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A Book Review Review

Friday, February 18, 2005
    Two Books Go In, Only One Comes Out

    You might have seen Sarah Boxer's (NYT) amused take on The Morning News Tournament of Books yesterday. The concept's entertaining enough: sixteen of last year's prominent novels square off against each other until only one remains, as reviewers take the books in pairs, judge one better than the other, and send them off to the next round. But are the reviews any good?

    The reviews/"rounds" follow a strict format: three paragraphs, one for each book followed by the verdict. The first matchup, overseen by Claire Miccio, set the tone; after picking out aspects of The Plot Against America and The Bad Boy's Wife that did and didn't work for her, "tt was difficult to choose a winner between these two books because I honestly wasn’t into either of them." Choire Sicha applies his usual high levels of sass to the situation, raising the bar somewhat, but subsequent reviews go back to making broad summaries, and it's especially hard when the judge's hearts don't seem to be in it: Mirroring Miccio's apathy, Danny Gregory "found both books less than important" when asked to choose between Tom Wolfe and Jonathan Ames, but gave Wolfe points for trying.

    So now we're onto the quarter-finals, and one of my favorite bookbloggers, Maud Newton, is weighing Miccio's selection of Plot against Sicha's preference for The Inner Circle. She adds some personal details in evaluating the T.C. Boyle, which is a welcome touch, and admits "I was surprised by how much I like this book"--so it's just as surprising, after her colorless description of the Roth and her declaration that "Boyle’s book is more consistent," that she hands the decision to The Plot Against America anyway for what appear to be largely extra-literary reasons, namely that in reading about the imaginary president Lindbergh, "the distracting, Doublethink tactics of the present administration spring naturally to mind." Well, it should make for an interesting semi-final, when Morning News contributor Andrew Womack has to choose between Roth and Cynthia Ozick... (oh, like you really think there's any chance Mark Sarvas, another favorite bookblogger, isn't going to pick Ozick over Susanna Clarke?) Overall, the tournament is certainly a concept whose time has come, but very much a work in progress...so look for improved performance in the years to come, especially if they can get more judges like Sicha.

    posted by ron @ Friday, February 18, 2005 | Permanent link

Thursday, February 17, 2005
    "But Is It Good for the Jews?"

    In the two weeks since Wendy Shalit's ignorance of how fiction works was given critical legitimacy of a sort by its publication in NYTBR, she's gotten criticized roundly, and not just by me. Tova Mirvis, one of the authors Shalit brands an "outsider insider" who merely "purported to explain the ultra-Orthodox from an insider's perspective," had her say in the Jewish weekly The Forward, calling Shalit out on her "discounting and de-legitimizing of any individual experience other than her own." Ruth Andrew Ellenson (The Jewish Journal, L.A.) believes the "personal attacks" Shalit indulges in are "dangerous," and asks, "Since when is literature concerned with propagating the status quo?"

    Well, Shalit's back, this time in the Jewish World Review, which appears to have swiped the NYTBR artwork without credit to illustrate her self-defensive adherence to the line that "the authors I discussed... are simply not from the fervently-Orthodox community that is featured so negatively in their novels," even if "the media (and many readers) seem to feel that these writers are representing the traditional Jewish community."

    "In quoting the authors' public statements about themselves, such as Nathan Englander's explanation that he's disillusioned with his modern Orthodoxy or Tova Mirvis's considering herself 'liberal, feminist, open Orthodox,' I am not critiquing their personal choices. I am examining why sometimes their haredi characters lack realism."

    But she has, of course, conducted no such examination. She's never even demonstrated that the characters in Englander or Mirvis novels actually "lack realism;" all she's done is inform us of her belief that any portrayal of the Orthodox that deviates from her vision of how they conduct themselves is a "negative stereotype." That isn't literary criticism; that's intellectual laziness, and such laziness comes as no surprise from a woman who actually asks with a straight face, "Why is the best writing advice to 'write what you know'?" Then there's the ludicrously unsupported claim, "It's simply taken for granted in the literary world that if you can come up with a sufficiently odd cast of Orthodox characters, you're on your way to a great novel." This is merely a prelude, though, to her insistence that "we have relied for too long on people disaffected with the Orthodox world to produce an Orthodox literature that verges on caricature" in which "their characters, ostensibly spiritually motivated, never show anything resembling an inner life or concern for others." All they have, she charges, is "a steady parade of weird religious Jews."

