23 February, 2009Issue 8.5Review of Reviews

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Review of Reviews




And then there were two.

The Washington Post went to press yesterday without its beloved Book World, the 16-page, tabloid-sized supplement that had been a Sunday staple of Washington-area breakfast tables for more than two decades. The Post, whose most recent quarterly report revealed that profits had plummeted 86%, folded its book reviews into a redesigned Outlook section. With that, the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle are the only two major American newspapers that still distribute detachable book-review supplements.

The beloved Book World was a once-a-week intellectual stimulus package for the nation’s capital, and we’re sorry to see it go (unlike Terry Teachout, who says that “the fuss over this development is pointless”). Of all the Post-mortems, we think that Kelly Jane Torrance at the rival Washington Times had the most interesting take. In the post-Book World world, Washington will still be one of the most literary metropolises in the American Republic of Letters: it ranks third (behind Minneapolis and Seattle) in Professor John Miller’s intriguing ranking of “America’s Most Literate Cities”.

Moreover, the outlook for Outlook’s literary coverage is less grim than many had feared. Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli has said his paper would try “to have nearly as many reviews as we’ve had in the past”. The attempt appears to be genuine: yesterday’s Outlook section includes ten reviews—only a modest decline from the twelve that appeared in Book World’s final press run.

Included in Outlook is a fascinating review of Passing Strange, the historian Martha Sandweiss’s new book on the life of Clarence King. Born in the tony town of Newport, Rhode Island, the lily-white King, a Yale-educated geologist, ditched his patrician friends in 1888 and posed as a black man so that he could marry and live with an African-American woman. We still think that Janet Maslin’s review of Passing Strange in the New York Times earlier this month was more insightful, but it’s nonetheless a sign of the times (rather than a sign of the Times) that the two best US general-interest newspapers are both engaging in cliché-free discussions of race.

The end of Book World doesn’t mean the end of the Short Stack blog, which the Book World editors had used as a sounding board in recent years. One Post editor, Ron Charles, points out that new US regulations on toy safety standards have put the children’s book industry in peril. The European Parliament has exempted children’s book publishers from rules that require toymakers to test for the presence of lead in their products. But children’s book publishers in the US have yet to win that concession. The lead-testing process could be a significant added expense for the struggling publishing industry in the US, which once put out more new titles than any other country but recently lost its top spot to the UK. In sum, a Washington without Book World might still be a literary metropolis, but bibliophobia reigns on Capitol Hill.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Chronicle reminds us why we’re happy that the US still has two newspaper book-review sections, instead of having to rely on the hegemonic New York Times alone. The New York Times doesn’t touch Elie Wiesel’s new novel, A Mad Desire to Dance, which was released by Knopf last week. But the Chronicle has the chutzpah to speak truth to the publishing powers. Saul Austerlitz acknowledges that A Mad Desire is “one of the most impenetrable books published by a major author in recent memory…It is, in a single impolite word, unreadable…and admirers are advised to skip [it] entirely”.

On that note, here are the most penetrating reviews published by major newspapers in recent days—as well as a few that book-lovers are advised to avoid.

“I don’t think it would sustain a person’s attention for a moment,” Donald Barthelme said in 1981 when the Paris Review asked for his biography. But a new Barthelme biography is sustaining the attention of book reviewers across the US: Time magazine and the Wall Street Journal weigh in, but we recommend that you head to Barthelme’s hometown of Houston, where the local Houston Chronicle looks at the life of the city’s most celebrated literary luminary. Barthelme actually worked as a reporter for the now-defunct Houston Post, not the Chronicle, before he became a regular contributor to the New Yorker. But whereas Barthelme was a free spirit, the New Yorker places Louis Menand’s review of the Barthelme biography in a subscription-only section of its website. Non-subscribers will miss the opportunity to watch Menand explain the difference (différance?) between two strains of post-modernism, remark on the conflation of high and low culture, and practice torture by dropping excruciating Barthelme block quotes in quick succession on the (subscribing) reader’s brow.

Speaking of low culture: read this! The 27-year-old Britney Spears is set to sign a £10 million deal for her memoirs, and the Wall Street Journal has a syllabus for her to start with: a list of the top five actress autobiographies of all time (three of which are out of print).

