Sunday, July 20, 2008

Itzkoff and the Albino

I'm indebted to John Joseph Adams for first pointing out to me that Our Man Itzkoff was back in The New York Times Book Review -- I was at Readercon over the weekend, while both my Times and my Internet access were back here in New Jersey. So I spent a day and a half in anticipation of the pearls of wisdom and jewels of prose that Itzkoff would bestow on us this time.

As has become his routine, this time Itzkoff takes about twelve hundred words -- one whole page in the NYTBR -- to review a single book. As is also usual, he reviews a reprint of old material that he's already hugely fond of. One might begin to wonder if he's the world's first major book reviewer to hit on a way to practice his craft without actually having to read any books...but that would be unkind, wouldn't it?

The book he's reviewing is The Stealer of Souls, the first of Del Rey's new four-volume reprinting of Michael Moorcock's Elric stories. It's a nice-looking book -- illustrated by John Picacio -- and places the stories in the order Moorcock originally wrote them, which makes as much sense as any other order at this point. (Moorcock went to the ending almost immediately, and then spent nearly forty years interpolating material into different parts of the middle, and his style and concerns changed several times over that period.)

The Stealer of Souls was published in February, which makes this review quite late, but I imagine Itzkoff has been busy dealing with Axl Rose's memoir -- and, besides, the NYTBR has been notably late at covering many, many books this year, so it's probably not even Itzy's fault. (Not noting that the second volume in the series, To Rescue Tanelorn, will be published in nine days is, though, a sloppiness that can only be attributed to Itzkoff.)

By the way, am I the only one to note that "Across the Universe" is now appearing only bi-yearly? The last installment -- which I discussed in this space at the time -- was published in February of this year, covering three YA novels, and the one before that, on Philip K. Dick, was more than a year ago. I will also note without comment that two out of his last three columns are on books he read and loved as a child; Itzkoff appears to be doing very little original reading for this gig.

And so on to the actual review: there's a hideous illustration that manages to give Elric a normal Caucasian skin tone, though I can't fault Itzkoff for that. Itzkoff does realize, about halfway through the review -- but before actually mentioning anything that specifically appears in this volume, in the best Itzkoff fashion -- that he's taking up a whole page to badly review a fantasy book for what is ostensibly a science fiction column, and so he contorts himself to describe one of Moorcock's polemical essays, this one against just about every other SF and fantasy writer at the time. (I suspect this essay, "Starship Stormtroopers," is caught up somehow with the New Wave, but Itzkoff is innocent of all movements and so can't tell us.)

Other things Itzkoff doesn't do:
  • mention the illustrations
  • point out that this Stealer of Souls is a very different book from the old, slimmer Elric collection of the same name
  • talk about any of the new material or the edits to old stories
  • list the titles of any of the stories included here
In fact, he never actually mentions that this is a collection of short stories at all -- he does blather about Elric's "adventures," his "quests," and his "tales," but fails to come right out and say what The Stealer of Souls actually is. If I were a cynical, obnoxious bastard -- and don't look at me like that -- I'd say that it's hard to find any evidence from this review that Itzkoff even cracked the covers of this edition of Stealer of Souls, or possibly even saw it. (It may be personal arrogance, but I think I did a better job of mentioning the important points of Stealer of Souls without reading it at the end of this "Reviewing the Mail" post from February.)

So this is another typical Itzkoff performance of a SF review: well-meaning and enthusiastic, but galumphing off in three wrong directions at once. Itzkoff is the book-review equivalent of Beethoven the dog -- though, sadly, he doesn't have a Hollywood plot to redeem him in the third act.

New York Times Book Review, it's time to stop pretending he can review SF. Either give the job to someone else -- anyone else -- or just go back to ignoring us like you ignore romances.

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