Reviewing the Review: March 18 2007

Once again, the New York Times Book Review is featuring a rave review for an unknown writer on its cover. This is a nice trend.

Joshua Ferris, a young up-and-comer who just completed an enjoyable blogging engagement at The Elegant Variation, has written a workplace novel, Then We Can To The End, in which most of the action takes place in a dysfunctional Chicago ad agency. I recently looked at this book and wondered if it could possibly be as funny and perceptive as Dwight and Angela and Phyllis and Larry in The Office.

It’s hard for a novel to compete with a really good TV comedy about a similar milieu, but James Poniewozik assures us that Ferris’s book can stand alongside The Office as well as the well-referenced classic Gregory Peck film The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. But is it better than Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs? That’s what I really want to know, since Microserfs also seemed groundbreaking at one time, but years later the only thing I remember from that thick book is the “only eat flat food” routine. Maybe this is why I balked at buying Ferris’s novel during my first bookstore encounter, but Poniewozik says the book is “expansive, great-hearted and acidly funny”, so I guess I’m going back in. I’ll let you know what I find.

Walter Kirn has stern words for William Vollmann, whose new non-fiction book Poor People is going over like a lead balloon. Kirn isn’t his usual witty self here, perhaps because Vollmann’s grandiose inspection of what it means to be poor seems to have truly pissed him off:

How does traveling the world asking poor people why they think they’re poor differ from traveling the world asking people in pain why they’re in pain or thirsty people why they thirst? Is this a serious, legitimate inquiry, or does it betray a certain faux-autism that might be better suited to performance art?

I had a similar reaction to Poor People. It’s not that we don’t want books like this to be written (actually, I do want books like this to be written). But Vollmann did not do a good job of relating either his intentions or his narrative stance to readers of this book, leaving us to perceive an off-putting note of chilly arrogance towards his subject. This arrogance may or may not actually exist, but readers are perceiving it, and that’s Vollmann’s fault.

Also, everybody is comparing Vollmann’s book to James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Actually, the best poverty verite book ever written is Jacob Riis‘s masterpiece How The Other Half Lives, which was published in 1890. Riis was a pioneering photographer, journalist and political activist who managed to get the attention of politicians like Theodore Roosevelt with How The Other Half Lives. The book also contains many primitive photographs of downtown New York slum life that remain haunting and fascinating today.

It’s obviously postmodernism week at the NYTBR. Jonathan Lethem’s You Don’t Love Me Yet is wisely dismissed by David Kamp, who calls it “a mite tangential”. Funny, that’s exactly how I’d describe Lethem’s whole career.

The funniest article in this week’s issue is Terrence Rafferty’s review of Dan Simmons’ The Terror, in which a boat full of explorers get stuck in a polar freeze and slowly die. Rafferty marvels at Simmons’ foolishness in taking on this expedition and expecting his readers to endure it for 769 pages. I can only agree.

The worst writing of the week can be found in Scott Stossel’s summary of biographer Nigel Hamilton’s Biography: A Brief History. This book sounds way too meta for me, but I suffered through Stossel’s pained review, which offers banal ponderances like this:

Is the primary function of biography to idealize and commemorate figures in order to provide models for emulation? Or is it to capture the warts-and-all essence of an individual human personality in a way that engages the sympathy and deepens the self-understanding of those who encounter it?

First of all, the answer to this question is obviously “both”, so why ask it? Stossel must think he has to talk down to his readers in an attempt to make them understand this book, because he can’t possibly think this “question” holds any real interest whatsoever.

Also, I remember hearing that the New York Times Book Review has strict rules against over-used words like “compelling” and “ironic” (which honestly shamed me, since I like to use both these words). I now have to ask the editors: if you’re going to banish “compelling” and “ironic”, how can you possibly allow the phrase “warts-and-all” to appear in an article about biography? How, just how? Why not open the floodgates, if you’re going to let that in?

This week’s Book Review ends with a tepid cartoon by Ron Barrett in which a balding guy lives out a full day in Shakespeare quotes. It’s a cute concept, but the selection of quotes is too predictable (“a rose by any other name”). I wish the Book Review would just smarten up these humor pieces a notch or two.

7 Responses

  1. Actually, I meant Kevin, but
    Actually, I meant Kevin, but thanks. I’m not sure who I thought Larry was.

  2. I’m pretty sure Kevin is the
    I’m pretty sure Kevin is the fat bald guy who talks real slow. He’s my favorite character, though I always forget his name.

  3. Well, they’re still looking
    Well, they’re still looking in the totally wrong place… I bet.

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