The Guardian says that everyone should read these! As if “1000 Novels Everyone Must Read” was not enough to keep you busy, this week the Guardian offers us a hundred more, organized, like the first thousand, in rather odd thematic categories. Try the first and most capacious: love. It’s a definite improvement from Blake Morrison’s painful paean to romance literature last week, in which Morrison ended with the earth-shattering conclusion that “great literature…offers truths that lie too deep for greetings cards”. Unlike the first thousand-book batch, this week’s selections are recommended by Guardian readers rather than Fleet Street flaks, and the list is accordingly eclectic; it ranges from the unjustly neglected (Shklovsky’s Zoo, or Letters Not About Love) to the justly over-read (David Copperfield) to the utterly forgotten (Fanny by Gaslight, by Michael Sadleir).

The New York Times tells us to read Bishop and Lowell ‘while squinting….’ David Orr argues that “over the course of the 20th century, greatness has turned out to be an increasingly blurry business”. Elizabeth Bishop might have been a “great poet”, but Robert Lowell was “greater-looking” (though as an aside, Orr says of Bishop: “when her glasses are removed by the right man, she’s revealed to have been, all along, totally hot!”) Orr’s suggestion: “Bishop wrote the poems, Lowell acted the part, and if you simply look back and forth fast enough between the two while squinting, it’s possible to see a single Great Poet staring back at you.” Bishop scholar Vidyan Ravinthiran reviewed the Bishop-Lowell correspondence in the Oxonian Review this month and offered a less dizzying—though, in our unbiased opinion, far superior—suggestion: read these epistles as art in their own right.

Turning to the arts… Thanks to his now-infamous Obama “HOPE” poster, thirty-nine-year old graphic artist Shepard Fairey has landed has his own “retrospective” exhibition in Boston. Peter Schjeldahl reviews it in this week’s New Yorker, looking at other pieces by the artist who brought Barack to the silk-screen throne, where he has deposed the likes of Marley, Marilyn and Che.

But trouble is brewing in pop-art paradise: the Associated Press is seeking compensation from Fairey, claiming that Fairey’s decision to doctor an AP photo to create the faux-vintage Obama graphic violated copyright laws. Fairey, for his part, has filed a counterclaim, saying that his work falls under “fair use” laws—which is either audaciously hopeful or perfectly post-modern, we’re not sure which.

Trouble is brewing in the Big Apple as well. In the New York Times, Walter Kirn defends “irreverent laughter” (and his co-workers) against the “neo-Victorian” David Denby’s new book Snark. Denby, a critic for the New Yorker, takes aim at the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, and New York magazine columnist Kurt Andersen. It is turning into a no-holds-barred brawl straight out of West Side Story, with the press Gangs of New York sending their meanest street fighters. Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott responds that Denby’s diatribe is “less than suave”, and New York magazine hits back with a blistering critique by Adam Sternbergh.

On this side of the Atlantic, in the Times Literary Supplement, Cambridge classicist Mary Beard reviews St Andrews scholar Stephen Halliwell’s new book, Greek Laughter. Having just delivered the Sather lectures at UC Berkeley on the topic of “Roman Laughter”, Beard knows whereof she chuckles. Perhaps a bit too much: it sometimes reads more like a rehash of her own lectures—or a Toga Party stand-up routine—than a review of someone else’s book. But she has room for a few howlers, ancient and modern. (“An Abderite saw a eunuch talking to a woman and asked if she was his wife. When he replied that eunuchs can’t have wives, the Abderite asked, ‘So is she your daughter then?’”)

David Denby tries to trace “snark” back from Sarah Palin to the Roman poet Juvenal; we’d like to hear Beard’s take on that claim. We think it would be withering. After all, Beard has a well-deserved reputation for many things, but “tactfully dressing it up” is not one of them.

Speaking of “dressing it up”… and of stand-up comedians, and of actresses-turned-authors, Joan Rivers has taken a shot at mystery-writing with her new Murder at the Academy Awards, a whodunit about a fashion critic-turned-sleuth named Maxine. Words flow from Rivers’s pen at a rapid pace: it has been but a month and a half since she published Men Are Stupid… And They Like Big Boobs. Book reviews might be going the way of the dodo, and children’s books might be banned by overzealous legislators, but the prostitution of publishing lives on!