Reviewing the Review: March 8 2009

Eastern Fiction History
If the New York Times Book Review can't sell ads -- and, at 24 pages again, it's obvious that they can't -- they may as well give short shrift to standard industry product and write some kickass reviews of books we're really interested in.

I don't know if this is the guiding philosophy for the New York Times Book Review in 2009, but they do seem to be making some good choices lately. For the second week in a row, foreign literature gets a lot of attention in today's issue. Natasha Wimmer urges us to discover Argentina's Cesar Aira, either by reading Ghosts or any of his other books, and I intend to follow her advice. This issue also covers four books dealing with China's modern history, including Pico Iyer's cover review of a novel called The Vagrants by Yiyun Li, a purgative tale about the violent excesses of Communist groupthink in a small town during the early post-Mao era. I can't think of many periods in history that cry out more for understanding than China in the last 50 years; by all credible historical accounts, Mao's horrific experimentation with social and economic engineering amounted to the cruelest mass murder of all time, claiming more victims than Hitler and Stalin combined, and yet these horrors typically present a blank face to the outside world, so blank that many outside China (and inside? I don't know) have no understanding at all of what took place during the Mao years.

An oral history by Xinran called China Witness: Voices From a Silent Generation also attempts to bridge this comprehension gap, though Joshua Hammer is not impressed by the author's approach. Jess Row, meanwhile, was impressed when he read Yu Hua's popular Chinese novel Brothers in its original language, but he fears that particulars of this story make it impossible to translate accurately. Anyone interested in the art and science of literary translation will want to weigh his arguments here. One more book about China shows up today, Postcards From Tomorrow Square by James Fallows, reviewed by Jonathan Spence. I doubt I'll find the time, but I'd like to read all four.

I've just been writing about all the reviews I've read of Jonathan Littell's long Nazi-era fable The Kindly Ones. I have little need for yet another take, though David Gates' ultimately negative appraisal is lively and informative enough to maintain my interest. Okay, now I'm done reading reviews of this book for real.

It's certainly my own flaw as a reader that I don't like long books, that I resent it when an author presumes that I have time to read 992 pages (Jonathan Littell) or even 581 pages of the latest installment in a longer cycle of books about a single character, which is what Eric Kraft's Flying amounts to. I begged out of Ed Champion's energetic roundtable about Kraft's latest Peter Leroy book for this reason, despite the fact that the few pages I read were extremely clever. I do feel guilty about not continuing with the novel (which Laura Miller likes in today's Book Review) but I still think it's a bad strategy for an author to write a long series of interlocking books that must be read together for a complete experience. Readers want to first-date our novelists these days -- we're not looking to marry them.

Today's impressive NYTBR also includes a moderately intriguing summary by Jill Abramson of Zoe Heller's The Believers, another novel I want to read and may or may not find time for.

Finally, Rebecca Barry wins big points for reviewing a second-person novel by Patrick deWitt called Ablutions: Notes for a Novel and not once mentioning Jay McInerney.
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 15 2009. The previous post in the series is Reviewing the Review: March 1 2009.
2 Responses to "Reviewing the Review: March 8 2009"

by Don on

Since NYTBR is shrinking and every inch counts, let's not forget the letter column. This week's responses to David Orr's lame article on the lack of greatness in contemporary poetry was at least encouraging in terms of the readership.

For the last couple of years Orr has had an incredible forum for poetry and, even more effectively than Elizabeth Alexander, has really dropped the ball. The last thing the Times needs to do is alienate the reading public with bad coverage of an important field that badly needs national exposure.

It's time to pass the baton to a critic that deeply understands, cares about, and can communicate why poetry, both modern and otherwise, is important.

And no, that's not William Logan - though I'd take Logan any day over Orr, because at least he cares enough to evoke anger rather than mere disgust.

Yes, I did enjoy the lively letters on poetry this week, Don. I've been very critical of David Orr's poetry articles here in the past, though I didn't think his recent one was so bad.

I also should probably mention a new feature debuting in the NYTBR this week, a bestseller list for graphic novels. Certainly a good thing, though probably more exciting to the types of readers who care about "The Watchmen" than it currently is to me ...

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