Reviewing the Review: November 15 2009

The New York Times Book Review could surely have found someone who knows something about poker — say, me — to review James McManus’s Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker. Some common tipoffs that a writer doesn’t know anything about poker are that he thinks Texas Hold ‘Em actually has something to do with Texas, that he gets a kick out of funny names like Crooked Nose Jack McCall, or that he’s more interested in listing which US Presidents played poker than in discussing the game itself. Another tipoff is that he gets lots of facts wrong, and apparently nobody at the NYTBR copy edit desk knows anything about poker either, because this article is a train wreck. First:

The friendly game, with a limit on bets (sometimes doubled for the last round), usually allows the dealer to choose the game, with an emphasis on the old, traditional stud and draw variants rather than the hyper-charged hold ’em, which in tournament play is no-limit, meaning a player can go “all in”: betting all of one’s chips at once.

Actually, there are limit and no-limit hold ’em tournaments, just as there are limit and no-limit stud tournaments (and, for all I know, probably limit and no-limit draw tournaments somewhere out there too). Nothing about hold ’em poker implies no-limit play. Then:

Televised poker took off on the sports networks when it became clear that the image of a hold ’em deal’s five shared down-cards, invisible to the players at the beginning of each hand, could be shared with viewers through a camera placed under a glass-topped table.

That would be quite a strange poker show, since it would certainly kill all the suspense to see the flop, the turn and the river at the start of each hand. What Pinsky would have said, if he had a clue what he was talking about, is that in televised poker each player’s two pocket cards, not the five shared cards, are visible through a camera placed under a glass-topped table. Go write a poem, Pinsky, and don’t ever, ever, ever try to write about poker again.

Okay, on to the literary stuff. It seems there’s only one article to write about Vladimir Nabokov’s The Original of Laura, full of fascinating (yawn) debate over whether or not this unfinished novel should have been published. I’ve read it a few times, and now I just read it again, this time by David Gates. In my opinion, first of all, of course the book should have been published. Second, unless you’re a Nabokov compleatist and have already been through Pale Fire, Pnin and Speak, Memory as well as the ubiquitous Lolita you probably have no excuse to care about it at all. As for me: I am not, I have not, and I don’t either, which is why I’m sick of reading about this book.

Bravo to Kathryn Harrison for avoiding the usual soap job and saying straight out, in her review of Philip Roth’s The Humbling, what so many of Roth’s readers know: this proud author’s annual productions have worn out their welcome. Harrison calls The Humbling a “lazy work” — it took me about half a glance to realize the same thing — and deplores Roth’s reliance on stale sexual fantasies involving lesbians and dildos and threesomes. A few years ago I got a surprised reaction when I wrote that the quality of Philip Roth’s work had inexcusably declined, and I can’t help but feel some satisfaction that this is no longer the minority opinion it once was. But what do you want to bet that there won’t be another moaning Philip Roth hardcover just like The Humbling out exactly a year from now?

New Paul Auster novels also tend to induce numbness in loyal readers, but I’m glad to hear from Clancy Martin that his new Invisible “suggests a new Auster” and delivers, for Martin, serious thrills. In fact, the review is a full rave, ending with this declaration:

It is the finest novel Paul Auster has ever written.

Damn! Having reviewed and mildly appreciated his last one, I gave my review copy of Invisible away, and now I want it back!

I always enjoy a good publishing memoir, and David Carr’s measured endorsement of British newspaperman Harold Evans’ nostalgic My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times sells me on this one. The book seems to be heavy on wistful bygones, though, and I’m glad Carr doesn’t miss the ironic fact that Evans’s wife Tina Brown has just launched the lively and successful Daily Beast web newspaper, which surely carries on journalism’s grand tradition even without clinking Linotype machines and inky hands.

An endpaper essay by Jennifer Schluesser spells out the argument against meat-eating contained in novelist Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, and usefully refers to like-minded arguments by J. M. Coetzee and Peter Singer. Myself, I was once an ethical vegetarian for more than two years, though this was a long time ago. I am at least halfway sympathetic to this point of view, though I did just have a cheeseburger for lunch. But our lofty human race can’t even resolve that it’s wrong to kill other humans. If we can ever get our act together on this bigger question, I’ll be happy to celebrate by swearing off meat again.

3 Responses

  1. Wait: Kathryn Harrison hates
    Wait: Kathryn Harrison hates men because of her deep-seated Daddy issues and projects them onto Philip Roth?!

  2. You know, I caught the ‘down
    You know, I caught the ‘down card’ error too, and thought it merely an infelicitous description. Then again, the man’s a poet. Inexcusable both for him and his editors. Good call. Thanks.

    Jim H.

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