Let’s cast a wider net today. We can start with Barack Obama’s foreign policy advisor (and sometime New York Times Book Review contributor) Samantha Power, who has been canned and publicly roasted for some excessive comments about Hillary Clinton. These comments were a mistake, but an apology should have sufficed. I’m sorry to hear that this smart person is leaving Obama’s campaign (and I voted for him, dammit, so my opinion counts).
Then let’s look at the NYTBR blog, Paper Cuts, which this week presented such a nice tribute to my fave lyricist Ray Davies of the Kinks that I was moved to post a comment to it myself. Barry Gewen’s musical musings were followed by a refreshing and highly welcome blog post by Sam Tanenhaus (I believe this is a first) appreciating a deft paragraph in Edmund Wilson’s To The Finland Station. I was almost moved to post a comment here (since Tanenhaus asks us to cite our own examples of extraordinary paragraphs) but I don’t want to wear out my welcome on Paper Cuts. If I had responded, though, I would have cited this paragraph:
Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber. It is difficult to begin without borrowing, but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise. The owner of the axe, as he released his hold on it, said that it was the apple of his eye, but I returned it sharper than I received it.
You can probably figure out what book this is from, and in fact Henry Thoreau gets a few mentions in today’s Book Review as Robert Sullivan praises The Life of the Skies, a book about birdwatching by Jonathan Rosen:
Thoreau, in his journals, often finds a natural fact to be transcendent in its very fact-ness. Nature is in this way the other, or, to put it in more overtly spiritual terms, something like the Thou in Martin Buber’s I-Thou, so that when you meet the fact it is a meeting that hints at universality, at infinity. You don’t need to get all mystical, in other words, to get mystical.
I’m not sure what to say about all that. Jennifer 8. Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, recently discussed here, gets reviewed by Jane and Michael Stern, who as pop-culture historians naturally adopt a bemused tone. I’ll be posting my own verdict on this book soon, but I do like this quoted line from Lee’s book:
If McDonald’s is the Windows of the dining world (where one company controls the standards), then Chinese restaurants are akin to the Linux operating system, where a decentralized network of programmers contributes to the underlying source code.
As a Linux developer, I have to admit this is not a bad metaphor at all.
Today’s cover article by Scott Turow, reviewing The Blue Star by Tony Earley, begins like this:
Sincerity is in. Never mind the skewering irony of the Facebook generation, or the postmodernism that led boomer intellectuals to see the fractures in every value system. Since 9/11, American readers have shown an appetite for simple tales told with becoming directness.
Yes, this is true. Unfortunately, it now turns out that a lot of these sincere tales were totally made up, but they are sincere tales nonetheless. And this has nothing to do with Tony Earley’s novel about a teenage boy in 1940’s America, which actually sounds quite good. Turow says:
It’s such a deceptively simple strategy — to take the unembellished storytelling style of children’s literature and to bend it to adult themes — that many novelists will feel like smacking themselves on the side of the head for not having thought of it themselves.
Shouldn’t that be “smacking themselves upside the head”? Regardless, some readers will probably think this sounds terrible, but I say why not? I’ll give the book a chance.
James Longenbach’s review of A Phone Call to the Future: New and Selected Poems by Mary Jo Salter makes less of an impression than Emily Nussbaum’s review of a softer poetry book, Ted Kooser’s Valentines, in which the former Poet Laureate “makes his geezerness an explicit element of poetic persona”. Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People fictionalizes the 1984 environmental disaster in Bhopal, India, and though critic Ligaya Mishan finds much to criticize, I’m interested enough to look for the book. James Poniewozik also stokes my interest in The Learners by Chip Kidd, which presents a 60s-era graphic designer milieu.
This is obviously a day for lukewarm reviews, because that’s also what Willing by Scott Spencer gets from Tom Bissell and How the Dead Dream by Lydia Millet gets from Adelle Waldman. I’ll be checking out the latter, and probably not the former.