I never thought I’d praise three out of three geopolitical articles in a New York Times Book Review, and then complain about a Nicholson Baker piece. But that’s what’s happening today.
Don’t get me wrong: Nicholson Baker remains somewhat near the Zeus position in my personal pantheon of contemporary writers I really, really approve of. It’s because he’s so versatile, though, that I’m disappointed to find the Book Review invariably assigning him books so far up his alley (a book that reprints newspaper archives?) that there’s no sport in it, or else feeding him tweedy titles like the quirky linguistic bonanza Reading the Oxford English Dictionary: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages by Ammon Shea to review. Baker does a fine job (“This is the ‘Super Size Me’ of lexicography”), but one senses he never broke a sweat swinging at this softball, and that means good talent is being wasted. Come on, Book Review, let Nicholson Baker stretch! He can handle more than ‘obsessive’ and ‘odd’. And Jane and Michael Stern need the work.
Today’s cover review is a dignified recounting of The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals by Jane Mayer. Alan Brinkley relates the simple facts in this book — how Dick Cheney’s chain of command betrayed America’s long tradition of magnamity in military conduct, and how little was gained in this misadventure — with stern brevity. This article tells me nothing I didn’t already know about the Bush administration policy on torture, but it is cathartic to read it in plain black and white. (I’m not even sure if I’ll read Jane Mayer’s book. I think I better stretch myself.)
I’ve often enjoyed Steven Heller’s articles about graphic art books in the NYTBR. I’m excited to read Christopher Benfey’s review of Heller’s own new book, an in-depth survey of the aesthetics of totalitarianism called Iron Fists: Branding the 20th Century Totalitarian State. This book delves into the visual elements of the ceaseless publicity programs used to sell Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong to their adoring publics. This is an important topic, and a highly relevant one for our own era of Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush. I bet ten more books on this subject could be profitably written (Modris Eckstein’s superb Rites of Spring also comes to mind here).
Nicholas Thompson provides a useful summary of America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11: the Misunderstood Years Between the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Start of the War on Terror by Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier (though I’m not necessarily impressed by the numerology in this title, nor am I amused when a book’s subtitle is so long it practically needs its own agent).
I may want to read John Darnton’s Black and White and Dead All Over, a newspaper murder mystery reviewed today by Joshua Hammer, and I just don’t know what to think about David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, apparently based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet involving a family of dog trainers. You know I’m very interested in anything about Hamlet, but Mike Peed’s review really makes no sense. He manages to show off with a lot of Shakespeare inside jokes, but never helps me understand what this author intends to achieve with this novel.
And I don’t know what to say about Blake Bailey’s cutesy, chatty tone in reviewing Julia Reed’s The House on First Street:
… And not only is Julia Reed a lot richer than I, she has better journalistic cred: as an evacuee, I wrote a few columns for Slate, while Reed was bombarded with assignments from Newsweek, The Spectator and Vogue, her main employer, whose editors received an e-mail message from Reese Witherspoon, no less, asking if Reed was O.K.
This crap doesn’t belong in the New York Times Book Review. In fact, it reads like a parody of what somebody who’s never read a literary blog might think a literary blog would read like.