Reviewing the Review: September 30 2007

When we read a review of a book, we simultaneously react to two texts: the article about the book, and the book the article is about. A good reviewer must be aware of this fact.

I am pleased to find a review of Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer by Tim Jeal on the cover of the latest New York Times Book Review, but I quickly find myself repelled by reviewer Paul Theroux’s mushy, overcooked treatment. Theroux certainly can write better than this, and he knows the subject matter well, so I can only guess that this review assignment caught him uninspired. He calls Jeal’s book “magnificent” and tells us that this biography “has many echoes for our own time” (as a book about a 19th Century African explorer certainly should), but that’s as far as Theroux goes in terms of social relevance, and most of the review features limp psychoanalytic summaries like this:

In Livingstone, the fatherless Stanley found a powerful (and idealized) father figure, whose stated mission to explore Africa could be his own. Importantly (and this is one of the many modern dimensions of Jeal’s book) he found a continent where he could transform himself. Africa gave a man who had experimented with multiple identities a name, a face, a notoriety, a mission, problems to solve, and it confirmed his greatness as an explorer.

Echoes for our time? Exactly, because Paul Theroux makes this book sound like a James Frey memoir. We hear nothing at all in this review about the actual confrontation between Euro-American and Central African culture that Stanley spearheaded (no pun intended). But we hear that “Nobody knew who [Stanley] was, and he didn’t want anyone to know” and that he was “shy” and “diffident when pursuing a woman”. I can just imagine Barbara Walters doing the follow-up interview:

“Tell me … what scares Henry Morton Stanley?”

In contrast, let’s look at Pico Iyer’s similarly speculative review of Orhan Pamuk’s new Other Colors: Essays and a Story. Like Paul Theroux, Pico Iyer doesn’t hesitate to guess about his subject’s mental state. But Iyer’s subject is a coy, metaphysical novelist, not a bold African explorer, and Iyer’s multi-layered psychological treatment seems not only appropriate but essential for a consideration of Pamuk’s work. I like this review very much, and I agree with points like this:

His books are, really, celebrations of multiplicity (“My Name is Red” is told in the voice of 19 narrators) which makes them celebrations of unfinishedness; the mysteries they set up are always more delicious than any attempt to solve them.

and this:

What “Other Colors” makes most clear is how seriously committed to playfulness Orhan Pamuk is.

I’m excited to read this book. Getting back to the main point, please note that one of the two reviews discussed above is an ugly mess, while the other is a good brisk read. The difference is in the critic’s ability to find a voice and approach for the review that corresponds to or harmonizes with the voice and approach of the book being reviewed. A soft, kittenish critical voice is just right for Orhan Pamuk, but completely wrong for explorer Henry Morton Stanley. These two examples show this as well as any two ever will.

Like last Sunday’s issue, today’s Book Review is packed with good stuff and I fear I can’t do it all justice. Liesl Schillinger writes elegantly about Anne Enright’s The Gathering (though, based on her description, this review is as close to the book as I’ll ever get). A. O. Scott increases my eagerness to read Junot Diaz’s The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, especially now that I’ve learned the “Oscar Wao” of the title refers to Oscar Wilde. Jeremy McCarter’s brief review of Alan Bennett’s royal fantasia The Uncommon Reader makes me eager to read this book as well.

I was slightly bored with Leah Hager Cohen’s review of Ann Patchett’s Run when it started off like a worshipful puff piece, and then I almost got whiplash when Cohen started pointing out what she doesn’t like about the book, which turns out to be a lot. Finally, I’m not completely down with Stephanie Zacharek’s extended “pants” metaphor in reviewing Irvine Welsh’s new If You Liked School, You’ll Love Work, but when she’s not talking about pants she does a fine job of expressing the excitement a new Irvine Welsh book always seems to bring.

The endpaper space is well-used to reprint Stephen King’s provocative introduction to the newly-released Best American Short Stories of 2007, in which he speaks of the indignity of our current literary scene as represented by wan stacks of literary magazines invariably tucked into the bottom shelves of bookstore racks. He points out that:

What’s not so good is that writers write for whatever audience is left. In too many cases, that audience happens to consist of other writers and would-be writers who are reading the various literary magazines (and the New Yorker, of course, the holy grail of the young fiction writer) not to be entertained but to get an idea of what sells there.

