The behavioral economics revolution has taught us that no man, including an economics correspondent, is pure homo economicus, a cool and rational calculator. Experiments have shown that even nutrition experts unwittingly eat more ice cream when given larger spoons.
and his style is fun enough:
... despairing tales of investors under water on dusty lots in speculative-build communities that come off like Potemkin villages in Margaritaville.
This is a decent anchor piece for a Book Review devoted to modern history and socioeconomics, though it is frustrating that these books and Vanderbilt's review perpetuate the idea that over-eager homeowners caused our current economic disaster. In fact, it was the insidious and toxic system of securitized mortgages and credit default swaps -- a high-finance game that individual home-owning borrowers had nothing to do with -- that caused our disaster. Without the greed and negligence of the "wizards" who manage our economy from the top, the housing bubble would have led to a small crash rather than a gigantic one. Let's please keep the blame where it belongs.
It's not as clear who gets the blame, meanwhile, for the horrifying drug epidemic described by Nick Reding's Methland, ably reviewed by Walter Kirn. According to this book, crystal meth is doing the same kind of damage to middle American small towns and cities that crack did in American ghettos twenty years ago. This is certainly a serious topic (and it probably deserves the kind of coverage now wasted tracking weirdos like Sarah Palin and Michael Jackson in the news media 24/7).
David Andelman, whose A Shattered Peace was an important original work about the treaty that ended the First World War, reviews a new history, World War One by Norman Stone, and concludes with disappointment that the book has little new to offer. Though I haven't seen this book, I have browsed enough history bookshelves to understand Andelman's complaint: with so much history left unexplored and unexplained for popular audiences, history publishers continue to repeat themselves and copy each other with obscene regularity. I would love to see a good book about the Franco-Prussian War, the Russo-Japanese War, the Crimean War -- all of them highly relevant still today today, yet widely unknown to modern minds. All types of book publishers betray their audiences when they play it safe, but copycat publishing is particularly inexcusable in the field of history.
At least today's Book Review reaches into some worthwhile corners. Jackson Lears finds value in a biography of an important muckraking American journalist who strove to understand the 20th Century in real time, D. D. Guttenplan's American Radical: The Life and Times of I. F. Stone. The Book Review closes with an essay by Daniel Gross on Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class, a socio-economic classic from 1899 that reverberates today.
First up, we have David Brooks on Simon Schama's The American Future: A History. Brooks spends several paragraphs on how he has a thing for Brilliant Books. These Brilliant Books are about America and are "written by a big thinker who comes to capture the American spirit while armed only with his own brilliance." It’s like this:
He usually comes during an election year so he can observe the spectacle of the campaign and peer into the nation’s exposed soul. He visits the stations of officially prescribed American exotica. He will enjoy a moment of soulful rapture at a black church. He will venture out to an evangelical megachurch (and combine condescension with self-congratulation by bravely announcing to the world that these people are more human than you'd think). He will swing by and be brilliant in rambunctious Texas. He’ll be brilliant in the farm belt, brilliant in Las Vegas, reverential in Selma and profound in Malibu.
Along the way, his writing will outstrip his reportage. And as his inability to come up with anything new to say about this country builds, his prose will grow more complex, emotive, gothic, desperate, overheated and nebulous until finally, about two-thirds of the way through, there will be a prose-poem of pure meaninglessness as his brilliance finally breaks loose from the tethers of observation and oozes across the page in a great, gopping goo of pure pretension.
Pretentious verbal jizz. Right on. Here's what I wonder -- for the final third of a Brilliant Book, do you cuddle brilliantly in the brilliant afterglow of brilliance? Because that would be, you know, brilliant.
Anyway, Brooks spends the first paragraphs of the review writing about these Brilliant Books and overusing the word "brilliant" until it almost ceases to make sense. Brooks writes that Schama, who "comes from the realm of enlightened High Thinking that exists where The New York Review of Books reaches out and air-kisses The London Review of Books," (which makes him sound oh so very relevant), is apparently rather good, once he's writing about history instead of the present, although he's somewhat simplistic in his comparisons and judgments. Even so, Brooks is able to forgive Schama and in the end, still calls him an outstanding historian. While I get the fact that Brooks is poking Brilliant Books with a stick, I have to say that now, not only am I not interested in the book in question (which, as it happens, is not a Brilliant Book, so hooray for that), I also hate the word "brilliant." Thanks, Dave.
