Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers
- Sunday Book Review cover: David Gates on Indignation by Philip Roth: "'Everyman' and 'Exit Ghost' both have a mood of sorrowful resignation; this book goes about its grieving savagely. And of all Roth’s recent novels, it ventures farthest into the unknowable. In his unshowy way, with all his quotidian specificity and merciless skepticism, Roth is attempting to storm heaven — an endeavor all the more desperately daring because he seems dead certain it’s not there." On Tuesday, Kakutani was grouchier: "It’s a joke that Mr. Roth delivers with consummate poise and a couple of bravura touches, but a joke, in the end, that doesn’t amount to a full-fledged novel."
- Maslin on The Given Day by Dennis Lehane: "No more thinking of Mr. Lehane as an author of detective novels that make good movies ('Gone, Baby, Gone') and tell devastatingly bleak Boston stories ('Mystic River'). He has written a majestic, fiery epic that moves him far beyond the confines of the crime genre. Shades of Doctorow and Dreiser surround Mr. Lehane’s choice of 1919 as the time for this expansive story. It is not simply the relatively unexplored eventfulness of that year that makes 'The Given Day' so far reaching; it’s the relentless fierce-terrible nature of the turmoil on parade."
- A.O. Scott on Home by Marilynne Robinson: "She is somehow able to infuse what can sound like dowdy, common words — words like courtesy and kindness, shame and forgiveness, transgression and grace — with a startling measure of their old luster and gravity. Phrases many of us have heard and known since childhood come in her hands to have the depth of dark sayings, and her parable of a family’s partial restoration is also a story to trouble your sleep and afflict your conscience."
- James J. Sheehan on Hitler's Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe by Mark Mazower: "'Hitler’s Empire' is a useful antidote to the argument — most recently advanced in Nicholson Baker's 'Human Smoke' — that World War II was neither necessary nor just. While we should never underestimate or forget the appalling cost, Mazower’s eloquent and instructive book reminds us what the world would have been like if Hitler’s enemies had been unwilling or unable to pay the price of defeating him."
- Jonathan Yardley on Lehane's Given Day: "Lehane has done something brave and ambitious: He has written a historical novel that unquestionably is his grab for the brass ring, an effort to establish his credentials in literary as well as commercial terms.... Meticulously researched and rich in period detail, it pulls the reader so rapidly through its complex and interesting story that it's easy to lose sight of its shortcomings. But they are there, and they arise from the uneasy balance Lehane strikes (whether consciously or not) between the conventions of suspense fiction and his larger literary ambitions, as well as from his awkward attempt to connect a famous historical figure of the period to his fictional characters."
- James Mann on Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency by Barton Gellman: "Until now, I assumed it would take decades, the eventual declassification of documents and considerably more historical perspective for an author (say, some future Robert Caro ) to uncover and describe Cheney's secretive role. But Barton Gellman's outstanding new book, Angler, could well turn out to be the most revealing account of Cheney's activities as vice president that ever gets written.... There will almost certainly be no vice president as powerful as Cheney for decades, and no account of what he has wrought that is as compelling as this book."
Los Angeles Times:
- Sarah Weinman on Lehane's Given Day: "Despite its length and gargantuan scope of emotion and sociological ramifications, 'The Given Day' is a smooth read. In that respect, Lehane is as much like contemporaries George Pelecanos and Richard Price as he is like the bygone Boston-based John P. Marquand, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who understood the masses could absorb complex thought by turning the pages. 'The Given Day' may not pack the devastating wallop of Marquand's masterwork 'Point of No Return,' but it should draw unintended strength from the latter's title. From here on in, Lehane should proceed as a novelist, without genre boundaries imposed on him."
- Susan Salter Reynolds on Miss Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum: "'Ms. Hempel Chronicles' is a deeply affecting book because it reveals that human beings, because we are human, often feel many different emotions at once. We take on roles we are not always, strictly or bureaucratically speaking, qualified to perform. And yet, our vulnerability, our confusion often makes us infinitely more capable of empathizing with and relating to others."
