I heartily agree with Orthofer's emphasis on the importance of unchanging URLs on this ever-changing web of ours, and I am glad to hear that he expects to keep running the site pretty much the same way for at least another decade. Salut!
(A literary sensation and National Book Award nominee at age 21, Eleanor Lerman has paid her dues, been there and back, and has now published a new book of short stories. Here's her story. -- Levi).
Person wanted to sweep up in harpsichord factory. That was the ad in the Village Voice that I answered in 1970 when I was eighteen years old and looking for a job so I could support myself in the city, where I was headed to join the revolution. It also happens to be the first line in Civilization,” a story in my new collection of short stories, The Blonde on the Train (Mayapple Press). The story is fiction, but the ad, the job -- and the way they both changed my life -- are still the touchstones I go back to again and again whenever someone asks, "What made you want to be a writer?"
It was actually reading Leonard Cohen that made me think I could write poetry (until I found The Spice Box of Earth on a drugstore rack in Far Rockaway, the lost and windy peninsula at the end of the earth -- excuse me, I mean, the end of Queens, where I lived when I was a teenager -- I was under the impression that poetry was written by people like Robert Browning and Lord Byron, who didn’t exactly resonate with me). But it was the harpsichord kit factory where I worked, the long-lost Greenwich Village of artists and gay bars and roller-skating queens, along with my neighbor, a film producer, who introduced me to a community of writers, and my boss, Michael Zuckermann, who gave me the job because he said I had soulful eyes (I hope I still do!), which in the psychedelic days was the only qualification you needed, I guess, to make harpsichord kit parts (I graduated from the sweeping up part pretty quickly) that made me believe it was possible to actually live the life of a writer. Thirty-five years later, I’m still trying, but I think I’m getting closer.
At the time, Zuckermann Harpsichords (now a thriving company owned by other people and based in Connecticut -- look them up if you want a nifty harpsichord kit to build in your spare time) was housed in the first floor of a small, quirky 19th century building on Charles Street. Michael not only gave me a job, he gave me a tiny apartment upstairs. The whole operation employed about five girls, who drilled pin blocks, used a table saw and a lathe, but also worked on eccentric machines that Michael had made himself out of sewing machine parts: we used those to wind wire, cut felt and velvet, and make the jacks that pluck harpsichord strings. Sometimes we ran out of parts and I was supposed to write what we needed on a blackboard. Instead, inspired by Leonard Cohen, I used the blackboard to write poems.
The film producer, who lived in a carriage house on the lane behind the harpsichord workshop, had to walk through our space every day to get his mail, and he began stopping by the blackboard to read my poetry. One day, he said something to me like, You know, that’s pretty good. You ought to try to get your work published. It had never occurred to me that was possible until he suggested it. (So thank you forever, Harrison Starr.)
Jim Krusoe stokes my interest in Martin Millar's Milk, Sulphate, and Alby Starvation, a novel that has apparently been developing a cult audience in Britain for decades and is now available here. And, while I wasn't completely blown away by the film version of Neil Gaiman's Caroline, which I just saw with my daughter -- the 3D effects were awesome, but Tim Burton never really seems to develop real characters -- I am intrigued enough by Monica Edinger's rave review for Gaiman's new The Graveyard Book that I'll give this one a try too.
I wish I could spend more time on this weekend's Book Review, but time is scarce. And time has come today for Washington Post's Book World, which ran it's final print issue along with a farewell note.
There's been much talk of the vanishing Sunday literary supplement here in the United States, but I've been wondering what the situation is like in other countries. I'd love to know if other newspapers around the world print Sunday literary supplements or anything like it, and I asked Mark Thwaite of the blog Ready Steady Book about the UK scene. His informative response filled me in on the Guardian (Saturday), the Independent (Friday), the Financial Times, the Times, the Sunday Times and the Telegraph, as well as local papers like the Manchester Evening News, the Birmingham Post, the Yorkville Post and the Scotsman, and (begrudgingly, after I asked) the Daily Mail. Sounds like a regular menagerie of newspaper-based literary coverage over there, though only a couple of these papers run weekly literary supplements. Here in the USA, with the end of Washington Post Book World, only one remains.
