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.