Reviewing the Review: February 4 2007

A writer’s dream has come true for young first novelist Michael Thomas, whose large striking portrait adorns the front cover of today’s New York Times Book Review. Thomas’s Man Gone Down is about a penniless Boston writer trying to change his luck and hold his family together. It sounds like a moving story, but I’m confused by Kaiama L. Glover’s review, which is enthusiastic but hardly ecstatic about the book. The critic goes on at considerable length about the book’s theme of mixed-race identity, and the topic comes up again three pages later into this week’s issue, when the editor’s “Up Front” column rhapsodizes bizarrely about the mixed-race background of not Michael Thomas but critic Kaiama L. Glover, whose mother, we’re told, is of Bahamian, African-American and American Indian extraction, while her father is blond. I really wish the Book Review would spend more time reviewing people’s books instead of their ethnic backgrounds.

All the racial profiling seems to diminish Michael Thomas’s achievement in attaining an NYTBR cover review for his first novel. I’ll reserve judgment, of course, until I check out the book. But I don’t think a whole lot of Glover’s earnest review, which leans too heavily on bland literary-critic exhalations like:

He then uses these forays into the too-present past as springboards from which to investigate the fragmented histories of his abusive mother and perpetually absent father — so much “collateral damage of the heart.”

I hope the book is fresher than the review. I’ll let you know.

Editor-in-chief Sam Tanenhaus makes a rare appearance with a gushing endpaper on Saul Bellow, who is, in Tanenhaus’s estimation, so good as to be above criticism. This is not a bad concept for an article, but I wish Tanenhaus had gone out on more of a limb with his choice of subject. Saul Bellow … safe as milk. It’s okay to spend a page praising an overexposed Nobel Prize winner if you write a lot of articles, but Tanenhaus only pokes his head up to write an article here about once a year, like Pauxatawney Phil, and I’m sincerely disappointed that he doesn’t have anything fresher to tell us about than Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, Henderson the Rain King and Herzog.

Likewise with poetry critic David Orr, who hasn’t shown up here in months. He’s back, and who does he have to tell us about? Look, I love Robert Frost too. But it’s not even big news that Robert Frost is back in style — I thought that happened about ten years ago. Orr’s article is perceptive and well-written, but, once again, I wish for a more innovative choice of subject.

What with all the banal tributes and the affirmative action, this is one of my least favorite Book Reviews in recent memory. There’s some consolation: Ben MacIntyre writes vividly about Edward Luce’s In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India, and Christopher de Bellaigue turns in an encouraging notice of a new novel about the Armenian genocide of 1915, Skylark Farm by Antonia Arslan. But Simon Blackburn’s summary of A. C. Grayling’s Descartes: the Life and Times of a Genius is superficial and unexceptional. Finally, William F. Buckley makes a sniffy appearance in the Letters section and thoroughly fails to land a blow on anybody. I really hope this publication can turn in a more exciting performance next week.

6 Responses

  1. antonia arslani’m glad
    antonia arslan

    i’m glad they’re talking about her book in the nytbr now, because last time i mentioned her over at, even you had never heard about her…

  2. That’s true! I’m glad too.
    That’s true! I’m glad too. I hope it’s a good book — have you read it?

  3. Mixed RaceIt seems that
    Mixed Race

    It seems that writing about mixed race leads to a lot of confusion in the book world which seems to find either the lack of boxes confusing or the jumping from one box to another (to have sex with other people in other boxes not of one’s own race thusly producing mixed race offspring), and I keep wondering if this confusion the book world has with this social/racial reality stems from it’s European literary and class distinction orgins, or is the reluctance to comprehend the way America really is simply a myopia of racial intellectualism.

    That my own family has people in the background (who will definitely stay there) who are not white is a reality they refuse to recognize. I was denounced royally by them for even fictionalizing it in my books. I wish I had just told the fucking truth and then they could have kicked me out over the truth and not an obfuscation of it.

    I didn’t tell ENOUGH of the truth.

    Or do we all have to leave that for fiction and the art of the novel.

    The reviewer here does get the concept the writer was trying to convey of the perpetual outsider. That this book could even be published at all is something of a miracle. The fact that this book seems to involve some autobiography should open the doors to light not more confusion among critics or obfuscation from writers like myself. My family kicked me the hell out anyway. Race remains America’s boogeyman. The genetic reality is that we all come from everywhere. Race itself is a social invention not a biological one. As long as race remains explosive, there will always be an outsider and that outsider will always be conflicted. MAN GONE DOWN goes on my list of must reads. It sounds like an important book.

  4. Speaking of Frost…I always
    Speaking of Frost…I always see crossroads; and generally choose the road less taken. It’s a universal application of sorts. It applies to the NYTBR which is basically a WAT (waste of time). My father has a reminiscence of New York (circa 1947 or so). He met some wealthy and/or odd students whose Village apartment was so sparsely furnished that their bed was propped up off the floor by dozens of brand new books.

    Books are the mainframe of what we are; but there are so many of them, and so many worthless ones. The task of the reviewer is to sift through them and tell the public which are essential. NYTBR has no idea which is which. Nor is it their job to delineate. They are but an extension of the NY publishing business which tells the public “this is crap, but read it anyway, it makes us quite wealthy when you do.”

    The true reviewer must take a different path. Perhaps Myspace books, or some populist outlet like that. Or perhaps the real reviewer should focus on review copies he/she receives from publishers or directly from authors. But there are too many of them, not enough time. The way around this would be to form a committee. Reviewers such as LitBlog Coop members (and many more of similar ilk) could work together, each reviewing a part of the whole, instead of everyone hurriedly reviewing a small slice of the many.

    This would have a real function, a real purpose, not just a book reading game (WAT). People ask (in various on-line groups) what should they read next. I recommend your book, Bill’s book, and others. Would it be so much easier if I could just respond – check out the “what to read section” in Litkicks for in-depth reviews of what you need to be reading.

  5. i haven’t – but i’ve read
    i haven’t – but i’ve read about it and about her, and that sounded promising.

  6. Stephen Dare, co-owner of the
    Stephen Dare, co-owner of the Boomtown Dinner Theatre here in Jacksonville, does a spoken word piece about being a child in school, where they taught him that a continent is a large land mass surrounded by water. The child gets in trouble for asking the teacher what body of water separates Europe and Asia. Of course, there is none. Europe and Asia were considered separate for socio-political reasons, not geography.

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