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A Book Review Review

Sunday, April 10, 2005
    Whatcha Got Cooking?

    For the second week in a row, NYTBR gives a memoir by a former Timesperson a two-page review: last week, Cynthia Ozick on Joseph Lelyveld's Omaha Blues; this week, David Kamp on Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires. One school of thought has it that this is shameless cronyism, while another interpretation holds that these books, and others by NYT personnel past and present, are important enough to deserve such coverage. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle, though it might be said that (a) giving Lelyveld first-class treatment here and a Sunday magazine cover for the first serial might be pushing things just a bit even for a retired executive editor, while on the other hand (b) Reichl's role in transforming the culture of restaurant reviewing does, in fact, justify in-depth coverage.

    It's also worth nothing that Kamp's review can hardly be accused of giving Reichl a free ride--although he acknowledges "she's not some dilettante in pursuit of expense-account jollies, but a real food journalist who...has had a front-row seat for some of the greatest American culinary developments over the last 30 years," he finds at times that "Reichl's novelistic approach to nonfiction becomes too novelistic, to the point where it beggars belief." He also finds the sections in which Reichl enthusiastically describes the elaborate personae she developed to fool restauranteurs "troubling after a while," and wonders aloud about "the intimations that she flirted with madness." Those issues didn't concern Jonathan Yardley (WaPo) quite so much; he merely notes that the author "found herself taking on the character of each invented persona, sometimes with happy results, sometimes not," adding almost casually that "she feared what the job was doing to her." (Although lavish descriptions of these characters form part of Reich's Salon interview, her own comments do little to elaborate upon the psychological and emotional ambiguities.) One point on which Yardley and Karp come closer to agreeing is with regard to Reichl's legendary review of Le Cirque, which knocked a star off for poor service to one of Reichl's plainer identities. "Some cheered Reichl for having struck a blow for the little guy," Karp comments, while Yardley believes "it wasn't exactly a blow for the common man."

    And in the realm of metaphors so easy they write themselves, Seattle Times foodie Nancy Leson loves this book so much, she thinks Reichl's last two memoirs were "merely an appetizer and intermezzo" in comparison, while Liz Smith calls it "absolutely delicious."

    posted by ron @ Sunday, April 10, 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.


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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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