Reviewing the Review: December 14 2008

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.

5 Responses

  1. my only problem with today’s
    my only problem with today’s issue was the scathing review of The Jewel of Medina, which is sitting on my bedside table as one of this month’s books to read. I almost didn’t read the review, through a strangely prescient fear that it would expose me for having purchased this book only on political or moral principle, but couldn’t help sneaking a peak at the closing paragraphs and now have this dilemma of whether or not to invest any time (on top of the money) in a book which is (by one authoritative account, at least) absolutely terrible….(Voice in Head : “those reviewers don’t know what they’re talking about….how many great works have been critically slammed?….inevitable post-reactionary nonsense….and so on)….

  2. Stephen, since you already
    Stephen, since you already have the book, you might as well give it a chance, and if you disagree with the reviewer, let us know.

  3. The best way to enjoy a
    The best way to enjoy a coffee table book is as follows:

    Go to Borders or Barnes and Noble.
    Find the coffee table book of interest.
    Leaf through it there at your leisure.

    However, there are some coffee table books that you perhaps need to own. I have a couple of nice art books that I like to pull out from time to time and peruse.

  4. The price increase for art /
    The price increase for art / photo / full-color gift books is temporary — it’s due mostly to the fact of absurdly high freight costs through most of 2008.

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