Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

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Reviewing the Review: May 27 2007

by Levi Asher on Sunday, May 27, 2007 09:27 pm


Today's New York Times Book Review offers two textbook examples of what can be wrong and right about book reviewing: first, a good critic writing a useless review of a major book, then, a good critic writing a good review of a major book.

The first critic is Frank Rich, whose angry editorials in the Times opinion pages and whose theater criticism in Arts and Leisure I've always enjoyed. Unfortunately, Rich is overawed by the task of reviewing Don DeLillo's new 9/11 novel Falling Man. Here's his opener:

No matter where you stood in the city, the air was thick after the towers fell: literally thick with the soot and stench of incinerated flesh that turned terror into a condition as inescapable as the weather.

Yeah, and that first sentence is plenty thick too. With a new DeLillo novel to review, why would Frank Rich choose to drench the first half of this review in bathetic cliches about the way New York City changed after September 11, 2001?

For instance, this line contains a good idea: "In the ruins of 9/11, relationships are a non sequitur". But I have to ask Mr. Rich to take a second look here -- if relationships are a non sequitur (and they very well may be), then isn't it true that they must have been before September 11 too? Frank Rich wastes our time by framing his review of DeLillo's book inside this soapy "zeitgeist" hype. DeLillo is supposed to be the one telling us about 9/11, and Frank Rich is supposed to be telling us about DeLillo.

And, just for the record -- the air at Ground Zero smelled like a weird otherworldly smoky cotton dust, but it did not smell like incinerated flesh. I'm guessing that Rich was at the Hamptons at the time and wouldn't know.

Which is as good a segue as any into the superb major review in this week's issue, Jonathan Rosen's consideration of a new volume of Primo Levi's unpublished stories, titled A Tranquil Star in USA (Rosen is right to point out that the collection's original Italian title, If This Is A Man, is better). Here's what Rosen does right here: he takes us inside the book, walking us through the stories one by one, even giving us a peek at what tricks this thorny and challenging (but totally worthwhile) Jewish writer and Holocaust reporter is up to. He makes several of these quirky science-inflected morality tales sound great, and I'll certainly be reading this book.

Another even more surprising genocide-related book, Tova Reich's My Holocaust, gets full-page treatment in this weekend's very substantial and smart Book Review. This book seems like a sure stick of dynamite to me. It's a satirical roman a clef about the (alleged) utter venal hypocrisy among the founders of the new Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. It was written by the wife of a former director of the Holocaust Museum who resigned in protest for reasons that have certainly never been explained before as they are being explained right now in this book. This is hardly a work of fiction, and critic David Margolick seems to feel a dislike bordering on disgust for the messy, offensive revelations contained within. But I'm intrigued enough -- I'll be checking this book out too.

Like I said, this is a pretty smart issue of the Book Review. In fact, I'd rather kick back on this Memorial Day weekend and not read any more (to tell the truth), but we've got an endpaper called Letter from Tehran: Seeking Signs of Literary Life by Azadeh Moaveni to read, not to mention the wonderfully named Siddhartha Deb's review of postmodernist Lydia Davis's Varieties of Disturbance. I've always thought of Lydia Davis and Don DeLillo as very similar writers -- two birds of a feather, really -- and even though I have moderate tolerance for the super-sized anomie and kaleidoscopic dissemblage that is the specialty of both writers, I cannot really stand the thought that I may have to puzzle through a new Don DeLillo novel and a new Lydia Davis collection this summer. And if so, I better rest up now. So it is with an appreciative sigh of exhaustion that I close this imperfect but satisfying issue of the New York Times Book Review and try to forget about postmodernism for a while.





Reviewing the Review: May 20 2007

by Levi Asher on Sunday, May 20, 2007 09:40 am


Today's New York Times Book Review is practically a "global politics" theme issue with a few fiction reviews sprinkled within. The lack of literary material will annoy some readers, though I am grateful that the editors chose not to pound on the main theme too hard (as in recent weeks). Despite the presence of big articles on nuclear proliferation and presidential history that could just as well have run in this newspaper's "Week In Review" section, it's the small review of novels and short story collections that shine -- lightly, if not quite brightly -- in today's publication.

