Reviewing the Review: May 25 2008

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
Amherst, N.Y.

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.

14 Responses

  1. Well, having worked in
    Well, having worked in various ER’s and level 1 trauma centers ( most specifically, my experiences at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore) I can certainly understand the cynicism , although a bit exaggerated here, by the paramedics in Shannon Burke’s novel.

    Actually, I must confess, I sort of cringe with a bit of jealousy, as I’ve attempted to portray the ‘realism’ in actual inner city ER’s in novel form before. Perhaps I should continue where I’d left off?

    This ‘realism’ has also been explored in Samuel Shem’s ‘House of God’, which is notorious for being a recommended reading in many Medical Schools in the US.

  2. What’s Wrong with
    What’s Wrong with Republicans

    Republicans live a mythologic lie which corrupts their thinking and clouds their judgment. The lie is this – God helps those who help themselves. That may be the God of the Old Testament, but it certainly isn’t the Christian God. And the Old Testament God has no place in society, except in the very closed rigid isolationist groups of Hassidic, extreme orthodox and fanatics.

    It is no coincidence that the absolute line of demarcation between Old Testament God and Christian God is the parable of the Good Samaritan; the concept – not of helping yourself, but of helping those in need. It is the primordial philosophical split between Jaweh and Jesus, whether we are to be a society of individual self-servers, or a community of people who care about one another. Republicans take the former position, and that what’s wrong with them.

    There are very serious problems with that position. One, most Republicans are Christians, many are even fanatical psycho-Christians, but none of them follow the teachings of Christ. That means they’re all hypocrites; or they don’t know or understand what they believe in. Jesus is the Good Samaritan, and Republicans absolutely repudiate that philosophical concept.

    Secondly, imagine there’s no God (it isn’t hard to do). Then the idea – God helps those who help themselves, equates to – the purpose of life is to help your self. A plausible, even attractive notion, if one is raised to believe that. But it has no ground, no real meaning. The idealist sees love as the fulfillment of being, but to the self-server, a lover is someone to fuck, someone whose role is to admire and please the self-server. There is no mutual giving of self, because to the self-server, no other selves matter.

    Thus there is no community in the self-server’s world. Other people don’t really matter. There is no world-community for Old Testament God, only his chosen few. And that would mean that OT God made everyone, but He considered many or most of them to be disposable, inconsequential. Problem is, that’s absurd. There is no rationale to assume that a Deity would make some humans important and others disposable. But that is the only way a Republican God can exist – as an absurd contradiction.

    Furthermore, OT God is clearly the God of War. The only way the Chosen Few can survive against the unchosen many is to be at a constant state of war, re-Israel and Republican America. We have set ourselves up as a nation of God’s Chosen People, and ladies and gentlemen, this means war! Class warfare? You bet yer fuckin ass.

  3. Mikael, I do wish you’d said
    Mikael, I do wish you’d said “The Trouble With Some Republicans” instead of “The Trouble With Republicans” — since I know you are trying to get a serious point across, I think that approach will get you much further.

  4. Mikael,

    The demarcation

    The demarcation between Judaism and Christianity is more or less based upon the assumption that there has been a Messianic fulfillment; and that the Hebrew G-d has somehow breached his contract with his ‘Chosen People’ by proclaiming the necessity of a ‘New Testament’.

    I don’t mean to sound ‘preachy’, but am only attempting to argue your inaccurate assumptions.
    I’d also heed you to tread more carefully when speaking of the religious philosophies of the Jewish people.

  5. A lot of people think that
    A lot of people think that the adage “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible, when in fact, it is not. On that point, Mikael, I believe I know what you’re getting at.

    But, as Jennifer says, the demarcation between Old & New Testament is not quite as you present it. Both Old & New Testaments contains material that promotes the ethic of helping others (one of the laws given to Moses was “Thou shalt love they neighbor…”), and they both contain passages that seem harsh (Jesus says, “If your eye offends you, pluck it out…”)

    The problem with some Christians is, they pick and choose which passages they want to enforce by law. I would hate for someone to introduce an eye-plucking bill on Capitol Hill.

