Today’s New York Times Book Review is a theme issue again, and again I don’t like it. Today we’re doing “Bad For You”, containing reviews of books about poker, cigarettes, alcohol and Warren Zevon. I have no problem with the topic, nor with the translation theme that dominated a recent issue, but these laudable literary outings just seem like a warm-up for the horrors soon to come. How long will it be before there’s another Food Issue? And then what, a Real Estate issue? A Summer Getaways issue, complete with airline offers?
Screw that. I have a strong suspicion that this whole theme-issue craze is a ploy to place targeted ad sales campaigns in less literary future issues of the Book Review. We’re not dumb over here, editors — please stop messing with the formula, and please try to avoid being cute.
It’s also a fact that nobody thinks of the Book Review as authoritative in the literature of transgression. I would expect to see Chuck Pahlaniuk’s new Rant: An Oral History of Buster Casey in a “Bad For You” issue, but what do I know? The book is nowhere to be found, and the only remotely transgressive work of fiction represented is Matthew Sharpe’s Jamestown, which unfortunately doesn’t make out very well in Susannah Meadows very witty review. Meadows considers the book a failure with saving graces. I’m reading Jamestown right now and I’ll be posting my own findings soon.
Sue Halpern also serves up a fine piece on octagenarian Lore Segal’s Shakespeare’s Kitchen. She describes a scene in which mysterious voices of screaming victims invade and scatter a slick academic conference on genocide. With this one example, I’m convinced; I’m going to be reading this book.
I’ve got some more praise, and then we’ll get to the hate.
Eric Ormsby’s summary of The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain 950-1492 edited by Peter Cole is useful and informative and tells me quite a lot I didn’t know about a remarkable and original form of Judeo-Arabic fusion poetry in 10th Century Spain. Camille Paglia’s able encapsulation of Jon Savage’s Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture makes the book sound much more substantial and wide-ranging than I’d guessed it would be.
Now, the problems. I have no idea why Susan Casey would have been assigned to review Bigger Deal: A Year on the New Poker Circuit by Anthony Holden, since she clearly knows and cares nothing about poker. She breathlessly praises the book’s core sequence in which an amateur poker player and professional writer narrates his nervous entry into the World Series of Poker. That’s fine except that this is the same exact story James McManus told in his very successful and critically acclaimed Positively Fifth Street, which Anthony Holden’s book seems to call rather than raise.
But Casey misses that angle, and doesn’t find a better one in exchange. She jabbers about everything she can think of: television cameras, the internet, nicotine patches, casino design, but she does not tell us about a single poker hand, which is the only thing anybody who wants to read about poker will want to read about. Finally, there’s no reason to include poker in a “Bad For You” issue at all, since poker is not bad for you.
And neither is Nirvana. But where Susan Casey cared too little about her subject, Benjamin Kunkel cares all too much about his. In fact, I’m guessing he’s been itching to write about Nirvana, and he finally got his chance here, but this comes at the expense of poor biographer Everett True, who gets dropped off at a bus stop halfway through this article and is never heard from again.
One wonders why Kunkel didn’t just write a Nirvana piece for his sometimes excellent and sometimes arch N+1 magazine and write a book review here. One also wonders why he’s so eager to write this piece, since his ideas about Nirvana are about as sharp as any you’ll hear around any college cafeteria in America, and no sharper. He goes on about the heavy metal and pop roots of their music, and serves up this schlock:
Nirvana’s genius, you might say, was to reveal the attitude of the outcast teenager toward the popular kids as identical with that of the mature artist toward the corporate world.
Actually I think that was Goethe’s genius, in Sorrows of Young Werther. And since then there was Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud and James Dean and Jack Kerouac and Neil Young and Johnny Rotten and The Breakfast Club and … must I go on?
Kunkel also starts the article by speaking of Nirvana as an artifact of a bygone time and telling us that he doesn’t listen to them anymore. I’m guessing he doesn’t have kids, or he would know that our younger generations have already claimed Saint Kurt as their own, and that Nirvana’s music is anything but bygone. A few of my 12-year old daughter’s friends can play “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on guitar (as for my daughter, she can play “Aneurysm”).
The “Bad For You” issue ends with a humor piece on the pleasure of bad books by Joe Queenan which is serviceable at best. A few pages earlier, Dave Barry shows what a real humorist can do with a page in the Book Review, introducing us to a book about email etiquette called Send by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe. Joe Queenan, go to school:
A few years back, when my son was in college, he had to mail a letter. I don’t remember the specific reason, but I do remember having a conversation with him in which he complained bitterly about the amount of work involved — finding a place where he could purchase a stamp, figuring out what kind of stamp he needed, actually writing the letter, locating an envelope, putting the letter into the envelope, having to physically leave his dormitory room to mail the envelope and so on. I grew exhausted just listening to him describe this series of arduous tasks, one coming right after another. I was glad, for my son’s sake, that he never had to live in a world — as I once did — where the only way to change channels was to walk all the way to the TV set and manually turn a knob.
Barry’s positive review amounts to an incestous softball from editor Sam Tanenhaus to his Times colleague David Shipley, but who cares? It’s a funny piece, and the book doesn’t sound too bad.
But no more theme issues, Mr. Tanenhaus, please. Or else you’re going to face the wrath of literary New York, not to mention the dreaded basements of Terre Haute.