I like Meg Wolitzer, who is very much at home writing about cozy Manhattan literati tableaus. It's no big shock that she likes Sheridan Hay's The Secret of Lost Things, a romantic pas de deux of likable lit-freaks, set in a used book store that resembles the Strand. I wish she'd pointed out that The Secret of Lost Things is a dreadful title, but I guess that's okay.

Amidst the continuing barrage of books that carry on the stories of Rhett Butler and Michael Corleone, I'm glad to hear that a writer named R. N. Morris has produced a novel, The Gentle Axe, that carries on the activities of Dostoevsky's detective Porfiry Petrovich (from Crime and Punishment) after throwing Rodya Raskolnikov in jail, but does so with a subtle and educated touch. Liesl Schillinger approves of the work, though she refers to it as CSI: St. Petersburg.

Maile Meloy makes Helen Simpson's story collection In The Driver's Seat sound appealing and worthwhile. Susann Cokal explains the setup of The Religion, another badly-titled but apparently worthy book, which follows a 16th-century Saxon boy caught in the wars between European Christians and Turkish Muslims. There's also a useful and substantial consideration of Ralph Ellison and of a new Ellison biography by Arnold Rampersad. More than a decade after his death, a collective understanding of the Invisible Man author's complex and often contradictory post-fame career is beginning to emerge.

Then there are the political articles, including Jonathan Raban's cover piece on William Langewiesche's The Atomic Bazaar, which is fine except that I read articles on important subjects like this all the time elsewhere and don't find this treatment particularly distinctive. A book called Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America by Michael Beschloss strikes me as achingly boring, and maybe that's why I couldn't get halfway through Mary Beth Norton's review.

There's a two-article spread on two books that reach opposite conclusions on the same subject, Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years by David "Salon.com" Talbot and Reclaiming History: the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy by Vincent "Helter Skelter" Buglioisi. Bugliosi believes that grassy-knoll conspiracy theorists should be "ridiculed, even shunned", according to Bryan Burrough, who applauds this idea though he certainly doesn't make a case for it. It's a funny review, though, and I enjoy hearing Burrough complain about being paid a standard wage ("I can now buy that loaf of bread I've been saving for") for reviewing a 1,612 page book. Tell it to the National Book Critics Circle, Burrough, and maybe they'll get a petition going on your behalf.

On the opposite page, Alan Brinkley provides a less amusing but more measured consideration of David Talbot's argument for the continuing investigation into the assassination. Personally, I'm about 50-50 on this big question, and I'm tired of discussing it. I'd rather talk about more current and relevant conspiracy theories, like why Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is stubbornly refusing to resign despite the overwhelming evidence against him.

Finally, Rachel Donadio's article on an evergreen guide to structured debate, Robert's Rules of Order, is quite interesting, and a good complement to the virtual Kennedy-book debate a few pages earlier in this issue. I've often hoped for a revival of the classic form known as "parliamentary debate" (which I enjoyed studying and practicing in college) and I hope this article is a sign of a coming trend.





Soft Skull Acquired, Nobody Cares

by Levi Asher on Thursday, May 17, 2007 08:26 pm


1. Soft Skull, probably the best alternative/independent publisher in the USA right now, is being sold and merged into a large holding company managed by Charlie Winton, who has also acquired Shoemaker & Hoard and Counterpoint.

Once again, I'm disappointed that not many of my fellow bloggers seem to be paying attention to stories like these, because the Soft Skull news has not made much of a ripple. Are literary bloggers afraid to write about finance? Can it be that nobody thinks this is relevant news? Google Blog Search turned up only one blog post following GalleyCat's story, and I just don't understand this.

In sounding alarmed about the news, I'm not trying to cast negativity on the business decision Richard Nash and Soft Skull's management team have made. I think very highly of this team, and if any executive can continue to squeeze greatness out of Soft Skull under the watchful eye of a corporate finance overseer, Richard Nash is that executive. But I have to say that I'm worried, and I'm skeptical. Even if Nash succeeds for a while, don't corporate mergers always end at the same sad cul-de-sac, when eventually the winds change?

I wish this team good luck, but ... thank god City Lights and Akashic are still independent.






