Reviewing the Review: June 24 2007

Complaining can become a habit, but a fresh look at the New York Times Book Review shows that this publication’s editorial choices have significantly improved in 2007. We’ve seen unknown novelists on the front page, paperback originals on the front page, translations on the front page. We’re hearing more first-person voice in certain columns and on the blog. There hasn’t been a Food Issue in over a year. Yes, it’s a fact: the NYTBR is getting better.

Today’s issue features a cover article by acerbic Western novelist Thomas McGuane on Out Stealing Horses by melancholy Nordic novelist Per Petterson, who I only first heard of a couple of weeks ago but apparently should have heard of years before. McGuane recommends this book — the record of a man’s long life, of Norway’s complex Nazi-occupied past, of a father’s relationship with a daughter — with solemn urgency, and he compares Petterson to Thoreau, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Knut Hamsun and J. M. Coetzee. McGuane writes earnestly without pomp or bombast, and the result is one of the better articles I’ve read in this publication this year.

George Johnson also crafts a superb piece on a surprising book, Faust in Copenhagen: A Struggle for the Soul of Physics by Gino Segre. I don’t usually read science books, but this looks like the best fusion of physics and cosmic literature since Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics. Apparently the best physicists in the world — sans Einstein — once gathered in 1932 to collaborate on a parody of Goethe’s Faust in which they assigned themselves key roles (Niels Bohr was God, Wolfgang Pauli was Faust, and the elusive neutrino landed the part of Gretchen). Sure, it sounds like the quantum equivalent of Wittgentstein’s Poker and maybe I’m falling for a gimmick designed to make me buy a book about physics yet again. Still, I want to read this book.

Who knew that Harriet Tubman began her career as a religious ecstatic? That’s how it happened, according to Beverly Lowry’s Harriet Tubman, competently reviewed by novelist and historian Madison Smartt Bell. And Boston University’s Stephen Prothero works himself into an ecstasy of indignation over the controversial Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King:

The Gospel of Judas will have its champions, not least Pagels and King, who laud its hero for inspiring a text that makes early Christianity look like contemporary American religion — more pluralistic, more wild and more contested than most imagine. But this gospel is not long for the world, or at least the American corner of it. Most Americans will rightly prefer Luke’s Jesus, whose heart breaks over the oppression of women and the poor, to a smart-aleck Jesus who guffaws at the stupidity of his listeners. America is supposed to be a happy place. Americans want their Jesus to channel Paula Abdul rather than Simon Cowell, Dorothy rather than the Wicked Witch of the West.

I don’t know about that. If we’re going to throw pop culture references around, I’ll toss “South Park” onto the pile and posit that most Americans prefer Thomas Nast’s Santa Claus to either Luke’s Jesus or Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King’s Jesus or anybody else’s Jesus for that matter. Prothero engages in too much grandstanding, and doesn’t convince the reader that he has ever given Pagels and King a fair chance. A book that twists the Holy Bible around is an easy target for a hatchet piece, but a sympathetic reading would have been more interesting. Also, I don’t like what Prothero’s trying to do here:

… the particular combination offered here — the paean to diversity, the suspicion of organized religion, the denunciation of violence in the name of peace — sounds too close to contemporary multiculturalism to be taken as ancient gospel.

He may be right about the interpretation of the ancient text that is the subject of this book, but I’d like to point out that “multicultural” and “peace” are not actually dirty words, and should not be treated as such.

Other interesting reviews in today’s Book Review include David Barber on the excellently titled The Snoring Bird by Bernd Heinrich, Judith Shapiro on Kang Zhengguo’s Confessions: An Innocent Life in Communist China and Elena Lappin on the Isaac Babel fictionalization The Archivist’s Story by Travis Holland.

Once again there’s a bland and banal endpaper by Rachel Donadio, and once again the Letters section is bursting with big names including critic Daniel Mendelsohn, who bristles at Tom Bissell’s understanding of Herotodus, and “Seven Stories” publisher Dan Simon, who does a fine job of defending Howard Zinn from the blistering treatment he got from Walter Kirn last week.

One Response

  1. Prothero’s reviewI didn’t
    Prothero’s review

    I didn’t think much of Prothero’s review either. If you are interested, you can check out my critique of his review here.

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