Reviewing the Review: February 17 2008

Ahh, the ethics of book reviewing. I wish I understood them myself.

Ed Champion calls New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus a “literary lapdancer” for allowing a kissy review of NYT Executive Editor (and recent hatchet man) Bill Keller’s new children’s book, Tree Shaker: The Story of Nelson Mandela to run in this weekend’s issue. I’m half-and-half on this one. On one hand, the reviewer clearly states Bill Keller’s job title, and a full disclosure is all that is required here. On the other hand, as Ed suggests, an editorial offense does not have to be an ethical violation to be an editorial offense; Ruth Conniff’s review (“Keller’s biography of Mandela vibrates with the feeling of history comes alive”) is awfully friendly, and this can be an offense against taste.

On the other hand, Tanenhaus could not have known what Ruth Conniff would write. Also on the other hand, a book about Nelson Mandela sounds a hell of a lot better than some of the other junk found in this week’s “Children’s Books” section, like the unbearably cutesy Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty (“All this whimsy rings a bit Hallmark-ian at times”, says reviewer Ariel Levy, and I can only imagine). In fact, I’m impressed that the Executive Editor of the New York Times witnessed the fall of apartheid as the Times bureau chief in Johannesburg in 1992 and has chosen to write a book about it. The truth is, I know nothing at all about Bill Keller save the fact that he is Sam Tanenhaus’s boss and that he bears a chilling physical resemblance to Donald Rumsfeld (which isn’t going to make anybody like him), so I think I’ll check out his book before I say any more about this.

Friendly reviews sure are a grey area at the Grey Lady, though, and Ruth Conniff isn’t the only one laying it on for a book by a Times power player today. It seems pretty clear that Elinor Lipman can’t stand Alex Wichtel’s Manhattan business/society satire The Spare Wife, which she says “isn’t a book with heart”, contains “too many inelegant lines” and only succeeds “in spots”. But I can practically feel the pain Lipman feels at having to hurt the novelist’s and Times columnist’s feelings, especially in moments like this:

But wait. Halfway through the book, when the setup is complete and the main story finally kicks in, the choreography and the emotional unveilings are clever and most welcome.

Oh, stop sniveling and admit you hate the book. Yeah, the emotional unveilings are clever and most welcome, that’s what I always say when I love a book. If we’re going to slam the NYTBR editors for not filtering out Ruth Conniff’s valentine to Bill Keller, we should slam them for not filtering out this display either.

Elsewhere this week, Joyce Johnson’s workmanlike writing fails to enliven An Uncertain Inheritance: Writers on Caring for Family. Francine Prose is much more inspired on the subject of Susan Choi’s A Person of Interest, which fictionalizes a “Unabomber”-type campus-bombing scenario as Choi’s earlier American Woman fictionalized Patty Hearst. Jason Berry persuades me that I ought to read Ned Sublette’s historical survey The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square.

I expected to like Jim Shepard’s review of Mark Harris book about 1967 Hollywood, Pictures at a Revolution. But Shepard tangles himself up inexplicably every time he mentions one of the movies featured in Harris’s book, the classic Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy interracial marriage comedy Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. He calls its racial theme “outdated”, stating that:

‘The Graduate’ was seemingly designed to demolish the values on display in ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’

Huh? Actually, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was designed to demolish the values on display in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. It’s a little something called satire, and I can’t imagine why Shepard doesn’t see this. His idea that the film’s racial intermarriage theme is “outdated” in 1967 is especially strange since Shepard also writes:

“… the pilot for the sitcom ‘Bewitched’ languished for more than a year because of complaints by ABC’s Southern stations that its adman-loves-witch premise was ‘a thinly veiled argument for racial intermarriage'”.

Such a tangled web we sometimes weave. Elsewhere, Rachel Donadio provides a worthwhile endpaper on Harold L. “Doc” Humes, a once-promising “literary star” who co-founded the Paris Review before sinking into paranoid incomprehensibility, though the article caroms strangely into the separate and thematically unrelated subject of Peter Matthiessen’s involvement with the CIA before returning to its own subject.

Elizabeth Royte’s cover piece on a nature book about a complex ecological conflict in Belize, The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw by Bruce Barcott, is superb:

You may think you’ve heard this tale before: the tree/bird/fish huggers against the land-raping multinationals. But few parts of Barcott’s story are what they appear: what’s local is global, insiders are outsiders (are vice versa) and scientists transform themselves, with the signing of nondisclosure agreements, into “biostitutes” for hire.

Francis Fukuyama’s informative piece on Samantha Power’s Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World is also good, and in fact either of these articles would have helped a lot in last week’s anemic politics issue.

The best article this week is David Orr’s introduction to a poet I’ve never heard of, Matthea Harvey, who does playful things with form and even manages, in a verse fragment quoted here, to make the abecedarian form feel fresh. Like the Bruce Barcott review and the Samantha Power review, this article fulfills a book review’s most important function: calling attention to a writer or a book we might otherwise never read.

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