Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers
by Tom on November 25, 2008
New York Times:
- Sunday Book Review cover: George Packer on The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul by Patrick French: "'The World Is What It Is' ... is fully worthy of its subject, with all the dramatic pacing, the insight and the pathos of a first-rate novel. It is a magnificent tribute to the painful and unlikely struggle by which the grandson of indentured Indian workers, born in the small island colony of Trinidad, made himself into the greatest English novelist of the past half century. It is also a portrait of the artist as a monster. How these two judgments can be simultaneously true is one of this book’s central questions. Whether Naipaul himself understands the enormity of the story to which he contributed so much candor is another.... Naipaul’s confessions to French are like those of a man who leads an investigator to the freshly dug earth in his backyard, and even points out the pieces of human flesh and bone, without ever saying, 'I killed her.'"
- Steve Jones on The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies by Bert Holldobler and Edward O. Wilson: "In its 500-plus pages 'The Superorganism' gives an astonishing account of the intricate and unexpected ways of the social insects.... Charles Darwin would have been delighted by this book. His own literary oeuvre was aimed at a wide audience and set out in good, plain Victorian prose. As he wrote to Thomas Henry Huxley, 'I sometimes think that general and popular Treatises are almost as important for the progress of science as original work.' A century and a half later, 'The Superorganism' sits firmly in that distinguished tradition."
- Stacey D'Erasmo on The School on Heart's Content Road by Carolyn Chute: "Like a ferocious bulletin from an alternate universe — tumbling, pell-mell, brilliant and strange — comes this explosive and discomfiting fifth novel by Carolyn Chute. Form doesn’t just follow feeling in these pages, it chases it helplessly with a butterfly net, casting about in multiple directions, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing. But watching Chute miss what she’s after is more interesting than watching a lesser, better behaved writer catch tidier prey."
- Kakutani on Alex and Me by Irene Pepperberg: "Her book movingly combines the scientific detail of a researcher, intent on showing with 'statistical confidence' that Alex 'did indeed have this or that cognitive ability,' with the affectionate understanding that children (and children’s books about animals) instinctively possess: that 'animals know more than we think, and think a great deal more than we know.' While her training as a scientist keeps her from lapsing into sentimentality, her love for her longtime avian colleague keeps her from sounding like a stuffy academic."
- Steven Moore on 2666 (or the gorgeous 3-pb set) by Roberto Bolano: "With 2666 Bolaño joins the ambitious overachievers of the 20th-century novel, those like Proust, Musil, Joyce, Gaddis, Pynchon, Fuentes and Vollmann, who push the novel far past its conventional size and scope to encompass an entire era, deploying encyclopedic knowledge and stylistic verve to offer a grand, if sometimes idiosyncratic summation of their culture and the novelist's place in it. Bolaño has joined the immortals."
- Ron Charles on Songs for the Missing by Stewart O'Nan: "A pretty 18-year-old girl named Kim Larsen leaves her friends at the beach and drives to her part-time job at a gas station. She never arrives.... We know how this should play out: the accrual of alarming details, mixed with a few false leads; growing suspicion that the devoted father/mother/sister/dog is hiding something; a horrific vision of the crime from the victim's or the murderer's point of view; and finally a shocking revelation. But O'Nan ignores all these conventions in favor of an approach so mundane you can't believe it works, the thriller equivalent of watching blood dry. He's a connoisseur of waiting, and it's his discipline, his refusal to deviate even for a single sentence from the uneventful, dull terror of losing a child, that makes Songs of the Missing so troubling."
- Howard Gardner on Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell: "Gladwell places the nature of talent inside a lock box, conceding its importance but making no effort to explain what it is or how it emerges.... Still, Gladwell reveals his special genius in the remarkable trilogy completed by Outlier. It is not in defining a problem: The phenomena he studies have long fascinated laypeople and scholars. Nor is it in providing a tight, scientific synthesis: That achievement belongs to the rare, focused scholar. Rather, it is in spotting remarkable jewels in the vast rock collection of social-science research and placing them expertly into an exquisite setting."
