Today’s New York Times Book Review has a big cast of characters, but it all adds up to a mediocre yawner.
I have mixed feelings about William T. Vollmann’s novels but I’m always interested to read him in short form (the keyword here is “short”). His review of Anthony “Jarhead” Swofford’s new love story Exit A is a marvel of critical self-torment, as the esteemed Vollmann all but apologizes for giving Swofford’s book a terrible review. Vollmann mocks the author’s wooden use of language and then circles back on himself, telling us “I hate to write reviews like this”. Prince Hamlet wouldn’t make a good literary critic, and apparently William T. Vollmann doesn’t either. I’m guessing the Book Review would have buried this piece if the author were not William T. Vollmann.
Liesl Schillinger, the most erudite critic on the Book Review’s staff, does not disappoint in her cover article on Martin Amis’s intriguing House of Meetings. Schillinger always ventures surprising connections, always tells me something I don’t know, always seems genuinely captivated by her topic. This writer is fresh and energetic enough to make it as a litblogger, which is more than I can say for many of these stiffs.
It’s not that Neil Genzlinger (on Tim Sandlin’s well-titled Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty), Richard Lourie (on Leslie Epstein’s Eighth Wonder of the World), Jacob Heilbrunn (on Marvin Kitman’s biography of Bill O’Reilly), Peter Stevenson (on Calvin Trillin’s About Alice) or Maggie Galehouse (on Isabel Allende’s Ines of my Soul) are particularly bad in this weekend’s issue. But I found myself at the last page of the slim issue before I finished my second cup of coffee, and I felt excited by nothing (save the weak and cruel thrill of watching both Anthony Swofford and Leslie Epstein get pummeled, Epstein even worse than Swofford). Dwight Garner’s “Inside the List” column is more interesting than almost all the pieces, which I guess counts for something.
I’m not even blown away by Robert Pinksy’s review of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, which sounds interesting (at least Ehrenreich bucked the trend and didn’t sub-title it “A Biography of Collective Joy”). And the New York Times Magazine is running a short interview with John Ashbery, which turns out not to be very exciting either.
But the one article here that moves me to actual anger and disgust is the typically banal endpaper by Henry Alford, a musical-comedy sendup of various famous books that goes absolutely nowhere. It’s amazing to see that the New York Times Book Review is only now discovering a joke that Mad Magazine stopped running with decades ago because they’d already milked it to death. At this point, Henry Alford’s byline is becoming as unwelcome in this publication as Rachel Donadio’s. He’s had many chances to be funny (which seems to be his designated role) and he’s blown it every single time. NEXT already.