A New York Times Book Review with a cover article by John Irving is a good New York Times Book Review. This pugnacious novelist doesn’t review many books (as far as I know) but he shows up here to defend his friend and one-time literary role model Gunter Grass, who’s recently endured a lot of public criticism after revealing that he was a member of Hitler’s Waffen-SS when he was 17.
Irving’s testimony on behalf of the writer who helped him form his own literary identity is indeed persuasive:
Imagine this! Grass feels guilty for being drafted into the Waffen-SS at 17 while some of his older fellow soldiers from the Frundsberg tank division are attending reunions!
Personally, I never understood the case against Grass in the first place. He’s built his entire writing career on the psychological examination of Nazi Germany, so he can hardly be said to be in denial about anything. And, after all, he revealed this fact about the past himself (though he took a long time doing so), so again the outrage seems overblown to me. Let’s give our writers a little more breathing room, people, okay? Anyway, as for as making me forgive Gunter Grass goes, John Irving is preaching to the choir here, but I enjoy the anecdote-filled article anyway for its powerful sense of conviction and balance. The only thing that gets short shrift is Grass’s new book Peeling the Onion, since Irving’s article only makes me want to dig up my The Tin Drum and give it a fresh look.
Catherine Texier, another novelist I like, reviews a book by even yet another novelist I like, the literary assemblage artist David Markson (who I personally find much more enjoyable to read than denser experimental prose stylists like Mark Danielewski). This extensive and smart review even earns a nod of approval from brownie-wielding frequent NYTBR critic Ed Champion, which is a rare thing.
Steven E. Landsburg has written a book of quirky economics and contrarian commonsense advice — apparently an entree in the Next Malcolm Gladwell sweepstakes — called More Sex is Safer Sex which is well-summarized (and, ultimately, flicked away as intellectually lightweight) by David Leonhardt:
He also suggests that the postwar looting of museums isn’t really a problem and, of course, that more sex equals safer sex. Perhaps the better conclusion is that fewer ideas would make for better ideas.
I don’t know if this book is any good or not, by the way — I’m just reading the box scores. Likewise Doug Stumpf’s Confessions of a Wall Street Shoeshine Boy, which John Leland is fatally lukewarm about. I’m actually interested in this book, mainly for nostalgic reasons since back when I was a Wall Street Yuppie in the mid-90’s I used to actually get my shiny shoes shined at the booth in the lobby of 60 Wall Street. Regardless of Leland’s dismissal, I’ll put Stumpf’s novel at least a few notches above Dana Vachon’s Mergers and Acquisitions in my maybe-read if-I-get-around-to-it pile, along with Pete Hamill’s North River, which also fails to get a big nod of approval from Bizz Bissinger (this week’s issue is, overall, rather hard on books).
But a new campus ordeal novel by Stephen L. Carter called New England White survives its inspection by Christopher Benfey, and I expect I’ll be hearing more about this book.
I like the way Sherwin B. Nuland constructs an argument to take on Noga Arikha’s Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours, which compares our society’s current obsession with hormones and pharmaceuticals to ancient medicine’s longstanding belief in “four humours, manifested as the sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic personalities”. I’m not completely sure that Nuland is right in objecting to this line of thought, but I appreciate his clear reasoning, and I’m going to check out this book too.
This Book Review begins well and also ends well, with Haruki Murakami’s endpaper on how his early career as a jazz musician informed his later career as a writer:
Whether in music or fiction, the most basic thing is rhythm. Your style needs to have good, natural, steady rhythm, or people won’t keep reading your work. I learned the importance of rhythm from music — and mainly from jazz. Next comes melody — which, in literature means the appropriate arrangement of the words to match the rhythm. If the way the words fit the rhythm is smooth and beautiful, you can’t ask for anything more. Next is harmony — the internal mental sounds that support the words. Then comes the part I like best: free improvisation.