Monday, June 30, 2008

They Write About Books?

When it comes to reading book reviews, I'm a snob. I'm much more highbrow in my reading of critiques then I am in my taste of actual books. If the review does not appear in The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books or a paper from London, then it doesn't really attract my interest. Conversely, I'll read just about any book if it features a great cover, touches upon the subject of baseball, involves super heroes or looks respectably risque.

I'm not sure how I got like this. Frankly, most of the writing in The New York Review of Books bores me, and yet I persist. Perhaps, in my addled head, I connect the dry prose with literary respectability. I admit that occasionally I'll read a review in another publication if it's by a writer that I enjoy. I make a habit of perusing the Denver and Boulder papers to keep abreast of what the local residents might be encouraged to purchase at our store. But for the most part, I'm not really that interested in what Newsweek, Time, or most anyone else has to say about books.

I figure if I look hard enough I'm liable to find a good review of just about any book out there. God knows that the publishers find plenty of positive reviews to quote for the paperback releases of their worst dogs. You can practically hear the book barking as you crack open the front cover and read the stirring praise from U.S.A. Today. No thank you. I'll stick to the tried and true for my reviews.

All of this began to change a few months ago, when a magazine of dubious pedigree appeared in our apartment. After a round of bitter marital recriminations, I finally came to believe that my wife's subscription to Entertainment Weekly was an unfortunate error. It seems that a couple of months previous, we had bought a magazine subscription as part of a school fundraiser from the daughter of a dear friend. We were reluctant to take on another magazine, but the student had been a flower girl at our wedding, and to refuse her anything was beyond my capabilities. The problem is that unread, or barely read, copies of The New Yorker, Harper's and Paste already clutter up our minuscule living room.

"No, no honey, you can't throw out that October, 2003 issue of Harper's yet," I plead, every time we try to clean the apartment. "I'm halfway through a fascinating article that debates whether Nader is going to run for President again, after the 2000 debacle in Florida."

Finally, after much humming and hawing and some nudging from our friend, we agreed upon a subscription to Sports Illustrated. I reasoned that at least I'd thumb my way through it in search of baseball news each week. I also pointed out that everyone knows that sports writers are the most literate and talented of all journalists, so perhaps even my wife might enjoy the feature articles. (Disclaimer: the author of this blog is a former sports writer.)

By the time Entertainment Weekly arrived, I had completely forgotten about our subscription to Sports Illustrated. Once we ascertained that a switch had occurred, we'd already received four issues of the wrong publication. What could we do? I suggested browbeating the absurdly cute flower girl into correcting the error and getting us the right magazine. My wife, who was eschewing all of our highbrow literary magazines in favor of Entertainment Weekly by this point, said that we just had to suffer through the subscription in peace and quiet.

Week after week, a parade of celebrities crossed the threshold of our door. One week it was Johnny Depp, the next it was Will Ferrell gracing the cover of the hideous magazine that had brought the tabloid world into the rarified air of our home. It wasn't until the cover featuring Ellen Page of Juno, that I broke down and cracked open the magazine. I admit that I just love that movie. Unfortunately, my fears were confirmed; the magazine was rife with gossip, inane features on celebrities and fawning palaver aimed at dreadful Hollywood fare.

However, I found a curious three-page section of book reviews towards the back. I was flabbergasted. The reviews were concise, well written and featured not just popular books but independent and intelligent titles. I don't recall the exact books that were discussed in that issue, but ever since I have scanned each issue of Entertainment Weekly for the reviews.

I started mentioning the book news and insights that I'd read in the magazine to reps and fellow booksellers. I'd get a few askance glances, but I'd push forward. Making my exposure as a reader of trashy magazines even worse was my habit of referring to the publication as "EW" It seemed that I was on overly familiar terms with Entertainment Weekly. This delighted a few of the people I worked with who were only too happy to catch me quoting a non-snooty publication.

My conversion to Entertainment Weekly, was completed this past week when they released a special double issue featuring the best movies, tv shows, albums and books of the last 25 years. I skipped past the other categories (although I couldn't help noticing that they named the mediocre Spiderman 2 the 36th best movie) and headed right to books.

