Some readers objected when I scoffed at last week’s Holiday Issue of the New York Times Book Review and said “I’m not going to sit here reviewing a bunch of articles about coffee-table books”. Just to be clear: I did not mean to imply that expensive art books, picture books, gardening books and travel books should not exist, or should not be covered in the New York Times. I like coffee-table books myself, and have bought and enjoyed many over the years. Like Cosmo Kramer, I would even like to write one myself someday.
Still, I am not interested in writing about the “gift book” marketplace here on LitKicks, and I am concerned that book publishers seem to be hedging their bets lately by raising prices and trying to profit by margin rather than volume. I’d rather they try the gutsier move of lowering prices and allowing readers to buy more books. So, I decided to skip reviewing last week’s New York Times Book Review, but I did not mean to minimize the achievements of those authors and publishers who produced the expensive books in this issue, nor of the critics who reviewed these books.
There’s another reason I had to skimp on my Review Review last week, and why I’m going to skimp again this week: I’ve been extra busy lately, and sometimes I just can’t devote enough attention to a NYTBR to deliver a proper review. I’m also cooking up an exciting new project for 2009 here on LitKicks (more soon), so I’m just going to have to deliver a short summary again this week, even though today’s worthy issue holds much literary interest, without a travel or gardening book in sight.
The best piece is innovative novelist Tom McCarthy’s debut NYTBR appearance with a review of Camera by Jean-Philippe Toussaint. McCarthy likes the book, and some of his observations recall the strange thrills contained within his own Remainder, especially this passage:
For [Henri] Bergson, comedy entailed a tendency toward the mechanical. People, gestures and events become like automata — compressed, sprung, interlocked and endlessly repeating. Not for nothing does the action in “Camera” take place among automobiles: contraptions whose very name encodes self-generated motion without end. The hero’s repeated trysts with the driving-school secretary (the book’s only — and magnificently derisory — nod in the direction of plot) play out amid a mechanized landscape whose kinetic and linguistic rules must be learned and negotiated: gear-shifting, reverse-parking, street signage and game moves, on and off the board.
This issue also offers Louisa Thomas on Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed, Lorraine Adams on Sherry Jones’s The Jewel of Medina, Douglas Wolk on Art Spiegelman’s Breakdowns, Jonathan Ames The Alcoholic and David Heatley My Brain is Hanging Upside Down and Steve Coates on Martial’s Epigrams, a selection of “bawdy poems” from 1st Century Rome translated and introduced by Garry Wills. Dive in yourself and enjoy, and I’ll be back in full force next weekend.