Reviewing the Review: January 27 2008

American History Music
Historian Geoffrey C. Ward has written a beautiful, sonorous cover article for this weekend's New York Times Book Review on Drew Gilpin Faust's somber new The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.

It's a picture-perfect essay, but in fact readers of the Book Review aren't necessarily satisfied with eloquence; we also wish to be broadened and enlightened by the articles we read here, and I strain to find the slightest note of urgency or surprise in Ward's essay. Instead, it's as proper and solemn as a placard in a battlefield museum, and the Faust book under review appears to be similarly a pure throwback to the comfort of popular history. Even with its emphasis on suffering (hardly an original take on Civil War history), does this book offer anything that you won't find in a Ken Burns DVD boxed set? And does this article, as well-written as it is? Fire up the fife-and-drum soundtrack, because the accompanying Editor's Note in today's publication reveals that Geoffrey C. Ward was actually the primary writer for Ken Burns' "Civil War" series. I don't blame Ward for repeating himself with this essay, but I do blame the publication's editors for considering Faust's coffee table book fresh enough for the cover of a 2008 New York Times Book Review.

Maybe they should have given the cover to Ken Kalfus's review of All Shall Be Well, and All Shall Be Well, and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well, a novel by Tod Wodicka that aims for a more original spin on historicism with its tale of "Burt, a medieval re-enactor whose fanatic refusal to live in the historical present has brought pain to the people around him". This is no rave review (Kalfus calls the book "a Black Death of a chore to read") but at least the book seems to put the human impulse to glorify history into some kind of ironic context. I have one complaint with Kalfus's work: his summary of the plot suggests that Wodicka must have been inspired by Cervantes' Don Quixote, which is also about a modern man (modern for Cervantes, anyway) who yearns to live in the age of chivalry. But Kalfus fails to address this obvious reference point, leaving the reader unsure whether it relates to the book or not.

Or maybe I would have given the cover to Michael Gorra's satisfying review of Tahmina Anam's A Golden Age, a novel that chronicles the difficult independence of East Pakistan and its rebirth as the nation of Bangladesh. Like Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, this is a novel of recent history based in the imagination and research of a young writer who did not live through that history, and like Adichie this author appears to have only partly succeeded in her difficult mission. Gorra scolds her harshly for making one "silly mistake" (some characters go to see the 1963 Elizabeth Taylor film Cleopatra in 1959), though he happily reveals that the book saves itself by the end. What I like about this book (and this review) is that it concerns a moment in world history that we don't already know everything about. Civil War books make good Father's Day gifts, which is why there are so many of them, but they are generally devoid of new information, whereas books like Anam's A Golden Age might actually help some of us become more knowledgeable about the world we live in. That's why I'm planning to read this book myself. As for Faust's Civil War book, I'll probably get it for Father's Day.

Troy Patterson's review of Adam Langer's Ellington Boulevard: A Novel in A-Flat is appealing enough, and Brian Morton's review of Alfred Kazin: A Biography is passionate and effective (though I struggled through several confused paragraphs before figuring out that I wasn't reading about a biography of Elia Kazan, which was entirely my own fault). Charles McGrath's consideration of Ezra Pound: Poet by A. David Moody feels familiar (do we have to hear again about il miglior fabbro?) but has its moments. I enjoy watching William Vollmann's new Riding Toward Everywhere get skillfully trashed by J. R. Moehringer for most of the right reasons.

Alan Light's review of two rock-star memoirs, Slash by Slash and The Heroin Diaries by Nikki Sixx, is predictable and undistinguished (as was Light's lightweight biography of the Beastie Boys). I do not agree with him that those of us who read rock biographies do so for the scenes of drugs and depravity; personally, I read them for insight into the creative process. As for these books themselves, they don't seem likely to stack up next to our better rock star autobiographies (Poison Heart by Dee Dee Ramone, No Blacks No Irish No Dogs by Johnny Rotten, Chronicles by Bob Dylan). But if I don't end up getting Drew Gilpin Faust's Civil War book for Father's Day, I wouldn't be surprised if I get Slash instead. Actually I'd like that better.
This article is part of the series Reviewing the New York Times Book Review. The next post in the series is Reviewing the Review: February 3 2008. The previous post in the series is Reviewing the Review: January 20 2008.
4 Responses to "Reviewing the Review: January 27 2008"

by matt king on

McGrath's review of Moody's book largely misses the point (and forget il miglior fabbro, can we please have one Pound article that doesn't quite In the Station of the Metro?) I can't imagine anyone laying out $50 to read about who Pound took to bed. The importance of the book is Moody's keen insight into the poetry and his ability to help readers find their way into to it. Sure the book is full of names, places and dates, but the book is about Pound's place in history, not his day planner. To read Moody's thoughts on the book, check out this.

I suppose if we’re ever to understand humans, we need to know everything we can about their civil wars, whether in Mississippi or Bangladesh. On the other hand, Champion’s review of Vollman’s book makes it sound fairly interesting. http://www.suntimes.com/entertainment/books/760219,SHO-Books-vollman27.a...
But how do we get on-line lit bloggers to take notice of us on-line lit writers? Maybe ask them to join the discussion at Outsider Writers. http://www.outsiderwriters.org

by ed on

Moehringer's trashing of Vollmann's personal character (as opposed to examining the book) was a shameful hit piece that seemed commissioned more out of revenge for Vollmann's controversial review of the Swofford book rather than any meaningful literary coverage. If he hates the book, then he should explain his reasons why (as Bob Hoover and Marc Weingarten did in their respective dismissals). But personal judgment of an author's personality has no place in any section that purportedly reviews books. It is more gossip than literary analysis. That Moehringer did not comprehend Vollmann's use of the Cold Mountain symbol -- something self-evident to any C-average English major -- is a clear indication that he is not cut out for basic literary analysis and has no business reviewing books.

by Levi Asher on

Ed, I did enjoy your Chicago Sun-Times review of Vollmann, which was obviously much more favorable than the NYTBR's.

Myself, I spent about ten minutes with the book in a bookstore recently. As always, I just prefer writers who take more care to filter and improve their writing. With Vollmann, as with Frank Zappa, you're getting it by the shovelfull. That has it's merits, sure, but speaking for myself, after ten minutes with this book I concluded that it could have made a decent magazine article if properly reduced.

I do like Vollmann as a person -- I like the intellectual areas he works in, and I think he carries much authority. I just can't stand the way he writes.