Reviewing the Review: March 19 2006

Is this thing on? I couldn’t get into the New York Times Book Review this weekend. I’m not sure if the issue is a dud or if I was in a bad mood, but I think the answer is “both”

There’s a new novel by Hilma Wolitzer, The Doctor’s Daughter, respectfully reviewed by Dawn Drzal. The World To Come by Dara Horn is apparently a fable about a young man who goes to a museum and sees a Chagall painting that once hung in his home, the beginning of an intriguing story as summarized by critic Susann Cokal. I will look for this book. I was also glad to learn about a Russian poet named Anna Akhmatova, whose biography has just been written by Elaine Feinstein and reviewed by Olga Grushin.

That’s all fine, except that those decidedly minor epiphanies are the highpoint of today’s publication. One of the more disappointing pieces is poetry critic David Orr’s consideration of Samuel Menashe, who has been designated a “Neglected Master” by a poetry consortium. Orr is just off today; his writing is oddly diffuse and ineffective. Some of his lines make connections that are completely weird:

“So there may soon be a blue ribbon for almost every kind of poetic achievement, and each such trophy will claim to stand for something that transcends day-to-day life, with all its humdrum compromises, A.T.M. withdrawals and funerals.”

Yeah, those humdrum compromises, A.T.M. withdrawals and funerals can really be a drag. But what about the tartar control toothpaste and the hurricanes? Did Orr turn in a first draft here, or what? Overall, though, the sentences aren’t the problem. The problem is that the article just doesn’t catch fire. The Book Review’s poetry critic at large should set his bar higher.

This week’s cover article is about American Theocracy, an alarming critique of Republican politics, oil industry greed and red state Christian fundamentalist agendas by a former conservative named Kevin Phillips. “Phillips has created a harrowing picture of national danger that no American reader will welcome, but that none should ignore.” Great, that’ll really help my mood — more evidence that things just suck and keep getting worse.

At least Rachel Donadio’s endpaper, which should have been titled Chick-Lit Without Borders, is well-conceived and fairly informative. It’s amusing to know that there are hugely popular Carrie Bradshaw equivalents in India, Hungary and Finland but not in Japan or the Middle East. Chick-lit is a controversial topic these days, and I have a feeling there’ll be a few posts about this article in that big old blogosphere come Monday morning.

11 Responses

  1. Anna AkhmatovaI first
    Anna Akhmatova

    I first discovered Akhmatova through reading a collection of essays by
    Osip Mandelstam, by which I was deeply impressed.

    Mandelstam, Akhmatova and Nikolai Gumilev, one of Akhmatova’s husbands, were the leading poets of Acmeism, a movement in Russian poetry that began around 1912, partially as a reaction against symbolism. Its emphasis on exactness of word and clarity of image wanted to bring poetry back down to earth. The acmeists felt that the role of the poet was not so much the one of an ambiguous mystic or allusive prophet, but one of expressing ideas about culture, the word, and human existence in a commited and immediate way. Akhamtova’s poetry is a great example of that – the clear and direct yet poetic strength of her words is amazing.

    Here’s a link with some info about her and a short video clip on which you can hear her read one of her poems. She has had a great voice!

  2. When in DoubtBlame the NYT…
    When in Doubt

    Blame the NYT… I looked through the online version and have to say it didn’t really pull me in. There are a few parallels in coverage in comparing the NYTBR and the WaPo Book World this week and I think Book World wins just by sheer personality. For example, Michale Dirda has a great , but it is actually engaging, to the point and exciting. I have nothing against Olga Grushin, but when I read these two reviews side by side, her version felt more like reading a term paper. And well, David Orr… (If you don’t have a registered account for the Washington Post, find login info here.

    “red state Christian fundamentalist agendas” … I think the trick there is to get you so scared of the red state Christian fundamentalist agendas that you forget about the blue state Christian fundamentalist agendas sneaking up behind you.

  3. Thanks, panta rhei. Good
    Thanks, panta rhei. Good Information!

    There is such a wide spectrum of styles and “isms” but I never tire of reading about them.

  4. American TheocracyI read an
    American Theocracy

    I read an interesting review of this book on Salon last week (membership or watching a long ad required). I don’t know if Kevin Phillips is a former conservative or just wary of the neocons, but either way, his observations were interesting. I’m not saying that he’s wrong, because I’m sure he knows more about these things than I do, but at the same time, the idea that America is going to fall just like superpowers of the past (Rome, Spain, England, etc.) isn’t really a new idea. The reasons why seem to change, but the final prediction of the looming apocalypse stays the same.

    Personally, I love nothing more than a looming apocalypse, because having a sense of impending doom just adds such an exciting flavor to my daily life.

