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A Book Review Review

Friday, February 25, 2005
    Keep an Eye on The Orientalist...

    In the twenty-four hours or so since yesterday's item about Tom Reiss and The Orientalist, it's dropped from about #179 on the Amazon charts to #239, suggesting that the wave of purchases inspired by the William Grimes review has died down. But I'm going to predict that Reiss will crack the top 150 this weekend, because I've got an advance copy of Sunday's NYTBR, with a full-page review of The Orientalist by Geoffrey Wheatcroft. (My own copy arrived yesterday, which will give me something to do this weekend...) I'm mildly pleased with myself to see a reference to The Quest for Corvo in Wheatcroft's opening lines, because it means I'm not the only one to have made the connection, but Wheatcroft also mentions two books I didn't recognize but which sound equally damn cool: Hugh Trevor-Roper's The Hermit of Peking and Bernard Wasserstein's Secret Lives of Trebitsch Lincoln. (Both out of print in the U.S., dang it.) Although he chides Reiss for "the notorious author's inability to let go of anything he has learned," Wheatcroft is still engrossed by the life of Lev Nussimbaum, which "defies the old phrase 'stranger than fiction.'" Considering the venue, I'd say that's worth about a 100-point shift up the Amazon charts, wouldn't you? And if another major paper weighs in--I see, for example, that the SF Chronicle doesn't appear to have run a review yet--I wouldn't be surprised by an appearance in the high 90s.

    Also in this weekend's NYTBR: the angry letters about Wendy Shalit's "The Observant Reader" (which I first wrote about here) have come in. Tova Mirvis essentially distills her Forward article (which I wrote about here) to two paragraphs, reiterating her interpretation that "apparently the only true experience of Orthodoxy is [Shalit's] own--and any portrayal that doesn't confirm her newfound personal fulfillment is inauthentic." Jonathan Rosen, another of the authors Shalit attacked, wonders about her "inability to read my novel as a work of fiction" and raises the possibility that "Shalit's dislike seems to be for imaginative fiction itself." Alana Newhouse, the Forward arts and culture editor who ran Mirvis's response a few weeks back (and cohosts a great "Novel Jews" reading series at the New York City bar KGB), takes her own shot at getting inside Shalit's mind, observing she "came to Orthodoxy later in life and probably had to undergo a good deal of personal change and intellectual work to join it" and thus "may be jealous of those of us who had it all along" and "unable to fathom how anyone could take for granted what she labored so hard to acquire."

    There is one writer willing to stick up for Shalit, though: Binyamin L. Jolkovksy, editor-in-chief of Jewish World Review. (And if he doesn't mention that he's given Shalit space on his website to defend herself, it's probably only because the letter predates the decision to give her a second platform.) Jolkovsky actually makes a better argument than Shalit does, acknowledging that "the hypocrite's escapades obviously are far more entertaining than the thrice-daily synagogue-goer" while proposing that even stories about hypocrites that accurately reflect human behavior do not reflect the full possibilities of human behavior...and (here's the part that makes his take better) not calling anybody a poseur for writing a story he didn't happen to like. He even seems to predict Newhouse's response when he says Shalit "will be painted as zealous because she returned to her heritage late(r) in life and has now become its self-appointed literary vanguard." If only it were true, as he claims in his conclusion, that Shalit's real aim was "encouraging those fervently Orthodox who have the talent" to write their own stories; if that were truly the case, she would have spent a lot more time praising authors such as Ruchama King and Risa Miller and less time denigrating Mirvis, Rosen, and Nathan Englander as phonies--and she wouldn't have continued slamming the authors she didn't like in a second essay for another publication.

    At any rate, Jolkovsky's letter nails one of the true key issues here, much more significant that Shalit's invented controversy over who is or isn't a self-loathing Jew, taking their anger out on the Orthodox the way assimiliated homosexuals despise drag queens and leathermen: why do we read fiction? For sheer entertainment, to learn about the way the world is, or to obtain guidance on the way it ought to be? Obviously, that's a question far outside the realm of this column; heck, Shalit had two whole pages, and the only time she went near that issue was to suggest that most readers are too stupid to tell the difference between fiction and nonfiction. It almost makes you wonder what she'd think of The Orientalist.

    posted by ron @ Friday, February 25, 2005 | Permanent link

Thursday, February 24, 2005
    Every Day Should Be Like Sunday

    As I write this, Tom Reiss's The Orientalist is among the top 200 selling books at Amazon.com--far better, perhaps, than anybody might have expected from the biography of Lev Nussimbaum, described on the Random House website as "a Jew who transformed himself into a Muslim prince and became a best-selling author in Nazi Germany." I mean, that sounds like a great story, but the kind for which author and publisher might, perhaps, have modest aspirations: a few nice reviews here and there, a respectable turn on the display tables, maybe some brisk sales on the paperback next year.

