Guest-Reviewing the Review: August 9 2009

American Lit-Crit
(Once again, my friend Ed Champion is sitting in to handle the Reviewing the Review slot this weekend. -- Levi)

This may be the slimmest edition of the New York Times Book Review I've seen in some time -– indeed so slim that one wonders if we'll see the Book Review merged with Week in Review. This makes my guest appearance here at Levi Asher's quite easy, but speaks to the possibility that Tanenhaus's Folly may very well be fouled up. While there's plenty of the accustomed mediocrity to be found by colorless devotees of the crud that makes Sammy run (apologies to the recently departed Budd Schulberg), I'm more worked up this week about the Los Angeles Times than the Gray Lady. (What does it say that Sam Tanenhaus actually nabbed somebody to review William T. Vollmann's Imperial while David Ulin couldn't? It's an embarrassment, considering that Vollmann's book goes into great detail on vital issues close to Ulin's turf. But then Ulin has never been cheated out of a dollar in his life.) All this suggests that the apparent online pond scum operating in Terre Haute basements may be more current and curious about books than these fading print-centric sentries. Newspaper books sections are now quite reliable in putting their audiences to sleep, where “thoughtful” writing performed “in moderation” possesses all the punch of Mommy giving you a sugar cube with your castor oil.

But I have strayed from the task at hand. Let's deal with the rich cloacal deposits to be found in New York. Jonathan Rosen's front page review begins with the mimetic promise of excessively florid turn-of-the-century sentences, which isn't itself a bad idea, only to betray Theodore Roosevelt's dualities with a simplistic interpretive take. (As every disgraceful schoolboy knows, our mad man with the mustache was arguably as much a hunter as he was a conservationist. But you wouldn't know it from reading the first half of Rosen's piece. Reverence is the NYTBR's default position. Never mind that another Sam, who was fond of steamboats with possibilities rather than stiff and oarless canoes, once declared that Teddy “as statesman and politician, is insane and irresponsible.”) It's also extremely odd that Rosen doesn't mention how this bio stands up against Edmund Morris's two books, much less many other Roosevelt biographies. Isn't this the audience likely to be interested in this review?

The best that can be said about Rosen's review is that it's written with slightly more flair than the Theodore Roosevelt Wikipedia entry, but it doesn't really excite us about one of the most fascinating figures in American history. Indeed, any reviewer hostile to “encyclopedic inclusiveness” should not have been assigned a 940 page book for review. But maybe Tanenhaus will have the good sense to hire Rosen to review the Cliff's Notes version of Hubert Howe Bancroft's history of California.

Gail Collins is a good matchup for books on Woodstock, and her piece is written in an accessible if slightly huffy tone that, unlike Rosen's piece, manages to cover the basics and zestfully describe organizer John Roberts's desperate efforts to pay shady bands who demanded stern shakes from the money tree in advance. But the piece also feels slightly truncated, as if Collins really required 3,000 words instead of 2,000 to pinpoint the many comparisons.

Enlisting Paul Krugman to write about recent economics books is a good idea –- in large part because it allows the New York Times to show off its name columnists and try to get you to pay for its content. (Hey, Bill Keller: Love your hair! Hope you win!) Unfortunately, Krugman appears to be phoning it in, giving us a general overview of mid-century Chicago financial theorists that we could extract from any book on basic economics history. Do you see a trend here? The New York Times Book Review is less interested in getting people excited about books, and more interested in gutless summaries. Now summaries, even generic ones, aren't nearly as bad as the Los Angeles Times's outright prohibition on emotion. Still, when you've won the Nobel Prize, aren't you allowed to let your hair down?

Paul Barrett's review of the new David Wessel book starts off with an awkward comparison to Stephen King,. (Does Tanenhaus really believe that anyone who read Stephen King's books would ever be interested in his pages? Perhaps so. Keep in mind that this is a company man who tried to oil up Janet Evanovich on video –- with unintentionally hilarious results –- seemingly forgetting that there are more people who read Evanovich's books than his section.) And Barrett's review might interest me if there wasn't such an egregious conflict of interest. You see, Barrett worked with Wessel in the Wall Street Journal's Washington office. And, as such, this is a highly unethical assignment. Sure enough, Barrett is as delicate as a harmless butterfly on an old colleague. An opportunity for honest books journalism is replaced by hand jobs all around.

Steven Heller's review of the recent Harvey Kurtzman collection (which, rather strangely, avoids mention of the beautiful two-volume set of Humbug recently issued by Fantagraphics) is yet another toothless summary. It's almost as if the saltine-flavored editorial team fidgeting inside 620 Eighth Avenue's air-conditioned nightmare thought to themselves, “Hey, this San Diego Comic Con thing seems to be big. And while I will never touch one of those filthy comic books, maybe we can get them to read our section. Is David Hajdu available? Aw fuck, he's not. Douglas Wolk? Fuck. Um, those are our two main comics guys. Um, Steven Heller? Well, he's not the ideal, but we'll take what we can get.” In suggesting that Humbug was merely a “lesser-known humor magazine,” rather than a major effort established by Kurtzman to raise the art and intelligence of satirical magazines, Heller demonstrates the Gray Lady's commitment to selective coverage It is indeed rather strange to see words like “underground” and “rebellion” in a useless mainstream rag that very clearly has no interest in anything aside from cool, gilded skyscrapers.

