It's a funny thing about book reviews. It's been documented by publishing industry researchers that a negative book review can sometimes bump sales as well as a positive one, and good writers have bemoaned the fact that a great review, even a great front cover review in the New York Times Book Review, might not help sales at all. Of course, publisher incompetence can help cause the latter situation, as was recently revealed in a rather shocking New York Magazine interview:
So the book got on the cover of The New York Times Book Review and I called my editor and told him and he said, "Well, you know it will be a critical darling, but it won’t sell." And he had been saying all along that it won’t sell and I thought, what in the fuck is the matter with you? Are you kidding me? If it’s gonna sell, it’s gonna sell. Every newspaper in the country has reviewed it. Then it was sold out on Amazon for six weeks, and the reason is they refused to print books. I kept saying to him, "You could be selling so many books in Des Moines, Iowa, in Lincoln, Nebraska in Denver, Colorado, all these places, where people read, where there are great independent bookstores," and they kept saying, "No, mostly I think we’re going to push this in L.A. and New York." I thought, you dumb fuckers. Meth is not a problem in New York except for in the gay community, but it’s a problem everywhere else. But there was this feeling: "Well, yeah, but people out there don’t really read."
-- Nick Reding, author of Methland (reviewed in NYTBR July 5 2009)
There's a short story by Max Beerbohm, published in 1919, that sometimes comes up in philosophy classes. "Enoch Soames, a Memory of the Eighteen-Nineties" tells the story of Max Beerbohm, the author-as-character-within-the-novel, and his encounter with Enoch Soames, an unsuccessful writer and hanger-on in the London cafe scene in the 1890s. Enoch is frustrated that no one recognizes his genius, so he makes a deal with the devil to go forward in time and read about himself in the future where, he is sure, history will vindicate him.
In due course he and Max meet the devil himself in one of the cafes, and Enoch disappears, to pop up in 1997, where he searches the British Library to find out what we've thought of him. Some time later, he reappears back in the cafe, despondent. Before the devil spirits him away he explains to Max that he found only one reference to himself, in a work of fiction -- a short story by Max Beerbohm! And then he and the devil disappear. Max-the-character explains that he feels compelled to write this story about Enoch, as it will be the only way his friend will be known at all, despite the fact that it will be classified as fiction. He begs us to take it as biography.
The philosophical problem is, who and what is Enoch Soames? Within the framework of the story, are we to take him as fictional (as we do, and as the author-as-author does), or as "real," as both Enoch and the author-as-character insist that we should? The logical knots in this seemingly simple puzzle have yet to be fully untangled.
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.
But some critics aim beyond serviceability and try to deliver reviews that are notable works in themselves. I've noted before that poetry critic William Logan's articles are always events: I cannot think of any other major critic for a major publication who invariably attempts such leaps. Today Logan reviews Louise Gluck's A Village Life, and once again I enjoy the dazzling performance:
Even before the unknown versifier of Isaiah, poets probably looked at a lush meadow and saw a graveyard. Louise Gluck’s wary, pinch-mouthed poems have long represented the logical outcome of a certain strain of confessional verse -- starved of adjectives, thinned to a nervous set of verbs, intense almost past bearing, her poems have been dark, damaged and difficult to avert your gaze from.
Her early poems were all elbows and knees, Plathian with a rakish edge, full of wordplay and tight jazzy rhythms. Gluck became a minimalist's minimalist, moody, anxious to her fingertips -- a nail biter’s nail biter.
Sure, there's more William Logan than Louise Gluck here, but that's okay, and really there's plenty of both. The problem with a passionate critical style is that it can overcook easily. The front page of today's review offers Jonathan Lethem on the new Lorrie Moore novel, A Gate at the Stairs. Is it just me? I sense that Lethem is trying to work up a swoon here, but his hand is unsteady and the words pour out with a weak simper:
The wrinkly recursiveness of her language seems lodged at the layer of consciousness itself, where Moore demands readers’ attention to the innate thingliness of words.
