Sunday Morning: the Book Review

Now that the LitKicks format allows me more than one posting per week, I can start doing something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, which is to log on every Sunday morning and write a few lines about the New York Times Book Review.

I usually have a lot to say about each issue of the Book Review. Do I have a love/hate relationship with this publication? I sure as hell do. I look forward to its arrival each weekend, but I am often disappointed, and I’ve gradually come to realize that this publication is designed to deliver something different from what it seems to promise.

WHAT IT PROMISES: a rare and intense weekend-morning immersion into literary and poetic awareness, calming but provocative, informative but stylish, a transporting reading experience with the exquisite richness of a luxurious sunday brunch at the Plaza Hotel or the ethereal tones of the Velvet Underground tune “Sunday Morning”.

WHAT IT USUALLY DELIVERS: a controversial but artless extension of the daily newspaper, with top billing given to the latest political or newsworthy titles. If a book by a major Beltway politico or a biography of any media, business or entertainment celebrity is published this week, well, John Updike or Rick Moody or Joyce Carol Oates will have to get shoved a few pages back to make room for it. The New York Times Book Review has always been more New York Times than Book Review, usually giving top billing to non-fiction over novels, short stories, poetry or literary issues.

The imagination-minded readers and writers of New York City simply have to accept this and love the publication for whatever it chooses to offer, because it’s the best game in town. But it’s rarely poetic, rarely calming, and usually about as transporting as Ted Koppel’s ‘Nightline’.

However, the Book Review is under new management lately, and I’m happy to say that the publication has recently taken steps to upgrade its coverage of fiction and poetry. A novel by Hilary Mantel, “Beyond Black”, is the cover story this week, with books about Joseph Stalin, J. Robert Oppenheimer, rogue economics, Pope John Paul II and the holocaust actually getting second place.

I’m most encouraged by the letters to the editor in response to the first column by a brand-new poetry critic, David Orr. The fact that the Book Review is pushing its poetry coverage is major news, and David Orr debuted in good fashion a couple of weeks ago with a slam on one of the most acclaimed poets of our time, Jorie Graham.

I happen to like Jorie Graham’s poetry a lot, but I like the idea of the Book Review beefin’ with a major poet even better. This week there are two letters in response to Orr’s criticism of Graham’s intellectual carelessness. One letter says, in Graham’s defense: “Doesn’t it become clear that the precision of the modern voice is of little bearing? Shouldn’t an honest poet tremble before word and world?”

To which I say “hell yeah”. Tremble, poets! These sentences are almost ethereal (of course they were written by an ordinary citizen and published in the letters section, rather than one of the Book Review’s designated critics, but still).

Another good reason to peruse the Book Review is the book ads, and I was interested to see that folksinger John Wesley Harding is now an author of fiction. His book is called “Misfortune” and the author is now calling himself “Wesley Stace” (though the ad undercuts this by blatantly telling us that this is the almost-famous folksinger, for whatever sales value that may be worth). The book is described as a foray into Victorian styles, which sounds intriguing enough to me.

I hope to make it a weekly habit to review the Book Review each Sunday. I also hope I won’t go on quite so long each Sunday (and you may be hoping this as well). Have a good day, and go eat your brunch.

2 Responses

  1. A review of the review of the
    A review of the review of the review

    Well, maybe not so much, but I am tempted.

    I think you’ve pretty much pinpointed the problem with the NYTBR, but I think you’re being generous when you outline what it supposedly promises. I can say with confidence that I’ve been transported to more magical places by MC Hammer than by anything the NYT has put out — Book Review or not. I think part of the problem is that it has the connotation of being “the best game in town” — and I think that’s unfortunate, because it’s obviously not the only game and nowhere approaching what I’d consider an authentic and lively one. After all, it is the Times and it is in the business of the news. But I digress … come and get me, Orr. Bring it.

    I had to laugh about the Jorie Graham bit. Someone declaring they have a beef with Jorie Graham a little like picking a fight with a bag of cotton candy (that is not to say that Jorie Graham is cotton OR candy … or a bag). It’s not exactly a ballsy move. What is Ms. Graham going to do, pay a personal visit to Mr. Orr and go Jet Li on his ass? Actually, that’s something I would like to see. I’m sure Graham doesn’t give a shit either way.

    Regarding John Wesley Harding — didn’t Garth Brooks already pull this stunt when he became Chris Gains? I do agree that usually the ads are one of the best things about the NYT Book Review (and any other paper’s book section) — but then again, it seems to be a trend that the advertising in print publications is more creative and engaging than the publication’s content.

    All in all, I will look forward to your review of the review each week and I think the length’s just fine.

  2. I used to look forward to
    I used to look forward to them…

    …but I haven’t checked out the NY Times Sunday Reviews in quite some time, except for specific books I was interested in.

    Anyone know if they lowered themselves to review Bukowski’s latest, annual posthumous release, “Slouching Towards Nirvana”?

    I recently read it and like it in general, but most of his recently published stuff comes across to me as a little too “familiar” (which is a nice way of saying “done to death”) with topics like horse racing, being rich after being poor, drinking late, critics/bad poets and listening to classical music on the radio. But there are a few new insightful gems in the book which made it completely worthwhile, including one screed against an unidenitfied beat poet, whom I took to be Ferlinghetti.

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