Apparently the reputations of our acclaimed magazines have recently sunk to the depths of ignobility. William Vollmann, reviewing Ted Conover’s The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today in the current New York Times Book Review, complains that Conover “occasionally seasons his prose with the flavor of a National Geographic article”. A few pages later, Ben Ratliff whines that Tony Fletcher’s All Hopped Up And Ready To Go: Music From the Streets of New York 1927-1977 “reads like a 400-page article for Mojo magazine”. I didn’t realize this anti-magazine backlash was in effect. But what are we going to do about the fact that many of the articles in today’s publication read like reviews in the New York Times Book Review?
Vollmann’s piece isn’t the worst offender; Conover’s anthropological study of the world’s roads is a good assignment for the globally curious Vollmann, who engages with the book in a surprisingly (for Vollmann) calm and coherent manner. Ratliff, on the other hand, wastes his review of Fletcher’s study of various music club scenes in New York objecting to the fact that the book treats rock and punk bands as if they were equal to Ratliff’s own favorites:
Why spend so much energy describing the history of the Velvet Underground — a band little known in its time but painfully over-analyzed since — when you could be writing about the evolution of New York salsa?
Somebody wake Ratliff up if that book ever gets written. Then there are three fiction reviews in which the reviewers each pretend to halfway like the books they’re reviewing in the first few paragraphs, then conclude that the books are failures. Jennifer Egan tries Eight Crazy Nights — I mean Eight White Nights — by Andre Aciman and finds that the author “deprives himself of a perspective from which to cast [the characters’] shallowness and self-important gravitas as features of youth in a particular culture at a particular time”. I hope Aciman is more careful with that in the future. Caryn James gives The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn a spin but finds that the fictionalization “misses Dickinson’s fireworks”. Joshua Hammer suffers through The Room and the Chair by Lorraine Adams even though it leaves him “confused and disappointed, out in the cold”. Jeez. I may have to pick up a copy of National Geographic or Mojo if I want something good to read.
One fiction author does survive today’s quiet carnage. William Giraldi’s appreciative review of Thomas Lynch’s death-obsessed Apparition and Late Fictions provides the most vivid writing in today’s Book Review. Back on the dull and predictable side, Brooklyn hipster/music journalist Toure contributes an endpaper essay about literary racial crossovers that seems really out of place in a nation whose president is Barack Obama. The opening is awful:
This may come as a shock to you, especially if you loook at whiteness as a boon and blackness as a burden, but I have never once wished to be white.
Nobody would except otherwise from Toure, he of the Buckwheat hairdo and the MTV hiphop interviews, since he’s obviously found a niche for himself writing about being black. It’s hard to believe that he’s encountered much racism in the various Starbucks locations between Fort Greene and Flatbush anyway. The whole article is on thin ice, but the author really takes it too far when he refers to Jesus of Nazareth as “another black man who became white”. Back off, Toure — now you’re talking about my people.