The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Saturday, July 17, 2004  

On Saturday

Possibly Worthy Book I
In his review of New Republic book reviewer Dale Peck’s Hatchet Jobs, “Smash Mouth Criticism,” John Leonard pummels the pummeller with aplomb:

Scratch a commissar and you get a philistine. . . . It’s the relish on this hotdog that turns the stomach. He promises never to do it again, but the very title Hatchet Jobs reeks of market niche, an underground service like fumigation or garbage recycling. His alibi for being unfair is that he’s a novelist, and they lie a lot. But his reputation would have long since earned him the right at his various pillboxes and lemonade stands to review any book he chose, out of hundreds of good ones needing discovery among tens of thousands cynically published, and yet he almost always seems to pick a punching bag, or draw his own bull’s-eye on the passing chump. This is lazy, churlish and even demagogic.

Leonard is correct is ascribing to those, including me, who enjoy an occasional bit of Peck, as possessing an interest in literary criticism that is not necessarily pure at heart: “[W]e are none of us immune to malice, envy, schadenfreude, a prurient snuffle, and a sucker punch.” Peck: A guilty pleasure?

Possibly Worthy Book II
If you never read the book, the book being Shadow Divers, by Robert Kurson, be sure to read the review, “Das Boot,” by Mark Bowden, national correspondent of The Atlantic, because this is how it’s done.

Although Bowden ultimately questions the intensity of the U-boat-seeking divers at the center of the story, the review, read in its entirely, is quite positive. For example, an early chapter is called “a masterpiece of explication” that “is artfully written.” And Bowden commends: “Kurson’s account of their dives, and those of others who accompanied them and never came back, are the best parts of the book. At times they are literally heart-pounding.” But it’s an observation like this that makes for a great review qua review:

It’s a good story, marred only by moments of jejune men’s-magazine sagacity: “A shipwreck gave a man limitless opportunity to know himself if only he cared to find out.” Kurson writes for Esquire, a fine magazine that has published some great writing, but at its worst peddles a simplistic, adolescent notion of “manliness,” usually equated with risk-taking. Kurson treats this notion much too seriously, and occasionally reduces his otherwise fascinating main characters, the divers John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, into cartoon figures: “16-year-old Richie pummeled the grown man until he cried.”

Until the 16-year-old cried or until the grown man cried?

No-Doubt Worthy Books
Also in the Sunday Book Review: A three-book round-up review by Ryan Lizza, including: Why Lincoln Matters: Today More Than Ever, by Mario M. Cuomo; The Fourth Power: A Grand Strategy for the United States in the Twenty-First Century, by Gary Hart; and The Essential America: Our Founders and the Liberal Tradition, by George McGovern.

Also, a two-headed review by Will Saletan of Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America, by Robert B. Reich, and Stand Up Fight Back: Republican Toughs, Democratic Wimps, and the Politics of Revenge, by E. J. Dionne Jr.

[P.S.: Have you hit the Rittenhouse tip box lately? It’s sitting, awfully lonely, in the sidebar at right, under the heading “Summer Drive.” Thanks a million. No . . . thanks a few bucks. And there’s always the Wish List.]

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