Sunday morning, praise the dawning
It's just a restless feeling by my side
Early dawning, Sunday morning
It's just the wasted years so close behind
Watch out, the world's behind you
There's always someone
around you who will call
It's nothing at all
-- Lou Reed, "Sunday Morning"
The litosphere has been furiously debating what it means that Washington Post's Sunday literary supplement Book World will cease publication in two weeks. The overriding opinion, at least from the chatter I hear online, is "let it die". This is not unanimous, of course -- Steve Wasserman and Douglas Brinkley are asking for action, and the National Book Critics Circle is trying to scare up a petition to save the weekly publication. Theatre critic Terry Teachout, meanwhile, says the decision to kill Book World "means nothing to me, not because I don't like Book World but because I read all newspapers (including the one for which I write) online".
Many literary bloggers and critics I know feel similarly blase about Book World's fate (though I have to honestly wonder if these bloggers and critics would feel differently if they'd been able to break into Book World themselves). Well, we're all biased. I am in the DC area often and have spent many an enjoyable Sunday morning reading Book World, and I will surely miss the print edition. I love digital formats, but I also love good print publications -- why should there be a contradiction there? It's a simple shame that the pleasure of reading an appealing print-edition Sunday literary supplement over breakfast and coffee will be denied to the readers of the Washington Post.
The readers, the readers ... oh yeah, remember them? The National Book Critics Circle apparently doesn't remember the readers, since they put out an open call for their petition, and then reported this hilarious result more than a week later:
"Within a matter of hours, more than 100 authors and critics who had contributed to the Washington Post Book World signed a petition and sent letters of support to save Book World as a stand-alone book section. A hundred or more readers signed, as well."
A total of 200 signatures?! Are we protesting the closing of a local library here, or a decision by one of the largest newspapers in the world, a newspaper with a circulation of 670,000? Does the National Book Critics Circle even know where to find readers?
200 signatures, after a whole week! I'm sure the Washington Post is quaking in their freaking boots. The NBCC's failure to generate any type of public reaction at all only proves (as if this needed any more proof) how solipsistic and impotent our fine Ivy-League educated literary intellegentsia has become.
I wish our community of talented book critics had tried something more effective than a tired old petition, because the cause is a good one. Newspapers are in financial trouble right now (the New York Times too) and they will have to drastically cut costs and shift quickly to online formats. But that doesn't mean the decision-makers on the executive boards of companies like the Washington Post or the New York Times can be easily trusted to make the right decisions about what to cut (my own experience working for major media corporations like Time Warner has shown me that top publishing executives are capable of making horrible decisions, often and repeatedly).
I believe the Washington Post is making a big mistake in choosing Book World as one of their first sections to cut. I bet many loyal readers value the supplement highly. I don't know if the Washington Post executives have based this decision on actual research into how their customers feel about Book World (my guess is that they haven't done any significant research) and my guess is that subscriptions will gradually and steadily drop as a result of this loss. The Washington Post just kicked many loyal readers where it hurts -- they took away Sunday morning.
Naturally, I'm worried that the New York Times Book Review will be the next casualty, especially since the New York Times Company appears to be in financial free-fall and is shedding real estate and other properties. Meanwhile, there is no longer a Sunday literary supplement in Los Angeles, Chicago or Washington DC. Of course, the New York Times Book Review has always been the leader in the field, and I truly believe -- I hope I'm not wrong about this -- that the NYTBR's special status and high out-of-town subscription rate will guarantee the print edition a longer life. I love digital formats as well as the next guy, but destroying the print edition of the New York Times Book Review would be like destroying Penn Station.
Then again, they did destroy Penn Station.
