Reviewing the Review: December 9 2007

The cover of this week’s New York Times Book Review offers a guessing game: the “Ten Best Books of 2007” are photographed backwards, displaying only blank page-edge faces and slim slivers of jacket artwork to give their identities away. One can spot Denis Johnson and Joshua Ferris quickly, but the lone paperback original on the list — Michael Thomas’s Man Gone Down — seems to get swallowed up in the stack. Translated novels by Per Petterson and Roberto Bolano add a satisfying international dimenstion to the fiction list, but the non-fiction selection feels arbitrary; for instance, a quaint book called Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression by Mildred Armstrong Kalish got a rave in the NYTBR this past summer but I haven’t heard of it since, so the book’s inclusion on a major “Ten Best of 2007” list feels like an act of editorial caprice. I like the “guessing game” used to present this year’s list, but the list itself is only as useful as any reader (or publicist) wishes to believe it to be.

But isn’t the same thing true of literary criticism as a whole? Poetry critic David Orr makes a welcome re-appearance to alert the world to a too-little-known poet, Michael O’Brien, author of the new Sleeping and Walking, whose previous books are not in print. Orr is on a mission to make the world notice Michael O’Brien, and I can’t think of a better reason for a critic to write an article. Orr makes a persuasive case here, though he risks overselling it when he presents a short and appealing O’Brien poem called “Hush” and tells us that the poet is “strongly influenced by Asian writing”. The explanation is actually simpler than this: “Hush” is a haiku, and there’s no need to bring the entire continent of Asia into it. Orr also seems to miss an obvious reference when he walks us through this excerpt:

work against correspondence, the world is not a
book everything is
not something else, you
could look it up

and breaks the last line down: “And of course, in order to learn that ‘the world is not a book,’ we’re instructed to ‘look it up'”. Actually, the poet is just having fun with a famous Casey Stengel quote, and this stands as further proof that to fully understand American poetry one must understand baseball. David Orr need not be punished for not knowing the origin of “You could look it up”, but one of his New York editors might have caught this for him (Stengel was the manager of the New York Mets, after all) and I wonder why none of them did.

I also wonder why the New York Times Book Review has to be so harsh on Arthur Nersesian’s The Swing Voter of Staten Island, a highly original (if admittedly imperfect) disaster-fantasia in which all of New York City is hastily re-assembled in a Nevada desert after a nuclear holocaust. Maud Casey has no sympathy at all for this book, and that’s her right, but the NYTBR has also had no sympathy this year for Matthew Sharpe’s dark urban satire Jamestown or (just last week) Matthew Eck’s realistic war novel The Farther Shore, while at the same time I am being led to understand that Mildred Armstrong Kalish’s Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression was one of the ten best books of 2007. Something doesn’t add up here.

There are several very good articles in today’s New York Times Book Review. David Haglund berates William Boyd for writing soft and polite literary criticism in the new collection Bamboo: Essays and Criticism, and George Saunders enthuses over Today I Wrote Nothing, a collection of experimental writings by Daniil Kharms, a “Russian writer often described as an absurdist, largely unpublished in his lifetime except for his children’s books, who starved to death in the psychiatric ward of a Soviet hospital during the siege of Leningrad”. Saunders explains Kharms’ literary mission as a quixotic insistence on truth in fiction. He was “spooked by the dishonesty of the moment of necessary falsification” and thus wrote story after story in which nothing happens. Saunders’ logic doesn’t completely hold up here (I’m not at all convinced that fiction requires any “moment of necessary falsification” — where is that moment, for instance, in Joyce’s Ulysses or Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine?) but I like his enthusiasm, and in the end this enthusiasm is enough to close the deal: I will check out Daniil Kharms.

I find several moments of falsification, none of them necessary or even sufficient, in Lee Siegel’s pretentious and blubbery love letter to Bernard Malamud, couched within a review of Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life by Philip Davis. We begin with an anecdote in which Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth “kissed on the lips” — no, seriously, that’s where we begin. Lee Siegel finds much literary significance in this kiss, and his entire article amounts to a sloppy offering of wet lips. I say “yuck” to all of these kisses.

Stephen Metcalf’s review of Malcolm Lowry’s The Voyage that Never Ends: Fiction, Poems, Fragments, Letters also fails to please me, though Christopher Sorrentino does a better job with David Peace’s Tokyo Year Zero and Michael Gorra provides a reasonable introduction to The Rowing Lesson by Anne Landsman.

A bitter letter from Gore Vidal attacking Rachel Donadio completes the quirky offerings in today’s Book Review, though I’m sorry to say Vidal barely makes sense in his insider-ish polemic, which seems to be based on Vidal’s past problems with people named “Donadio”. I hate to say this about an old battler like Vidal, but he could take a lesson or two from the blogosphere on battling technique; he almost loses the match here, and that’s a shame.

* * * * *

The examination of Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus’s political motivations proceeds at Galley Cat (inspired by the probing work of one-time NYTBR reviewer Jim Sleeper). There’s not much political material in today’s issue — though some softer reviews, such as Patrick Allitt on Garry Wills’ Head and Heart: American Christianities, point to an editorial mindset closer to Iowa than to Staten Island — so I’m not going to dive further in to this today. It’s worth mentioning, though, that GalleyCat is also covering separate allegations of left-wing literary bias at the National Book Critics Circle. This is all promising material for future discussions, I think.

3 Responses

  1. “Little Heathens” is a
    “Little Heathens” is a terrific read.

    When lit-bloggers start complaining that the New York Times Book Review is promoting books that aren’t otherwise talked about, maybe it’s time to stop reading litblogs.

  2. I see your point, Richard.
    I see your point, Richard. In my defense, though … it’s all a matter of *which* books that don’t get talked about should get talked about. I’m pissed off about the ungenerous review of Arthur Nersesian’s book, is mainly what I’m saying.

  3. Have you read Roberto
    Have you read Roberto Bolano’s book? I rarely find I’ve read anything on end of year BEST OF lists, but The Savage Detectives is a different beast. It wasn’t written this year, and the author has been dead for a while now, but I suspect you will see more of his novels on best of lists in the next few years. The Savage Detectives was a beautiful portrayal of a city that gets no positive spin anywhere. Plus it is about an itinerant gang of poets, which should appeal to the poetry enthusiasts of the group.

    Just for literary kicks, the first paragraph:

    “I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realists. I accepted, of course. There was no initiation ceremony. It was better that way.”

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