Reviewing the Review: April 23 2006

Erica Jong gets it like a shovel to the back of the head from Ron Powers in today’s New York Times Book Review. He starts by calling Jong “nerdy”, and then graduates to “blowzy”. Then he just starts wagging his fingers directly in her face and letting her have it. This review is not a fatal blow — I still like Erica Jong, and so will her many devoted readers — but it sure is fun reading, and it definitely brightened my Sunday. I thought Powers would ease up on his victim in the closing paragraphs, but instead he reaches back and delivers his deepest swipe, comparing his subject to her “incomporably superior” contemporary Joan Didion. This is nearly unfair — Didion’s husband and daughter recently died, and the woman appears to be practically a saint. But, unfair or not, it’s good to see a critic playing for keeps in these pages.

Today’s issue has many worthwhile moments, such as Norman Rush’s introduction to Wole Soyinka’s new memoir You Must Set Forth at Dawn (no word on how Soyinka sizes up against Joan Didion), Chelsea Cain’s amusingly-phrased consideration of Phillipa Stockey’s The Edge of Pleasure and Jason Goodwin’s intriguing summary of The Last Witchfinder by James Morrow.

But Caryn James is a little too besotted by the sad recent death of Wendy Wasserstein to provide a useful review of Wasserstein’s new Elements of Style (though I am glad she explains the book’s title; apparently one of characters is deeply devoted to Strunk and White). But one important element of style is to be direct about your meaning, and James doesn’t seem willing to deliver her own opinion. She praises the book lavishly while also dropping small hints that the overall reading experience is unsatisfactory, finally concluding that the flaws “only adds to the poignancy that shadows the book” because the author wrote it while dying of lymphoma. Yeah, but this is a book review, not an obituary.

Two poetry critics share the task of briefly introducing ten notable works of poetry in a moderately interesting two-page spread. The results are in: Eric McHenry knows how to review poetry, and Joel Brouwer is a bore. McHenry keeps it lively (“American poetry — according to one of the many competing caricatures — is dominated by English professors and the minor epiphanies they have while walking their dogs. Dispelling this notion doesn’t appear to be a priority for [David] Young …”) while Brouwer hangs big words inside sniffy sentences and tends to go on way too long about fragile dwelling places and wishes to thwart mortality. Brouwer then blows it completely by telling us that Noelle Kocot’s line “America your manifest destiny is Starbucks” evokes Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. No, actually, it evokes Allen Ginsberg’s America — quite clearly, in fact — and when you’re writing for the NYTBR, “close enough” is not close enough.

There are literary happenings elsewhere in today’s New York Times, but I could barely stand to look at the City Section’s page of tributes to the Empire State Building on its 75th birthday, featuring the likes of Benjamin Kunkel, Rene Steinke and Colson Whitehead. Dear God, when will the magazine and newspaper publishers of the world realize that fluffy tribute occasions bring out the worst in all our writers? And some of these writers aren’t that good to begin with.

The Op-Ed section does a better job in celebrating William Shakespeare’s birthday with an enlightening, far-ranging essay by the always excellent Lorrie Moore. However, even Moore slips up when she tells us there are no happy marriages in Shakespeare’s plays. This is a surprising lapse in insight. Lord and Lady Macbeth are headed for big trouble, but their intimacy and passion for each other is palpable to the end. The same is true of Gertrude and Claudius. Even Midsummer Night Dream‘s kinky Oberon and Titania seem to have a strong connection. There are good marriages in Shakespeare’s plays, Moore should have said, but they only happen to bad people.

Finally, it’s good to hear that a bunch of major book critics have created their own rather stylish-looking new blog, Critical Mass, as an official Book Critics Circle publication. I’d better watch out the next time I give it to David Orr; now he can give it right back. Let the games begin.

3 Responses

  1. Lord & Lady MacbethLord
    Lord & Lady Macbeth

    Lord and Lady Macbeth were dysfunctional together. Possibly that passes for a good marriage in ’06.

  2. Well, that’s exactly my
    Well, that’s exactly my point. They were dysfunctional *together*. I believe the evidence shows they would have also been dysfunctional separately. If you’re on the highway to hell, you may as well go holding hands.

  3. be ye man or blog
    be ye man or blog wizard???

    Levi, based on my novice but steadily snowballing familiarity with the world of blogs, your Review of the Review seems to fit into the blog category of excellent. Your style both summarizes, and adds to, pertinent literature in a pertinent way. Maybe your reviews are better when the NYTBR is better, but you certainly deserve some credit for presentation.

    Due to what some might call chronic morbid curiosity, I’m drawn to The Last Witchfinder by James Morrow. Not just because I became sexually aware during the reign of those awful Vincent Price/Roger Corman films, despite anything my childhood friends might tell you. There is more.

    I’ve been saying repeatedly to anyone who will listen that the Salem Witch Trials is a perfect example of mixing church and state in exactly the way they should not be mixed. Do you know who the first President of Harvard was? His name was Increase Mather. He later became a prominent Boston minister. His son, Cotton Mather, was the head of the church in Salem during the witch trials. Big Daddy Increase knew there was something bogus about the demon-possession debacle, but did he call it off immediately? No. This learned Harvard man carefully and prudently suggested that perhaps certain supposed manifestations of the devil were unreliable as legal or scientific evidence. He basically urged the Salem court to “go easy” on the accused. Apparently, he couldn’t just tell his son to let everyone go. What about the people they had already hung or burned? Maybe that’s the same reason this country can’t legalize certain drugs — how can they go back and admit they ruined all those convicted felons’ lives for no good reason?

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