Reviewing the Review: Week Two

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.

8 Responses

  1. MetareviewYou say: “Maybe

    You say: “Maybe somebody out there is self-publishing a better Sunday Book Review than this one. But I haven’t found it yet…”

    I’m not sure I agree with the ‘something is better than nothing’ philosophy. In fact, in many cases, something is most certainly *not* better than nothing and this seems to be a perfect example. I think maybe a good exercise would be to cut out all of the columns and blurbs that are worthy and glue them into a notebook. Let’s call it therapeutic self-publishing.

    It’s nice (?) to hear that Chuck and Ann got mentions, but I wonder how much of that was begrudgingly so? The books hit the stands weeks ago. And everyone loves to hate on Chuck P. — though it’s telling that the NYT can’t do it in a fresh way.

    I think you did hit the nail on the head when you mentioned the reviews are boring and the reviewers bored. I think the most inspired reviews and trends are being churned out online now, and that’s probably what happens to reviewers when their influence is dulled down. I recently read an article that echoes what you’re noticing — so you’re definitely not alone.

  2. The LitKicks ReviewI’m trying
    The LitKicks Review

    I’m trying to remember if a book review has ever prompted me to read a book. Since I’ve been out of college, the majority of books I’ve read were either recommended by someone who I knew shared my interests, or by an author I had already read other books by. For example, over in Spain I stayed up all night with my friend Jim the Cor’man, listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, smoking, sipping wine, and eating orange slices. When he recommended Hunter S. Thompson, I was pretty sure I would like HST. And having read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I didn’t need a book review to eventually pick up all of HST’s other books. Ditto with Kerouac and others.

    But wait. You know, there is one place where I’ve been informed about some really good books, and that place is LitKicks. I’m not just trying to be nice here, I really mean it. I can name several books which I read because they were either recommended or discussed on LitKicks. I’ll rattle off a few: Burn Rate by Michael Wolff, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon(these first two were recommended by Levi himself and I thoroughly enjoyed them both. Hmmm, maybe Levi should write for the Times). Then there is Palahnuik’s Choke, which garnered mixed opinions from a myriad of LitKickers (I like the book); The Old Ways by Gary Snyder which I picked up in a used book store on Jamelah’s recommendation (and I hope to soon be reading Snyder’s new book, courtesy of Miss FC). Then there is Coffeehouse: Writings From the Web which I have seen, heard about, and read about ever since I first discovered Literary Kicks. I put off buying Coffeehouse for a long time and all I can say is, I should have read it sooner – it’s great.
    Last but not least, unless you are Jamelah, is the DaVinci Code, which I might have read anyway, but seeing the debate over that book’s merits here on these boards certainly accelerated my interest. It wasn’t as bad as it’s detractors would have me believe, but it wasn’t as great as the poster in Barnes & Noble suggested. It was ok.

  3. ReviewsI must say that

    I must say that reviews meant for the masses are not the most reliable sources for information, especially from the largest publication out there. I am not sure, but I think the NY Times is a giant advertorial. There is something there I am addicted to, but it mainly consists of scanning the table of contents and saying aloud, “Man, is there really nothing out this week?” Then I flip to the bestseller list to make sure The Da Vinci Code is still on top only to find it has been knocked down by a smug Patterson.

    But this is not entirely their fault. It is very possible that most weeks, no good books are published. And the best possible week, how much good fiction can possibly come out, 2 books?

    As to this “Nascar is the most popular sport in America business,” I believe that is an urban legend invented by some drunk in a bar trying to impress people with made up facts (Ex. Liberal media). I trust tv ratings like I trust Roger Ebert when he tells me Monster in Law is a must see film.

    Apropos of this information, I propose a new section of litkicks: Sunday book review where people submit not only reviews of new books, but old ones they are reading as well. I always tried to come to the LitKicks what are you reading column (not the NY Times) for book suggestions, and this would be a different way of reviving it.

  4. I almost saw a fight break
    I almost saw a fight break out at the flea market. This guy was selling bumper stickers and window stickers. Well, apparently Dale Earnhart’s racecar # was 4, and don’t ever display that little Calvin dude pissing on a #4 around these parts cause some old boys will get mad. But that’s neither here nor there. I really wrote to say I like your idea about people writing reviews on LitKicks.

  5. That is great to hear, Bill!
    That is great to hear, Bill! Especially the part about liking that long forgotten “Coffeehouse” book (and I do mean long forgotten) … but then I guess I’m just reacting selfishly on that count.

    Personally, I guess I’d have to admit that I do read books based on reviews. Maybe not as often based on a single review, but rather on the so-called “buzz” that somehow filters out to us. I would never have picked up Jonathan Franzen’s “Corrections”, or anything by Don DeLillo or Lydia Davis, if it weren’t for the buzz. Then again, no amount of buzz seems to be inspiring me to buy a book by Jonathan Safrar Foer. I am also very influenced by the buzz I pick up on LitKicks. In the embarrassing literary confessions arena, I have to admit that when I started LitKicks I had barely heard of Charles Bukowski, but the recommendations poured in from people who liked other writers I was writing about on the site, and I took notice. Really, in the end, word of mouth is all there is to help us discover anything — whether it comes from a newspaper, a website or a friend.

  6. Thanks for the suggestion,
    Thanks for the suggestion, Rubiao … in a way, this is what we do “What Are You Reading” for already. What better way to recommend a book than to tell others you are reading it? I wonder if there is much more to a book review than the simple fact of its existence. Like: “I am reading this book” — end of review. What do you think?

  7. I agree. “What are you
    I agree. “What are you reading?” is the perfect invitation to give one’s opinion on a book.

  8. Good point, Rubiao. I think
    Good point, Rubiao. I think “what are you reading” does work for this in a basic way, but we are hoping to post at least a few reviews a month and encourage you (and everyone) to submit your reviews if something you’ve read really made an impact (either good or bad).

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!