It's as if he's trying to sound like William Logan, but doesn't have the stuff. Fortunately the article is brief, but it's never convincing, and I'm plagued throughout by a sense that Lethem's paying more attention to his words than to the book. It's just too much fancy talk:
Finally, this book plumbs deep because it is anchored deep, in a system of natural imagery as tightly organized as that in a cycle of poems like Ted Hughes’s “Crow.” The motif is birth, gestation and burial, a seed or fetus uncovering its nature in secrecy, a coffin being offered to the earth. The motif declares itself upfront in Tassie’s father’s potatoes, which like sleeper cells grow clustered in darkness and then, unearthed, assume names: Klamath pearls, yellow fingerlings, purple Peruvians and Rose Finns.
Stylistic questions aside, this Book Review is packed with worthwhile pieces, like Elizabeth Hawes on J. M. G. LeClezio's Desert, and Jess Row on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's The Thing Around Your Neck. I was very puzzled by Adichie's earlier Half of a Yellow Sun -- the Biafran War setting interested me greatly but her storytelling skills seemed lacking. Row's review hints at some problems here as well, but finds the new book valuable regardless, and that's enough to convince me to give it a shot.
The most unintentionally hilarious piece here -- indeed, the most hilariously bad article I've read in the NYTBR in several months -- is an article by Dominique Browning, titled "Reefer Madness", about Julie Myerson's The Lost Child: A Mother's Story. This is a memoir about a modern family with a son whose "cannabis habit so deranged him that he became physically violent. He was 17 years old."
Are they sure it was the cannabis that caused the problem? Browning's review fails to address this question, and indeed Browning loves the book and appears to be way too excited about the evils of this (mild, I thought) scourge upon our youth:
Her son is smoking skunk, she learns, a strain of cannabis whose THC content is much more potent than garden-variety pot -- except that it has become garden variety. I had never heard of skunk either, but a quick search online led me to a souk of seeds for the home farmer, advertising up to a toxic 22 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content in some strains. My shopping cart remained empty as I browsed in disbelief. Even as stronger varieties are being bred and marketed, medical research is linking cannabis use to behavioral and cognitive changes reminiscent of psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression and anxiety disorder. And yet we find ourselves arguing about whether pot is addictive or a gateway drug or should be legalized. We are collectively losing our minds. "The Lost Child" is a cry for help and a plea for a clear acknowledgment of the toll this drug is taking on our children.
First of all, nobody calls it skunk, and in fact this allegedly exotic strain of potent marijuana is what most people commonly refer to as, well, marijuana. The strong varieties are also sometimes called sour diesel, or kind bud, or chronic (ask Jonathan Lethem about it) and they're pretty popular. It certainly reasonable to discuss whether marijuana should be legal, and while Julie Myerson's son obviously has serious problems, I can't buy into the implied cause-and-effect this book suggests (which Browning completely buys into). Many, many, many 17-year-olds and others of all ages smoke pot without turning into rage-filled monsters that hit their mothers and destroy their families. As far as Dominique Browning's implication that cannabis use can cause schizophrenia goes, I haven't heard a health-based claim so ridiculous and empirically unfounded since the last time Sarah Palin spoke up about national health care.
This weekend's New York Times Book Review has a lot of ups and downs, but for the second week in a row the list of authors represented is truly impressive, and I'm really looking forward to the Book Review's fall season, since there are a lot of interesting books heading our way.
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.
A critic who sets out to write a strongly negative review ought to open with a powerful point, but Caleb Crain actually punches himself with the opening paragraph, which posits many doubtful assertions as fact:
Work is activity that earns money. Lucky people enjoy their work, but even they might not do it without pay. To the extent that pay motivates, people work for the sake of something else -- so they can buy food, shelter, clothing, security, luxury or leisure -- and against their inclinations. Now, to do anything against one’s inclinations is to put one’s dignity at risk. It is fascination with this cold truth that draws children to blend sludge out of refrigerated leftovers and then dare one another: "Would you drink it for a hundred dollars? For a thousand?" Everyone has a price in theory; a worker is someone who has agreed to a number. He is exposed as someone under constraint, like a prisoner in a stockade. To mock him for being less than perfectly free in his thoughts and actions is easy.