    So why is it ranked so high on the Amazon charts? Here's my guess: strong reviews coming together all at once. Gideon Lewis-Kraus (LAT, and you'll recognize the name from his Murakami review two weeks ago) got the ball rolling last Sunday, finding the book not just "a riveting story" but "a sympathetic, elegant and extraordinarily affecting account of how [Nussimbaum's] protean identity arose from a climate of near-constant upheaval" that, "in solving the prosaic puzzle, has preserved the romantic allure." Ranen Omer-Sherman (Miami Herald) had her review appear the same day, and her "page-turning" neatly mirrors his "page-turningly compelling," but both are careful to stress that Reiss delivers good history as well. Jean McGarry (Baltimore Sun) wasn't quite convinced--to her, "the historian's art of teasing out patterns and defining forces is almost entirely absent"--but finds it "a good read" anyway. Actually, she winds up damning the book with faint praise and second-guessing the author:

    "Why read this book? Well, it's a painless way to absorb a lot of history. But why write it? Given the present climate in the Mideast, the author must have thought this was the right time to highlight a place (Baku) and a time (the early 20th century) in which Jew and Muslim lived in peace, did business together, and even enjoyed each other's company."

    Well, actually, Reiss explains himself quite differently (see question #5) and in a way that makes utter sense without being mercenary: he was on assignment in Baku, he found this book, and when he dug into the author's background, it turned out to be a hell of a story. I'm quite willing to bet he tells that same version of events in the book at some point; I'll know for sure later this week...though Roger K. Miller (Chicago Sun-Times) already seems to back up that hypothesis.

    Well, okay, reviews like that can help, you say, but can they keep the book that high up on the list four days later? The overwhelming factor here is almost certainly the review from NYT critic William Grimes in yesterday's Arts section, declaring The Orientalist "a wondrous tale, beautifully told." Even finding the book "too long by a third" doesn't dampen Grimes' clear enthusiasm (and I'm delighted to see he loved the same oddball, Quest For Corvo-esque scene that Carl Rollyson (NY Sun) singled out when he praised the book "for sheer reading pleasure, for insights into the biographer's world, and for the rediscovery of a major literary figure.") If I hadn't been sold on the book as soon as I read about Lewis-Kraus's reaction, Grimes would have clinched the deal...as I'm sure he did for those readers for whom NYT is the national newspaper rather than USA Today.

    posted by ron @ Thursday, February 24, 2005 | Permanent link

Tuesday, February 22, 2005
    Revisiting Bruce Wagner...

    A few weeks ago, I noted the early reviews of Bruce Wagner's The Chrysanthemum Palace. The occasion of Michiko Kakutani's (NYT) review seemed like a good enough invitation to see what else folks had been saying lately, even if I haven't started the novel yet because I'm still working on the reissued paperback of Force Majeure. As it happens, Wagner is sort of a touchstone for the Times reviewers when it comes to Hollywood books: both Kakutani and Janet Maslin invoke his name to underscore perceived shortcomings in other writers. And although Kakutani had minor reservations with his last novel (which Dwight Garner didn't share), she seems to believe he's gotten back on track here with a mixture of "caustic satire and sad-funny-scabrous meditations on vanity, mortality and loss." Well, mostly back on track; you probably know how it can be when Kakutani approaches an author with a hefty backlist and the new book doesn't become her favorite.

    Jori Finkel (Village Voice) gets two whole paragraphs for a little plot synopsis, a little criticism, and a catchy closer: "The Great Gatsby for an Entertainment Weekly age. Donna Rifkind (Baltimore Sun) only gets half as much space, because she's writing a review round-up, but gets off to a disastrously wrong start by imagining that Wagner "aspires to the same brio as [Peter] Lefcourt." Now, I like Peter Lefcourt's books, though I don't find him "excruciatingly funny" the way Rifkind does, but I wouldn't even think to put him and Bruce Wagner in the same category other than the fact that they've both written about Los Angeles; Lefcourt's brand of satire is clearly in the Christopher Buckley/Jeffrey Frank vein of what I like to call "dunkbucket satire" (as in, you choose your targets, you throw your fastball, and here come the splashes) while Wagner's closer to Dawn Powell or Gavin Lambert, a "warts and all" writer who can feel empathy for his characters even as he ruthlessly dissects their behavior. To suggest that he's trying to do anything like Peter Lefcourt (other than make a living writing books) seems to me a fundamental misunderstanding that makes me take a much more skeptical glance at every other one of Rifkind's appraisals. And we all know how I feel about group reviews in the first place...

    posted by ron @ Tuesday, February 22, 2005 | Permanent link

Monday, February 21, 2005
    I'm Not the Only Book Review Reviewer...

