Reviewing the Review: July 23 2006

I’ve just learned of yet another website that has been reviewing the New York Times Book Review each weekend. If this craze gets any bigger it’s going to become the new YouTube. Please check out the NYTBR archives at the Daily Blague, the latest member of the hit squad.

I’m not sure why so many bloggers pay attention to this publication, but I know we all judge it by different formulas. The Literary Saloon wants more literary and international titles covered, Ed Champion wants an editor-in-chief who doesn’t come across like a corporate toady, and The Gawker and GalleyCat mainly want the scoop on who’s saying what about who (which is also what everybody in the industry reads it to find out). As for me, I think I’ve always judged the Book Review on an aesthetic scale. I want it to entertain me, and I want the writing to be superb.

I’m disappointed more often than not, but I’m happy enough with this weekend’s issue. We begin with an impassioned letter by Zach Leary protesting the scornful tone of Luc Sante’s recent article about his father, Timothy Leary. I think Zach does the old man proud, and I have only one gripe with his letter. He says this:

Leary was a first rate speaker who made a respectable living in the 80’s on the college lecture circuit. So great was his poise and whip-smart evangelical howl that he took down G. Gordon Liddy in a serios of debates …

I was lucky enough to have caught the Leary/Liddy show when I was a student at Albany State. Both men were charming speakers, but intellectually it was a draw at best.

The cover article is Postwar Pogrom, a disturbing review by David Margolick of a new book by Jan T. Gross called Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz, which presents a twist on Holocaust history: these atrocities occured after Europe became free. Margolick treats this material with a brisk and informative touch.

This is followed by five (!) highly engaging fiction reviews. I like the first paragraph of Sophie Harrison’s review of Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani (a book I’m currently reading):

“Londonstani” takes place way out west. West of Monica Ali’s “Brick Lane,” farther west than Brent, the location for Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth.” To reach the London borough of Hounslow, where this similarly hyped first novel is set, you need to take a Picadilly Line tube train from central London and stay on for three-quarters of an hour.

Sophie Harrison knows how to write, and so does Liesl Schillinger, who is so engaging in her description of two Will Clarke novels Lord Vishnu’s Love Handles and The Worthy that I’m going to immediately look up this author, who apparently reads like “Capra by way of Vonnegut or Burroughs”. I’m also intrigued by Lucinda Rosenfeld’s summary of a French book I’d never heard of, Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow by Faiza Guene, a young French-Algerian from the Paris PJ’s.

I also enjoyed Chelsea Cain’s summary of Mark Childress’s One Mississippi, yet another new novel set during the fabled 1970’s, even though Cain quotes the the book’s description of a character as a member of his high school’s “brain/loser/choir/band/geek underground” but is probably too young herself to know that “geek” was not used in this context until decades later (when the Ramones sang “Suzy is a headbanger, her mother is a geek” on their second album, they did not mean to imply that Suzy’s mother knew how to fix computers, but rather that she suffered from tragic chromosomal defects). But this is a minor defect, and Cain’s review is a breezy and pleasant read.

I hate to praise five articles in a row (what is wrong with me today?) but I also admire Paul Gray’s introduction to Jane Gardam, the author of a new British novel called Old Filth:

Although her books attract admiring reviews and literary prizes in her native England, Jane Gardam, who has just turned 78, remains an unfamiliar name to much of the American reading public. Explaining such disparities of national taste — why some imported writers routinely hear brass bands and the roar of the crowd while others, with equal or superior skills , must strain to detect the sound of one cult clapping — is seldom easy.

Okay, well, I have to hate something today, and the Book Review finally obliges with a useless and off-putting endpaper by Henry Alford, Chamber Plots, about what it means when people keep books in their bathrooms. This is an annoying piece that contains no enlightening information whatsoever, and what’s worst about this is that it’s apparently supposed to be a humor piece even though it misses one important requirement of any humor piece, which is that it should be funny. Well, there’s this line:

The actor Jonathan Walker showed me the 16 books — mostly cookbooks from the 1950’s and 60’s — he and his wife keep loosely stacked on a shelf in their bathroom. Given that the books were about food, I brought up a theory held by some psychologists that people read in the bathroom because it’s a symbolic way to replace what’s lost through the act of voiding.

And so a good Book Review ends on a repulsive note.

* * * * *

Today is the 12th birthday of Literary Kicks (here’s what we looked like 12 years ago). I’m celebrating the birthday by launching a new blog, very much a work in progress and nowhere near ready for prime time.

One Response

  1. Timothy Leary, DearieI heard
    Timothy Leary, Dearie

    I heard Leary give a talk in the late 60s (pre-Liddy). His talk was coherent and well-organized but, oddly, the content ranged from common-sense exhortations and homilies to the ridiculous. I remember his suggestion that no one over 45 be considered for any position of responsibility since, ‘you’ve lost too many brain cells.’ Leary was 47 at the time.

    William Burroughs visited Leary in Newton, MA, to join him in his research on psychoactive drugs but left in disgust, saying that no research was going on — just fooling around.

    What I don’t understand: Leary was a first-rate Harvard psychologist and researcher. what changed him into a chuckle-headed guru? I don’t think drugs can take all the blame. Opinions?

    I thought the article on toilet reading was, ah, crap, as well. I take a book to the can for the same reason I take one on the subway or to the doctor’s waiting room: I like to read. Of all great topics they could’ve presented on the back page ….

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What We're Up To ...

Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!