Reviewing the Review: May 13 2007

I’m pleasantly surprised to see a prominent full-page review for a new adult novel by S. E. Hinton, Some of Tim’s Stories, in today’s New York Times Book Review — not because I spend a lot of time wishing for mature S. E. Hinton novels in the 21st Century, but just because this is a quirky (and generous) choice for the Book Review editors to make. Alas, critic Stephanie Zacharek’s review is a dud. She writes about The Outsiders and That Was Then, This Is Now much more than about the new novel in this review, and rhapsodizes at great length about the fact that teenagers openly smoked cigarettes in those famous young-adult novels, as if this indicates some past golden age of permissiveness in teenage literature. It’s a shallow point. Personally, I loved The Outsiders because it had characters named Ponyboy and Sodapop, because these hoodlums were sensitive souls who recited Robert Frost’s Nothing Gold Can Stay and read Margaret Mitchell, because the novel’s structure (we discover at the end that Ponyboy is writing the narrative) gave me an early taste of metafiction. If this critic is so fascinated by cigarettes, I think she ought to go buy a pack and have a thrill.

There’s another blast from the past — and again, too much past and not enough blast — when Katherine Dieckmann reviews KinFolks: Falling Off the Family Tree: The Search for my Melungeon Ancestors, Lisa Alther’s non-fictional follow-up to her great Kin-Flicks (a 70’s classic that I recently raved about). Dieckmann gripes about various flaws in the new work and fails to demonstrate a sense of why anybody might care about Lisa Alther in the first place. At best, this review serves as a notice to curious readers that the new book exists.

The issue gets better with a strong cover piece by Michael Kinsley on Christopher Hitchens’ entry into the religion-bashing game, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Kinsley is a good choice to consider this book by his contemporary and peer, and I agree with Kinsley’s decision to analyze Hitchens the way one would analyze a poker player, by pointing out his bluffs, tells and power plays. Kinsley considers Hitchens’ entire career to be a masterful series of feints, which is not to say that Kinsley does not admire Hitchens for his slyness in attacking popular religion at just the point in his career when one would expect this contrary political thinker to declare himself a born-again Christian. As for the book itself, it appears to be a more substantial effort than the recent similar book by Richard Dawkins.

Christopher Hitchens hasn’t much use for God, but the great Elizabethan poet John Donne saw it differently, and Thomas Mallon’s approving summary of John Stubbs’ new John Donne: The Reformed Soul is a brisk and informative read.

I’m underwhelmed by Terrence Rafferty’s praise for Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which leaves me unstirred to read Chabon’s book (which I’ve been contemplating but haven’t yet managed to become captivated by) despite the critic’s professed enthusiasm. I’m sure I’m being unfairly cynical here, but sometimes when I read a favorable review of a trendy book I suspect that the critic is just pretending to love it to avoid the hard work of debunking it. This is one of those times.

The usually impressive Liesl Schillinger comes up short with a review of Cathleen Schine’s doggy-tale The New Yorkers, which Schillinger strains to depict as interesting. But “It’s a dog thing: you wouldn’t understand” is a tired gag, and when she compares this illustrated novel to a James Thurber/E. B. White satire and comes up with no better description of Thurber’s drawing style than “intentionally sloppy yet resonant”, I have to conclude that this is just an off-week for the critic.

I’m more pleased by Jess Row’s intelligent analysis of Benjamin Markovits’s Byron/Polidori fantasia Imposture, and I’m also satisfied by Jascha Hoffman’s introduction to the apparently weird How I Became A Nun by Argentina’s Cesar Aria.

There’s a cameo appearance in today’s Book Review by Walter Isaacson, who comes up with a good opening sentence in evaluating Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America:

The only sure thing that can be said about the past is that anyone who can remember Santayana’s maxim is condemned to repeat it.

And, sadly, a piece by David Grossman in the New York Times Magazine about the death of his son in last year’s Israeli-Lebanese war puts it all in perspective. This essay, adapted from the keynote speech Grossman delivered at the recent PEN World Voices festival, is one for the ages, and I hope it will be well-anthologized.

6 Responses

  1. consistently wrongHitchens
    consistently wrong

    Hitchens has a platform from which to address the world – to influence people, shape public policy. Most of us don’t have this opportunity, so we must demand a reasoned approach (sanity) from those who do. Eg – we don’t want our Pope saying – “yeah, I’ve said a lot of stupid things before, but how ’bout this?”