Laura Miller writes about Walter Kirn's Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever. It's a straightforward review of Kirn's memoir of bullshitting his way through his education, and it's safe to say that this review is also 100% free of literary ejaculate, which I thought would go without saying, but after David Brooks, all bets are off. I'm not entirely convinced about the book, however, because I'm pretty sure that making up meaningless yet impressive-sounding crap about books you haven't actually read is one of the hallmarks of higher education, at least that of a literary bent. (It's what students DO.) But I suppose this is interesting, too -- the fact that even if you aren't really learning the things your professors tell you to learn, you are learning how to game the system. And then there's this:
"Her skin, he marveled, looked like it might have been 'harvested, through some blasphemous new process, from the wrists of infants.'"
I admit that I spent a moment contemplating whether having skin that looks like a baby-flesh-quilt is a compliment or not.
Moving on, I find that I don't really have much to say about Liesl Schillinger's review of Rhyming Life and Death by Amos Oz and The Amos Oz Reader, edited by Nitza Ben-Dov, but I did enjoy Chris Hedges writing about The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan With Doctors Without Borders, partly, I suppose, because I'm a photography nerd, but also because the accompanying illustration that is part graphic novel, part photography, looks cool.
Jess Row's review of Anne Michaels' The Winter Vault is exceedingly name-droppy. In seven paragraphs, we get mentions of the following writers, often in name only, but sometimes also a name-title combination: Marcel Proust, Danilo Kis, Charles Baxter, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michael Ondaatje, Virginia Woolf, Malcolm Lowry, Paul Bowles, John Berger, Nadeem Aslam, Don DeLillo, Kahlil Gibran, and oh yeah, Anne Michaels herself. (I sure hope I didn't skip any.) While making a comparison or two is fine (and the only author Row really compares Michaels to is Ondaatje), the effect here is something along the lines of "Hey guys! I was staring at my bookshelves while I was writing this! Can you tell?!?" Even so, while I am not entirely certain I agree with Row that the sentence "Perhaps we painted on our own skin, with ochre and charcoal, long before we painted on stone," is one that stops time, it is a lovely line. Maybe I'm interested in this book, but I'm not exactly sure.
And David Orr kicks off his review of Frederick Seidel's POEMS 1959-2009 with "Many poets have been acquainted with the night," yet he somehow does not end the sentence with "much like insomniacs, hookers and The Phantom of the Opera." Alas. (Orr instead winds up his sentence with "some have been intimate with it; and a handful have been so haunted and intoxicated by the darker side of existence that it can be hard to pick them out from the murk that surrounds them.") Oh, poets. The thing about this review is that no matter how much Orr seems to want to make me want to read Seidel's collection, he keeps quoting Seidel's poems and I just want to read something else. I'm going to chalk that up to being a matter of personal preference and move on.
What else? Well, Sophie Gee reviews The Last Secret by Mary McGarry Morris, which is about a woman whose husband confesses to an affair. This immediately made me think of Lifetime movies and it didn't get better when I read the rest of the review, despite the fact that Gee never makes this comparison.
Roy Blount, Jr. reviews two books on language -- Origins of the Specious by Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman, and In the Land of Invented Languages, by Arika Okrent. O'Conner and Kellerman refer to themselves in the first person, meaning that they are, collectively, "I," which they explain by stating, "Two people wrote this book, but it’s been our experience that two people can’t talk at the same time -- at least not on the page. So we’ve chosen to write ‘Origins of the Specious’ in one voice and from Pat’s point of view." I think this is all sorts of ridiculous, and Blount seems to as well: "'I was a philosophy major in college,' write Pat and Stewart (if I may be so bold), 'so I have no excuse if I mess this up.' Well, she/they does/do." He then goes on to explain how they screw up a golden opportunity to discuss the common misuse of the phrase "begs the question." On a personal note, using "begs the question" to ask a question used to drive me crazy, until I decided to give up because baby, that battle is lost.
