It kills me to say this, but this week’s cover piece, William Safire’s omnibus review of books about Abraham Lincoln, is not bad!
Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category
Not a bad issue, considering par. But what is Luke Sante’s review of Reborn (the first installment of Susan Sontag’s diaries) doing posing as an Essay? It’s a perfectly good review — better than most! — but the only answer that I can come up with is that the Book Review’s Essay format accommodates a higher word count.
The cover review, by Toni Bentley, is an example of what the Book Review’s reviews could be like, if the editors were a little less prone to confuse “selling books” with “engaging readers,” — and if their acknowledgment that favorable reviews are harder to write than unfavorable ones would open them to the suggestion that ipso facto, perhaps, favorable reviews are more valuable as well as more difficult. In any case, this week’s issue is above par.
Instead of shilling books that President Obama ought to read, why couldn’t the editors get the President himself to create a reading list? I’m sure he’s got the time: If you need something done, ask the busy man!
Is the Book Review getting shorter and shorter? I thought it was just the holidays… Three novels, three non-fiction titles, and two collections of letters (both Allen Ginsberg’s). I don’t mean to complain, but now that reviewing the Review is getting to be fun (déformation professionelle?), I’m no longer thrilled by the lighter workload.
Liesl Schillinger’s excellent review of Louise Erdrich’s new collection of stories, The Red Convertible, almost makes up for the snark and condescension scattered through the rest of this week’s issue.
If you don’t mind, I’ll quietly backdate this leader to the time at which it ought to have appeared.
Storytelling abounds in this week’s Book Review, but Liesl Schillinger’s dependence upon it is singularly disappointing. Reviewing two novels by novelists of East German background, Ms Schillinger summarizes their curious stories without placing them in the context of contemporary German fiction or addressing the aesthetic positions that, as German fiction, the books undoubtedly occupy. That’s what I’d have liked to know something about.
Imagine reading reviews of Shakespeare’s plays that merely thumbnailed their often astounding stories, and perhaps you’ll begin to see my objection to the storytelling line of attack.
The Times’s choice of the year’s ten best books has already been discussed (in Matins).
While I think I see what Ed Champion means about a different tone in this week’s Book Review, I can’t agree that the issue is all that it could be. Non-walker DT Max’s review of Geoff Nicholson’s book about walking still has me hiccuping.
The editors of the Book Review take a holiday from serious reading this week, indulging us with a lot of titles that sound loaded with empty calories. The two long reviews, by Witold Rybczynski and Toni Bentley, are detached essays that have little regard for the books under review.
As always, there are lots of topical roundups in this issue, written for people who are thinking of giving books to other people. They’re an ancient feature, but they’re as out of place as ever. I’ve overlooked them, as I do roundups generally.
When I started reviewing the reviews in the Book Review, in 2005, its contents did not appear online until the publication date. Unaware that this policy had changed, I read most of this week’s reviews thinking that they were leftovers from last week’s edition, which I missed in print, being on vacation.
Which is another way of saying that I wasn’t paying attention last weekend. That’s what vacations are for, isn’t it? And yet I feel curiously guilty. What about last week’s Book Review?
Talk about a book that needs no review! If George, Being George is anything like the oral biographies that George Plimpton produced, it will be impossible to put down. The sense of gossip becoming myth right before your eyes is electrifying. Graydon Carter is the exactly-right reviewer.
Also of interest is David Orr’s thoughtful essay on the career of Ted Hughes, as reflected in his very readable Letters.
¶ Lucky George.
A not-too-bad issue. Maybe it seems that way because I’m no longer classifying reviews. No more colors; no more Yeses and Maybes and Noes. Already I’m wondering why I went to the bother. Clearly there was something I had to work my way through on some sort of learning curve, but what?
¶ Tierce: Pakistani and Afghan elders are getting together for a jiragai (a “mini” council), to talk over the increased violence in both countries. Right at the start, however, an Afghan official throws a spanner in the works:
Afghan Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta said last week his government was at the start of a dialogue process, but it would only negotiate with those who lay down arms.
Can anyone tell me the source of this crazy condition, which pops up over and over again when states feel obliged to deal with internal opponents?
¶ Sext: Business as usual: An Army intelligence report notes that terrorists could make use of Twitter. Nobody’s asking why they would want to. Want to be terrorists, that is. Hell, no! What’s the Army without terrorists? (via JMG)
¶ Vespers: Margaret Talbot writes in The New Yorker about recent research into red state/blue state family values. The red state family values — this will come as no surprise to attentive observers — are largely eyewash.
Jules Feiffer’s drawing shows how I feel before I have my weekly look at the Book Review. “Do I have to?”
I wish that this illustration didn’t bring Barack Obama to mind. Maybe it’s only me. I’ll bet not, though.
A better issue than usual, which is not saying much. I’ve decided to give up trying to parse Susann Cokal’s reviews, and I’m trying to be humble about it. I can’t expect myself to find every critic intelligible. It’s just that Ms Cokal has a way of making every book sound like a beach book, whether she likes it or not.
Reading, this afternoon, that Emily Gordon is stepping down as editor of Emdashes, the great New Yorker-centric Web log, I felt my toes curling in envy. How I’d love to give up this self-appointed weekly review of The New York Times Book Review. This week, especially. What a lackluster lot of books!
The Book Review is mired in a cesspit of publicists and chits. But it’s all we have. As soon as there’s an American version of Lire, I’ll quit. Gladly.
I fiddled with the format this week, and will probably fiddle some more in the coming weeks. I think that the colors that I’ve chosen to code fiction titles are all wrong. But, hey, I lost my Internet connection last night and am still working without WiFi.
Just when I think I can’t go on reviewing the Book Review, I discover a new reason to forge ahead. I want to use this feature to forge an idea of what a humanist reading list would look like today. Of course, I’ve got to define “humanist,” and I’m working on that as well. Although I have a working definition to hand, I’m going to let my decisions about the Book Review‘s choices polish the finer points.
If you’re looking for a good book about humanism and education, Anthony T Kronman’s Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life is worth looking into. It has the feel of a classic, and I hope that its popularity on conservative campuses (if its achieved) doesn’t harm Mr Kronman’s reputation. His argument is lucid, persuasive, and scolding-free.
In my ongoing argument that the Book Review ought to confine its attentions to works of literature — in which I include thoughtful books of every kind — I’m pinched by need of a definition of “literature.” And I think I may have got one, in a quotation that appears in James Wood’s How Fiction Works. Permit me to mull it over for a few more weeks — at least until my page on Wood’s book pops up. As for this week’s….