Reviewing the Review: January 8 2006

As I begin a new year of weekly encounters with the Sunday New York Times Book Review, I’d like to re-affirm what I am doing with each week’s entry. My presumption is that the critics who write for the New York Times Book Review are writers, and I am interested in judging them on this basis. I am not interested in the office politics on 43rd Street, nor am I paying a lot of attention to the weekly league tables regarding which writer got a full two-page review on 10-11 and which got stuck with two paragraphs on 29. I mainly want to track which critics are an asset to this publication and which aren’t. The job of a Book Review critic is to educate and thrill me, and each week I’ll let you know how they performed.

Here’s one example of good writing in today’s issue, and a few examples of bad.

Neil Genzlinger, a staffer at the Times, contributes a hilarious “Gambling Chronicle” that’s probably more entertaining than any of the books he reviews. “As the United States completes its transition to an all-gambling economy, perhaps you’re wondering what your place is likely to be in it. Depends. If the sentence ‘Another good scenario for a stack is a flush that’s made on the river’ means something to you, you have a shot at membership in the new socioeconomic elite’.”

Genzlinger is a witty writer, inventing his own instant vocabulary of colorful phrases like ‘No Monte, Just Carlo’ (to describe a gambler who resembles Carlo Rizzi in The Godfather). One reason I enjoy reading a good smart-ass piece like this is that I usually find myself coming up with good quips in response. He reviews David Kushner’s Jonny Magic and the Card Shark, a study of a group of fantasy-card game players who scored big in poker, and quotes Kushner on why fantasy-game skills transfer well to the poker table: “There’s only so long that someone can sit in one place and concentrate without going batty and losing feeling in his limbs … But for a generation of gamers who’d grown up on Magic and Nintendo, numbness was second nature.” Well, longtime readers of the New York Times Book Review often feel that way too, but articles like this do raise the curve.

Let’s move on to the dull writing. Daniel Soar evaluates short story writer Elliot Perlman’s The Reasons I Won’t Be Coming, and I went through the review twice just trying to parse the boring sentences. “Recent collections by David Means (variations on violence) and David Begmozgis (variations on exile) have had a singular method; they have tried to say something very particular.” Well, that’s nice, except that I’m half asleep by the time I piece that one together. I shouldn’t have to work this hard to digest a book review.

Rachel Donadio’s endpaper about a changing of the guard at Norton (93 year old M. H. Abrams has ceded control of the Norton Anthology of English Literature to young buck Stephen Greenblatt) is completely lacking in original thought or cutting insight. The warm applause for Abrams is a sweet gesture for an industry veteran, but the piece reads like an awards speech at a senior citizens center, and the Book Review should have just lacquered it onto a wood plaque and used the back page for something sharper.

Back on the positive side, D. H. Tracy offers a controversial and not-so-kind appraisal of the poetry skills of Charles Bukowski, whose posthumous stack grows with Come On In!, newly published by Ecco Press/Harper Collins. “His poems get an F for craft”, Tracy says. I’d give Buk a B+ at least, but at the same time I’m glad Tracy has a strong opinion about a popular writer and isn’t afraid to lay it out.

I didn’t really like David Orr’s cute verse parody of Billy Collins’ The Trouble With Poetry, but I like it that Orr gave it a try. At least he didn’t write a Christmas poem.

I enjoyed Christopher Buckley’s admiring spin on Ana Marie Cox’s Dog Days, which I definitely want to read.

I had mixed feelings about Walter Kirn’s appraisal of Paul Auster‘s Brooklyn Follies, probably because I have such mixed feelings about this author. I loved the books that made Auster famous, collected as the New York Trilogy, but in my opinion Auster jumped the shark with Leviathan and then completely shot the puppy with the screenplays for two terrible movies, Smoke and Blue in the Face. I haven’t opened a new Auster book since. Kirn’s review was a breezy read, and it’s not Kirn’s fault that I don’t think I’ll be cracking open Brooklyn Follies either.

