Reviewing the Review: October 23 2005

Okay, confession time. As those who live in New York City know but others may not, several sections of the Sunday New York Times, including the Magazine, the Arts and Leisure section and the Book Review, actually show up on our doorsteps on Saturday morning. This provides useful material for tricks, like finishing the crossword puzzle by 9 am Sunday and phoning faraway relatives to brag about it. Yeah, we had an extra day. And I’ve been posting my reviews of the New York Times Book Review on Sunday evenings for the past six months, giving myself a full 24 hours head-start in thinking up witticisms.

I’m tearing down the artifice today, because if it’s okay with everybody I think I’d like to have the option to put up my review of the Book Review on Saturday afternoons. I came to this decision today, after finishing tomorrow’s entire publication over a fine Saturday morning cheese omelet and realizing that the issue contained no spoilers, no surprises, and nothing at all worth concealing for the sake of a fabricated Sunday morning epiphany.

Today’s issue is competent and bland. Nicholas Kristof reviews a new biography of Chairman Mao on the cover, the always excellent Paul Johnson expounds upon the Peloponnesian War, Patricia Cohen joins with Joshua Wolf Shenk in psychoanalyzing Abraham Lincoln and William Deresiewicz offers a helpful glimpse of Robert Pinksy’s new Life of David (the biblical one). All good, but this is the realm of history, not literature.

On the fictional front, Meghan O’Rourke’s discussion of Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica makes me want to start reading this book immediately, and I’m also interested in checking out Scarlett Thomas’s PopCo based on Dee Mondschein’s captivating summary. Both articles do their job, but neither put the slightest dent into the featureless terrain of my quiet Saturday morning.

Elizabeth Royte’s endpaper about the Kubler-Ross-esque “stages of acceptance” a writer goes through after publishing a novel is amusing, but really does nothing more than tag all the bases one would expect a humorist to tag in an article with this premise.

The best writing in today’s Book Review is by John Simon, who knows how to wield a sentence. He’s writing about two new books on Shakespeare, one by Peter Ackroyd and one by James Shapiro. This article was a pleasure to read and almost lives up to the rarefied image of what a Sunday morning book supplement should be.

All in all, these are the book reviews in a day’s newspaper, but it’s nobody’s Sunday Best.

4 Responses

  1. You can’t mix matter and
    You can’t mix matter and antimatter

    You are treading dangerously on the fabric of space and time Captain.

    It can’t hold out much longer.


    Thanks, it’ll be interesting to read Kristof’s review on Jun Chang’s new book.

    Kristof’s older writings seemed to have insight and I appreciated them. He did a great article on on the supposed Sinbad, for example. Now he seems like another lousy poltical hack — and not a good one at that.

    This review should put him more back in his element.

  2. And while we are tampering
    And while we are tampering with the space/time continuum, I would like to cross into totally another dimension and relate today’s review with a previous thread. A few days ago, Levi asked if literature can change the world. This has raised questions in my mind as to where to draw the line between literature and historical reporting.
    The new biography of Chairman Mao, Paul Johnson on Peloponnesian War, and Robert Pinksy’s Life of David all sound interesting to me.

  3. Hey Bill — well, I think the
    Hey Bill — well, I think the key differentiator is the grounding in imagination. Sure, these historical and political books are relevant to what any literary person must be thinking about, but so are the headlines in the main paper, and we have to draw the line somewhere. I guess it’s the use of imagined plots, characters and situations that creates that particular chemistry we call literature, which has a power factual reporting can never have.

  4. Come to think of it…My
    Come to think of it…

    My father used to come home on Saturday afternoon with Sunday’s paper, with the big Sunday funnies section in color. I haven’t thought of that in years!

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