(This weekend, the venerable critic and blogger Ed Champion sits in. — Levi)
Bruce Barcott begins his review of Doug Stanton’s Horse Soldiers with Donald Rumsfeld as father figure — an image that that’s too close for comfort to Esquire‘s egregious 2005 profile depicting the ex-secretary of defense as an apparent man’s man — popping out of his chair “with all the speed of the weekly squash player he still is at age seventy-three” and greeting dignitaries with a “grip-and-grin.” With the Rummy as Dad imagery and an aloof Toby Keith name check, Barcott’s review gives us the finest references that 2005 had to offer. I hunted through Barcott’s article wondering if he was going to mention Hurricane Katrina or Harold Pinter recently nabbing the Nobel. After all, when you’re four years out-of-touch, why stop the rust from oxidizing? But I found myself just as confused by Father’s Day mentioned a month early. Apparently, the New York Times Book Review plans its editorial calendar with all the grace of an AIG accounting team balancing its ledger after a lavish government bailout. But no matter. As any elementary reading of the ongoing engagements will reveal, Rumsfeld wasn’t the only figure responsible for the “hell of a fix” we’re now in. And as I understand it, Rummy’s policies had little to do with the equestrian combat forces featured in Stanton’s book. So why bother to compare doctrines? But since Barcott’s clumsiness comes to us during the same week that Code Pink feverishly chanting “War criminal!” to Rumsfeld during the White House Correspondents dinner, I suppose all the political absurdity evens out.
While Barcott suggests that Doug Stanton’s book is really something for the jingoistic kooks, I’m wondering if this is really a fair claim to make. Is it truly impossible for even a progressive-minded peacenik not to marvel at an unusual military maneuver? Is the NYTBR’s intellectual climate really that short-sighted? God, I hope not. Then again, the aloof and tacky comparison of a general’s commands with “Jeremy Piven rocking the headset in ‘Entourage'” suggests that Barcott, despite his environmental journalism experience, probably isn’t the right guy to review this book. There’s a fundamental difference between a transparently sleazy Hollywood agent (particularly a fictitious character on an HBO television series) and a general having to broker deals and make command decisions to save lives. One thing that Barcott succeeds at very well is making this book completely lifeless and uninteresting. That’s a difficult thing to do. Because even a more populist-minded Detroit Free Press review managed to rustle up some excitement. As Levi suggested last week, it’s very possible that Barcott’s front-page review fits into the concern for impressing peers rather than enriching readers. I’d expand Levi’s conclusion to one that involves entertaining or exciting readers. If Barcott had no interest or passion in the subject, he should have recused himself from the review, rather than writing such a phony and lifeless review. But given the New York Times‘s word rate and the hardscrabble conditions that just about every freelance writer is facing right now, it’s doubtful he would have done so. Even if he were assigned The Topeka, Kansas City Directory: 1921 for review. Then again, as we can see in this week’s installment, phony and lifeless reviews are the NYTBR’s bread and butter.
So given one such ho-hum Iraq-themed review, do we really need another? Kamel Sachet, the subject of Wendell Steavenson’s The Weight of a Mustard Seed (and Robert F. Worth’s review), sounds — much like the American horse riders, like a promising subject. But the book is rendered lifeless by Times house style. When a sentence beginning with the words “One of the book’s most powerful moments” reads with the same kind of excitement you’d expect waiting three weeks for a loved one in an unpainted hospital room, you know a review is in trouble.
And if a reviewer is going to write, “His real interest is in finding and detonating grenades in the underbrush,” you’d think that the reviewer would damn well live up to the promise of his metaphor. But calling our present economic crisis a depression and pointing out that a depression is a market failure is hardly the stuff of Molotov cocktails. Then again, the NYTBR is so terrified of taking chances (ergo, its continued irrelevancy) that the likes of Jim Cramer or Glenn Beck (broadcast every weekday) might actually give some editor a stroke.
