Reviewing the Review: June 12 2005

I was pretty happy with today’s New York Times Book Review. When I pick up the Book Review, I don’t only to hear about good books; I want to read good writing. Entire issues sometimes go by without any examples of this.

The articles in the New York Times Book Review are supposedly contributed by the top writers and critics in the world, so I think I have a right to expect to find at least a few gems of sparkling prose each Sunday morning. I was happier than usual today. I enjoyed reading Sophie Harrison’s rant on the graphic-novel craze in her review of Embroideries by cartoonist/author Marjane Satrapi:

“The term ‘graphic novel’ is a bleak one. It somehow manages to conjure something exhaustingly hip, yet ugly — like a pair of polyester trousers. Graphic novels mean being forced to read dialogue at a … quarter … of … normal … speed, accompanied by sound effects that don’t exist in real life (Bam! Oof!”) while at the same time having to admire the wonderful fresh cleverness of putting words and pictures alongside each other, as if films haven’t been doing the same thing, modestly and painlessly, for about a hundred years.”

Harrison’s review is otherwise quite complimentary of Satrapi’s latest book, which I’m looking forward to reading. I may also pick up Nick Hornby’s latest, A Long Way Down, which is apparently about four strangers who meet cute (trying to kill themselves from the same tower on New Years Eve) and become good friends. If I do, though, I may not enjoy it as much as Chris Heath’s review, which meditates on the topic of suicide in pop fiction and goes off an interesting tangent:

“I guess some people will be offended at any proximity of humor to the act of suicide, but maybe that is precisely Hornby’s risky point: that suicide isn’t always very deep at all, or at least no more or less deep than the living that leads to it; that it is just as much the province of shallow motives and poor jokes as the rest of a life. (Why should this surprise us? Even if suicide is the most serious decision a person can make, isn’t it also, in its very essence, a supreme act of taking life lightly?)”

Maybe so, maybe so … and since I’ve read two Nick Hornby books and been twice amused but never thrilled, maybe I should start reading Chris Heath books instead. Good job, Chris and Sophie, and thanks for reminding the other reviewers that you’re here to write, we’re here to read … blow us away!

The rest of the June 12 issue was pretty substantial, even wearyingly so at times, as I surfed from Orhan Pamuk to James Salter to Carlos Fuentes to John Bayley to Thomas Lynch to Umberto Eco to a fascinating endpaper piece by Lila Azam Zanganeh about the myths and realities surrounding the ‘Negritude’ literary movement that flourished in the 1930’s in French-speaking African countries, sparked by Leopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal and Aime Cesaire of Martinique. The myth was that this literary movement was popular among Africans, and the reality was that the books were mainly published for the benefit of European and American audiences. Reminds me of some poetry readings I’d been to at the Nuyorican Poetry Cafe in the East Village, where it was obvious there were no Nuyoricans (New York Puerto Ricans) either on stage or in the audience.

I give this whole issue high marks, even though it was a dull and predictable move to feature Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Survivor, the 4713th (or is it 4714th?) biography of Bill Clinton, as the cover story.

It was also nice to see a full-page ad for the Eric “Very Hungry Caterpillar” Carle newest picture book, which is apparently about ten yellow rubber duckies. I’ll leave Harry Potter to everybody else, and eagerly await this one’s arrival by myself.

Oh, and … the Book Review mentioned Google again in this issue (in the Umberto Eco review). This means the New York Times Book Review has acknowledged the existence of the internet twice in one month, which is for this publication a freaking miracle. Maybe next week they’ll even mention a website other than Google.

7 Responses

  1. asideIf suicide is “the

    If suicide is “the ultimate way to take life lightly” maybe he could write a manual called “Suicide Lite”, a kind of graphic spoof on the most literary way to take your own little life.

    Anyway, I highly recommend Aime Cesaire, a wonderful surrealist poet.

  2. questionI did not get what

    I did not get what this person was saying about the ‘graphic novel’. I am sure that some where in history way before the film industry was doing the “wonderful fresh cleverness of putting words and pictures alongside each other…” I am sure that somewhere somehow the graphic novel has existed a lot longer than film, though I could be wrong. Maybe I did not get what the critic was saying, but it came across as stuck up and a little angry. Maybe that is what you like about them, and I must admit I like it too when I agree, but I like graphic novels and comic book even though I have not read that many.

  3. Hi Geoff — actually I agree
    Hi Geoff — actually I agree with you, and I thought the same thing when I read it. Yes, the graphic novel must be older than film — from cave paintings to heiroglyphics to illustrated bibles to European revolutionary cartoons, this is probably one of the most enduring art forms of all. So, yeah, I think that one sentence missed its mark, but I liked the rest of the paragraph, just because it’s funny and punctures the latest fad of “highbrow graphic novels” a la Art Speigelman, Robert Crumb, Harvey Pekar, etc.

  4. WellI’ve never been able to

    I’ve never been able to get myself on the graphic novel bandwagon. I read Bookslut regularly and she’s a really big booster of the form, and there’s even a good bookstore Quimby’s not too far from where I live that has a pretty good selection. I mean, I think the must appreciate this art form, and not just appreciate, but acknowledge that it is a brilliant creation on par with combining Guernica with Ulysess or something. (There always seems to be a kind of Second City insecurity to comix fans) Whatever the reason, I probably won’t be looking at any words with pictures anytime soon. And I find it really funny that Borders and Barnes and Noble now have big Manga sections.

  5. I’m a little more favorable
    I’m a little more favorable than you on this one, Jim … I totally love the “Maus” series by Art Spiegelman — not so much because it’s a graphic novel as because of the writing and artwork itself. Maybe what’s annoying is the idea that we should all get excited (and remain excited) by the novelty of this form, when actually the novelty is getting old quick. But if the work is good, it’s good. And I don’t see how “Maus” could have worked without the pix.

  6. I guess the problem is that
    I guess the problem is that when anything becomes trendy, a whole lot of substandard or generic product rushes to the market as everybody tries to jump on the bandwagon.

    And I wasn’t in on the ground floor of graphic novels, so I basically need not a ‘must read’ list, but a “if you’re interested in delving into the world of graphic novels, here’s selection of 5 or so that are of high quality and representative of the diversity of the genre” list.

    Basically, I don’t want to be like somebody who decides one day they like jazz, but don’t know anything about it, so they go to the record store and end up coming away with Kenny G and Chuck Mangione cds.

    Like I said, some really intrigue me; I know Maus won the Pulitzer, and In the Shadow of No Towers sounds good from the reviews I’ve read.

    And I guess as a writer without pictures, there’s probably some jealousy at all the attention writers with pictures are getting nowadays. And it’s nothing against the graphic novelists themselves, just their insistent partisans.

  7. Agreed — I think it’s the
    Agreed — I think it’s the notion that we’re supposed to embrace the hip-ness of the form and disregard any other weaknesses in the work. Unfortunately instead of turning people on to the genre by promoting it this way, I think the end result is that it gets the label of “novelty”. I think the last thing that would even come close to a “graphic novel” would be a “Milk & Cheese” comic. Oh and that illustrated classics version of Moby Dick. That Queequeg … such a scamp.

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