Reviewing the Review: June 18 2006

This is your New York Times Book Review on ginkgo biloba, or something, today. The intellect factor is at an unusually high level, with a Robert Stone cover story on John Updike, a Harold Bloom essay contemplating the legacy of Rationalist philosopher Baruch Spinoza, and a brain-cell heavy endpaper by Lee Siegel on the legacy of eccentric literary critic Paul Zweig.

The honest truth is, after a weekend of Father’s Day festivities, freeze tag, swimming pools and barbecues, I’m in no shape to take in all this high-octane intellectual stuff, and I may have to finish reading some of the minor articles in this weekend’s issue tomorrow. Naturally I turned first to acclaimed novelist Robert Stone’s review of Updike’s Terrorist. Stone is roughly Updike’s peer (they both came up in the Vietnam War era), though he’s never been quite as renowned, and I think the Book Review chose this match-up well.

Stone waxes impressionistic about Terrorist, careening a bit wildly a way from his subject at times, but making up for it with poetic sentences like:

But the great informing image in the sky over Jersey, still so conjurable in memory as to serve as a totem, is the tower of smoke twisting skyward, replacing the elongated dominoes that had lorded like idols over the plain.

Hey, who’s the writer in the spotlight here, Updike or Stone? Updike may well be wondering the same thing, since Stone maintains a respectful tone in much of this article, then gently tips his hand in the last paragraph that he doesn’t think the book works very well. But he got to write a good article about it, so it wasn’t a total loss.

I don’t know what to say about Harold Bloom’s excessive rumination on the heritage of a great 17th Century Dutch/Jewish philosopher, Baruch Spizona, who is the subject of a new Rebecca Goldstein book called Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Who Gave Us Modernity. I don’t think many people are going to be able to follow Bloom’s badly-connected arguments. I have a B.A. in Philosophy, and I was just barely hanging on in some spots. Take this incredible phrase:

Leo Strauss (never to be confused with our plague of his disciple’s disciples) implicitly manifested a distaste for Spinoza …

Who’s confusing what with who’s disciple’s disciple (whatever that means)? And why is the name Leo Strauss being dropped (with no explanation or attribution) into an article about a book on Baruch Spinoza by Rebecca Goldstein? Bloom has some interesting points to make about Spinoza’s dual status as a religious philosopher and a mystical non-religious logician, but they are lost in the thoughtlessly impenetrable exposition. This article is not Harold Bloom’s finest moment.

Jay Parini has harsh words for Laura Esquivel’s Malinche, which he says is nowhere near as good as the author’s popular Like Water for Chocolate. He balances this with a very positive review of another book about the same legendary native-Mexican historical figure, Night of Sorrows by Frances Sherwood. Parini makes a strong case for both of his opinions, and I hope we’ll see more reviews by this author.

The Times gets self-reflective with a review by Harold Evans of Daniel Okrent’s collected self-reflective columns about the New York Times, Public Editor #1. I’m not quite sure how this book will prove timeless, but I am very happy to see my former boss Daniel Okrent’s literary reputation increasing. How often do you hear a guy describe a former boss as a great role model? I worked for him for about three years at Time Warner’s, where he had been hired to correct the famously bad management of the original editorial team. He wasn’t able to save the Pathfinder project, but he impressed me constantly with his unflappably sardonic approach to the then-raging dot-com craze.

Pathfinder was the laughing-stock of the internet business at the time Okrent was hired, because Time Warner had invested incredible amounts of money into a site that nobody liked, and because we represented the heavy, plodding corporate presence in the fast-growing internet content space. We looked bad in every newspaper or magazine article that mentioned our site. Then one day we ran a poll (on, one of our sites) for the most beautiful person in America, and Howard Stern crashed our servers by asking all his radio listeners to vote for Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf.

I remember reading about it in the New York Times the next morning, and when I saw that our new editor-in-chief was being interviewed I figued we were going to look mighty silly in public, yet again. But now Daniel Okrent was in charge, and when the New York Times asked him “What are you going to do about this?” he answered “We are going to stand by and look bemused.”

And I thought to myself: this new guy might be worth watching..

Okrent began working for the New York Times as the public representative, or ombudsman, a few years after Pathfinder’s final demise (he’s since yielded the position to Byron Calame). Harold Evans gives his new book a very positive review. Having read most of the original columns that make up this book, I’m sure it’s well deserved.

