Reviewing the Review: August 3 2008

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.

5 Responses

  1. I’m intrigued that Vogue gets
    I’m intrigued that Vogue gets emails from Reese Witherspoon. She did a pretty good movie when she was 14 or so, then all downhill, way way downhill. And Vogue is some sort of in vogue type magazine, I guess, having never read or looked at one. But tons of people read that stuff (was gonna say ‘that kinda crap’ but really don’t know if it is or not). All that aside (far aside) I wonder at the appeal of non-fiction; or more specifically, the second class treatment of literary fiction.

    The former being a factual known quantity – Bush lied, Cheney lied. Yes, they’re liars, crooks, murderers. And the right and the corporate bosses love them, sleep with them at night. And we could walk up to them and say – here’s the facts. And they say – facts don’t matter, only greenbacks, power, control over you little insignificants.

    So what the point? The bastard step-child, lit fic, aims to change minds, corrupted minds since childhood, school age, indoctrinification. If it can, it is our hope. If it can, we should empower it. That is all.

  2. The essay on gout, was
    The essay on gout, was bizarrely fun. Bizzarre because gout fun? Cacun sa gout, I guess (that doesn’t work well without accent marks).

    On the topic therefore again of lit fic — its second class treatment. Does it deserve it?

    Is it treated second class. I don’t know, yeah, here I only saw the web site version, but there seemed to be a fair amount of lit fic content, from the cacun sa gout essay to novel reviews.

    This has come up before and I have said it before, the New York Times is interested in being influential and affecting politics. This is why they subjugate every section along these lines, including book review. It is not a newspaper, nor is book review really a book review (to the extent it is not an industry publication).

    It’s not called Literary Review, it is called book review.

    Can’t really expect much from the New York Times. Anything we get is a plus — and there were at least two yesterday to my mind, the Mercury thing and the gout essay.

    But forgetting about endemic corruption of institutions such as the new York Times, I now read 10 to one non-fiction. Usually biographies. Why? I am not sure, but literary fiction can be incredibly uneven. Usually when I do read lit fic that is new, I can’t finish it. It plain and simply is not that good.

    Good lit fic that lasts is probably under the radar screen, as it almost always has been to some degree. It hides in plain site under the swamp of corporate publishing big business lit fic industry — who can tell the wheat from the chaff — or does not see the light of day at all.

    There was an interesting article about genre fiction creeping in to lit fic, as in books considered genre fiction are being nominated for or awarded literary prizes. And the converse as well, genre awards and genre fiction is getting more literary. (where did I read this? Anyone else see it? Maybe in the last LA Slimes book review last week).

    I think this is also related to and even part and parcel of the problem of lit fic.

  3. TKG, under the radar is a big
    TKG, under the radar is a big part of the problem, but NYTBR and Litkicks are ‘sposed t’be the radar scopes that catch every blip, whale or sub. Try these –
    Digging the Vein
    Down And Out On Murder Mile
    both by Tony O’Neill
    The Delivery Man by Joe Mcginniss
    The Road by Cormac McCarthy
    Remainder by Tom McCarthy.
    any of my books

    In a general sense, I suppose someone like you, or most of the Litkicks readers, don’t need the educative benefits of lit fic – i.e., you, we, all of us, know the thoughts of Homer, Shakespeare, Sartre, Kerouac, et al. But 99% of the planet doesn’t. So even if you only read lit fic for pleasure or something to do; at least you’ll be able to advise others, to be the radar scope, the lighthouse beacon, that can tell the 99%-ers which direction to head.

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