In her latest review of the New York Times Book Review, Intern Alexis is faced with the reality that Harvard students were not in tears while reading Madame Bovary. After accepting that crimson can be so cruel, Alexis notices a lot of "nah-nahs" going around amongst reviewers, which is especially painful when coming from a Pulitzer winner. This, plus the inexplicable anger of reviewer William Logan, after the jump.
The famously tough critic James Wood reviews Frederick Brown's new biography of Gustave Flaubert for this week's cover story. And heavens to Betsy, really likes it! Conveniently enough, Wood recently taught "Madame Bovary" in a Harvard seminar. In the editors' "Up Front" column, they threw Wood a Q for his A:
So what do students in the age of hip-hop and 'The Sopranos' and David Foster Wallace (often known on campus as 'D.F.W.,' Wood reports) make of this tale of a 19th-century desperate provincial housewife who distracts herself with country dances and brazen carriage rides with her lover? 'The students loved the novel, though a fair number of them were not especially moved by Emma's death,' he said. 'I think they felt that Flaubert's cruelty and determinism, and his . . . fanatical degree of aesthetic control, somewhat kill emotion.'
W-w-w-what? Harvard students weren't especially moved by Emma's death? Cold-hearted bastards. But we knew that already. What we found most disturbing about the above paragraph is the report that Harvard students refer to David Foster Wallace as "D.F.W."! For shame, Harvard students! For shame. D.F.W. is for herbs. DaFoWa, on the other hand, is the abbreviation of studs.
It seemed like some of these week's reviewers came down with a case of the j'accuses. First off is reviewer Davish Oshinsky, who, in writing about Richard D. White Jr.'s Biography of Huey P. Long, suggests that White might have been influenced by an earlier biography of Long. He writes:
For White, the line between the democratic populist and the native fascist is always blurry. 'Huey began to take power,' he writes, 'and then to do more good he seized still more and finally the means and ends became so twisted in his mind that he no longer could tell them apart.' It's a fair assessment. Unfortunately, like so much else in 'Kingfish,' it's been said before. As T. Harry Williams wrote of Huey 37 years ago, 'in striving to do good, he was led on to grasp for more and more power, until finally he could not always distinguish between the method and the goal, the power and the good.'
As Reading About Reading goes to press, we've been informed that Oshinsky has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize in the history category for his book "Polio: An American Story." We're hoping the Review paid him before he got the prize, cause his price per word just went UP. And we hope White read his review before he learned of Oshinsky's prize, because, dude, it sucks to get bitchslapped by a Pulitzer Prize winner. Trust us, we've been there.
Then there's Alan M. Dershowitz's review of Sebastian Junger's latest, "A Death in Belmot." In this gripper, Junger reveals that the man who was later accused of being the Boston Strangler was a construction worker who was working on his home the day someone was murdered just several blocks away. Junger, who was just a wee baby Junglet at the time, wonders whether the Strangler, on the job chez Junger that day, could have committed the murder. But always the party pooper, Dershowitz keeps one eyebrow skeptically raised:
In an intriguing paragraph, Junger makes a disturbing claim about the genre of nonfiction that many have made about great fiction: 'Maybe the truth isn't even the most interesting thing about some stories, I thought; maybe the most interesting thing about some stories is all the things that could be true. And maybe it's in the pursuit of those things that you understand the world in its deepest, most profound sense.'
I think he is wrong. Nonfiction must be about actual truth, not about how coincidences could lead to a deeper truth. Junger should understand this, especially since he has criticized James Frey's 'new journalism.'
Uh oh, the Frey bomb has officially been dropped! Stay strong Junger, stay strong. You, unlike Frey though, have the baby backup excuse: "I was just a baby! And babies are idiots!"
The Oxford Book of American Poetry
Chosen and edited by David Lehman
Reviewed by William Logan
William Logan basically just tears the latest edition of the "Oxford Book of American Poetry" — not to mention America poetry, in general — a new one. Here are some golden nuggets:
• "... you only have to compare the work of these poets with what was being written aross the water by Dryden and Pope to see how bad the home team was."
• "The dirty secret of American poetry is that until Whitman and Dickinson it was no damn good, and until the modernists it was not good again."
• "A good anthologist must have a few bizarre quirks, though preferably not too many. Lehman's catholic taste and appreciation of minor voices make him ill at ease with major ones."
• "Lehman is such a democrat, he can hardly bear to leave anyone out... it's one thing to leaven the majors with wits like Dorothy Parker or kooky originals like H. Phelps Putnam... quite another to try to revive the long dead reputations of Emma Lazarus, Adelaide Crapsey..."
• "Lehman's introduction is not much help in coming to terms with his states. He's suspicious of overanalyzing poems and would prefer that readers experience a poem's 'uncanny mysteriousness,' which sounds like the credo of the Know-Nothing party."
• "As Lehman nears the present, his choices become off-balance and whimsical."
• "The strangest inclusion is the Canadian Anne Carson, here because she 'has taught in the United States and has a wide following among younger poets' - with standards like that, you would include any poet who ever came here for a long weekend."
• "This bloated, earnest, largely mediocre new Oxford takes up a lot of space on the shelf without providing a clear view of our moment. The chance won't come again for another generation."
ENOUGH ALREADY. Like a dog running around in circles chasing his tail, Logan's really worked himself up into a tizzy. To all this, we say: chill out, dear, it's just an anthology. No one (except losers) reads anthologies anyway. Though we hear an anthology makes a good rain hat.