4 Responses

  1. AusterWhile my NY Times was

    While my NY Times was viciously (or graciously) stolen off my front porch, its content lives on in your sparser and more intersting e-version. And in reviewing the review of the review, I think a well-written piece of sarcasm is the perfect thing to put some gusto into the book review, as long as it is done only occasionally. And is criticising Bukowski’s form really going out on a limb? Doesn’t everyone?

    And finally, the Paul Auster piece. Jumped the shark, shot the puppy? Rather rough reviews from a guy named Brooklyn. The New York Trilogy novellas were an absolute pleasure to read, and in retrospect were more complex and intriguing than I had initially thought. The only way I could have enjoyed them any more is from the point of view of a New Yorker, a fraternity of which I could never even pretend to be a member. I found Smoke a welcome relief from most movies but haven’t see Blue in the Face yet (on my short list). Unfortunately I think my enjoyment of Smoke was tainted by the fact that I love Tom Waits, Screamin Jay Hawkins, and Jerry Garcia. Nearly all of Auster’s books are on my reading list, “Music of Chance” staring at me right now, but I haven’t started any of them yet. Possibly because I feel I need another visit to New York to get back into the mindset of one of the most unique places on earth. And Auster’s career seems to have progressed from wunderkind to critical darling to literary spokesman for New York. Everything I read about him and by him suggests that he is trying to write the quintessential New York novel. I just hope that he isn’t striving for something he accomplished in his first set of novellas.

    I remember from past posts that you have read a bunch of Auster, and that he compares favorably to new NY giants, not the football team who was coincidentally torn asunder yesterday, but Lethem, Safran Foer, et al. I hold a special place in my literary heart for Auster, usually near Millhauser, yet I haven’t delved deeply enough (perhaps out of fear for a sharp decline in enjoyment) into either of them. All that being said, I have a hard time believing you wouldn’t pick up the new Auster book. It has to be better than 99 percent of the ‘New Fiction’ rack.

    Note: One thing I didn’t like in the review I read:

    Auster’s graceful, offhand storytelling carries readers along, with enough shadow to keep the tale this side of schmaltz.

  2. Funny you should mention
    Funny you should mention that, Rubiao. Right after I hit “submit” on the article, I was hit with a pang of regret because, even though I have skipped the last few Auster books (Book of Illusions, Oracle Night, they just keep coming …) I just might end up trying this one. Apparently this is Auster’s book about Sept 11, among other things, and I would like to read his take on that topic. I have a review copy, so we’ll see what happens …

    I’m interested to hear that you didn’t find the movie “Smoke” terrible … it just struck me as completely smirky, self-indulgent and artistically half-baked. I imagined Wayne Wang saying “Well, this movie must be good enough to put out because Paul Auster is involved”, and Paul Auster saying “Well, this movie must be good enough to put out because Wayne Wang is involved”. Well, I’m also not particularly a Tom Waits fan, so there’s that.

  3. AusterSmoke is my all-time

    Smoke is my all-time favorite film, but everyone else seems to think it’s terribly boring. Is there ANYONE who enjoyed this film?

  4. Severian — honestly, now
    Severian — honestly, now that I hear you say this, I am forced to realize that my criticism of the movie can’t be fully correct. If you really liked it so much that you call it your all-time #1, then there must be something in this movie that went over my head.

    Maybe what colored my perception is that this movie seemed to epitomize Auster’s new “playful” side. And I don’t really want Paul Auster to be “playful”. I didn’t like City of Glass because it was “playful”. So I couldn’t stand this movie, and I also didn’t appreciate the Frank-Capra-ization of Brooklyn, but I guess that’s what life is like in Park Slope.

    Seriously, though, I believe that you must have good reason for liking the movie, and in the end it comes down to taste. My daughter’s favorite movie is “Being John Malkovich” and I thought that was the only bad thing Spike Jonze ever directed.

    I’ll give “Smoke” another try, someday.

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