Either through kismet or a good inside joke by Sam Tanenhaus, this weekend's NYTBR features three articles on Charles Darwin and "survival of the fittest". I particularly like Anthony Gottlieb's coverage of Denis Dutton's The Art Instinct, a study of "evolutionary psychology", though Frank Wilson doesn't. The cover review is Joanna Scott on T. Coraghessan Boyle's The Women, which tries to do to Frank Lloyd Wright what his Road to Welville did to John Harvey Kellogg. This brainy and biographically-minded Book Review also features Luc Sante on Susan Sontag's posthumous Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947-1963.
John Wilson walks us through Donald Worster's promising biography of John Muir, Alex Beam stirs my interest in Henry Alford's book of elderly wisdom How To Live, and my favorite article is probably Leah Price on Peter Martin and Jeffrey Meyers, two biographers who have dared to write new lives of Samuel Johnson. Leah Price is highly engaging and makes me want to rush out and read Boswell's original Life of Johnson. However, Price does need to work harder in places to find le bon mot. It's hard to understand what she means when she flatly reports that Samuel Johnson was "afflicted with Tourette's syndrome" (who made that diagnosis?). And Boswell could not have been Samuel Johnson's "groupie" because Samuel Johnson was not a group.
I attended this event with a small "blogger posse" including Ed Champion of Return of the Reluctant Habits and Eric Rosenfeld of Wet Asphalt (note: we don't travel in packs because we aim to intimidate; we just like hanging out together). After it ended an embarrassing and high-school-like moment occurred in which Eric impishly asked me, well within Tanenhaus's range of hearing, if I was going to tell Tanenhaus that I was the blogger who reviewed him every week. This made a brief handshake and introduction inevitable, after which Ed Champion asked Tanenhaus "does Levi's critique help you?"
"No," Tanenhaus said, quickly escaping from the ambush. "But keep on doing what you do."
A few minutes later, Ed and I were outside the local Raccoon Lodge arguing (what else would we be doing?) about literary journalism when Sam Tanenhaus suddenly appeared, walking towards the nearby subway, and stopped to talk to us some more. Ed and I were both surprised by this, especially since Ed had his own history with Tanenhaus that dates way back to a confrontation about brownies in 2006. The three of us had a long discussion. Ed asked why the Book Review does not do a better job with translated literature and with genre categories, and suggested that Sam might profitably replace science-fiction critic Dave Itzkoff with a more clued-in reviewer like Jeff VanderMeer. Tanenhaus reacted with interest to this suggestion, which emboldened me to dig into my own bag of gripes and ask why the endpaper essay is so often forgettable when there are many brilliant humorists out there who could do more with the page. "Why don't they send us something?" he said. "We accept submissions". That was news to me -- I had assumed that all writing assignments at the NYTBR were by invitation -- and I was satisfied with the answer.
We then spent a long time discussing whether or not the Book Review would consider assigning a review to Ed Champion despite the fact that Champion had posted nasty ad-hominem attacks on various people involved with the Book Review (mainly, Sam Tanenhaus himself). Tanenhaus said this type of attack violated his journalistic principles, Champion responded that Leon Wieseltier's attack on Nicholson Baker several years ago was an ad hominem attack, Tanenhaus responded that it wasn't technically an ad hominem attack, I interjected that Champion's satirical reporting style should be understood as belonging to the ribald but respectable tradition of 1960s rabble-rouser Paul Krassner, and the three of us had a grand old time shooting the shit on a Tribeca street corner for a few minutes. I still don't think Tanenhaus is doing a great job running the NYTBR -- I'll explain why below -- but I'll easily admit that it was pretty classy of him to stop and talk to us.
I wish I could give the current Book Review a great write-up based on this Tribeca lovefest. Unfortunately, it's a bland and flimsy issue. Maria Russo's balanced consideration of Ali Smith's The First Person and Other Stories and Russell Shorto's explication of Steven Johnson's The Invention of Air are among the better moments. Lee Siegel, as aggravating as ever, accuses A Day and a Night and a Day author Glen Duncan of fancy overwriting. This will leave every reader's head spinning, because nobody overwrites as fancy as Lee Siegel (though I'll admit that the ambitious Siegel scores a good phrase here when he compares Duncan's style to "having your imagination cornered by a drunk in a Dublin bar").
