Reviewing the Review: June 7 2009

It’s kind of a dirty trick to assign the well-known political writer Paul Berman, who has railed against Latin American left-wing leaders like Che Guevera, Daniel Ortega and Fidel Castro, to review Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Life by Gerald Martin. A major biography of a literary giant must be considered on its own terms, but Berman nails Gabriel Garcia Marquez for a single perceived failing: he openly adores Cuba’s controversial Communist dictator Fidel Castro. Berman’s entire article on the front page of today’s New York Times Book Review is a windup for a sideswipe at Fidel Castro, and by the last paragraph both Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Gerald Martin are forgotten. Paul Berman and Fidel Castro stand alone.

The fact that Berman pulls off an extravagant performance to reach this point, and that he lushly praises Garcia Marquez’s 1975 novel The Autumn of the Patriarch in order to set up his conclusion, only highlight how utterly dishonest this review is. It belongs on the New York Times op-ed page (if anybody still cares about Castro-bashing in 2009), and a real review of Gerald Martin’s biography of this important fiction writer belongs on the front page of the NYTBR.

For a critic to communicate to us the essence of a book on its own terms is an act of sharing, and we can intuitively tell when a critic is or isn’t able to share. Douglas Wolk’s sympathetic description of You’ll Never Know, Carol Tyler’s graphic novel about her father’s traumatic (and long-repressed) experiences as a solder in World War II is a positive example: we absorb the book’s style and approach and intent, and by the end of the review it’s hard not to want to rush out for a copy. Chelsea Cain is similarly open to Alice Hoffman’s novel The Story Sisters, about three starry-eyed Long Island sisters who speak a secret language, though Cain’s writing is overly cute (“I could be wrong about that”, she tells us after her opening sentence) and leaves me suspecting that I won’t like the book as much as she does.

I wasn’t aware that Laila Lalami’s Secret Son is meant to echo The Great Gatsby with a tale of a poor Moroccan kid thrust into a world of glamorous wealth. Gauitra Bagadur doesn’t seem impressed with the final result, though the thoughtful article has the opposite effect on me as Chelsea Cain’s — I suspect I might like this book more than the reviewer does.

T. Coraghessan Boyle is handed the honor of reviewing John Updike’s final story collection My Father’s Tears. I would have preferred an older and more distinguished choice for this milestone (can’t anybody persuade Philip Roth to write a book review?) but Boyle digs in with an open mind — exactly what Paul Berman fails to do in this NYTBR’s cover piece — and does a fine job of appreciating this significant book.

There’s an interesting piece by Polly Morrice on Boy Alone: A Brother’s Memoir by Karl Taro Greenfield, who grew up as the older brother of an autistic child who got lots of media attention, and has now released his resentments and complex feelings of sibling rivaly in a memoir.

The endpaper by Nicholas Felton is an attractive rendering of book publisher logos as a biological chart (Penguin’s penguin, Knopf’s corgi, Pocket Books’ kangaroo) but I can’t understand why the choice was made to only represent books by the five major book conglomerates, Random House, HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster, Penguin Group and Hachette. This ecosystem can hardly thrive without Norton’s bird, Soft Skull’s ant, Houghton-Mifflin’s fish. I wonder why the NYTBR would prefer to be so restrictive? It’s not like the big five are buying many ads.

4 Responses

  1. I love this. I read the
    I love this. I read the review every Sunday. Fascinating to hear another’s take on it.

    (and I finally got around to reading/blogging on the New Yorker’s creative workshop program piece; thanks for that, too.)

  2. Is literature separate from
    Is literature separate from politics. Or, is everything politics by other means. The late Bob
    Marley implored us to “Never trust a politician”. Which begs the question, should writers trust critics like Paul Berman.
    In Berman’s case sub-text is everthing. He is abusing literature and rendering it subservient to an already existing and reactionary semi-derelict politcal agenda.
    That’s quite totalitarian, thus he is by his own contrivance; everything he complains of in others. Talk about ‘a tale told by an idiot’.

  3. “if anybody still cares about
    “if anybody still cares about Castro-bashing in 2009”

    Well, the Cuban people probably do…

  4. Point taken, XC — though I
    Point taken, XC — though I am not at all convinced that the anti-Castro movement is relevant in 2009. Berman’s article seemed to assume that we all consider Castro a monster, and I don’t think this reflects current attitudes towards Cuba.

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