Taking Back Sunday: October 29 2006

The New York Times Book Review, supposedly a part of the Sunday New York Times, is delivered to my doorstep every Saturday morning. Advance copies begin to circulate several days earlier, though, and the online version is also usually available by the Thursday or Friday before the publication date on the cover of each issue. Still, I think it is an essential feature of the Book Review that it is a *weekend* publication, and that’s why I always post my review of the review sometime between Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. The Book Review is meant to feel like the weekend. It’s designed for expanding minds freed temporarily from cubicles and commuter trains. You’re supposed to sink into this publication like a warm bath, and I find the Book Review incompatible with the entire day of Friday, or with any weekday. I would no sooner read the New York Times Book Review on a Friday (even though I know it is available) than I would stand up and stretch during the sixth inning of a baseball game, or order a Carvel ice cream sundae and eat the hot fudge first. It’s just wouldn’t feel right.

But some of my blogging colleagues apparently see things differently, and I felt my sheltered world spinning off its axis this Friday afternoon when Ron Hogan and Ed Champion both finished chewing up and spitting out this weekend’s Book Review this past Friday. Despite my general affection for Ron and Ed, I find this disturbing.

I understand that Hogan and Champion were writing as journalists, reacting to the discovery of an alleged small impropreity on the part of NYTBR editor Sam Tanenhaus, who placed a big colorful ad for Jonathan Franzen’s Discomfort Zone right next to a series of letters praising Franzen and his book (surely evoking the appearance of favored treatment, though it’s not actually likely that anybody’s running a kickback scheme out of Tanenhaus’s office). I guess I don’t disagree with their decisions to post these stories; a good news story can’t wait.

But I am not a journalist, I am an aesthete, and therefore I promise you that I will continue to review the Book Review only on Sunday evenings, or occasionally on a Sunday morning or Saturday afternoon or even Saturday morning if the mood so strikes me. This is the way it oughta be, and this is the way it will always be here at the Kicks.

Well, I worked myself up into such a tizzy over this that I have exhausted myself without even beginning to review this week’s articles. The cover piece is film critic’s A. O. Scott’s thoughtful and well-written review of Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land. I am grateful to Scott because I had some idea that I might want to read this book (despite finding Ford’s The Sportswriter disappointing and bland), and now that I’ve read Scott’s review I am certain that I don’t want to try. The funny thing is that Scott’s review is not a bad one, but it points to the ascetic weightiness that always hovers like a gray cloud over Ford’s dull, dull prose. One book crossed off my checklist.

Then there’s Charles Frazier’s Thirteen Moons, which gets a mostly bad (but admirably fair) review by Adam Goodheart, and which I am trying to read because I loved his first book. But I found the book’s first few pages so horrendously overbaked that I haven’t gotten any further yet, and for this reason it thrilled me to read Adam Goodheart’s comment that the book’s first sentences are “so awful that they beg to be read aloud”. I don’t take pleasure in the idea that I will not end up liking Thirteen Moons — I really am committed to Charles Frazier and I am going to give this book everything I’ve got (later). I also can’t agree with Goodheart that Charles Frazier is better at tone than characterization. That’s Cormac McCarthy — I think Cold Mountain had great characters. I absolutely agree with Goodheart, though, that these opening lines are just painfully shrill and unenticing:

There is no scatheless rapture. Love and time put me in this condition. I am leaving soon for the Nightland, where all the ghosts of men and animals yearn to travel.

Readers, I am leaving soon for the Nightland as well. I enjoyed several other pieces in this week’s generally worthy issue, including Michael Wood’s perceptive consideration of Lee Siegel’s Falling Upwards, Liesl Schillinger’s review of Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn and Gregory Cowles’s review of Scarlett Thomas’s The End of Mr. Y (a philosophical mystery pastiche that sounds like Jacques Derrida by way of Lemony Snicket).

Two minor complaints. First, I’m glad Tanenhaus called on digerati Steven Johnson to write an endpaper, but the resulting article, which marvels at the fact that bloggers and online writers have the power to alter public debate quickly via Google, is written in a “Google for Dummies” voice that might be appropriate for little old ladies from Schenectady who’ve never seen YouTube, but is a little too “gee-whiz” for the NYTBR.

And, N. Scoot Momaday’s review of Hampton Sides’s Blood and Thunder: an Epic of the American West is a thoroughly annoying piece. Momaday wastes our time rhapsodizing about the myth of the American West, which he clearly finds more interesting than either the reality of the American West or the book he is supposed to be reviewing. There’s a lot of stuff like this:

In 1868 the Navajos returned to their homeland. When they drew within sight of their sacred Blue Bead Mountain, they wept.

They all wept? And what does this have to do with Hampton Sides’s book? It’s ironic that the Book Review chides Charles Frazier for being corny on page 14 and then allows a full page of the same hoary stuff on page 21.

2 Responses

  1. Monday morning works for
    Monday morning works for me

    Levi, I would not want to face Monday mornings without your NYTBR review.

    It is interesting that a generally favorable review of The Lay of the Land resulted in your decision not to read the book. I like that because it demonstrates that an honest reviewer need not choose between scathing or rapturous to convey the essence of a book.

  2. From One Aesthete to AnotherI
    From One Aesthete to Another

    I couldn’t get into Independence Day but it was a book checked out from the library and, at the time, I was only reading short stories. I’d lost the patience to read longer fiction then that couldn’t hold my attention. I am interested in reading Lay of the Land due to the review that I just read now for the second time online mostly because the subject seems a retreat from the life of cubicles and commuter trains. I recently joined a book club and after reading four books I didn’t like, never want to read another novel that bores me although I am reading The Old Man and The Sea because I came across it in a book store. I don’t know much of Ford but he was a friend of Ray Carver, the ultimate stylist, and is roped in with another member of Dirty Realism, Tobias Wolff, an author whose novels I buy whenever I see one that I haven’t read and an author who has never disappointed me.

    I saw that 60 Minutes is working with Yahoo! The bloggers will get bigger and the NYTBR has to adjust to this reality or be left behind.

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