This is some dense prose, and it expresses a surprisingly shallow point. Our connections with our jobs go much deeper than money. For many people, work is identity. It gives us our pride, our sense of self. Certainly work is a key part of who we are, not an activity we engage in with calculated detachment. I really don't know where Caleb Crain is coming from with this opener. He also doesn't mention the book he's reviewing.
He's better when he gets to the book, which, in his opinion, reeks of condescension. Crain finds de Botton a highly unreliable and capricious journalist, and he scores one killer punch here, describing de Botton's account of a dull interview with a bureaucrat in London:
De Botton decides that he pities the man for his hollowness. But it is evident that he was outplayed -- that he wasn’t prepared with questions detailed or insightful enough to oblige the executive to take him seriously. It shouldn’t have surprised him that the head of an accounting firm would know well how to keep his cards to himself while going through the forms of transparency.
Crain's point about de Botton's unconscious snobbery is a serious one, but interestingly Crain's prose has a snobbish undertone too, as when he drops a reference to the classical music term "ostinato" into a sentence. I can't stand that kind of pretension -- if I want to read about classical music I'll read a damn book by Alex Ross (and, to be honest, I don't want to read about classical music).
Crain's review also fails to connect the book to the long tradition of non-fiction literature about Americans at work: The Organization Man by Wiliam Whyte, Working by Studs Terkel, Gig by John Bowe and Marisa Bowe. All in all, I'll hand this match to Alain de Botton. Caleb Crain does not have a strong enough offense to pull this bad review off.
That's about as exciting as this weekend's NYTBR gets. Paul Bloom's meditation upon The Evolution of God by Richard Wright is meant to be a rave (he calls the book brilliant) but the points I manage to glean from this review are wishy-washy. Speaking of condescension, both Bloom and Wright seem to assume that only monotheistic Western religions deserve our awe, and I don't think much of the attitude expressed by this:
In fact, when it comes to expanding the circle of moral consideration, he argues, religions like Buddhism have sometimes "outperformed the Abrahamics." But this sounds like the death of God, not his evolution.
It's strange to imagine that anyone would want to read a modern history of religion that doesn't take Buddhism seriously; this book is called The Evolution of God and in my observation the Eastern religions have a more highly evolved sense of God than the Western ones.
Today's NYTBR also features David Gates on Love and Obstacles by Alexsander Hemon and Jeremy McCarter on a new biography of playwright Arthur Miller by Christopher Bigsby.
The June 21 issue of the New York Times Book Review gets off to an bad start with Katie Roiphe's front-page review of A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century by Cristina Nehring (the review also briefly discusses Against Love by Laura Kipnis).
The problem with Roiphe's review is twofold: lack of specificity and excessive credulity. She continually hints at "riveting stories" and "creative interpretations," yet, as Rolphie presents them, Nehring's ideas sound as cliched as possible:
Elsewhere, Nehring interrogates our steadfast insistence on balanced, healthy relationships, our readiness to condemn doomed, impossible entanglements. She argues that it may in fact be a sign of health to enter into a relationship that is turbulent, demanding or unorthodox. She praises long-distance relationships, arduous relationships, relationships with men who are elusive, relationships the therapeutic culture adamantly opposes. She asks, “Could it be that the choice of a challenging love object signals strength and resourcefulness rather than insecurity and psychological damage, as we so often hear?”
If Rolphie in fact sees this for the bland attempt to be contrarian that it sounds like, she doesn't let on. Elsewhere, Rolphie quotes Nehring: "We have been pragmatic and pedestrian about our erotic lives for too long," and is content to let this remark stand, despite the masses of "hotter sex" books available in any bookstore, as well as the mainstreaming of various sexual devices and techniques considered the purview of perverts and Penthouse readers only a generation or two ago. The review concludes with that most damning of critical responses, faint praise:
Nehring takes on our complaisance, our received ideas, our sloppy assumptions about our most important connections, and for that she deserves our admiration. Even if one doesn’t take her outlandish romantic arguments literally, this is one of those rare books that could make people think about their intimate lives in a new way.