A boring and mechanical endpaper essay titled "See the Web Site, Buy the Book" by J. Courtney Sullivan epitomizes the disappointment so many of us often feel with the Book Review's current direction. Ignoring fresh online outlets like the blogosphere and the twittersphere, this essay discusses the growing field of commercial book website development in the most cynical and marketing-oriented terms. Tell me if you spot what's wrong with these sentences:
Publishers have long hoped that, say, a jacket by Chip Kidd or an author photo by Marion Ettlinger will increase attention and sales by signaling that a book is a big deal. In recent years, as publishing houses have encouraged writers to create a robust online presence, a new team of experts has emerged.
Funny -- I thought publishers hired Chip Kidd or Marion Ettlinger because compelling cover artwork attracted readers. According to this formulation, Kidd and Ettlinger are not artists but trophies. The implication is that book publishers attempt to build successful titles by gaming the market, signaling with expensive book jackets or websites that a book is "a big deal". I don't blame the NYTBR for admitting this depressing truth, but many readers will find this admission more startling than the subject of the essay itself. Is it really all that cynical? Is that why publishers and agents swoon at the mention of the name Chip Kidd -- not because they love his cover designs but because he makes a book smell like money? And if this is the case, doesn't the Book Review realize how repellent this is to readers?
Under Sam Tanenhaus's leadership, the New York Times Book Review has often adopted a weary, complacent attitude towards the book business, and towards its own place in the book business. I've observed that publishers, editors and agents often also express weary and complacent attitudes, which is why Tanenhaus probably plays well with other insiders in the book business. However, readers and lovers of literature do not like complacency. When I was complaining about the endpaper essay outside the Raccoon Lodge, I said that a few of the essays (say, a recent one by Colson Whitehead) had been "great". Tanenhaus balked at my use of this word. "Great?" he said. "I don't know if we're ever 'great'."
I suppose he was expressing humility. But there is only one New York Times Book Review in the world, and I don't see why the hell the Book Review shouldn't strive, week after week, for 'great'. I want a NYTBR editor-in-chief who tells his staff and his writers that they'd better be great, and who fires any staffer and slams the door on any critic who can't aim that high. Whether or not the Book Review is in serious financial trouble -- and I hope that Tanenhaus is right that it remains secure -- it's a fact that the New York Times is in serious financial trouble, and so is every other major newspaper company in America. Greatness is called for at moments like these.
Finally, I have to respond to Tanenhaus's statement that my Reviewing the Review columns have not helped at all. Can't I at least help as a fact-checker? Over the years I've pointed out many errors in this publication, as in the current issue when Vanessa Grigoriadis's review of Norah Vincent's Voluntary Madness refers to a "John Bly-inspired men's retreat". The correct name is Robert Bly, who wrote a book called Iron John. There ... I helped.
One of the NYTBR's best fiction critics, the brainy and erudite Stacey D'Erasmo, has written a novel called The Sky Below, prominently featured on the cover of today's publication. There is an obvious ethical concern in giving a cover rave to an insider, though the Book Review can easily deflect this concern by presenting a convincing piece to justify the favored placement. Instead, Susann Cokal's review could not be more vapid, more transparently sympathetic. Reading this extravagant piece, a reader can only conclude that Cokal knew a positive appraisal was required but could not come up with the goods. Like a student on deadline, she tried to fake it. The evidence begins with the opening lines:
The box, the simple box, may be the art form of the 21st century. With or without its sixth wall, it promises a mystery; when its contents (or lack thereof) are displayed, some deeper mystery often remains. Past masters like Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp have inspired new generations of artists to fill rectangular solids with an assortment of found objects. Depending on your taste and perspective, this is either a form of sculpture or a short step up from the elementary-school diorama. The box is thus the darling of both the Tate Modern and the community amateur show: the bricolage celebrates vision rather than craft, suggesting to some that art is effortless, to others that it’s inscrutable. Meaning seems either elusive or all too obvious.
