Reviewing the Review: July 8 2007

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.

5 Responses

  1. Haruki MurakamiI like the
    Haruki Murakami

    I like the Haruki Murakami quote. I was recently told by one of my internet friends from across the pond that I would probably like Murakami.

  2. marvellousThat’s some end

    That’s some end paragraph by Murakami. The best summation of literary essence I’ve seen. Very Kerouac-like. I wonder if he finds it as do-able, as it is say-able. Does Murakami write in English, or Japanese? I read one of his short stories in the New Yorker (I think). Nice writing, but like most contemporary shorts stories, didn’t really say a lot.

  3. Murakami is very much worth
    Murakami is very much worth reading. As for where to start, “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World” is a very funny (and ingeniously structured) sort of cyberpunk novel, and is probably his most immediately likable work. But for my money, his two longer novels – “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” and “Kafka on the Shore” – are his masterpieces. I’ve read both of them more times than I could count.

    Others of note: “Sputnik Sweetheart” is an excellent, haunting little novella; “A Wild Sheep Chase” is a wacky postmodern comedy; and “Norwegian Wood,” though not one of my favorites, is the book that made him a superstar in Japan.

    Most of his short-stories feel like mood-pieces that are enjoyable enough to read, but that pass by without leaving much of an impression. Though there is one that stuck with me (though the title did not) about a newly-married couple who impulsively rob a McDonald’s with a shotgun.

    (While I wouldn’t otherwise compare his style to Kerouac, Murakami is almost as brilliant as Jack when it comes to writing about music. He actually owned a Tokyo jazz club before he became a novelist, and it shows.)

  4. Reviewing the ReviewsAmong
    Reviewing the Reviews

    Among other things revealed by those who critique the writings of others are, to a considerable degree, the breadth of their own knowledge and the nature of their own biases.

    The fact that Gunter Grass chose to wait until now before revealing that he’d been seduced by Nazi propaganda as a child would become a preoccupation of those commenting on his autobiography would have been quite predictable. How different reviewers dealt with that disclosure is also good case in point.

    The urge to write this comment began yesterday morning when I read Martin Rubin’s review of “Peeling the Onion” in the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. I hadn’t known that Grass, as a teen, had briefly been a member of the Waffen SS; however based on my own recent experiences, I would have been inclined to forgive that as an entirely understandable event, even before reading the to-and-fro oscillations in Rubin’s review. Later, while researching the Beat Generation and ending up at LitKicks, I also happened to read Levi Asher’s piece and was thus eventually moved see what both John Irving and Christopher Hitchens had written on the same subject.

    The experience I referred to above suggests that what all human children are exposed to during the critical interval between sentience and adolescence somehow combines with their genetic endowment to shape the emotional biases most will exhibit for the rest of their lives.

    Based only on what’s in the cited reviews, (plus of necessity, what I little I know of the individual reviewers), I’ve arrived at a ranking based on the maturity and objectivity exhibited in their treatment of Grass:

    Both Irving and Asher were insightful and appropriately forgiving: A+

    Rubin came to similar conclusions, but the time and effort spent criticizing Grass became tedious and tend betray his own insecurities: B+

    Hitchens tended to confirm what I’d always suspected; the impressive vocabulary and biting wit are major defenses for a pervasive insecurity: D-

  5. Thanks, Milton. I only hope I
    Thanks, Milton. I only hope I can keep up with the growing list of books I want to read.

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