Reviewing the Review: February 21 2010

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.

4 Responses

  1. Regarding Toure making a
    Regarding Toure making a career out of being black – perhaps he wants to be the poor man’s Skip Gates.

  2. I think Toure’s line about
    I think Toure’s line about Jesus was hip around 1967, but people older than I might come up with an earlier date. And his wide-eyed musing about why more whites don’t try to pass as black was embarrassing. My pal Seymour Krim wrote about whites wanting to be black in 1957, but it’s okay not to have heard of Krim. Then there was the autobiographical Really the Blues, by Mezz Mezzrow, the Jewish jazz musician who lived as a black man in Harlem. Missed him, too? Alright. But is it believable that Toure never heard of Norman Mailer’s essay, The White Negro? And surely he’s aware of the mountain of pop culture that has whites desperate to slip on some black cool, from the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin to the Blues Brothers and Beverly Hills Cop?

    Which raises two questions. If he’s heard of them, what’s he talking about? If he hasn’t, who is this guy?

  3. I think that the lesson we
    I think that the lesson we can take from Toure’s essay is that ignorant dipshits with an attitude come in all races, religions, etc. Probably Toure never did hear of Really the Blues or The White Negro — my wife, who is black, thinks there is some doubt that he can read.

    I checked out your blog and loved it – count me as a new fan.

  4. I wouldn’t go that far on
    I wouldn’t go that far on Touré (finally figured out how to make that accent mark appear). I posted on him today and focused on, among other things, something that Levi alerted me to: that opening line about about blackness not being a burden. Levi got me going when he wrote about how shielded from racism Touré has been “in the various Starbucks locations between Fort Greene and Flatbush.” (Touré should say touché!) That brings up a big subject that is at the heart of what really bothered me about Toure’s (accent too much trouble) article, and that is the self-congratulation in his tone. History has helped him out enormously. Who knows how he — or I, as a Jew — would behave under more onerous conditions.

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