This is called "filling space". How on earth is the box the art form of the 21st Century based on the work of Joseph Cornell, who died in 1972, and Marcel Duchamp, who died in 1968? Am I missing something here? Shouldn't a writer who wishes to establish the point that the box is the art form of the 21st century name an artist who lived anywhere near the 21st century? Furthermore, Cokal has now thrown a lot of big words into the air (and thoroughly confused us) but has still not mentioned the novel she is supposedly enraptured by.
The Sky Below is about the troubled life of a modern artist named Gabriel Collins. But Cokal, who is clearly more comfortable writing about art than writing about this novel, has more to say, and the inanity continues:
Such assemblages of oddments have, of course, a long history. Beginning in the late 16th century, collectors demonstrated their command over the natural and artistic worlds in the cabinet of curiosities -- a room, a set of shelves or even (yes) a box displaying whatever caught the collector’s fancy. Such are the roots of the modern museum. But as museums began to compartmentalize, then specialize, that sense of dizzying abundance was lost, and with it some of the pleasures of the unexpected discovery, the incongruous grouping or juxtaposition that might open up a new dimension of thought or experience.
Yes, such are the roots of the compartmentalized modern museum, which thoroughly lack that sense of dizzying abundance. New York's Metropolitan Museum? You'll be in and out in an hour and a half. The Art Institute of Chicago? One-dimensional. Washington DC's National Gallery? Better bring a book to read, there's nothing there. What could Susann Cokal possibly be talking about? And why isn't she talking about the novel?
She gets around to it. The paragraph about today's disappointing museums concludes here:
D’Erasmo recovers that pleasure in narrative form, presenting Gabriel’s life as if it were a series of cabinets of curiosities -- of moments distilled into sets of objects that highlight but don’t define them.
Yawn. I have no reason to think that Stacey D'Erasmo's novel might not be great (based on her own excellent work as a fiction critic). But Susann Cokal, when she isn't staring off into space, is only able to justify the claim that the novel deserves the honor of a NYTBR cover rave by prattling in generalities and trying to cover up the emptiness with precious, delicate observations that connect to nothing:
But literature, like art, displays unsuspected facets of the everyday, revealing how extraordinary it can turn out to be.
Sometimes it's quite pretty, as when young Gabriel's mother tents his bed with raspberry red silk and reads him stories from Ovid.
Raspberry red silk? Whatever. Here's how this dispiriting mess concludes:
As in the best books (more rectangular solids), the meaning of these images seems to evolve as they repeat, bumping up against one another, altering slightly, until new combinations and minute adjustments lay bare the complex emotions within.
The rave review could not be more unconvincing. This would be annoying but harmless if the novel in question had not been written by a NYTBR insider. But when ethical questions may be asked, more stringent quality control is an absolute necessity. If the NYTBR had assigned this review to a more hard-boiled critic (say, Walter Kirn or Laura Miller or Francine Prose) and received a rave in response, no eyebrows would be raised. Susann Cokal was a poor choice to write this review, and the fact that the New York Times Book Review went the full distance of placing the limp results on their highly coveted front cover will shock anyone who is paying attention.
Of course, the narcotic effect of Susann Cokal's thesis on modern art is to inspire readers to hurry their attention elsewhere, and that's this article's only hope of passing muster. It didn't work with this reader.
I'm so disgusted by this that I'm not going to talk much about the rest of today's Book Review, though it contains decent coverage by the knowledgeable James Campbell on The Letters of Allen Ginsberg and The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, both edited by expert Beat Generation archivist Bill Morgan, a passable review by Caryn James of Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London's Jazz Age by D. J. Taylor and a good Caleb Crain endpaper about a new book called Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children's Literature by Julia L. Mickenberg and Philip Nel, which tells of the Communist partisanship of some of our beloved past children's authors, including Crockett Johnson (Harold and the Purple Crayon) and Syd Hoff (Danny and the Dinosaur).
