Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers
Big books out this week--and big disagreements about them--make for a long installment of Old Media Monday:
New York Times:
- Sunday Book Review cover: Caroline Elkins on The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper: "At its heart, 'The House at Sugar Beach' is a coming-of-age story told with unremitting honesty. With her pedigree and her freedom from internalized racism, Cooper is liberated to enjoy a social universe that is a fluid mix of all things American and African.... While Cooper’s memoir is mesmerizing in its portrayal of a Liberia rarely witnessed, its description of the psychological devastation — and coping mechanisms — brought on by profound loss is equally captivating."
- Kakutani on The War Within by Bob Woodward: "This volume contains less compelling news than Mr. Woodward’s earlier Bush books and makes for considerably less gripping reading.... Much of 'The War Within' simply ratifies the picture that has already emerged from newspaper and magazine articles and dozens of books by journalists and former administration insiders. It’s a picture of an administration riven by internal conflicts..., an administration in which the advice of experts was frequently ignored or dismissed, traditional policy-making channels were routinely circumvented, policy often took a backseat to electoral politics, accountability was repeatedly evaded, and few advisers dared speak truth to power."
- Kakutani's knives are busy this week. Here she is on Home by Marilynne Robinson: "Whereas Ms. Robinson used her remarkable descriptive powers and pointillist prose in 'Gilead' to give the reader a keen sense of that small, Midwestern town and to conjure up the history of John Ames’s uncommon family, she focuses in this novel on the unhappy emotional mathematics of Jack’s relationship with his father, a task unsuited to her strongest gifts as a writer.... This results in a static, even suffocating narrative in which very little is dramatized, and much is recalled secondhand."
- Ron Carlson on Fine Just the Way It Is by Annie Proulx: "All but one of the stories in 'Fine Just the Way It Is' range from the 19th century to the modern day and offer a world in which the natural elements are murderous and folks aren’t much better.... From time to time, you glimpse an Eden in Proulx’s world, and when you see it, you’d better take a photograph, because it won’t last long."
- S. Kirk Walsh on A Better Angel by Chris Adrian: "In 'A Better Angel' Chris Adrian creates his own lexicon of grief that moves from quiet moments of anguish to sharp fits of rage. The stories in this collection feature fatal car crashes, attempted suicides, incurable illnesses and the tragic events of 9/11. But don’t be deterred by the dismal subject matter. Mr. Adrian is a gifted, courageous writer ... and with this collection he continues to take far-reaching risks. Unspeakable grief and the innate will to survive create opposing forces in these stories, producing a universe bursting with humor and life."
- Joseph S. Nye Jr. on Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas L. Friedman: "Like it or not, we need Tom Friedman. The peripatetic columnist has made himself a major interpreter of the confusing world we inhabit. He travels to the farthest reaches, interviews everyone from peasants to chief executives and expresses big ideas in clear and memorable prose. While pettifogging academics (a select few of whom he favors) complain that his catchy phrases and anecdotes sometimes obscure deeper analysis, by and large Friedman gets the big issues right."
- Ron Charles on Robinson's Home: "Even more than their stylistic beauty, what's miraculous about Gilead and Home is their explicit focus on spiritual affliction, discussed in the hard terms of Protestant theology. Robinson uses the words 'grace,' 'salvation' and 'prayer' frequently and without embarrassment and without drifting into the gassy lingo of ecumenical spirituality. Her characters cower in the shadow of perdition."
- Michael Dirda on Anathem by Neal Stephenson: "Everyone has gone all out for Anathem. I fully expected to join the stampede. Alas, I can't even lope slowly alongside the herd. Oh, Anathem will certainly be admired for its intelligence, ambition, control and ingenuity. But loved? Enjoyed? The book reminds me of Harold Brodkey's The Runaway Soul from 17 years ago -- much anticipated, in places quite brilliant, but ultimately grandiose, overwrought and pretty damn dull. That's an awful thing to say about a novel as formidable as Anathem, but there's no getting around it."
