Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Geoffrey C. Ward on This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust: "'The work of death was Civil War America’s most fundamental and most demanding undertaking,' [Gilpin writes]. Her account of how that work was done, much of it gleaned from the letters of those who found themselves forced to do it, is too richly detailed and covers too much ground to be summarized easily. She overlooks nothing — from the unsettling enthusiasm some men showed for killing to the near-universal struggle for an answer to the question posed by the Confederate poet Sidney Lanier: 'How does God have the heart to allow it?'"
  • Ken Kalfus on All Shall Be Well; All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well by Tod Wodicka: "Although Wodicka turns up a provocative thought here and there, this musing, typical of Burt’s grief-laden vaporousness, serves also to illustrate the artless, wordy and underarticulated writing that makes 'All Shall Be Well' such a Black Death of a chore to read. Wodicka has chosen a narrative voice too depressive and portentous to manifest his ingenuity." On Thursday, though, Maslin called ASBWASBWAMTSBW "this tender, oddball book, one that performs a deft balancing act as it hides love, yearning and regret behind the mouthful of medieval incantation in its title."
  • Kakutani on The Reserve by Russell Banks: "The plot of 'The Reserve,' which takes place in the Adirondacks in the summer of 1936, moves not with the swift, sharklike momentum of his best fiction but in a hokey, herky-jerky fashion that never lets the reader forget that Mr. Banks is standing there behind the proscenium, pulling the characters’ strings. Even the language he uses is weirdly secondhand: a bizarre mélange of Hemingwayesque action prose and romance-novel clichés that manages to feel faux macho and sickly sweet at the same time."
  • Maslin on The Appeal by John Grisham: "Building a remarkable degree of suspense into the all too familiar ploys described here, Mr. Grisham delivers his savviest book in years. His extended vacation from hard-hitting fiction is over.... It barely matters that the characters in 'The Appeal' are essentially stick figures. What works for Mr. Grisham is his patient, lawyerly, inexorable way of dramatizing urgent moral issues."

Washington Post:

  • Mindy Aloff on The Mitfords: Letters Between Six SIsters, edited by Charlotte Mosley: "The Mitfords could have been an operatic group biography on an epic scale: Instead, thanks to its editor's taste and discretion, it is chamber music with symphonic longings. Ironically, as the sororal voices drop away owing to irreparable feuds or lost letters or death, the surviving sisters become more serious and open. Tragedy and aging lead them to wisdom, or something very like it."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Sven Birkerts on Banks's The Reserve: "Banks works with a vast palette and a sure stylistic command. 'The Reserve' gratifies page by page. But when the pages are gathered together, held in retrospect, there is the sense of an echo still awaited, some deeper gratification promised in the meditative pose of the mysterious, beautiful woman on the first page."
  • Richard Schickel on An Ordinary Spy by Joseph Weisberg: "At a certain point, the reader begins to wonder whether 'An Ordinary Spy' might possibly be an extraordinary act of disinformation. Might its author still be a CIA employee, charged with portraying the agency in a benign light -- not exactly bumbling, but incapable of, say, water-boarding or extraordinary rendition? To hear Weisberg tell it, an American secret agent's chief concern seems to be defending his retirement package."

Globe & Mail:

  • Catherine Bush on How the Dead Dream by Lydia Millet: "It's hard, in fact, to convey how invigorating Millet's fiction is, how intelligent and thematically rich, how processes of thought are themselves made urgent and lively through the specificity of her observations and sentences that offer startlement, small and large. This isn't fiction that tells us how to live. Instead, it dramatizes the power of attentiveness to an expanded, if terribly flawed and potentially dying, world, attentiveness being a kind of tenderness, which is a kind of love."

The Guardian:

  • Christopher Taylor on The Second Plane by Martin Amis: "'If September 11 had to happen,' he says in the introduction to The Second Plane, 'then I am not at all sorry that it happened in my lifetime.' His fans might not feel the same way. To some extent, the heavily self-parodic aspects of the enterprise - at one point he reports on treating Tony Blair to a disquisition on the Shia, whom he compared to 'nut-rissole artists' - make the crazy-uncle outbursts less alarming."

