It’s just not working out between me and Kathryn Harrison, frequent critic for the New York Times Book Review. I had high hopes for this weekend’s cover article on Mario Vargas Llosa’s new The Bad Girl, but Harrison’s writing is filled with bland, empty contemplations like “he used language to create an alternate existence, a distillate whose emotional gravity transcends that of life itself.” I experience a great deal of emotional gravity simply from reading that windy and meaningless line.
Harrison also leans very heavily on Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary as the key to The Bad Girl, but her understanding of Madame Bovary doesn’t match mine. So we’re off to a bad start with today’s Book Review, and it is with some trepidation that I begin Charles McGrath’s review of Schulz and Peanuts, David Michaelis’s biography of cartoonist Charles M. Schulz. I am very much a member of the Charles M. Schulz cult, and I would hate to see this biography butchered by a wordslinger insufficiently appreciative of the Round-Headed Ones. Fortunately, Charles McGrath has a fine understanding of “Peanuts”, and he hits the right note with observations like this:
He transformed the newspaper cartoon strip, busy and cluttered by the time he turned up in the late ’40s, by flooding it with white space, and by reducing his childish characters to near abstraction …
[Chris] Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan is in many ways Charlie Brown grown, while still an adolescent, to a premature old age. And [Robert] Crumb offers a window onto what Schulz might have been like if only he had let the anger out.
(On a related note: I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but am I the only one concerned that a book like this — a biography of a comic strip artist, after all, not the latest Harry Potter — should be priced at $34.95? The march towards luxury-tier pricing for general interest books sure is marching full-speed ahead, though I sometimes feel I’m the only one complaining.)
Joel Brouwer does a fine job of illuminating poet Alice Notley’s strange and appealing In The Pines, though I do find it inexplicable when somebody reviews a book titled after a song — in this case a Leadbelly classic later recorded by Nirvana as “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” — and doesn’t mention the significance of the title in the review. It gives the reader the distinct impression that the critic is not aware of the significance.
Hanna Rosin is kind — perhaps too kind — to “stunt journalist” A. J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. I can’t tell if Marcel Theroux is being too kind to The Gum Thief, which is apparently a new book by Douglas Coupland. But I do like the Cezanne-esque sketch by Brian Rea that accompanies this review (a Seth cartoon accompanying the Charles M. Schulz review is another nice graphic touch in this weekend’s issue).
An enjoyable endpaper by Richard Peaver on Tolstoy’s War and Peace and two topical reviews complete this weekend’s generally above-average publication. Michael Kinsley digs into Alan Greenspan’s The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World with relish, and John Leonard unleashes his forcible talents on behalf of Susan Faludi’s bitter The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America:
Feminism, like a trampoline, has made possible this splendid provocation of a book, levitating to keep company with Hunter Thompson’s fear and loathing, Leslie Fielder’s love and death and Edmund Wilson’s patriotic gore.
Fiction readers will also want to tune in to the Arts & Leisure section in today’s Times for a worthwhile article by Motoko Rich about suburban novelist Tom Perrotta and his new virginity-themed book The Abstinence Teacher.