Reviewing the Review: April 19 2009

The New York Times Book Review puzzles me today. I don’t understand why Leah Hager Cohen’s cover review of Joanna Scott’s novel Follow Me is illustrated by a woman’s face surrounded by little tadpoles with human faces while the article’s opening paragraphs compare Scott’s books to the American frontier myths of Davy Crockett. The tadpoles with human faces show up later in the article, but I can’t figure out what they’re doing in this novel or how it’s all supposed to fit together. The sense of mixed metaphor swells in the final paragraph when Cohen writes:

It’s as though the author couldn’t resist snatching up a pair of sewing scissors and, now and again, snipping a little rent in the fabric of her own work …

The rent fabric is clearly a reference to a Jewish funeral tradition — the misplaced term “rent” is a bald tipoff here, as is the fact that the reviewer is named Leah Hager Cohen. But what is a reference to a Jewish funeral tradition doing in a review of a book about a frontier woman named Sally who has human-faced tadpoles swimming around her face? The review is all over the place, and I have no idea what Joanna Scott’s novel is actually trying to be.

I am also puzzled by Pico Iyer’s very favorable review of Geoff Dyer’s travel novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (and maybe it’s my own mind that lacks sharpness today, though it’s not like I’m quitting coffee or anything). I read Iyer’s piece twice and still can’t get past “Huh?”. He offers Thomas Mann and Allen Ginsberg as reference points for Dyer’s narrative, describing a mission to “summon and advance European high culture with a slack casualness, to mix a with-it, slangy, trans-Atlantic prose with the concerns of classic fiction (about self and morality and God)”. Fine, but we don’t need to go any further than Allen Ginsberg to achieve that: Iyer’s has just described the entire cultural program of Ginsberg’s Beat Generation. So what do we need Thomas Mann and Geoff Dyer for? And what do Martin Amis, Susan Sontag, Philip Roth, V. S. Naipaul, W. G. Sebald, Colson Whitehead, Ed Ruscha, Tintoretto, Lewis Thompson, Richard Lannoy, Somerset Maugham, Henry James and Dante have to do with it?

Again, I don’t think it should reflect badly on this novel that I can’t figure out what the review is talking about. But maybe critics like Pico Iyer and Leah Hager Cohen should stick closer to their source material, present some quotes (so we can get a flavor for the prose being praised), and, most importantly, do a whole lot less spinning. A good fiction review doesn’t just plop us into the airy regions of appreciation and free association that result from finishing a good novel — a good review must take us there. Both Cohen and Iyer appear to be deeply moved by the books they’ve just read, but their readers are left behind.

I also can’t figure out what the appeal of Charlotte Roche’s Wetlands is supposed to be. Michael Orthofer got a jump on me this weekend, critiquing critic Sallie Tisdale’s review of this book for missing the author’s basic message. I’ll have to take his word for it — this is just not my kind of book.

Bad illustrations are a big part of the problem in today’s Book Review. I’m not sure what to say about Robert Sullivan’s The Thoreau You Don’t Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant, a book I skimmed even though, as reviewer David Gessner says “if you already know Thoreau, you already know the Thoreau you don’t know.” Sullivan’s book must have some value, though it does come off like “Walden for Dummies”. I wish David Gessner’s review adopted a grander tone in sympathy with its subject, but most of all I wish his article wasn’t illustrated by a Monty-Python-esque collage featuring champagne being poured into a split-open Henry David Thoreau head. Perhaps this illustration was inspired by Gessner’s reference to Thoreau attending parties and “dancing a jig” during his years in Concord, but since the article does not imply that Thoreau was interested in alcohol (I’m pretty sure he wasn’t) it’s a really dumb connection to make.

Another bad attempt at illustration — a review page as a web form — mars Michael Agger’s otherwise reasonable review of Julia Angwin’s Stealing MySpace. I don’t know who is responsible for all today’s bad illustrations, but I would be gratified to learn that the Book Review’s art editor has been on vacation and will be coming back soon.

Good articles today include Mary Beard on the literary marketplace of classical Rome — I’d like to read more historical perspectives like this — and James Longenbach on two new volumes of C. P. Cafavy’s poetry translated by Daniel Mendelsohn (Longenbach is enthralled by Mendelsohn’s ability to capture the subtle mix of high and low tones that characterized Cafavy’s work).

Jennifer Senior’s summary of Dave Cullen’s Columbine is chilling and effective. Jonathan Freedland is not too impressed by liberal pollster Stanley Greenberg’s Dispatches From The War Room, though I may check out the book anyway, and I am also interested in Tall Man: The Death of Doomadgee by Chloe Hooper, a book about a prisoner death in a former Aboriginal prison camp, reviewed by Alison McCullough.

On the economic/psychological front, George Akerlof and Robert Shiller’s Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why it Matters for Global Capitalism sounds like a particularly relevant book, and Louis Uchitelle describes it simply and clearly for the reader’s benefit. And maybe our animalistic economy is actually starting to get better: this weekend’s New York Times Book Review has enough ads for a 28-page issue for the second time this month.

3 Responses

  1. Your sense on the Cohen and
    Your sense on the Cohen and Iyer reviews is generally on the money. Having only read them once, I felt Cohen was admitting she couldn’t really wrap her mind around the full import of “Follow Me”; Iyer was more problematic, if intriguing. The name dropping is so pervasive it serves as a sort of reviewer’s shorthand lexicon. I agree with you though; if the reviewer can’t connect the dots, leave them out.

    As to “Wetlands”: yikes.


  2. Many review authors are more
    Many review authors are more interested in scoring intellectual points than actually communicating with their readers. If a reviewer impresses 1% at the expense of the other 99%, it’s almost certainly a bad review.

    Another review ruiner: when reviewers try to showcase their own creative talent. If I want art, I’ll read a book, not a book review.

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