This week's edition of the Times Book Review attempts to rank the best works of American fiction, surprising no one and making Toni Morrison, if possible, even more wealthy. Moving onward, Intern Alexis is horrified to find reviewer Walter Kirn sloppily fellated by Thisbe Nissen, who's clearly campaigning for something. Meanwhile, Curtis Sittenfeld gets the same treatment, albeit less sloppy, and Dave Itzkoff writes in computer speak, scaring off any readers he may have had in the process. After the jump, Alexis helps you fake your way to being well-read.

Letters: Passing Love Notes to Walter Kirn

Author Thisbe Nissen ("The Good People of New York," "Osprey Island"), writes in this week, declaring: "I'd like to start a petition to name Walter Kirn the United States Book Reviewer Laureate. No matter what he's writing about, Kirn's reviews are consistently insightful, profoundly articulate and uniquely illuminating." She goes on to list her favorite Kirn reviews and ends with a coquettish question: "Maybe I should just register this as my official book-critic crush?" Stay tuned for next week when Kirn responds with a simple, tasteful, slightly whimsical emoticon rose: ——<—((@


P.S. Hey Thisbe, quit writing letters to editor and let's work on novel number three! Kirn can't ravely review your book after all your ass-licking if it doesn't exist...

The Best of the Best


Moving on to the elephant in the room, the NYTBR finally published its "What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years" list this week. There is not much to go on about here, cause too much going-on-about feels slightly irrelevant, given that the list and A.O. Scott's accompanying essay have been available online for two weeks already. "Beloved" is number one, there was a whole lot of Philip Roth, and a bunch of Don DeLillo. No huge shockers there. What we did enjoy, however, were Scott's surreptitious name-dropping (without the names!) of respondents who found fault with the parameters laid out by Tanenhaus. Scott politely chose not to call anyone out, so we turned his essay in a blind item guessing game extravaganza. Let the games begin!

WHICH "famous novelist, unwilling to vote for his own books and reluctant to consider anyone else's, asked us to 'assume you never heard from me'?"

WHICH authors "sighed that they could not possibly select one book to place at the summit of an edifice with so many potential building blocks?"

WHICH Roth fan asserted "that the presumptive preference for 'American Pastoral' over 'Operation Shylock' was self-evidently mistaken?"

WHICH " writers who, finding themselves unable to isolate just one candidate, chose an alternate, or submitted a list?"

WHICH "best-selling author (whose fat novels seem to have been campaigning for inclusion in this issue long before the editors dreamed it up, even though not even he bothered to vote for any of them) reflected on the poverty of our current literary situation by wondering what the poll might have looked like in 1940, with Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald - to say nothing of Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather and Sinclair Lewis - in its lustrous purview?"

Oooooh baby, this is so juicy. Tom Wolfe, anyone? Is there a Rick Moody in the house? How about that slithery Phillip Lopate? Helloooo, Cynthia Ozick? Anybody home? Write in with your guesses.

Just kidding. Just send us sales figures of "Beloved" - have they even gone up?

The Man of My Dreams
By Curtis Sittenfeld
Reviewed by Claire Dederer

Darling de la Book Review Curtis Sittenfeld has returned. After the NYTBR showered her debut novel "Prep" with butterfly, Eskimo and French kisses, she was asked back to pen several back page essays, and in January, "Prep" was named one of the five best works of fiction of 2005. We also noticed she was on the list of noted authors and editors asked to vote on the "Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years. This week, her newest, "The Man of My Dreams" is reviewed by Claire Dederer and is met with a trombone snort not unlike the one that appears during Debbie Downer sketches on SNL. It's not that Dederer was downright mean - far from it, in fact. Instead, she puts on her point shoes and delicately prances around the fact that "The Man of My Dreams" is just not as good as "Prep" and comes off sounding downright apologetic.

She writes:

"The Man of My Dreams" strings up a kind of reverse-chic velvet rope. The author waves in loneliness and indignity. She denies entry, on the other hand, to the elements that made her first novel such a darling: old money, New England breeding, boarding-school sex, grosgrain ribbon. She refuses their glamour as resolutely as the Amish refuse zippers. In her new book, there's room only for Very Unimportant People.

You may be forgiven for thinking "The Man of My Dreams" sounds like a boring book. And it ought to be... "The Man of My Dreams" reads mostly like a comic novel; Sittenfeld circles Hannah, laughing at her, sympathizing with her, even judging her."

Calling the book dull and pointing out the exciting and delicious things Sittenfeld did not write about this time around, but comforting us with the fact that it's a "comic novel" does not get our panties in a twist.

She then ends the review with this piece of cheese:

There are authors who write solid books for years until, finally, with luck, they break out ahead of the pack. "The Man of My Dreams" shows us a writer who is in it for the long haul; she just happened to write her breakout anomaly on the first go-round. The legions of readers who loved "Prep" will most likely not flock to this quiet novel. But Sittenfeld's determined exploration of her character's interior life feels like bravery.

"Prep" rode to its wild success on the impression that Sittenfeld, a prep school teacher, was spilling some beans. By stepping outside that dynamic, Sittenfeld has surrendered an easy advantage. I admire that sacrifice. "The Man of My Dreams" reads like the next necessary step in a serious career.

Waaa Woooouwwwwn.

Janet Maslin, in her Books of the Times review last week was less kind, and tells it like it is a little bit more:

Sharp glimpses of dull phenomena — specifically the high school blues leavened by boyfriend trouble and snobbish class distinctions — were that book's hallmark. And Ms. Sittenfeld's embrace of the unremarkable is even clingier the second time around. In "The Man of My Dreams" her drab heroine is made special mainly by endless reserves of myopia and self-pity. An amazing number of episodes involve pizza, despite the limited range of pizza as a literary device.

Unlike the Review, "Books of the Times" hath no shame and is clearly in it to win it!! And hold the pepperoni, please.

By Douglas Coupland
Reviewed by Dave Itzkoff

Oh, man.

As the resident NYTBR dorkatron (aka writer of "Across the Universe," the Book Review's infrequently-written science-fiction column), Dave Itzkoff lives up to his namesake this week with his review of Douglas Coupland's novel, "Jpod," about a video-game programmer named Ethan. Itzkoff thought it would be clever if he wrote the review in computer programming speak, creating a very precious meta feel to the whole endeavor. Each paragraph is prefaced with a heading like so:

{expiation of reviewer's self-doubt through alternately excessive praise and backhanded disparagement of well-intentioned author}

Gimmicky? Yes. Cute? Yes. Nauseatingly dorkatronical? Hell yes! Readable? Not really...