Book Reviews, May 2007

by Levi Asher on Monday, May 7, 2007 08:56 pm


It's book review week here at LitKicks (and to those who've sent me stuff, I can only say that I'll do my best to get to yours. I am beyond the point where I can review every book I receive, though I wish I could). Here are some notable finds from this month's stack, and there's more on the way tomorrow.

1. Boomsday by Christopher Buckley.

A fiery young blonde blogger in Washington DC (who seems to most resemble not the restrained Ana Marie Cox but rather one of the passionate progressives at Firedoglake) joins forces with an impulsive rich-kid Congressman to choreograph a social-security revolt of the young against the old. I like Buckley's eagerness to tackle all comers with this book. He's clearly got an appetite for a fight, and he body-slams as many modern political targets as he can with this rollicking tale.

But the plot has to really click to carry a satire like this, and Buckley's execution is only middling good. I have to disagree with anybody who compared this book to Kurt Vonnegut's Welcome to the Monkey House (which dealt with a similar death-to-the elderly theme), because Buckley shows none of Vonnegut's anarchic creativity. He creates likable characters, and he certainly has no problem coming up with snappy dialogue. But the snappiness gets to seeming forced, and it's bizarre that when Buckley finally comes up with a truly good joke (involving the phrase "the earth moved" to describe a quasi-romantic encounter in a mine field) he then uses the same joke again thirty pages later. That's a foul in the hardcover-books game, Buckley.

Another complaint: this story is about a blogger, but Buckley clearly doesn't know much about the technology behind blogging (nor do his editors at Twelve). If a novelist in 1910 wrote about a Model-T Ford munching oats from a trough, that would be about as accurate as some of Buckley's descriptions of how the internet works. For just one example of many: you can't "delete yourself" from Google. Though certainly many have tried.

2. Eyes of the Forest by Vivian Demuth

This novel from the small Smoky Peace Press offers an appealing insider's view of a fascinating counterculture that has provided an alternative lifestyle for a small number of individuals: the community of solitary fire-tower watchers who guard the Rocky Mountains, Cascades, Sierras and, in Demuth's book, the boreal mountains of Canada.

This was also the milieu of two superb Jack Kerouac novels, Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels (several Beat writers, including Kerouac, Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, were fire-tower watchers). Kerouac's lookout-tower prose was filled with agony, addiction and ecstatic spiritual yearning, which can make for some powerful writing, but Kerouac's approach doesn't really capture the simple happiness this profession can bring, or the camaraderie (and conflict, and romance) various tower-watchers, park rangers, rescue personnel and other lovers of nature develop with each other in their long seasons among the trees and lakes and trails. This is a fun, people-filled story that will appeal to anyone who's ever lived out in the mountains, and to anyone who's wondered what it would be like.

3. Captain of the Sleepers by Marya Montero

This compact epic, translated by Edith Grossman, works as both psychosexual fiction and entertaining suspense. It takes place on an island near Puerto Rico, and is narrated by a child raised among gun-runners locked in vast adult intrigues that eventually involve dead bodies, airplanes, weapons, bawdy maid's daughters and a lot of different people getting it on in different places in various positions.

What makes it so edifying is Montero's rich voice, and her emotionally expressive characters. Here's the 80-year-old title character pleading for his life with the now-grown narrator, who wants to kill him to avenge his father:

I am a man of few words. You must know that better than anyone. As a young man, I rarely worried about misunderstandings; things happened, sometimes they happened to me, and it never occurred to me to give any explanation. It wasn't pride, Andres, but a lack of time, or of compassion for myself. In the end, I discovered there were fragments of my life -- especially everything from that time in my life -- that were left hanging like little animals rotting in full view of everyone..

4. real.m by Alfaro

Inside a quiet-looking black-on-white perfect-bound poetry chapbook is a near riot of metafictional phenomenology regarding the existence and presence of the book itself. For instance, the front cover contains a poem called "Front Cover Art". There's a long, very long single angry sentence threading like a subterranean worm through other pieces, many of which are labeled "haikus". Here's what one poem tells us:

Life is
A Beautiful book
A Sad song
Or a brilliant movie
And it only needs
To be transcribed
Onto paper
Into Sound
Or on film
And then
It will be saved


I like the blunt simplicity of this quizzical poetry book, as well as the elegance of its physical design.





