As it is Zappadan
, I find it interesting that the NY Times Book Review indulges in the same rich high brow/low brow amalgamation that was often a hallmark of Zappa's music and lyrics.
Still, one must begin this week's review of book reviews with some clunkers, as the reviewers too often seem to be lacking in the ability to traverse such an amalgamation with the appropriate taste or level of analysis.Here
is another weak review of the new Doonesbury coffee table book. As with Garry Wills' review in the NY Review of Books (upon which I commented
about a month ago), it scratches the surface of Trudeau's accomplishment, and makes a throwaway reference to Tolstoy, but again it fails to provide a more satisfying explanation of what makes Doonesbury such an important cultural phenomenon and sociological document. The reviewer, John Schwartz, nails the touchstone moment of B.D.'s wartime injury, and again references how the characters grew older, but the treatment is still cursory and not worthy of Trudeau's achievement.
There are reviews of two books
that were supposed to provide a literary analysis of two films I happen to adore: "They Live"
and "Duck Soup."
The reviews are good enough to tell us that the authors who wrote the books were the wrong people to write about the films, but even the reviewers do not do justice to these films. But really, I fell over when I saw the person HarperCollins publishers thought should write about "Duck Soup": Roy Blount, Jr.
?? Are we joking here? What, Larry the Cable Guy
wasn't available? As for "They Live," the publisher, SoftSkull Press, was better off providing the "Marxist-Lacanist" Slavoj Zizek (mentioned in the review) the task of developing his more insightful analysis than the author that small publisher chose, Jonathan Lethem
, who can charitably be called a "quirky" novelist. Per the reviewer, Lethem thinks he found a contradiction that the aliens read the magazines that contain subliminal messages, whereas there is a consistency--which is that the aliens are themselves somewhat seduced by the world they are creating. The main point of the film remains solid: That the beings now running our planet are outer-space aliens who are raping our natural resources, engaging in trade deals that beggar the human inhabitants and, after completing their abuse of people, animals and resources of the planet, are going to simply move on. The shallowness of the treatment sent me scurrying round the Internet till I found Zizek's original essay (here
). It starts off well, but veers completely away from the film's analysis, never returning. Oh well. At least Zizek gets the fight scene in the film correct and his analysis is, when dealing with the film, spot on.
There is more of this, but the number of well-written reviews merits our attention. First up, is a wonderful review
of two books that, well, are less interesting than the reviewer's analysis. The obsession with Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy is surely prurient, not just from a sexual standpoint, but from a standpoint of longing to be a "star" or a queen. The reviewer intuitively understands this and yet maintains an empathy that is remarkable in our day and age. Hooray for Liesl Schillinger, the reviewer! And seeing this
interview with her this morning, I see why she is a cut above the other reviewers...Her understanding of the art of book reviewing is outstanding, and her background...well, I am not worthy!
Second, and related to this immediately preceding topic, here
is a smart review by Caroline Weber of what seems to be a smart book on the cult of celebrity by the cutely named, Tom Payne
. I do wish the reviewer found the space to mention Daniel Boorstin's brilliant book, "The Image"
(1962) which posited that America was losing its ability to discern heroes from celebrities, among other insights.
is a well-written review of a new graphic novel that sounds amazing, "Duncan the Wonder Dog"
, which is about animals evolving to speak and walk upright, and how the first thing they realize is that humans need to be eliminated. As I sometimes say to my wife and children, channeling Kurt Vonnegut, if aliens ever landed on the planet, they'd kill all the humans, but save at least the dogs. Dogs are so often loving and obedient, and always useful. We, on the other hand, are too often whiny, cranky, violent and deceptive. A companion book to "Duncan the Wonder Dog" is the master work, "Doctor Rat"
by William Kotzwinkle. "Doctor Rat" is a brilliantly conceived and executed novel about animals trying to convince humankind to end vivisection, with the narrator being a lab rat who has been driven insane with love for his tormenters and is trying to warn the humans to beware of the animals organizing to convince humans to stop these practices. There is a poetry in Kotzwinkle's prose, a deep and abiding empathy within his words and a profound meditation on our species' inability to see the dignity of other creatures on this large rock. Some call it "1984" and "Animal Farm" through a lens of animal rights activism, but that is still not quite right. It is instead more like a 19th Century Russian novel, taking us through what looks like an allegory, but is not, and demanding that we look directly within our souls as we argue about how to live well and live right.
Fourth, is this really true? There is going to be a trilogy biography of...Frank Sinatra
? Can we say overwrought, boys and girls? I'm with the reviewer, James Gavin, here. A trilogy is simply too much for a celebrity, no matter how iconic. Just give me one 800 page book on Sinatra and that would be fine. More important, Gavin nails the author James Kaplan's apparent lack of concern whether he is printing "legend" as opposed to "fact," and whether Kaplan wishes he was writing a novel about an iconic singer rather than a biography.
Yes, there are other reviews and books worth at least skimming, starting with history
of Fender guitars with a reviewer, novelist Jonathan Kellerman
(who as a novelist is not to my taste, I admit) who clearly knows his topic and knows how to express that knowledge (even for those who may not be as interested). Then, there is the "National Lampoon" book reviewed here
. The reviewer there perfectly understands the high brow/low brow nature of that early 1970s magazine, which was prurient, political and sometimes profound in capturing human ids. And this
review of the history of Broadway musicals is fairly compelling, as is the book under review.
And finally, here
is an intriguing review of what sounds like a delicious book concerning the ancient world, "The Classical Tradition"
from Bellknap/Harvard University Press. The Harvard Press is, like the Oxford Press, the greatest of the university presses and they often produce books that are compelling and sometimes even astonishing, including photography
When dealing with high brow/low brow amalgamations, we ought really to end on a high brow note, shouldn't we? Or is this last line a low brow phrasing...Ah, complexities, complexities...