And these stupid ledes are reading like stupid fortune cookies now, aren't they? “It's always gratifying to hear a new twist on an old joke,” reads Anthony Gottlieb's review of Alison Gopnik's The Philosophical Baby. Hey, Tony, I was still pecking away at my pork fried rice before you sat down at the table. Gottlieb goes onto offer such laughable observations as, “When children are playing, they know they are just playing.” Permit me my own philosophy: When Anthony Gottlieb is writing a review for the New York Times, he knows he's just writing a review for the New York Times. The check is in the mail.

Christopher Caldwell's review of a new Donald Rumsfeld book is almost as bad as Thomas P.M. Barnett's masturbatory 2005 Esquire profile (“Old Man in a Hurry”), failing to poke many holes in a man whom nearly everybody understands to be a failed and an arrogant U.S. Secretary of Defense. An 803 page biography and Caldwell can't dredge up anything but the details we already know? The lists and aphorisms? The staid biographical details? Reviews, by their very nature, are inherently subjective and often considered. What does Bradley Graham's book tell us about Rumsfield that's different? How does it challenge the conventional view of Rummy? These are things we want to read about. We don't turn to a newspaper to have our views reconfirmed. But that seems to be precisely what Tanenhaus and company have in mind. You could get a quadriplegic to take more chances on the racetrack.

And with that last sentiment, I should probably try to find something, aside from the Collins essay, that challenges my present assumptions. And I'm really trying here. But this week's fiction offerings are about as cutting-edge as a ratty James Gould Cozzens paperback. Monica Ali's In the Kitchen came out two months ago. Glen David Gold's Sunnyside came out three months ago. Way to go, Sam! I'm looking forward to next week's review of this hip new Scarlett Thomas book about the troposphere that the kids seem to be talking about. Or was that last year? (Maybe if we ask really nicely, we can get the New York Times to review Percival Everett's I Am Not Sidney Poitier. Sometime in December 2011.) So these two embarrassingly dated reviews arrive with all the joy of discovering cobwebs and mothballs in the attic.

And what penetrating insight do we get from William Grimes?

Although she’s still in the early stages of her career, Monica Ali’s main themes are already coming into focus. "In the Kitchen," like her wildly successful first novel, "Brick Line," takes on multicultural, postcolonial Britain.

Which is about as penetrating as an announcement that an ass has two buttocks. Although he's still in the old fogey stages of his critical career, William Grimes's main themes involve spelling out the bleeding obvious.

John Vernon deserves some kind of prize –- perhaps a kick in the teeth –- for making 1916 Hollywood sound about as exciting as a trip to the dentist. What do we get from mountebank? “You can almost picture the light bulb clicking on in Gold’s mind when he realizes he can organize his material as -— yes! —- a movie.” To use some of the dated vernacular that the Review seems overly fond, of, gag this dude with a spoon.

As to the idiotic Kurt Andersen back page essay, what right does the NYTBR have to run an article on cultural consensus when it continues to marginalize and ignore pivotal artists, when it hires asshats like Dave Itzkoff to write about speculative fiction, and when it continues to treat its audience like unthinking country bumpkins? “Only a handful of literary novelists born since World War II have published a book that reached the top of the Times list,” writes Andersen. Too bad that Andersen's knee-jerk claim is easily refuted by this helpful website listing New York Times #1 bestsellers. Neal Stephenson, David Wroblewski, and Jhumpa Lahiri (with a short story collection, to boot) in the past year? Andersen doesn't know what he's talking about. But then I wonder if anybody over at the Review really does. Glen David Gold might write an entertaining third novel on this Keystone Kops scenario, but the Times's team still couldn't picture the light bulb.
This article is part of the series Reviewing the New York Times Book Review. The next post in the series is Guest-Reviewing the Review: August 16 2009. The previous post in the series is Reviewing the Review: August 2 2009.
2 Responses to "Guest-Reviewing the Review: August 9 2009"

Sorry, Ed, didn't mean to leave you out here without coverage but I didn't see this until now. We've got a tight primary race in the 3rd Council District and I was working the streets with my candidate (who is awesome and can take the bloated sellout of an incumbent--yes she can!--who should have been term limited if not for the Big Betrayal). Anyway, just wanted to say the name Ulin makes me think of Uris, as in Mila 18. If I have time today I'm going to skim that one for pointers. Could come in handy on several fronts. Please tidy up the house before Levi gets back. You know how annoyed he gets (though he doesn't say anything) if you leave dishes in the sink.

There was a 20-page TBR a few months ago. Nearly all of this year's issues have been 24 pages, like this one. So at least in size, there has been one slimmer one this year.

Of course by "slim" you may be speaking of editorial content. Which is sort of nice if it becomes the norm, as some of us with not much that's interesting inside will now be able to describe our fat selves as "slim."

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