11 Responses

  1. Stone as acclaimed novelist?I
    Stone as acclaimed novelist?

    I always thought I was his single fan and libraries were the sole purchasers of his books.

  2. Not so — Dog Soldiers was
    Not so — Dog Soldiers was pretty popular, wasn’t it? I think it even became a movie starring Nick Nolte. I have never read a Robert Stone novel, though … always on my “next up” list.

  3. BaseballAre you sure you

    Are you sure you don’t just like Daniel Okrent because he wrote Nine Innings: The Anatomy of a Baseball Game? What I want to know is, did you ever talk baseball with him?

    I remember Okrent’s name from when I was an avid reader of Esquire in the 1980’s, but I can’t remember specifically what he wrote. I did not usually read the sports columns, so maybe that’s where he was.

  4. Bill — the rumor I’ve heard
    Bill — the rumor I’ve heard is that Daniel Okrent invented rotisserie baseball with a group of friends. That may be what you’re referring to. He also wrote a book about the history of Rockefeller Center in New York City.

  5. Strauss…….wrote one of

    …wrote one of the most famous chapters on Spinoza in his two volume history of political philosophy. It’s sort of become a touchstone for political criticism, espcially now that Deleuze and Antonio Negri’s followers have taken up the mantle of Spinoza for post-modern political theory.

  6. But, Situationist, wouldn’t
    But, Situationist, wouldn’t you agree that there’s no good excuse for a critic in a mass-audience literary publication to drop the name “Leo Strauss” into an article about Spinoza without saying what you just said? Why should he expect that most people would know this fact? I think Harold Bloom is mistaking the Book Review for grad school — a good article should have no “prerequisites”.

  7. I don’t know. A reviewer must
    I don’t know. A reviewer must always decide, when referencing other works, how much to explain to the reader. They make judgement calls as to what is common knowledge among the readers, and that is always a relative measurement. Reviewing Ginsberg, I might talk about Whitman and assume that anyone interested in Ginsberg already knows Whitman. I might also think that anyone interested in a Spinoza review already knows about Strauss.

    I do agree, however, that the sentence in question is confusing:

    “never to be confused with our plague of his disciple’s disciples…”

  8. I guess the second “disciple”
    I guess the second “disciple” would be someone like Wolfowitz — in other words, a disciple of Strauss. But regarding the first, I’m not sure anyone automatically thinks “Leo Strauss” when they hear “Spinoza’s disciple.” Is he trying to implicitly link Spinoza with neo-conservatism?

    If he is, there has to have been a better way to say that.

    And honestly, most people I know who are deeply into Spinoza would never go much further than Nietzsche as far as “modern” philosophers go. But then again, I don’t know too many people who are deeply into Spinoza.

  9. Milton — good points. As
    Milton — good points. As for Spinoza, I think he’s currently in vogue again for the moment, kind of like the Kabbalah. (Which is not to say his work shouldn’t be taken seriously, nor the Kabbalah).

  10. Levi– I think yr right on
    Levi– I think yr right on some level about the needless pretension Bloom often adopts. Though he does that with his grad students as well apparently (a friend of mine just got his Masters from Yale and managed to eek out a class with the old emeritus). Though I think Billectric makes a good counter-point in the fact that anyone who took the time to read a review about Spinoza would know the connection to Strauss.

    Also, if Levi or anyone else is interested in a relatively quick and pretty interesting read (that may require a BIT of background on philosophy (such as knowing what the mind/body or subject/object distinction implies, the basics about Descartes, nothing you wouldn’t get in any standard history of philosophy textbook or intro to philosophy class) but not Spinoza per se), Gilles Deleuze’s book “Spinoza” is pretty much THE book on the modern philosophical/political appropriation of Spinoza on the Left. In actuality, Negri’s “The Savage Anomaly” is far more influential but presupposes a far more in depth knowledge of modern critical theory, Foucault, and Deleuze’s independent research.

  11. I’m going to glean what I can
    I’m going to glean what I can from the internet on Spinoza, using Gilles Deleuze as a starting point, then I’ll decide if I want to read more. Thanks for the tip. I’ve already found the editorial reviews on to be helpful.

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