Not really. It's an exaggeration to allot the New York Times Book Review that much power over my precious Sundays. But damn that rag infuriates me. Nearly every week. So why keep reading it? It's one of several sources for news of new books--albeit, books within a very limited range, those that are of interest to the petit-bourgeois literati and, more to the point, deemed worthy of comment according to the lights of the NYTBR's editors, above all the avowed right winger Sam Tanenhaus, he of William-Buckley-adoration-and-biography-writing fame. It's important for a leftist reader and writer to know what books this crowd is pushing, I think. It's also useful to keep up with their literary and political analysis, within limits, the limits being what I can stomach. (I probably should read the New York Review of Books for the same reason, in its case to keep up with the liberal commentariat ... but jeez, the difference is minute, NYRB positioning itself perhaps a half-inch to the left of NYTBR, and there's only so much a gal can stand.) Withal the torture of sifting through the Tanenhaus slant, when I read the NYTBR I do once in a while hear of a volume possibly worth pursuing, and they do let through a mildly enlightened voice on rare occasion. And so I slog through, Sunday by Sunday.
But Jesus H. Christ. It may be time to reassess. I pick up the rag for free every week at the university bookstore. Even that price may be too high.
Without shifting the torture onto you with a review-by-review list of horrors of the last few weeks, let me just mention a couple of the most recent front-page reviews. First, two weeks ago, there was a celebration of Doug Stanton's book Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan. One need barely comment, hey? A celebration of a celebration of a vile, bloody, murderous imperialist invasion that is still marauding through that country massacreing civilians by the thousands, boosted by an increase in U.S. occupation forces under the current administration. On this book's Simon & Schuster web page, the publisher crows that "Doug Stanton received unprecedented cooperation from the U.S. Army's Special Forces soldiers and Special Operations helicopter pilots ... ." Yep, I bet he did. And the Army in turn received blathering adoration from NYTBR reviewer Bruce Barcot.
Then today we're treated to Paul Berman's review of a new biography of Gabrial Garcia Marquez by Gerald Martin. Paul Berman is a prominent anti-communist and liberal anti-leftist, one of the crew of supposed 60s radicals (though for most of them their claim to 60s activism is dubious and I often suspect concocted to create their credentials as crossovers to the other side, the current era's equivalent of the neocons, some of whom began as 30s leftists) who now make a living renouncing and denouncing the left quest for peace and social justice. A strong supporter of the war in Iraq, of Zionism, a rabid enemy of revolutionary Cuba: this is the guy to whom Tanenhaus turns to take on the life of one of the greatest living novelists. Guess what? Berman crafts not a review of a biography but a reactionary analysis of Garcia Marquez, not only his work but his life. About a page worth of this, all leading up to, guess what? A full column--nearly one-quarter of the entire "review"--devoted to a full-on reactionary diatribe against Fidel Castro, the Cuban Revolution, and Garcia Marquez for his friendship with and support of both. Berman calls the author Fidel's "lackey" and "flunky." You can almost hear him snorting with glee at what he must imagine to be his own great neolib-lit-crit wit, smacking his lips at his triumphant takedown of--hey, a twofer!--the "great novelist," as he fairly well sneers at the end about Garcia Marquez, and the "monomaniacal dictator," as he arrogantly, utterly inaccurately, and (yawn) unsurprisingly calls the most beloved living figure in the world today. (Go ahead, travel the world, check it out, see if I'm right. Not in the salons of the rich and powerful. In the slums, the factories, the fields, schools, hospitals. Go to Ramallah, Johannesburg, Cebu City, Lima, Nairobi, Mumbai, Managua, Jakarta, Tunis; go even to Europe, to Liverpool or Lyons, Athens or Barcelona. Ask the world's toiling masses what they think of Fidel. This is not an exercise a Paul Berman could or would undertake.) And with what does the NYTBR illustrate Berman's anti-left essay posing as a literary review? A 1976 photo of Gabriel Garcia Marquez sporting a shiner over his left eye "courtesy," as the caption puts it, "of Mario Vargas Llosa." Vargas Llosa, of course, is the reigning right-wing Latin American novelist and thus a favorite of Berman, Tanenhaus and their ilk. How they must have chuckled at their cleverness, punctuating the written takedown with its visual counterpart, flattering themselves, perhaps, that today's piece amounts to a good hard right jab dealing another well-earned bruising to the sneer-sneer great novelist.
And yet Garcia Marquez lives, and writes, and, for that matter, so does Fidel. Both are old. Neither will live and write much longer. But it will be their contributions, the one literary and the other world-historically revolutionary, that are celebrated far into the future. The sniveling gripes of a minor anticommunist academic, in contrast, will be quickly forgotten. Which certainty enables me to shrug off this latest NYTBR insult, brew up another cup of coffee, and get on with what's left of my Sunday before heading back for another week of wage labor.