Anyway, there are other things in this New York Times Book Review that I certainly could've written about, but I'm sure you'd agree that I've been going on too long already, so I'm going to stop. Here's the thing, though. I feel now that I've reached the end of this review that I should be passing some sort of judgment. Well, here's the truth: this is probably the first time I've ever read this whole thing before. Oh sure, I subscribe to its feed and skim the headlines over the weekend, occasionally clicking through to skim (or maybe even read) a whole article, but usually headline skimming is enough for me. If you could see how many unread items I have in my feed reader at any time, I'm sure you'd understand. But I decided when Levi asked me to guest review the Review this weekend that I would read it through, and then judge whether or not I would want to read it regularly or continue with my habit of cursory skimming. And, you know, it's not like it was a painful experience. I didn't actively hate anything I read, or anything, which I think is probably positive, yet I wasn't really excited about anything I read, either, and I certainly didn't feel like running to the bookstore right away, which is something that reading good book reviews usually makes me want to do. So, I guess all of that is to say I suppose I'll keep up my weekend headline skimming, because I just wasn't convinced that I need to do more than that.
It's as though the author couldn't resist snatching up a pair of sewing scissors and, now and again, snipping a little rent in the fabric of her own work ...
The rent fabric is clearly a reference to a Jewish funeral tradition -- the misplaced term "rent" is a bald tipoff here, as is the fact that the reviewer is named Leah Hager Cohen. But what is a reference to a Jewish funeral tradition doing in a review of a book about a frontier woman named Sally who has human-faced tadpoles swimming around her face? The review is all over the place, and I have no idea what Joanna Scott's novel is actually trying to be.
I am also puzzled by Pico Iyer's very favorable review of Geoff Dyer's travel novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (and maybe it's my own mind that lacks sharpness today, though it's not like I'm quitting coffee or anything). I read Iyer's piece twice and still can't get past "Huh?". He offers Thomas Mann and Allen Ginsberg as reference points for Dyer's narrative, describing a mission to "summon and advance European high culture with a slack casualness, to mix a with-it, slangy, trans-Atlantic prose with the concerns of classic fiction (about self and morality and God)". Fine, but we don't need to go any further than Allen Ginsberg to achieve that: Iyer's has just described the entire cultural program of Ginsberg's Beat Generation. So what do we need Thomas Mann and Geoff Dyer for? And what do Martin Amis, Susan Sontag, Philip Roth, V. S. Naipaul, W. G. Sebald, Colson Whitehead, Ed Ruscha, Tintoretto, Lewis Thompson, Richard Lannoy, Somerset Maugham, Henry James and Dante have to do with it?
Again, I don't think it should reflect badly on this novel that I can't figure out what the review is talking about. But maybe critics like Pico Iyer and Leah Hager Cohen should stick closer to their source material, present some quotes (so we can get a flavor for the prose being praised), and, most importantly, do a whole lot less spinning. A good fiction review doesn't just plop us into the airy regions of appreciation and free association that result from finishing a good novel -- a good review must take us there. Both Cohen and Iyer appear to be deeply moved by the books they've just read, but their readers are left behind.
I also can't figure out what the appeal of Charlotte Roche's Wetlands is supposed to be. Michael Orthofer got a jump on me this weekend, critiquing critic Sallie Tisdale's review of this book for missing the author's basic message. I'll have to take his word for it -- this is just not my kind of book.
Bad illustrations are a big part of the problem in today's Book Review. I'm not sure what to say about Robert Sullivan's The Thoreau You Don't Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant, a book I skimmed even though, as reviewer David Gessner says "if you already know Thoreau, you already know the Thoreau you don't know." Sullivan's book must have some value, though it does come off like "Walden for Dummies". I wish David Gessner's review adopted a grander tone in sympathy with its subject, but most of all I wish his article wasn't illustrated by a Monty-Python-esque collage featuring champagne being poured into a split-open Henry David Thoreau head. Perhaps this illustration was inspired by Gessner's reference to Thoreau attending parties and "dancing a jig" during his years in Concord, but since the article does not imply that Thoreau was interested in alcohol (I'm pretty sure he wasn't) it's a really dumb connection to make.
Another bad attempt at illustration -- a review page as a web form -- mars Michael Agger's otherwise reasonable review of Julia Angwin's Stealing MySpace. I don't know who is responsible for all today's bad illustrations, but I would be gratified to learn that the Book Review's art editor has been on vacation and will be coming back soon.
