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.