Reviewing the Review: August 6 2006

Nick Tosches is the kind of edgy writer I like to see in the New York Times Book Review. Today he skillfully takes down Ann Goldstein’s translation of Alessandro Baricco’s new Homer homage, An Iliad. “I wanted very much to like this book, but the book disallowed it,” Tosches says, complaining of shallow lines of heroic dialogue that remind him of Ralph Kramden starring in the Raccoon Lodge play.

Usually nobody even bothers to look at an experimental translation of Greek literature, much less bother to demolish it, so Tosches’s informative and well-argued piece is a refreshing read.

So is Meg Wolitzer’s consideration of Lee K. Abbott’s short story collection, All Things, All At Once. The book sounds intriguing, as does Alix Ohlin’s Babylon and Other Stories. But I wish Benjamin Anastas’s review of Ohlin’s book didn’t waste the first paragraph on this ponderous stuff:

Is the first task of the short story to reveal small and well-observed truths about life, or is it to transform life into a story that will ring truer than reality? To put it another way: Do we turn to the short story for the promise of a good yarn, or with the expectation that a well-told narrative will capture something of the ineffable experience we call life?

Dude, it’s summer! Forget that English Comp 101 crap — this is the New York Times Book Review, and you need a much better opening paragraph than that. Anyway, Ohlin’s book sounds interesting and I’m going to try to check it out.

The centerpiece of this weekend’s New York Times Book Review is an piece on David S. Brown’s Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography by the Book Review’s editor Sam Tanenhaus. Richard Hofstadter was a highly respected social critic who studied the chasm between populist and intellectual political camps, especially as they were manifested by various American politicians such as William Jennings Bryan (populist), Joe McCarthy (populist), Franklin Delano Roosevelt (intellectual) and Adlai Stevenson (intellectual). Tanenhaus covers his topic with precision and no lack of passion; it’s clear that this type of subject is his forte (just as it’s often clear, in reviewing his work as Book Review chief, that fiction and poetry are not). It seems likely that Tanenhaus is aware that Hofstadter’s description of the classic populist politician neatly describes our own current President. But this connection is only suggested in Tanenhaus’s very well-written piece.

Paul Gray’s review of Pamela Glen’s novelization of her own one-woman play The Syringa Tree is a disappointment. Gray apparently saw this play years ago, and he spends at least half the article bemoaning the fact that the novel isn’t as good as the play was, and then ruminating on the differences between theater and prose. This ignores the obvious fact that Glen’s novel is intended to be read by the great number of people who haven’t seen the play, not the few who have. It really doesn’t matter to us if the play was better, Gray — just tell us if the book is good.

Joe Queenan’s endpaper Why I Can’t Stop Starting Books threatens to be as dull as other recent endpapers, but Queenan comes through. “I started Lord Jim in high school and finished it when I was 52. Gratification delayed is gratification all the same.” It’s a good piece.

The article that surprises me the most in this weekend’s Book Review is Eugenie Allen’s summary of The Overachievers: The Secret Life of Driven Kids by Alexandra Robbins. Apparently there are a great number of public school students in America obsessing over perfect grades and college applications to a shocking degree. That sure is news to me, and if anybody would like to study the opposite phenomenon I’d be happy to arrange interviews with my three kids.

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