  6. It isn’t conservatism or
    It isn’t conservatism or liberalism that frightens me,it’s the blind attachment to either party line that scares me these days. Be McCAin right or wrong or any either of the two Dems. That person in the WH or on top of the party ticket is always right, no matter what they say, is the mantra of the day. Granted with Bush now a lame duck and a weight around every GOPer up for election in the near future they. are abandoning him but it took 7+ years. Conservatives pushed Bush policy even though it was against their traditional policy. Two examples being deficit spending and the senior drug bill, which in the past a GOP Congress would never have passed. The Dems do have a wider range of views within the party because of what is need to win in different geographical areas.In Buckleys defense, though I disagreed with most of his views, he was able to take the GOP to task on many issues. Having a TV show and popularity probably gives you that power and ability. Also in that he didn’t need any votes.

  7. My point is a very very
    My point is a very very simple one, and has nothing to do with the extensive writings and perverted thinking of the various religions of the world. The point is the philosophical basis of Republicanism versus Liberalism. Old Testament God, philosophically, is an exclusionist, an elitist “we are better because God chose us.” New Testament God, philosophically, is an inclusionist “we are all God’s children.”

    Leprosy or poverty are not “punishments from God” but rather, ailments or afflictions that need to be addressed as things that we have the power to change; rather than ignored as that’s the way it’s supposed to be. That’s the way God made it.

    Elitism serves the factory owner who becomes filthy rich off the labor of the factory workers. The belief is that the factory owner is one of the chosen, a different species than the laborer, a higher life form, as deemed by God. Liberalism contends that each human is as valuable as any other.

    These are the philosophical differences, the core beliefs that distinguish Republicans from Liberals.

  8. I’d also say that Mikael’s
    I’d also say that Mikael’s theories are very much reflective of black/white thinking, all or nothing, either/or; all of which are over simplified, ‘borderline’ and false arguments.

  9. “I can certainly understand
    “I can certainly understand the cynicism , although a bit exaggerated here, by the paramedics in Shannon Burke’s novel.”

    Interesting and well said. My impression of the excerpted passage was along these lines — exaggerated isn’t the term I’d have used, but it fits, yes.

    “I sort of cringe with a bit of jealousy.”

    Unfortunately, I know this feeling all to well as well. I also will feel a bit of anger as well over lost opportunity or that I didn’t get it done first and at the situation where getting it done wasn’t necessarily possible.

    That’s vague enough, I’m sure, but what I do take after the initial visceral jealously or anger is a reinforcement of belief and confidence in instincts and ability and this is in the context of knowing that I can still do something similar and potentially better — it’s not too late.

  10. Why tread carefully when
    Why tread carefully when writing or speaking about anyone’s religious belief? I would rather he say what he believes than mute his opinion.

  11. Mike, there are no core
    Mike, there are no core beliefs that separate Republicans from liberals. There are Republican liberals. There are certainly a whole lot of Republicans who don’t match your description at all. It’s a very loose association. I think you are intentionally exaggerating to emphasize your point here, but while that kind of arguing can work at a table over a pitcher of beer, broad generalizations don’t go over very well in an online discussion.

  12. TKG,

    Thank you. I don’t know

    Thank you. I don’t know why I abandoned my story. And, if ‘writing what you know’ is truly the best advice, then I certainly should return to it!

  13. Throughout the 80s and 90s,
    Throughout the 80s and 90s, certain self-appointed “spokesmen for God” commanded so much media attention with their particular right wing slant that I can understand why people might think that all Conservative Republicans share their views. Things like, AIDS is punishment from God, for example.

    I have often debated the issue of capital punishment with conservative Christians, who were almost always Republican. I’m against the death penalty. Whenever I pointed out that Jesus taught forgiveness, they countered by saying that the Old Testament law for capital punishment is still valid; while we should forgive the murderer, it was still our duty to execute the murderer. They said that forgiveness is what you do in your heart, but killing is what you have to do in the world of men. I’m not saying I believe that. I’m just telling you what they said.

    The reason I’m explaining all this is to say that if you had asked me ten years ago what Republicans all believe, I would have said the same thing Mikal Covey said, because that was all I kept hearing.

    So, don’t stone him.

  14. Yes, I’ve seen a clip from
    Yes, I’ve seen a clip from Ginsberg’s appearance on Firing Line, too. Allen reads a ‘legal’ poem, and Buckley–eyes twinkling in wonder–tells him, “I kind of like that…except, of course, in matters of politics, you are rather naive…” (which he was, quite frankly–just like Buckley was naive in matters theological).

    I’ve also seen a clip of Noam Chomsky’s late ’60s appearance, in which Buckley breaks down and starts ‘god-damning’ him. That one’s hilarious.

    Oh yeah, I also picked up on that mistake about Kerouac’s canon. I read the NYT online, and I pick up on a lot of outright mistakes and clashing information.

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