It’s Memorial Day weekend, but I’ve been too busy to get into a holiday mood. This weekend’s New York Times Book Review hardly reflects a holiday mood either: the cover article is about Black Flies, a realistic novel by Shannon Burke about the moral crisis of a young New Yorker working grisly shifts as an emergency paramedic:
Early on, he and his partner, Rutkovsky, a laconic hothead, inspect the body of a girl who has jumped off a building. As they work, an E.M.T. holds up a stray piece of flesh “the size of a hockey puck” and asks what it is. “Without even slowing,” Cross observes, “Rutkovsky said, ‘Hard palate. Knocked it right out when she hit.'” Rutkovsky returns to the ambulance and starts eating his takeout meal of sesame chicken, even as the dead girl’s mother smacks at his window and screams at him for not trying to revive her daughter. Sympathizing with the mother, Cross loses face when he questions his partner. “Like I was going to try to save her,” Rutkovsky retorts. “I was eating my dinner.”
Liesl Schillinger likes the book, and as always she delivers up a generous, useful and completely lucid summary of its contents. Schillinger remains the NYTBR’s most consistently professional regular critic, and I believe many writers must consider themselves lucky to have their books represented by her.
Cathleen Schine doesn’t quite reach the same level of clarity in her explication of Alexander Hemon’s The Lazarus Project, though maybe I find the review confusing because it describes a book within a book and several dead people named Lazarus, at least one of whom (the biblical one, I think) returns to life. The last paragraph tells us the novel is “richly stark and disturbing”. The novel includes a scene in which somebody throws a dog into a dumpster full of broken glass and watches it “writhing, shredding and slicing itself, trying to escape,” so I guess this must be true.
Like I said, there’s not a lot of holiday spirit in this Book Review.
But there’s a lot of political spirit, including another dose of hero worship for the late conservative columnist William F. Buckley. Apparently the Book Review feels the name itself should be whispered in awed, reverent tones. I’m not down with that.
Sure, I respect anybody who manages to found a successful magazine. I can see Buckley’s charisma and I appreciate his sense of humor. However, as a symbol of mainstream intellectual conservative thought in the last half century, he doesn’t have much to be proud of. He stood in support of an aggressive, muscle-bound USA foreign policy that has reached its reductio ad absurdum in the presidency of George W. Bush, and while I do hope our country’s situation will get better soon, it will not do so because of anything William F. Buckley did to help.
But apparently Nicholas Confessore, reviewing a book called U.S. vs. Them: How a Half Century of Conservativism Has Undermined American Security by J. Peter Scoblic, thinks Buckley should get the credit if we ever do get out of our miserable trap in Iraq. Listen to this:
Scoblic does not dwell on it, but during the last few years of his life, Buckley became a critic of the Iraq war, casting the invasion as a monumental failure that threatened to undermine the conservative movement itself. Perhaps, on Iraq, Buckley will be as influential in death as he was in life.
So Buckley figured out in 2006 that the Iraq War is an abomination, and this makes him influential?
Also, who cares if the Iraq War undermines the conservative movement? It’s undermined a hell of a lot more than the conservative movement.
Mind you, the above doesn’t even appear in a book review about William F. Buckley. There are two other Buckley-related books reviewed in this issue: Buckley’s own posthumous Flying High: Remembering Barry Goldwater and Linda Bridges and John R. Coyne’s Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement. Liberal critic Victor Navasky reviews both, but he dips into his own past rivalries with Buckley with more lukewarm nostalgia than fresh vitriol.
Again, I do respect Buckley, though I believe one major reason he has achieved such high standing among conservatives is that he was the first clever enough to turn himself into a TV celebrity. I enjoy watching clips of his The Firing Line, like his great 1968 standoff with Allen Ginsberg, who reads poetry while Buckley calls him naive. But it’s Allen Ginsberg, not William F. Buckley, who steals this show.
Philip Gourevitch is closer than Buckley to my idea of a relevant political writer for our times. His new Standard Operating Procedure, co-authored with Errol Morris, is respectfully treated here by Raymond Bonner. Elsewhere, Susann Cokal’s review of Ruth Brandon’s Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres and Matthew Power’s review of Rediscovering Jacob Riis by Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitron are welcome summaries of books I plan to check out. Mike Myers’ summary of bad English-language textbooks used to quick-train Chinese students in preparation for the arrival of crass foreigners for the Olympics is as funny as it is dispiriting.
Finally, something’s gone wrong with Dwight Garner’s “Inside the List” column today:
One of Lillien’s skinny-making breakthroughs is something she calls “fiber-frying” — using ground-up Fiber One cereal in place of breadcrumbs on dishes like baked chicken strips.
Yippee! Have I wandered into Redbook? Then:
If you are looking for a cookbook by a hardier hungry girl, you could do worse than snag a copy of Trisha Yearwood’s superb Georgia Cooking in an Oklahoma Kitchen: Recipes From My Family to Yours.
Come on, Dwight, we know you can write better than that.
I love it when a correction I humbly note here shows up in the NYTBR’s letters section two weeks later. From LitKicks, two weeks ago:
George Will factual claims in this article are also weak. This is ironic because his factual claims are meant to discredit Perlstein’s factual claims, but repeatedly fail to do so:
‘Perlstein says that before the Kent State violence, “citizens were thrilled to see the tanks and jeeps rumbling through town.” There were no tanks there.’
That’s interesting, since the definitive history book on the 1970 Kent State shootings, Kent State by James Michener, contains a sub-chapter titled “A Rumble of Tanks” which describes the National Guard’s troop carriers — “big, lumbering, ominous” — rolling through town. Technically, Will is correct that these troop carriers did not amount to the arrival of a panzer division, but Michener does make it clear that observers believed they were seeing tanks, which is exactly what Perlstein repeats.
From the NYTBR’s letters section, today:
To the Editor:
Apparently seeking to convince readers that “Nixonland” is inaccurate, George Will writes: “Perlstein says that before the Kent State violence, ‘citizens were thrilled to see the tanks and jeeps rumbling through town.’ There were no tanks there.” Small point made: the vehicles were armored personnel carriers.
As an eyewitness to the events and one of the 13 casualties of National Guard gunfire, I could offer several other less important corrections to this excellent book. But Perlstein’s subject here is the supportive reception the Ohio National Guard received from many Kent townspeople. Contemporaneous evidence and abundant oral history make it clear that on that point, Perlstein is on firm ground.
Thomas M. Grace
Why do you even need to wait two weeks? Just check LitKicks every weekend to find out what they screwed up this time. Though I am embarrassed myself to have missed this one, also on the letters page today:
An essay on May 11 about the American intellectual scene in 1958 referred incorrectly to Jack Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums”, published that year. It was his fourth novel, not the second. It followed “The Town and the City” (1950), “On the Road” (1957) and “The Subterraneans” (also 1958).
Damn. Of course I knew that.