A book review should be well-written, but a poetry book review must be well-written. Why should we trust a poetry critic who can’t turn out a great sentence? It’s fitting, then, that one of the two worthwhile pieces in today’s Sunday New York Times Book Review is Joshua Clover’s study of the career of Charles Reznikoff, whose retrospective has just been published by Black Sparrow Press.
Clover’s article has a rare organic quality; the critic leaps through a small set of significant concepts, establishing key points about Reznikoff’s intentions and problems, moving briskly along with good rhythm and a smart undertone:
Having been fired from the American Law Book Company for being, in this book’s editor’s terms, “an unproductive perfectionist” (we pronounce that “poet” where I come from) …
Today’s issue gets even better with “Black Humor”, a lively, opinionated endpaper by Paul Beatty. Beatty punctures the tradition of dullness and predictability in African-American literature (“I already knew why the caged bird sang“) and lauds a few authors who broke the tradition, like Darius James and Bob Kaufman. Beatty’s article is easily the best Book Review endpaper in months (I’m just not sure that’s saying much).
Two articles with a true touch of class … but the rest of today’s Book Review is the standard dross. David Kamp’s cover article about Norah Vincent’s Self-Made Man, in which Vincent masqueraded as a man and wrote about it, doesn’t steer clear of the gender-role cliches any critic writing about this book would churn out.
Anthony Julius has a hot topic — the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides, subject of a new treatment by Sherwin B. Nuland — but his review fails to catch fire.
Christopher Hitchens’ spin on a newly published translation of Bouvard and Pecuchet, Gustave Flaubert’s never-completed Laurel and Hardy novel, contains some amusing observations but in the end only convinces me that there’s no reason to read the book. Which naturally raises the question: since this book wasn’t newsworthy to begin with, and Hitchens doesn’t recommend it, why the hell is the Book Review reviewing it?