As promised, we've given new editor David L. Ulin a fair amount of time before checking back in to see what's going on over at our neighborhood book review. This weekend was the first time we've actually opened up the Book Review since our last LATBR Thumbnail® back in October. Ideally, we'd like to tell you it was because we wanted a clean break, some time to be able to get some distance before coming back and assessing Ulin's contributions which, presumably, would be more noticeable if we stayed away for a while. (It's kind of like watching a friend gain weight - if you're there day in, day out, exposed to the gradual change, you don't notice it as sharply as if you haven't seen one another for months.) But the truth is we're still pissed at the delivery department, and so it took us this long to get it together enough to get a newsstand copy.
Still, whatever the reasons, we've had time away, and so we have a few general impressions coming back. On the plus side, we think the selection of titles is a bit more interesting, veering away from some of the more predictable choices. (Occasionally, they veer a bit too far but if we have to have tilt in one direction or the other, we'll opt for avoiding the madding crowd.) The reviews are generally a bit more thoughtful (although some pretty awful writing still slips through; see below). But fiction still gets the short end of the stick, at least in this issue - only two novels get full length reviews. And the cover is still being wasted on horrible artwork. The NYTBR hasn't gotten a whole lot right in its redesign but starting reviews on the front page, in age of precious column inches for books, is a move worth imitating.
On a grander scale, the LATBR doesn't yet feel - on the strength of this one issue - as though it's got a clear identity yet. Now, that might not be what Ulin's after, and it might never have one - that's an editorial decision as much deciding what to put on the cover. But there's nothing here yet that speaks directly to this city and its sensibility, and doesn't seem - again, on the strength of just one issue - to draw enough contributors from some of the heavy intellectual firepower on offer in L.A.
But is a work in progress, and the good seems to be outweighing the bad. Best of all, Eugen Weber is nowhere in evidence. On to the stats:
Full length fiction reviews: 2.
Full length non-fiction reviews: 6.
Essay: Editor Ulin himself weighs in on - wait for it - the Frey scandal. (More below.)
And although we won't pretend for a moment that we had anything to do with it, the pointless Letters section has disappeared.
TITLES, AUTHORS & REVIEWERS
Uncentering the Earth by William T. Vollmann. Reviewed by Margaret Wertheim Grade: C+
The Book of Trouble by Ann Marlowe. Reviewed by Marion Winik Grade: D-
Hokum edited by Paul Beatty. Reviewed by Lynell George Grade: B
Everything I'm Cracked Up to Be by Jen Trynin. Reviewed by Erik Himmelsbach. Grade: B+
Strivers Row by Kevin Baker. Reviewed by Allen Barra. Grade: B-
Legends of Modernity by Czeslaw Milosz. Reviewed by Robert Faggen Grade: A
Skinner's Drift by Lisa Fugard. Reviewed by Laurel Maury. Grade: B
Discoveries Column: Without Roots by Joseph Ratzinger and Marcello Pera; Look at the Dark by Nicholas Mosley; and Letters to a Young Artist by Anna Deveare Smith. Reviewed by Susan Reynolds. Grade: B
Essay: The lie that tells the truth by David L. Ulin. Grade: B
SCORING THE BESTSELLERS
Once again, the literary tastes of L.A. readers seem to far outstrip those of the country at large, as Arthur and George sits at the Number One spot (up from number 7 after two weeks on the list). Other literary titles in the top 15 include Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (#3); Memories of My Melancholy Whores (#4 - and how chuffed do you think See is just now, able to brag she's outselling a Nobel Prize winner); On Beauty (#7); and The Accidental (#15). And Gilead sits happily at the top of the paperback list. We've said it before, we'll say it again - we love L.A.
WHAT WE LIKE ...
Although we thought Lynell George's review of Hokum was a bit long and dry, it was also serious and thoughtful and surely worthy; it's the sort of thing we're glad to see covered, even as we marvel that in a four-column review of an anthology of African-American humor, George barely got a chuckle out of us ... Although it's a book we'd never pick up, Erik Himmelsbach's review of the Jen Tynin memoir made it sound engaging and fresh ... Allen Barra's review of Striver's Row was a bit workmanlike but didn't offend with the exception of this one ridiculous remark:
Does a white writer have a right to go there?