Links Make the Internets Go Round

by Jamelah Earle on Wednesday, May 2, 2007 05:58 pm


-- Kids like video games, right? How about Shakespeare? How about a Shakespeare video game? For real. The game, Speare, will have kids shooting alien spaceships and piecing together Romeo and Juliet, which should round out their geek cred early in life. Sounds pretty awesome to me.

-- In the post I wrote a couple of weeks ago about Virginia Tech, I pointed out that I hoped the shooter's angry writing wouldn't cause all angry writing to be viewed as potentially dangerous, but it looks like this is already happening. (Via Maud Newton.)

-- Didn't you think that The Da Vinci Code mania was dead? Yeah, me too. I was pretty sure that Tom Hanks and his mullet of doom had killed it off for good, but apparently not. (Maybe it's a zombie.) See, the media is still milking its name for news, as evidenced by this story about a new mystery revealed at Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland. The story itself is kind of interesting, but is this place forever going to be linked to Dan Brown's horrible novel? Why am I asking? The answer of course is yes.

-- This story has been around a little while, but hasn't been mentioned here, so I thought I'd tell you that there's nothing greater than when the publishing industry invents a label for a type of writing. The newest subgenre for you to find in your local Barnes & Noble? Misery Lit. I'd be excited, but I'm too busy hating the futile, meaningless world. Sigh.

-- Here's an interesting article in The Believer about Ginsberg's Wichita Vortex Sutra.

-- We know that Levi Asher isn't impressed with Cormac McCarthy, but it turns out that he's not the only one.

-- Any book review that says "the brains of male sparrows mixed with goat fat, roasted wolf's penis, rocket (which "stirreth up lust"), or bread that had been kneaded with a woman's buttocks" gets a link. That's a matter of policy. (Sure, I just made up that policy, but it's a good one.)

-- Perhaps the only surprise here is that it's just happening now, but it looks like the Army is going to be cracking down on blogs and email written from warzones.

-- And in less serious blogging news, Dilbert's boss is entering the fray. In true Dilbert's boss style.

-- The Philadelphia Inquirer has a review of The Friendship, which is about the, well, friendship between poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

-- On Feministing: an interview with Origami Striptease author Peggy Munson. Some interesting things about lesbian gender and censorship, and also I have to mention that there's a little bit in there about iambic meter.

-- Virginia Woolf's "Shakespeare's Sister" reprinted in The Guardian. If you've never encountered it before (or even if you have), it's totally worth your time.





PEN World Voices: The Africa Track

by Levi Asher on Saturday, April 28, 2007 07:33 am


Devoting my PEN World Voices Friday to modern African literature, I grab a seat at the Instituto Cervantes near the United Nations where Dedi Felman is moderating a panel of four diverse writers representing Algeria, Nigeria, Cote D'Ivorie and Zanzibar. There's a good crowd of fifty or so eager listeners, and many of us feel confused when the panelists enter and a male writer occupies the seat behind the name plate for Yasmina Khadra. Introducing each writer, Dedi Felman explains that Khadra's real name is Mohammeed Moulessehoul but that he was able to avoid censorship during his country's civil war by writing under a woman's name.

Khadra then immediately catches the crowd's interest by declaring that he does not agree with the basic premise of the panel, because, he says, he spent his life trying to rise above the perceived limitations of being "an African writer", only to find that he is now "stuck back in Africa". He states that this type of categorization amounts to "intellectually subcontracting". Since we're only about two minutes into the panel at this point, it's clear that Yasmina Khadra is here to make his presence felt.

As the panel progresses, in fact, it becomes more generally clear that Yasmina Khadra has got an attitude a mile wide. But I don't mind, since these festival panels often suffer from over-politeness, and it happens that Khadra is capable of delivering eloquent, poetic answers to questions about the concept of home, about language, about the importance of place (though he has to scoff at each question first). By the end of the event, Khadra reveals that it's not this panel but the American war in Iraq that makes him angry. He succeeds in making a very positive impression on the crowd, and I'm going to read his The Swallows of Kabul (I am worried, though, that he's going to beat up a cabdriver or a waiter before the night is over).

