Reviewing the Review: May 23 2010

As the newspaper business shrinks, the hazard of insularity increases. Three weeks ago the New York Times Book Review put Christopher Buckley’s rave review of the roman a clef The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman of the International Herald Tribune on the cover, ignoring the fact that 99% of the NYTBR’s readers have no need for a winking tell-all about newspaper office shenanigans. The “Up Front” column in today’s Book Review features Lloyd Grove of the New York Daily News sharing gossip about Rupert Murdoch, subject of War at the Wall Street Journal by Sarah Ellison. One wonders if this type of thing might be better handled by internal email.

But a broader insularity emerges when Graydon Carter (yawn) reviews The Pregnant Widow (yawn) by Martin Amis (yawn) on this week’s front cover (yawn). Sex jokes and alcohol jokes abound. Replace the name “Martin Amis” with “Christopher Hitchens” and you’ve got a ready-made review of Hitch-22, which will surely be lauded as a major work on the cover of the New York Times Book Review very soon (yawn). Here goes the shoveling:

Amis is one of the true original voices to come along in the last 40 years. The fizzy, smart linguistic fireworks, with their signature italicisms, riffs on the language and stunningly clever, off-center metaphors are certainly evident in “The Pregnant Widow”.

I’m sure Amis is a great dinner companion, but this really pushes the limits. Here’s my take: if Martin were not the son of the celebrated Kingsley Amis, he’d be considered a minor novelist at best. Fizzy smart linguistic fireworks and all.

Fortunately, the Book Review gets better once you put the cover piece aside. I already thought Dan Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition sounded like a corker, and David Oshinsky seals the case, explaining how concerns about immigration, women’s suffrage and German militarism contributed to the debate about legal alcohol in America. Definitely a history book I want to read. And while I’m not likely to ever read a biography of an Atlanta Brave, I can’t deny enjoying Sam Tanenhaus’s civil-rights-minded summary of The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron by Howard Bryant.

Today’s fiction coverage is mixed. I’ve never read and have nothing against A. L. Kennedy, but I hope her story collection What Becomes is not as riddled with cliches as Robin Romm’s breathless review. There’s this:

When his wife returns, horrified to find him like this, she hurls a pot of thyme at his head. He tries to reassure her. She responds: “It’s not all right. It won’t be fine.” They’ve lost a daughter, we learn, a loss from which they’ll never recover.

I’ve read this story before and so have you. The author’s name was Raymond Carver. Robin Romm goes on:

Kennedy can go from darkness to humor in a heartbeat. Her characters, with their dry wit and sense of irony, are the sort of people you’d want to sit next to at a bad work luncheon. They don’t cotton to easy sentiment. They don’t suffer fools. Peter, in the story “Edinburgh,” recoils at the New Age pamphlets in his vegetable shop. “I haven’t got an inner child; I’d have known it by now if I did. Likewise with the spirit animals — I am not playing host to some interior bloody zoo.”

Making fun of new age hippies for their soft sentiments: this is fresh and groundbreaking in the year 2010? Actually, I’ve heard predictable humor like this at plenty of bad work luncheons, and it’s what makes the luncheons bad.

But Jeannie Vanasco does better with an unusual novel I plan to try soon, Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden, and Liesl Schillinger provides further salvation with a long, substantial piece on Agaat by Marlene von Niekerk (a book we talked about here).

Books like “Agaat” … are the reason people read novels, and the reason authors write them. It’s a monument to what the narrator calls “the compulsion to tell,” expressing truths that are too heartfelt, revelatory and damaging for proud people to speak aloud — or even to admit to themselves in private.

A lot of books are lavished with praise in this Book Review. But here’s where a literary critic’s talent and conviction come into play. They must make us believe the praise is sincere.

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