Reviewing the Review: December 11 2005

Critic Caroline Alexander examines Canongate’s impressive new series of commissioned books about mythology in today’s New York Times Book Review. I’ve now spotted the first three entries in Canongate’s series (Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth, Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad and Jeanette Winterson’s Weight) arrayed proudly together in a bookstore, three beguiling sirens calling me into mankind’s deep past. I am psyched about this series (that’s a pun, I think), and I like Caroline Alexander’s review, which reminds us that ancient mythology is the earliest extant human response to the same physical, social and existential anxieties that possess and control us today.

Alexander takes these three books seriously, and thankfully doesn’t give the exalted Margaret Atwood a free pass; Atwood’s retelling of Homer’s Odyssey apparently tries to hide its lack of basic conviction by putting on a postmodern magic show, whereas Winterson’s account of Heracles and Atlas sticks to the script and emerges as the better book.

Today’s Book Review offers only small oases of fiction and poetry coverage among all the “important stuff”, but what’s there is good. Emily Nussbaum’s appreciation of poet Kenneth Koch is enjoyable, and it makes me want to rush out to buy his new career retrospective, which has just been published by Knopf. Unfortunately, the book is priced at $40, which means I won’t buy it and neither will anybody else. Why does Knopf publish a monument when what is needed is a book?

Marcel Theroux’s introduction to Cold Skin, a translated symbolic horror novel by Catalan author Albert Sanchez Pinol about a meteorologist stranded on an island and beset by a mob of subhuman creatures, is so gripping as to make me want to read one of Theroux’s novels along with this one of Pinol’s.

Good stuff, all of the above — but at this point the Book Review returns to its regular job, which is, apparently … reporting on the day’s news.

Just for the record, when I complain about the column space the New York Times Book Review devotes to politics, I am not suggesting that literature and politics are incompatible. The most enthralling literary event this week was a riveting Harold Pinter Nobel Prize acceptance speech about the role of America in the world, and I can’t think of anything more important for anybody to talk about right now than international politics, the meaning of government, the meaning of war. My beef with the Book Review is that when they cover politics they write like newspaper people, not like poets or philosophers. I hear axes grinding when Middle East scholar Geoffrey Wheatcroft reviews Middle East scholar Robert Fisk, or when historian Walter Olson reviews historian A. N. Wilson on post-Victorian Britian. I want passionate, powerful statements, controversial blasts of insight — instead I get history wonks poking for holes in each other’s arguments. Next year Wheatcroft and Olson will probably publish books and maybe the Book Review will let Fisk and Wilson get their revenge. If I want to watch experts out-shout each other, I’ll turn on the TV news; when I open up the Book Review, I’m hoping for something more exalting.

The Book Review gives its long-abused literary readers a final slap by devoting a massive amount of space — five full pages — to Barry Gewen’s essay on contemporary art. There’s already a whole section of the Sunday Times called Arts and Leisure, but that’s fine, the Book Review editors really don’t need to worry about us readers of fiction and poetry. We’re too busy for articles anyway. Gotta go earn that money so we can someday afford that Kenneth Koch book.

2 Responses

  1. Of Poets and PaintersCurious
    Of Poets and Painters

    Curious about Kenneth Koch, after reading your Review of the Review, I looked up a bio on him. Bogus poetry poser that I am, I glossed right over the mention of John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara but was attracted immediately to the names Jackson Pollock, Larry Rivers, and Willem de Kooning, three artists that Kenneth Koch met in the 1950’s. Well, to be fair, Frank O’Hara was also a musician and artist, but he switched his major to English. The bio said that Koch and the New York School of Poetry was influenced by the aforementioned “action painters.” This made me want to peruse the Action Poetry board on LitKicks because it’s been too long since I hung out there.

    So many of these people went to Harvard. It’s a curious thing. Obviously, one can be a good poet without going to Harvard. Equally obvious, going to Harvard cannot, in itself, make one a good poet. But apparently, if a good poet ends up going to Harvard, they can really learn to throw down.

    I read a few of Koch’s poems, and so far, my favorite one is To My Twenties, the poet’s ode to that time of life “When everything was possible/For my legs and arms, and with hope in my heart…” and “Kenneth do you have a minute?/And I say yes! I am in my twenties!/I have plenty of time!”

  2. Oh, I also wanted to say,
    Oh, I also wanted to say, that picture of “The Abduction of Psyche” by William Bouguerean is beautiful!

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