Boring New York Times Book Review today.
It’s the dreaded “Holiday Books” issue, which means we get a lot of summary articles on topics like “Food”, and “Travel”. The issue feels as thick as a Mineola telephone book, and it’s about as exciting as a Mineola telephone book too.
I’ll get right to the complaints. Jay McInerney, who is clearly positioning himself for a continuing career as a wine critic, reviews John Hailman’s Thomas Jefferson on Wine and delivers this ill-considered observation:
Jefferson is usually assumed to be a Bordeaux man, in part because he wrote about it most and in part because Bordeaux seems like the wine that reflects his character; Bordeaux is an Appolonian wine, a beverage for intellectuals, for men of patience and reason.
First of all, women can enjoy wine too; secondly, I believe “Appolonian wine” is an oxymoron in this context, since McInerney is using “Appolonian” in the Nietzschean sense wherein Apollo and Dionysus represent the opposite poles of the human spirit, and Dionysus is the god of wine. I also completely disagree with McInerney’s characterization of Jefferson as an Appolonian. Jefferson was obsessed with the alternative literature of his day (Voltaire, Rousseau), lived on a mountain, preferred Paris to America, played violin and became embroiled in a sex scandal. Jefferson was the most Dionysian of our founding fathers (his love of wine is yet more proof), and I really don’t know what McInerney was thinking. The first of many missteps in today’s issue.
Ben Yagoda is supposedly a journalism professor and an expert on writing style, but his review of Charles Addams: A Cartoonist’s Life by Linda H. Davis is bad, bad, bad. He begins by telling us that Charles Addams singularly represents the essence of what is special about America, which means the critic went and used up his entire hyperbole quota in his first paragraph (this is always a bad strategy when reviewing books). He admires Addams because “over the next five and a half decades, he contributed 64 covers and more than 1,300 cartoons [to the New Yorker], and they came steadily — there were no slowdowns, no blocks, no ruts.” Yo, Yagoda, what makes you think you know this? Cartooning is not a real-time profession. Editors hold on to numerous cartoons and run them as they wish; Addams might have suffered from long periods of creative slowdown and readers of the New Yorker need never have known.
That’s just the first paragraph, and there’s much more banality ahead. “The mirror cartoon exemplifies one of Addams’s two main categories, the sight gag,” Yagoda tells us. Whoa, whoa, whoa … a cartoonist using a sight gag? That’s downright revolutionary! Addams must be the essense of what’s special about America for this reason alone. Yagoda then offers this about Addams’s work: “over and above the joke, his drawings are pleasurable to look at, in their detail, composition and scope.” Does Yagoda not realize that this could be said about every excellent cartoonist in the world?
This bad article culminates in this observation about an Addams cartoon: “Works of art that can make you laugh and cry in turn are rare. This is one of them.” Yeah, and book reviews that can make me snort with derision and fall asleep at the same time are rare too. This is one of them.
More complaints: I’m glad the Book Review called on the interesting new author Marisha Pessl to review Leanne Shapton’s graphic novel about love and jealousy, Was She Pretty?, but her energetic effort doesn’t scan. She talks only about the book’s text and fails to describe the artwork, which can’t be the right way to review a graphic novel. She provides many contextual references: “Annie Hall”, James Dean, “Star Wars”, Marlon Brando, “Eyes Wide Shut”, Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca”, “Gone With The Wind”, “Where the Wild Things Are”, but it’s disturbing to realize that these add up to seven movie references (okay, maybe Pessl’s referring to du Maurier’s novel, but somehow I’m guessing she saw the movie instead) and one kid’s book. This is the Book Review, Pessl. Break out the Kafka and Joyce references or get out of the way! Based on her novel, I believe she can do better in the future.
Joseph Dorman’s review of Stefan Kanfer’s Stardust Lost: The Triumph, Tragedy and Mishugas of the Yiddish Theater in America is a fine work overall, though some copy editor should have prevented this from appearing:
The densely packed Lower East Side provided a hungry audience for the Yiddish theater and its impersarios; and in its infancy Yiddish drama was barely discernible from vaudeville …
I think the fact that the actors onstage were speaking Yiddish would have been a tip-off.
Praise? I got some. Charles McGrath does a great job reviewing a new edition of John Betjeman’s Collected Poems and A. N. Wilson’s Betjeman: A Life. His article is informative and engaging from beginning to end. Thomas Mallon also keeps my attention and tells me a few things I don’t know about George Sand, the subject of Benita Eisler’s biography Naked in the Marketplace. David Hajdu’s review of Ivan Brunetti’s An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons and Stories turns out to be my tipping point: I’ve now finally decided I want to own this book.
Finally, there’s a substantial piece on South Africa’s literary scene by NYTBR editor Rachel Donadio in today’s New York Times Magazine, and even though this piece is less bad than the other uniformly terrible articles Donadio has written for the Times, I have to point to Ed Champion’s deft analysis of why so many of us dislike her work so much. He’s absolutely right that Donadio writes as if marketing managers were her audience. She never describes the work she is writing about; instead she always writes about the effect the work has on people. Her analysis is always external. This is a profoundly offensive way to look at literature, and this is why so many of us seem to agree that Donadio lacks the sensibility required to write for a top literary publication.
My first encounter with Rachel Donadio was in August 2005 when, as I wrote then, she turned in a “breathy, overly respectful interview with V. S. Naipaul’s aura” (I still think that was one of my funnier lines, and I guess I’m reproducing it here today in the hope that somebody will finally give me props for it). I’m also proud to remind the world that I was the first one in our sub-literate blogosphere to declare Rachel Donadio “the worst writer on the staff of the New York Times Book Review”. The date was September 4, 2005, and you were there.
Unfortunately, Rachel Donadio is still here as well. How long will the NYTBR stay the course?