Reviewing the Review: December 18 2005

Today’s New York Times Book Review features an amusing endpaper by Pamela Paul about authors who compulsively check what bloggers are saying about them, and a few authors (such as Amy Tan) who refuse to do so. Paul’s article is well-written, though she doesn’t seem to be aware of the term for this activity: “ego-surfing”. It’s not just famous writers who do it; bloggers ego-surf each other more than anyone else.

I’m glad the Book Review occasionally salutes the blogosphere, but critic George Johnson takes it too far in his review of novelist David Leavitt’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, a biography of the troubled but brilliant computer scientist Alan Turing. Johnson procrastinates reading the book he has been assigned to review. “Maybe I was just in the mood for fiction,” he whines. What the hell? A Book Review critic isn’t supposed to complain like a petulant child when forced to slog through a difficult book; that’s the kind of stuff us bloggers do. What’s next — are they going to start sharing their personal problems and MP3 playlists?

Bloggy weirdness aside, the pre-Christmas issue of the NYTBR is an unexpectedly wonderful one. Helen Schulman is charming in her affection for Eric Puchner book of short stories, Music Through the Floor, and it’s a nice treat to read a review that contains nothing but heartfelt and well-stated praise. Chelsea Cain considers the competing legacies of the Bronte and Austen cults among chick-lit aficianados, smartly observing that the darker Bronte is the more difficult and therefore rarer influence among current writers. Cain doesn’t love the novel she’s reviewing, The Bronte Project by first-timer Jennifer Vandever, but her explication is interesting enough to make me want to read the book anyway. Likewise Sophie Harrison on Nadine Gordimer’s new Get a Life, which Harrison doesn’t approve of but describes skillfully for our benefit.

I’m also intrigued by Joseph Finder’s powerful review of terrorism authority Richard A. Clarke’s worriful new work of fiction, The Scorption’s Gate. This politically motivated novel takes us five years into the future of our troubled world, and Finder says it “might as well be sold in PowerPoint”. But that’s not a condemnation; the cautionary message the book delivers comes through loud and clear to the reviewer, who reminds us of the author’s experience with the subject of terrorism: “Clarke’s talent really isn’t for fiction”.

Finally, I imagine poet Kay Ryan will be thrilled when she ego-surfs this issue of the Book Review, because David Kirby’s praise for her new book of short elliptical poems The Niagara River compares her frequently to Emily Dickinson, and the full-page review is proudly featured on page 7, opposite the letters section, instead of in one of the third-class berths usually reserved for poetry in this publication.

Even this week’s cover pieces about the politicization of science in the national debates on evolution, health, environment, abortion, tobacco and endangered species are interesting. The Book Review must be trying to give us all a Christmas present.

ADDENDUM: I notice much blog-talk this morning regarding a New York Times public editor piece about whether or not the Book Review gives favorable treatment to books published by friends of the editors. I don’t pay much attention to this because I’ve worked with and hung out with enough New York journalists and editors to know that they don’t really have any friends.

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