Well, I’ve got nobody to blame but myself. I’ve been slammed with work, festivals and conferences and have not been able to kick back and spend quality time with a New York Times Book Review for months. I felt like I had to phone in some of my recent reports here, which is especially regretful because these issues have been packed with articles about exciting Spring season publications from authors like Rick Moody, Ian McEwan, Chuck Palahniuk, Nathan Englander, Khaled Hosseini, Michael Chabon, Jim Crace, Larry Brown, Don DeLillo and Lydia Davis which I barely had time to enjoy.
So this weekend I finally reserved myself enough time to dig into this week’s Review. And what do I find? A cover review of a book by Tina Brown about some Princess Diana something-or-other, a Mona Simpson tribute to the late mid-level author Leonard Michaels, Jay McInerney on fish, and reviews of exactly two novels by two writers I’ve never heard of. Looks like the Spring thrills are over. And I’ve got nobody to blame but myself.
There is substance here, in this dull but admittedly intellectually nutritious issue. Tom Bissell, who was interviewed here on LitKicks just a few days ago, turns in a thorough, serious consideration of the career of Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, who died earlier this year and whose Travels With Herodotus has been posthumously published. Bissell is clearly disgusted by recent revelations that this heroic literary personage committed journalistic fabrications and informed on fellow writers, and he strains to love the man’s work as whole-heartedly as he used to. But he ultimately does find a way to love him, and I appreciate that he explains exactly why (complete with very specific examples) in this carefully thought-out piece. I haven’t read Kapuscinski, but this article persuades me that I better get busy.
I’m less swayed by Mona Simpson’s adoring tribute to novelist Leonard Michaels, who, we are told in the editor’s note at the beginning of the issue, was Simpson’s writing teacher at Berkeley. She asks why the sexually explicit Michaels is not as well known as his contemporary Jewish comic novelists Philip Roth and Grace Paley, and answers:
For one thing, during his lifetime he was liked, as mothers used to say of girls who displayed their breasts, for the wrong reasons.
But surely Simpson must know that Philip Roth was liked for the “wrong reasons” during most of his career as well. Does she think Portnoy’s Complaint was a smash bestseller because of its unique narrative structure? Sorry, Ms. Simpson, but you had a full page to make me want to run out and read this Leonard Michaels, and you didn’t close the deal.
That happens sometimes, and it’s not always the reviewer’s fault. A positive book review should be an urgent call, not a mild poke in the ribs, because I’ve already got enough books to read to fill an army of Bookmen (via Millions), and so there’s not much point to the kind of tepid praise that Simpsons delivers for Michaels or that, elsewhere this week, Mark Kamine gives to Naeem Murr’s The Perfect Man. Kamine’s words add up to a positive review, but nothing in the words compels me to care.
A nod from Irvine Welsh means something to me, though, and I will check out the Polish transgressive novelist Andrzej Stasiuk’s Nine based on his recommendation. As in his books, Welsh’s voice hides sharp observations inside a warmly personal voice:
The publisher’s blurb refers to this book as an “existential crime novel,” something that may incline some to proceed with trepidation. In the English language, both “existentialism” and “Warsaw” are generally prefixed by the term “bleak,” the way “burger” is followed by “fries.” Don’t be deterred; this book reminds us how much bland fiction we publish in the English-speaking world.
This is an enjoyable piece, and so is Christopher Dickey’s enthusiastic review of Roy Blount Jr.’s Long Time Leaving: Dispatches from Up South. Mark Oppenheimer presents a useful summary of Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy: What Every American needs to Know — And Doesn’t, Dwight Garner’s Inside The List is a fun quick read as always, and as for Jay McInerney on The Sushi Economy by Sasha Issenberg and The Zen of Fish, I’ll just be kind and say I enjoy this about as much as I enjoy his articles on wine. I just don’t really like my novelists writing about food, and I can’t exactly explain why.
I can explain, though, why I continue to dislike almost everything Rachel Donadio writes (even though, by the way, I’m sure she’s a very nice person). She has an enviable assignment here — an endpaper on the way writers like Richard Powers and Vikram Chandra use software to advance their work — and she turns in a competent but chirpy and conventional summary. It’s not that there’s anything terribly wrong with this article, which quickly steers from Powers and Chandra towards Marisha Pessl and Debra Galant, but I think a more intellectually curious writer could have gone much farther with this assignment. The author’s point of view is completely absent, and no surprising literary connections are made. It’s not a terrible article. It’s just a wasted opportunity.