New York Sun:
- Benjamin Lytal on Kieron Smith, boy by James Kelman: "It is hard to imagine another boy narrator this realistic. Others, like that of 'Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha,' would at least resolve their narration into thoughts and scenes, but Mr. Kelman's runs on, showing more than he tells.... What is realistic about it is the extent to which it does not feel crafted. That means, however, that as a novel, 'Kieron Smith' can be less than satisfying. Though a remarkable narrator, Kieron is not much concerned with his listener's interests — he could not fathom them, ostensibly. Though he grows throughout the book, and though the complex relations within his family and his neighborhood provide ample material for a plot, the resultant novel is not nearly as impressive as the tissue from which it is made — Kieron's voice."
- James Panero on Antoine's Alphabet by Jed Perl: "In its oddity, the book gambles and wins. I hope that 'Antoine's Alphabet' will become a cult classic among artists, a call to caprice, in the way that Dave Hickey's 'Air Guitar,' a critic's libertarian riff, gave license to a generation of artists to forego politics for the rapture of the marketplace. In this capricious cross-pollination of history and memoir, Jed Perl does not merely show us how to live. Like Watteau, he illuminates the struggle to feel fully alive."
Wall Street Journal:
- Alan Pell Crawford on Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin by Bill Kauffman: "God, we're told, chooses the foolish to confound the wise, and the wise men who guided America's founding ... were, to a man, confounded by Luther Martin. They were mistaken to take their obstreperous opponent lightly, however, though foolish he could be. In "Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet," a short and engaging biography of Luther Martin, Bill Kauffman shows us a sot, a quarrelsome bore, a butcher of the English language, an outspoken abolitionist who himself owned slaves -- and a man who advanced opinions at the Constitutional Convention that desperately needed to be heard."
Globe & Mail:
- Michel Basilieres on Blackstrap Hawco by Kenneth J. Harvey (no US edition listed yet): "Harvey covers every period of Newfoundland history, illuminates everything individual and characteristic about it, encompasses its very being in these pages. Though more than 800 pages, it's a weightier tome than that. By virtue of its sheer size and scope, it's a deep source of impression, reflection and consideration. Its meticulous construction and control contain a breadth of incident and characterization seen only in the most ambitious and imposing novels. At the same time, Harvey's careful portrayal of detail in Blackstrap's every move and all his senses brings the character's life overwhelmingly to light. His mastery of an almost limitless array of technique anchors this novel firmly in our time."
- Veronica Horwell on Perfumes: The Guide by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez: "If there is to be any hope of persuading people to make perfume as much a quotidian reward as wine and food have become these past 30 years, there has to be a way to write about it that excites us, makes us curious, makes us laugh. Turin has found it. I've just blown all my pocket money on sampling an unknown five-star wonder, Guerlain's Habit Rouge, and it's Turin's fault for describing it as 'soft and rasping, like stubble on a handsome cheek'." [Ed.: Yes! This is one of my favorite books of the year, and I had never given this stuff a second thought before.]
- Joanna Briscoe on The Believers by Zoe Heller (out in the US in March): "The Believers is an astonishingly well-observed slow burner, its virtuoso prose compressed and beautiful.... As a large, intelligent and stunningly written novel of a dysfunctional New York family, The Believers is strongly reminiscent of Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children. The Litvinoffs' knee-jerk 60s radicalism could be an easy target for mockery, but Heller's touch is light, and she reserves her more vicious satire for the bit-part players. This is a subtle, funny and dark family farce about faith and identity. It fails to satisfy completely, but in its thundering confidence and lyricism, The Believers is the work of a writer at the top of her game."
The New Yorker:
- Louis Menand on Lionel Trilling: "He did not consider himself a critic, either, and was surprised when he heard himself referred to as one. His ambition was to be a great novelist; he regarded his criticism as 'an afterthought.' He disliked Columbia; he disliked most of his colleagues; he disliked teaching graduate students—in 1952, after a routine disagreement over the merits of a dissertation, he refused to teach in the graduate school again. He was depressive, he had writer’s block, and he drank too much. He did not even like his first name. He wished that he had been called John or Jack."