Reviewing the New York Times Book Review
It's time for something new.
I've been reviewing the New York Times Book Review every weekend for more than five years now, and even though I recently said I was planning to keep it going, some recent turns have caused me to reconsider. First, I had to skip the review twice in the last three weeks, and just found (somewhat to my surprise) that I didn't miss it very much. Also, I predicted four weeks ago that the Book Review would soon feature an affectionate cover piece on Christopher Hitchens's Hitch-22; not only have I hit that nail on the head, but I also find myself with no desire whatsoever to read the piece. My weekly blogging experiment is getting predictable, and that means it's run its course. I'll keep reading the New York Times Book Review -- I'm a captive fan for life -- but I'm going to start using this weekend spot to do something different, and hopefully more exciting and innovative, instead.
If it's summer, and if the New York Times Book Review is touting beach imagery and "Summer Reading" in its current issue, then why the hell am I indoors reviewing it, instead of out there having fun?
Because I'm a dummy, that's why. But here we go with today's Book Review, which turns out to be a rather good one.
Jonathan Franzen's upcoming Freedom is surely the most anticipated literary novel of the year, at least from the publishing industry's perspective, since he has shown a rare ability to write books that people buy and talk about. I don't quite feel the excitement myself -- I liked The Corrections enough to finish it, but was hardly blown away -- but I'll play along and follow Freedom's progress when it comes out (it will surely be on the cover of the Book Review) in September. Meanwhile, I like the unusual essay Franzen contributes to the Book Review today. It's unusual because the book, Christine Stead's The Man Who Loved Children, was published in 1940 and is not widely known today. It's not even being reissued in a "commemorative edition" (as far as I can tell), though it probably will now be reissued with Franzen's essay as the introduction, and I'll probably buy it. Franzen's long essay digs deep into the book, apparently a Corrections-esque parable about a weird family, and makes a strong impression.
As the newspaper business shrinks, the hazard of insularity increases. Three weeks ago the New York Times Book Review put Christopher Buckley's rave review of the roman a clef The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman of the International Herald Tribune on the cover, ignoring the fact that 99% of the NYTBR's readers have no need for a winking tell-all about newspaper office shenanigans. The "Up Front" column in today's Book Review features Lloyd Grove of the New York Daily News sharing gossip about Rupert Murdoch, subject of War at the Wall Street Journal by Sarah Ellison. One wonders if this type of thing might be better handled by internal email.
But a broader insularity emerges when Graydon Carter (yawn) reviews The Pregnant Widow (yawn) by Martin Amis (yawn) on this week's front cover (yawn). Sex jokes and alcohol jokes abound. Replace the name "Martin Amis" with "Christopher Hitchens" and you've got a ready-made review of Hitch-22, which will surely be lauded as a major work on the cover of the New York Times Book Review very soon (yawn). Here goes the shoveling:
Amis is one of the true original voices to come along in the last 40 years. The fizzy, smart linguistic fireworks, with their signature italicisms, riffs on the language and stunningly clever, off-center metaphors are certainly evident in "The Pregnant Widow".
Five years ago on this day, Sunday, May 15 2005, I decided to start reviewing the New York Times Book Review on Litkicks. Early that morning I posted the first entry in what has become an enduring series, and a big part of my identity within the literary scene.
I had no idea what I was in for when I began this. I remember sitting in my living room wondering what to blog about that calm Sunday morning, and I remember turning to Caryn and saying "I think I'm gonna review the Book Review every weekend". "Sounds like quite a thrill," she said, and I was off.
This is going to be one of the hardest blog posts I've ever written. Not because it's painful, but because the topic is controversial, and I'm going to be arguing with a giant, and my words could be very easily misunderstood. I want to talk about Jewish identity, Israel and anti-semitism.
The occasion is this weekend's New York Times Book Review, which is titled "The Jewish Question" and features book reviews by two high-profile Jewish writers on the cover: Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England by Anthony Julius, reviewed by Harold Bloom, and two books on Martin Heidegger, Heidegger: Tne Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-1935 by Emmanuel Faye, and Stranger From Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness by Daniel Maier-Katkin, reviewed by Adam Kirsch.
