Reviewing the Review: February 12 2006

A certain hush falls over a city after a big snowstorm. That’s what it’s like today in New York. It’s the kind of day when you want a really good New York Times Book Review to read … and as past experience shows that’s usually about a 50-50 bet. Luckily, they come through today.

We’re off to a good start with Pankaj Mishra’s absorbing summary of Kiran Desai’s novel Postcolonial Blues, which examines the soul of an Indian immigrant in New York City. This review is exceptional for bearing no trace whatsoever of the critic; it’s all about the author and the book (this happens more rarely than one would think in a publication like the New York Times Book Review).

Dan Chiasson likewise does an honorable job of representing the plot and intent of a first novel called The Best People in the World, an elegy for the 1970’s. Chelsea Cain tells us about Ayelet Waldman’s Love and other Impossible Pursuits and Maud Casey summarizes Olympia Vernon’s A Killing in this Town. I’ve never heard of either author before, and now I’d like to read both of them. Jim Holt’s examination of Happiness: A History, Darrin M. McMahon’s philosophical inquiry into the true meaning of this concept, is as fascinating and thought-provoking as it should be.

Ben Marcus’s appreciation of Deborah Eisenberg’s much-praised short story collection Twilight of the Superheroes is less rewarding, if only because the general praise for this book is getting repititious (though it may very well be deserved; I haven’t read it yet). I was amused but not thrilled by Alexandra Jacobs’ by-the-numbers takedown of the latest Jackie Collins bestseller-to-be, Lovers and Players, complete with a lipstick-rich kiss of praise at the end. The jokes come too easily. Curtis Sittenfeld similarly contributes a lightly humorous endpaper about the hilarious way book club attendees feel free to insult her book to her face when she makes gracious guest appearances in their living rooms. It’s a solid piece, but formulaic as well.

I spent over two hours with this Book Review (in less substantial weeks, fifteen minutes can be plenty). I liked it, but that’s only one guy’s opinion. You may hear a very different one if Edward Champion, one of the funniest bloggers in the biz, follows through on his promise to continue his intermittent investigation of New York Times Book Review chief Sam Tanenhaus and his minions. If he doesn’t like this issue as much as I do, though, it might be because he doesn’t have a good blizzard to provide the backdrop.

One Response

  1. Feast of StephenIn the
    Feast of Stephen

    In the absence of snowdrifts on city streets I have substituted a big bowl of French vanilla ice cream and a cup of hot black coffee.

    Your comment, “This review is exceptional for bearing no trace whatsoever of the critic” gave me ideas for new kinds of book reviews.

    (1) The meta-review: This is where the critic enters the story and actually discusses the book’s merits with the fictional characters.

    (2) The Gonzo book review: The reviewer drunkenly barges in to the story driving a large vehicle, destroys the lawn by spinning the tires in the grass, writes their own story based on what happens next, all the while conveying the mood and spirit, if not the literal contents, of the book being reviewed.

    (3) The cut-up book review: Course, is speaking until it either, through you, or of what. If rearranging it Gysin, or are cutting a regular review, not may I got this reader. The idea spirit Burroughs and says from something new technique. Trying involves horseshit. To say, understand, or become total.

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