Reviewing the Review: November 12 2006

All I really want from the New York Times Book Review is a virtuoso performance every once in a while. I want enthusiasm, wit and originality. I don't even mind a critic shamelessly showing off his skills, as long as he's got the skills to show off. Today's cover article by Jim Windolf on Stephen King's Lisey's Story is an example of what I like.

Windolf is unknown to me, but I hope we'll see him more often in this publication. He begins his review by surveying the many self-tormented writers who have peopled Stephen King novels from The Shining to Misery to Lisey's Story. He throws out one pleasing connection after another, as in this description of the new novel's narrator:

At first she comes across as dutiful and drab, and it seems almost as if King prepared to write this book by mainlining a batch of Anne Tyler.

Or:

Lisey has three sisters, one of whom is kooky, and at times "Lisey's Story" feels like "The Ya-Ya Sisterhood Goes to Hell".

Windolf doesn't let up, and I like it. The critic is all over the place: he jumps into King's early days as a pulp-rag story-writer yearning for literary recognition, places King in context alongside Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Brothers Grimm, paints an adoring mental image of King-hater Harold Bloom spitting out his morning coffee. He even takes it too far at one point, letting the originality sag with this familiar joke:

His stuff appealed to people more familiar with Aerosmith than "Arrowsmith".

But I'll forgive him, because virtuosity always tempts excess, and because it's been a long time since an article in the NYTBR has left me satiated (and informed) like this.

The rest of this week's issue is not as lively. I couldn't get into second gear with Brooke Allen's review of The Stories of Mary Gordon or Paul Gray's review of Frederick Busch's Rescue Missions (in both cases, the critics appear bored and so am I). Jason Goodwin does slightly better with a historical novel set in Islamic/Jewish/Christian 12th-Century Sicily, The Ruby in Her Navel by Barry Unsworth.

Will Self's odd satire The Book of Dave sounds intriguing in Nathaniel Rich's well-crafted summary, though it is disconcerting that Rich dismisses the book as a failure after successfully piquing my interest in it.

Franklin Foer's thoughts on the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld triumvirate as depicted in Bob Woodward's State of Denial are interesting but the timing of this review's publication is atrocious. Alison McCullough's short article on philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt's On Truth is atrocious as well, not for timing but for every other reason. McCulloch skims the surface of this book like a student hoping to finesse an essay. Here's a sample:

But if we're already smart enough to know what truth is (given that philosophers have been fighting about it for millenniums), then knowing it's an important thing to care about should be a slam dunk.

It'd be nice if somebody actually engaged the book's arguments instead of trying to floss us with this type of weak skimmage. The Book Review treads closer to true dialectic with a well-intentioned endpaper by John Wilson, a self-proclaimed Christian fundamentalist who edits the conservative publication Books & Culture. Wilson argues that writers, readers and literary types should avoid knee-jerk negative depictions of conservative Christians (a line in the new Thomas Pynchon novel is presented as one of many examples). I think this is a fruitful point to discuss and I'm glad the Book Review commissioned the article, but Wilson's performance is underwhelming, featuring too many lines like this:

Yes, a significant majority of evangelicals voted for George W. Bush. Big deal.

Charles Taylor tells us about a questionable new volume called Sherlock Holmes: The Unauthorized Biography by Nick Rennison. Taylor doesn't love the book, though he declares that a biography of a fictional character is in theory "a swell idea". I wouldn't even go that far. I'm sick of biographies of fictional characters, of ideas, of God, of planets, of salt. A biography should be about a person. That's basically what the word implies. Why can't we just call these books "books" instead of biographies, since that's what they are?

On the positive side again, Dwight Garner's chatty new "Inside The List" column is starting to find its voice. I'm amused to read that Larry McMurtry gave Richard Ford's first novel a thumping thirty years ago in these pages, declaring Ford's voice marred by "portentousness, overwriting, pronouns drifting towards a shore only dimly seen". Thirty years later, McMurtry's still got Ford nailed.
This article is part of the series Reviewing the New York Times Book Review. The next post in the series is Reviewing the Review: November 19 2006. The previous post in the series is Reviewing the Review: November 5 2006.
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