Reviewing the Review: February 8 2009

History Politics
"I am always surprised to learn that people do not live with memories of fragrance as I do," Marie Arana wrote in 'American Chica,' her gloriously redolent memoir of growing up as the daughter of a Peruvian father and an American mother. If books came with perfumed-page inserts, Arana's new novel, 'Lima Nights,' would smell of bougainvillea and lemons, with an acrid hint of Molotov cocktails and a potent underpinning of sausages and apples.

How about an aromatic whiff of who cares? And I'm not giving away sympathy points even though this is the same Marie Arana who accepted a buyout to resign as editor of Washington Post's Book World in December, setting the stage for Book World's demise. The fact, I'm a little perturbed to learn that Arana spent 2007 and 2008 writing a decorative novel that smells of "bougainvillea and lemons" (according to NYTBR reviewer Jan Stuart). She should have spent 2007 and 2008 working harder at her day job, and then maybe, just maybe (well, okay, probably not, but just maybe) Washington Post Book World would have been able to survive.

You've got to give New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus credit for one thing: he puts his day job ahead of his book project, which in his case is a biography of American conservative hero William F. Buckley that has already taken on a mystical Moby-Dick-like aura in the minds of many NYTBR-watchers, and will certainly be a big deal when it finally comes out. We'll circle back to Sam Tanenhaus and American conservativism below, but first let's trudge through the rest of this weekend's Book Review.

It's another thin issue -- is 24 pages now the Book Review's permanent magic number? -- and not a particularly exciting one. I was excited to see William Safire on the cover, but the venerable pundit and pop-linguist turns in an earnest and largely wit-free summary of numerous new books about Abraham Lincoln. Once again, who cares? The guy's been dead. Safire ackowledges that David Donald's 1995 Lincoln is the biography to read, but if so, we must wonder, why do the rest of these retreads deserve front-page treatment? Michael Burlingame's new Abraham Lincoln: A Life runs to 2000 pages, according to Safire. I'm sure it's a scholarly marvel, but, again, who cares?

Even the usually sparky Erica Jong is uncharacteristically windy in her review of Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Althill:

Back in the '90s, Daphne Merkin, one of our best critics and trend-watchers, predicted that "if the last decade of the 20th century is to produce any great literature" it will be "around the subject of death".

What? Why? Was the 90s the "death decade" and nobody told me? This opening simply makes no sense. Later in the same review, Jong begins a paragraph thus:

Death has always been a subject for serious writers, no less so today than in earlier times.

Oooookay. One might imagine death to be an "evergreen" subject, given human mortality and all, so I think Erica Jong is trying way too hard to spot trends here. She should just write about the book instead.

The fact is, nothing in today's New York Times Book Review is as interesting as a broad piece published a few days ago in the New Republic by the Book Review's embattled and admirably stubborn editor Sam Tanenhaus, titled "Conservatism is Dead". Always more interested in politics than fiction and poetry, Sam Tanenhaus was eventually outed as a card-carrying neo-conservative by former NYTBR contributor Jim Sleeper, who now crows upon reading the latest article that "American Conservatism's Original Sin is Confessed". Tanenhaus's piece is a heartfelt and provocative coming-to-terms, locating the heart of conservatism somewhere beyond the noisy recent banalities of Sarah Palin, John McCain and George W. Bush, and looking forward to a more intellectually honest future. It's a long article, but worth a slow and careful read. I never considered Tanenhaus a credible authority on literature, but when he plays his home field he can be truly impressive. Hell, I'll probably even read his Buckley book when it comes out.
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 15 2009. The previous post in the series is Reviewing the Review: February 1 2009.
9 Responses to "Reviewing the Review: February 8 2009"

by Sara on

I'm glad that there's someone around to say "who cares," to point out that not all books are worth even thinking about, much less talking about.

It's going to be 24 pages until there are more ads. I'm not going to repeat my last week's page-by-page look at the paucity of ads but there's just a smidge more than last week's. The back cover ad is for a Times book from the New York Times store. You should compare this to a review -- if you have any lying around -- from more recent good economic times. I'm not sure there is less editorial matter, but often the two center pages were one huge ad and there were other full-page ads.

If the business model for newspaper book sections is advertiser-driven, then NYTBR, like the recently departed Book World, LATBR and the rest, is doomed.

Tanenhaus's essay was indeed brilliant. I guess NYTBR pays the bills for him, but editing it is a waste of his talent.

by ed on

To be clear on this, Arana took a buyout. She wasn't fired.

by Levi Asher on

Thanks for the correction, Ed -- I've corrected the text above.

by Tim Barrus on

If Sam needs directions to the unemployment lines (follow the crowds) he could e me. Tim Barrus, Amsterdam

by Tannat on

...perhaps the the quality of the reviews are inversely proportionate to the time spent by everyone polishing up their resumes...

I definitely want to read Tanenhaus's book on William F. Buckley.

Levi, aren't you getting a bit too subjective when you ask "Who cares?" about Michael Burlingame's new Lincoln biography? Some people care.

by steve johnson on

So did Maria Arana write a cross ethnic assimilation memoir? How original! Don't forget the scene in the ethnic neighborhood where there is an ethnic celebration and you have to choose between a quesadilla and a hotdog. Or falafel and a hotdog, or kimch-jigae and a hotdog. "I was so confused. I felt torn between two places!"

'American Chica' even. When will this free ride end for ethnic memoirists?

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