Los Angeles Times:
- Susan Salter Reynolds on Chute's The School on Heart's Content Road: "Chute doesn't care whether you feel preached at, shouted at, frightened or incriminated. She's too busy getting the voices right, living the lives of her characters. She's a scientist, brilliant and mad, lighting matches under beakers, mixing compounds, breaking words into their smallest divisible parts. It doesn't boil down to politics, this novel. It boils down to humans, who fail to obey even the simplest, clearest laws of thermodynamics, physics, gravity or even chaos theory."
- Kate Bernheimer on A Lion Among Men by Gregory Maguire: "He of course has written the bestseller that became the blockbuster musical 'Wicked.' But Maguire's prose has more in common with a lurching Tom Waits ballad than with a show tune.... Maguire's work is melodic, symphonic and beautiful; it is dejected and biting and brave. How great that people flock to these magical novels. Maguire takes us back to the roots of fairy tales (which, with their child abandonment, incest and poverty were hardly sweet stories for children)."
- Reza Aslan on The Ayatollah Begs to Differ by Hooman Majd: "Part memoir, part travelogue, part cultural criticism, 'The Ayatollah Begs to Differ' captures like no book in recent memory the ethos of the country, in elegant and precise prose. Majd's exploration of modern Iran begins with a simple yet profoundly consequential statement. 'For almost thirty years now,' he writes, 'whatever can be said about Iran, it cannot be said that it is subservient to any greater power.' It is this fact, which forms the very core of Iran's national identity, that more than anything explains the astonishing resilience of the Islamic Republic in the face of almost total international isolation, widespread popular discontent and imminent economic collapse."
Wall Street Journal:
- Robin Moroney on The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes (even though it's not due out in the States until June): "Mr. Holmes is right to stake this time as a great one for science. Thinkers in the late 18th century were pushing against the Age of Enlightenment's vision of an ordered, rational universe guided by the spirit of reason. New discoveries in astronomy revealed the universe went on forever and was constantly changing; chemists were showing that the boundaries between the spiritual and the physical were blurry. The Romantic poets, in turn, seized on these discoveries and helped frame them as wonderful -- or as terrifyingly sublime."
Globe & Mail:
- Donna Scanlon on Brisingr by Christopher Paolini: "There is a built-in audience for Brisingr, and many will like it at an uncritical level. Older teens will probably not be able to overlook the lack of sophistication and finesse unless they are diehard fans of Alagaësia. Unlike J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials cycle or Cornelia Funke's Inkspell books, which appeal to readers of all ages, Brisingr is too one-dimensional and fails to bridge the gaps between children, teens and adults."
- Roger Scruton on Everyday Drinking by Kingsley Amis: "The books were written between 1971 and 1984; as a guide to prices, availability and so on, they are therefore entirely out of date. But who cares? Each chapter is packed with observations that, in their utter disregard for political correctness, social inclusiveness and phoney compassion, are as punchy and uplifting as the vile cocktails they describe."
The New Yorker:
- James Wood on French's The World Is What It Is (what an excellent review): "That double assessment—pride and shame, compassion and alienation—is the stereoscopic vision of 'A House for Mr. Biswas,' and, in a sense, of all Naipaul’s fiction, and it is why he is a writer who has a conservative vision but radical eyesight. The Wounded, radical Naipaul burns with rage at the cramped, colonial horizon of his father’s life, and seeks to defend his accomplishments against the colonist’s metropolitan sneers, but the conservative Wounder has got beyond the little prison of Trinidad, and now sees, with the colonist’s eye and no longer the colonial’s, the littleness of that imprisonment. Naipaul is enraging and puzzling, especially to those who themselves come from postcolonial societies, because his radicalism and his conservatism are so close to each other—each response is descended from the same productive shame."