Reviewing the Review: March 23 2008

David Kamp, considering Sarah Boxer’s Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review, wisely zeroes in on the same problem I have with this book. Noting that Boxer says an editor gave her the idea for this book and that she originally considered it a dreadful idea, he finds the book “too preoccupied with being respectably booky rather than wildly bloggy” and discovers “a nose-holding quality to her introduction”. He asks:

Shouldn’t a person editing a blog anthology be gung-ho from the get-go? Shouldn’t this person be downright besotted with blogs and bloggers, ready to plunge in, get dirty and exult in the form in all its messiness and ephemerality — non-linkiness and timelessness be damned?

This hits home with me, since I and my then co-editor Christian Crumlish fit this description exactly when we published this book eleven — yes, eleven — years ago:

And we were gung-ho from the get-go up the wazoo, but the book sold about a thousand copies and then died a painful death (and, by the way, it got nice little reviews in Washington Post Book World and the Los Angeles Times but nothing in the New York Times Book Review). So: Kamp is right, but it’s not like we didn’t try.

(And, no, by the way, I’m not interested in trying again. Some things you do only once per life).

There’s much to praise in this issue of the Book Review. Colm Toibin takes Nicholson Baker’s controversial World War II history book Human Smoke on its own terms as an intensely curious book by an author who “wishes to stir up an argument as much as settle one”. Toibin also helpfully emphasizes this book’s focus on the misguided popularity of aerial bombing of cities as a global problem-solver.

History, politics and ethics dominate today. Walter A. McDougall’s Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1829-1877 appears to be as iconoclastic as Human Smoke, according to Michael Kazin’s respectful review. But Anthony Pagden’s Worlds at War: The 2,500 Year Struggle Between East and West seems to be filled with paranoid nonsense about Islamic extremism and “the struggle against the ‘Infidel’ for the ultimate Muslim conquest of the entire world”. And, according to critic Amy Chua:

Pagden quotes Osama bin Laden at length for the view that the greatest crime of the United States — for which 9/11 was punishment — was that “you separate religion from your politics, contradicting the pure nature which affirms Absolute Authority to the Lord your Creator”.

This is pure pablum, since anybody who doesn’t get their news solely from Bill O’Reilly must know by now that Al Qaeda attacked America to further its political objectives against the pro-American governments in nations like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and that they really don’t care very much about America at all except as far as America affects the Middle East. The myth that Islamic extremists are starry-eyed religious dreamers obsessed with fighting America (when they are actually pragmatic political radicals wishing to overthrow the governments of the nations they were born in) is beyond stale. Amy Chua views Pagden’s book with some skepticism but nowhere near enough. It’s the New York Times job to state clearly when a book is filled with popular distortions of simple fact, and Chua does not state it clearly enough here.

Maybe we’ll have to look for fiction for ethical insight, and I’m intrigued by The Philosopher’s Apprentice, a novel about morality and philosophy by James Morrow in which a teacher and student construct a hypothetical “social justice project”. Critic Siddhartha Deb wants to like this book, and captures my attention with notions like “clones called immaculoids, created from aborted fetuses by a right-wing group and sent out to stalk their parents”. But she also hates the writer’s overwrought prose style, and the sample she presents here effectively makes her case that the author’s style renders his book unreadable.

Louisa Thomas praises The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt, which I’m looking forward to checking out. Ron Powers, reviewing The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America by David Hajdu, proves himself once again to be a terrible, terrible writer. Here’s his intro:

My first hallucinatory experience had nothing to do with drugs, unless you consider comic books to be a form of drug. On a spring morning in 1953, I strolled into Mrs. Shelburne’s sixth-grade classroom at the Mark Twain School and spotted a classmate covertly flipping through a Superman comic. Only it wasn’t quite Superman. Not the Man of Steel I idolized, but a grinning thug-imposter in red cape and blue tights, gut-punching a helpless geezer on crutches as his false teeth flew out and a mob of citizens cheered, and a babe far leggier and bustier than Lois Lane leered her approval. The monster’s name bulged in thick red letters atop the panel: Superduperman. My good-guy stomach rolled. Everything stretched and went slantwise; a parallel universe yawed open, like jaws, and threatened to suck me inside. Then Mrs. Shelburne waddled into class; the kid stowed the comic; the jaws evaporated. Too soon, I realized dizzily. Wait! I wanted in!

Right, so David Hajdu wrote a book about comic books in the 1950’s, but somehow it’s all about Ron Powers.