A David Gates/Janet Frame matchup is promising. Gates’s suggestion that Frame’s novel, Towards Another Summer, shares certain personal qualities with Samuel Beckett’s Molloy trilogy is the kind of interesting comparison you don’t often get from the vanilla editorial crew polishing the rails of this literary Titanic. But Gates’s review feels too compressed for the NYTBR. He’s clearly restricted by space and he seems to be chomping at the bit to expand his considerable thoughts into a 4,000 word review. So why couldn’t the NYTBR give him the space? It’s also disappointing to see Gates offer a far clumsier comparison between Frame and Sylvia Plath later in the piece. But how can any writer look ahead to novelists who haven’t yet started writing? Just say that the book has “a vivid inner ferocity” and tell us why. Gates’s claim is as absurd as suggesting that Buster Keaton made all of his films with Jackie Chan in mind. Writing is done on an intuitive level, with the writer drawing upon a melange of explicit and subconscious influences — in Frame’s case, many Maori legends — while remaining devoted to process. It sure as hell doesn’t involve playing Nostradamus. Gates is a fiction writer himself, and he should know better. He’s smart enough to bring up John Gardner’s sniff test, but, for such a personal book, Gates is a reviewer too committed to theory. If I were still handing out baked goods for literary merit, as I did during my Tanenhaus Brownie Watch days, I’d probably give Gates the brownie recipe for mostly solid thinking. But he’d have to deliver a stirring rendition of Harold Arlen’s “If I Only Had A Heart” if he expected me to bake him the brownies.
David Leavitt opens his piece with some interesting thoughts on what the memoir presently entails. But he’s too hamstrung by the book review’s formalistic exigencies. For goodness sake, the man is so clearly excited about false braggadaccio that you’d think the editors would have told him, “To hell with the Reynolds Price. Just write an essay on the subject!” But Leavitt must apply his crayon between the lines, and his review eludes several possibilities. It’s difficult to go wrong with Jim Shepard, but, for all of his complaints about Martin Edmonds’s digressions, one wonders why Shepard’s review doesn’t quite crack with life.
A far more engaging review can be found in Tom McCarthy’s piece — in part, because the editors let Tom McCarthy be Tom McCarthy. And I must admit that I was amused by the prospect of a guy named Reich reviewing a book on the Third Reich. And what’s nice about Reich’s review is that he doesn’t mess around. Richard J. Evans may not be the most riveting historian, but it’s important for us to not trivialize the Holocaust. That’s the kind of quiet, no-pressure endorsement that you rarely see in this paper of record. It’s also good to see the underrated Howard Jacobson get some coverage. I particularly like Tom Barbash’s sentence, “There are times when Jacobson’s writing becomes as claustrophobic and repetitive as a late-night phone conversation with an unhinged friend.” If Barbash is capable of getting away with that, let’s hope he becoms a regular.
“Flotsam and jetsam are two different things,” begins Paul Greenberg’s review. And the reading audience is immediately insulted by such a stupid lede. At a time in which we need to get people excited about fish and oceanography, Greenberg comes across like some bitter man teaching high school and spouting generalizations because he can’t think of anything else to do.
Caryn James conveys some welcome enthusiasm for David Thomson, but she hardly has the space to flex her wings. And if I read another goddam review that tells me what “an incredible story” some memoir is, I may just go postal. “Incredible story” is one of the worst reviewing cliches. And only the New York Times is capable of such absurd phrases as “through the music of U2 and the spontaneity of television.” Sorry, Gray Lady, you simply cannot jazz up banality with passive noun phrases.
The less said about Julia Scheeres’s banal reviews, the better. I have no idea why the Times keeps hiring her. But her haughty dismissiveness has easily turned her into a second-string Katie Roiphe. The shallow ice queen you hire when you can’t get Roiphe or Virginia Heffernan on line one.
And Jincy Willett really is idiotic enough to write the sentence, “Also, unlike chick lit, chick TV and chick movies, ‘Secrets to Happiness’ is actually funny.” Here are a few things that have made this meat and potatoes guy laugh: Jennifer Weiner, Nora Ephron, some (emphasis on some) post-Blackadder Richard Curtis-scripted movies (I loathe Love Actually, but I must confess that I really like Notting Hill), just to name a few. Point being that Jincy Willett, who tried out murder mystery herself with her last novel, The Writing Class, has no business taking a steaming defacation on genre. Particularly when she’s an overly praised author who tries just so gosh darn hard to be funny, but writes such belabored alliteration as “Amy poured herself another drink, rechecked all the locks, and settled in with Dr. Richard Surtess for dread and drear” or such redundancies as “Dot Hieronymus cleared her throat but said nothing.” Sure, it’s the kind of “sophisticated” flummery that gets you noticed in New York literary circles. But the rest of the world knows it’s humorless and pointless drivel.
Not unlike the majority of this issue of the New York Times Book Review, when it comes right down to it. Levi’s right. I don’t know how he’s done it and stayed mostly cheerful for the past four years. When only 25% of this issue is worth reading (with considerable caveats), reviewing the review is indeed a mind-numbing chore.