Contemplating the Review: May 10 2009

It’s now four years since I began reviewing the New York Times Book Review. A look back at my very first installment leaves me embarrassed, because I clearly did not understand the Book Review well and had little to offer beyond a negative comparison to the Velvet Underground’s song “Sunday Morning” (a reference point I have, by now, completely milked dry).

Much about my attitude towards the Book Review has changed since that weekend in May 2005 when I began this pursuit. For one thing, I knew none of the editors or critics who wrote for the Book Review back then, whereas by now I have met or corresponded with many of the NYTBR regulars and staffers. I was completely unaware, back then, of the hyperactive and highly competitive internal world inhabited by professional literary critics, too many of whom (I have now learned) are more concerned with impressing their peers than enriching their readers.

Like these book critics, I seem to have passed in the last four years from an utter outsider to some kind of an insider, and I also feel compelled at this point to continue my ongoing review of the Review in order to satisfy some relational imperative that is probably more pointless (in the great scheme of things) than it appears. Today, I stare at the latest Book Review with utter disinterest.

It’s not the Book Review’s fault — it’s just the mood I’m in. Liesl Schillinger’s cover piece on When I Forget, a first novel by Finnish author Elina Hirvonen, is fine, but I’d be lying if I pretended to have absorbed Schillinger’s article deeply enough to say anything useful about it. There appears to be some type of low-flame debate “raging” about whether or not Ayelet Waldman is a terrible person because she once wrote that she loves her husband (novelist Michael Chabon) more than she loves her kids. Waldman has now written an entire book called Bad Mother about this, and Susan Dominus is willing to play along and stoke the weak flame, but I’m not.

David Means’s review of Denis Johnson’s noir-ish Nobody Move contains one sentence that pleases me:

If “Tree of Smoke” — intricately plotted, embracing the entire Vietnam era and bringing it up alongside the war in Iraq — was a huge piece of work, a “Guernica” of sorts, then “Nobody Move” is a Warhol soup can, a flinty, bright piece of pop art meant to be instantly understood and enjoyed.

And David Hadju reviews a book by David Robertson about musician W. C. Handy and Martin Filler reviews a book by Barbara Isenberg about the wonderful architect Frank Gehry, and I want to care, but I don’t. I don’t care. I’m tired of pretending I care. I just started a very exciting and demanding new job, I just moved and am adjusting to a new and happy configuration in my daily life, and sometimes I just want to ignore the New York Times Book Review for a few weekends. So there. I said it.

I tried to deal with this two weeks ago by inviting Bill Ectric to stand in for me, but I can’t pull that trick every weekend, and I’m sure Ectric’s family wouldn’t like it if I tried. Should I quit this weekly feature? Nah. As soon as I tried to quit, I’m sure, I’d find myself burning up to comment on the next issue. Sam Tanenhaus isn’t getting rid of me that easy.

Looking back on my first stumbling attempts to review this lovable supplement (which I really do dearly love, and I hope this is clear), I find some insight in not my first but my second installment, dated May 22 2005, when I wrote this:

I pledged last Sunday to begin reviewing each issue of the New York Times Book Review in these pages. It’s now week two of this endeavor, and I’m already having a rough time.

Sometimes — okay, often — the Book Review just leaves me cold. Maybe this is what I want to complain about, because I think the world’s most renowned weekly literary review should radiate a blazing white heat with every issue. This week’s issue is a cold slab of refrigerated cheese, starting with a dull, trendy cover story about Nascar culture and books thereabout. Who cares? Where’s my fiction and poetry?

I page through: American history; women’s tales of friendship; a memoir of a person I’d never heard of when I start reading about his book; and who I forget I’d heard of by the time I turn the page; homeopathic medicine, how popular culture is good for you. Finally, on page 14 I reach the literary ghetto where novels and story collections get some ink.

But even these pages transmit a cool apathy. Once or twice each week the Book Review will favor a debut author with a polite but dismissive review, and this week this young novelist is named Alix Ohlin and the last four words of the review are “fatal shortness of interest.” Yeah, well, we’ve got some of that going on in this publication too. I should find small reviews of books by Albert Murray and Caleb Carr interesting, but the reviewers seem bored and so do I.

In other words, I’ve been singing this same “I’m bored” song for four entire years. And yet people keep reading, including you (I know you are reading this, or else you wouldn’t be reading this). So there must be some value in this nonsense, even if on this damp cool Spring morning I can’t figure out exactly what this value might be. I’ll see you next weekend. I go on.

5 Responses

  1. I like reading the reviews. I
    I like reading the reviews. I can’t always get the paper and like to hear about new titles.
    Also, Bill Ectric’s review was good.

  2. Thank you, Levi, for saying
    Thank you, Levi, for saying it out loud. It’s boredom with the routine imposed externally, plus emotional exhaustion from the high level of output and expectation, added to the chronic anxiety of living in the dim, airless space between the wish and its fulfillment. A diminishing calculus. One sometimes wonders if we stopped scouring the woods for kindling and just let the fire extinguish itself, would anybody even miss the warmth and the light, the chance to cook, to see sparks fly up to the stars, to hear the hiss of the fire, to burn something up, hotter than hot? Which is to say that I too find myself on this hazy Monday morning asking–how do we go on from here, from right now? I mean it. I’m looking for an answer!

  3. Well, the NYTBR has been a
    Well, the NYTBR has been a sore spot with me for years — specifically in terms of their poetry reviewing which has been abysmal. Coincidentally, on may 10, I posted a critique by George Econmou of some poetry in translations reviews that had recently appeared in the NYTBR. Keep up the good work, Levi — Pierre

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