Reviewing the Review: February 5 2006

Lucy Ellmann’s appraisal of Kathryn Davis’s new novel The Thin Place is the kind of dramatic writing I like to see in the New York Times Book Review. The drama does not originate with the book Ellmann is reviewing, but rather with Ellmann’s intensely mixed feelings about this book. She bitterly mocks Davis’s pretensions to purplish prose, quoting a cosmological passage and asking if Davis had just smoked her first joint, and referring to the “sucking sounds” emanating from florid descriptions of “pink bogs of rosemark, gaping mouths of sun-dew”. But Ellmann drops hints that she adores this book even as she swipes at it, and I find myself in deep suspense as I progress through her attenuated examination of the novel’s merits and demerits until Ellmann reveals, in the last paragraph, that it all adds up to a big thumbs-up for a peculiarly ambitious book.

Ellmann has a new novel of her own coming out next month, and I intend to look up Davis’s book and Ellmann’s.

I don’t have too much to complain about today. Megan Marshall walks us through Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of her Kind (about a woman’s journey through various radical and idealistic social movements), Rachel Donadio supplies an intriguing profile of intellectual contrarian Malcolm Gladwell, and Dave Itzkoff is downright funny in his short riff on Stephen King’s new Cell.

There’s a lot of substance in this issue. Laura Miller’s review of Ali Smith’s The Accidental makes me want to pick up this book, and while I don’t feel inspired to pick up Jane Stevenson’s Good Women after reading Meg Wolitzer’s review, I do feel hopeful that I will continue to read reviews by Meg Wolitzer in this publication.

Bloglebrity Sara Gran‘s Dope doesn’t make out too well in Marilyn Stasio’s summary of several crime books, and Lee Siegel’s endpaper is another lame attempt at humor too unexceptional to be described here. The Book Review should get out of the satire business; it’s just not a good look for them.

Elsewhere in today’s New York Times, there is some excellent obituarial reporting. Wendy Wasserstein gets more column space than James Frey (a refreshing change) and there are informative articles about Betty Friedan and “Grandpa” Al Lewis who was not only a member of the Munsters cast but also a familiar face in the artsy/liberal Greenwich Village social scene for decades. Bye, Grandpa.

One Response

  1. What I LikeI like the way you
    What I Like

    I like the way you discussed Lucy Ellmann’s review of The Thin Place, because it illustrated some of what you are looking for in a book review, and it also helped me see that I don’t have to totally either “like” or “dislike” a book; there is room in a book review to discuss pros & cons.

    And speaking of Grandpa Al Lewis, I found a good interview with him.

    The following are excerpts from a much longer interview with Al Lewis by the editors of SHADOW (Chris Flash and A. Kronstadt) which took place on October 21, 1997:

    AL LEWIS: There’s a long history of underground outlaw papers — the Berkeley Barb, the RAT here, which was very popular in the Sixties. They lost their audience. Ten years is a long time for an outlaw newspaper. As long as you gave it your best shot, even if in the opinion of others “you failed,” you didn’t fail.

    SHADOW:When did you first come to New York City?

    LEWIS:About 1924. I lived in Brooklyn, Manhattan, never lived in Queens, never lived in the Bronx.

    SHADOW:So when did you start becoming political, when did you start becoming in touch with things going on in the world?

    LEWIS:I guess having been in my mother’s household I was probably political at five or six. I don’t know what you mean –what is “political?” It’s all bullshit terminology. You’re aware of bread and butter issues. How could I not be aware during the Depression that people were starving? And I was helping my mother sell apples. How could I not be aware? Forget that philosophical bullshit terminology, “you become aware.” It hits you in the stomach and then a cop hits you on the head (laughs) — you become aware!

    SHADOW: After a lot of years in California, you decided to
    come back to New York?

    LEWIS: I came back to New York to do a film in Toronto, my wife was doing a show in Massachusetts. I opened up a restaurant on Bleecker Street, a comedy club on Staten Island — still there seven, eight years. [Both establishments named “Grandpa’s” –Ed.]

    SHADOW:What’s your secret for success, for a long, healthy, happy life?

    LEWIS:My secret for success? I don’t know what the hell success means. (Laughs) I’ll tell you what my secret is.

    It took me a long time to find this out. Find something that you absolutely love to do. Not you like it, or it’s pleasant, something that you absolutely love to do. And along the way, if you’re lucky, get to love the way you do it. Then you’re home free. And you’re looking at a man right now. I got a spine made out of stainless steel. Nothing shrinks it, nothing, nothing. Because I know who I am. I don’t have to brag. I know what I contributed. I know what I did. You think you can do it better? Hey, go right ahead. The stage is yours. But find something that you absolutely love doing. And then get to love the way you doit. That’s the uniqueness of all of us. That’s it.

    Albert Einstein, one of my favorites, said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” And if that cat say it, it’s good enough for me.

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