Reviewing the Review: December 2 2007

The New York Times Book Review’s Holiday Books issue is 80 pages thick, packed with lists and organized by special gift-book categories: Art, Cooking, Travel. But there are only two works of fiction reviewed, amidst all this Christmas cheer, and poetry doesn’t show up at all, so — no hard feelings, but I’m not going to be spending much time with the New York Times Book Review today.

Liesl Schillinger is quite taken by Steve Erickson’s Zeroville, a noir-ish homage to 70’s-era Hollywood written by a Los Angeles film critic that includes cameos by “Love Story”-era Ali McGraw and “Taxi Driver”-era Robert DeNiro. But her review doesn’t make me catch the fever, especially when she flatly declares that “it’s impossible to explain the intent and direction of this funny, disturbing, daring and demanding novel — Erickson’s best.” I’ve heard good things about Zeroville and I will give it a chance, but this review makes the book sound like a whole lot of tone and style and film-industry hype lacking a greater meaning.

Floyd Skloot is similarly generous towards Michael Knight’s family-minded pair of novellas packaged together as The Holiday Season. “There is a long tradition of fiction using holiday gatherings as a vehicle for examining relationships under stress.” True, and Knight’s book sounds wise and touching, but I read “The Corrections” by Jonathan Franzen and so I think I’ve already filled my quota of holiday-gathering themed fiction for this decade.

Beyond these two fiction reviews, today’s NYTBR contains a lot of worthwhile non-fiction coverage, including a pleasing tribute by Stephanie Zacharek to Mad Magazine’s late cartoonist Don Martin (“May he shtoink in peace”), now collected in the hefty Completely Mad Don Martin, and a fair evaluation by James Campbell of Aldous Huxley: Selected Letters, edited by James Sexton. History is well represented: Florence Williams offers a fascinating summary of The Wreck of the Medusa by Jonathan Miles and Bruce Barcott provides a breezily informative explication of Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu by Laurence Bergreen (these are the only two reviews in today’s NYTBR that make me actually want to go out and read the books in question).

Caryn James reviews The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters, edited by Charlotte Mosley, which makes me think “enough books about the Mitfords”. Charles McGrath reviews Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote, which makes me think “enough books about Truman Capote”.

There’s a list of the 100 Notable Books of 2007, which has generated some chatter online, but I don’t even understand how anybody can read a list of 100 books. I glaze over very quickly and move on.

Dwight Garner’s “Inside The List” column includes an amusing anecdote about the unreachability of Denis Johnson, but also includes yet another reproduction of that same damn photo of the author –sitting on a porch, grinning rather stupidly — that has already appeared in four thousand, eight hundred and sixty-three other newspaper articles about Denis Johnson. I think this photo is becoming more familiar than Gilbert Stuart’s painting of George Washington. Somebody somewhere must have taken another photo of this writer, and I wish the New York Times would try to find it.

4 Responses

  1. Speaking of author photos,
    Speaking of author photos, has anyone every seen a photo of Thomas Pynchon? Yeah, his books are really long, but there are some good things in there, and the cat can write.

    On another note – Floyd Skloot – this is the first time I have encountered the name of this critic. He sounds like a character in an R. Crumb comic.

  2. Poetry?! Hah! I agree though,
    Poetry?! Hah! I agree though, holiday issues are a snooze. Does anyone buy books based on them? I guess people must. The NY Review holiday issue was actually very good, I thought.

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