Good articles today include Mary Beard on the literary marketplace of classical Rome -- I'd like to read more historical perspectives like this -- and James Longenbach on two new volumes of C. P. Cafavy's poetry translated by Daniel Mendelsohn (Longenbach is enthralled by Mendelsohn's ability to capture the subtle mix of high and low tones that characterized Cafavy's work).
Jennifer Senior's summary of Dave Cullen's Columbine is chilling and effective. Jonathan Freedland is not too impressed by liberal pollster Stanley Greenberg's Dispatches From The War Room, though I may check out the book anyway, and I am also interested in Tall Man: The Death of Doomadgee by Chloe Hooper, a book about a prisoner death in a former Aboriginal prison camp, reviewed by Alison McCullough.
On the economic/psychological front, George Akerlof and Robert Shiller's Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why it Matters for Global Capitalism sounds like a particularly relevant book, and Louis Uchitelle describes it simply and clearly for the reader's benefit. And maybe our animalistic economy is actually starting to get better: this weekend's New York Times Book Review has enough ads for a 28-page issue for the second time this month.
The New York Times Book Review keeps a bench of dull and competent specialists like Alan Light, including John Leland, who gets called up whenever there's a Beat Generation-related title to review. I don't know why they can't find a writer with some panache or maybe an original viewpoint to review these books instead. Leland's summary of The Beats: A Graphic History by Harvey Pekar, Ed Piskor, Paul Buhle and others in today's Book Review could not be more rote and mechanical. He hits all the standard points in the standard history, and even dishes up Kerouac's quote about "the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live". But there are no new ideas or angles in this article; it may as well have been generated by an algorithm. I read the Pekar/Piskor/Buhle comic-format book myself, was pleased by a few of the tangential chapters towards the end but disappointed by the flat aspect at the book's core. Leland doesn't even touch on the book's real deficiencies, instead delivering a sniffy complaint about clunky prose before winding up for a weak conclusion: "Here was a group of writers who hoped to change consciousness through their lives and art ... They rocked."
Supposedly every snowflake in the world is unique. Can't the New York Times Book Review find writers who will make sure their reviews maintain the same standard?
The problem may be intrinsic to the Book Review, because even the thoughtful Walter Isaacson seems to strain for insight in his review of Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution by Richard Beeman. He points helpfully to the book's new emphasis on the role played by a South Carolina politician, Charles Pinckney, but even so his article feels surprisingly conventional (a little pun there, if you think about it). The drafting of the US Constitution is not exactly fresh material, so the main thing the review needs to do is explain why this book is important enough to deserve a full page in this publication. After finishing the article, I'm barely convinced.
Luckily, there are several examples of excellent writing and original thought in today's Book Review. Arthur Phillips' novel The Song Is You is on the cover, and here's reviewer Kate Christensen first sentence:
If novelists were labeled zoologically, Arthur Phillips would fall naturally into the dolphin family: his writing is playful, cerebral, likable, wide-ranging and inventive.
Now we're getting somewhere. Christensen's intense level of engagement gives this article life, and so does David Kirby's in his consideration of poet Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno's Slamming Open The Door. Michael Meyer's endpaper essay about how book publishing advances have evolved over the centuries is extremely informative and useful, but a strong point of view also buttresses the piece, conveying a sense of relevance and conviction that makes the piece not only useful but memorable. I hope the Book Review will run more examinations of book publishing practices (a hot topic that gets much better coverage in the blogosphere) in the future.
I always like anything Liesl Schillinger writes, even though she unwisely kicks off today's review of A Fortunate Age by Joanna Smith Rakoff with an utterly pointless generalization:
Do you remember how bored we all were a decade ago? The cold war was over; the stock market surfed a rising wave; President Clinton had announced a national budget surplus; and good fortune was so rampant that rich neurotics paid therapists to be reassured that it was O.K. to be happy. Belatedly, we've learned how lucky we once were to live in uninteresting times.
Hmm, well, as my memoir-in-progress will shortly show, I was personally going through a terrible divorce and a painful work crisis a decade ago, so "uninteresting times" is hardly the phrase I would use myself to describe 1999. I imagine many other readers of this article will react the same way, since we do not measure out our memories by news headlines but rather by events of personal importance, making generalizations like this one rather silly. Still, I would read a Liesl Schillinger review over an Alan Light or John Leland review any day, and her coverage of A Fortunate Age gets better when she explains the novel's intriguing parallel to Mary McCarthy's The Group.
