Reviewing the Review: July 10 2005

I have to give the New York Times Book Review points for diversity today. I always like to hear about books that emerge from unlikely places in the world (note: university writing programs in Iowa and Vermont do not count as unlikely places), and I am glad to be introduced to Emmanuel Dongola of Brazzaville, in the Congo Republic, whose Johnny Mad Dog sounds like a chilling look at the culture of war in that land, and also to Luis. J. Rodriguez and Salvador Plascencia, authors of two novels taking place in California’s Chicano heartland, Music of the Mill and The People of Paper. The Review’s mood of sweeping scope continues with reviews of Canaan’s Tongue by John Wray and A Strange Death by Hillel Halkin, two historical novels taking us respectively to the 19th Century Mississippi riverlands and beleagured Palestine in the last years of the Ottoman Empire. Sam Tanenhaus’s intriguing article about a new collection of stories and essays by Daniel Fuchs, a recently dead Hollywood writer, rounds out the wide, pleasing selection of new stuff worth checking out.

I’m going to be completely honest about something: reading these five reviews may be as close as I will ever get to any of these five books. But that’s closer than I would have gotten if I hadn’t put aside an hour to spend with the Book Review today. And, who knows, one of these books may bump me on the head and steal my heart the next time I enter a Borders or a Barnes and Noble. The Book Review has done its job, and the rest is up to me.

I am also always pleased when a book critic has a grand time tearing a new book to shreds, and that’s exactly what Sven Birkerts does to Mark Helprin’s Freddy and Fredericka in today’s issue. This book is apparently a satirical fantasy about a naive member of the modern British royal family who is sent to America (specifically, New Jersey) to toughen up. Helprin is a unique word-wielder who in his long and unusual career has been an author of sensitive novels as well as a speechwriter for insensitive politicans. I’ve always found Helprin interesting, and Sven Birkerts funny condemnation of his new satire is so well-crafted it actually makes me want to read the book, perhaps just to see if I can make up my own quips about it. Here are the first two sentences of Birkerts’ review:

Means too great directed at ends too little is called overkill — as when a person grabs a volume of the Brittanica to go after a housefuly; or when Mark Helprin concocts a novel of near-Tolstoyan heft to showcase a string of groaningly bad jokes while working through old truisms about wealth not buying happiness and love conquering all. The fly, I suspect, will get away, but since Helprin is the author of seven previous (and widely reviewed) works of fiction, it’s worth asking what gives.

The mood of well-crafted carnage in today’s Book Review carries over to Henry Alford’s short and enjoyably mean-spirited swipe at the new historical-mystery smash bestseller of the moment, Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, a popular new riff on the Dracula legend, which is apparently just too cute:

When, after many other allusions to historians and historicism, Kostova introduced a character whose last name is Hristova, I was tempted to run out to a pharmacy for some antihristomine.

The bad review won’t dent the popularity of this summer smash one bit (and, what the hell, I probably will eventually end up reading The Historian on one airplane trip or another). In fact, I think the reviewer is being too generous when he says this novel wants to do for historians what A. S. Byatt’s Possession did for literary scholars. Actually, if the marketing campaign for this novel is any indication, it wants to do for Little, Brown’s profits what The Da Vinci Code did for Doubleday’s profits. It may even go ahead and do just that, bad review in the NYTBR or not.

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