Reviewing the Review: August 5 2007

The problem with me reviewing the New York Times Book Review each week is that I start (start?) to repeat myself. It’s pretty much a sure thing that I’ll enjoy a book review written by either Liesl Schillinger or Walter Kirn, because Liesl approaches each book with the joy of fresh discovery, and Walter will not consider his job done until he has unearthed at least a couple of surprising insights or connections. So, yeah. They both show up in this week’s issue, and they both do a fine job yet again. Hey, it’s not my fault if they’re consistent.

Schillinger’s got the cover piece, on The Master Bedroom and Sunstroke by Tessa Hadley:

In “The Master Bedroom,” no relationship is as solid as it might seem, no course of action necessarily makes sense, and motivations are buried. Yet Hadley’s favorite theme emerges clearly: the heart has no logic, the brain cannot always keep it in rein and nature controls human behavior — not the other way around. The novel is a chess game of slow-burn erotic maneuvers that produce tantalizingly unpredictable outcomes.

That’s a mixed metaphor, but she does better here:

Hadley never fails to surprise, but her surprises are understated — not the “aha” fakery of some gimmicky short fiction but the small shift in expectations or results that’s deeply felt but doesn’t show, like the twitch of a rudder that sets a boat gliding on a new course.

I doubt I’ll read either book, though I liked the review. However, I definitely will browse/read Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000-2005 by J. M. Coetzee, which Walter Kirn walks us through in a slightly too-short piece:

Coetzee compares “The Arcades Project” to “another great ruin of 20th-century literature, Ezra Pound’s ‘Cantos.’ ” With the tongue-and-groove precision of someone who machines his thoughts to the finest hair’s-breadth tolerances, Coetzee shapes this comparison into a model for a type of literary lunacy that held a peculiar intellectual allure once, back in the heyday of the great isms.

Unfortunately for all of us, I think we’re still living in the heyday of the great isms (conservatism, liberalism, fundamentalism, athiesm …), but that’s a minor point. I’m also not sure why Kirn talks more about W. G. Sebald than J. M. Coetzee throughout this review, and all in all this doesn’t turn out to be one of Kirn’s better pieces. But even on an off day, he delivers the goods.

This is a slightly dull (though fiction-filled) Book Review, perhaps due to the subdued selection of new books under consideration. Ligaya Mishan approves of Nicholas Christopher’s The Bestiary, a postmodern fantasy about the search for a Borgesian book about all the animals lost because they didn’t make it onto Noah’s ark. I recently spent some time trying to read The Bestiary myself; I admire the author’s inventiveness, but overall I’d rather catch Eddie Murphy in a remake of “Doctor Doolittle”.

Terrence Rafferty calls George Hagen’s Tom Bedlam “a terrific book”, though strangely he doesn’t persuade me to want to read the book, especially when he presents it as:

… the sort of novel that tends to be described, not always admiringly, as old-fashioned. But it’s odder, and better, than that: a strange convergence of the English novel’s estimable past and our own, rather less confident, present.

I can look at twenty brand new literary novels coming out next year and see the English novel’s estimable past all over them, so this hardly strikes me as a selling point. Find me a novel that isn’t old-fashioned, please.

Claire Messud does alert me to a book I will read, The Septembers of Shiraz, a first novel about a Jewish family in 1980’s Iran by Dalia Sofer. I’m already reading (and enjoying) a soon-to-be published novel about a Jewish family in Iran, Caspian Rain by Gina Nahai. I guess this is the hot new trend.

This week’s NYTBR is also heavy with political articles, none of them nearly as good as last week’s cover piece. Stephen Metcalf’s analysis of a new anthology called Why I Turned Right: Leading Baby Boom Conservatives Chronicle Their Political Journeys by Mary Eberstadt had me skidding with disagreement from sentence to sentence:

As I grow older, I avail myself more and more of the ancient prerogatives of old men. I hitch my pants high, shake my head at the barbarous young and drive a stone-cold 55 on the highway. I’m risk-averse and dress as I please. (In my beginning is my end: I’ve evolved from slob to hipster slob to ironic slob back, finally, to slob.) I distrust change, labor unions and Al Sharpton and believe that at high enough rates income taxes become confiscatory. In short, I am white, privileged, middle-aged and boring. But one thing I am not, and never will be, is a conservative.

What an unenlightening way of looking at it.

Also on the political front, Michael Crowley reviews Nigel Hamilton’s Bill Clinton: Mastering The Presidency and concludes:

… it’s hard to imagine who, besides fans of gratuitous literary references, will choose Hamilton’s unjustifiably long retread of the first half of Clinton’s presidency.

I was thinking the same thing. So why is the Book Review covering this book at all?

2 Responses

  1. New-fangled NovelsYou asked
    New-fangled Novels

    You asked for novels that aren’t old-fashioned –
    The Distance Travelled, and In and Down, both by Brett Savory.
    The Man Who Was Thursday, by GK Chesterton.
    New translations of Kafka’s novels (highly recommended by Lee Rourke).

    Also –
    The Human War by Noah Cicero,
    Digging the Vein by Tony O’Neill,
    Eeeee Eee Eeee by Tao Lin,
    Vacation by Jeremy Shipp.

  2. NYT Reviews SuffersIt seems
    NYT Reviews Suffers

    It seems like The Times is really suffering for people who know how to write a decent, interesting book review that doesn’t begin and end with “I liked this!” They aren’t alone. It makes me wonder if postmodernism, along with shifting the possiblities of the subject of academic thought, has eroded some of the practices. Or maybe I’m just feeling culturally down in the dumps lately. Quien sabe?

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