The Great Weaver from Kashmir by Halldor Laxness and Leaving Tangier by Tahar Ben Jelloun get some attention from Alison McCulloch in a fiction roundup, and Michael Beschloss offers fresh thoughts following Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy. This all adds up to a satisfying Book Review in a Sunday New York Times that also includes a Deborah Solomon session with Joyce Carol Oates and a Wyatt Mason profile of poet Frederick Seidel in the magazine. There's also a searching piece by David Barstow on the mystery of Sylvia Plath's son Nicholas Hughes's suicide on the front page of the news section.
Because Bailey’s “Cheever” is so wise and serious, so human an account, it may be churlish to wish that he had managed to use a bit less material to stand for the events and sensations of a life shaped by its repetitive duration. After all, the hamster’s situation is striking not because it spins the exercise once or twice.
I'm not sure if it will surprise any readers, though, that John Cheever turned out to be a mean bastard. Doesn't that seem to often be the way? In this spirit, I hope the next mean bastard from last century's "Country Club Suburban" era to receive a blast of new attention will be John O'Hara, whose cutting stories hold up so well today, and about whom so little is currently said.
Dean Bakopoulos raves convincingly about Patrick Somerville's The Cradle in today's Book Review. A couple of paragraphs in, I not only feel engaged with Bakopoulos's article but also with Somerville's family drama. The book is now on my list.
I'm very interested in Mike Rapport's history book 1848: Year of Revolution, reviewed today by Gary J. Bass. I've done a bunch of reading on the European upheavals of 1848, certainly a crucial missing link between the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917. I've even wondered if our popular American tendency to celebrate the spirit of the French Revolution while denigrating the spirit of the Russian Revolution has caused our historians to subconsciously bury the evidence of 1848, since we don't like to view these revolutions as belonging to the same historical spectrum when in fact they clearly do. Given the fact that I've already studied this subject in detail, I can't read Gary Bass's review of Mike Rapport's book without preconceptions, and maybe that's why I'm disappointed to find Bass searching for parallels here -- he comes up with the American Revolution of 1776, modern China, the fall of the Soviet Union but not (tellingly) its birth -- and not coming up with anything worth saving. An underwhelming review, but I am glad this book has been published, and I urge any general reader shopping for a new history book to help break our publishing industry's addiction to Iwo Jima and Gettysburg by buying books that, like this one, manage to cover unfamiliar territory.
Back to our favorite wars, Helen Humphrey's World War II novel Coventry takes place in a British city being bombed to oblivion, but Adam Haslett wishes the novel were more elemental and less elegaic.
That's a familiar feeling. The most confusing review here is Ammon Shea on John McWhorter's Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: the Untold History of English. Shea doesn't say so directly but he clearly dislikes the book (the fact that he presents a couple of other "more comprehensive" books about the English language in his closing paragraph makes this perfectly clear). Yet he fails to help us understand what's in the book, and also fails to explain his beef with McWhorter in a way readers can understand -- it sounds like a lot of linguist inside baseball, capped by the revelation that McWhorter begins sentences with "Yeah" and "But check this out". If that's the sum total of Shea's case against McWhorter's book, McWhorter wins.
I should enjoy Lee Siegel's endpaper essay on George Steiner, since it is a brainy piece that name-drops Nietzsche and Arthur Koestler. Siegel adopts a plaintive, searching tone here:
To put it bluntly: Was it a pleasure or a punishment to read Steiner? Did he present art and ideas as the entertaining urgencies that they are, or did culture become for him -- as it does for certain people -- simply an extension of ego, a one-man kingdom, the keys to which he flaunted and jingled under the reader’s nose while he solemnly pranced back and forth, reciting names of the distinguished dead as though they were aliases for himself?
But I feel the smug presence of Siegel's own problematic personality too strongly for me to able to enjoy this piece. I don't know if it's a pleasure or a punishment to read George Steiner, but I definitely feel that the New York Times Book Review has been punishing us with Lee Siegel for too long, and I really don't know what we ever did to deserve it.
