Reviewing the Review: August 23 2009

I return from a three week break to find a New York Times Book Review I can really dig into. You know, my friends and I beat up this publication often, but sometimes I just have to admit that they do a pretty good job — at a fast pace, and probably on an endangered budget. So, I’ll offer nothing but appreciation today.

A Soft Skull book on the cover of the NYTBR? I never thought I’d see the day, and I bet former publishers Sander Hicks and Richard Nash never thought they would either, though today the brave Denise Oswald gets the credit. Former ballerina and author Toni Bentley loves David Henry Sterry and R. J. Martin Jr.’s study of modern prostitution Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys. Bentley leans a little too hard on the “we all pay for sex one way or another” angle, but aside from that the article is a riveting read, and I bet the book will be too.

Walter Kirn reviews Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon’s latest epochal coded message from planet Postmodernia, and since Kirn is apparently a member of the Pynchon army, the pseudo-detective story gets an enthusiastic review. Myself, I gave this book a three-page chance, and my own point of view on it is closer to Sam Anderson’s than to Walter Kirn’s. But, as always, I enjoy Kirn’s sharp and brittle writing.

Mark Sarvas is also very good — erudite and lushly engaged, as a good book critic should be — on Nick Laird’s novel Glover’s Mistake. I hope his reviews will continue to appear in these pages often. What else? There’s so much: Lucinda Rosenfeld on Await Your Reply by Dan Choan, Dominique Browning on Frank Bruni’s memoir Born Round, Fernanda Eberstatd on Why This World, Benjamin Moser’s biography of Clarice Lispector, Helen Vendler on Wallace Steven’s Collected Poems, Geoffrey Wheatcroft on Bitter Spring, Stanislao Pugliese’s biography of Ignazio Silone, Neil Gordon on Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone, the latest from Eduardo Galeano.

There’s a surprisingly good endpaper by David Leonheart on why classic economist Adam Smith probably would have approved of Barack Obama’s domestic policies more than the so-called followers of Smith would like to believe.

This Book Review amounts to such a wealth of good material that I won’t even complain that they waste a whole page on yet another book about the death of newspapers and how important newspapers are. Harold Evans’s consideration of Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy is balanced, but the book itself appears to be another hysterical cry about the impending end of absolutely everything wonderful in the universe because the New York Times can’t meet its ad quota for 2009. Enough of this! If the New York Times keeps putting out good content like this weekend Book Review, we’ll all find a way to keep paying at least some of their salaries. We promise.

5 Responses

  1. Levi,

    thanks for the kind

    thanks for the kind words, but as it happens i’m not really a member of the pynchon army, i just really liked this one. took a lot of grief back when, in fact, for not properly adoring mason & dixon. oh well. keep up the fine work. walter

  2. And don’t forget last week’s
    And don’t forget last week’s surprise appearances (Roxana Robinson, Jeff VanderMeer, and MT Anderson). This is certainly a step forward, and one that I likewise applaud. But I still think the NYTBR needs punchier and passionate reviewers if they wish to survive. While I can understand the sensible motivations behind the assignments, both Bentley and Sarvas are too belabored and lifeless with their offerings. But Helen Vendler is, as you say, quite engaged. And the attempt at self-deprecation with the Alex Jones assignment was also welcome.

    One interesting development: where’s Liesl these days? She’s been showing up at Paper Cuts, but her appearances in the NYTBR have been sparse.

  3. Walter — thanks for the
    Walter — thanks for the clarification, sorry to mischaracterize you. I guessed your affiliation because of lines like “He’s our literature’s best metaphysical comedian”, but I suppose I read too much into that. Fair enough!

    Ed, there’s no doubt in my mind that the NYTBR needs punchier writing. I guess it’s the excellent choice of books under review — Lispector, Stevens, Galeano, Chaon, Ignazio Silone — that got me excited this weekend. Can’t complain about the selection, at least this once. I don’t see the “lifeless” in Mark Sarvas’s article — actually, his reviewing style reminds me of Liesl Schillinger’s, which is certainly a good thing.

  4. I seem to be batting zero on
    I seem to be batting zero on accuracy this week … Richard Nash just filled me in that this is the second Soft Skull NYTBR cover, not the first. The first was Black Flies by Shannon Burke, a year ago.

  5. Thanks for you insightful
    Thanks for you insightful review of the Review. One cavil: I found Helen Vendler’s review of the new Serios edition of Stevens’s “Selected Poems” to be quite disappointing — even irksome. Out of several hundred words on Stevens generalia she spent all of four sentences (really only asides) on the collection itself. Very odd.

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