American-born Nigerian Uzodinma Iweala, author of the acclaimed Beasts of No Nation, is as placid as Khadra is rude, speaking of his unique use of "pidgin English" in his work, and reading from a new work in progress (directly from his laptop computer) that will prove, he hopes, that he is capable of writing about something other than child soldiers.

Abdulrazak Gurnah, born in Zanzibar and currently living in England, is soft-spoken and thoughtful and doesn't mind trying to speculate about how Africa's unique history and frequent civil turmoil affects its literary identity.

Young graphic novelist Marguerite Abouet has a warm and unpretentious style, and she begins her self-introduction by marvelling at the fact that she is here on this panel when only two years ago she was living an obscure life as a legal assistant. Her Aya is yet another book I'm looking forward to checking out.

I race out of the Instituto Cervantes to get to the Donnell Library where Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng are speaking about their book What Is The What, which Eggers composed from Deng's experiences in Sudan. Obviously unaware of Eggers' star power (or is it Deng's?), I'm surprised to find a nearly hysterical crowd scene outside the library as non-ticket-holders jockey for standing-room positions. I can't generalize about all the events in this festival, but every one I've been to has been surprisingly well-attended.

The Eggers/Deng presentation gets off to an exciting start when Valentino Achak Deng proudly announces his news: he became a citizen of the United States of America just yesterday. He shows the crowd his new certificate of citizenship (to happy applause) and quizzes us with the questions he was asked, like "When was the Constitution written?" (most in the crowd say "1776", I try "1789", but Deng informs us it was 1787).

Unfortunately, though, it's all downhill after this exciting beginning, because Eggers and Deng seem a bit tired of their ongoing road show, and fail to light any literary sparks. The problem here is structural: Dave Eggers is playing the role of moderator, prodding Deng to tell stories, but it's clear that Eggers already knows the answer to every question he's asking (e.g., Eggers asks "Was it hard to leave any of your family members behind in Sudan?" so that Deng can tell the story of how it was hard to leave his family members behind in Sudan). Like the Beatles in 1970, this team needs to be broken up, and I have no doubt that either Dave Eggers or Valentino Achak Deng could do a better presentation on his own than they are currently capable of doing together.

Moderate complaints aside, my Friday sessions at PEN World Voices leave me feeling excited about the state of African literature and eager to read every one of these writers more. Based on the evidence presented today, contemporary African literature is thriving, and there's a lot I want to dig more deeply into.

My festival-going today will include a rare appearance by Patti Smith and Sam Shepard together at the Bowery Ballroom (the fact that Smith and Shepard are not only former artistic partners-in-crime but also former lovers may provide some extra chemistry at this event). I'll certainly be writing a report on this tomorrow.





The Most Useless Three Sentences In The World (And A Couple Other Things I’m Angry About)

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, April 24, 2007 08:47 pm


In anticipation of the shock wave of PEN World Voices coverage that's heading your way fast, today's LitKicks post will not be about literature. Today I'd just like to talk about three random things that it occurs to me to be angry about today.

1. Here are the most useless three sentences in the world:

"At the tone, please leave your message. When you finish you may hang up, or press one for more options. To leave a callback number, press five."

For God's sakes, is there anybody in the world who doesn't know that they can hang up a phone when they're done? And do I really have to hear this message over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over for the rest of my goddamn life, just on the off chance that someday somebody will want to press one for more options or leave a callback number by pressing five?

2. I recently got a new Hewlett-Packard PC with advanced video capabilities, and since I'm a techie by trade I figured I wouldn't have any trouble at all setting it up. Well, Hewlett-Packard sure made it as difficult as they could. The wild ride began when I found two manuals, one titled "Start Here" and another titled "Getting Started". Is this supposed to be like "Let's Make A Deal" -- I have to guess the right one? Apparently I guessed the wrong one, because my video capture setup sequence was demanding that I set up my "IR", but neither manual explained what an "IR" was (both manuals had lots of information, however, on how to identify my "keyboard" and my "mouse").

The comedy continues. Oh, it continues. The manuals contain extensive diagrams, but "these diagrams may not represent your actual model". It turns out they don't, even though modern publishing technology would easily allow a company as large as HP to deliver model-specific diagrams (really, HP, we have the technology). So I call customer support and am passed from one person to another, and with each transfer I have to repeat my phone number, my first name, my email address, my model name, my product number and my serial number. Apparently Hewlett Packard also doesn't know that modern digital communications technology would allow one customer service representative to pass this data along to another so I wouldn't have to repeat it. But I guess that's too challenging for a company like HP.