I don't know if this is the guiding philosophy for the New York Times Book Review in 2009, but they do seem to be making some good choices lately. For the second week in a row, foreign literature gets a lot of attention in today's issue. Natasha Wimmer urges us to discover Argentina's Cesar Aira, either by reading Ghosts or any of his other books, and I intend to follow her advice. This issue also covers four books dealing with China's modern history, including Pico Iyer's cover review of a novel called The Vagrants by Yiyun Li, a purgative tale about the violent excesses of Communist groupthink in a small town during the early post-Mao era. I can't think of many periods in history that cry out more for understanding than China in the last 50 years; by all credible historical accounts, Mao's horrific experimentation with social and economic engineering amounted to the cruelest mass murder of all time, claiming more victims than Hitler and Stalin combined, and yet these horrors typically present a blank face to the outside world, so blank that many outside China (and inside? I don't know) have no understanding at all of what took place during the Mao years.
An oral history by Xinran called China Witness: Voices From a Silent Generation also attempts to bridge this comprehension gap, though Joshua Hammer is not impressed by the author's approach. Jess Row, meanwhile, was impressed when he read Yu Hua's popular Chinese novel Brothers in its original language, but he fears that particulars of this story make it impossible to translate accurately. Anyone interested in the art and science of literary translation will want to weigh his arguments here. One more book about China shows up today, Postcards From Tomorrow Square by James Fallows, reviewed by Jonathan Spence. I doubt I'll find the time, but I'd like to read all four.
I've just been writing about all the reviews I've read of Jonathan Littell's long Nazi-era fable The Kindly Ones. I have little need for yet another take, though David Gates' ultimately negative appraisal is lively and informative enough to maintain my interest. Okay, now I'm done reading reviews of this book for real.
It's certainly my own flaw as a reader that I don't like long books, that I resent it when an author presumes that I have time to read 992 pages (Jonathan Littell) or even 581 pages of the latest installment in a longer cycle of books about a single character, which is what Eric Kraft's Flying amounts to. I begged out of Ed Champion's energetic roundtable about Kraft's latest Peter Leroy book for this reason, despite the fact that the few pages I read were extremely clever. I do feel guilty about not continuing with the novel (which Laura Miller likes in today's Book Review) but I still think it's a bad strategy for an author to write a long series of interlocking books that must be read together for a complete experience. Readers want to first-date our novelists these days -- we're not looking to marry them.
Today's impressive NYTBR also includes a moderately intriguing summary by Jill Abramson of Zoe Heller's The Believers, another novel I want to read and may or may not find time for.
Finally, Rebecca Barry wins big points for reviewing a second-person novel by Patrick deWitt called Ablutions: Notes for a Novel and not once mentioning Jay McInerney.
As the author of the family Holocaust memoir The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, Mendelsohn's appreciation for Littell's novel seems to carry extra weight, and as an expert in classic literature he is well qualified to explain its careful references. Mendelsohn helpfully lays out significant parallels to Aeschylus's Oresteia trilogy, and brings not only Jean-Paul Sartre's The Flies but also Herman Melville's Moby Dick into the mix. An excellent read, but can I now be excused from reading Littell's 992 page book? I think I get the main idea now, and I wonder if there is much more to get.
Since I carry my own recurring obsession with the topic of genocide, I can't approach a book like The Kindly Ones without bringing some baggage. If I understand correctly, Littell's intention with this novel is to shove our face in horror, and to shock us by presenting a credibly intellectual and well-adjusted "hero" who is also an unapologetic Nazi and a maniacal sadist. That's fine, but I've already read dozens of books about the Holocaust (Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke was, for me, the most important recent work, William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich the most essential history, Primo Levi's If This Is A Man and Art Spiegelman's Maus the most emotionally resonant stories, and Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil the best philosophical treatment). While I'm all for burying genteel faces in horror, my own face has already been buried plenty.
I also find it inexplicable that we continue to romanticize and rhapsodize about the European Jewish Holocaust of the 1930s and 1940s as if it were unique when in fact genocide is so prevalent, so common, so cheap around us. For instance, a vicious, carefully orchestrated holocaust rages in the Sudan right now, as we blog, as we twitter. Reviewers of Jonathan Littell's novel talk about the murder of children and grandmothers, but communities including children and grandmothers are being ground into nonexistence today in Darfur, and very few people seem to think anything can be done about it.
