Reviewing the Review: May 3 2009

I almost had to skip another weekly Review review (did I mention I’m moving?), but I figure a short one will do. I hope to run more reports from PEN World Voices soon this weekend too.

Toure reviews Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor on the cover of this weekend’s New York Times Book Review, and most of the article has to do with racial identity. I’m a little disappointed in this tepid and tired subject. I read and liked Whitehead’s Apex Hides the Hurt and I once had a nice chat with him at some Litblog Co-op or Soft Skull party, but it never even occurred to me to register what race he was. I’m not sure if it’s Toure or Colson Whitehead, but somebody needs to get over being African-American here. (Meanwhile, I’m trying to get over being Jewish-American).

Ethnic obsessions aside, Toure does come up with one nice line about Whitehead’s main character:

Benji lives in a world not unlike Charlie Brown’s, where adults are mostly offstage.

Bruce Handy reviews two books about the New York Mets, The Complete Game: Reflections on Baseball, Pitching, and Life on the Mound by Ron Darling with Daniel Paisner and Straw: Finding My Way by Darryl Strawberry with John Strausbaugh. Handy claims to be a Mets fan, and his work looks good at first when he goes off on a rant about Alex Rodriguez’s steroid abuse and the New York Mets’s new stadium:

[Baseball] breaks your heart in crass, grubby, depressing ways. As when the star third baseman of your 10-year-old son’s favorite team grudgingly confesses to having used steroids. Or when your own favorite team knocks down its stadium and puts up a pretty taxpayer-supported park named for a taxpayer-financed bank and with 15,000 fewer seats than the old pile, so that when you try to buy tickets to individual games for your family, the only seats available to the general public start at $270 a pop. True, you can find cheaper seats for resale on StubHub, but why, in depression or boom, does such a thing as a $270 baseball ticket even exist? Too often, the taste baseball leaves behind is less bitter­sweet than just plain bitter.

However, Handy blows the outing here on two inexplicable bad moves. First, it’s a flat-out lie that all or even most tickets at CitiField cost $270. I just bought tickets for $23 each for a Friday night game in June against the Devil Rays. Anybody can go to or and do the same.

The only way Handy’s statement makes sense is if you define “seats” to mean “great seats”. Which shows him to be a seating snob as well as an irresponsible journalist. Considering that the New York Mets organization is made up of human beings, isn’t it seriously wrong for the New York Times to publish an insulting fact about the Mets’ new stadium in a widely read publication when the insulting fact is patently false?

And shouldn’t a fact-checker have caught this?

Anyway … Handy should relax about where he sits, and just sneak up to the good seats after the sixth inning like I and my kids do.

Also finally, what the hell is a Met fan’s son doing with a Yankee third-baseman as his hero? The fact that Handy wasn’t dressing his kid in orange and blue and properly training him from day one (as I did with all of mine) proves what I suspected about Bruce Handy from the beginning: he is not a Mets fan.

Okay, enough about this, though Times ombudsman Clark Hoyt should check this case out. Back at the Book Review, I’ll give John Pipkin’s Woodsburner, a fictionalization of the life of Thoreau, a chance based on Brenda Wineapple’s measured praise.

I’ve had enough of all William F. Buckley’s damn relatives in the New York Times Book Review to last two lifetimes.

And Clive James’s review of John Updike’s final book of poetry Endpoint is beautifully done, though rather obviously a gift (I bet even in the future, John Updike will never be remembered for poetry).

5 Responses

  1. “…isn’t it seriously wrong
    “…isn’t it seriously wrong for the New York Times to publish an insulting fact about the Mets’ new stadium in a widely read publication when the insulting fact is patently false?”

    It seems to me that this is mainly what the NY Times does.

    I hate to say only negative, so I will say that there’s a review of a Jim Mann book and I think Jim Mann is overall a good writer and analyst. I base this on his books relating to China which have been excellent, rather than his domestic politics books and the book reviewed today is about domestic, but still, I thought I’d plug Jim Mann.

    Have fun moving, Levi. (It’s fun having moved, after being done with it).

  2. Just checking in. Clive
    Just checking in. Clive James'(whom I have a lot of respect for) piece on John Updike’s “Endpoint and Other Poems” was amusing in what can only be described as an unintentional way. Some tidbits:

    “John Updike was always so careful not to make high claims for himself as a poet …”

    “Nobody, and especially not other poets, wanted to think of him as a poet as well. Helpfully, he appeared to think the same.”


    “The phrase ‘gigantic silver screen’ is uncharacteristically automatic: in a novel Updike would not have permitted himself to be so ordinary. But poetry was his holiday.”

    Poetry as more ordinary than the novel?

    “Updike could have reported the nation like this (i.e. in verse) all his life, but he chose another method. Let there be no doubt, though, about the high quality of what he might have done.”

    Could have? No doubt? Might have done?

    “In a single poem (“Bird Caught in My Deer Netting”), he did enough to prove that he not only had the whole tradition of English-language poetry in his head, he had the means to add to it.”

    The WHOLE tradition? Really? Plus he could have added to it but didn’t?

    Huh? Huh?

    “It’s (“Bird Caught in My Deer Netting”) a wonderful poem, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves. He wrote very few like it, and usually, even on the comparatively rare occasions when he tried to give it everything, he was led toward frivolity by his fatal propensity for reveling in skill. But his very last book (“Endpoint”), a book of poems, proves that he always had what it took.”

    It’s nice to know that he always had what it took not to become a first-rate poet. It is also nice to know that a poem that proves he bore the entire weight of the English language poetic tradition in his noodle is full of wonder, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves.

    Someone else is doing that for us.

    Not to be too snarky about it, but anyone reading this review down to the last graph (“It’s a wonderful poem …”) would be heading right out to the store to scoop up this volume. There is a bit of critical sleight of hand going on here. Any reader, however, who doesn’t pull up with the arrival of the next to last sentence (“He wrote very few like it …”) is either not reading closely enough or has been simply hypnotized by all that movement.

  3. I like your analysis, Don.

    I like your analysis, Don.

    I think the slight of hand here is a case of “reverence for the recently dead”.

    I do think it is the case, though, that with Updike the novel was a more exalted form than the poem. A contrary stance, certainly.

  4. Handy’s ticket rant stuck in
    Handy’s ticket rant stuck in my craw a bit too, but I ultimately was amused that the DEPUTY EDITOR OF VANITY FAIR of all people was crying about inflated ticket prices. “Three-figure view”? Ugh. The attempt to make the review timely just ended up making me hate Bruce Handy.

    That being said, the Darling book is going on my summer reading list.

  5. it’s boxing day 2009, and
    it’s boxing day 2009, and I’ve just discovered your lovely site. thank you, but fishing around I discovered the above notes of said review re Whitehead’s “Sag Harbor.” of course, given that your comments are a mere dash within your larger text, I’m not surprised that no one responded to your snarky disclaimer about “tired and tepid . . . racial identity” something or other. point taken and sadly so.

    of course I had to read the review you claim was dominated by PC politics, and found it balanced and relevent to the author’s first autobiographical novel. perhaps your disinterest in Colson’s racialized/classed/gendered identity construct is a comment about Colson’s work and the subject you’ve apparently successfully avoided in your blog/zine.

    apparently to “notice” Colson’s race is to face our (your) eternally uncomfortable, barely reconcilable difference.

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