    Does Shalit name any such novel? No. Therefore, we'll have to assume she's talking about Mirvis and Englander (and, though she seems to have dropped him from her enemies list in the last two weeks, Jonathan Rosen). And, in fact, we find she is talking about Mirvis, who is singled out for her professed discomfort with religiosity, which ties right back into what I pegged originally as Shalit's insinuations that "certain literary types" have internalized anti-Semitism, as she concludes by unrolling a prodigious straw man in which a school of "Reform-bashing literature" would, she claims, meet with instant scorn, proving that "the fact that we have toasted such literature about Orthodox Jews for so long might--just might--tell us something about our prejudices." I, for one, think we've been told plenty already about Shalit's biases (note her particular problems with the "liberal, feminist" Mirvis), and until she actually learns how to review fiction instead of sideswipe people who don't agree with her--a trick she probably learned on the pundit circuit--I don't know that we need to hear much more.

    posted by ron @ Thursday, February 17, 2005 | Permanent link

Wednesday, February 16, 2005
    The Various Forebodings of New England

    Just as I was sending out my first look at the reviews for the Library of America edition of H.P. Lovecraft, Michael Kenney (Boston Globe) makes note of his "ability to suggest a frightful, hideous world that might exist in familiar places," but remarking that in the Library's 23-year history, "there has been nothing so far from the accepted canon as Lovecraft." There's some room for debate on that, depending on whether you believe Charles Brockden Brown is in "the accepted canon," but it's true, my first reaction to the announcement of the Lovecraft volume (and this speaking as a guy who has lain awake at nights thinking about the contents of the Necronomicon) was to wonder whether an edition of Asimov's Foundation trilogy was going to be next on their list. Not that that would be entirely inappropriate, mind you...

    Meanwhile, Ann Hulbert (Slate finally comes around to a book that was the subject of some of my earliest items, Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep. (Sittenfeld, by the way, will be appearing on Beatrice all next week in an "Author 2 Author" feature with Elizabeth McKenzie.) Hulbert notes that the novel "has been praised for its acuity about adolescent status consciousness and class dynamics," but wonders how "a nondescript, white, middle-class girl from the Midwest" got into the fictional prep school, claiming the protagonist "is no screwup, but neither is she is a younger Charlotte Simmons, a talent from the hinterlands whose toil takes her to the top." She finds enough to like about the novel, however, to predict it will "eventually appear on those ninth-grade readings lists where Salinger and Plath and Knowles are still lodged these days." Fellow book blogger Maud Newton spotted Sittenfeld in a group review of several "debutantes" by Christian Lorentzen (Journal News, Westchester County) which waxes, somewhat weirdly, that "there is something heavenly at play in the dorms and on the playing fields..." before deciding ,"At her best, Sittenfeld skewers matters of class and sex like the young Philip Roth... I'd rather see Lee Fiora grow up to be Alexander Portnoy than Bridget Jones." Now there's a book I'd pay good money to read!

    posted by ron @ Wednesday, February 16, 2005 | Permanent link

Tuesday, February 15, 2005
    We're Almost at the Horrific Bit...

    Laura Miller (Salon) is surprised the folks at the Library of America are giving H. P. Lovecraft, "American literature's greatest bad writer," the time of day, let alone a greatest hits collection. Of course, she's probably not the only one, but she spends hundreds of words detailing exactly why Lovecraft isn't scary and that his fans really love him for his unintentional camp value...but a definitive version of this argument already exists in just 84 words, eight of which are "narrator."

    John Mark Eberhart (Kansas City Star) is a bit more impressed with Tales noting that the editor, horror writer Peter Straub, "helps demonstrate Lovecraft's development as a writer" by including some earlier, lesser stories into the mix, although "it's hard to declare this.. the definitive Lovecraft." Mark Hazlin (USA Today) suggests with ludicrous hyperbole that "to readers interested in delving into fright for the first time, there is no better starting point." I mean, come on, I'm a Lovecraft fan myself, but he's not a better frightener than Poe. He's not even as scary as "The Monkey's Paw," for crying out loud. And I don't hold much faith in his assertion that "movies such as The Shining, Psycho and The Thing" feature "his creatures and characters." You might be able to make a case that "Who Goes There?", the John W. Campbell story on which The Thing is based, was influenced by Lovecraft; some do, in fact, claim it's based on "At the Mountains of Madness." And there's some thematic links between Lovecraft and The Shining, maybe; certainly Stephen King has blatantly appropriated Lovecraft in other stories. But Psycho? What's Hazlin thinking?

