Reviewing the Review: May 24 2009

(Our guest reviewer today is Jamelah Earle, who lives in Michigan and can often be found at — Levi)

First up, we have David Brooks on Simon Schama’s The American Future: A History. Brooks spends several paragraphs on how he has a thing for Brilliant Books. These Brilliant Books are about America and are “written by a big thinker who comes to capture the American spirit while armed only with his own brilliance.” It’s like this:

He usually comes during an election year so he can observe the spectacle of the campaign and peer into the nation’s exposed soul. He visits the stations of officially prescribed American exotica. He will enjoy a moment of soulful rapture at a black church. He will venture out to an evangelical megachurch (and combine condescension with self-congratulation by bravely announcing to the world that these people are more human than you’d think). He will swing by and be brilliant in rambunctious Texas. He’ll be brilliant in the farm belt, brilliant in Las Vegas, reverential in Selma and profound in Malibu.

Along the way, his writing will outstrip his reportage. And as his inability to come up with anything new to say about this country builds, his prose will grow more complex, emotive, gothic, desperate, overheated and nebulous until finally, about two-thirds of the way through, there will be a prose-poem of pure meaninglessness as his brilliance finally breaks loose from the tethers of observation and oozes across the page in a great, gopping goo of pure pretension.

Pretentious verbal jizz. Right on. Here’s what I wonder — for the final third of a Brilliant Book, do you cuddle brilliantly in the brilliant afterglow of brilliance? Because that would be, you know, brilliant.

Anyway, Brooks spends the first paragraphs of the review writing about these Brilliant Books and overusing the word “brilliant” until it almost ceases to make sense. Brooks writes that Schama, who “comes from the realm of enlightened High Thinking that exists where The New York Review of Books reaches out and air-­kisses The London Review of Books,” (which makes him sound oh so very relevant), is apparently rather good, once he’s writing about history instead of the present, although he’s somewhat simplistic in his comparisons and judgments. Even so, Brooks is able to forgive Schama and in the end, still calls him an outstanding historian. While I get the fact that Brooks is poking Brilliant Books with a stick, I have to say that now, not only am I not interested in the book in question (which, as it happens, is not a Brilliant Book, so hooray for that), I also hate the word “brilliant.” Thanks, Dave.

Laura Miller writes about Walter Kirn’s Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever. It’s a straightforward review of Kirn’s memoir of bullshitting his way through his education, and it’s safe to say that this review is also 100% free of literary ejaculate, which I thought would go without saying, but after David Brooks, all bets are off. I’m not entirely convinced about the book, however, because I’m pretty sure that making up meaningless yet impressive-sounding crap about books you haven’t actually read is one of the hallmarks of higher education, at least that of a literary bent. (It’s what students DO.) But I suppose this is interesting, too — the fact that even if you aren’t really learning the things your professors tell you to learn, you are learning how to game the system. And then there’s this:

“Her skin, he marveled, looked like it might have been ‘harvested, through some blasphemous new process, from the wrists of infants.'”

I admit that I spent a moment contemplating whether having skin that looks like a baby-flesh-quilt is a compliment or not.

Moving on, I find that I don’t really have much to say about Liesl Schillinger’s review of Rhyming Life and Death by Amos Oz and The Amos Oz Reader, edited by Nitza Ben-Dov, but I did enjoy Chris Hedges writing about The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan With Doctors Without Borders, partly, I suppose, because I’m a photography nerd, but also because the accompanying illustration that is part graphic novel, part photography, looks cool.

Jess Row’s review of Anne Michaels’ The Winter Vault is exceedingly name-droppy. In seven paragraphs, we get mentions of the following writers, often in name only, but sometimes also a name-title combination: Marcel Proust, Danilo Kis, Charles Baxter, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michael Ondaatje, Virginia Woolf, Malcolm Lowry, Paul Bowles, John Berger, Nadeem Aslam, Don DeLillo, Kahlil Gibran, and oh yeah, Anne Michaels herself. (I sure hope I didn’t skip any.) While making a comparison or two is fine (and the only author Row really compares Michaels to is Ondaatje), the effect here is something along the lines of “Hey guys! I was staring at my bookshelves while I was writing this! Can you tell?!?” Even so, while I am not entirely certain I agree with Row that the sentence “Perhaps we painted on our own skin, with ochre and charcoal, long before we painted on stone,” is one that stops time, it is a lovely line. Maybe I’m interested in this book, but I’m not exactly sure.