    William Tipper's The Wombat Files has an insightful reaction to the response from Salon readers (including horror author Nick Mamatas) to Laura Miller's lack of total enthusiasm for H.P. Lovecraft (previously discussed here). He concedes she has some valid points (particularly on Lovecraft's pervasive racism), but also believes she missed out on "the primary reason why Lovecraft still has readers despite [those] problems...: the sense of coherent power ---what a critic like Harold Bloom might call a visionary power."

    Fellow ArtsJournal blogger Laura Demanski reveals her true identity to those About Last Night fans who knew her only as "Our Girl from Chicago" or OGIC for short. (Which always made me think of Jack Kirby's OMAC, even though Laura's got much better hair.) She promises to "start blogging more openly about the reviewing racket," and I for one will be looking forward to it, especially if her initial step in that direction, contrasting her enthusiasm for Robert Anderson's Little Fugue to other critics' negative assessments, is an indication of where she's heading with that theme. (And, yes, we are a mutual admiration society. What's your point?)

    Reader T. gave me the URL for an Old Town Review essay by Gary Sernowitz called "Peck, Bad Boy," in which he treats Dale Peck's book reviews as intimately related to the themes of his fiction by positioning them as "the story of a scrappy literary critic using his imagination to rescue contemporary literature." It's part defense, part criticism, and all interesting, especially towards the end, as Sernowitz reminds us:

    "[A] work of literature isnít an effusion of a writer, it is something made by her, in a hard fight, following aesthetic choices. If we write, and argue, about those choices, we can have a productive, enlivening discussion of how we can continue to try to make a literature that is relevant, absorbing, original--and read."
    posted by ron @ Monday, February 21, 2005 | Permanent link

    The Long and Short of It

    Although the "Chronicles" format that Sam Tanenhaus has introduced to the the New York Times Book Review has offered some interesting group snapshots of books with common themes, the short story collection roundup by Maggie Galehouse in yesterday's issue is a perfect example of what can go wrong with the enterprise. It starts with a generalization so broad that it becomes, from a critical standpoint, nearly useless:

    "[T]he best short stories aren't short on story at all. Instead, they manage to fit an unwieldy world into a very small space. The trick for the writer is to hide the muscle it takes to pull off that compression, convincing us that the world on the page spins easily beyond the story's boundaries."

    After that, Galehouse runs through eight collections in as many paragraphs--or, rather, seven short story collections by seven authors and one anthology with stories from twenty-one authors: a "stew of humanity," as she calls it, "for readers who need a break from collections seasoned by one author's sensibility." She also notes that the profits from that anthology, Telling Tales, are being donated to combat the spread of AIDS in Africa; what she doesn't mention is that the anthology's publication date was pegged to coincide with World AIDS Day last December, and that quite a few of her other selections are even older than that. This needn't necessarily be an issue--after all, surely it's to the good that writers like Vestal McIntyre and Merrill Feitell are getting into NYTBR at all--but there is a problem in the critical skimpiness required to cram so many books into so small a space. My rough estimate is that about 75 to 80 percent of each paragraph is devoted to plot summaries or quotes, with only a handful of space remaining for critical insights. Compare the chronicle to Tom Perrotta's review of the new Judy Budnitz collection in the same issue, in which he seriously explores Budnitz's possible relationship to literary trends in meaningful detail and offers a personalized critical perspective in which, while recognizing Budnitz's talent, he also recognizes that "I'm probably not [her] ideal reader."

    Now, obviously, given one page to discuss one book, Perrotta can do a lot more than Galehouse can do trying to fit eight books into the same space--and, going back to what I admitted earlier, it's just great that some of these writers are in the Times at all. (In fact, when the last short story roundup occurred nearly three months ago, I remember my immediate reaction was amazement Merrill's prize-winning collection wasn't in it; I'm still surprised nobody's thought to mention Janet Desaulnier's What We Were Missing.) Surely, though, there must be some happy medium that balances the number of books reviewed with the quality of attention each book is seen to receive.

    posted by ron @ Monday, February 21, 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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