Some issues of the New York Times Book Review just don’t seem to get the blood flowing as well as others. It’s probably just me, but I can’t rouse much feeling one way or another about today’s issue.
Jess Row’s cover article is on Brother, I’m Dying, Edwidge Danticat’s memoir about her Haitian family. It’s a respectful and informative review, but it leaves me with no desire to read the book. In what seems to be the book’s key moment, a proud elderly man collapses and dies while attempting to apply for asylum in Miami. Row writes:
The story of Joseph Dantica could be, perhaps will be, told in many forms: as a popular ballad (performed, in my imagination, by Wyclef Jean); as Greek tragedy; as agitprop theater; as a bureaucratic nightmare worthy of Kafka.
I really can’t see Wyclef Jean writing this song. And a simple death scene in a bureaucrat’s office isn’t worthy of Kafka unless, for instance, the bureaucrat lies down on the floor and pretends to die as well, after which the head of the immigration office wanders into the office and seduces the cleaning woman while Joseph Dantica and his immigration officer lie writhing on the floor. And even that’s not worthy of Kafka, but the more important point is that New York Times readers are still trying to figure out why Times daily book critic Michiko Kakutani insists that Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao can only be described as “Mario Vargas Llosa meets ‘Star Trek’ meets David Foster Wallace meets Kanye West”. Didn’t someone once say that comparisons are odious?
I want to be more excited by today’s somber Book Review, and it’s probably just me, but I couldn’t work up any passion for Liesl Schillinger’s ambivalent explication of Ann Packer’s Songs Without Words, though I like it when Schillinger accuses Packer of “re-gifting” her earlier novel, The Dive From Clausen’s Pier. John Freeman describes Shauna Seliy’s When We Get There as a worthy portrait of a dying rust-belt city, but despite Freeman’s considerable praise for Seliy’s skills I know I’ll never read this book either.
Judy Budnitz reviews a strange novel called Sons and Other Flammable Objects by Porochista Khakpour, but I think she slips in not pointing out that this is a wretched title. And Walter Kirn has been off his game lately; the edgy critic attempts to massacre Jeffrey Lent’s sexually excessive narrative A Peculiar Grace, but it’s a lackluster performance and I can’t get over Kirn’s own off-putting phrasings, such as the use of “spasm” as a verb. I’m not even going to bother looking up whether or not the Oxford English Dictionary allows “spasm” as a verb; I don’t care if it does or not, because I don’t like it.
(Okay, I looked. It doesn’t.)
And then we’re back with the comparisons again. Kirn mocks Lent for dialogue that sounds like, hmm: “Ludwig Wittgenstein boozing it up backstage with Merle Haggard”. Enough of this!
Political and historical articles are this week’s NYTBR’s saving grace. D. T. Max’s makes Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper (about a surprising refuge for 300 Warsaw Jews during World War II) sound fascinating. Peter Beinart flicks Norman Podhoretz’s World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism away for the reactionary speck it is, and he isn’t much kinder to Michael Ledeen’s hysterical The Iranian Time Bomb. Susan Rubin Sulieman is more sympathetic to Norman Davies’ World War II history No Simple Victory, which attempts to think past our familiar but narrow understanding of European points of view.
Finally, there’s a worthwhile endpaper essay for the first time in weeks. David Oshinsky’s examines the surprising rejection letters found in the Alfred A. Knopf archives at the University of Texas, where he teaches history. The results are funny (we watch Anne Frank, Vladimir Nabokov, Pearl S. Buck and George Orwell get dumped by Knopf) but Oshinsky avoids slipping into the the Parade Magazine dumb jokiness that has become standard in this space, and that’s a refreshing change.