Reviewing the Review: July 1 2007

I’m reviewing today’s New York Times Book Review from a peaceful backyard in rural Indiana, as bullfrogs croak, hummingbirds buzz around my head (did you know that a hummingbird likes to eat half its weight in sugar every day?) and maple trees tower above. So I’m perfectly situated to enjoy Elizabeth Gilbert’s cover review of Little Heathens, a memoir of a childhood on an Iowa farm by Mildred Armstrong Kalish. It’s a refreshing read, though Gilbert finds some of Kalish’s observations unsurprising:

You’ll never guess it, but these kids were taught to work. They planted potatoes, tended livestock, hayed fields and were beaten for any lapses in judgment. They did without luxuries (electricity, leisure, heat) and were never coddled on account of their tender youth. (“Childhood was generally considered to be a disease,” Kalish recalls, “or, at the very least, a disability, to be ignored for the most part, and remedied as quickly as possible.”)

For anyone from an old-school farming background, this is familiar territory. “We were taught that if you bought something it should last forever — or as close to forever as we could contrive,” Kalish reports predictably. Or: “When one of us kids received a scratch, cut or puncture, we didn’t run to the house to be taken care of.”

Apparently Elizabeth Gilbert is from an old-school farming background too, but I’m not, and in fact this is not familiar territory to me (and neither is southwest Indiana, though I’ve enjoyed coming here for a few years now).

Is this the Book Review’s “Farm Issue”? Technology writer Jon Katz (whose Slashdot posts I’ve long enjoyed) has left New York City for an upstate farm and written a book called Dog Days: Dispatches from Bedlam Farm. Literary prince David Updike gives the book a mildly approving review, though I feel less favorable towards the endeavor. I’d rather read about the farm life from somebody with more than a few years worth of life lessons to relate, like Mildred Armstrong Kalish, and if Katz’s book turns out to be a bestseller I’m going to start pitching a book proposal about the hummingbirds and bullfrogs I’ve been communing with since stepping off the airplane in Indianapolis yesterday afternoon.

Since I’m allegedly on vacation, I’ll shoot quickly through the rest of today’s issue. I always like reading reviews by Liesl Schillinger because her hyperactive interest in historical and global literary context rivals my own, and I admire the way she reviews Min Jin Lee’s Free Food For Millionaires by explicating the meaning of the main character’s last name (“Han”) in Korean and citing George Eliot, Jane Austen, Henry James and (especially) Anthony Trollope. Debut novelist Lee is practically crowded out of her own review, but that’s okay. I plan to discuss this book myself in a future roundup, and I promise to leave Trollope entirely out of it.

I’ve recently been dissecting the upsetting J. T. Leroy/Laura Albert legal case with TV (“Simpsons”, need I say more?) comedy writer and novelist Larry Doyle on a GalleyCat message board, and I’m planning to read his I Love You, Beth Cooper, which Mark Sarvas is less than blown away by:

How you’ll respond to “I Love You, Beth Cooper” can probably be forecast by how much, if anything, names like Enid Coleslaw and Tommy Turner and song lyrics like “Tattoos of memories and dead skin on trial” mean to you. Either way, you’ll need a high tolerance for frequent appearances of Doyle’s inner Butt-Head while you await the more rewarding glimpses of his inner Bart.

It’s “Butthead”, not “Butt-Head”, but I assume this is the copy editor’s fault and not Sarvas’s (NOTE: I stand corrected on this point — see comments below). Sheelah Kolhatkar is similarly moderate in her praise for Miranda July’s “quirky” No One Belongs Here More Than You. The only big clunker in today’s issue is Richard Dawkins’ intellectually weak attack on Michael J. Behe’s The Edge of Evolution, which attempts to present a convincing argument for intelligent design over evolution. A famous atheist takes on a creationist; NYTBR editor Sam Tanenhaus seems to love to set up a “cage match” when books like Behe’s are published, and Dawkins’ article is a perfect example of why this approach is so disappointing. I am neither an atheist nor a believer in intelligent design — in fact, it’s hard for me to say which position I disagree with more, and I would enjoy a serious appraisal of Behe’s book. But, as I have previously observed, Richard Dawkins is no philosopher, and he actually manages to lose this round to the (undeserving) Behe with his inept understanding of the rules of debate. His main rebuttal to Behe’s argument seems to amount to this: “Behe is wrong, therefore he is wrong”. Dawkins can’t even take on an anti-Darwinian creationist in the home-field New York Times and score a point, and this is simply hilarious.

7 Responses

  1. Sad ParadiseI actually did
    Sad Paradise

    I actually did grow up in a farming community. The little town I lived in was idyllic, paradise, like the Garden of Eden. Surprisingly (or not) me and everybody else wanted something more. We destroyed our garden through excess and ignorance. I blame myself for that. Wrote a song about it –; and a pretty good book too –

  2. farm lifeFunny, this reminds
    farm life

    Funny, this reminds me of when we met David Amram at the Cherry Valley Arts thing some years back and how you seemed interested and curious in hearing that he lived on a farm. At least that’s what I think I remember.

    Did you ever visit him there? I though you had talked about it or had an invitation to come by.

    Speaking of Amram, his web site ( shows he’s on the road doing tributes to Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson this week.

    Chris Stewart’s book, Driving Over Lemons (, also comes to mind as a charming story of one family’s adventures moving to a remote farm. I loved it.

  3. hmm.The only thing I hate

    The only thing I hate about books like Glibert’s is that it will perpetuate the stereotype that all of rural (or just all of) Iowa is hard farming. I grew up almost all my life in Iowa and am still very proud to call it my home. I never once lived on a farm. I teach in a rural school district and many kids live on farms, but it’s not devestatingly hard anymore. It’s disciplined and meager (more often than not).

    I just loathe the idea of people conjuring up a vision of Iowa that is all cattle, silos, straw hats, and corn fields. People need to get out here to the middle a little more. In fact, I hope her book promotes more than that. I really hope so.

    Anyway…enjoy your vacation.

  4. A funny story:I’ll always
    A funny story:
    I’ll always appreciate the fact that, when I interviewed David Amram, he wanted to do it by phone rather than email. It was exciting to actually speak to the man. Kind of like speaking to Beethoven. The second time I called him up, he said he had just come inside from fixing his tractor. Trying to be funny, I said, “What did you do, give it a tune up?” David chuckled, but he did not recommend that I go into the comedy business. Maybe he’s heard that one before.

  5. Hey Mal! You’re right, I
    Hey Mal! You’re right, I have always been fascinated by farms, and by the rural life. Maybe because it’s just so different from the way I grew up and still live.

    Bill, that’s a pretty good one. “Tune up”. Worth a chuckle for sure.

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