I bought HP instead of Dell this time on the recommendation of a knowledgeable person who told me that Dell is just as bad these days. If I could start this process over again at the beginning, I'd get a Mac.

3. I said this post had nothing to do with literature, but that's not true. My final complaint counts as literary, because apparently the United States military command overseas has been doing a lot of creative writing lately. There was some alarming testimony in the US Congress today regarding dead soldier Pat Tillman, whose family was kept in the dark about the fact that he was killed by friendly fire because he was a well-known football player and the commanders thought the news would hurt public morale.

There's only one problem with this: the American military isn't supposed to be writing fiction.

Today's Congressional hearing reached a painful pitch when Jessica Lynch showed up to testify on behalf of the Tillman family.

"The bottom line is the American people are capable of determining their own ideals for heroes and they don't need to be told elaborate lies," Jessica Lynch told Congress. "I am still confused as to why they chose to lie and tried to make me a legend when the real heroics of my fellow soldiers that day were legendary." I think the American people are pretty confused about what's going on too.

* * * * *

Maybe these three items aren't so random after all. The main theme here seems to be incompetence, specifically the incompetence of large organizations like Verizon, Hewlett Packard and the Bush-Cheney administration. One of my complaints is trivial, one is annoying and ridiculous, and one is deeply disturbing. Somebody recently asked me what blogs are good for -- well, maybe they're good for speaking up about stuff like this. We are the customers of these corporations and we are the voters in this democracy. We deserve better, in all three cases above.





Reviewing the Review: April 22 2007

by Levi Asher on Sunday, April 22, 2007 07:36 pm


We begin today's New York Times Book Review with Liesl Schillinger's review of The Grand Surprise: The Journals of Leo Lerman, edited by Stephen Pascal:

Leo Lerman once turned down an invitation from the king and queen of Spain so he could dine with the Conde Nast publishing magnate Donald Newhouse. Another time, he flatly rejected a "Narcissus naked" Yul Brynner, who was begging him to sleep with him and pathetically murmuring, "Why won't you? Why won't you?" The first, and probably only, woman Lerman ever saw naked was his great friend Marlene Dietrich, at a time when she was having what he described in a diary entry as an "intense affair with Yul." According to Lerman's lifelong love and partner, the artist Gray Foy, Dietrich had asked Lerman into her bath to demonstrate "the female anatomy." Apparently, Lerman took in the view with respectful attention, if not passion. But he was not always so above-it-all. Meeting a young writer at a New York gathering in the mid-1940s, he complied with good humor when the man jumped on his back in a stairwell and demanded a piggyback ride. That man turned out to be Truman Capote. If you are not one of the sun-seeking stems craning out of the thicket of magazine-world Manhattan, this may raise an echoing question for you: Who is Leo Lerman?

But that is not the echoing question this raises for me. That echoing question is this: "Yul Brynner was gay?" And, beyond that, another question echoes more loudly: "Why should I care?" I don't want to read a 654 page book of journal excerpts from a member of Truman Capote's entourage, and nothing in this review persuades me, though it tries to do so, that this book is timeless or significant enough to deserve the honor of a NYTBR cover review. Yes, even though this Leo Lerman parried with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, I still don't care. I like the accompanying illustration (by Istvan Banyai), anyway.

If the NYTBR editors chose the most well-written piece to be on the cover each week, today's spot would have gone to Erica Wagner's vivid review of Dani Shapiro's Black and White, which is both speculative and informative and gives me a very clear understanding of what this book is.

Christopher Buckley's Boomsday might also have been on the cover, even though Jane and Michael Stern don't appreciate its "puerile humor". I'm reading this book myself now, so I'll let you know what I think of it soon. As for what i think of the Stern Gang's review, I like it okay, but if I hear one more NYTBR critic use the phrase "too clever by half" I'm going to throw up by half.

