Reviewing the Review: May 18 2008

It would take more number-crunching than I’m willing to do on a Sunday to prove this, but I’m pretty sure the New York Times Book Review has been publishing more front-page rave reviews of breakout novels by unknown authors in the past couple of years than usual. I’m not talking about good reviews — I’m talking about those rare moments where you can just see the blush in the amazed critic’s cheek. I always appreciate these articles, since I know it takes some nerve (not to mention a modicum of joie de’vivre) for a critic to risk her or her reputation on the discovery of a new talent.

More often than not, new writers who win the coveted New York Times Book Review cover rave end up not working out for me (Michael Thomas, Mildred Armstrong Kalish, Charles Bock), though occasionally one does (Tom McCarthy). To some extent, the new writer is at the mercy of his or her discovering critic, who must have the talent and conviction to illuminate the book for potential readers. Fortunately for Joseph O’Neill, a newbie whose novel Netherland is on the cover of today’s New York Times Book Review, Dwight Garner is a clever and passionate writer.

O’Neill’s book seems representative of a fashionable type of novel today: the expansive multi-cultural urban collage, like Charles Bock’s Beautiful Children or (regrettably) James Frey’s Bright Shiny Morning. In this case the city is New York, and the game of cricket (which is widely played by immigrants in New York City) provides the glue between the wealthy and the striving, the moral and the craven who walk the streets of our rotten, lovable Gotham.

I must reserve judgement until I hold this book in my hands, but even though I like Garner’s style and approach (“They’re all 9/11 novels now”), his description of Netherland leaves me eager to read more Dwight Garner but not especially eager to read Joseph O’Neill. Another sweeping multi-ethnic urban canvas? I hope I’ll love this book as much as Dwight Garner does, but even his description of a beguiling scene involving a father looking for his son on Google Earth leaves me skeptical, though I am glad to read of the scene. I do like O’Neill’s use of cricket as a metaphor for, well, something, especially since I’ve enjoyed watching many cricket games in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. However, about O’Neill’s idea (expressed by a character in Netherland) that the USA can be saved by the game of cricket, I’d like to remind him that cricket is already popular in America. We just use a cylindrical bat.

Lorraine Adams’s review of The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine focuses on the author’s use of a traditional framing device to tell the stories within this story. Her constant referral to Alameddine’s framing device begins to seem like its own framing device, which is kind of annoying. This is another very favorable review, though as with Netherland above this novel seems a bit too gentle and driftingly beautiful for my tastes.

I’m more drawn to Etgar Keret’s The Girl on the Fridge, which receives yet another big positive in today’s very sunny Book Review. In this case, Joseph Weisberg’s praise does make me feel excited to check out this writer, who I’ve been meaning to read. I’ll also check out Caroline Adderson, author of an odd little title called Sitting Practice, reviewed here by Jincy Willett, about a well-meaning husband who paralyzes his wife in a freak car accident and then turns to Buddhism for salvation from his overbearing guilt.

Katha Pollitt fails to persuade me to give up my lifelong dislike of the lumpy poetry of Charles Simic, though not for any lack of trying (I’m a hard sell on this poet). I’m more sympathetic towards John Wilson’s praise for Philip L. Fradkin’s biography Wallace Stegner and the American West, though the article’s obligatory Ken Kesey reference makes me wish some writer somewhere someday would mention Ken Kesey without mentioning LSD (the use of which was hardly the most interesting thing about Ken Kesey).

I read and enjoyed Ginia Bellefante’s funny thoughts on Julie Klam’s Please Excuse My Daughter, the story of a rich kid (“the idea of doing anything seems to fill her with the fear of missing out on television, or dinner, or naps”), though I will certainly never read this book. I was deeply pained to read all about a book called Bringing Home the Birkin: My Life In Hot Pursuit of the World’s Most Coveted Handbag by Michael Tonello in a review by Christine Muhlke that I really should not have bothered to read in the first place. But I’m trying to stay away from the political articles this weekend — they’ve been making me crazy, and that’s why I’m reading about rich people and handbags today.

5 Responses

  1. Hi Levi,

    I happened across
    Hi Levi,

    I happened across the NYTBR today and boy that cover articles was gushy. The reviewer was also pretty nasty to a couple other “post 9/11” novels, as he called them.

    I don’t remember seeing a series of paragraphs in a book review that used at least five sentences with colons. Two were quotes from the author of this book that were presented as examples of the incredibly fantastic prose (the reviewer stated that anything and everything the book author wrote was great — gushy gushy — and his two examples were sentences where the author used colons in each. Then in the next paragraph, as if inspired or influenced, the reviewer uses his own colon sentence. Another observation: what is frippery or whatever the bleep that passage was.

    Another review in this weeks rag that I enjoyed: the Ida Wells-Barnett biography. I love hearing about these giants of life who are not forgotten, but little known, in history.

    Fripperies: is something to do with King Crimson?

    Notes: re: colons

    “We courted in the style preferred by the English: alcoholically”

    “Indian Point: the earliest, most incurable apprehensions stirred in its very name”

    Re: colons; also: gushiness

    But here’s what “Netherland” surely is: the wittiest, angriest, most exacting and most desolate work of fiction we’ve yet had about life in New York and London after the World Trade Center fell.

    On a macro level, it’s about nearly everything: family, politics, identity. I devoured it in three thirsty gulps, gulps that satisfied a craving I didn’t know I had.

    Re: nonsensical gushing: no colon.

    And O’Neill knows how to deploy the quotidian fripperies of our laptop culture to devastating fictional effect.

    Upshot: use more colons. Reason: apparently impresses NYTBR reviewers.

  2. Hah, good catches, TKG.
    Hah, good catches, TKG. Maybe you should guest-write the NYTBR-review some weekend, since I may be going soft.

    I did notice that the two colon-ated examples of O’Neill’s great sentences were underwhelming.

    And as for 9/11 novels, yes, he is dismissive. In my opinion there has been one great 9/11 novel — “A Disorder Peculiar to our Country” by Ken Kalfus. I doubt that “Netherland” will accomplish as much, though I plan to check the book out today.

  3. re: frippery : re colons :
    re: frippery : re colons : perhaps the reviewer should have a “colonectomy” or at the very least a “colonoscopy”

  4. Man, serioulsy, what is
    Man, serioulsy, what is frippery?

    From the fantastic frippery of online dictionaries:

    1obsolete a: cast-off clothes barchaic : a place where old clothes are sold
    2 a: finery; also : an elegant or showy garment b: something showy, frivolous, or nonessential c: ostentation; especially : something foolish or affectedly elegant


    One thing, I did actually read this review, or most of it, until it got in to the cricket part. That’s saying something positive. Most reviews not only don’t grad an interest, they actively compell me away, so give that to the fripper of this review.

    Levi, just give me the asignment. Any time.

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