Reviewing the Review: February 25 2007

Hey! For the second time in one month, a paperback original by a first novelist is on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. This is a very, very good trend.

Tom McCarthy’s Remainder is about a guy suffering from some type of existential dislocation (or brain injury) after a terrible accident. He’s also won a liability settlement that’s made him ridiculously wealthy, yet Liesl Schillinger’s favorable review of McCarthy’s book zeroes in on the universality of this character’s seemingly unreal experience. Schillinger wisely spends a great deal of this article talking about Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, which The Remainder reminds her of. It’s a smart comparison, and I wonder how many other book critics would have located this reference point.

It’s great to read about Jean-Paul Sartre on page 10 of the Book Review and then spot Heraclitus on page 11 in Stacey D’Erasmo’s summary of Andre Aciman’s fiery Call Me By Your Name. D’Erasmo likes Aciman’s memory-shaded love story a lot, and her excited report (“This novel is hot”) is thoroughly engaging. Interestingly, this review leaves me with no desire to read Aciman’s book (which is not my kind of thing), but it will motivate me to read more articles by Stacey D’Erasmo.

This weekend’s publication is packed with good stuff. William Grimes urges us to rediscover neglected 19th Century Russian memoirist Alexander Herzen, Adam Hochschild elucidates Madison Smartt Bell’s Toussaint Louverture: A Biography and Walter Kirn smartly evaluates David Mamet’s thesis on what’s wrong with Hollywood, Bambi vs. Godzilla. Kirn’s piece opens like this:

Why most Hollywood movies stink is a big question, but why we go eagerly inhaling them is a bigger one.

Maybe these crazy folks have an answer for that, but I don’t. Here’s another good opener, though, from Constance Casey’s review of Amy Stewart’s non-fiction study of a little-understood business sector, Flower Confidential:

I bought 20 grocery store roses last week — a rich yellow tinged with red — and am now thoroughly tired of them. They never fully opened, they have no scent and although they have gotten a little crinkly, they refuse to die. I may have to beat them to death.

Go for it, Constance. And, really, all the above examples illustrate the only two things I ever want from a New York Times Book Review article: good writing and good information. That’s all I ever want, and I’m a happy blogger when I get it.

But it wouldn’t be Sunday if I didn’t criticize at least one article, so let’s talk about things I don’t want to find in the New York Times Book Review. I don’t want sniffy Upper East Side cultural snobbery, for instance, as when Peter Keepnews reviews Howard Pollack’s George Gershwin: His Life and Work and tells us “Almost everyone who has written about American music has taken a crack at Gershwin”. Well, yeah, in a world where “American music” doesn’t include country, folk, rock, punk, heavy metal or hiphop, maybe that’s true. Here on planet Earth, though, it’s a pretty dumb thing to say.

I also don’t want stale wordiness, as in Sven Birkerts’ review of Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Messenger: New and Selected Poems, 1976-2006:

Voigt has a highly tempered poetic intelligence, most obvious in her line by line determination to align evocative images with their emotional incentives.

Her arrestingly accurate images remind the reader of the suggestive correlation of sensuous emblems to emotional realities.

She works consistently in the Horation tradition, taking on the world from a fixed rural place and deriving maximal resonance from the organic mapping of small to large.

Yeah, yeah, yeah … highly tempered intelligence … maximal resonance … I’ve heard this kind of crap a million times before. What does “organic mapping” or “sensuous emblem” even mean? And am I supposed to be impressed by the alliteration between “evocative images” and “emotional incentives”? I don’t want poetry reviews to be pretty — I want them to be original and incisive, and I wish Birkerts could have said something in this review that didn’t seem like a parody of pretentious poetry criticism.

The good way outweighs the bad in this week’s NYTBR, though. The publication’s willingness to put affordably priced paperback original fiction on the same footing as hardcover fiction is quite significant, since many publishers still say (and deeply believe) that first-edition paperback novels will not be reviewed by the major outlets. So perhaps the much-criticized Sam Tanenhaus has a progressive agenda after all?

3 Responses

  1. finding stuffMy favorite part
    finding stuff

    My favorite part of your reviews is when you talk about new, upcoming writers. I feel that I’m becoming more contemporarily literate (reading Henry Baum, Brett Savory, Paul Tremblay). Is there any way you could index your reviews by author, so that I could look them up by name?

  2. Sure, Stokes — in fact, this
    Sure, Stokes — in fact, this is already in place if you use Google. The name of every writer or critic I discuss in these articles is included as a meta-keyword for the articles, so that if you google the name you’ll find me pretty quick. It may take a few hours after publication for Google to pick up a new article, but once it does you can just search for, say, “litkicks tom mccarthy” (or any other name) and that should do the trick.

  3. QPBIt was nice to read an

    It was nice to read an intriguing review in the Sunday book review and then be able to go out and buy the books the next day, because the book didn’t cost $26.

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