I’m on vacation today, and I’ve invited Bill Ectric of Jacksonville, Florida to handle this weekend’s New York Times Book Review. Ectric has interviewed writers from Stetson Kennedy to Jeff VanderMeer, and his novel Tamper will be published this June. — Levi Asher
Filmmaker John Huston said, “Half of directing is casting the right actors.” Maybe half of writing a glowing book review is choosing the right author, but the other half is consummate skill, which Sam Tanenhaus demonstrates in his review of Jay McInerney’s latest book, How It Ended: New and Collected Stories. Tanenhaus enthusiastically builds his case that McInerney ranks with F. Scott Fitzgerald as the voice of a generation and “possesses the literary naturalist’s full tool kit,” and his enthusiasm is contagious.
Ever since Bright Lights, Big City came out in 1984, I’ve been under the impression that McInerney was an important writer, but I’ve never gotten around to reading him. This review makes him seem not only important, but vital. By chance or design, I’ve noticed more articles lately on John O’Hara, to whom Tanenhaus also compares McInerney. It’s almost like, “If you like F. Scott Fitzgerald, you’ll like John O’Hara, and if you like John O’Hara, you’ll like Jay McInerney!” How It Ended: New and Collected Stories seems like a good place to start, because, as Tanenhaus points out, the stories contained in this book span almost thirty years.
Speaking of movies, there is also a good, short video of Tanenhaus interviewing McInerney on this Sunday’s NYTBR.
Keeping in mind that choosing the right author is only half of the battle, a reviewer should not rely solely on the subject while adding nothing to the mix. I think this is what James McManus does with his review of Closing Time by Joe Queenan. McManus says little or nothing about how well or poorly Closing Time is written, relying almost exclusively on quotes and summary, beginning with, “Whether you think of Joe Queenan as refreshingly blunt or too mean for his own good, his 10th book is likely to intensify your opinion.”
Even the best parts of the Closing Time review are quotes and scene descriptions from the book. In that regard, it’s like a movie trailer. One only hopes the trailer isn’t showing all the best parts. The review starts by listing all the jobs the protagonist has while growing up. It doesn’t get good until the part about a “belligerent priest” who “spends each Saturday afternoon ‘updating us on how useless we were’ and acting ‘as if he was getting ready to slug somebody.’” Then, with a jarring jump cut, McManus describes the horrible scene of a drunken father brutally whipping his children with a belt.
This review leaves me thinking that this is one of those novels that needed to be written, and will mean a lot to some people, but not something I am interested in.
Next up, Mark Ford reviews Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue by William Logan. I only read a smattering of poetry from time to time, and even less poetry criticism, so I can say with certainty that I enjoyed Mark Ford’s review more than I would enjoy Logan’s book. Ford made me laugh. Describing Logan’s use of a passage from James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans, in which savages prepare to attack an unsuspecting group of travelers in the forest, Ford suggests that, “many a poet over the last few decades must have felt a bit like one of Cooper’s hapless heroines, tied to the stake, war whoops in the ears, a blurred, scalp-hungry tomahawk glinting in the sun, as they absorbed the bad news about their latest collection in one of the hilariously damning New Criterion verse chronicles in which the savage critic biannually vents his spleen.”
More important than being funny, however, Ford actually adds some analysis of his own, regarding the pros and cons of “slash & burn” criticism. For example, it makes it more exciting. But if I want excitement in poetry, I’ll go to a poetry slam (do they still have those?). This Logan fellow doesn’t seem to like any of the poets he discusses. Seems too negative, but on the other hand, I am reminded that I have a book of Roger Ebert’s movie reviews, and the entries I enjoy reading the most are of the movies Ebert couldn’t stand. If I were more of a poetry buff, I would probably get a kick out of this book.
Expressing more individuality and personal reflection than the previous three reviewers, Roger Cohen’s piece on The Myth of American Exceptionalism by Godfrey Hodgson could almost be a stand-alone article instead of a book review. I mean that in a good way, because Cohen truly seems to have pondered the subject before, during, and after he read the book. The subject, unfortunately, is a depressing one: the decline of the United States from a bastion of shining ideology to just another floundering nation.
Cohen doesn’t give the book a free ride by any means. He points out flaws and exaggerations in some of Godfrey Hodgon’s assertions, but overall, he concurs with Hodgon that American ideas have become distorted. This review makes me want to read the book.
Next: A kinder, gentler atheism? That’s the idea I get from Mark Oppenheimer’s review of Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America — and Found Unexpected Peace by William Lobdell. Oppenheimer says that Lobdell’s “humane, even-tempered book does more to advance the cause of irreligion than the bilious atheist by Christopher Hitchens and others that have become so common.” The only problem I see with this book is that thousands of other people have had similar experiences, in which they become born-again Christians, maintain their “new lives” for a number of years, and then gradually realize they no longer believe as blindly as they did during their conversion experience. This review does nothing to show me why Lobdell’s experience is any different.
Victoria Redel begins her review of The Possession of Mr. Cave by Matt Haig with a personal anecdote about parenting, to illustrate the difficulty parents face in protecting their children without coddling them. The story involves the widowed father of twins, a boy and a girl. The boy twin is killed in an accident.
I had to stop and reread parts of this review. I found it hard to follow. Okay, it has the standard conflicts between parents and teenagers, but Redel keeps using words like chilling, terror, possession, and then something about the spectral appearance of the dead boy, and maybe we’re not supposed to know if it’s a real ghost or a psychological manifestation. Maybe Redel is keeping it murky on purpose. Going back to my earlier film analogies, this is like a movie that I wouldn’t rush to see, but if it came on television, I would give it a chance, who knows, I might be pleasantly surprised.