This Book Review is another slim one, 24 pages yet again, which indicates that publishers are still not buying ads at their usual rate. The sad truth is, I can't tie the NYTBR's quality problems to its ad sales problem: the economy will take its toll whether or not the Book Review editors do a great job every week. However, if this publication will successfully weather the tough financial environment, it will need the goodwill and enthusiasm of readers like myself. That's where Sam Tanenhaus and his top staffers really need to start doing a better job. The Book Review won't be able to sleepwalk through 2009, though cover articles like Susann Cokal's indicate that they would like to try.
Steering clear of his dreaded coy side, Lethem constructs a frame of reference to help explain Bolano's dissembled philosophical narrative, and since everybody seems to be talking about Roberto Bolano these days, I sincerely appreciate Lethem's step-by-step walkthrough of this 898-page epic. Will I read this book myself? Sure, I'll give it a try, but like Sarah Weinman I feel some skepticism about this current Bolano craze. The Savage Detectives didn't pull me in, but I'll try again.
Lethem is rapturous, of course, about 2666, whereas Akash Kapur's The White Tiger gets treated rather rudely in this issue by Aravind Adiga. I've read several bloggers who do not think The White Tiger deserved to win the Man Booker Prize, and I guess I'll have to see what I think of this book too. I've got a lot of reading to do.
Robert Kagan praises Carlo D'Este's Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945, making no reference to the stunning case against the heroic reputation of Winston Churchill contained in Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke, which was easily the most influential and widely-discussed history book published in the last year. For Kagan to pretend Baker's book didn't pop some pinholes in Churchill's legend is disingenuous. He approaches D'Este's book reverently, despite the fact that it appears to be a rather redundant biography (aren't there already about 40 in print?) designed to be bought for Dads and Grand-dads this Christmas. Since September 11, 2001 Winston Churchill has become just as big a cottage industry as Elvis Presley or Jack Kerouac, but Robert Kagan's review fails to provide critical insight on this point. Instead, he falls right for the gimmick.
This issue contains two decent poetry pieces, neither as good as William Logan would have written. Peter Stevenson likes Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry by Donald Hall. August Kleinzahler likes James Merrill Selected Poems, and reminds us that James Merrill was of the "Merrill Lynch" Merrills (this fact takes on special resonance now that Merrill Lynch, an anchor of American finance, has just collapsed).
The endpaper delivers some serious shredded wheat for your Sunday morning, and in fact I appreciate the chewy heft very much. Richard Parker writes about an influential book about the economy, The Modern Corporation and Private Property written by Adolf Augustus Berle in 1932. I learned much I didn't know. I also learned a few things I didn't know from a full-page ad for the Sinclair Institute's "Lifetime of Better Sex" video series ("Explicit and Uncensored! Real People Demonstrating Real Sexual Techniques!"). Well, if ads like this pay for articles by serious writers like Richard Parker, that's good enough for me. This was an excellent New York Times Book Review for an excellent weekend.
Finally, farewell to John Leonard, esteemed culture critic who was the editor-in-chief of the New York Times Book Review back in the early 1970s. I hope to see new editions of John Leonard's collected writings, and I'm proud to have briefly had a chance to meet him at BookExpo in New York City last year. On that day I found him wiry, growly and certainly highly alert -- I imagined at the time that he had many more decades of good writing left to do.
“The ways we miss our lives are life,” Randall Jarrell observed in his poem “A Girl in a Library.” Anne Enright, the Irish writer who won the 2007 Man Booker Prize for her dark novel “The Gathering,” counts some of the ways people miss their lives in “Yesterday’s Weather,” her varied if somewhat disenchanted collection of stories old and new.
-- Christopher Benfey, reviewing Anne Enright's Yesterday's Weather
A man awakes one morning from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into -- wait, haven’t we heard this story before? This time, the setting is post-apartheid Cape Town, the transformee a vain white architect who specializes in stark modernism and attributes his success to having scrupulously avoided taking a political stance under the old regime. His Gregor Samsa moment comes when, while shaving, he peers into the mirror and sees a black face looking back.
