Replacing the Review: June 14 2009

Prompted by an enthuasiastic tweet from Washington Post's Ron Charles, I decided to spend today reading that paper's special return edition of Book World (which ceased regular publication six months ago) instead of the New York Times Book Review. Who wouldn't rather pay attention to a plucky survivor, struggling to semi-exist, instead of the latest assembly-line production of the market leader?

Washington Post Book World never equalled the NYTBR in spending or influence. Today's resurrection, the Summer Reading issue, is only 12 pages thick and contains exactly zero (yes, zero) ads. But this only highlights how hard the Washington Post's literary editors must have had to push to get this issue out. Fortunately, the result is worth the effort.

Ron Hansen reviews John Updike's final story collection My Father's Tears with appropriate respect, and achieves a greater level of simple clarity than T. C. Boyle did last week in the Times. Is it true, as Hansen says, that Updike was "the 20th Century's preeminent man of letters"? Though he is among my favorite writers, I'm not sure I can agree with this, if only because Updike's appeal often felt so grounded in tradition and nostalgia, and I wish for a more progressive and multi-cultural choice. I think we'll have to wait a few more years to decide who takes this title. Thomas Mann, Vladimir Nabokov, Saul Bellow, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison belong on the shortlist, and I'd love to see the erudite but improbable Allen Ginsberg end up with the prize.

Valerie Sayers' review of Kate Walbert's A Short History of Women (which is also reviewed by Leah Hager Cohen on the cover of today's New York Times Book Review) makes me want to read this book, though I don't fully understand what the book is (and, I'm curious, speaking of multi-culturalism, might it not have been a nice idea for either Book World or the Book Review to have cut through the wall of femininity by asking a man to review this book?).

I thought I could finally get through a Sunday without reading an article by or about a member of the William F. Buckley family, but he shows up even here with an article about Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of an American Road Trip by Matthew Algeo. It's a rote treatment, chatty and scattered, and I'm really starting to think young Buckley fils needs to take a vacation; he seems just plain bored.

Edward Hirsch's poetry column about Landis Everson should please me -- it looks good on paper, as they say -- but somehow doesn't hold together. A page of vignettes by Uruguay's Eduardo Galeano, on the other hand, jumps off the page, a provocative surprise.

The centerpiece of this bereft publication begins with a familiar formula: "We asked novelists which fictional character they would like to accompany them for a day at the beach". Christopher Buckley shows up again, cracking a joke about Lolita, and Jodi Picoult comes up with the most boring and predictable answer possible (that's right, it's Mr. Darcy, once a charming character, lately reduced to an insufferable cliche). The best answer is by Colson Whitehead:

Quint from Peter Benchley's "Jaws." Why? There are two good reasons. One, I used to fish a lot when I was a kid, but I'm rusty, and two, my wife is always telling me to "butch it up a little." Quint, famous shark hunter, can get me reacquainted with the ins and outs of the fisherman's trade, and when I reel in a porgy, he can yell and cuss at me like I'm fighting with a great white.

The worst response, because it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the work he cites, is by Arthur Phillips:

Captain Ahab, from "Moby-Dick," by Herman Melville. I am a terrible beach-o-phobe, tiptoeing into the surf clenched with certainty that I will soon be ray-stung or jelly-scorched. How reassuring then, if I must go to the beach, to be protected by an unwavering maniac, ready to kill anything that swims too close to me.

Phillips obviously hasn't read Moby Dick recently, or he'd remember that Ahab is only interested in killing Moby Dick, and would not lift a finger to kill any sea creature who is not Moby Dick. Perhaps Phillips has forgotten that Ahab allowed a fellow captain's beloved son to die at sea, because a rescue attempt would have diverted him from his search for the white whale? It's amazing that Arthur Phillips had one chance to write one paragraph to answer an easy question, and screwed the assignment up.

Nobody asked me which literary character I would like to take on the beach, but if anybody cares, I'll choose the blind and suicidal Gloucester from Shakespeare's King Lear, just because it would be so much fun to keep setting him up to jump off a tiny dune and then tell him he fell off a gigantic cliff.

So ends our enjoyable visit with Washington Post's Book World. We'll be back with the New York Times Book Review next weekend.
This article is part of the series Reviewing the New York Times Book Review. The next post in the series is Reviewing the Review: June 21 2009. The previous post in the series is Reviewing the Review: June 7 2009.
7 Responses to "Replacing the Review: June 14 2009"

Re: Arthur Phillips. Uh, dude, comma placement and vicarious reading experience. :)

by warren_weappa on

I think I would choose that main character chick from Even Cowgirls Sing The Blues.If I could get over my fear of HIV, the hooker from Leaving Las Vegas.

by Dan on

Robyne Dudly. She is the teen (over 18!) heroine of a porno novel I wrote in the 70s, when paperback porn was a cottage industry. Robyne embodies ... well, you know. Come to think of it, I could no longer handle her. Emma Bovary. No, Sister Carrie. Aw, screw it.

I would pick Mulligan from Ulysses and hope like hell that a barking seal would poke its head up out of the water, so I could throw my voice and say, "Usurper!" just to freak him out big-time.

Not on your short list, Burroughs or Kerouac whose name was my anti-spam word...

by Milton on

Not sure if you read it, but the NYTBR seemed particularly incestuous in your absence this week. There were two well-placed reviews of seemingly unremarkable novels by NYT staffers, and then a further helping of reviews marked with "I first met the author back in..." disclaimers. Perhaps I'm being a bit too shocked by the gambling in the casino here, but the insidery chuminess just seemed particularly glaring.

Milton is speaking out loud some thoughts that I had within... :) This NYTBR did indeed seem peppered with insiderliness.

Loved hearing about the Book World's ad-free return. And I have to get the Walbert.

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