And David Orr kicks off his review of Frederick Seidel’s POEMS 1959-2009 with “Many poets have been acquainted with the night,” yet he somehow does not end the sentence with “much like insomniacs, hookers and The Phantom of the Opera.” Alas. (Orr instead winds up his sentence with “some have been intimate with it; and a handful have been so haunted and intoxicated by the darker side of existence that it can be hard to pick them out from the murk that surrounds them.”) Oh, poets. The thing about this review is that no matter how much Orr seems to want to make me want to read Seidel’s collection, he keeps quoting Seidel’s poems and I just want to read something else. I’m going to chalk that up to being a matter of personal preference and move on.

What else? Well, Sophie Gee reviews The Last Secret by Mary McGarry Morris, which is about a woman whose husband confesses to an affair. This immediately made me think of Lifetime movies and it didn’t get better when I read the rest of the review, despite the fact that Gee never makes this comparison.

Roy Blount, Jr. reviews two books on language — Origins of the Specious by Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman, and In the Land of Invented Languages, by Arika Okrent. O’Conner and Kellerman refer to themselves in the first person, meaning that they are, collectively, “I,” which they explain by stating, “Two people wrote this book, but it’s been our experience that two people can’t talk at the same time — at least not on the page. So we’ve chosen to write ‘Origins of the Specious’ in one voice and from Pat’s point of view.” I think this is all sorts of ridiculous, and Blount seems to as well: “‘I was a philosophy major in college,’ write Pat and Stewart (if I may be so bold), ‘so I have no excuse if I mess this up.’ Well, she/they does/do.” He then goes on to explain how they screw up a golden opportunity to discuss the common misuse of the phrase “begs the question.” On a personal note, using “begs the question” to ask a question used to drive me crazy, until I decided to give up because baby, that battle is lost.

Anyway, there are other things in this New York Times Book Review that I certainly could’ve written about, but I’m sure you’d agree that I’ve been going on too long already, so I’m going to stop. Here’s the thing, though. I feel now that I’ve reached the end of this review that I should be passing some sort of judgment. Well, here’s the truth: this is probably the first time I’ve ever read this whole thing before. Oh sure, I subscribe to its feed and skim the headlines over the weekend, occasionally clicking through to skim (or maybe even read) a whole article, but usually headline skimming is enough for me. If you could see how many unread items I have in my feed reader at any time, I’m sure you’d understand. But I decided when Levi asked me to guest review the Review this weekend that I would read it through, and then judge whether or not I would want to read it regularly or continue with my habit of cursory skimming. And, you know, it’s not like it was a painful experience. I didn’t actively hate anything I read, or anything, which I think is probably positive, yet I wasn’t really excited about anything I read, either, and I certainly didn’t feel like running to the bookstore right away, which is something that reading good book reviews usually makes me want to do. So, I guess all of that is to say I suppose I’ll keep up my weekend headline skimming, because I just wasn’t convinced that I need to do more than that.

4 Responses

  1. I skim for the meaty stuff
    I skim for the meaty stuff too. If there is a book that I’m mildly intrested in, I may read the first paragraph. Once in a while an article like that will suck me in and i’ll finish it. But I always read the main review, any other major books, and the poetry review if there is one. Oh, and the end paper.

  2. Concerning Arika Okrent’s new
    Concerning Arika Okrent’s new book. In today’s world, I think that the choice, realistically, for the future global language lies between English and Esperanto rather than an untried project.

    It’s unfortunate, however, that only a few people know that Esperanto has become a living language.

    After a short period of 121 years Esperanto is now in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide, according to the CIA factbook. It is the 17th most used language in Wikipedia, and in use by Skype, Firefox and Facebook. Native Esperanto speakers,(people who have used the language from birth), include George Soros, World Chess Champion Susan Polger, Ulrich Brandenberg the new German Ambassador to NATO and Nobel Laureate Daniel Bovet.

    Further arguments can be seen at Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations in Geneva.

    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at

  3. Very interesting, Brian. You
    Very interesting, Brian. You seem to know a bit about the subject. If you’d like to contribute an article to Litkicks about Esperanto, I think many people would enjoy reading it.

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