    Hitchens has consistently debased Clinton (a secularist leader) in favor of unlimited praise for Bush (a born-again lunatic) and his lovely war. Thus Chrissy can never re-establish any credibility or validity no matter how hard he says – “yeah, I’ve said a lot of stupid things before, but how ’bout this?”

    As Santayana said – being consistently wrong doesn’t make you right, ’cause we remember your past mistakes.

  2. Schillinger on ThurberI think
    Schillinger on Thurber

    I think “intentionally sloppy yet resonant” is a fine description of Thurber’s drawings.

  3. I think that Thurber’s
    I think that Thurber’s drawing style was greatly influenced by his being nearly blind. Great stuff, though.

  4. Hacky ZacharekHoly cow. Who
    Hacky Zacharek

    Holy cow. Who in their right mind would let that hack Zacharek write a book review? Her movie reviews for Salon are only barely just this side of literate and her tastes are profoundly mediocre. I guess she’s qualified to review some books, especially those which been adapted to screen (which is probably why she short-shrifts the book she’s actually supposed to review – there’s no movie out yet!). Her idiocy is revealed in her observations about teen smoking: unable to see depth, Zacharek focuses on the surface, picking up on something as obvious as smoking, and even then failing to offer any intelligent analysis of it. (Ponder some of her work at Salon: she is always this shallow, which at least gives mer marks for consistency.)

    Yet another sign that the NYTBR is racing hellbent-for-leather downhill. Next thing you know, they’ll have pie chart graphics, a weekly column by Mary Cheney, and all reviews will be blurbs you can read while sitting on the toilet.

  5. HallelujahHi Levi,Sounds like

    Hi Levi,

    Sounds like an NYTBR with some things to read. So often none of the reviewed books seem of any interest.

    Way back when (probably Junior High) I read the Outsiders as did just about everyone I guess and if you’d asked me if the characters in the book smoked I’d have said I don’t remember at all. I have no recollection of them smoking. That didn;t stick with me but the scene when one of them almost gets drowned in the fountain, how they save some people from a burning building and how they are referred to as angels and Pony Boy responds, “Angels!!?? This guy is wanted for murder and so and so has a record as long as his arm”. The fascination with cigarattes is a weird thing but is all over now. Just the other day the MPAA decdied that if a movie shows people smoking it will be rated R. So I guess Pinocchio now has to be rated R. etc… This is the sort of thing the top echelons of the literature and entertainment business care about today I guess.

    As far as Hitchens, there is a connection I think. I’ve been thinking of this Hitchens book as his commercial potboiler — a guy has to make some dough, doesn’t he? I don’t mean to say he is insincere, I’m sure he hates religion as much as he pretends to. I mean isn’t he the guy who hated Mother Teresa? And these hate religion books are all the rage. Instant best seller. So what’s a political writer to do? Yes, do the commercial book and make some jack, Jack.

    But these series of books by Dawkins et all are to me like the obsession with cigarattes. These guys Dawkins, Hitchens, whomever else it is, obviously have issues. You wrote :

    “If this critic is so fascinated by cigarettes, I think she ought to go buy a pack and have a thrill.”

    Exactly! Hitchens and Dawkins should just get over it an go down to the rivival meeting and start shaking and singing Hallelujah. You know that’s what they really want to do.

    And now Michael Chabon. Take a look at this link to a reviewing the review discussion here of almost two years ago.

    I still got it stuck in my craw how Chabon slandered for no good reason the writer who wrote the classic “Strangely Enough”.

    I wanted to really dislike him for that. I went and downloaded some first chapters that are avaiable thanks to our friends at the NYTBR web site and was hoping to really think his work was horrible. But it wasn’t. I read a short story and the first chapter of a book of his called Kavalier and Klay. I thought they were well done and compelling enough (the latter had, BTW, a youthfull character who smoked — the horror).

    I still have not actually read a Chabon novel. But, it seems he might have some talent.

    I doubt though he will ever match the elegant simplicity of “Stangely Enough”

  6. That would do it. I either
    That would do it. I either never knew about that, or forgot. I remember sitting in a classroom in middle school and thinking I was going to get in trouble for laughing so hard at “The Night the Bed Fell.”

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