Guest-Reviewing the Review: April 26 2009

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.

20 Responses

  1. Bill, Poetry slams are still
    Bill, Poetry slams are still going strong here in Chi-town at the Green Mill, where it all started way back when with Marc Smith.

    I often ponder the good review/bad review question. A good example is Roger Ebert, which you brought up. He has been writing for the Sun-Times for ever, and I seem to recall that when he first came to town, he wrote mostly good reviews, and his bad reviews weren’t devastating. But then as he grew as a critic, he started being much more negative on the bad reviews. Is he too mean?
    I don’t know. But the function of a critic should be to point out the good points and bad points of a work, and not hold back. If a book is not that good or not that bad, don’t damn it with faint praise but point out why it isn’t a great book, and what saves it from being bad. On the other hand if a work is great, say so, and if it sucks, don’t be shy. But first and foremost, guide the potential reader either to buy the book or forget it. That said, I have to admit that for me it is really hard to write a nasty review.

  2. Mike, Bill’s review also had
    Mike, Bill’s review also had me thinking about what it means to write a positive or negative review. I know Bill to be a very friendly and considerate person, and I wondered if he’d be able to write anything unfavorable about any critic in this Book Review. And I’m glad he was about to do this (and do it well).

    But maybe that’s one reason I chose him to be the first guest-reviewer of the NYTBR on this site — I knew he would focus on the positive — and that he’d also find a few original perspectives to offer. Thanks, Bill …

    Personally, I have never had any trouble writing a bad review (and I must say one thing — no, I really can’t stay away long …). Sam Tanenhaus would have had a much rougher time today with me. Comparing Jay McInerney to John O’Hara, and using Irish heritage as a means of equating the two? I enjoy Jay McInerney — I’ve read at least three of his books — but he’s like a damp firecracker compared to the TNT of John O’Hara. I don’t think their talents can be equated. I found it a very unconvincing review. Okay, I’ll shut up now.

  3. Well… I figured Sam would
    Well… I figured Sam would be devastated by a thrashing from an eminent literary figure like myself. I wield my power prudently.

    But seriously, yeah, I know critical reviews are not my forte. On my blog, I choose to feature writers I like. If I don’t like something, I don’t write about it.

    Actually, having never read McInerney, I gave Tanenhaus points for making me want to read him.

    I had a lot of fun reviewing the review and I appreciate the opportunity, but I wouldn’t want to do it evry week!

  4. No, Levi, please go on. That
    No, Levi, please go on. That Tanenhaus review was fawning drivel. The literary answer to Ben Lyons praising a film. If I were Bill Keller, I would have been embarrassed to have printed it. But I’m wondering if Tanenhaus wrote the piece because either (a) a front page review fell through at the last minute or (b) the New York Times is trying to save money by having staffers write all the reviews. Either way, it’s a disservice to the NYTBR and a disservice to Tanenhaus, who we KNOW can write better. Tanenhaus should stick to writing about conservatism, not literature. That’s what he’s good at.

  5. Bill, you are wise to wield
    Bill, you are wise to wield your power prudently.

    Ed, my theory as to Tanenhaus’s motivation is that he is a friend and peer of McInerney (who has written for the Book Review, not that there’s anything wrong with that). He probably didn’t mind puffing up a friend.

    I think of Jay McInerney as a talented magazine writer who once scored a hit novel.

  6. But Ed, there was a black &
    But Ed, there was a black & white photo of McInerney looking cool at a party! How could he not be a great writer??

  7. Some of John O’Hara’s short
    Some of John O’Hara’s short stories are Sherwood Anderson-like, pretty good

  8. Mike Stipe riding w/ Danny
    Mike Stipe riding w/ Danny Bonaduce’s fat longhaired brother on an English scooter, to a health food meal, where one of the flat chested women is not wearing a bra.

    Andy Warhol, who said it’s not who you are but who you think you are, told Stipe that he was a pop star. Stipe answered that he was just a singer in a rock & roll band.

    Stipe likes to have his picture taken. He considers himself a photographer. Makes sense to me. He’s a half-assed musician/artist.

    Hubert Selby jr. didn’t look cool. But he’s got them all beat

  9. If you like “funny”, you’d
    If you like “funny”, you’d very likely enjoy Logan’s book — except of course that you haven’t read the poets he’s talking about. Ignoring poetry, I always argue, completely undermines any even moderate literary credibility.

    Seriously, “Poetry slams”? They still have them, I guess, if you would want to go to them. It’s mostly political screed or schmaltz using high school—level rhetorical techniques. They’re a lot like most movies that way. You know, you’re pretty derogatory about poetry for admittedly being so ignorant.

  10. Daniel Pritchard — why you
    Daniel Pritchard — why you hating? For the record, Bill attempted to write about poetry (an area he admitted to not knowing well) because I asked him to make sure he covered the William Logan book. I find Logan’s approach to poetry criticism interesting and was curious what he’d have to say about this article. So if you don’t like the results, you can blame it on me.

    As for poetry slams, though, I think you’re way off. I’ve enjoyed some amazing slams in New York City … the scene is very much alive, and will be staying alive for years to come, in places like the Bowery Poetry Club. High-school level rhetoric? That’s how I’d describe the way national and international politics is often carried out these days, but the poetry slam scene appears to be far advanced beyond that.

  11. How was I derogatory?

    I am
    How was I derogatory?

    I am interested in knowing what poets Logan likes. Am I to gather that poetry is so important to William Logan that he makes it his mission to weed out all the stuff that doesn’t stand up, to challenge poets to rise above the mundane?

    Of all the poets mentioned in the review, the one I have read is Gary Snyder, and I like his work. It seems to me that Logan took an easy cheap shot.

