Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers
by Tom on April 27, 2009
- Sunday Book Review cover: Review editor Sam Tanenhaus on How It Ended by Jay McInerney: "'How It Ended' reminds us how impressively broad McInerney’s scope has been and how confidently he has ranged across wide swaths of our national experience. It reminds us too that for all the many literary influences he has absorbed, McInerney’s contribution — and it is a major one — is to have revitalized the Irish Catholic expiatory tradition of F. Scott Fitzgerald and John O’Hara, with its emphasis not only on guilt but also on shame: on sins committed and never quite expunged, always in open view of the sorrowing punitive clan."
- Maslin on Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead: "'Sag Harbor' isn’t about much more than the hilariously trifling intricacies of this self-discovery process. Credit Mr. Whitehead with this: He captures the fireflies of teenage summertime in a jar without pretending to have some larger purpose. 'Sag Harbor' is not a book about that special summer when everything changed, when this boy became a man, when the scales fell from his eyes about adult life, or even about when he experienced the balmy joys of first love. Its plot is so evanescent that the removal of Benji’s braces counts as a milestone."
- Mark Ford on Our Savage Art by William Logan: "The most obvious advantage of Logan’s Diogenes-like approach to much of the contemporary poetry he writes about is that it transforms the normally rather stultifying genre of the poetry review into something more akin to a blood sport. Logan’s hounding and slashing, parodying and chastising, make for what editors call good copy. Occasionally he exempts a passage, or a complete particular poem, from his mocking strictures, but in general one learns to expect — and even, in a slightly shameful way, like a member of the crowd at a Roman circus, to demand — the final turning of the emperor’s thumb down, and the consigning of another poet to oblivion."
- Joan Silber on Once the Shore by Paul Yoon: "The beauty of these stories is precisely in their reserve: they are mild and stark at the same time. By mild I do not mean cozy. Harshness is always close at hand here, and no one is surprised by betrayals, thefts, brutal mistakes of war. Nor do the stories entirely lack acts of will. A couple whose son has probably been killed in a bombing test resolutely set off at sea to search for him. A child whose family farm has been sold tells the buyer’s wife to go home. But even these resolves feel not altogether voluntary. Most of the collection’s characters move through events with a resignation or forbearance rare in contemporary fiction. 'Once the Shore' is the work of a large and quiet talent."
- Dirda on Endpoint and Other Poems by John Updike: "In their last years, many artists cast aside all their usual flourishes, dismiss the circus animals and simply set down, as directly as possible, the realities and inevitabilities of old age. So John Updike has done in this moving book of poems."
- Yardley on The World in Half by Cristina Henriquez: "I quote that passage at length because I like it a great deal and because everything it says is true. Latin America is simultaneously desperate and hypnotic, and Henríquez gets this aspect of it exactly right, not only in this passage but elsewhere in the novel as Mira gradually comes to love this place that is, in part, her own. For all its implausibility, 'The World in Half' is engaging and touching."
Los Angeles Times:
- Taylor Antrim on Whitehead's Sag Harbor: "You can't help but admire Whitehead's writerly gifts, but there's something idling and indolent about his method here. 'Sag Harbor' reminded me, not in a good way, of 'The Colossus of New York,' Whitehead's book-length love letter to his home city: stylistically virtuosic but stubbornly hard to finish. It's poor form to speculate, but I'll go ahead: Whitehead seems uneasy with the confessional demands of autobiography. For that's surely what this is -- memoir masquerading as a novel.... Perhaps novels don't require plots, but it seems to me they do need something: a sense of excavation, some deeper fathom of character attained. For all its amusements and felicities of language, 'Sag Harbor' never dives very far below the surface. Emotionally, it's a low-stakes affair, which is another way of saying it's a little too much like summer for its own good."
- Susan Salter Reynolds on Follow Me by Joanna Scott: "Joanna Scott has one of those imaginations that recasts details in her own image.... You feel the strong powers of observation and imagination at work in her writing, crashing and working against each other: This is true, this can't be true; how could that happen? Of course that's what happened. You feel forces bigger than us swirling around her plots, especially this one, but you don't know what to call them. You think it must be her story, the story of her ancestors, but then you remember she's an accomplished fiction writer. She knows how to ride and break a good, feisty story. After it's broken, and the pieces lay all around, you realize that you could not, in a million years, ever reconstruct it, even though, in so many ways, it has become your story too."
- Ben Ehrenreich on News from the Empire by Fernando del Paso: "'What happens,' writes the Mexican novelist Fernando del Paso, 'when an author can't escape history? . . . what can you do . . . when you don't want to avoid history, but do want to achieve poetry?' ... Del Paso's answer consists of the page on which those words appear and all the many pages of 'News From the Empire,' his variously fascinating, frustrating, hilarious, dull, mesmerizing, maddening, absurd and tragic novel, which, in its breadth and depth and massive reach, manages to achieve something of the noise and sweep of history itself."
Wall Street Journal:
- Alexander Theroux on Closing Time by Joe Queenan: "At 59, Mr. Queenan's life story is far from over, but he seems to feel compelled to look back in anger, as if to close off, for good, a desolate past that keeps reasserting itself and, one can easily imagine, poisoning his present happiness.... The book is an acrid portrait of Mr. Queenan as a man short on forgiveness.... In the end, it is hard not to conclude that 'Closing Time' was a book that Mr. Queenan felt he had to write -- for his own demon-chasing purposes. Its urgency will be less apparent to the rest of us."
- Michael Judge on In Hanuman's Hands by Cheeni Rao: "After the revelation in 2006 that James Frey's 'A Million Little Pieces' was a fact-tinged piece of fiction, plenty of readers swore off ever picking up another memoir that purported to recall a writer's squalorous, drug-abusing past. That's a shame, because Cheeni Rao's 'In Hanuman's Hands' goes a long way toward redeeming a dubious genre. But this lyrical, haunting book is much more than just an account of Mr. Rao's descent into crack-cocaine addiction, criminality and homelessness on the streets of Chicago. Remarkably, he also weaves into his story fully realized visions of his Hindu ancestry."
Globe and Mail:
- J.C. Sutcliffe on The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt (coming to the US in October): "Before I was even a 10th of the way through the book's 600-plus pages, I was converted. This book made me thirsty: Whenever I put it down, it nagged me to pick it up again.... The writing style is one of the book's biggest mysteries. There are no intellectual flourishes, no flashes of genius wordsmithery, no dazzling riffs. At first sight, each sentence is as nothing: clear, like water, simple, without any craft or elegance. The words just are: baldly stated, sometimes a little repetitive, straightforward, no sparkling fizz. Yet by a slow process of accretion, the writing takes on the majesty of a glacier: monumental, pure, beautiful."
- Olivia Laing on Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (also coming here in October): "By ending without a dramatic resolution, she allows the "what happened next" of the historical record to underscore her central, sobering message: that human kindness and idealism are no match for the fickleness of fortune.... This is a beautiful and profoundly humane book, a dark mirror held up to our own world. And the fact that its conclusion takes place after the curtain has fallen only proves that Hilary Mantel is one of our bravest as well as most brilliant writers."
The New Yorker:
- Peter Conrad on Antonio Lobo Antunes (including The Fat Man and Infinity, Knowledge of Hell, and What Can I Do When Everything's on Fire): "Saramago is a benign magus whose fictions smilingly suspend reality; Lobo Antunes is more like an exorcist, frantically battling to cast out evil and to heal the body politic. Saramago’s secular parables, set mostly in unnamed or imaginary countries, easily float off into universality. Lobo Antunes remains obsessively local, worrying over the inherited ailments of Portuguese history and the debilities of its culture."