Stephen King speaks the truth.

* * * * *

Okay, yeah, the Mets choked, Palahniukstyle, but you’re crazy if you think that makes me like them any less. The enjoyment they gave me and Caryn and the kids at Shea Stadium this year is all the reason I need. Jose Reyes remains my favorite player for his optimistic spirit, although I do feel compelled to point out that the nickname “Mr. September” would not be a good choice for him. But I seriously hope he will hold his head high, because he had a great season and made New York happy this summer. The same goes for other lovable goats Oliver Perez, Tom Glavine, Carlos Delgado, Shawn Green, Dave Wright, Luis Castillo, Willie Randolph, all of whom will be taking some heat from the critics and amateur humorists in the next few days.

I see some Phillies fans are poking their heads out of the dirt. I wish them well in the playoffs. Though I won’t be reading the sports sections, so it makes no difference to me.

5 Responses

  1. Pamuk’sI’m just about

    I’m just about finished with it and it’s not disappointing. The essays on Turkey’s recent earthquakes are wonderful. It’s a little slim though. Kind of feels like they wanted to get something new out there to capitalize on the Nobel Prize buzz. But it’s really good nonetheless.

    Man, I can’t believe how badly Reyes tailed off.

  2. Wow, Oscar WaoYou simply must
    Wow, Oscar Wao

    You simply must read Oscar Wao. You simply must. I finished it and started over at the beginning, I enjoy it so much: eager to re-immerse myself in the narrative voice, the lives of Oscar and his family, and the history which the narrator recounts. Diaz’s earlier short stories demonstrated a strong mind and good skills, but the novel is exponentially advanced from the stories. We can expect great things from Junot in the future, I hope. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with the novel. In fact, I think you’ll rave.

  3. No bells for StiglitzAnd what
    No bells for Stiglitz

    And what was up with the Stiglitz review of Naomi Klein in the same NYT BR? The guy’s got a Nobel Prize in economics so he’s too insecure to give her theories about “disaster capitalism” some credence? But he’s also not in the mood to debunk, either? What a bum. Go Phillies.

  4. I wish I’d had time to write
    I wish I’d had time to write something about that Naomi Klein review. I agree with you — the critic’s attitude seemed to be “Naomi Klein doesn’t have a Nobel Prize and I do, so why should I read her book”. A wasted opportunity to discuss an important book. I would have slammed this myself but I ran out of time.

    Dunno what you’re trying to say about the Phillies, though.

  5. Yeah, seriously.In successive
    Yeah, seriously.

    In successive paragraphs, the critic goes from:

    “[Naomi] Klein is not an academic and cannot be judged as one.” (oh, snap!)


    “Klein isn’t an economist but a journalist, and she travels the world to find out firsthand what really happened on the ground during the privatization of Iraq, the aftermath of the Asian tsunami, the continuing Polish transition to capitalism and the years after the African National Congress took power in South Africa, when it failed to pursue the redistributionist policies enshrined in the Freedom Charter, its statement of core principles.”

    Now, I’m neither an economist nor a Nobel Prize winner (and certainly not both), but don’t the economic theories of someone with that kind of firsthand experience in the most volatile of economic conditions deserve serious consideration, even if she is a lowly non-academic journalist? Especially considering she wrote what is likely the most widely-read study of economics since John Maynard Keynes? This is why people hate academics.

    I think I could handle all this, though, were it not for the moronic, mostly-unexplained sentence that immediately follows:

    “These chapters are the least exciting parts of the book, but the most convincing.”

    Seriously — one of the worst reviews I’ve ever read in the NYTBR. I haven’t seen a Nobel winner write this badly since Jimmy Carter came out with that novel.

    Mets imploded suddenly. Dodgers imploded steadily. And last night the Padres got a few terrible calls. Until next spring, I’m no longer a baseball fan.

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