Reviewing the Review: March 28 2010

African-American Jewish Lit-Crit Psychology

Strange currents in the hometown rag today.

When I saw a book called The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter on the cover of this weekend's New York Times Book Review I figured it was a new McSweeney's book or some photoblog tie-in. It turns out to be a serious 500-page study, not of white people per se but of the concept of "whiteness" as it has rippled through history. The author is an African-American professor (and also, it turns out, a good artist), which gives the title some edge. The author of this article is Linda Gordon, also a professor and, based on the "Up Front" sketch of her face, a white person. So Nell Painter is talking about Linda Gordon's people here, and Linda Gordon also seems to have a lot to say about white people. Sounds like an okay book, though unfortunately a photoblog tie-in would probably sell better.

I'd like to read Philip Hoare's Moby-Dick-flavored The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea, but this is no thanks to Nathaniel Philbrick's favorable review, which is written in a breathy and grandiloquent voice. I also want to read Mrs. Adams In Winter: A Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon by Michael O'Brien, an account of a first lady's journey with John Quincy Adams and his entourage through Russia, and this is despite the advice of reviewer Stacy Schiff, who makes the book sound quite appealing but then pulls the rug out when she concludes that "the effect is less like discovering vodka in your water glass than water in your vodka glass" and that Louisa Adams "goes missing in these pages". Wow -- and I was already sold.

Liesl Schillinger provides a beguiling introduction to a psychological novel that sounds John Irving-esque, The Irresistible Henry House by Rebecca Grunwald. My favorite article today is Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's review of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time by Judith Shulevitz, because the article brings some of the intensity of the Jewish Sabbath forward (and reminds me that I am writing this review of the Review on the Sabbath, which is forbidden).

Hey guys, even I'm getting sick of hearing about David Shields' Reality Hunger. The controversial book gets two big mentions today, first in a pretty good endpaper essay by Wen Stephenson that suggests we start using the term "jeremaid" instead of "manifesto" when we write our big literary pronouncements. Not a bad idea. Reality Hunger also gets a shout-out in the letters section, by a guy who doesn't like it one bit:

Luc Sante, perhaps echoing pleasurable, intoxicating confusions found in David Shields’s “Reality Hunger” (March 14), fails to distinguish lies from fictions. Such a conflation can be exciting; it generates an illusion of profundity. The illusion vanishes when the rather obvious distinction it obscures is recalled.

“You could say without exaggeration that everything on TV is fiction whether it is packaged as such or not,” he writes. So writing fails to be an exaggeration only if to call it such would be a gross understatement. Such cute verbal posing conveys little interest in reality. But reality, on Sante’s account, contains patches of the unreal. Adolescents, or persons nostalgic for their condition, may experience a frisson upon hearing such stuff.

It isn’t true, of course. The true things it might be trying to express in a flamboyant way, that for instance the real includes us, and we imagine things that are not, believe things that are not so and want things that cannot be, are as familiar as our heartbeats. And as important. To doll them up as metaphysical revelations, though, is to flirt with the pernicious notion that the self and the world can’t be distinguished.

If Sante has written faithfully about “Reality Hunger,” then Shields has written an escapist manifesto in drag.

WILLIAM FISK
New York

What a blowhard. You know, it's just because people like William Fisk keep saying dumb stuff like this that people like me have to keep writing blog posts like that.

This article is part of the series Reviewing the New York Times Book Review. The next post in the series is Reviewing the Review: April 4 2010. The previous post in the series is Reviewing the Health Care Reform Debate.
4 Responses to "Reviewing the Review: March 28 2010"

Levi,
I must admit despite your urging I haven't dipped into the Reality Hunger tempest in a teapot. From a distance the whole thing smacks of a book like, oh, I don't know, David Sirota's Uprising, just some overly broad catchall. And Fisk's bracing remarks don't sound dumb in the slightest to my ear. Dr. Goldstein's however...

"Shulevitz writes of the Transylvanian Szombatosok, or 'Saturday people,' who in the 17th century numbered between 15,000 and 20,000 and included many of the nobility. Who knew?"

I like a good, old-fashioned manifesto once in a while.

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