It's a surprising, quirky and literate list. Cormac McCarthy's The Road earns the top spot and is joined by Harry Potter, Beloved, The Liar's Club and American Pastoral in the top five. It's not just the books they pick -- I personally don't agree with the selection of Philip Roth's American Pastoral, for instance. I'm not sure it's even his fifth best book of the last 25 years. It's the pithy comments that accompany each entry that really provide the hooks.

Here's the write up for #29, Bel Canto by Anne Patchett: "A South American embassy throws a birthday bash for a Japanese electronics mogul. A famed opera singer is on the guest list. The terrorists who swarm in through the air-conditioning vents are not. The diva's performance works miracles even with the terrorists, but it's Patchett who really sings."

I also like #16, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood: "After 1984 came and went without ado, we needed a new futuristic dystopia to haunt our sleep. Atwood obliged, dreaming up the Republic of Gilead, a grim theocracy where women are valued solely for their ability to bear children."

I'm not arguing that this is a definitive list of great books published over the last 25 years. There are some true hits (The Things they Carried by Tim O'Brien, Blindness by Jose Saramago) as well as some books that were wildly popular (The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and Mystic River by Dennis Lehane) but have no business being on a list of new classics.

What EW does so well is to make books appear to be as entertaining as avid readers know that they really are. EW treats books with the same flippancy and zing that they treat movies and music. Anyone can enjoy a great record, and what they are saying in their book pages is that anyone can enjoy a great book. You don't have to be hyper-educated or part of a book club to pick one up. If you want to be entertained, here's some books that are great options.

In a strange way, I think EW does a better job with books than they do with movies and television shows. In the visual mediums, they are such an establishment force, that they have certain things that they must cover. They write about all of the major Hollywood pictures, no matter how unworthy of space they may be. Their book pages aren't as thorough, but they are free from establishment expectations. EW features first novels next to graphic novels, and the latest Janet Evanovich novel in the same issue that they have a full-page article on Ethan Canin's America America.

I used to think that these mainstream reviews didn't really matter much. Who reads EW or People for their book coverage? Well, People featured Nina de Gramont's The Gossip of Starlings a few weeks ago, and the book sold out at all the national distributors within days. Someone's paying attention out there. Perhaps there's really life beyond The New York Times Book Review for books and authors.

Now where did I put the EW featuring pictures of Angelna Jolie's tattoos? I didn't finish reading all of the book reviews in it. "Honey, what do you mean you threw it out?"


Anonymous said...

What a great discovery! That is a pretty astute assessment to say:

"Anyone can enjoy a great record, and what they are saying in their book pages is that anyone can enjoy a great book. You don't have to be hyper-educated or part of a book club to pick one up."

That's the one thing that really annoys me about highbrow book reviews -- I always get this nagging sense the reviewer wants me to think what a talented writer the reviewer is and how the author failed or a patronizing "oh look she caught the ball! She's so clever." There's an undercurrent of snootiness and know-it-all-ism I find pretty annoying.

I also think there are a lot of talented writers out there that just get stuck writing for crappy magazines.

And I have to say I totally agree with you about sports writers being the best writers out there!! When a certain someone coaxed me into being sports editor of a certain college newspaper (I forgive you) I was always stuck with having to write about wrestling. WTF?! How do you write 400 words about some guy getting pinned on a mat? It was torture.
Then I read Seabiscuit and was amazed the author could write about a horse galloping around the track in such an exciting and varied way!! You people really do have a gift.

lady t said...

I've been enjoying the EW book reviews for a long while now and do find them to be more readable and informative than most of the "serious" book review sections in other publications.

I also think EW is way less gossip laden than People or Us Weekly(two magazines I can do without). The New Yorker has a good movie reviewer in Anthony Lane,so I check them out online occasionally.

I saw that EW book list and counted the number of books on it that I've actually read-the total was 28(couldn't count Fast Food Nation because I didn't finish it;the book got too dry towards the end). Not bad,in my humble opinion:)

Monster Paperbag said...

I didn't expect "The Road" to be in top but I'm glad that it is. I love this book.