Reviewing the Review: January 14 2007

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.

6 Responses

  1. The Marvel of Swofford’s
    The Marvel of Swofford’s Jarhead

    The marvel of Swofford’s Jarhead is its concision of its prose, economy of language, and that it is a narrative and tells the tale well. The sentences flow one after another in Swofford’s Jarhead. Its flashbacks give a bildungsroman effect to the novel-memoir, which definitely would appeal to your average mainstream reader who would probably never pick up Vollman’s Rising Up and Rising Down except to use as a door stop if it was found in the recycling bin. People know the movie Jarhead. Vollman is some guy who gets paid for books that don’t sell, yet win the National Book award? This correspondent still hasn’t seen Europe Central in any book store.

  2. MatterWe could learn more

    We could learn more from watching NOW on PBS Sunday morning, than we could ever learn from reading the NYTBR. One word – BioWillie – a nation-wide plan to produce green energy without importing oil.

    As Nasdijj’s recent comment highlights – books aren’t doing it, book publishers aren’t doing it. I’m not sure that books and publishers have ever done it, but I’m willing to give them a chance. Books need to matter; that is, they need to be about something that matters, that is essentially important for the planet.

    Please consider this point, consider reviewing books on the basis of what they add to the global dialogue. One could listen to a wonderful Italian opera and be impressed or thrilled without understanding a single word – what’s the point of that?

    Is it time? Is it time as we grow older and approach death, to demand that books start meaning something. Something beyond a thriller, solving a mystery, how to crochet, how to make more money. I want books to tell me how to live right, how to think right, how to make a better world for my little girl. That matters.

  3. You must be kidding re:
    You must be kidding re: Schillinger

    You must be kidding: “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.” That review was a joke. As the correction today shows, she couldn’t even get the relation of the narrator to his step-daughter right – throughout, she called her his ‘daughter’, which didn’t surprise me as I would very much doubt she even read the whole novel. That the step-daughter, Venus, chose to stay with the narrator forms the subject of at least five pages in a not very long novel. But what they hell. A reviewer who blithely tells hints that she skipped the ‘boring’ military parts in War and Peace, and who throws in a number of not very relevant Russian references to a novel about the Gulag (wow, at least she got the geography right) is not being erudite, but is trying to change the subject.

    I didn’t like the House of Meetings at all, and I found Kakatuni’s blurbing of it as a “bullet train of a novel” too hilarious; however, it deserved more than some scattershot observations of Russia in general and Russian literature I’ve Read and Skipped Parts of by Ms. Schillinger. It was one of the shoddiest jobs of reviewing I’ve seen in the NYTRB, which is notoriously bad about fiction anyway.

  4. Well, Roger, I wasn’t
    Well, Roger, I wasn’t kidding, but you’re entitled to your opinion as well. I hope readers will check out the article (link above) and judge for themselves.

  5. VollmanI have posted and the

    I have posted and the commentary ensues at Metaxu Cafe.

  6. much discussionThanks for the
    much discussion

    Thanks for the link, Steve — interesting stuff.

    I also see from a link on that page that Michael Orthofer wrote a good piece about this Book Review here. I hope the NYTBR appreciates all the attention we give them!

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