Reviewing the Review: March 16 2008

This has nothing to do with anything, but Richard Price's face cracks me up. You can see this weary visage on the cover of today's New York Times Book Review (which has recently begun running edgy, artistic author photos on its cover, a refreshing change from the usual diagrammatic illustrations). Price is not a good looking guy, but everybody seems to love his new Lush Life, and reviewer Walter Kirn tries to honor the book by example, unleashing a torrent of his own powerful phrasing to set the book's mood for the reader:

The walls of such rooms are dull, their lights are harsh, and hunkered down in most of them are a jittery suspect and two clever cops, one of whom tends to act hostile and volatile, the other one solicitous and calm. Over this trio hangs a plain round clock.

Sometimes the hands move slowly, sometimes swiftly, but when they’re controlled by a serious storyteller, they always tell the same time: too late, too late.

I haven't seen this much-praised book yet, but if it turns out to be as dramatic as Kirn's review I'll probably like it. Other than this, it's amusing to note how many books get bad reviews in this issue. Is Michiko Kakutani doing a spot as guest editor? Most of the derision appears to be well-placed, especially Dan Chiasson's sobering refusal of The Best American Erotic Poems, edited by David Lehman. All Chiasson has to do to demolish this apparently ill-conceived volume is present a few dreadful sample verses by John Updike, Dean Young and Dana Gioia that, I agree with Chiasson, boggle the mind.

Garrison Keillor, normally such a friendly guy, is hard on Eric G. Wilson's Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, which posits (among other things) that prescription happiness drugs destroy the creative spirit. I'll meet this idea at least halfway, myself, but Keillor says:

Defending depression of any sort on the grounds that Beethoven suffered from it is awfully close to defending tuberculosis on the grounds that it sharpened John Keats's vision or arguing that you shouldn't clean up violent drug-ridden neighborhoods because so many brilliant jazzmen came from there.

I don't agree; the difference is that depression is a feeling that can tell us important things (that we need to change our lives, quit our jobs, make new friends). It's hard to argue that tuberculosis is valuable because it tells us important things about our lungs.

But Keillor is on more solid ground with a funny final observation about the book's acknowledgements:

Wilson thanks his "wonderful" agent, Bridget, for her encouragement; and his editor, Sarah, for her "brilliant" insights; and his kind friends and his patient parents and his inspiring wife. Why this Kodak moment at the end, the spritzing with Champagne, the presentation of bouquets? It’s so out of character for a guy who is awakened by paranoia to be thanking the folks who enabled him to write a not very good book.

Scott McLemee tries, but is unable to like Why We're Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America by Eric Alterman, which he says could have been more accurately titled Why We're Liberals: A Political Handbook for Arguing with Conservative Bloggers and Talk-Show Loudmouths During the Years When George Bush was President. He criticizes the book for engaging in politics only at the level of appearances and perceptions, for failing to identify any far-reaching vision or hope within a popular liberal agenda. This reminds me of the problems I've had recently with the state of published political punditry these days. Books that analyze voter behavior and opinion trends must sell well, since there are so many of them, but are readers actually choosing these "how to be popular" guides when they could be learning new things we didn't know (and, yes, there are things we still don't know) about global politics? If so, that's really sad. Put down the Eric Alterman, people, and pick up the Samantha Power.

The bloodbath goes on. A sweet-faced silver-haired writer named Shirley Abbott is knocked on the head by Claire Dederer for setting her debut novel The Future of Love in Manhattan but getting countless details about modern Manhattan life wrong. Dederer says that "false notes and anachronisms abound" and goes on at great length about whether or not a 40-year-old heterosexual male would know that his child's dress is made of a fabric called "dotted-Swiss". Well, as a forty-something heterosexual male myself, I certainly have never heard of a fabric called "dotted-Swiss". However, I also don't care whether or not I've ever heard of a fabric called "dotted-Swiss". Dederer has every right to give a tepid book a tepid review, of course, but her reasoning here feels capricious to me.

At least Peter Mark Roget, who invented the Thesaurus in 1852, avoids today's carnage. I'm not sure if I'll ever get around to reading Joshua Kendall's The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget's Thesaurus, but I enjoyed Thomas Mallon's article about the book.

Hip young critic Keith Gessen contributes today's endpaper on two sagas about Ivy League college admittance. Gessen's article is well-written enough, although I am dismayed to learn that Harvard students (Gessen, apparently, was one) sit around patting each other on the back for having done "the hardest thing there is to do" by getting admitted to Harvard.
This article is part of the series Reviewing the New York Times Book Review. The next post in the series is Reviewing the Review: March 23 2008. The previous post in the series is Reviewing the Review: March 9 2008.
3 Responses to "Reviewing the Review: March 16 2008"

It should be harder to graduate from an Ivy League school than it is to get admitted! But then my reasoning has often been accused of being capricious.
The prose in Price's Clockers--Spike Lee directed the film--was all lean and mean and I read the book in a single eight hour day.

by Milton on

Gessen's article is 100% accurate, and I say this from personal experience. Getting into an Ivy League university is exponentially more difficult than graduating. Actually, it's harder to drop out than it is to graduate. Once again, personal experience.

In order to uphold their prestige, these colleges need to maintain an impossibly low admission rate, along with an impossibly high graduation rate (as well as a roster of big-name faculty members, most of whom function more as walking advertisements than day-to-day teachers -- but that's other story). In order to get in, you must be willing to give up anything resembling a typical adolescence. But once you're in, the university makes it its mission to keep you there, whether you show up to class or not.

Now think about legacy admissions (which amounts to very rich kids skipping the most difficult part of this process), and you can see what a sham so many of these schools have become.