Reviewing the Review: November 8 2009

Fiction Lit-Crit Poetry Politics Psychology
I was wondering if Sam Savage's worthy The Cry of the Sloth would get attention in the New York Times Book Review (Savage's earlier Firmin did not). The novel only gets a paragraph within Joseph Salvatore's "Fiction Chronicle" in this weekend's Review, and Salvatore finds that "as rich as the humor is, such satire does not finally sustain the novel". It did for me, but I'm glad to see the book showing up here at all (along with Nick Cave's Death of Bunny Munro, which doesn't blow away the hard-to-please Salvatore either).

James Parker definitely appears to be blown away by Stephen King's ambitious Under The Dome, a 1074-pager that seems to recall his classic The Stand in imagining the United States of America in the throes of a slow-motion metaphorical apocalypse. Parker's review starts at the boiling point and never cools off:

Now that the town halls have blazed with vituperation, and fantastical patriots are girding themselves for fascist/socialist lockdown, Americans of a certain vintage must be feeling a familiar circumambient thrill. Boomers, you know what I’m talking about: cranks empowered, strange throes and upthrusts, hyperbolic placards brandished in the streets -- it’s the '60s all over again! Once more the air turns interrogative: something's happening here, but we don’t know what it is, do we, Mr. Jones? Stop, children, what’s that sound?

That's a lot of big words and at least two song references. I'll probably never read King's book (1074 pages? Has he been hanging around with Vollmann?) but I enjoyed this review.

John Irving is one of a handful of contemporary authors who've written books I dearly and obsessively love (in this case, the great, great World According to Garp) but whose new novels I never read. Joanna Scott's dismissive review of Last Night in Twisted River, Irving's latest shaggy bear story, quickly convinces me not to make an exception of this one. I'm sorry, John. That was a hell of a book you wrote in 1978, but sometimes lightning strikes exactly once.

I will, however, look up poet Amy Gerstler's Dearest Creature after enjoying David Kirby's rave on her behalf, and I'm also interested in Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna, which fictionalizes scenes involving Leon Trotsky and Frida Kahlo, even though it's no surprise that Liesl Schillinger likes the book (I'm still waiting to read about a book she doesn't manage to like).

This weekend's richly packed issue includes two psychological pieces: Hanna Rosin on Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided, a critique of positive thinking, and Nicholas Thompson's consideration of socio-quant Bruce Bueno De Mesquita's The Predictioneer's Game. There's also a short appreciation of David Nokes' Samuel Johnson: A Life by the esteemed Harold Bloom that somehow escapes being annoying or stuffy.

Finally, a long letter by author Mark Danner about the harsh review George Packer gave to his Stripping Bare the Body: Politics Violence War three weeks ago has quickly gotten attention in the Huffington Post and elsewhere. I did not know that Packer and Danner had a long history together, but when I wrote about that article I did sense something strangely personal, and definitely out of place, in the piece. Here's what I wrote:

Packer is impressed by Danner's hands-on reporting but can't stand his writing and even, strangely, accuses him repeatedly of being "erotically" attracted to the horrors of war and political terrorism. I suppose Packer's got to call the shots the way he sees them, but the evidence presented here does not strongly back up the rather shocking charge, and by the end of this review I simply wish another reviewer had explained the book better.

I'm glad Danner wrote a letter; I've often heard that a shunned author should never write to a publication objecting to a bad book review, and I never understood why. If an author has a legitimate gripe, why not get it out there? It's not like the extra publicity isn't going to help the book's sales.

This article is part of the series Reviewing the New York Times Book Review. The next post in the series is Reviewing the Review: November 15 2009. The previous post in the series is Releasing the Review: November 1 2009.
1 Response to "Reviewing the Review: November 8 2009"

by Dan on

I bought Cry of the Sloth after the review here, and was disappointed. The writing is quite good, and there are some gems -- the planned writing conference will include a banquet and formal dance! -- but from the first paragraphs it is clear what the progression and the end of the novel will be. Also, I found the excerpts from the protagonists 'novel' unreadable. As they must be, but who wants to slog through it all? I didn't stick around for the final scenes.

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