Reviewing the Review: March 9 2008

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.

6 Responses

  1. For me, Paper Cuts, The
    For me, Paper Cuts, The Guardian books, and other blogs, dwell too much on unique angles to interesting esoterica. Sorta like, man I gotta write an article to make a few bucks, lemme pull sumpin outta my ass.

    25,000 kids die tonight and every night because they don’t get basic foods or medicines. Why talk about that? Because it matters. Thoreau wrote about things that matter. But US doesn’t get it. For half the world, 9/11 happens every day. Lets go vacation in Gaza, Cuba, Kenya, Baghdad, Pakistan. Maybe write a little book about it; call it ‘Our World’.

  2. Levi thanks for pointing out
    Levi thanks for pointing out the Ray Davies thing. In my opinion, Ray Davies is the Shakespeare of rock lyrics. And, his lyrics *are* poetry:

    There’s a crack up in the ceiling
    and the kitchen sink is leaking
    out of work and got no money
    a Sunday joint of bread and honey

    It paints the whole picture in four lines.

  3. Good quotes, Michael. And it
    Good quotes, Michael. And it goes on:

    “On a golden frosty morning
    wipe my eyes and stop me yawning
    and my feets are nearly frozen
    boil some tea and put some toast on”

    Mikael, though, while I see your point about “unique” and “esoterica” dominating these newspaper-based book blogs, I can’t see criticizing Paper Cuts for not writing about Gaza and Cuba and Kenya … I don’t think every blog in the world needs to become a political blog to justify its right to exist.

  4. “the poor we will always have
    “the poor we will always have with us.”

    Maybe that’s Jesus admitting defeat, or maybe it means this – any revolutionary (like Bin Laden) will always have an army of recruits from the great multitude of poor people ‘cause they got nothing else to lose. They’re already dying, emotionally and physically.

    Guardian books blog and Paper Cuts don’t need to care or take notice. Just to wait ‘til somebody blows up the London underground or the World Trade Center. Then there’ll be books about it.

  5. Levi,
    What do Daniel

    What do Daniel Mendelsohn’s op-ed in today’s NY Times about the latest round of faked memoirs and the Times’s front page article about Pres.* Bush’s vetoing of a bill essentially banning torture have in common?
    Check in over at for the rundown.
    Jim H.

  6. I like this paragraph from
    I like this paragraph from “All The King’s Men”:

    I could lie there as long as I wanted, and let all the pictures of things a man might want run through my head, coffee, a girl, money, a drink, white sand and blue water, and let them all slide off, one after another, like a deck of cards slewing slowly off your hand. Maybe the things you want are like cards. You don’t want them for themselves, really, though you think you do. You don’t want a card because you want the card, but because in a perfectly arbitrary system of rules and values and in a special combination of which you already hold a part the card has meaning. But suppose you aren’t sitting in a game. Then even if you do know the rules, a card doesn’t mean a thing. They all look alike.

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