It's ironic that the Holocaust has become such a cottage industry -- shelves in bookstores, museums in cities around the world -- even as "holocaust denial" grows into its own odious cottage industry, taking root from the Vatican to Iran.
I think there's plenty more to be said about the meaning of genocide in the modern world, but I'm not sure I need to read a 992-page indulgence in fictional evil when I can read articles like this, this, this, this or this in today's New York Times.
Now, I bristle at the idea that John Ashbery is a great poet (and also at Orr's unquestioning assumption that Elizabeth Bishop, Orr's obvious #1 fave, was a great poet). As far as I can see, there hasn't been an undeniably great poet since T. S. Eliot. I'm not even sure about William Carlos Williams (though he wrote a great poem, by which I mean the long one, not the short one) or about Allen Ginsberg (though he was certainly a great something). Write "The Waste Land" and I'll call you great -- a few pretty poems doesn't necessarily cut it.
But of course this article is designed to make readers bristle, and Orr does a pretty good job of stirring up the soup, even though I think the NYTBR's sharpest poetry critic William Logan (who gets a surprising side-swipe from Orr here) would have written a more authoritative piece. Orr is on shaky ground when he contrasts poetry with golf (Orr really has terrible luck with sports metaphors) in trying to depict poetry's ethereal High Art purity, because many areas of poetry are completely unconcerned with ethereal perfection. Take the slam scene, for instance, which is all about entertaining customers in nightclubs. Poetry? Yeah. Perfection? Never. Or take the growing field of poetry therapy, in which practitioners search out work that will be significant to their patients, with no concern for greatness or perfection. Orr mistakes one segment of contemporary poetry -- the award-coveting academic journal scene -- for all of it.
At least Orr takes on a big name, Czeslaw Milosz, quoting some clumsy lines to prove that Milosz is not a great poet. But this approach can backfire. I know for a fact that John Ashbery has written some bad lines, though I guess Elizabeth Bishop probably never has.
It's a lively piece and a welcome one, and Orr is especially good on the ironies inherent in this kind of exercise, remarking correctly that "when we talk about poetic greatness, we’re talking about style and persona, even when (or maybe, especially when) we think we aren't."
Speaking of pointless exercises, I wish the NYTBR had given Walter Kirn a tougher assignment than beating up David Denby, author of the attention-hungry and "controversial" (they wish) Snark: A Polemic in Seven Fits, which argues that today's special brand of internet-fed sarcasm is ruining everything. Of course Walter Kirn tears this dumb book to pieces, but it's a waste of Kirn's talents. Couldn't we have invited him to take on Roberto Bolano instead? I am particularly revolted, anyway, to learn from this review that Denby's book includes cute chapter titles like A Brief, Highly Intermittent History of Snark, Part 2, in which the author brings his search almost to the present era, celebrating and deploring certain publications and exposing the snarky tendencies of a famous author. My god.
Previous critics have remarked that David Denby's Snark polemic resembles a book called For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today by a young man named Jedediah Purdy that also caused a pretend sensation in 1999. I'm sure it's no accident -- this is an anti-snark theme issue -- that Jedediah Purdy shows up in this issue with a review of Beyond the Revolution: A History of American Thought From Paine to Pragmatism by William H. Goetzmann. This is a provocative book attempting to make some new connections between American history and American philosophy, and Purdy, now a professor at Duke and Yale, obviously knows this field. His muscular piece manages to tie together Oliver Cromwell, Henry David Thoreau and Barack Obama in a few quick paragraphs, and Purdy doesn't even forget to review the book at hand. Well done.
There's one truly moving fiction review in today's issue: Roxana Robinson on Joan London's The Good Parents, which seems to operate at the same intense pitch as Robinson's own piercing novels about beautiful families in tragedies. This praise-filled article brought to me some of the power of Roxana Robinson's own writing, and even though I think she ought to temper her superlatives -- one should not use the terms "shimmering", "rippling" and "glimmering" in a single glowing review, for fear of too much light -- I am very glad to read this review on a weekend morning, I look forward to reading Joan London's book, and I hope Roxana Robinson will show up in these pages again.
