Reviewing the Review: June 6 2010

If it’s summer, and if the New York Times Book Review is touting beach imagery and “Summer Reading” in its current issue, then why the hell am I indoors reviewing it, instead of out there having fun?

Because I’m a dummy, that’s why. But here we go with today’s Book Review, which turns out to be a rather good one.

Jonathan Franzen’s upcoming Freedom is surely the most anticipated literary novel of the year, at least from the publishing industry’s perspective, since he has shown a rare ability to write books that people buy and talk about. I don’t quite feel the excitement myself — I liked The Corrections enough to finish it, but was hardly blown away — but I’ll play along and follow Freedom’s progress when it comes out (it will surely be on the cover of the Book Review) in September. Meanwhile, I like the unusual essay Franzen contributes to the Book Review today. It’s unusual because the book, Christine Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, was published in 1940 and is not widely known today. It’s not even being reissued in a “commemorative edition” (as far as I can tell), though it probably will now be reissued with Franzen’s essay as the introduction, and I’ll probably buy it. Franzen’s long essay digs deep into the book, apparently a Corrections-esque parable about a weird family, and makes a strong impression.

I always want to spend more time discovering old books and less time fussing over new ones, so I give Franzen and the Book Review props today. This also reminds me that one of my favorite New York Times Book Review articles ever was a Jim Holt piece about a neglected old book, Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith, that inspired me to buy and go crazy for the book (unfortunately, the Jim Holt article is not available online). It’s this kind of thing that makes me want to give the New York Times Book Review a nice pat on the head.

Franzen’s piece is somewhat marred, though. by an overwhelming tone of sarcasm about modern reading habits. He ponders whether or not novels are dying, and asks us “shouldn’t you be dealing with your email?”. It would improve the essay to strip this nonsense out, though the sentiment neatly echoes Jonah Lehrer’s review of The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, yet another annoying book about how the Internet is ruining everything, in this case because hyperlinks and multiple windows on computer screens prevent “deep” reading. Honestly, it’s beneath me to bother responding to this (especially since Frank Wilson has already done so). I guess all I can say is that books about how the Internet is ruining everything are probably going to keep getting published, and that people who enjoy reading these books should certainly go on doing so.

Jay McInerney can write with insight and panache? I haven’t seen much evidence of this since the days when Cyndi Lauper was on the radio, but Cyndi Lauper is making a comeback and I guess Jay McInerney can too. His review of Walks With Men by Ann Beattie, yet another darling of the 1980s, is wonderful. Listen:

Beattie has always been the queen of ellipsis, of the pregnant blank space and the vertiginous jump-cut, and in fact she does backtrack to explain the negotiations for a prenuptial agreement that will leave Jane very comfortable no matter what happens to their marriage. She doesn’t allow us to see beneath the surface, to show us the kinds of emotional calculation behind her decision. Ironically, perhaps, she is now wised-up to the man who wished to educate her, and hip to his manipulations, and yet she seems relatively happy.


Beattie’s refusal to overdetermine her characters, her reluctance to explain their behavior, is a hallmark of her style, and one of the reasons she came to be identified as a minimalist in the early ’80s. It was part of what made her fiction seem so knowing and hip. Stuff happens. And it’s not always explicable. Let’s not make too big a deal about it. In “Walks With Men” (a title I am still scratching my head over), we are pretty much living in a universe of accidents and unexplained events; Beattie’s unwillingness to explain or connect seems almost perverse.

The Donald Rumsfeld reference is badly misplaced, and McInerney shouldn’t use “hip” twice in one review, but I’m still impressed to find the fashion-forward wine critic connecting with readers over an actual work of fiction.

Other fiction coverage today (because, you see, despite the endless fretting of Jonathan Franzen and Nicholas Carr, people still care about fiction) includes Taylor Antrim on Marisa Silver’s Alone With You and a rare, welcome all-out pan by the usually generous Liesl Schillinger, who is very funny about a book called The Summer We Read Gatsby by Danielle Ganek.

Ganek’s novel could have been called “The Summer We Read ‘Being and Nothingness’ ” or “The Summer We Read Nord strom Catalogs” or, for that matter, “The Summer We Watched ‘Beaches’ ” — given a name change or two. Make no mistake: the operative word in the title is “summer.” As in, “How I spent my summer vacation.” This is an altogether reasonable theme for a book aimed at the soft target of not-so-very-critical vacation readers, and no terrible indictment. But the jaw drops, early on, when you realize that for most of this book’s characters “The Great Gatsby” functions less as a work of literature than as a status symbol. In the words of one of the characters, Pecksland (Peck) Moriarty, “A literary fetish is the new black.”

LOL, as they say on that crazy Internet. Finally, stepping over to the Week In Review section, novelist Michael Chabon’s piece on Jewish identity (in reaction to the latest excitement from the horrific Arab/Israeli clusterfuck) is quite excellent. Okay, and now I’m going to pretend that I’ll spend the rest of today on the beach.

One Response

  1. “Honestly, it’s beneath me to
    “Honestly, it’s beneath me to bother responding to this ”

    Or, perhaps, beyond your capability, at least in an intelligent way?

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