Reviewing the Review: March 29 2009

It can’t feel good to go to work in the morning and find out you got a 5% paycut. So I’ll be extra nice to the folks at the New York Times Book Review, which is easy to do because this weekend’s issue is pretty good.

I’m often unimpressed when a hot new writer gets big front-page treatment on the cover of the NYTBR and everywhere else (I still have bad memories of last year’s “Joseph O’Neill is the new F. Scott Fitzgerald” craze). Today’s up-and-comer is Wells Tower, the book is called Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (which sounds a bit Jonathan Safran Foer, but okay) and the reviewer is Edmund White, who does fairly convincing work. I’ll spend some time giving this book a chance. White’s closing paragraph is especially nice:

I once wondered why Surrealism never really caught on as a literary strategy in America. Wells Tower makes me think that nothing bizarre someone might dream up could ever be as strange as American life as we live it. The “beyond” that the Surrealists talked about so much, the au-dela, is America itself.

Here’s a nifty surprise: graphic novelist Alison Bechdel has written (drawn?) a review of Jane Vandenburgh’s autobiographical A Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth Century as a comic strip. The Book Review is clearly embracing the comix-lit form with open arms (they began running a bestseller list for graphic books last week), and it’s a very refreshing touch. Does the format actually serve the medium well? In Bechdel’s capable hands, it does, though the cartoonist’s pleasing work inadvertently upstages the book she’s reviewing. Also, it’s a bit shameless for the NYTBR to go on and on about the originality of this concept in an “Up Front” editor’s note, when in fact this is a straight-up Ward Sutton bite. The Book Review gets points for trying this experiment, but they shouldn’t act like they invented the idea.

Other good articles today include a memorable consideration of Anne Carson’s casual/contemporary translation of a newly arranged Oresteia (a trilogy custom-assembled from Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripidies) by Brad Leithauser, who contrasts Carson’s colloquial work with Richard Lattimore’s dignified classic 1953 translation and concludes that poet Robert Lowell struck the best balance of all.

More pleasures of the canon are found in Rich Cohen excellent evaluation of David Plotz’s Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible, a collection of blog posts originally published on Slate. And Charles McGrath fills us in Michael Holroyd’s A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and Their Remarkable Families (I’ve been interested in 19th Century celebrity/actor Henry Irving since reading about him in George Grossmith’s hilarious Diary of a Nobody).

There are other articles that appear worthwhile today, but I have a very busy weekend planned and will have to skip a few. Consider it my 5% attention cut.

4 Responses

  1. Does this mean I have to
    Does this mean I have to withdraw five percent of all scathing comments, publishing screeds that get denounced but people read anyway, and ad hominem attacks? Oh, woe is moi. — Tim Barrus, Another Marijuana Coffee Shop, Amsterdam

  2. It’s annoying when the only
    It’s annoying when the only comments to an intelligent review of the Review are self-serving ones intending to get traffic to some idiot’s own blog, but we just wanted to say that we added up only 1.25 pages of ads today, about one-third of the average recent number, which itself has been pretty bad.

  3. I am naturally drawn to
    I am naturally drawn to stories of the down-and-out, the unsuccessful, and the suffering, so after reading White’s review I am tempted to buy Tower’s book. Maybe I can get a library copy first.

    I am always interested in Anne Carson, but this review made me want to read Lattimore’s or Lowell’s translation. I prefer my Greek drama dramatic rather than pedestrian, contemporary, or hip.

  4. Spot-on with the Bechdel
    Spot-on with the Bechdel review; god only knows it takes forever to write a simple review to begin with and her technique is so complex (yeah, that’s right, the old cliché it looks so simple applies) I can’t begin to imagine how much time she put in.

    Let NYTBR become a single broadsheet (it’s already heading in that direction) with all graphic reviews by Alison. Three-line personals on the reverse would solve the advertising problem. Here, here.

    Ok, maybe not … but she sure is great.


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