I went to see a new production of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. I like to go to the opera, but I can only afford to sit in the cheap seats in the second balcony, up in the very stratosphere of the opera house.
You can still experience the full pageantry of an opera in these seats. The acoustics in the Civic Opera House are so good that the sound quality is excellent as far away as row Z. The problem is it's difficult to see the singers. Most cheap-seaters bring opera glasses or binoculars and spend the whole time looking through these gizmos. I scoff at these people. To me, the singers, seen from the second balcony, look like an opera company in miniature. I imagine that I am watching an opera performed inside one of those glass globes that you see at Christmas, the ones that if you turn them over and shake them, cause a snow storm to fall on the village within. The tiny players, although small to the eye, have magnificent voices that carry all the way to my seat in the highest altitudes of the theatre.
My fantasy intact, I settled in. The orchestra started. The curtain went up on act 1, scene 1. I was transported to Catfish Row, the fictitious black community in Charleston, South Carolina, where the story takes place. Clara, the wife of Jake the fisherman, is singing a lullaby to her baby. The lullaby is the most famous song from the opera - “Summertime” - a song that has been recorded by everyone from Duke Ellington to Janis Joplin.
How about an aromatic whiff of who cares? And I'm not giving away sympathy points even though this is the same Marie Arana who accepted a buyout to resign as editor of Washington Post's Book World in December, setting the stage for Book World's demise. The fact, I'm a little perturbed to learn that Arana spent 2007 and 2008 writing a decorative novel that smells of "bougainvillea and lemons" (according to NYTBR reviewer Jan Stuart). She should have spent 2007 and 2008 working harder at her day job, and then maybe, just maybe (well, okay, probably not, but just maybe) Washington Post Book World would have been able to survive.
You've got to give New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus credit for one thing: he puts his day job ahead of his book project, which in his case is a biography of American conservative hero William F. Buckley that has already taken on a mystical Moby-Dick-like aura in the minds of many NYTBR-watchers, and will certainly be a big deal when it finally comes out. We'll circle back to Sam Tanenhaus and American conservativism below, but first let's trudge through the rest of this weekend's Book Review.
It's another thin issue -- is 24 pages now the Book Review's permanent magic number? -- and not a particularly exciting one. I was excited to see William Safire on the cover, but the venerable pundit and pop-linguist turns in an earnest and largely wit-free summary of numerous new books about Abraham Lincoln. Once again, who cares? The guy's been dead. Safire ackowledges that David Donald's 1995 Lincoln is the biography to read, but if so, we must wonder, why do the rest of these retreads deserve front-page treatment? Michael Burlingame's new Abraham Lincoln: A Life runs to 2000 pages, according to Safire. I'm sure it's a scholarly marvel, but, again, who cares?
Even the usually sparky Erica Jong is uncharacteristically windy in her review of Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Althill:
Back in the '90s, Daphne Merkin, one of our best critics and trend-watchers, predicted that "if the last decade of the 20th century is to produce any great literature" it will be "around the subject of death".
What? Why? Was the 90s the "death decade" and nobody told me? This opening simply makes no sense. Later in the same review, Jong begins a paragraph thus:
Death has always been a subject for serious writers, no less so today than in earlier times.
Oooookay. One might imagine death to be an "evergreen" subject, given human mortality and all, so I think Erica Jong is trying way too hard to spot trends here. She should just write about the book instead.
The fact is, nothing in today's New York Times Book Review is as interesting as a broad piece published a few days ago in the New Republic by the Book Review's embattled and admirably stubborn editor Sam Tanenhaus, titled "Conservatism is Dead". Always more interested in politics than fiction and poetry, Sam Tanenhaus was eventually outed as a card-carrying neo-conservative by former NYTBR contributor Jim Sleeper, who now crows upon reading the latest article that "American Conservatism's Original Sin is Confessed". Tanenhaus's piece is a heartfelt and provocative coming-to-terms, locating the heart of conservatism somewhere beyond the noisy recent banalities of Sarah Palin, John McCain and George W. Bush, and looking forward to a more intellectually honest future. It's a long article, but worth a slow and careful read. I never considered Tanenhaus a credible authority on literature, but when he plays his home field he can be truly impressive. Hell, I'll probably even read his Buckley book when it comes out.