-- Ligaya Mishan, reviewing Andre Brink's Other Lives: A Novel in Three Parts
To assert the timelessness of a writer’s work is to invite rebuttal a decade later. The history of literature is, after all, partly a history of trends. Even the language we use to talk about storytelling shifts from era to era. The critics of Flannery O’Connor’s day, for instance, fixated on symbolism, and by this metric her stories -- the most famous of which depicts a Bible salesman who steals a young woman’s prosthesis when she tries to seduce him -- were adjudged successful. Very well, the author said. “If you want to say that the wooden leg is a symbol, you can say that. But it is a wooden leg first, and as a wooden leg it is absolutely necessary to the story.” She was right. These days only English teachers nearing retirement evaluate literature in terms of symbols, but O’Connor’s stories remain finely etched, sardonic marvels in which details like the leg accumulate meaning as the action unfolds.
-- Maud Newton, reviewing Claire Keegan's Walk the Blue Fields
The short stories in Sana Krasikov’s first collection unfold in two contemporary landscapes: the former Soviet Union and New York City and its suburbs. But an entirely unrelated setting might help explain why these stories work as well as they do: 17th-century India, where court artists created illuminated manuscripts of the ancient Hindu epic the “Ramayana.”
-- Gauitra Bahadur, reviewing Sana Krasikov's One More Year
It doesn't bode well for any of these titles that their reviewers have other books on their minds, and in the putatively positive appraisals of Sara Krasikov and Anne Enright we can't help noticing that the critics felt this need to reach elsewhere for their opening lines. A critic who is truly excited about a book will not have a wandering eye.
Maud Newton is mostly disappointed by Claire Keegan's collection, and it's amusing to find the many ways she manages to be kind while saying so. The extensive comparison to Flannery O'Connor does not ultimately work in Keegan's favor, but it takes a close reading to parse this out for sure. Maud Newton is the very breath of politeness, so when she lets it drop that Keegan's stories are "gentler than O'Connor's work", it takes a moment before we recognize this as a skillfully executed insult. Here, the reference to a classic text seems appropriate.
(Note: Newton also delivers a more captivating opening line, with Flannery O'Connor nowhere in sight, in her blog post about this article).
But a positive review that fixates on a different text is less convincing than a negative one, though Benfey's encouraging consideration of Anne Enright is otherwise well-handled (he suggests "The Bad Sex Weekend" as an alternate title for Enright's collection, though I think she's far better off with "Yesterday's Weather"). The most attractive fiction review today is Ron Carlson on Fine Just The Way It is, yet another story collection by Annie "Brokeback" Proulx, here carefully and lovingly presented. I know I won't read this book (postmodern spins on Old West archetypes are not my thing) but Carlson just about manages to close the deal.
I will check out The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood by former Liberian rich-kid Helene Cooper, satisfyingly summarized by Caroline Elkins on today's front cover. I'll also glance at Alissa Torres's American Widow, a graphic novel based on a true September 11 family tragedy. Charles Taylor opens his moderate review of this book not by referring to another novel but by referring to another NYTBR reviewer, Walter Kirn (I think this counts as another case of the critical wandering eye).
I nodded with agreement while reading Sia Michel on Suze Rotolo's less than satisfying A Freewheelin' Time, a memoir of an early relationship with Bob Dylan which I recently finished reading myself:
Perhaps an inherent contradiction is the problem: she's writing about her unwillingness to be defined by her relationship to a famous man, in a book with Dylan on the cover.
Not Christopher Buckley again! Blake Wilson raves about his latest broad satire, Supreme Courtship ("Buckley remains our sharpest guide to the capital, and a more serious one than we may suppose"). I beg to differ. This is satire about the trivialization of the United States Supreme Court, and yet Wilson's review suggests that no part of Buckley's book confronts the current battle over abortion rights, certainly the hottest issue today's Supreme Court faces. Buckley is a conservative and may be presumed to have no argument with the recent appointments of John Roberts and Samuel Alito, who were clearly chosen to help overturn Roe vs Wade, but many others feel greater concern. This issue may even help Barack Obama beat John McCain in the next Presidential election (many Americans seem to like Sarah Palin, but I trust we like Roe vs. Wade more).
