The New York Times Book Review

They Died for Westphalia
June 08, 2012

WHAT A SPELL of cultural miseries. Oprah Winfrey commended “Pierre de Chardin” to the graduates of Spelman College and exhorted them to “let excellence be your brand.” Yale University elected to have its commencement addressed by Barbara Walters. Al Sharpton appeared in the pages of The New York Times Book Review, which warmly noted that its reviewer has lost a lot of weight and eats fish twice a week and many vegetables. And Daniel Bell was made responsible for the Iraq war.

In Defense of Girly Book Covers
April 05, 2012

I’m not unsympathetic to the arguments recently raised by Meg Wolitzer in The New York Times Book Review, and by my colleague Ruth Franklin, regarding the marginalization of “women’s fiction.” Yet both their pieces contained an irksome assumption: Female authors don’t want “women stuff” on their book covers. All that girly junk is just a means of marginalization. “Look at some of the jackets of novels by women,” Wolitzer writes: Laundry hanging on a line. A little girl in a field of wildflowers. A pair of shoes on a beach. An empty swing on the porch of an old yellow house.

Why the Literary Landscape Continues to Disadvantage Women
April 04, 2012

Watching the outpouring of grief and reflection over the death of Adrienne Rich last week, I admit, to my shame, that I was surprised. Surprised not because of any judgment about Rich’s poetry, which I barely know, but because I had thought of her as an icon of another era. That era, of course, was the era of the women’s movement, of which Rich was a brash troubadour, asserting the value and distinctiveness of women’s experience and lamenting their—our—submission to patriarchy. But when I came of age intellectually, in the 1990s, this mode of expression had fallen out of fashion.

Enough Already
March 15, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank By Nathan Englander (Alfred A. Knopf, 207 pp., $24.95) The great mystery about the fiction of Nathan Englander is the rapturous response that it has elicited. The enigma deepens with the accolades for this new volume of stories, which, for reasons I will try to explain, is a great falling-off from For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, his debut collection, which appeared in 1999.

Did Anne Frank Really Have An ‘Infinite Human Spirit’?
March 09, 2011

“The concentration camps are a dangerous topic to handle,” the British critic A. Alvarez once wrote. “They stir mud from the bottom, clouding the mind, rousing dormant self-destructiveness.” This has perhaps never been more true for anyone than for Meyer Levin, the author of middlebrow Jewish-American novels such as The Settlers who is now better known, alas, for an obsession with the diary of Anne Frank that seems to have sent him over the edge of sanity.

Writer's Block
March 03, 2011

A few weeks ago, with a small footnote by way of introduction, The New York Times Book Review published revamped best-seller lists that, for the first time, separately reflect the sale of e-books. The new lists were inevitable—e-books made up about 10 percent of book sales in 2010, and that number is rapidly rising. You had to read between the lines to find the real news, but there it was: To the growing list of things that will be extinct in our children's world, we can now add bookstores. Does it surprise us?

Excellent New Art
January 12, 2011

There are many ways to prop up a currency artificially. “We’re wrestling with the same stuff as Rilke,” Bono recently told The New York Times about Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the hapless Broadway wonder for which he collaborated on the music. More specifically, “Rilke, Blake, ‘Wings of Desire,’ Roy Lichtenstein, the Ramones.” I was not previously aware of the Rilkean elements in “Rockaway Beach.” Those elements Bono characterized as “the cost of feeling feelings,” which throws the Blakean dimension into question, but never mind. Precision is really not the point.

The READ: Why Is Emma Bovary So Maligned and Misunderstood?
October 20, 2010

Emma Bovary is one of the most abused heroines of the modern novel. It’s not enough for her to lose her mind in love for an unworthy man; to squander her fortune and suffer the terror of mounting debt; and, finally, to die in a prolonged, painful suicide by arsenic. No, she must also be cruelly misunderstood by Kathryn Harrison in a weird piece in The New York Times Book Review that has generated a steady seething of online dissent. Harrison and the Book Review have been jointly taken to task for the piece’s failure adequately to assess the novel’s boutique new translation by Lydia Davis.

Family Business
May 21, 2010

Embarrassment is an important element in the pedagogy of experience. There are mistakes I will never make again because I made them once and was usefully shamed. In the winter of 1974, when I was a bright and callow student, and did not yet grasp the difference between knowledge and knowingness, I endured such a lucky education at the hands of Diana Trilling. The subject was the danger of simplification in the intellectual engagement with politics.

Bursting The Thermometer
July 24, 2006

Black Swan Green By David Mitchell (Random House, 294 pp., $23.95) I. 'I liked it." Is there anything less interesting to say about a book? Every negative piece is negative in its own way: we remember with a grim chuckle Mark Twain's enumeration of James Fenimore Cooper's literary offenses ("There have been daring people in the world who claimed that Cooper could write English, but they are all dead now"), or Nabokov's epistolary rebuke of Edmund Wilson ("A patient confidant of his long and hopeless infatuation with the Russian language, I have always done my best to explain to him his mistake

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