The New Yorker:

  • Joan Acocella on God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 by David Levering Lewis: "The Muslims came to Europe, he writes, as 'the forward wave of civilization that was, by comparison with that of its enemies, an organic marvel of coordinated kingdoms, cultures, and technologies in service of a politico-cultural agenda incomparably superior' to that of the primitive people they encountered there. They did Europe a favor by invading. This is not a new idea, but Lewis takes it further: he clearly regrets that the Arabs did not go on to conquer the rest of Europe. The halting of their advance was instrumental, he writes, in creating 'an economically retarded, balkanized, and fratricidal Europe that . . . made virtues out of hereditary aristocracy, persecutory religious intolerance, cultural particularism, and perpetual war.' It was 'one of the most significant losses in world history and certainly the most consequential since the fall of the Roman Empire.' This is a bold hypothesis."


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Comments (11)

4 posts on getting the reviewer info into pc shape?

Posted by: Larry | Sunday March 9, 2008 at 6:45 PM

4 posts on getting the reviewer info into pc shape?

Posted by: Larry | Sunday March 9, 2008 at 6:45 PM

DD - I meant personal name, not surname.

Hungarian usage traditionally puts the surname first as well...

Posted by: Mike Smith | Thursday January 31, 2008 at 12:01 PM

In her review of David Lewis' "God's Crucible" Joan Acocella illustrates the flipside of my usual rant about the Obsolete Media assigning liberal reviewers to conservative books who spend the entire review expressing their hatred for the author. In this case a liberal reviewer is being MUCH too kind to a liberal author. In the passage quoted above she concludes with, "This is a bold hypothesis."

Nooo, this is a LUNATIC hypothesis as can be rather easily seen by pointing out that "an economically retarded, balkanized, and fratricidal ... that ... made virtues out of hereditary aristocracy, persecutory religious intolerance, cultural particularism, and perpetual war." could be FAR more accurately applied to the nations of Islam because unlike the Europeans the Muslims never outgrew this stage... at least until a couple of Muslim nations were liberated by American military power in the 21st Century!

For such a hypothesis to rise above the laugh test the author would have to explain how an Islamic Europe would have BETTERED the European pace towards civil rights, democracy, and religious tolerance for example and NOWHERE in this "review" do I get any HINT that the author made any effort to do so.

To Joan's credit her review expresses some degree of skepticism, but frankly this book deserved something more in the line of abject ridicule.

Posted by: | Wednesday January 30, 2008 at 7:15 PM

All Shall Be Well, The Appeal(I've tired of Grisham, but this review has brought me back to the fold), The Mitfords, The Second Plane, God's Crucible - I've added these books to my wishlist, based upon the above reviews. Normally, I wouldn't be aware of most of them - I tend to stay in the historical fiction and mystery-thriller camps - so thank you for expanding my horribly narrow horizons.

Posted by: hh | Wednesday January 30, 2008 at 12:08 PM

As a wise former boss once told me, Rugs are Oriental. People are Asian.

Posted by: Matt K | Tuesday January 29, 2008 at 3:48 PM

Mike Smith: do you mean the personal name or the family name? Oriental culture typically puts the family name first and the personal name last.

Posted by: DensityDuck | Tuesday January 29, 2008 at 2:55 PM

Good rule of thumb: any Japanese first name ending in -ko is feminine. Other than that, I have no dog in this hunt.

Posted by: Mike Smith | Tuesday January 29, 2008 at 2:36 PM

I read the NYT review - no picture of Kakutani so I didn't know the gender. I read the first chapter of the novel posted on the NYT. Not my cup of tea but I didn't think it was unreadable as stated by Ms. Kakutani. A second review in the Times was positive with reservations.

Posted by: Gary | Tuesday January 29, 2008 at 12:14 PM

Kakutani is a she.

Her review of "The Reserve" was harsh, but without reading Banks's novel, I cannot say whether it was deserved.

Posted by: Michael | Tuesday January 29, 2008 at 10:28 AM

Kakutani in the NYT completely trashed "The Reserve." He even used the contrived term "Hemingwayesque" in the critique. He didn't like the switch Banks made from "blue collar" heroes to more affluent characters. Kakutani seems to be a "power to the people" person.

Posted by: Gary | Tuesday January 29, 2008 at 7:21 AM

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