The New York World Plant Review of Books

The McSweeney’s tribe thinks that the book-reviewing trade has become a little too toxic. They worry that snarky reviewers might steer people away from interesting, earnest books. (See Heidi Julavits’ piece in The Believer magazine.)

Well, Believer it or not, we couldn’t agree more. So we’re turning the book reviews over to plants. (We actually began turning the reins over to plants two weeks ago, before that magazine article came out.)

Plants like to be read to, of course. Dr. Kanchi Gandhi, a botanist at Harvard University, said he was aware of numerous studies that have analyzed the impact of sound on plant growth and well-being. “Some results have shown that plants respond positively to outside stimuli,” he said.

Good enough for us! So, a couple weeks ago, we bought three areca palm plants and individually assigned each one a book. Actually, what we did was this: Once a day for two weeks, we entered a controlled environment (an office with the door closed), took one of the plants (the other two plants were moved outside) and read it passages from a selected book. We then switched books, switched plants, and read from that book. We then repeated this with the third plant. The point is this: Each plant was read a different book. We figured that the plant that grew the most was probably being read a very nice book.

And take it easy, you scientists: The only variable in plant care was the reading. Otherwise, the plants were given the exact same amount of sunlight, water and love.

Here are the books we selected to read to the plants:

1) Everyone’s Burning , by Ian Spiegelman

2) Cooking for Mr. Latte , by Amanda Hesser

3) The Power Broker , by Robert A. Caro

The Power Broker was kind of a control, since (non-plant) readers have already established it as a great book. The books by Mr. Spiegelman and Ms. Hesser are new.

Here are the results:

Book: Everyone’s Burning

Author: Ian Spiegelman

Sample passage: The thing that pissed me off wasn’t losing the apartment, it was all those fucking firemen, smirking at us though their gay mustaches, us huddling up on the sidewalk-like infants, fidgeting around in our underwear, in the middle of the night ….

And it worked out nicely for a while, going out there bodiless to get off without really meaning it, making friends tha tweren’t friends, having sex without touching anyone-with no one touching me. It was fake, easy, it was nothing, but, you understand, it didn’t cost a thing.

Plant reviewer type: Areca palm

Plant reviewer nickname: Spiegs

Starting height: 15 3¼8 inches

Height after one week: 16 inches

Height after two weeks: 16 3¼4 inches

Total growth: 1 3¼8 inches

Book: Cooking for Mr. Latte

Author: Amanda Hesser

Sample passage: Mr. Latte is still new and untested. I haven’t made it easy for him. I’ve sent him off on far-off errands (Me: “Could you go down to the wine store for a bottle of Riesling?” Him: “O.K., but you know you’ve already got five bottles, right?”) and given him dull tasks like spinning lettuce, hoping he’d give up. But he has caught on to this, making it clear that when I ask him to do something, he does not want it to be presented as a chore and does not take well to requests unadorned with the magic word. I am apparently not very good at that either.

Plant reviewer type: Areca palm

Plant reviewer nickname: Mandy

Starting height: 13 3¼8 inches

Height after one week: 141¼8 inches

Height after two weeks: 14 7¼8 inches

Total growth: 1 1¼2 inches

Book: The Power Broker

Author: Robert A. Caro

Sample passage: The wheels of the Tammany war machine might be greased with money, but the machine was pulled by men, the men who voted Democratic themselves, the men who rounded up newly arrived immigrants and brought them in to be registered Democratic, the men who during election campaigns rang doorbells and distributed literature to those immigrants and to their own friends and neighbors and on Election Day shepherded them to the polls to vote Democratic. And the most succulent of the carrots that lured these men forward, that kept their shoulders braced against the ropes that pulled the Tammany machine, was the carrot of jobs, jobs for themselves, jobs for their wives, jobs for their sons.

Plant reviewer type: Areca palm

Plant reviewer nickname: Caro

Start height: 16 1¼8 inches

Height after one week: 16 3¼4 inches

Height after two weeks: 17 1¼4 inches

Total growth: 1 1¼8 inches

Winner and therefore best book: Cooking for Mr. Latte

Runner-up: Everyone’s Burning

Third place: The Power Broker

-Gabriel Sherman

A Bug’s Life

New Yorkers have a lot to worry about these days. There’s a war, there are terror alerts, there are 19-year-olds with bazookas-well, they look like bazookas-in the subway stations, there’s apparently another snowstorm coming, everyone’s playing with those annoying squishy yo-yo toys, Urban Cowboy is still on Broadway, and you can’t smoke in bars anymore.

Then there’s SARS-Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which has been wreaking havoc in Asia for the past few months and making hypochondriacs out of everyone. After all, it’s one thing to worry about a dirty bomb in Grand Central Terminal. That feels somewhat implausible, like getting in and out of a Duane Reade in three minutes. But if we’re going to have to worry every time someone sneezes next to us in a restaurant ….

