I pledged last Sunday to begin reviewing each issue of the New York Times Book Review in these pages. It’s now week two of this endeavor, and I’m already having a rough time.
Sometimes — okay, often — the Book Review just leaves me cold. Maybe this is what I want to complain about, because I think the world’s most renowned weekly literary review should radiate a blazing white heat with every issue. This week’s issue is a cold slab of refrigerated cheese, starting with a dull, trendy cover story about Nascar culture and books thereabout. Who cares? Where’s my fiction and poetry?
I page through: American history; women’s tales of friendship; a memoir of a person I’d never heard of when I start reading about his book; and who I forget I’d heard of by the time I turn the page; homeopathic medicine, how popular culture is good for you. Finally, on page 14 I reach the literary ghetto where novels and story collections get some ink.
But even these pages transmit a cool apathy. Once or twice each week the Book Review will favor a debut author with a polite but dismissive review, and this week this young novelist is named Alix Ohlin and the last four words of the review are “fatal shortness of interest.” Yeah, well, we’ve got some of that going on in this publication too. I should find small reviews of books by Albert Murray and Caleb Carr interesting, but the reviewers seem bored and so do I.
The review hits a high point with full-page coverage of new books by Ann Beattie and Chuck Palahniuk, but we’re told that Ann Beattie has lost her minimalist edge and mentions too many brand names in her stories, and Palahniuk is treated with condescension and contempt. No more free ride for this guy! The article focuses on the gory shock value of his writing and laughs about the fact that Brad Pitt appeared in the film of Palahniuk’s “Fight Club”. In fact, most Palahniuk readers respect this movie, which was true to the spirit of the novel it came from, and we are capable of looking past Brad Pitt’s pretty face when we need to. Palahniuk’s latest book may be an exercise in gore, but many smart people still take this author seriously, myself included, and the Times is much too flippant in attempting to write him off as a trendy triviality.
For the second week in the row, the most interesting thing in the book review turns out be the letters section, where a few citizens are keeping up a lively defense of self-published books and non-traditional publishing. Maybe somebody out there is self-publishing a better Sunday Book Review than this one. But I haven’t found it yet, so I’ll just hope I’ll be able to stir up more passion for whatever the New York Times will serve up next Sunday.