An unusual endpaper by Polly Morrice about the legacy of J. D. Salinger in literature about children since Nine Stories lands many good points, though it overreaches in a few parts (the Glass siblings are “possibly the first gifted-and-talented children in literature”? No.) A good piece nonetheless.

Finally, I don’t usually read the Times’ Travel section (why should I? As you’ve probably noticed, I never travel — I’m always here) and I almost missed a surprising and worthy cover article on Ken Kesey’s Mexico by Lawrence Downes.

11 Responses

  1. Is it just me or are there
    Is it just me or are there others that feel odd about reading some things in this thread that somehow … is ‘disturb’ too strong?

    Note: “It’s the New York Times job to state clearly when a book is filled with popular distortions of simple fact…”

    My first question I asked myself upon reading that line was “Why would anyone invest in the publication of this book that is filled with popular distortions?”

    Again:”…she also hates the writer’s overwrought prose style, and the sample she presents here effectively makes her case that the author’s style (James Morrow) renders his book unreadable.”

    So why does any publisher, especially during these problematic economic times, waste their resources on this ‘unreadable book’?

    Then, “Ron Powers proves himself once again to be a terrible, terrible writer…” makes me wonder why a respected publication such as the NYT would accept such a poorly done review, much less put it in print for all to judge and comment on to the point of making this paper less worthy in the eyes of it’s readers.

    Perhaps there is a bit too much negativity in your reviews…? Or are they truly largely acceptable? Me wonders…

  2. mtmynd, I too have issues
    mtmynd, I too have issues with Asher’s weekly TBR review, but negativity isn’t one of them. Quite the opposite. I find that Levi goes overboard trying to be the professional objective journalist, trying to find the silver lining in every touch of grey.

    I’m a blogger at heart and I say kick ass and take no prisoners. …uh, by the way folks, 9/11 was aimed at Riyadh, not US, so…go back to sleep, forget the trillion dollars and the hundred thousand dead folk.

    Things like that, you might want to say a bit louder. Is more important than comix. But the NYTBR never gets that. I wish the TBR reviewers would burn them for that. Wake up!

  3. ___9/11 was aimed at
    ___9/11 was aimed at Riyadh____

    Only missed by thousands and thousands of miles I guess.

    Let’s hope they don’t miss and hit New York next time with and atom bomb or smallpox release.

    Bad aim sure is a bummer.

  4. Well, TKG, there’s a lot of
    Well, TKG, there’s a lot of bad aim going around … for instance the effort to capture the perpetrators of 9/11 somehow got sent to Baghdad. Can’t anybody aim around here?

  5. I’ve said it before and I’ll
    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Coffeehouse: Writings From the Web deserves more attention than it received. It must be one of the first anthologies of its kind, that is, one that gleaned original literature from the internet, using the web as a primary source rather than a referecne bank to previously published works.

    And, importantly, thankfully, the writing in that book is very good! Since Coffeehouse is currently out-of-print, I’m curious to know how many people have purchased one of the used copies floating around, like the one I got from Amazon.

  6. Thanks for that vote of
    Thanks for that vote of confidence, Bill. My honest appraisal is that about half of the book was amazingly great, but we picked too many long pieces, did not capture enough tonal variety, and included too many pieces by personal friends who were not actually online writers at all, but who we wanted to include because we liked their work.

    But an anthology shouldn’t be judged by what it fails to exclude — it should be judged by what it manages to include, and we managed to include many worthwhile pieces.

  7. Well, that dents one quarter
    Well, that dents one quarter panel of my appraisal; nevertheless, I think Coffeehouse makes a good companion volume to the Action Poetry book. You should do one more and make it a trilogy.

  8. By the way, the best thing by
    By the way, the best thing by far in today’s NYT is the Ken Kesey in Mexico article by Lawrence Downes!

  9. Ok, check this out.

    I saw
    Ok, check this out.

    I saw it the other day at Starbucks and it reminded me a lot of your Coffeehouse book.

    Hopefully the link will take you to the page for the new compilation of songs by Dylan, Leonard Cohen and others they are selling called From the Coffeehouse.

  10. Although I can’t pretend to
    Although I can’t pretend to be objective in the matter, allow me to argue, as the author of “The Philosopher’s Apprentice,” that Siddhartha Debb could hardly have picked a less characteristic sample paragraph for her NY Times review. For a more representative taste of my novel, I invite Literary Kicks readers to read Chapter One, currently posted at

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