Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers
by Tom on February 24, 2009
- Sunday book review cover: Carl Hiaasen on Fool's Paradise by Steven Gaines: "Gaines evidently spent many nights hanging with the young, beautiful and clueless. Shockingly, they take lots of drugs and have lots of stoned sex and then wonder what it all means. They are walking, talking clichés in a town that is ebulliently cliché, but it doesn’t mean there’s not an occasional glimmer of insight."
- Kakutani on The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell: "The novel’s gushing fans ... seem to have mistaken perversity for daring, pretension for ambition, an odious stunt for contrarian cleverness. Willfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent, 'The Kindly Ones' ... is an overstuffed suitcase of a book, consisting of an endless succession of scenes in which Jews are tortured, mutilated, shot, gassed or stuffed in ovens, intercut with an equally endless succession of scenes chronicling the narrator’s incestuous and sadomasochistic fantasies. Indeed, the nearly 1,000-page-long novel reads as if the memoirs of the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss had been rewritten by a bad imitator of Genet and de Sade, or by the warped narrator of Bret Easton Ellis's 'American Psycho,' after repeated viewings of 'The Night Porter' and 'The Damned.'” [Yowch! I have to say I've read the first 150 pages or so, and thought it was very good so far, although to that point it's a relatively restrained, if grim, story, with little sign of the Ellis/de Sade side of things. We'll see...]
- Dwight Garner on Nine Lives by Dan Baum: "Criticism, H. L. Mencken said, is 'prejudice made plausible.' That’s why, reading the first 50 pages of Dan Baum’s new book about Katrina and New Orleans, I tried to puzzle out exactly what I disliked about it. I wanted my eventual pan of 'Nine Lives' to make fine distinctions, to be 99.4 percent airtight.... Silly me. Because at about Page 65, something very real clicks in 'Nine Lives.' The small, stray, unobtrusive details that Mr. Baum has been planting along the way begin coming together and paying off, like a slot machine that’s begun to glow and vibrate. By the final third of 'Nine Lives,' as the water begins pouring into the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, I was weeping like an idiot in the coffee shop where I was reading." On Sunday, Thomas Mallon was won over too: "People in 'Nine Lives' sometimes use the phrase 'You feel me?' the way other people say 'You understand?' If Baum had employed these words as the last line of his book, as a question about everything he’s told us, the answer would be a firm, appreciative yes."
- Roxana Robinson on The Good Parents by Joan London: "London’s dark and lovely work is both a novel of ideas and one of emotions. Here are dangerous currents that pulse beyond control, as well as the great intellectual movements that shape our lives. London’s vision, finally, is compassionate. Parents are not held accountable forever; tolerance and wisdom illuminate the landscape; generations learn from each other. But the mystery of enthrallment only deepens, irradiated by London’s gorgeous prose." [She also compares London to my dear, sainted Shirley Hazzard: I gotta get a copy of this one.]
- Yardley on Flannery by Brad Gooch: "No doubt O'Connor, who delighted in giving her characters unusual if not outlandish names such as Lucynell Crater, Hazel Motes and Francis Marion Tarwater, would be tickled to know that the author of her first full-scale biography is named Brad Gooch. A professor at William Paterson University in New Jersey, he has done an earnest, respectful but mercifully not hagiographic job.... Whether Gooch's conscientious, respectful biography will bring new readers to her work is doubtful, since literary biographies rarely sell as well as their authors and publishers wish, but readers who already know that work will be glad to have it."
- Annette Gordon-Reed on Passing Strange by Martha Sandweiss: "If you drop the name Clarence King to almost any group of Americans today, it is unlikely they will have heard of him. This was not always so. During the final decades of the 19th century, King strode across the national scene as the scion of a prominent family and a Yale-trained geologist who mapped the American West.... But there was another side to King that neither the public nor his glittering friends knew, a side that Martha A. Sandweiss explores with great sensitivity, insight and painstaking research in 'Passing Strange.' .... It would be hard to imagine a man more 'white,' meaning a man who was more thoroughly steeped in the privileges available only to whites of his class during the Gilded Age. But he was also secretly married to Ada Copeland, a black woman who had been born a slave in Georgia. Even more astounding, she knew nothing of his life as Clarence King."
Los Angeles Times:
- Wendy Smith on Baum's Nine Lives: "Dan Baum's extraordinary book reads more like fiction than journalism. Indeed, despite its brevity, 'Nine Lives' resembles a vast Victorian novel in its many-sided evocation of an entire world -- worlds, actually, because the New Orleans that Baum lovingly conjures belongs to people rooted in neighborhoods with strong traditions, each one a universe in itself."
Globe & Mail:
- Carla Lucchetta on Still Alice by Lisa Genova: "It's an extremely real scene from Lisa Genova's first novel, full of heartbreaking believability and told, unusually, from inside the mind and heart of a person with the disease. Genova got it right because she's a neuroscience PhD, and because she watched her grandmother's life diminish through Alzheimer's. The combination of her knowledge of brain function and curiosity about what this progressive disease actually feels like while it's happening is the seed of this book, and also the reason it's so powerfully resonant."
- Andy Beckett on Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire by Iain Sinclair (avail. in UK only): "This is a book of approaching 600 pages about a single London borough. It has been produced by a big publisher, in the middle of a recession, with specially-commissioned illustrations and a lovely lavish cover. It is densely, sometimes opaquely written and has been obsessively researched for more than a decade. It is full of digressions, forgotten east London characters, and details about local bus routes. If you have never been to Hackney, more of a metropolitan vanity project may be hard to imagine. And yet Iain Sinclair, as ever in his long and singular career as an explorer of the capital, is on to something here."
The New Yorker:
- Adam Gopnik on Damon Runyon (e.g. Guys and Dolls and Other Writings): "Reading the thirties stories straight through, one is startled by the lack of characterization. Runyon doesn’t really study gangsters; he just makes up a cookie-shape called Gangster and bakes extras as needed. The lack of sentiment and the love of language are what’s new in his work. Where the other newspaper-made writers tended to be, as newspaper columnists still are, moralistic—Lardner, although a master of common speech, is intent on unmasking the cruelty beneath the cheerfulness of American life—Runyon’s stuff is strictly amoral, with a tearjerking moment set down here and there like last night’s carnation floating by in the gutter. No one grows or changes or learns, everyone’s motive is mercenary, everyone is flat as a pancake, no moral drama takes place—all the life is in the language. Like Wodehouse, whom he in some ways resembles, Runyon inherited a comedy of morals and turned it into a comedy of sounds, language playing for its own sake."