But we’re a resilient tribe, and life goes on, even with SARS. Like the other night, at the restaurant Twenty-Four Fifth (side note: doesn’t naming a restaurant after its numeric address seem to be longing for … 1994?), where a couple hundred New Yorkers showed up for the African Rainforest Conservancy’s 12th annual benefit to eat a $500 plate of lamb chops and watch a slideshow about the rain forest, which is apparently still a cause of concern.

So long as there are rich and famous people, there will always be a rain forest. But why weren’t they focusing on SARS? Surely it’s only a matter of time before we’re all holed up somewhere near New Paltz, wearing masks outside, avoiding human contact? Who could possibly care about trees, and working with “indigenous peoples” and “local communities,” and fish ponds, and all that other rain-forest crap being served up on April 5?

Actor James Gandolfini was at the rain-forest benefit. Did Mr. Gandolfini know anything about SARS?

“I do,” he said. Then, perhaps sensing a follow-up question, he reversed course and said he didn’t know “anything about any of this stuff. You gotta ask somebody who knows things.”

But writer Bret Easton Ellis didn’t know much about SARS.

“Is it on 25th Street?” he said. “Oh, I know all about it-you get it on planes.”

But he said he wouldn’t be flying to San Jose from Singapore anytime soon. “There are so many other things to worry about,” he said. “This pilot that I wrote for Showtime is going to get made, and then my life will become a living hell.”

But other people did know about SARS and were worried. George Plimpton said it spooked him.

“I’m certainly going to turn away from anybody coughing, I know that,” he said. “And there go all the doorknobs . Irving (Swifty) Lazar couldn’t open doors-he was famous for that. Opened doors with handkerchiefs. I have a friend who’s going to Hong Kong, and I thought, ‘Wow, Terry McDonnell’s son Nick, the young novelist, he’s going to an internship there.’ I don’t think I’d send my son there, for the moment.”

Victoria Vicuna, an African Rainforest Committee member wearing Versace and Burmese rubies, said that losing the rain forest used to be her No. 1 fear, but now it’s No. 3, after bombs and … SARS.

“SARS is No. 1,” she said. “These viruses are so unknown, and there’s such a lack of communication between the Centers for Disease Control and China because of their fear of driving away people coming into China for investment and for everything else. No one really knows what it is. It may be as easy to catch as a common cold, and there is no cure for the common cold.”

Patricia Mahoney, who works in marketing for financial institutions, said that losing the rain forest was at the “very bottom” of her fears list, way below SARS.

“I just came back from Hong Kong, so I do know how serious it is,” she said.

She mentioned 10,000 dead in the Chinese countryside and a government cover-up. SARS, she said, blows away the rain forest.

“Walk around Asia right now,” she suggested. “My friends in Asia can’t leave to even go on their personal holidays, because nobody is receptive to them.”

Over at Johnny’s Bar on Greenwich Avenue, a woman named Lindsay Gaskins told me that her fear of SARS was “pretty high.”

“My business does a lot of business over in China,” she said. She said her company was sponsoring a conference in China at the end of May, and no one wants to attend it. “Everyone’s like, ‘Sorry, we’re not going to go to China until they figure out what’s happening,'” she said.

Still, Ms. Gaskins said that SARS was only like her No. 7 worry, somewhere between terrorism and rodents.

“God forbid there’d be a mouse in my apartment,” she said.

Over at the nightclub Serena on West 23rd Street, there was SARS talk, too.

“It’s in my mind,” said 33-year-old Meredith Liss, an obstetrician. “I’m thinking about the days of H.I.V. when it first started, and I’m thinking about how it’s on the bottom scroll of CNN. It’s not like the primary thing, because obviously we’re at war. And if there wasn’t a war, maybe it would be more of an alarming situation. I’m more worried about a suicide bomber on my subway than I am about SARS-although I think SARS might be the main thing that I need to worry about soon.”

But a tiara-sporting publicist named Maggie Gallant was throwing herself a birthday party, and she didn’t have a care in the world. She said she hadn’t heard of SARS.

“Should I?” she said. “Oh, yes, yes, in Hong Kong!”

Ms. Gallant had other fears.

“Here’s what I’m afraid of, and it happens to me all the time,” she said. “It never fails: When I’m looking like shit , I run into people all the time. It happened to me today; I got busted in Victoria’s Secret. Ugly trashy lingerie, and I ran into someone I hadn’t seen in five years! It was very upsetting. That’s what I hate about New York, and that’s what scares me: I’m scared to leave my house without full makeup and hair. I have my reputation to uphold.”

-George Gurley