    SNYDER: “Lay down these words/Before your mind like rocks/placed solid, by hands/In choice of place…” – Riprap

    LOGAN: “a man trying to make verse with magnets on a refigerator door…”
    But I wasn’t reviewing Logan, I was reviewing the review of Logan’s book.

  12. “Daniel – why you hating”

    “Daniel – why you hating”
    As Oscar Wilde remarked of Cardinal Newman,’He’ll go far in the cloth , he’s a good hater’
    Literary criticism can be very polite, but there are some acid reviews and remarks around, and literary cricism is all the better for it.
    Balzac on Hugo can be quite entertaining, as can Shelley on Wordsworth. Dorothy Parker when she’s on the acid can be wonderfully creative with the minamalist invective.
    Politeness or political correctness are a waste of space in all matters prtaining to literary criticism.
    A bit of blood on the lit crit carpet can improve the decor, if not the architecture of a review.
    It’s good for the soul of literature.

    Most slams Iv’e attended recently seem to be about therapy for the participants, the poetry’s usually angst ridden, or drearily political. It was’nt always like that, its a post 911 thing I think.

  13. More Warhol–Descartes

    More Warhol–Descartes

    Mike Stipe
    Backstage at U2 concert.
    Mediocre Bono gives Bonaduce a
    Bruce Springsteen-like soul kiss. The Edge
    Though is cordial

  14. Everybody thinks they’re
    Everybody thinks they’re Descartes for fifteen minutes.

  15. I do understand the points
    I do understand the points that Daniel and Duncan make about poetry “slams.” There is usually a certain amount of ranting that isn’t necessarily poetic, but you get some good stuff mixed in, too.

    A live poetry “performance” is often more cathartic for the poet than the listeners, whereas, good criticism can be cathartic to the reader, who says, “Thank you! I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who thinks this poet’s reputation is overblown.” It goes back to “the emperor wears no clothes but everyone is afraid to tell him.”

    Maybe William Logan is the Seth McFarland of poetry. Just lampoon every damn thing equally.

  16. response to ny times sunday
    response to ny times sunday bk review article on wm logan
    « on: April 28, 2009, 07:48:49 AM » Quote Modify Remove

    sent this to wm logan after reading the ny times bk review this wkend- abt his scathing reviews of some other poets

    From: Eberhardt, David
    Sent: Tuesday, April 28, 2009 1:12 PM


    To: William Logan
    Subject: FW: Dear Eds.

    maybe u’ll get a kick out of this- naturally i’m sending u some of my stuff- but that’s snail mail

    you even got a drawing of yrself in the bk review- i’m thinking is he wall eyed? no- it’s hart crane’s revenge- you have a “seal’s spindrift wide eyed gaze towards paradise”?

    i sort of like the tough, mystical guys- robt bly, jack gilbert, rumi thru coleman barks- maybe i should take a look at yr. stuff- watch out- you’re gonna get some treetments

    actually- liking wilbur and merwin quite enuff- i’ll say this- wilbur is annoyingly classical and merwin too vaporous- look i can b like u-

    but actually- congratz- it takes a genius to recognize who is- and who isn’t

    one i really don’t like- ass berry

    From: Eberhardt, David
    Sent: Tuesday, April 28, 2009 12:31 PM
    To: ‘’
    Subject: Dear Eds.

    Referencing the article by poet William Logan and his discontents with various poets in the Book Review of April 26: having heard our poetic God/grandfathers- Richard Wilbur in person recently and W.S. Merwin on the radio- I can only be glad that Logan hasn’t savaged them. Much of his targets deserve what he is dishing them- although- I think Hart Crane- he of the juicy, Latinate words and cadences- could be forgiven his obscurities, and Gary Snyder- who is rarely obscure- has a quite lapidary style that is not similar to choosing words like the ones on refridge magnets or Valentine’s heart shaped candies- Snyder’s work is allways (sp?) bracing and insightful.

    Logan is onto something in his criticisms; so much of contemporary poetry seems very little different from prose- it’s just prose broken into poetic looking lines (a technique started by Pound and Williams) , and few contemporary poets attempt anything deep. It mostly seems academic and cute- glazed over by a layer of faux insight. I think poetry should be amazing.

    I rarely hear poets discussing such subjects of interest as sex or death or finances- especially their own. I have yet to attend a reading where the poet discussed his or her ego involvement- in other words- there’s a lot of dishonesty and shallowness around in contemporary poetry. Logan has the moxie, the duende to strike a dissenting note- a rare thing in itself. How many reviews do you read where the writer really cuts loose? Are poets that fragile a group- that a little criticism might blow them away?

    Dave Eberhardt
    4 Hadley Sq. N.
    Baltimore, Md. 21218


    frog in bog

    i also told logan that i liked the poet alan dugan

    i told him not to pick on billy collins too much- cuz billy is a nice guy- his lines aren’t so “embarrassing”- he is droll, he is witty, he is insightful, he is wry, he is all that

    i can think of some comical poems by louis/lewis carroll and edward lear that don’t get read much but are still funny- my favorite of course is “the dong w the luminous nose” (becuz of its secret pornographic text)

    dave -froginbog- in baltimore

  17. Thanks for these replies,
    Thanks for these replies, Dave. Your balanced comments have rounded out this thread perfectly. I like your style.

  18. Bill- how did I get on here?-
    Bill- how did I get on here?- I must back track- read more
    please tell me more abt Bill Ectric that name? how? what ethnicity?

    are u from planet mork

    visit my web site – which is pitiful given the “free webs” … sponsor (actuallly i am sponsored (like nascar drivers) buy ju ju fruit and pampers

    (of course when i refer to “amasing” poetry- i’m thinking of my own….
    i believe in transparency, hense

    david eberhardt


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