Mark Sarvas has much praise for James Wilcox's Hunk City. Sarvas writes beautifully, as readers of his TEV know, but he may blunt the effectiveness of this review by making Hunk City sound like a sequel to Wilcox's earlier and apparently well-received Modern Baptists. Personally, I'm loathe to enter into a multi-novel saga at any point but the beginning, so this positive review has the undesired effect of making me want to read the earlier novel instead.

Stephen Metcalf's evaluation of Darcey Steinke's memoir Easter Everywhere shows serious control problems -- Metcalf's first paragraph meanders berserkly before finding its subject, but the article improves after that. Karen Ollson's introduction to Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist is well-written but leaves me confused as to whether or not this book has a plot. D. T. Max's demolition of Dana Vachon's pre-hyped investment banker saga Mergers and Acquisition is efficient and convincing; I didn't think I wanted to read this book, and now that I've read Max's review I'm sure I don't want to read this book.

There's a fine summary of poet Ed Dorn's Way More West: New and Selected Poems (and of Dorn's entire career) by August Kleinzahler, as well as a short but very enjoyable spin by Tom Shone on another book I'm looking forward to reading soon, Steven Hall's The Raw Shark Texts, which brings up a question book reviewers should ask more often:

How all of this will read in 20 years, or even two, is hard to say, although one suspects that what seemed so vertiginously modern will ultimately seem like so much cyber-age pschedelia -- as depthless and woozy as paisley-patterned shirts.

Rachel Donadio's endpaper on the closing of historical Russian archives under the Putin administration is well-intentioned, but unfortunately lacks any sense of context. Donadio approaches the subject of national security archives with a collector's glee, glibly quoting an expert who talks of one set of documents as "the holy of holies". Donadio also seems to have no footing in history when she quotes Christian Ostermann, the director of an organization called the Cold War International History Project, as saying "China is starting to catch up if not surpass Moscow in terms of archival access". Anybody familiar with the chilling secrecy that surrounds modern Chinese history will strongly doubt that. The Chinese government has got a century's worth of painful opening-up to do, and is not even close to Russia in terms of transparency. Donadio is supposed to know that.

The abundant literary offerings in today's New York Times conclude with a Charles McGrath profile of Amis fils and pere in the Magazine section which I plan to read as soon as I finish watching "The Sopranos", and a crossword puzzle dedicated to National Poetry Month.





Reviewing the Review: April 15 2007

by Levi Asher on Sunday, April 15, 2007 06:41 pm


This week's New York Times Book Review is devoted entirely to international literature, a welcome choice. I don't generally love "theme issues", but the NYTBR can do an issue like this anytime they want.

It'd be easy to complain about all the international writers who are not included in this 28-pager, but instead let's appreciate the ones who are. Chile's increasingly legendary Roberto Bolano gets cover-article respect from James Wood, who writes beautifully and makes a convincing case for Bolano's place in the contemporary canon (it's just too bad that Bolano had to die before this canonization took place). Wood effuses about a single long sentence in Bolano's The Savage Detectives that he describes as "a poem":

The musical control is impeccable, and one is struck by Bolano's ability to nudge on his long, light, ethereal sentence -- impossibly, like someone punting a leaf -- image by image, the falcon, the red hue, the sunset, the dawn, the dawn seen from a plane, the femoral artery, the blood vessel, the abstract painter.

Nobody will miss the fact that Wood is attempting to nudge forth his own "poem" in this critical piece, and my only problem with Wood's very thoughtful piece is that it is too achingly worshipful, too ecstatic, too much like a series of forehead kisses. Even when a great writer has just died and is being newly appreciated, this can be off-putting. Regardless, Wood makes his point, and I'm going to read Bolano's book.

At least two of today's translated authors get something more like a hard smack than a kiss to the forehead, particularly Austria's Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek, whose Greed is massacred by Joel Agee for numerous stylistic and philosophical excesses. It's a funny piece:

This sounds like a page turner. Now I too have misled you. Nothing is further from Jelinek's mind than advancing a plot or even just telling a story.

Lucy Ellman is no kinder to Depths by Sweden's Henning Mankell, and I'm not quite sure whether or not Sophie Harrison intends to be kinder to Grotesque, Natsuo Kirino's tale of a quirky teenage murderer in Japan. Harrison refers to it as a "disconcerting stump of a book", but makes it sound rather intriguing despite this.

