Monday, April 02, 2007

More Scary News On Newspaper Book Reviews...

The folks at the blog Critical Mass report:

As reported on CNN and other places, the Tribune Company will be sold to Chicago real estate tycoon Sam Zell in a deal for $13 billion. This will make the company which owns the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, Newsday, the Hartford Courant and other newspapers (not to mention the Cubs and other radio and television stations) a private company, and less beholden to stock price above all else. In other words, the deal could be good news for book sections, especially if they can be seen as integral to building a bridge between newspapers' past and their future.

Which is good news, especially considering the news posted at the Literary Saloon last week:

As has long been feared and now widely reported on, The Los Angeles Times is doing away with its stand-alone Sunday book review section, 'merging' it with the opinion section, beginning on 14 April...(Yes, the press release says 14 April, which is a Saturday, and early reports suggested it would be a Saturday-section, but they do also write that it would be: "a combined Sunday section". We'll see.)

The future of newspaper book review sections seems precarious indeed. Is it possible that ten years from now the only major newspaper that may still be running a book review section is the NY Times? As much as I value the reviews in the NY Times, I sincerely hope not.

Double David

by David Rakoff
pgs. 1-67

Unfairly or not, reading David Rakoff inevitably engenders comparisons with his namae frater David Sedaris, the superstar memoirist of the hilarious and critically-acclaimed compilations Naked, Me Talk Pretty One Day, and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. The two Davids are both witty gay men in their late 30s (early 40s?), whose sharp eye, self-deprecating humor, and ease with a pen makes most of their selections both informative and humorous reads. However - and this is where the comparisons really begin - Rakoff, simply put, just isn’t as funny as Sedaris. Nor has he quite yet developed Sedaris’ skill at using his comical set pieces to transcend their often zanny and (sometimes) toilet humor to something that comments on the larger human experience. But here’s what: it seems that with Don’t Get Too Comfortable (subtitled: The Indignities of Coach Class, the Torments of Low Thread Count, the Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems), Rakoff has finally discovered that he doesn’t have to be. With this thus far engaging compilation of both new and previously published essays, Rakoff has eschewed riding the coattails of Me Talk Pretty One Day - a tendency so evident and poorly-executed in Fraud that I couldn’t finish it - and decided that a bit of investigative journalism intersped with occasional bouts of humor and personal, biting commentary is more his style. It’s a fine choice and a perfect fit.

In “Sesion Privada” Rakoff joins a couple of photographers, cameramen, their crew and three Playboy centerfolds on the paradise island Caya Espanto where they will film a Latin American Playboy television program. One would expect that a gay man on a Playboy soft-core shoot would be the perfect recipe for nothing but one-two knock-out punches of humor. But Rakoff seems to have discovered the art of subtle satire. Of the shoot, Rakoff writes:

The crew confers about her moves. The video-camera man demonstrates what they want. Sinking to his knees, he twists his torso and drags his open palms slowly up his chest to his head where they rub slow circles through a hypothetical jungle of tousled hair...Perhaps this is just the nature of soft-core, but the girls’ hands are kept so primly far away from their genitals that all of their crypto-masturbatory back arching and moaning for no apparent reason starts to look a little mentally unbalanced, frankly.

The joke is there; it’s just a whole lot quieter than what you would have found in Fraud. It’s not a knock-out punch to the face so much as it’s an unexpected soft blow to the back of the head. And, like I said, it’s educational too. In “Wildman” Rakoff informs readers: were once thought to have no purpose greater than pleasing the human eye. It wasn’t until experiments in pollination during the Renaissance that people realized to their puritanical horror that even the loveliest of blooms were nothing more than sex organs. In Catholic Europe, people burned Carl Linnaeus’s books as corrupting filth. (To give them their due...they kind of had a point: Linneaus was a bit of a sexual obsessive, vaginally fixated, pushing his penchant so far as to name an entire genus of plants Clitoria.)

I don’t know about you, but my first order of business after reading that passage was to immediately drop what I was doing and see if Lenneaus’ genus name stuck. I’ll save you the trouble...It did.