Reviewing the Review: April 22 2007

We begin today’s New York Times Book Review with Liesl Schillinger’s review of The Grand Surprise: The Journals of Leo Lerman, edited by Stephen Pascal:

Leo Lerman once turned down an invitation from the king and queen of Spain so he could dine with the Conde Nast publishing magnate Donald Newhouse. Another time, he flatly rejected a “Narcissus naked” Yul Brynner, who was begging him to sleep with him and pathetically murmuring, “Why won’t you? Why won’t you?” The first, and probably only, woman Lerman ever saw naked was his great friend Marlene Dietrich, at a time when she was having what he described in a diary entry as an “intense affair with Yul.” According to Lerman’s lifelong love and partner, the artist Gray Foy, Dietrich had asked Lerman into her bath to demonstrate “the female anatomy.” Apparently, Lerman took in the view with respectful attention, if not passion. But he was not always so above-it-all. Meeting a young writer at a New York gathering in the mid-1940s, he complied with good humor when the man jumped on his back in a stairwell and demanded a piggyback ride. That man turned out to be Truman Capote. If you are not one of the sun-seeking stems craning out of the thicket of magazine-world Manhattan, this may raise an echoing question for you: Who is Leo Lerman?

But that is not the echoing question this raises for me. That echoing question is this: “Yul Brynner was gay?” And, beyond that, another question echoes more loudly: “Why should I care?” I don’t want to read a 654 page book of journal excerpts from a member of Truman Capote’s entourage, and nothing in this review persuades me, though it tries to do so, that this book is timeless or significant enough to deserve the honor of a NYTBR cover review. Yes, even though this Leo Lerman parried with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, I still don’t care. I like the accompanying illustration (by Istvan Banyai), anyway.

If the NYTBR editors chose the most well-written piece to be on the cover each week, today’s spot would have gone to Erica Wagner’s vivid review of Dani Shapiro’s Black and White, which is both speculative and informative and gives me a very clear understanding of what this book is.

Christopher Buckley’s Boomsday might also have been on the cover, even though Jane and Michael Stern don’t appreciate its “puerile humor”. I’m reading this book myself now, so I’ll let you know what I think of it soon. As for what i think of the Stern Gang’s review, I like it okay, but if I hear one more NYTBR critic use the phrase “too clever by half” I’m going to throw up by half.

Mark Sarvas has much praise for James Wilcox’s Hunk City. Sarvas writes beautifully, as readers of his TEV know, but he may blunt the effectiveness of this review by making Hunk City sound like a sequel to Wilcox’s earlier and apparently well-received Modern Baptists. Personally, I’m loathe to enter into a multi-novel saga at any point but the beginning, so this positive review has the undesired effect of making me want to read the earlier novel instead.

Stephen Metcalf’s evaluation of Darcey Steinke’s memoir Easter Everywhere shows serious control problems — Metcalf’s first paragraph meanders berserkly before finding its subject, but the article improves after that. Karen Ollson’s introduction to Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist is well-written but leaves me confused as to whether or not this book has a plot. D. T. Max’s demolition of Dana Vachon’s pre-hyped investment banker saga Mergers and Acquisition is efficient and convincing; I didn’t think I wanted to read this book, and now that I’ve read Max’s review I’m sure I don’t want to read this book.

There’s a fine summary of poet Ed Dorn’s Way More West: New and Selected Poems (and of Dorn’s entire career) by August Kleinzahler, as well as a short but very enjoyable spin by Tom Shone on another book I’m looking forward to reading soon, Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts, which brings up a question book reviewers should ask more often:

How all of this will read in 20 years, or even two, is hard to say, although one suspects that what seemed so vertiginously modern will ultimately seem like so much cyber-age pschedelia — as depthless and woozy as paisley-patterned shirts.

Rachel Donadio’s endpaper on the closing of historical Russian archives under the Putin administration is well-intentioned, but unfortunately lacks any sense of context. Donadio approaches the subject of national security archives with a collector’s glee, glibly quoting an expert who talks of one set of documents as “the holy of holies”. Donadio also seems to have no footing in history when she quotes Christian Ostermann, the director of an organization called the Cold War International History Project, as saying “China is starting to catch up if not surpass Moscow in terms of archival access”. Anybody familiar with the chilling secrecy that surrounds modern Chinese history will strongly doubt that. The Chinese government has got a century’s worth of painful opening-up to do, and is not even close to Russia in terms of transparency. Donadio is supposed to know that.

The abundant literary offerings in today’s New York Times conclude with a Charles McGrath profile of Amis fils and pere in the Magazine section which I plan to read as soon as I finish watching “The Sopranos”, and a crossword puzzle dedicated to National Poetry Month.

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