There's relatively more positivity in Fernanda Ebertstadt's review of Nada by Spain's Carmen Laforet, Terrence Rafferty's review of Delerium (what's with the one-word titles?) by Colombia's Laura Restrepo and Liesl Schillinger's review of All Whom I Hove Loved by Israel's Aharon Appelfield, which takes place in World War II-era Romania.

Ken Kalfus is a new favorite writer of mine (his dark comic novel A Disorder Peculiar to Our Country is still resonating in my brain) and I'm glad to see his byline on an article about Ice (another one-word title) by Vladimir Sorokin of Russia. Elizabeth Schmidt's consideration of The Story of the Cannibal Woman by South Africa's Maryse Conde rounds out an impressive global array.

Speaking of impressive global arrays, I was frequently reminded of Words Without Borders, a website and non-profit organization dedicated to international literature in translation, as I read this issue (full disclosure: I work as a technical consultant for Words Without Borders). It's great that the New York Times Book Review is also paying special attention to translated literature, but I do wish they had reviewed the new book Words Without Borders: The World Through The Eyes of Writers in this issue, or, barring that, I wish they hadn't produced a cover that looks a lot like the cover of the book. Witness:




Well, somebody at the NYTBR must have liked the book, anyway! It's the thought that counts, and overall I'm very happy with this week's issue of the Book Review.

* * * * *


The "Week In Review" section of today's Times also includes a memorable piece by NYTBR chief Sam Tanenhaus about his odd brush with Don Imus, who happened to be a vocal fan and supporter of Tanenhaus's 1997 biography of Cold War-era troublemaker Whittaker Chambers. Tanenhaus points out that Don Imus had many high profile co-dependents in his long career as a professional loudmouth, and hints gently at hypocrisy among these media/industry friends today. It's a very good piece, proving once again that for all Sam Tanenhaus's oddities as an editor, his articles are always worth reading.






Kurt Vonnegut’s Message: You’ve Got To Be Kind

by Levi Asher on Thursday, April 12, 2007 07:03 am




Kurt Vonnegut, whose enjoyably experimental novels vastly increased my appetite for literature when I was a kid, has died at the age of 84.

A thoroughly political and philosophical writer, Kurt Vonnegut argued zealously for the place of human kindness amid the crushing tumult of modern life. His literary expressions of this messsage were sometimes simple, sometimes repetitive -- not because his intellect was limited, but because his conviction on this point was massive. "There's only one rule that I know of, babies -- 'God damn it, you've got to be kind.'"

Who knows whether or not the Vonnegut Message was crystallized during the firebombing of Dresden, Germany during World War II, which he witnessed and wrote about in Slaughterhouse-Five? This coincidence of history gave him a personal vision of all-consuming hell on earth. The surreal horror of Dresden must have been magnified by the fact that Vonnegut was a German-American held as prisoner by enemy Germans underneath the city as it burned (he worked out many of his contradictory feelings about war, about violence, about human stupidity in novels like Mother Night, Cat's Cradle and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater).

My first favorite Vonnegut novel was Breakfast of Champions, in which a cloddish car dealer named Dwayne Hoover becomes convinced that other humans have no feelings, that he is the only sentient being on earth. This book exemplifies Vonnegut's freewheeling and highly personal prose style, complete (in this case) with childish illustrations designed to puncture any sense of pretension or grandeur regarding the novel form.

Another early favorite of mine was Welcome to the Monkey House, a highly accessible collection of stories. The title story involves a monkey in a zoo whose scandalous sexual behavior shocks a prudish parent.

Slapstick is considered "late-period" Vonnegut and is often not listed among his best books, but this sad apocalyptic satire has always stuck with me. In a decimated future Earth, survivors desperately try to reconnect with the distant human capacity for love by forming into arbitrary "tribes" with names like Oyster, Hollyhock, Daffodil, Amoeba, Beryllium, Watermelon, Chickadee, Helium and Strawberry. If you meet someone who belongs to the same tribe, you're supposed to be nice to that person.

Close Slapstick, and we're back in reality, where humanity divides itself into tribes called American, Mexican, French, Russian, Chinese, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Sunni, Shiite, Liberal, Conservative. The slapstick is all around us. The master satirist is gone, and the player piano plays on.





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