Reviewing the Review: November 9 2008

It’s a new day. The weather’s nice, Barack Obama is going to be President of the United States, and Jonathan Lethem has written a superb article about Roberto Bolano’s 2666 on the front cover of this weekend’s New York Times Book Review.

Steering clear of his dreaded coy side, Lethem constructs a frame of reference to help explain Bolano’s dissembled philosophical narrative, and since everybody seems to be talking about Roberto Bolano these days, I sincerely appreciate Lethem’s step-by-step walkthrough of this 898-page epic. Will I read this book myself? Sure, I’ll give it a try, but like Sarah Weinman I feel some skepticism about this current Bolano craze. The Savage Detectives didn’t pull me in, but I’ll try again.

Lethem is rapturous, of course, about 2666, whereas Akash Kapur’s The White Tiger gets treated rather rudely in this issue by Aravind Adiga. I’ve read several bloggers who do not think The White Tiger deserved to win the Man Booker Prize, and I guess I’ll have to see what I think of this book too. I’ve got a lot of reading to do.

Robert Kagan praises Carlo D’Este’s Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945, making no reference to the stunning case against the heroic reputation of Winston Churchill contained in Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke, which was easily the most influential and widely-discussed history book published in the last year. For Kagan to pretend Baker’s book didn’t pop some pinholes in Churchill’s legend is disingenuous. He approaches D’Este’s book reverently, despite the fact that it appears to be a rather redundant biography (aren’t there already about 40 in print?) designed to be bought for Dads and Grand-dads this Christmas. Since September 11, 2001 Winston Churchill has become just as big a cottage industry as Elvis Presley or Jack Kerouac, but Robert Kagan’s review fails to provide critical insight on this point. Instead, he falls right for the gimmick.

This issue contains two decent poetry pieces, neither as good as William Logan would have written. Peter Stevenson likes Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry by Donald Hall. August Kleinzahler likes James Merrill Selected Poems, and reminds us that James Merrill was of the “Merrill Lynch” Merrills (this fact takes on special resonance now that Merrill Lynch, an anchor of American finance, has just collapsed).

The endpaper delivers some serious shredded wheat for your Sunday morning, and in fact I appreciate the chewy heft very much. Richard Parker writes about an influential book about the economy, The Modern Corporation and Private Property written by Adolf Augustus Berle in 1932. I learned much I didn’t know. I also learned a few things I didn’t know from a full-page ad for the Sinclair Institute’s “Lifetime of Better Sex” video series (“Explicit and Uncensored! Real People Demonstrating Real Sexual Techniques!”). Well, if ads like this pay for articles by serious writers like Richard Parker, that’s good enough for me. This was an excellent New York Times Book Review for an excellent weekend.

Finally, farewell to John Leonard, esteemed culture critic who was the editor-in-chief of the New York Times Book Review back in the early 1970s. I hope to see new editions of John Leonard’s collected writings, and I’m proud to have briefly had a chance to meet him at BookExpo in New York City last year. On that day I found him wiry, growly and certainly highly alert — I imagined at the time that he had many more decades of good writing left to do.

3 Responses

  1. I don’t normally read the
    I don’t normally read the NYTBR, preferring instead the shortened reviewing the reviews here on litkicks, but I do occasionally browse it. I skimmed through the first few paragraphs of the cover article without having any idea which book I was reading about until BolaƱo’s name came up, interesting only in that I’ve already read 2666. It wasn’t that the article was covered in slobbering praise (it was) that made me think Lethem might have lost his objectivity, but no criticisms on a 900 page novel left unpublished (and possibly unedited?) at the time of the author’s death?

    Being an infrequent reader of the review, maybe you can answer me this: How appropriate is name-dropping in book reviews? Is there a limit per paragraph? I tried to ask John Updike this once but lost my nerve upon actually meeting him. It seems to me that it is a way of not actually having to describe the book.

    Also, there should be a drinking game where one has to drink every time someone writes a book about Winston Churchill. By the end, we could be as drunk as… Winston Churchill?

  2. The Lethem piece is atypical
    The Lethem piece is atypical Lethem, except that he name-checks Phil Dick in the first graph. I think that must for Google hits or something. You know, so that in the future when people Google “Philip K. Dick” the first thing that pops up is a Lethem essay on, I don’t know, wallpaper or something.

    Why write about a book in a book review, when there are so many more interesting things to write about, and few, if any, are ever swayed this way or that by criticism of a text – much more intriguing to know about that heroin-poisoned liver, or those impoverished final years. Heck, I was going to wait for the Ridley Scott movie, but since 2666 was written by a cynical, dying, literary-obsessed junkie, the novel is moving to the top of my MUST READ list. (Full disclosure: it was already there.)

    Rubiao: are you being ironic? Name-dropping in a question about name-dropping? Holy Hollywood hilarious, Rube-man!

    Donald Hall! The poet’s poet’s poet. Is the life more interesting that the work, or vice versa?

    Bye, John Leonard. If you get an afterlife, I hope there’s lots of reading. (He probably did have more in him, Levi – he was a veritable fount of knowledge – but Life decided to edit short the final chapters.)

    I also learned a few things I didn’t know from a full-page ad for the Sinclair Institute’s “Lifetime of Better Sex” video series (“Explicit and Uncensored! Real People Demonstrating Real Sexual Techniques!”).

    There’s more than one person smiling around your house today!

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