Reviewing the Review: September 10 2006

The New York Times is crowded with literature today, starting with an excellent extract from the early journals of Susan Sontag in the New York Times Magazine. Covering the years between 1958 and 1967 (Beatles references start appearing in 1965, and Jean-Paul Sartre shows up at several parties), these freeform entries present an excitable and passionate Sontag chattering away so carelessly you’d think she had a WordPress account.

Daniel “Snicket” Handler shows up in a nearby real estate supplement, and novelist Sara Gran makes a welcome appearance in the City section with an amusing piece about the overabundance of writers in Brooklyn. Reading this article before running off to meet several literary friends in a chic spot on Smith Street in a neighborhood apparently called BoCoCa (Boerum/Cobble Hill/Carroll Gardens), I now feel completely pigeonholed.

So the Book Review faces strong competition from the other sections today, and it manages to hold its own. Jeff Turrentine does a fine job of introducing Wizard of the Crow, a satire by Ngugi wa Thiong’o of Kenya, and I can’t wait to read this book. I’m also going to look for Nell Freudenberger’s The Dissident, which critic A. O. Scott describes as a Jamesian collision of cultures involving a Chinese artist in California, even though Scott rudely brushes the book off his shoulder after making it sound great (“The inhabitants regard one another with puzzlement and, occasionally, appreciation, and the reader is not able to muster much more”).

Satires are abounding this week: Ken Kalfus’s A Disorder Peculiar to the Country presents two unhappily married people who can’t seem to hide their disappointment when both of them survive the attacks of September 11, 2001. Sylvia Brownrigg gives the novel a mostly positive review, but Paul Gray is less kind to Alice McDermott’s After This. Gray finds it vague and distant, whereas Allegra Goodman finds Jennifer Gilmore’s Golden Country too specific and sharply-focused (especially when it gets the focus wrong, like by having a character steal a quote from the film “Jerry Maguire” in 1957).

Other good stuff includes Will Self’s superb endpaper on Celine, whose Journey to the End of the Night is being published in a new edition by New Directions with a foreword by William T. Vollmann, an informative review of Hayden Carruth’s Toward the Distant Islands by poetry critic Brian Henry, and a heady explication of the career of odd literary critic William Empson by Stephen Burt. I learned a few things in today’s issue.

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