Reviewing the Review: October 12 2008

Every once in a while East Village poet Richard Hell gets invited to write for the New York Times Book Review, and when he does he usually shows the other critics how it’s done. His unenthusiastic review of Edmund White’s biography Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel is witty, lush and elegant, especially when he ignores White’s book and spins his own appreciations:

He learned very much from Baudelaire, and in many ways Baudelaire remains his master, but Baudelaire was a poet of ennui (and dreams), while Rimbaud reels with the most robust — if often contemptuous — vitality (and dreams).

Edmund White’s book is part of James Atlas’s series of short biographies, and Hell clearly seems to think that Atlas ought to have invited Hell to write the biography of Arthur Rimbaud so that Edmund White could review it in the NYTBR. Interestingly, Germaine Greer seems to have a similar feeling about an ambitious history book, The Enemy Within: 2,000 Years of Witch-Hunting in the Western World by John Demos. Greer takes John Demos apart like an expert lawyer with a crouching witness. She seems to have the knowledge to back her criticism up:

Moreover, Demos is ill equipped to explain why it is that the most frightful witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries occurred in Protestant Europe, where the authority of the papacy had been rejected and minority sects and millennial cults were springing up everywhere. He disposes of the most diligent witch hunters in Europe in a few brief synoptic paragraphs that add little to our understanding of why 9 million — or was it 50,000? — people were tried as witches between 1550 and 1700.

“Ill equipped”! Ouch. I expect to read a letter of protest from John Demos two Sundays from now. But it better be a good letter, because Germaine Greer makes a very strong case.

These two takedowns were the pieces I enjoyed the most in today’s Book Review. I was a bit puzzled at first by Anthony Gottlieb’s survey of parrots in literature but by the time Gottlieb pointed out that somebody puts a parrot into a stew pot in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and a parrot comes out of a stew pot in Love in the Time of Cholera I was sold. Good parrot piece.

I’m interested in Susan Morgan’s Bombay Anna: The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of the “King and I” Governess, based on Leah Price’s review, which focuses on a surprising racial angle to the familiar true story.

It’s probably not Alan Furst’s fault that I don’t care about John LeCarre’s A Most Wanted Man. I just have better things to read. I’m not sure which of Julia Glass’s I See You Everywhere, Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil or Per Paterson’s To Siberia will make it onto my list either, but Liesl Schillinger, Lorraine Adams and Jonathan Miles all provided useful summaries so I can at least pretend at cocktail parties if needed.

We are sorry to learn of NYTBR trusted editor Dwight Garner’s impending transfer from the Sunday publication to the daily Times book section. At one point we at LitKicks picked Garner to succeed (we hoped) Sam Tanenhaus as the Book Review’s chief, based on his prescient creation of the successful blog Paper Cuts. Well, I guess that’s not going to happen. I sure hope the Book Review doesn’t let Paper Cuts languish in Garner’s absence.

On the positive side, this probably means we’ll read fewer book reviews by the consistently disappointing Michiko Kakutani in the daily New York Times. We can only hope.

6 Responses

  1. Richard Hell knows firsthand
    Richard Hell knows firsthand what it means to disorganize the senses; his Rimbaud would’ve been hot. Check out James Atlas’s Delmore Schwartz biography.

  2. Apropos Edmund White on
    Apropos Edmund White on Rimbaud — the space limitations of the short biographies pretty much guarantee superficial treatment of the subject. Ed White does a great job when he has the full-book format — his biography of Genet is wonderful.

  3. Richard Hell provided an
    Richard Hell provided an excellent take on Rimbaud and his poetry:

    “He didn’t have to try to translate his perceptions into language; he understood that he must see in language, and he saw with the supreme, paradoxically unformed, fluid ego of an adolescent.”

  4. Le Carre is great! A Most
    Le Carre is great! A Most Wanted man one of his best!

    Kakutani is a very weird woman, simultaneously in love with authors and spanking them.

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