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.