  5. We all have our own personal
    We all have our own personal looming apocalypse, if you know what I mean.

  6. Mr. Phillips main points seem
    Mr. Phillips main points seem to be that about half of the 300 million Americans believe that Armageddon, the Rapture, the Second Coming (the end of the world, with Jesus judging) is going to actually happen. And about half of those 150 million think it will happen in our lifetime. Basically that translates to about a third of the voting public wants the world to end in the next few decades. Correspondingly to them, global warming is a good thing, dying in a war wouldn’t matter (you’ve only a short wait ’til Jesus resurrects you), mideast war is good – it fulfills prophecy; even nuclear war is welcome, as the only thing that counts to Evangelicals is ending this and meeting Jesus. If that isn’t scary enough, consider – these people elected George Bush. They are the deciding vote on every aspect of our lives and these people aren’t going to change their beliefs. They want you and me and our kids to die so we can be judged. Read the book, talk to one of them, it is something to be informed about, aware of.

  7. Oh, those wacky Christians.
    Oh, those wacky Christians. Can you believe those people? They’re the reason why the whole world is falling apart, right? Idiot bastards.

    Of course, um, I am one. I’m also proudly liberal, which I guess makes me some sort of anomalous freak, at least according to lefty intellectual disdain for people with religious belief. Be that as it may, I also know a lot of Christians, and some of them are even those horrifying evangelicals. While they certainly interpret the Bible literally, I don’t know a single one of them that’s throwing “Bring on the Apocalypse!” parties and leaving out cookies for Jesus when he shows up in a blaze of light to judge the living and the dead. But maybe I just know the wrong horrifying evangelicals.

    While fundamentalism in any form is frightening, and it is my own personal belief that in many ways, Christians need to chill out, I think the obvious condescending tone of your post speaks to why many Christians don’t trust (or vote for) liberals — who wants to hang out with and/or help people who think they’re stupid?

    By the way, I know a fair number of completely non-religious conservatives who are proud Bush supporters and think the war in Iraq is great because it’s keeping those scary Arabs away from us. They don’t care one way or another about Armageddon. I’m just saying.

    Anyway, while I think that it’s interesting to discuss the disturbingly theocratic direction the United States has turned in over the past few years (I vehemently disgree with any sort of combination of church and state and I hate the notion of legislating morality), I think that issue is bigger than any one group praying for the rapture. But maybe that’s just me.

  8. Well, now.All people who
    Well, now.

    All people who disregard the lives of others in the name of their religion are bogus.

    “For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face; now I know in part; but then I shall know even also as I am known.
    Now abides faith, hope, and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
    – I Corinthians, New Testament

  9. Evangelicals and are true
    Evangelicals and are true believers and as such, they renounce that which makes us distinctly human, the capacity to think for ourselves. They do what they are told, by Mullah Omar or Jerry Falwell; by their books; and by God. Oddly enough it seems that God wants them to kill one another. Perhaps that’s just a misreading of the word by those religious scholars and their followers. Somebody ought to read those books and explain it right.

    In reading the Old Testament, it seems much like the history of Jewish wars; to wit, God slaughtering the people He made that didn’t turn out right. But please, if I’m wrong; correct me. Read the Old Testament, book by book, and explain what it means.

    And then I find in the New Testament, Revelation; got stuff about killing a fourth of mankind here, then another third of them over here; and this all in the space of a couple of pages. If I’m reading this wrong, please correct me. Or better yet, read that and explain what it means. Must be a billion or so people would like to know what the heck John was talking about, or smoking anyway. Now listen closely, Revelation is the essence of what Evangelicals and Jihadists believe; and it’s crazy, nutsy, psycho lunacy. Read it yourself if you don’t believe me; it’s scary shit. But maybe you think the Bible is flawed, maybe you think God is flawed. I saw a holocaust survivor on the tv, he said he couldn’t help but hate a god who would allow that, what he’d seen, what he’d been through. I felt sorry for him, not for his loss of faith, but for what people would do to other people because of religion or ethnicity. Like everybody knows that killing Palestinian children is what God wants, the Bible says so; right? Now if we could just get rid of science in our textbooks…

  10. Stokey, I think your
    Stokey, I think your phraseology could be a lot more considerate, and it would help your argument if you were more careful not to lump people by their beliefs, as if religious awareness necessarily translated into membership in a voting bloc. It doesn’t. Really, it just doesn’t.

    However, if I put your generalizations aside, I have to say I agree with a lot of the anger you are expressing. Dehumanization and violence in the name of religion has gone way too far, and the humane people in the world need to start standing together to take back our right to live in peace, whoever we are.

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