Dennis Lehane's review of The Secret Speech, the second novel by writer Tom Rob Smith, is purely average. It's your typical "several grafs of plot summary plus a couple grafs of opinion"; none of the writing is particularly good or bad, with the exception that one character is described as "beset by galactic levels of guilt." I only remark on it here since it is one of only two full-length fiction reviews in this issue and therefore seems like a precious thing.
Toni Bentley's review of The East, the West, and Sex: A History of Erotic Encounters is a good example of a review that would have been fine if it was better edited. The book is about harems and Western explorers' interaction with them, a topic not difficult to say at least a few interesting things about. Bentley does just that and quotes the book's interesting thesis: “most of the world [pre-20th century] still subscribed to what I have been calling the harem culture, and in only the few countries of the West, the small peninsular domain of Christendom, did a different attitude prevail.”
So far so good, although a little more than halfway through, the review loses focus entirely and just becomes a series of unrelated paragraphs. It probably could have been a fine review, but the length draws attention to the loss of focus; additionally Bentley, a dancer and author of books about dance, is way out of her depth here, and it shows. There are also an alarming number of annoying parentheticals, such as "It is not news that Christianity, with its Virgin Birth (just to start things off right), has had little interest in exploring human sexual desire or potential. Sexual energy is way too out of control even for the most committed Christians (see the Holy Trinity of Bakker, Swaggart and Haggard)." As a final note, none of the book's illustrations are discussed, perhaps forgivable in a review of another book, but not in one of a book about harems.
Ginia Bellafante's review of the novel The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (our second and last full-length fiction review), starts off annoyingly enough with a paragraph devoted to gossiping about the million dollar advance paid to the author. But after that first graf the review is actually rather good. It seems that author Reif Larsen has written something like a cross between the pomo novel of information and What Maisie Knew. That Bellafante gives a sense of this without dull plot summary or a lapse of critical opinion is fine work. Her negative review feels merited and her observations feel precise: "Roland Barthes made distinctions between those texts so micromanaged that they ensured reader passivity and those texts, active texts, that invited a greater degree of participation. The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet merely creates the illusion of choice."
However, I disagree with Bellafante that one of the plagues of MFA programs is that they produce writers who don't "aim to mean much" with their books. I have no idea if MFA programs produce writers of this type or not, but if they do, that's a good thing. I'll take one writer who just cares about the craft of fiction over ten trying to make their novel "meaningful." Good art creates its own meaning, by virtue of being good art.
Ross Douthat's review of Digital Barbarism, a nonfiction work by the novelist Mark Helprin, is interesting, largely because Helprin is one of very few public intellectuals to try and argue that American copyright law doesn't go far enough in protecting intellectual property. However, we cannot count on Douthat to present the other side of this issue; for instance, his statement that "a more latitudinarian copyright regime" as "a cause celebre for a certain class of Internetista" is a ridiculous mischaracterization of a widespread movement backed by far more than a few over-active bloggers and cranky professors.
Unfortunately it's tough to find much of either side of the argument here. In his review, Douthat seems more interested in demeaning bloggers and commenters on websites than actually outlining what Helprin says or explaining exactly which people and ideas Helprin is arguing for or against (other than the obvious boogeyman, Lawrence Lessig). In other words, this is more like one of the op-eds that Douthat has been hired to write than a book review. The closest Douthat gets to giving us a flavor of Helprin's argument is this sentence:
Helprin worries, plausibly, that the spirit of perpetual acceleration threatens to carry all before it, frenzying our politics, barbarizing our language and depriving us of the kind of artistic greatness that isn’t available on Twitter feeds.
Douthat is, of course, entitled to his beliefs (and he seems to believe that this sentence is largely accurate), but he does those beliefs no service by not even acknowledging the staleness of what Helprin says or the straw men that have been erected here. Much as I disagree with Douthat's politics, though, at least his writing is far more engaging and professional than a lot of what Sam Tanenhaus seems --judging by this issue -- to permit in his review of books.
Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow's "Fiction Chronicle" (covering four new novels) reads roughly like publisher's copy found on the back of new paperbacks. I understand that 300 words isn't a whole lot of space to write about a book, but there's a right way to do a 300-word review and a wrong way. These are wrong. For an idea of what can be accomplished in 300 words, see this review (among other successes) in the recent Review of Contemporary Fiction. But to return to the Times, the "Fiction Chronicle" does do me the service of presenting absolute worst book title I have read this week: "The Exchange Rate Between Love and Money." And from the same book comes this quote-worthy line: “How do you make love to something that’s not even in the animal kingdom?”
Maurice Isserman's short essay on Michael Harrington and his groundbreaking study of poverty in America, The Other America, is lucid, engaging, and appreciated. It's a nice example of how a review of books can keep important works from the past in the conversation, and Isserman's fine piece is only marred by the sentence that opens its final paragraph: "Today the poor are no longer invisible, thanks to writers like William Julius Wilson, Alex Kotlowitz and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, and to a popular culture that has young people in middle-class suburbs emulating the styles of the inner city." I must disagree: of course America's poor are still very much unnoticed today, and if they are more seen now than before that owes more to unmitigated disasters like Hurricane Katrina than the work of journalists or (quite condescendingly) the decision of the children of the well-off to wear overpriced simulacra of the clothes worn in certain inner-city neighborhoods.
Gary Rosen's review of of The Age of the Unthinkable is a quick, clean, and successful deflating of a book that sounds pretentious, self-satisfied, and ultimately not even one-eighth as innovative as the author would hope (think of an aspiring Tom Friedman). It's a lean, taut review, and the editors of the Review should aspire to cut down some of the more bloated pieces in their publication to resemble Rosen's.
Megan Marshall's review of We Two by Gillian Gill is perfectly adequate and more or less bored me. So are, and did, Liz Robbins's review of A Terrible Splendor (which, in addition to having a dreadful title, sounds like a dreadful book) and Marilyn Stasio's roundup of crime novels.
"Inside the List" informs me that something called the The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane debuted in the #2 spot for hardcover fiction, which does nothing to change my impression of the state of fiction in this country. The #1 spot is occupied by some Dean Koontz book about a novelist and a critic fighting to the death over a review. Does anyone honestly care?
"Paperback Row" seems to be mostly obsessed with memoirs with awful conceits ("Gilmour, a film critic, allowed his troubled 15-year-old son to drop out of school on the condition that he watch three movies a week of Gilmour’s choosing.") and the kind of petit cultural crit that should have remained a feature article in some glossy magazine. The inclusion at the end of Paul Auster's previous work of fiction reminds me that he's been publishing a lot of books lately.
In the letters section it's nice to see Ezra E. Fitz from Brentwood, Tennessee, sticking up for translators.
I don't have much to say about the "Editors' Choice" list, except to note its lack of diversity.
And rounding out this issue, the less that is said about the "Up Front: Dennis Lehane" by "The Editors," the better.
Not counting the "Fiction Chronicle," this week's issue of the Review covered 2 works of literary fiction, an abysmal performance by virtually any standard. All in all, the fiction coverage in this issue has done nothing to sway me from my belief that the Review is virtually irrelevant for anyone who seriously cares about literature in this country.
Oddly enough, the nonfiction coverage in this issue of the Review gives me a renewed appreciation for Bookforum. True, that publication has seriously downgraded its fiction coverage over the past year, but at least the nonfiction coverage found therein is something that doesn't consistently insult the intelligence of educated adults. And even the fiction coverage, in its weakened state, is infinitely preferable to what I read in this issue of the Review.
I suppose if I were to grade this issue I could give it a "C," in the sense that this is probably not much better and not much worse than the reviews of books still extant in the nation's newspapers. However, if I were to grade the issue based on the standard that the Review sets for itself as the nation's pre-eminent and most important weekly review of books, then I'd have to say that it's failing to meet its expectations.