The "Up Front" note in today's New York Times Book Review tells us this about Christopher Buckley, who enthusiastically reviews Tom Rachman's newspaper novel The Imperfectionists on the cover today:
Although Christopher Buckley’s most recent book, “Losing Mum and Pup,” is a memoir of his parents, William and Pat Buckley, he’s known primarily as a political satirist and the author of darkly comic novels like “The White House Mess,” “Thank You for Smoking,” “No Way to Treat a First Lady” and “Boomsday.”
I'm not so sure about that. This fortunate son's career has had a couple of high points (getting kicked off his father's magazine for endorsing Barack Obama over John McCain has certainly been the peak), but his mild novelistic satires tend to be safe as milk. They're genial and accessible, and that's exactly the problem. From H. L. Mencken to Paul Krassner, the greatest satirists tend to be angry misfits. Christopher Buckley is way too smooth for the job, and it shows in the resulting work.
It's not widely known, but Bill Keller's name means a lot to New York Times watchers like me. He's the paper's Executive Editor, an abstract title that might or might not carry power but in this particular case carries a lot. He appears to be the newspaper's top hands-on manager, its chief day-to-day decider, and he's also Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus's boss.
I recall Keller's byline showing up exactly once before in the New York Times Book Review, on a minor sports piece too diffuse to allow readers to form any real opinion of him at all. He makes a much more pronounced appearance in today's Book Review with a signature piece on Alan Brinkley's biography of Henry Luce, the dynamic founder of the Time magazine empire, an influential publisher until his death in 1967.
Walter Kirn is back. Owner of the strongest voice among the regular New York Times Book Review fiction critics, he's returned from his Hollywood sojourn to review the latest novel by another confident writer, Ian McEwan (who, for what it's worth, also wrote a book that became a hit movie that didn't win the Academy Award for Best Picture).
But while Walter Kirn seems to be hitting his stride as a novelist, the superb Ian McEwan (whose best books, like Atonement, The Innocent and On Chesil Beach, are worth cherishing) seems to be in that familiar dreaded late phase of literary success, the phase in which an author stops giving his readers what they like best about his work but challenges them to love him anyway. What we love best about McEwan is his gift for excruciating psychological plots in quaint or dramatic historical settings (a grand English mansion in the 1930s, a seedy Berlin apartment in the late 1940s, a disconcerting British beach in the early 1960s). His new Solar deals with climate science and takes place in the unromantic present, and not one of the several reviews I've read has been remotely positive.
I spent some time in a bookstore yesterday deciding whether or not to buy The Bridge, the first major biography of Barack Obama, written by David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker. I'm eager to learn about Obama's background, but a cruise through the pages failed to motivate me towards the checkout counter.
I adore a good exploratory biography, one that meanders through its subject's past to tap into the richness of a solitary human life tinged with destiny. I like and respect David Remnick, but I quickly gathered that The Bridge takes a Bob Woodward-esque approach, chronicling not the private but the public aspects of Obama's life, primarily through an immense series of interviews. In today's New York Times Book Review, critic Garry Wills refers to The Bridge as an "exhaustively researched" life of Obama, and by this he means that David Remnick probably exhausted himself talking to Obama's peers and old friends, gaining every possible vantage point from which to see him. But I prefer biographies that aim, more riskily, to get inside their subject's minds (like, for instance, this one, which I recently praised). The Bridge appears to lack the novelistic blush that enlivens a great work of biography. It seems rather to be a work of professional journalism, a 656-page magazine piece, more topical than existential.
Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, the novel on the cover of today's New York Times Book Review, has a hell of a back story. The author was decorated for extreme bravery in combat as a Marine in Vietnam, and then spent 30 years composing a fictional representation of his experience. Reviewer Sebastian Junger is obviously impressed by the back story -- who wouldn't be? -- but I can't help reading between the lines of his article and wondering if the book's main value isn't in the simulated suffering it provides:
The truth about war is that it contains nearly unbearable levels of repetition, boredom and meaninglessness. To write honestly about war, you should make readers feel they have endured those things as well. Yet no sane novelist wants to inflict that much discomfort on the audience.