTURY? In the art world, the question is not what you would say to a colleague’s face but what you would do to his face—or his head. The Telegraph looks at a new book by a pair of art historians who argue that Paul Gauguin (“an excellent fencer”) chopped off Van Gogh’s ear after a dispute between the painters. Van Gogh concocted a story of self-mutiliation in order to shield his fairweather friend after the fact. Other art historians dismiss the story as “wild conjecture“, while TIME magazine notes that both theories—the self-initiated ear-chop and the mano a mano knifefight—are wild ones: “We’re not sure which is more badass.”

CROSS-DRESSER OR QUEEN? Unlike Van Gogh, the Berlin bust of Nefertiti still has both ears (though her Egyptian mummy is missing the right one). Either way, she won’t like what she’s about to hear. Last week, we mentioned NYRB’s lead story on the repatriation (or lack thereof) of cultural relics. This week, the Guardian takes note of a new book that questions whether Nefertiti was actually purloined from Egypt—or whether she was sculpted in Berlin circa 1912. Authentic or not, Egypt still wants Nefertiti back. And Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities also says that the Berlin curators have it wrong: Nefertiti wasn’t a queen. She was a man.