Los Angeles Times:
- Laura Miller on Stephenson's Anathem: "'Anathem' is massive ... with a steep initial learning curve, but worth the effort all the same. Fiction that expertly ranges from social satire to adventure yarn to lucid explications of concepts such as configuration space is rare indeed. If Indiana Jones turned quantum physicist and took over Jostein Gaarder's bestselling novel-cum-philosophy-primer 'Sophie's World,' well, that might come close."
- Emily Barton on Robinson's Home: "Robinson has chosen to revisit certain scenes in her new novel, 'Home,' this time writing from the perspective of Glory Boughton, one of 'Gilead's' minor characters. Yet this co-quel has a beauty all its own.... The two volumes belong together because they complement each other in so many ways. They fit with and around each other perfectly, each complete on its own, yet enriching and enlivening the other. But both are books of such beauty and power that they ultimately beggar description. If I cannot do 'Home' justice in describing it, I can, at least, commend it to you with my whole heart."
- Susan Salter Reynolds on An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken: "This is an intimate book -- McCracken does not spare us her anger, fear, frustration or despondency. It is also a wildly important book -- we do not live alongside the dead the way we ought to: We sweep them off to the margins as quickly as possible."
New York Sun:
- The pleasures I take in writing obituaries are bitter ones, and I'd rather not write another one of a good book review--this week the New York Sun announced they may have to close shop entirely at the end of the month if they don't find new investors. Please, someone with more more zeros than me, write them a check.
- Benjamin Lytal on Robinson's Home: "Because it is told in the third person, and because Jack's sister Glory does not have Ames's fertility of mind, this new book is less meditative than 'Gilead.' If 'Gilead' resembled a devotional text, 'Home' is a play, a family drama set almost entirely on the ground floor of the Boughton home.... The faithfulness in 'Gilead' is honed by the faithlessness in 'Home.' These novels will be a bright spot in our literary history."
Globe & Mail:
- Gale Zoe Garnett on The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews: "Miriam Toews won the 2004 Governor-General's Award for fiction for her third novel, A Complicated Kindness. While that book was fresh and charming, I found it also a bit glib: snappy one-liners that helped balance the stultifying aspects of Mennonite life. With The Flying Troutmans, Toews opens her world, producing a book of risk and range without losing any of the wit and warmth that made a bestseller of the earlier book."
- Catherine Bush on How Fiction Works by James Wood: "One of the deepest pleasures of reading Wood, beyond the strenuous engagement that his writing consistently demands, is to watch him grapple with his own ideas about realism, and to watch these shift as he renegotiates what he means. I wish he'd allow himself to chart this journey full on, in an unabashedly personal way. I'm not convinced that every fiction writer must share his belief in fiction's ultimate referentiality, but I respond to the complexity of what he's attempting to articulate and I admire his belief."
- Richard Eyre on A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Two Remarkable Families by Michael Holroyd (out in the spring in the US): "Holroyd has a wonderful eye for detail, often almost obsessive, but never redundant. While there is a continent of social and cultural knowledge, the narrative is never buried beneath it, and meandering tributaries that appear to be trickling nowhere invariably return to the main flow. He also has a dramatist's ear for dialogue and for making all the minor characters interesting. Add to this a nose for a good story and a wit that often undermines his subjects' seriousness without ever capsizing it, and you have an entirely captivating biography which ranks alongside his Bernard Shaw and his Lytton Strachey as one of the glories of the form."
The New Yorker:
- Claudia Roth Pierpont on The Essential Writings of Machiavelli: "Toward the end of 1513 he completed a little book about statecraft—a book of strictly practical matters, dealing with armies and fortresses, with ways of holding on to power—that he resolved would demonstrate his usefulness once and for all to Giuliano, since it discussed people and their actions 'as they are in real truth, rather than as they are imagined.' Never before or since has a writer so clearly proved that the truth is a dangerous thing."