Reviewing the Review: June 4 2006

I was hoping for a great New York Times Book Review this weekend, so I could prove I'm not a knee-jerk NYTBR-hater. I'm really not, and I submit as evidence the fact that I praised an amazing three issues in a row earlier this year. It makes me very happy when I can say good things about this publication, which I have been reading nonstop (excepting five years of college) since I was about eleven years old. My parents didn't subscribe to the New Yorker or the Atlantic Monthly, but the New York Times Book Review showed up on our driveway every morning, and it always meant a lot to me. That's why I now presume to kick its ass whenever an issue disappoints me.

There's some good writing here. Dave Barry is very funny in his review of Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers and Bums in America by Tom Lutz, explaining why writing is not a form of slacking even though it sometimes appears to be:

Because while I am engaged in these seemingly pointless activities, I am thinking about a critical writing issue, such as: which is a funnier-sounding mineral name, feldspar or potash? It takes hours of grueling mental effort to solve that kind of problem, but you, the reader, see only the finished product (feldspar).

And, later:

A lot of us would have to admit that if we skipped a day or two of "work," or even a couple of months, or maybe even three or four years, we might miss our paychecks, but the impact on society would be minimal, or in the case of some professions (consultants, editorial writers, Paris Hilton) nonexistent.

I don't always like Dave Barry, but it is good to see some lively writing in this publication, even though Barry failed to find the best word for this last punch-line (try "consultants, bloggers, Paris Hilton," Dave. Now that's funny).

Jeff Turrentine's review of Martha McPhee's Jamesian spin L'America makes the perceptive point that the discovery of a new travel destination can resemble the ecstacy of first love. It's a well-written review, even though I have no interest in reading McPhee's book.

Digeratus John Hodgman's two-pager on the current state of comix as literature is exemplary as well, and Hodgman is smart to admit the genre's faults before praising a few standout comic authors like Carol Tyler, Jessica Abel and Kevin Heizenga. I like this paragraph:

But sometimes the epiphanies are so quiet as to be inaudible, as with Jonathan Bennett's opening piece, "Needles and Pins," which follows a young man's musings as he sits on a park bench watching a pigeon peck at a chicken leg. it's artfully drawn with lovely, delicate linework. But its most exciting moment is a stirring scene in which the protaganist realizes his leg has fallen asleep. This is when I tend to reach for the pile of superhero comics.

That's all the praise I've got to offer today. Russell Shorto's review of Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower strains for bloated metaphors and contains way too many solemn lines like this:

We also have our mythic sense of the land, and a need to recite our pivotal narratives.

As for the rest of today's issue, which includes a workmanlike endpaper on wedding toast poetry by David Orr and adequate but unremarkable pieces on Jaime Manrique and John Barlow by Cathleen Medwick and Henry Alford, the epiphanies are so quiet as to be inaudible.

* * * * *

Okay, enough Book Review-bashing! I'm not running this website so I can take mean swipes at self-important, over-praised literary critics. I'm much more interested in taking mean swipes at self-important, over-praised novelists. I'd like to announce a new five-day project here at LitKicks, beginning tomorrow. In a nod to Jeff Bryant's Underrated Writers Project from last year, I'm calling this the Overrated Writers Project, and I plan to lay out the case against five celebrated literary superstars who really deserve it, one per day.

Check this space tomorrow morning. Things might get ugly here.
This article is part of the series Reviewing the New York Times Book Review. The next post in the series is Reviewing the Review: June 11 2006. The previous post in the series is Ignoring the Review: May 28 2006.
4 Responses to "Reviewing the Review: June 4 2006"

by panta rhei on

Overrated Writers ProjectI'm definitely interested in what it will bring.Contemporary literal superstars? International?

by warrenweappa on

Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, Updike, Roth, and Amis are my guesses.

by Billectric on

I think Levi likes Updike. I doubt we'll find him in the list.

by brooklyn on

Bill, you're certainly correct ... Warren, you got one of five right!