I wasn’t sure I’d be able to put up a full review of the New York Times Book Review today, since I’m starting a short vacation. Let me tell you something, though — travelling from New York City on a holiday weekend ain’t no vacation.
So, while I sat on the floor at LaGuardia Airport waiting for the staff of Northwest Airlines to get their heads out of their asses and put me on an airplane, I had several hours to spend with this weekend’s Book Review. I needed a good issue more than ever, and happily this one came through.
Yay, yay, yay for Walter Kirn, whose takedown of Cynthia Ozick is the best thing I’ve read here in weeks. Of course, I always enjoy a good beef piece – but the keyword here is good. The Book Review’s regular stable of critics often do more damage to themselves than their opponents when they attempt a frontal assault (your weapons must be sharp if you face Cynthia Ozick in battle, and I better stop this now at the risk of sounding like Dwight Schrute). Let’s just say that Kirn delivers the goods regarding Ozick’s book of essays, A Din in the Head, which argues that our culture and our literature are debased by modern trends. Kirn thinks Ozick is full of it, and he doesn’t mind saying so. Observe:
Though few thinkers still bother to attack it, let alone go on proclaiming its death, the novel remains exceedingly well defended, commanding larger, more ferocious armies than such a modest institution requires. Indeed, protecting novels from all threats, real and imagined, seems at times to constitute a more vigorous cultural enterprise than the actual writing of the things.
If novelists were all to go on strike someday, the world might finally understand that it can’t live without them, as they insist, but since they can’t seem to bear to drop their pens, society must rely on fuzzier evidence for the necessity of their services.
Ouch, Cynthia. And:
A writer who opts for the feathered word “haunch” over its flightless synonyms, such as “thigh,” who calls the speechlike prose of Philip Roth a “dazzling demotic voice,” and who knows, as though by instinct, that the proper term for something Saul-Bellow-ish is “Bellovian” …
She’s a bohemian fundamentalist, convinced that if imaginative literature should lose its special status as the final arbiter of humanness, the deity will unleash another Great Flood. But she concedes that it may be too late. Homer may have shrugged already and the fountainhead run dry. Her seeming model of utopia — a world that resembles the 1950’s campus of Columbia University — has not caught on as a blueprint for all existence, and appears unlikely to.
Now, I like Cynthia Ozick — a lot. The Shawl is her most anthologized short story, but I prefer the earlier Envy, a wicked satire about egotistical modern Yiddish writers enraged by the success of one of their own (this story is alleged to have been inspired by the rising fame of Isaac Bashevis Singer). I haven’t read her new book yet, so I don’t know if Kirn is correctly characterizing it as single-minded and intellectually bigoted. Nothing in Kirn’s review dissuades me from wanting to read this book, however, and I am looking forward to forming my own opinions.
Elsewhere this week, Ana Marie Cox ponders feminism while reviewing Katha Pollitt’s Virginity of Death!, David Thompson utterly ignores the two biographies of Upton Sinclair he’s reviewing in order to summarize the life himself, and Akash Kapur persuades me to pick up English, August, an Indian adolescent-lit classic by Upamanyu Chatterjee now available in a new English translation.
Only one big complaint this week: Joel Brouwer’s consideration of Ishmael Reed’s new collection of poetry is frenetic and cliche-ridden. A phrase like “setting out honey instead of vinegar” is mundane in any review, but unforgivable in a poetry critique. At one point, Brouwer elucidates Ishmael Reed by quoting Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself”. But wait! There’s more: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” My god … does Brouwer really think he’s turning us on to something we haven’t heard before?
Between the hopelessly square David Orr and the desperate Joel Brouwer, I have to say that the New York Times Book Review’s poetry coverage is a complete mess. Come on, management. Let’s get some bigger talent in there.