Reviewing the Review: August 30 2009

Faced with the chance to write for the New York Times Book Review, many critics opt to play it straight and stick close to the work at hand, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Wyatt Mason praises The Skating Rink, the latest translated novel by Roberto Bolano, in this weekend’s issue, and hits all the usual points: placing the new work in career context, outlining the plot, reaching in conclusion for language that transmits some of the excitement of the work itself. Likewise, Ron Suskind fills us in on The Soul of a New Machine author Tracy Kidder’s new Strength In What Remains, the account of an East African refugee, “one of the truly stunning books I’ve read this year”, with an article that services its subject well.

But some critics aim beyond serviceability and try to deliver reviews that are notable works in themselves. I’ve noted before that poetry critic William Logan’s articles are always events: I cannot think of any other major critic for a major publication who invariably attempts such leaps. Today Logan reviews Louise Gluck’s A Village Life, and once again I enjoy the dazzling performance:

Even before the unknown versifier of Isaiah, poets probably looked at a lush meadow and saw a graveyard. Louise Gluck’s wary, pinch-mouthed poems have long represented the logical outcome of a certain strain of confessional verse — starved of adjectives, thinned to a nervous set of verbs, intense almost past bearing, her poems have been dark, damaged and difficult to avert your gaze from.


Her early poems were all elbows and knees, Plathian with a rakish edge, full of wordplay and tight jazzy rhythms. Gluck became a minimalist’s minimalist, moody, anxious to her fingertips — a nail biter’s nail biter.

Sure, there’s more William Logan than Louise Gluck here, but that’s okay, and really there’s plenty of both. The problem with a passionate critical style is that it can overcook easily. The front page of today’s review offers Jonathan Lethem on the new Lorrie Moore novel, A Gate at the Stairs. Is it just me? I sense that Lethem is trying to work up a swoon here, but his hand is unsteady and the words pour out with a weak simper:

The wrinkly recursiveness of her language seems lodged at the layer of consciousness itself, where Moore demands readers’ attention to the innate thingliness of words.

It’s as if he’s trying to sound like William Logan, but doesn’t have the stuff. Fortunately the article is brief, but it’s never convincing, and I’m plagued throughout by a sense that Lethem’s paying more attention to his words than to the book. It’s just too much fancy talk:

Finally, this book plumbs deep because it is anchored deep, in a system of natural imagery as tightly organized as that in a cycle of poems like Ted Hughes’s “Crow.” The motif is birth, gestation and burial, a seed or fetus uncovering its nature in secrecy, a coffin being offered to the earth. The motif declares itself upfront in Tassie’s father’s potatoes, which like sleeper cells grow clustered in darkness and then, unearthed, assume names: Klamath pearls, yellow fingerlings, purple Peruvians and Rose Finns.

Stylistic questions aside, this Book Review is packed with worthwhile pieces, like Elizabeth Hawes on J. M. G. LeClezio’s Desert, and Jess Row on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck. I was very puzzled by Adichie’s earlier Half of a Yellow Sun — the Biafran War setting interested me greatly but her storytelling skills seemed lacking. Row’s review hints at some problems here as well, but finds the new book valuable regardless, and that’s enough to convince me to give it a shot.

The most unintentionally hilarious piece here — indeed, the most hilariously bad article I’ve read in the NYTBR in several months — is an article by Dominique Browning, titled “Reefer Madness”, about Julie Myerson’s The Lost Child: A Mother’s Story. This is a memoir about a modern family with a son whose “cannabis habit so deranged him that he became physically violent. He was 17 years old.”

Are they sure it was the cannabis that caused the problem? Browning’s review fails to address this question, and indeed Browning loves the book and appears to be way too excited about the evils of this (mild, I thought) scourge upon our youth:

Her son is smoking skunk, she learns, a strain of cannabis whose THC content is much more potent than garden-variety pot — except that it has become garden variety. I had never heard of skunk either, but a quick search online led me to a souk of seeds for the home farmer, advertising up to a toxic 22 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content in some strains. My shopping cart remained empty as I browsed in disbelief. Even as stronger varieties are being bred and marketed, medical research is linking cannabis use to behavioral and cognitive changes reminiscent of psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression and anxiety disorder. And yet we find ourselves arguing about whether pot is addictive or a gateway drug or should be legalized. We are collectively losing our minds. “The Lost Child” is a cry for help and a plea for a clear acknowledgment of the toll this drug is taking on our children.