Where "there", in this case, represents a novel about the pre-X days of Malcolm Little. It's a stupid question with an obvious answer. Of course he does. Any writer has to the right to write about anything he or she wants. Some people might not like it but hard cheese. Still, Barra manages to make Baker's "City of Fire" trilogy sound like a work worth seeking out ... Robert Faggen's review of the Milosz essays and letters was more or less perfect ... bracingly intelligent, commanding and worthy of its audience ... Bravo ... Laurel Maury's review of the Lisa Fugard novel doesn't constitute a terribly close reading but she conveys enough of the flavor of the book to have it added to our "seek out" list ... Matthew Price's review of A Godly Hero is surely the strangest "A" we've ever given ... there's much in his review we disagree with and find suspect but we finished it thinking furiously, puzzling over just what the hell he was after, and we were still thinking about it hours later. That's what a book review should do, and so we awarded it an "A" even as we challenge some of its thinking. (For example, Price fails to draw obvious connections between the religious progressives of the 1930s and the religious right of today; he also doesn't comment on what seems to us some fairly blatant anti-semitic imagery in Bryan's famous 1896 Democratic Convention Address) ... And, finally, it's nice to see Susan Reynolds back in good form, although she'd have scored higher if her review of Without Roots would have given us a clearer sense of what she thought of it.
WHAT WE DON'T ...
We went back and forth on Margaret Wertheim's review of the Vollmann ... One the one hand it's marred with some truly terrible writing - overreaching, overwritten, just plan silly. To wit:
Quantities of ink have been expended by historians ...
OK, a bottle of ink is a quantity, as is a barrel. Then, right on the heels of that one:
... have variously interpreted the Copernican system as everything from the last gasp of medieval obscurantism to the shining dawn of modern scientific rationalism.
Which sounds to us, you know, like the same fucking thing! You might be able to slide an onion skin between that "from" ... We've always wondered just what kind of editing really goes on up there, and this does nothing to allay our worries. That said, she does manage to get to the heart of what we find annoying about Vollman (earning brownie points by tying him to David Foster Wallace). So it was a tough one, but awful writing trumps insight this time around ... But she's James Wood compared to Marion Winik's review of The Book of Trouble, to which we can only ask: why? Why this book? Why this review? Why didn't someone say "awful and pointless on all fronts" and round file it? Why, why, why? .... Still, only two outright clunkers whispers "progress" to us ...
THE EDITOR SPEAKS
Which leaves us with Ulin's own essay on the James Frey scandal. He admirably uses it as a jumping off point to try to think a bit bigger, and it's a thoughtful effort. We disagree with some of what he says, and some of how he says it but we approve of the impulse to have the discussion and to raise the bar a bit. Some quibbles:
Ulin says in the first paragraph that ours is a "culture that seems willing to believe anything as long as it comes in a neatly digestible package." We disagree. We think one of the lessons of all this - and the bigger problem - is that our culture doesn't really need to believe anything. That's immaterial - entertainment and emotional pulls are the draw, and truth, non-fiction, fiction, those are all easily ignored labels. But he goes on to score a bullseye with this:
... what's at issue is emotional truth, the need to re-create the sensibility, the tenor, of an experience in a reader's mind. This is the essence of literature, which like all art, operates at a level beyond the rational, according to rules of its own. In literature, truth is not so much known as it is felt, and empathy is as important as understanding. In literature, the logic of the story can sometimes trump the logic of the world. If this sounds disingenuous, it's not meant to — on the contrary, it's what makes art resonate.
Hear, hear! Which makes it all the greater shame when he takes this tack:
For a lot of people, the very phrase "creative nonfiction" is an oxymoron. There's nothing creative, they would say, about the truth. But the more you think about it, the more such an argument becomes specious or (worse) unsophisticated, a misunderstanding of how creative writing works.
... where he simply loses good manners points for condescension to those who don't feel truth is quite so elastic. But that's little more than bad manners. The real problem for us lies in this assertion:
The decision to tell a story is a fictionalizing impulse: to take the chaos of reality and shape it, looking for order, meaning, where none inherently exists. This is as true of memoir as it is of the novel.
We disagree with this on many levels. We suspect plenty of non-fiction writers would bristle at the notion that conveying a true story is animated by fictionalizing impulses. But on a deeper level, Ulin's just described the plight of both philosophers and physicists as well as writers, and the notion that looking for order somehow goes back to a fctionalizing impulse strikes us as wrong turn. We suspect that his underlying idea is that to erect a narrative framework sometimes requires a bit of literary spackle, but that's a far cry from a "fictionalizing impulse."
But check it out - the L.A. Times has got us thinking and talking and arguing. Hence the positive grade of "B" even if we disagree with some of the finer points ...
GRADE: B. It's starting to gel. We'd like to see more fiction, the last of the terrible writers, and some real thought given to the identity of the publication ... But things strike us as being much better than they were last October when we checked out. Watch this space for more. (Note: The Sunday LATBR webpages have now been moved inside of the registration-heavy calendarlive.com.)