Reviewing the Review: January 20 2008

Fiction Jewish Poetry Politics
Another weekend, another New York Times Book Review. I'm already interested in Geraldine Brooks' novel People of the Book and the real-life "Sarajevo Hagaddah" it revolves around, and Lisa Fugard's consideration increases my appetite, even though she is "left wishing Brooks had found a less obtrusive way to gather up the many strands of her narrative." If wishes were horses ...

I'm also interested in The Delivery Man, the debut novel by Joe McGinniss (in fact I'm about to read this story of Las Vegas depravity and prostitution) and I really like Ed Park's vibrant write-up, which references R. Kelly, Joan Didion and (perhaps too often) Bret Easton Ellis. And I don't know if I will ever dive into Roddy Doyle's The Deportees and Other Stories, one story of which continues the tale of his Commitments, but Erica Wagner's review is fine enough, and so is Ann Hodgman's introduction to Max Apple's The Jew of Home Depot. Four worthwhile fiction reviews, not bad at all.

I've got to dislike something, though, and the attention-hungry poetry critic William Logan provides a big target with his pretentious review of Geoffrey Hill's Treatise of Civil Power, a poetry collection that appears to be incomprehensible without a specialist's knowledge of obscure British history. I know British history better than most, I think, but this book appears to be about as appealing as a hair shirt, and William Logan is way too impressed with himself for being capable of appreciating it. But it's Logan's bombastic phraseology -- "gouts of praise", "hang the cost in moral uplift", "hedge his love with the thorns of attitude" -- that makes me feel like I'm stuck in a dreary poetry hut inside a bad renaissance fair. Enough of both Geoffrey Hill and William Logan; let them enjoy each other, but I enjoy neither.

This Book Review contains enough books with Jewish or Holocaust themes to make me wonder if the editors briefly considered matching the recent Islam Issue with a Judaism issue. Rachel Donadio's closing piece on the early reception of Elie Wiesel's Night is surprising and very worthwhile; I had no idea that this book met with so much rejection and apathy before it became a classic.

On the political front, Jacob Heilbrunn's review of Condoleeza Rice: An American Life by Elisabeth Bumiller is perceptive, though I find myself wanting to echo his restrained commentary more pointedly, as when he says:

Despite their close relationship, Bush had only a hazy notion of what role a national security advisor should play.

and I want to mention that Bush seems to have only a hazy notion of a whole, whole lot of things. And those who have been following political critic Jim Sleeper's recent charges of conservative bias in the NYTBR will find a significant update in the Yale Daily News, which reveals that Tanenhaus discussed the question of the Book Review's alleged lack of political balance at a "tea" with Yale students. Sleeper, interviewed for this article as well, states that Tanenhaus has been on a "charm offensive" lately. Just what we need: another surge.
This article is part of the series Reviewing the New York Times Book Review. The next post in the series is Reviewing the Review: January 27 2008. The previous post in the series is Reviewing the Review: January 13 2008.
5 Responses to "Reviewing the Review: January 20 2008"

I'm very happy for Joe McGinniss. He left a nice comment on my Kos blog a while back, and now I see he's being reviewed in the New York Times.

by Daniel on

I found it so odd that they would run the Logan review as the lead on their website. The review wasn't especially laudatory, did not make me want to read Hill any more than you; and yet

Having just read the new AL Kennedy novel DAY, I thought Francine Prose's review in this issue of the TBR was quite silly while trying to be illuminating about what a thoughtful, perceptive novelist and thinker is Francine Prose. But then reviews that are essentially instructions to the author about how she should have written the book differently, or maybe she should have written a different book altogether, are always silly.

by Levi Asher on

It's nice to be getting some feedback on these NYTBR columns (they are usually my quietest posts).

Daniel, I agree -- and then there's also the matter of that ghastly cover photo of Geoffrey Hill's mug, which they saw fit to print poster-size as if people were going to tack it to their walls.

Katharine, I wasn't even sure what to say about Francine Prose's review -- that's why I was (uncharacteristically) silent about it. Ed Champion has a different take on Kennedy's book in the Philly Inquirer here.

Happy MLK day, everybody!

by Tony Spors on

Don't remember if the review of this book was in the NYTBR but I'm kind of looking forward to "Homecoming" by Bernard Schlink, one of the few German writers on my "to read" list since "The Reader".