This is the best thing about the New York Times Book Review

Introducing Reviewends, our chronicle of the awkward politeness that makes the Book Review, well, the Book Review

Published March 24, 2014 5:38PM (EDT)

We all have our favorite New York Times quirk. You know, when Thomas Friedman learns lessons from a taxi driver, again. When Michiko Kakutani dutifully limns the plot of a "deeply felt" novel, or better still, reviews it in character. When Maureen Dowd takes a quote completely out of context to make a better story. When the Shake Shack makes the "Meh List," once more. Alessandra Stanley corrections! Those are good days.

My joy comes from the last two paragraphs of stories in the Times Book Review.

New York Times style (evidently!) requires that critics hold actual criticism to the penultimate paragraph of every review, where the writer is to include some gentle tweak or small quibble. Not enough to cause embarrassment at a summer writing conference, or to jeopardize a university speaking engagement, of course. But the kind of paragraph that opens like this: "Despite the abundance of detail in this exhaustively researched book..."

That paragraph then leads, inevitably, into the best thing in the Sunday Times (except for weeks when the public editor smacks down the Style section over a fake trend story): smart writers making the most wonderfully tortured transitions as they awkwardly pivot to a thumbs-up conclusion, that big statement about promise and achievement that looks so good as a paperback blurb. These sentences are the best! They take the sting out of even the most mild criticism, and in their own quiet way, reveal that the Book Review is really about polite applause. And they're perfect for dramatic readings.

We're going to start sharing our favorites with you every Monday in a new feature. We'll call it Bookends. No, wait. We'll call it Reviewends!

All from Sunday's Book Review:

Justin St. Germain on Megan Hustad's "More Than Conquerors":

The penultimate paragraph critique: "At times, the book digresses and loses momentum ... a thread about her grandparents' generation feels extraneous ... "

The Reviewend: "But those are flaws of ambition, and 'More Than Conquerors' achieves far more than it fails to."

Marisa Silver on Willy Vlautin's "The Free":

The penultimate paragraph critique (actually this is all one paragraph): "At times, however, Vlautin's refusal to let the characters react with anything but plain-spoken equanimity begins to feel like idealism, and it has the effect of flattening the narrative."

The Reviewend: "Interestingly, the veteran's bizarre nightmares -- and our understanding of what they convey about the dark heart of society -- do as much to suggest the reality Vlautin has set out to capture."

William Jelani Cobb on Peniel E. Joseph's "Stokely: A Life":

The penultimate paragraph critique: "Despite the abundance of detail in this exhaustively researched book ..."

The Reviewend: "Still, his life, as this biography so adroitly establishes, is central to understanding the primary lesson of the 1960s for black America."

Victoria Sweet on Kevin Fong's "Extreme Medicine":

The penultimate paragraph critique: "Although exploring did lead to some technological advances, what caused the transformation of medicine in the 20th century was a powerful and complex interplay ..."

The Reviewend: "Still, Fong tells a good story, and in this time of unrelenting criticism of our medical system, we need to be reminded of how much we've learned in the past hundred years, how much we know, how miraculous it all is, what a blessing."

Our only critique of the Times' house style is that it gives us too much to work with. Still, despite this cornucopia, it will be a deeply felt pleasure to follow the careers of these genius transitions as they master their voice and grow into something even more powerful in successive weeks and months to come.

By David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

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Books Media Criticism New York Times New York Times Book Review