Reviewing the Review: March 25 2007

Reviews of writers we know usually carry some suspense, some excitement, almost a salacious interest (as in: so, what crazy things are John Banville or William Vollmann or Jane Smiley up to today?). On the other hand, when we read reviews of new and unknown writers, the reading itself often feels like work. A book critic who’s writing about, say, Daniel Alarcon or Dinaw Mengestu or Treeza Azzopardi always has to work much harder to keep our interest, and it’s instructive to note how this task is handled in today’s New York Times Book Review by three different writers, Sarah Fay and Rob Nixon and Liesl Schillinger.

Reviewing Lost City Radio, Daniel Alarcon’s dark tale of a Latin American nation’s long psychological recovery from war, Sarah Fay neatly lays out the novel’s main concept — a popular (and phony) TV show designed to reunite long-lost victims of a past civil war — in the first paragraph, and thus has me hooked for the whole ride. This is a refreshingly clear review, so much so that I regretted Fay’s refusal at the end to endorse the novel, which she believes to be marred by too many stylistic flaws.

It’s funny that Fay pans Alarcon while Rob Nixon flat out raves about Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, and yet I find myself interested in checking out Lost City Radio and not at all interested in The Beautiful Things.

I think this is the reviewer’s fault more than the novelist’s. Nixon opens with a full paragraph about Andre Aciman, which is very nice, but this is not an article about Andre Aciman. Then he tells me that Mengestu’s book is “about the animate presence of loss”, that the “deeply felt pain in Mengestu’s novel is offset by the solace of friendship”, and that Mengestu has written “a novel for an age ravaged by the moral and military fallout of cross-cultural incuriousity.” I hate to rub a workshop cliche in Nixon’s face, but: show, don’t tell. I’m glad Rob Nixon was so moved by this book, but I want to hear about the book, not about how he is moved.

I can usually count on Liesl Schillinger to provide a vivid book review, but I’m afraid she comes off a bit foxed by Winterton Blue, a family drama by Trezza Azzopardi. I don’t get a clear read on whether or not Schillinger truly likes the book, and I suspect she’s not fully sure either. I feel the strong presence of the critic’s confusion in passages like this:

In “The Hiding Place”, sweet baby rabbits, as fluffy as marshmallow peeps, are devoured by their mother after a little girl unwisely pets them; in the back garden, she finds “small scraps of flesh, streaks of disgorged skin — all that was left.”

Mind you, this sentence is neither preceded nor succeeded by another sentence that explains it in any logical way, so I simply have no idea what to say about these rabbits. Furthermore, The Hiding Place is a book by Trezza Azzopardi, but it’s not the book being reviewed. Finally, I don’t know what a Latin scholar would make of Schillinger’s claim that in Winterton Blues the novelist “adds chiaro to the scuro of her fiction”, but I’ll tell you that it sounds a little fishy to me.

Just as I don’t know what to say about those rabbits, I don’t know what to say about Rachel Donadio’s excited profile of high-society rare-book and first-editions wheeler-dealer Glenn Horovitz, who has been skillfully guiding his marketplace towards the exalted price ranges of modern art (he’s just sold a signed first edition of Ulysses for nearly half a million dollars, and thinks he’ll be able to resell the same volume for seven figures soon). Donadio seems very, very enthusiastic about Glenn Horovitz, and I suppose her article is a good article for what it is, though I wish Donadio had mentioned that James Joyce would have been sickened by this whole milieu. Well, anyway, it seems to me my $12 copy of Ulysses has the same exact words as the half-million-dollar “Kaeser Ulysses“, so I guess I’m getting a big bargain.

Today’s issue also contains a moderate endorsement by Kathryn Harrison of John Banville’s Christine Falls (I refuse to go along with this silly game of calling it Christine Falls by Benjamin Black by John Banville, I’m sorry), a well-pointed discussion about Andrew Cockburn’s Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall and Catastrophic Legacy by Jacob Heilbrunn, and a very amusing Inside The List by Dwight Garner.

Today’s cover features a superb Clive James piece about two film biographies, Leni Riefenstahl by Jurgen Trimborn and Leni by Steven Bach. I’d always understood the argument about this German film director’s complicity in Hitler’s Nazi regime to be an ambiguous one. Not so, says Clive James, who spells out enough of the case against her that I’m ready to convict. His review boils over with controlled anger, and is easily the best piece of writing in today’s publication.

There’s also a curious Editors’ Note, written in strangely apologetic and defensive language, explaining that a recent Ben Schott endpaper about the physical handling of books (which I remember enjoying) shows a remarkable similarity to another piece by Anne Fadiman published in a 1998 book. The editors show the writing samples in question. I examined the evidence, and I do not see a strong case that Ben Schott has committed plagiarism. A few key lines are very similar; but a good line is a good line, and I am willing to believe that both Schott and Fadiman thought up the same good line. A charge of plagiarism is not believable unless there is evidence of a wide pattern of similarity; it is too damaging to brandish this charge based on a single line or two. I think the NYTBR editors’ apology is too shame-faced, and I wish they had stood by their writer more. I wonder if we’ll be seeing Ben Schott again in the Book Review.

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