There are a few self-indulgent editorial routines I wish the New York Times Book Review would cut out. One that irks me the most is the “I’m not worthy” routine, which always rings phony. The Book Review really should have spared us Garrison Keillor’s aw-shucks display in which Sam Tanenhaus’s quotes the author deprecating his reviewing skills: “This is just plain old journalism, nothing so fancy as criticism. Criticism is the work of giants like Edmund Wilson …” The revolting exhibit of puffy humility goes on for two long paragraphs. Actually, Keillor’s cover article, in which he catches French travel writer Bernard-Henri Levy saying some really silly things about America, is a fine piece of work, and it’s probably not his fault that Tanenhaus decided to feature his most banal thoughts in his Editor’s Note.
A veneer of mild, lazy boredom hangs over today’s Book Review. One article after another starts promisingly: a “poet with bipolar disorder” (do we come in any other flavor?) named Suzanne Antonetta examines brain science in A Mind Apart: Travels in a Neurodiverse World, but my own brain wanders far from Polly Morrice’s uninspired critique. A surprising amount of space is devoted to Over the Rainbow? Hardly by the loose-firing second-tier dead beatnik Chandler Brossard. This is a book I should be interested in, but after reading Blake Bailey’s summary I don’t even feel excited to check out the book.
Liesl Schillinger always provides a thoughtful and smart review, and I enjoyed her summary of The Dream Life of Sukhanov, Olga Grushin’s fable about a Soviet conformist dealing with the fall of his constricted world in 1991. The only really good news regarding this week’s Book Review: the publication’s turnaround time is too slow for the editors to switch gears and drown us with articles analyzing the James Frey affair. Thank god, sometimes, for archaic printing methods.