The author of the remarkable essay I posted here yesterday about the state of literary criticism in 1962 was John O'Hara, and it appeared as the introduction to his short story collection The Cape Cod Lighter, published by Random House in 1962.
John O'Hara was an extremely popular and widely loved novelist through much of the 20th century, though his popularity with readers and his irascibly anti-fashionable attitude caused him to suffer much critical bashing during his later decades. Martha Conway once wrote of the "New York Johns" -- O'Hara, Cheever and Updike, all of them smug, sexist, suburban and irritatingly male. Of the three, John Updike was probably the most brilliant, but O'Hara had the wickedest sense of humor (and tragedy).
His 1934 novel Appointment In Samarra (the title blacked out in yesterday's posting) is a great entry point if you'd like to discover O'Hara, though his later short stories (like "Pat Collins", which is in The Cape Cod Lighter) prove how well his talent endured. In his early years, O'Hara wrote the New Yorker character sketches that became the show Pal Joey.
I obtained my John O'Hara book collection from my Grandma Jeanette when she died, which gives you an idea when he was last in style.
These lines in the essay above:
The exciting word is getting around that not only the novel, but all fiction, must go. Not go-go-go, just go.
... are directed at postmodern critics from Time and Newsweek, but contain a friendly side-swipe at Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation writers, who were all the rage in 1962.
Now, as somebody asked yesterday: who were Monk Lovechild and Tootsie Washburn?
Here is the essay in it's entirety.
The fact that Berman pulls off an extravagant performance to reach this point, and that he lushly praises Garcia Marquez's 1975 novel The Autumn of the Patriarch in order to set up his conclusion, only highlight how utterly dishonest this review is. It belongs on the New York Times op-ed page (if anybody still cares about Castro-bashing in 2009), and a real review of Gerald Martin's biography of this important fiction writer belongs on the front page of the NYTBR.
For a critic to communicate to us the essence of a book on its own terms is an act of sharing, and we can intuitively tell when a critic is or isn't able to share. Douglas Wolk's sympathetic description of You'll Never Know, Carol Tyler's graphic novel about her father's traumatic (and long-repressed) experiences as a solder in World War II is a positive example: we absorb the book's style and approach and intent, and by the end of the review it's hard not to want to rush out for a copy. Chelsea Cain is similarly open to Alice Hoffman's novel The Story Sisters, about three starry-eyed Long Island sisters who speak a secret language, though Cain's writing is overly cute ("I could be wrong about that", she tells us after her opening sentence) and leaves me suspecting that I won't like the book as much as she does.
I wasn't aware that Laila Lalami's Secret Son is meant to echo The Great Gatsby with a tale of a poor Moroccan kid thrust into a world of glamorous wealth. Gauitra Bagadur doesn't seem impressed with the final result, though the thoughtful article has the opposite effect on me as Chelsea Cain's -- I suspect I might like this book more than the reviewer does.
T. Coraghessan Boyle is handed the honor of reviewing John Updike's final story collection My Father's Tears. I would have preferred an older and more distinguished choice for this milestone (can't anybody persuade Philip Roth to write a book review?) but Boyle digs in with an open mind -- exactly what Paul Berman fails to do in this NYTBR's cover piece -- and does a fine job of appreciating this significant book.
There's an interesting piece by Polly Morrice on Boy Alone: A Brother's Memoir by Karl Taro Greenfield, who grew up as the older brother of an autistic child who got lots of media attention, and has now released his resentments and complex feelings of sibling rivaly in a memoir.
The endpaper by Nicholas Felton is an attractive rendering of book publisher logos as a biological chart (Penguin's penguin, Knopf's corgi, Pocket Books' kangaroo) but I can't understand why the choice was made to only represent books by the five major book conglomerates, Random House, HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster, Penguin Group and Hachette. This ecosystem can hardly thrive without Norton's bird, Soft Skull's ant, Houghton-Mifflin's fish. I wonder why the NYTBR would prefer to be so restrictive? It's not like the big five are buying many ads.