9 March, 2009Issue 8.7Review of Reviews

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Review of Reviews




Littell Love… Jonathan Littell’s Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) elicited comparisons to Tolstoy, Proust, and Flaubert when it appeared in France in 2006. Littell, the New York-born son of a spy novelist, worked for humanitarian organizations in Bosnia and Africa before settling in Barcelona, where he writes in French. His 983-page novel, which pretends to be the memoir of a Nazi SS guard, has now been translated into Littell’s native tongue. But it seems that Littell, like Jerry Lewis, plays better in Paris than in the place of his birth: the rash of reviews so far has been, at best, unkindly. The New York Times hated the novel so much that it printed not one but two take-downs. In-house reviewer Michiko Kakutani calls it “a pointless compilation of atrocities and anti-Semitic remarks“. In a follow-up review in the same paper, David Gates gives Littell the ultimate insult: the novel is “middlebrow.”

The Wall Street Journal tries to one-up the Times by comparing The Kindly Ones to Britney Spears’s “as-yet-untitled, unwritten memoir“. Sara Nelson writes in the Journal that both books “lean toward prurience”, and Littell’s publisher, like Spears’s, is “hoping for (and counting on) the seemingly bottomless American appetite for scandalous attitudes and behavior”. One might accuse Nelson of judging Spears’s book prematurely, but one might accuse her of judging Littell’s book prematurely as well. She gleefully admits that she hasn’t read the whole thing: “I gave up in disgust.”

Speaking of Nazis and novels… The Times Literary Supplement looks through Hitler’s library and finds that it included all the Wild West novels of Karl May (whose other fans, according to the Economist, included Albert Einstein and Herman Hesse). But beyond that, Hitler was, to put it frankly, not a very interesting reader: military history dominates; good literature is almost entirely absent; and the philosophers co-opted by Nazism make no appearance. (Apparently, he schmoozed Nietzsche’s sister without having read Nietzsche.) Hitler also owned 1,000 books on health and nutrition (he dabbled in vegetarianism), though the few comments that he scrawled in the margins do not prove particularly illuminating: “Cows were meant to give milk, oxen to draw loads”.

No Evidence, However, That Hitler Liked Tofu… Indeed, as the Guardian points out, the Führer’s favourite dish was “pan-fried trout”, which suggests that he was a pioneer “flexitarian” rather than a full-fledged veg. As longtime restaurant critic Paul Levy tells us in the Times Literary Supplement this week, soy is “fairly toxic” to humans in unprocessed form, though it is like manna for animals. (Brazilian chickens eat so much soya that, in the local lingo, they’re called “soybeans with wings”.) A new anthology, The World of Soy, asks whether the world’s masses can be taught to use soy to satisfy their own protein needs. Soy’s “destiny”, according to Levy, “really boils down to whether the populations of South America, East Asia and West Africa can learn to love tofu”.

And Then There Was One? Agatha Christie is back in the news as her South Devon “dream house” opens to tourists. Meanwhile, the plight of American newspaper book reviews is looking more and more like a Christie novel. We noted two weeks ago that the San Francisco Chronicle was the only US paper publishing a stand-alone weekly books supplement aside from the New York Times. Well, now it is not clear that the Chronicle can continue to publish at all. Owner Hearst Corp. (of Citizen Kane fame) said this past week that it will lay off half the Chronicle‘s editorial staff. But even that might not save the 144-year-old paper from closing.

The (First) Day That Wall Street ExplodedAs the Chronicle implodes, the paper reviews Beverly Gage’s timely new book on the 1920 Wall Street bombing that killed 38 and wounded more than 100. The New York Times points out that it was the worst terrorist bombing on US soil until the Oklahoma City attacks 75 years later. Gage argues that “today’s bankers ought to really count themselves lucky“: if the Crash of 2008 had happened nine decades ago, then executives at JPMorgan Chase wouldn’t be worried about their compensation as much as they would be worried about assassination. (The New York Observer, meanwhile, notes that Gage’s book is the latest in a line of Oxford University Press titles that have potential popular appeal.)

Measuring Influence Most “most influential books” lists are unhealthy but addictive; this month, the perennially provocative mental_floss magazine lists “the 25 most influential books of the past 25 years” and includes (among other iconoclastic additions) Allen Carr’s bestselling 1985 addiction-buster, The Easy Way to Stop Smoking. (Non-subscribers can access the full list here.) Notice that there is no overlap with the Times Literary Supplement‘s recently republished list of the most influential books of the latter 20th century. Over at the New York Review of Books, Obama’s new regulatory czar Cass Sunstein picks out the most influential book of American political thought from the past 250 years. (Actually, it was a set of newspaper articles before ever being bound.) Academic gossip-mongers will no doubt mull over Sunstein’s shout-out to his ex-girlfriend Martha Nussbaum in his eighth footnote. Nussbaum, for her part, makes it into Astra Taylor’s new film, The Examined Life, a new documentary on the most influential modern American philosophers. (Salon calls it “American Idol, post-Heidegger edition“.) Meanwhile, the New York Times reviews Elaine Showalter’s grand tour through the most influential American female writers of the past 350 years.

What’s In A Face?… A family in Surrey will announce today that it owns the only portrait of Shakespeare that was painted in the bard’s lifetime. The Times learns that the longtime editor of the Oxford Shakespeare series will support the family’s claim. Meanwhile, the Guardian gets friendly with the Left Bank bards at Shakespeare and Company, the Parisian bookshop-cum-hostel where starving writers can stay as long as they read a book a day (“unless maybe it’s War and Peace, in which case you can take two days”).

“The only certain things in life are death and taxes.” Benjamin Franklin’s famous words take on new meaning as the New Yorker posthumously publishes an excerpt from David Foster Wallace’s novel about… tax collectors. Writing on the Guardian website, TLS managing editor Robert Potts argues against the novel’s publication: “This will not be the book that Wallace would have sent into the world if he had had more time.” Meanwhile, Strand, a murder mystery magazine in Michigan, announces that it has found a never-before-published Mark Twain story in the American novelist’s archive. The title is, fittingly, “The Undertaker’s Tale”.