Reviewing the Review: March 2 2008

Once again, the New York Times Book Review features writing about topical politics on the cover, and once again the critical sensibility is not distinctive or literary enough for this platform.

A murky tag cloud (“Middle East”, “Lebanon”, “Iraq”) dominates the cover. The featured book is Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East by Robin Wright, the reviewer is Patrick Cockburn, and the publication’s title font is a dim gray, perhaps to indicate the presence of lots of gray area within. Robin Wright’s book attempts a fresh look at a well-trod subject, avoiding the typical tight focus on Islamic extremism to feature profiles of individuals and organizations attempting to improve various aspects of Middle East society and politics. But, Cockburn tells us, “in general the stories Wright relates of brave reformers battling for human and civil rights show them as having had depressingly small influence.” Yes, Wright’s book appears to be a study of hope, and perhaps the New York Times Book Review is expressing its own sense of hope by placing Dreams and Shadows on its cover.

But in doing so they disregard the mindset of the vast majority of NYTBR readers, who have been fending off shovelfuls of Middle East analysis by “highly esteemed experts” for the past many years. Perhaps to the finely calibrated political minds on 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue, either Wright’s book or Cockburn’s moderate review shines with some kind of brilliant light. Most readers, unfortunately, will see two more shovel loads from two more professional talking heads. Gray area, indeed.

I recently read, and was impressed by, Jacob Weisberg’s ambitious and unabashedly psychological The Bush Tragedy, which posits a singular compulsion to compete with his father as George W. Bush’s primary mental dysfunction. Alan Brinkley’s review is respectful but fails to transmit any sense of excitement about the book. Jacob Heilbrunn seems to agree with the basic premise of Lou Cannon and Carl M. Cannon’s Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy, which is that Bush’s attempts to paint himself as Reaganesque would be laughable if they weren’t so tragic (I also certainly agree, and I recently wrote something similar myself). But, once again, the level and tone of political analysis here does not distinguish itself in any way from, say, the Times opinion pages, or the New York Times Magazine, or for that matter Time or Newsweek magazine, or every damn news show on every damn network. Political discussion is critical, but readers have a right to expect something special when we pick up the New York Times Book Review every Sunday, whereas we all too easily detect here the sound of professional pundits punching the clock.

On to fiction. Liesl Schillinger fetchingly summarizes The Soul Thief by Charles Baxter, which seems to combine the pleasures of a campus novel, a 1970s nostalgia romp and a Paul Auster-ish mangled-identity scenario. I’m intrigued enough to want to try the book, though Schillinger’s review is not a rave like her recent cover piece on Charles Bock’s Beautiful Children, a much-discussed novel I was hoping not to write about again here. But letter-writer Ian Mackenzie offers a funny and powerful indictment of that Schillinger article, worth quoting here:

Schillinger approvingly quotes a sentence of Bock’s: “Electricity lit up Ponyboy’s skeletal structure as if it were a pinball machine on a multi-ball extravaganza, and the mingling odors of brimstone and sulfur and sweat and burning skin filled Ponyboy’s nostrils.” This describes, we are told, the administration of Ponyboy’s newest tattoo. It is easy to see why, in the current literary climate, this sentence attracts admiration: it loudly conflates the human body and the book’s setting, Las Vegas; it declares the obsolescence of the comma as it pounds out a list of nouns; its zeal for gaudy metaphor nearly splits it at the seams; and it turns up the biblical volume with the sinister “brimstone.”

But the sentence suffers from several conspicuous flaws. For one, it lurks at the edge of tenability when it describes the electricity illuminating Ponyboy’s “skeletal structure.” It then attempts to shoehorn in the metaphor of a pinball machine, whose vividness further divorces the sentence’s central idea from a credible reality, and then finally, in order, I imagine, to deploy four nouns rather than three, it falls irritatingly into redundancy: brimstone and sulfur, as a quick trip to the dictionary will confirm, are synonyms.

Mackenzie lands a good punch here, and I’m sorry I didn’t catch that factoid about brimstone and sulfur myself when I reviewed that issue. At the same time, it needs to be said that Liesl Schillinger is one of the very sharpest of the Book Review’s regular fiction critics, and that this mistake is entirely uncharacteristic of her track record here. I hope she goes on expressing her unbridled enthusiasm for the books she likes, because I enjoy reading these articles as much as anything that is ever published in these pages. As I said above, the NYTBR all too often fails to be as distinctive as it should be, but this is never the case when Schillinger’s byline is on the page.

Other worthy articles this week include David Michaelis on the cartoonist biography Bill Maudlin: A Life Up Front by Todd DePastino, Christine Kenneally on The Horse, The Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders From the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David W. Anthony, Daniel Kurtz-Phelan on Bananas: How The United Fruit Company Shaped the World by Peter Chapman, David Leavitt on a new memoir by John Rechy and Michael Azerrad on Dan Kennedy’s Rock On, an insider’s look at the music business. I’ve occasionally been employed to build music websites for the types of corporations Kennedy describes here, and the following rings true to me:

When Kennedy presents an intriguing Web-commerce initiative at a high-level meeting, a pair of lazy functionaries buffalo their technologically illiterate boss with jargon-filled excuses about why it won’t work. The proposal dies.

I think I was at that meeting.

James Campbell bravely mocks Stephen King’s famous comments about literature and genre in his unenthusiastic review of Duma Key, which Campbell doesn’t find effective as either literature or genre. Adam LeBor’s short piece on Yalo by Elias Khoury and Madison Smartt Bell’s longer piece on the Underground Railroad fictionalization Song Yet Sung by James McBride land with little effect. Colson Whitehead provides a refreshing endpaper on the incredible hype about literary Brooklyn. This is an article that badly needed to be written.

I get asked a lot, “What’s it like to write in Brooklyn?” … What do they expect me to say? “Instead of ink, I write in mustard from Nathan’s Famous, a Brooklyn institution since 1916.”

Perhaps this article signals that the Brooklyn craze is finally peaking. Though Whitehead’s author credit declares that his next novel will be called Sag Harbor, which makes me wonder if the novelist has just replaced one hip place for writers with another even hipper (and more expensive) choice. Colson, Colson, what’s it like to write in the Hamptons?!

One Response

  1. I’ve mentioned this before
    I’ve mentioned this before and I think it is the case. NY Times is not a newspaper for news and info any more (if it ever were) it is a political entity and their overriding concern is political and impacting politics.

    It permeates everything associated with them and that includes book review. Hence all the political books, even silly ones like let’s make fun of the president — books always with a market and audience.

    It is Book Review, not literary review and their concern is politics and wielding influence, not news and info and art.

    That’s how I see it. There can be and are still decent articles every week or so and that is all I think I can hope for.

    Rosebud…crystal orb shatters

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What We're Up To ...

Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!