    UPDATE (2/16); Reader W. writes in to suggest that Hazlin might have been thinking of Lovecraft's "The Picture in the House," in which the narrator finds shelter from the rain in a spooky house with an even spookier proprietor. Which prompted the more-than-half-forgotten remembrance that Robert Bloch was in contact with Lovecraft during the latter's final years and did do some Cthulhu Mythos stories early in his writing career. I still think it's a bit of a stretch, personally, to equate this to a Lovecraftian influence on Psycho, and if Hazlin was going to invoke Lovecraft's cinematic influence, surely The Dunwich Horror or Re-Animator would have been better cites.

    posted by ron @ Tuesday, February 15, 2005 | Permanent link

Monday, February 14, 2005
    Stanley Crouch Could Learn from A. J. Jacobs

    If you recall a few months back, when Joe Queenan brutalized A. J. Jacobs in NYTBR, you might have been pleased to see that Jacobs's vigorous defense did not involve walking up to Queenan in a fashionable restaurant and "bitch-slapping" him across the face, nor did it involve spitting on him at a literary cocktail party. No, Jacobs got his frustration out in an essay, "I Am Not a Jackass," in which he dismisses his harshest critic as "tediously grumpy" and "a real Mencken manqué." If it were simply just lashing out, it might be just as tediously grumpy, but Jacobs has managed to find humor in the situation, and the piece is, frankly, funnier than Queenan's pan...which, coupled with the positive reviews the book's gotten from other publications, certainly might call that pan into question. But the best revenge Jacobs could have is, perhaps, that "the Amazon ranking for the bully's new book is much, much lower than [mine]."

    In fact, Jacobs has been given the opportunity to make the sort of rebuttal the bestselling erotica writer known as "Zane" might feel like writing if she ever sees Sacha Zimmerman's merciless takedown in her New Republic "Pulps" column. In the past, I've had negative responses to Zimmerman's work, but I noticed signs of improvement last month when she made a case for Citizen Girl, and dealing with Zane's "pure trash" has really helped whip her critical voice into shape. "Everyone is so thrilled that there's a black suburban wife out there writing erotica after the kids have gone to bed that no one is even bothering to look critically at her work," Zimmerman says; she does, and finds it "crude and unimaginative writing masquerading as urban erotica." (It's funny, because apart from the word "urban" this is exactly how I've always felt about Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle, to the dismay of many lesbians of a certain age who have tried to convince me that the rareness of its voice at a time when they were struggling to assert their identities trumps the terrible writing. I have yet to buy into this argument.)

    posted by ron @ Monday, February 14, 2005 | Permanent link


BEATRIX archives

Ron Hogan is a freelance writer who reviews books and interviews writers for publications such as Publishers Weekly. He is also the author of an illustrated overview of American films from the 1970s called The Stewardess Is Flying the Plane, due out from Bulfinch Press in November 2005.

How did this season's hot books generate their heat? And why do other novels surrounded by buzz turn into duds? Beatrix, a subset of my longrunning literary blog Beatrice.com, openly speculated about these questions in the form of "book review reviews" from January to August of 2005.

Beatrice; or, Where It All Began
I first launched Beatrice.com in 1995 as a venue for author interviews. In late 2003, I switched over to a daily blog of news and commentary about books and authors. What you see here now is essentially one side of that blog's original makeup, the side that dealt with how books were received by the literary culture. The full blog contains not only these "book review reviews," but news items about various writers and original insights from the authors themselves in the form of interviews, blog excerpts, and guest articles.


Write Me:

(syndicate this AJblog)


I'll Show You Mine
One of my regular gigs is as a freelance reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Although some people have a problem with anonymous reviews in PW, I'm all for them in general principle (though I think embargoes are a crock, but that's a different story)...anyway, I'd like to give any reveiwers who might be reading this the same opportunity to critique me, so I'll look into whether it's kosher for me to pull back the curtain. And I'll try to land some assignments with bylines, too. (In fact, if you're reading this, and you can assign book reviews...)


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