Reviewing the Review: August 26 2007

Francine Prose likes Bearing the Body by Ehud Havazelet very much:

Havazelet is a writer who takes huge risks, who challenges us — and himself — to love those who are the most unlovable, the most deeply and humanly flawed.

Her impassioned review of a morally challenging novel is one of the better things in today’s New York Times Book Review. Lynn Harris’s entertaining consideration of Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave is also a pleasure to read:

“I behave badly because I can,” she says. It’s both a boast and a shrug, and — true to her theme — a risky choice for an opener, daring the reader to disapprove, even raising the concern (at least among the more decorously inclined) that the essays to follow may amount to an insubstantial collage of you-go-girl actings-out for the sheer, and mere, hell of it.

The rest of this issue, I’m sorry to say, is mostly rotten (save a hilariously sarcastic letter to the editor from Richard Kluger regarding a recent Richard Brookhiser review, which you really should read).

I tried to appreciate Darcey Steinke’s ruminative cover story on Mary Gordon’s spiritual family-memoir Circling My Mother, but she hinges her whole piece on the idea that Mary Gordon’s book is unique for praising the Catholic priests who befriended and inspired her when she was a child, saying “people today don’t write much about these friendships, which are richer and stronger than secular or romantic ones.” Does Tony Hendra’s Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul ring a bell? (The book’s popularity was compromised by a sexual-abuse scandal soon after, which miraculously did not involve Father Joe but instead involved Tony Hendra, but the fact remains that this book was popular.) This wouldn’t be a fatal flaw if I liked the rest of Steinke’s article, of course, but I had trouble finding any points to grab on to.

Dave Itzkoff also does a middling — but not terrible — job with William Gibson’s Spook Country, which sounds quite fetching. I’ve never read Gibson before, but this may be the time.

Now, the terrible.

David Brooks decides to say “no it’s not” to everything Drew Westen’s The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation says “yes it is” to. This type of discourse is about as enlightening as a session in Monty Python’s “argument clinic”. It’s fine that David Brooks doesn’t agree with Drew Westen that the Democratic party needs to do a better job at the heart-tugging cheap-shot emotional politics that Republican election advisors like Karl Rove and Lee Atwater have been so successful with. Brooks is still charged with the task of reviewing Westen’s book, and Tanenhaus doesn’t pay him to shake his head violently back and forth for an entire page. Let’s try to get more sympathetic readings and less cage-match reviews, Book Review editors, okay?

Brooks is also sloppy on at least one key point. Westen is trying to establish that Democratic primary voters have a bad habit of picking boring intellectuals for Presidential candidates, and Brooks begs to disagree:

Third, how did John Kerry beat Howard Dean in the Democratic primaries? Was it because of his Oprah-esque displays of emotional intensity?

But that’s exactly Weston’s point — the duller candidates win in the primaries and then lose in November. Brooks, are you even paying attention here?

Speaking of critics who aren’t paying attention, there’s really no excuse for Jonathan Ames’ awkward review of Matt Ruff’s Bad Monkeys, which reads like the dull brain-dump of a critic who really doesn’t care very much about Matt Ruff’s Bad Monkeys at all:.

There are also some exciting and hallucinatory action sequences that are so skillfully written I felt as if I was watching the first “Matrix” movie, which I unabashedly loved. Then I snobbishly thought: “Am I reading a screenplay?” But I probably only had that thought knowing I was going to write a review and might have to produce clever, negative things to say. And why shouldn’t movies influence books? The reverse has certainly been true.

I’m guessing that the usually excellent Ames is overextended and possibly punchdrunk from recent adventures, and he can be excused for this charmless piece of writing. But there’s no excuse for the editors of the Book Review not killing it, since I know they pride themselves on prose quality, and this piece just sank the curve.

Gerald Howard’s story on Norman Mailer’s 60’s-era cinema-verite experiment Maidstone doesn’t help the curve either. The tale of this strange movie is interesting enough, but the writing is absolutely stale:

Much of this and more unfolded on the screen like some long-delayed acid flashback to a bad trip I’ve never taken.

followed by:

Both Mailer and Mick Jagger had loudly proclaimed their sympathy for the Devil, fancying themselves masters of the revels, but they were undone by the irrational forces they had unleashed.

Pedestrian stuff. The back paper of the NYTBR remains an unremitting fount of disappointment.

Okay, there’s one other good thing in today’s issue, though it’s just a capsule in Matthew Price’s “Nonfiction Chronicle”. I am definitely going to check out Neck Deep and Other Predicaments by Ander Monson, which sounds quite appealingly strange.

6 Responses

  1. Comped Lit – NY Times Fash
    Comped Lit – NY Times Fash Mag

    There’s an article in the NY Times fashion magazine today called Comped Lit that is or could have been appropriate for the book review.

    I think it touches directly on the topic you’ve been on regarding the high price of books.

    It talks about huge book release parties, underwritten by rich socialites (the “Comped Lit”). From the intro paragraph.

    Today we are living at the dawn of the ultra-mega-uber-monster book party, celebrations so huge and elaborate that you might think you were at a wedding, or at the bar mitzvah of a child who will, by his 16 and 1/365th birthday, own a car you will never be able to afford.

    Take a look if you haven’t seen it. It says a lot of where the publishing industry is at and why there would be zero interest in your concerns coming from the industry.

  2. Interesting, TKG, thanks.
    Interesting, TKG, thanks. Naturally, I didn’t crack open the “fashion magazine” so I didn’t know this article was there. Will take a look.

    There was also a good article on Jose Saramago in the NYT Magazine that I meant to mention above …

  3. William GibsonYou have to
    William Gibson

    You have to read William Gibson! Start with Neuromancer, the Cyber-Punk classic. Computers, the future, what else do you need? Gibson has been highly influenced by Burroughs.

  4. I just got Neuromancer at the
    I just got Neuromancer at the Public Library.

    Funny thing about Cyberpunk. I got into William S. Burroughs and the other Beats in the 70’s, then drifted away from them in the 80’s for Philip K. Dick and Max Headroom (Not the talk show; the English tele-movie & the American futuristic drama series).

    I returned to Burroughs in a big way during the late 90’s after hearing recordings of him speaking at the Nova Convention (“This is the space age and we’re here to GO!” and “Language is a virus”). Now I realize that Burroughs could see the future.

    My latest cyber favorite is Steve Aylett (Slaughtermatic, Lint, The Crime Studio).

    You might say I have approached Ginsberg’s “connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” from different angles, and now the planes are converging into one Matrix. The unification theory of genre.

  5. Wow. I didn’t know it was
    Wow. I didn’t know it was possible to so deftly move from Gibson to Ginsberg in such a short space.

    Also, with your permission, I’d really like to name my new prog-metal band The Unification Theory of Genre. Fine by you?

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