So how can "our sharpest guide to the capital" write a "serious" satire about the Supreme Court that sidesteps the battle over abortion rights but contains dumb jokes about "Crispus Galavanter, the humble inhabitant of the court's 'black seat'"? Give me a break.
Kirn appears to be both impressed and offended by Wood's unimpeachable knowledge and authority, not to mention his increasing fame and "Anton Ego"-like (*) critical aura. Kirn mocks Wood gently at first, then more openly later:
... he flashes the Burberry lining of his jacket whenever he rises from his armchair to fetch another Harvard Classic.
By the article's last line, Kirn finally dismisses Wood's book completely:
there is one thing this volume answers dismissively: Why Readers Nap.
Despite the jabs, this is a respectful review of what is clearly an important book, and that's why I think the NYTBR made a good choice in asking the skeptical Walter Kirn to take it on.
The Wood review provides this NYTBR's biggest splash. Bill Keller, a NY Times big-shot who resembles Donald Rumsfeld worries me when he paraphrases Garibaldi in the very first paragraph of his review of John Carlin's Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation. Fortunately, though, Keller turns out to have a good political story to tell (as a former Johannesburg bureau chief for the Times, he must know South African sports from all the angles). He makes a strong case for the relevance of this book, which I think I'll be checking out.
Beyond those two pieces, I can only report the typical ennui of several more notices of new books that feel hard to tell apart. Sophie Gee says "the bloggers" have been enthusiastic about The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson. Not any bloggers I've read lately, but okay. Stacey D'Erasmo does some good work with a "Tempest" theme in reviewing A Blessed Child by cinematic daughter Linn Ullmann, but I still know I'll never get around to reading this book. Liesl Schillinger doesn't really breathe life into a novel about hip young American expatriates in Germany, This Must Be the Place by Anna Winger, and I wish Schillinger had pointed out something I've said a few times before: if you can't come up with a better title for your novel than a Talking Heads or Elvis Costello song, you really shouldn't get to publish a novel at all. (Although I guess we'll give Carol Alt a free pass).
1. We don't hear enough about cartoonist Jules Feiffer these days, so this interview is a nice refresher. (Via Slut).
2. Hamlet, who was also sick, sick, sick, will never go out of style. However, the Hamlet currently running at New York City's Shakespeare in the Park got a terrible New York Times review. My favorite recent Hamlet was right here.
3. Richard Hell, who is not sick, sick, sick but is often mistaken as such, has collaborated with Christopher Wool on a new poetry project called Perpenilsis. They'll be at the Strand in New York City on Wednesday, June 25.
4. Latter-day Beat writer Charles Plymell, who is also not sick, sick, sick, is interviewed at a blog titled Even for the Hipsters, Hustlers and Highjivers. Damn straight.
5. Check out the good people -- Samantha Hunt, Joyce Carol Oates, Tommy Chong, a tribute to Jason Shinder -- who'll be reading at Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan.
6. The Loss of Hope and Love blog offers "daily cut-up poetry".
7. The irascible Roger Kimball on criticismism:
The first thing to notice about the vogue for “critical thinking” is that it tends to foster not criticism but what one wit called “criticismism”: the “ism” or ideology of being critical, which, like most isms, turns out to be a parody or betrayal of the very thing it claims to champion.
The above does appear, however, to be the best sentence in the article.
8. Frank Wilson asks: will bloggers care that the Associated Press is announcing strict rules about online quotation? I can answer that very quickly. No.
9. I agree with Chad Post about the "New Classics". It's gotta get better than this.
10. Sign and Sight has discovered a new explanation for Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot -- but you have to read French to understand the explanation (via Scott McLemee).
Sick, sick, sick.