First of all, nobody calls it skunk, and in fact this allegedly exotic strain of potent marijuana is what most people commonly refer to as, well, marijuana. The strong varieties are also sometimes called sour diesel, or kind bud, or chronic (ask Jonathan Lethem about it) and they’re pretty popular. It certainly reasonable to discuss whether marijuana should be legal, and while Julie Myerson’s son obviously has serious problems, I can’t buy into the implied cause-and-effect this book suggests (which Browning completely buys into). Many, many, many 17-year-olds and others of all ages smoke pot without turning into rage-filled monsters that hit their mothers and destroy their families. As far as Dominique Browning’s implication that cannabis use can cause schizophrenia goes, I haven’t heard a health-based claim so ridiculous and empirically unfounded since the last time Sarah Palin spoke up about national health care.

This weekend’s New York Times Book Review has a lot of ups and downs, but for the second week in a row the list of authors represented is truly impressive, and I’m really looking forward to the Book Review’s fall season, since there are a lot of interesting books heading our way.

9 Responses

  1. To my experience here in LA,
    To my experience here in LA, “skunk” is what one calls really bad, cheap weed, on account of it smells like someone has run over a skunk nearby when it is smoked. Then again, there are more medical marijuana distributors than pharmacies in some neighborhoods around here, so perhaps our local stoners are just advanced.

    (Speaking of which, I find it extremely crass and unprofessional when journalists mention having to Google something in the body of an article. If you’re assigned a piece on a certain subject, it’s your JOB to inform yourself about it as much as possible — the fact that the writer saw fit to write about this makes me suspicious about the level of research she put into the rest of the piece. Plus, it just oozes false coquettishness: “Much like yourselves, the gentle, decent Times readers, I had never heard this particular drug term before…”)

    I have to think this review was included solely as a counterweight to the positive notice for Jenny Diski’s “The Sixties” elsewhere in the issue, which seems to be the seven billionth generalist’s personal memoir of the decade to be published in the last several years and, judging from the review, sounds no different from any of the others. Apparently, “complacent leftist boomer nostalgia” + “ill-informed reactionist drug hysteria” = fair and balanced coverage.

  2. Milton, I’ve heard that
    Milton, I’ve heard that called “skank”, but I’ve never heard “skunk”.

  3. I’m with Milton. Back in the
    I’m with Milton. Back in the day, we called inferior, low-grade marijuana “skunk weed.”

    What people don’t seem to understand is, whenever someone gets in trouble with the law, the first thing they want to do is shift the blame for their actions to something else.
    “I don’t belong in jail, your Honor, please, I belong in rehab for my horrific pot addiction…”

    Which is bullshit, of course. The millions of good people who smoke pot get a bad name and they are unable to defend themselves without admitting to something illegal.

    Not that I smoke it myself.

  4. I agree, when I was growing
    I agree, when I was growing up, we called bad/weak weed “skunk.” But this is a British book, and I think they do actually have a thing over there called skunk which is a very potent, hash-like strain. (I read about it recently in “Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It” by geoff dyer, a british writer. He described more or less tripping from smoking strong “skunk.”)

  5. Makes sense, Random Guy, that
    Makes sense, Random Guy, that they might call it “skunk” in the UK. But my objection to the article wasn’t about the words, it was about this absurd claim that pot smoking is tied to schizophrenia or other mental illness, or that we are “losing our minds” if we consider legalizing marijuana.

  6. Mike — so that’s what that
    Mike — so that’s what that Kinks song is about?! Never knew that. Good tune.

  7. “Something Else by the Kinks”
    “Something Else by the Kinks” is an all-time top-20 contender for sure.

    Looks like the “demon weed” review missed the entire story behind the book, by the way. The book has been out for some time in Britain, and the author has become something of a pariah for exploiting/sensationalizing/fictionalizing her children’s lives. Evidently she had long been using her son as fodder for columns (including one about his first growing pubic hair which understandably mortified him), and he claims the book about his pot addiction is bunk and has changed his name as a result. All of this would have been good to mention in the review, perhaps?

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