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Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

OMM_04-06-09

New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Joseph O'Neill on The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Vol. 1, 1929-1940: "Beckett, in his published output and authorial persona, was rigorously spare and self-effacing. Who knew that in his private writing he would be so humanly forthcoming? We always knew he was brilliant — but this brilliant? Just as the otherworldliness of tennis pros is most starkly revealed in their casual warm-up drills, so these letters, in which intellectual and linguistic winners are struck at will, offer a humbling, thrilling revelation of the difference between Beckett’s game and the one played by the rest of us."
  • Terrence Rafferty on The Glister by John Burnside: "The reason the novel isn’t the downer it might have been is that Burnside’s writing conveys an almost palpable thrill of discovery, a delight in the play of his imagination over this bleak terrain, an irrepressible joy in cultivating metaphor after metaphor and seeing them all, improbably, bloom. Though the town is dying, Burnside has populated it densely, with characters whose different doomed strategies for staying alive give color and variety to the book’s vision of social decline. And plenty happens, at a speedy pace. The narrative has the quick urgency of a threatened creature: it moves like a cockroach streaking from light to the safer dark."
  • Maslin on Columbine by Dave Cullen: "His grasping for hard facts (not long before he died, 'Dylan apparently had potato skins') in the face of limited evidence (the autopsy report may instead have been referring to French fries) does his book more harm than good. Most valuable for its passages about psychopathic behavior and the press, which should of course be seen as two separate subjects, 'Columbine' must hack its way through thickets of useless data and self-promotion to arrive at any worthwhile conclusions."
  • Kakutani is ambivalent about our guest this week, Arthur Phillips's The Song Is You [stay tuned to next Sunday's Book Review, though, for a different take]: "It’s a novel with a ridiculous, poorly articulated plot, and yet at the same time it’s a novel that showcases Mr. Phillips’s sparkling gifts as a prose stylist and demonstrates a psychological depth and emotional chiaroscuro that was missing in earlier works like 'Prague' and 'The Egyptologist,' which tended to be clever and eye-catching but often glib."

Washington Post

  • Dirda on Beckett's Letters: "Admirers of Samuel Beckett, arguably the greatest writer in English of the second half of the 20th century, have grown used to waiting for Godot, who will surely come tomorrow or, just possibly, the day after. In the meantime, these similarly anticipated letters have quite definitely arrived, and in an edition more sumptuous than one ever imagined. Has any modern author been better served by his editors than Beckett?"
  • Sybil Steinberg on The Help by Kathryn Stockett: "Southern whites' guilt for not expressing gratitude to the black maids who raised them threatens to become a familiar refrain. But don't tell Kathryn Stockett because her first novel is a nuanced variation on the theme that strikes every note with authenticity. In a page-turner that brings new resonance to the moral issues involved, she spins a story of social awakening as seen from both sides of the American racial divide."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Michael Harris on Burnside's Glister: "A far-out, ambiguous tale, in the end. Yet we keep on reading it and hoping for answers, because Burnside's prose, full of feeling yet hyper-controlled, logical and convincing, seems to assure us, line by line, that we will find them, even when we doubt we will. Meaning seems to be inherent in it, as in the world at large -- even in a world filled with suffering, a world of puzzles only the mercenary Smiths seem able to crack."
  • David Ulin on Cullen's Columbine: "'Columbine' is an attempt to re-create, methodically, what happened, to re-sort the data and come to conclusions that are correct. It's a book that hits you like a crime scene photo, a reminder of what journalism at its best is all about.... As Cullen argues, it was easy to buy into the narratives already in place: tales of bullying and alienation, of tension between rival cliques. That's the problem with quick-hit journalism, a style of reporting 'Columbine' convincingly refutes. Indeed, if Cullen's book offers any overarching lesson, it's that some stories can only be demystified by taking the long view -- especially a story as troublesome and complicated as this."

Wall Street Journal:

  • Tunku Varadarajan on The Hindus by Wendy Doniger: "Ms. Doniger does a deft job of tracing their few unifying tenets -- those of karma (actions) and dharma (righteousness) and a merit-based afterlife -- and of holding these beliefs up to critical examination against the obvious injustices of the caste system. Her most beguiling chapters, though, are the ones in which she examines the impact on the Hindus of India's numerous foreign invaders -- from the earliest 'Aryans' in the second millennium B.C. to the imperial British, the last and perhaps greatest external shapers of Hindu society."

Globe and Mail:

  • Steven Hayward on The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels: "The Winter Vault is a beautifully written though somewhat difficult book. Michaels's prose is sometimes faulted — wrongly, I think — for being too lyrical or overly poetic, the kind of thing that has no business in a novel. Indeed, we feel Michaels sometimes straining against the form of the novel, and such strain is not easily borne in every instance.... But The Winter Vault can justify its excesses. This is a book that proposes great themes: a critique of progress, an exploration of the nature of human suffering, an interrogation of the relationship between past and present. And yet, for all of that, it remains at bottom a deeply affecting love story about intimacies and distances that grow, shift and dissolve between people — and about how we all carry within us a secret place where we store our wounds until the world thaws adequately for us to bury them."

The Guardian:

  • The Glister's John Burnside on The Music Room by William Fiennes: "The Music Room defies categorisation: part family romance, part historical investigation, it is, at its heart, an inquiry into how fundamentally we are defined by the duties of care that we assume or inherit: care of the land, care of a house, care of ourselves, or care of a difficult and sometimes dangerous son and brother.... This is no misery memoir - on the contrary, it is a thoughtful and lyrical account of an extraordinary childhood - yet reading The Music Room one cannot help but be awed by the depth and persistence of the love this family feels for their damaged brother and son, and by their ability to live so fully and so gladly with their burden."

The New Yorker:

  • James Wood on George Orwell is subscribers only: "But, even if Orwell worked at his journalism like a good novelist, the strange thing is that he could not work at his novels like a good novelist. The details that pucker the journalism are rolled flat in the fiction. Orwell needed the prompt of the real to speak as a writer."
  • Nicholas Lemann on newspaper baron biographies, including Michael Wolff's The Man Who Owns the News: "So how did the arrangement work out for Murdoch? Not all that well. Wolff never subjects Murdoch to moralizing, and seems to admire his success, but he has learned a great deal and he uses that knowledge mercilessly. Wolff has a permanent case of what Dorothy Parker used to call 'the frankies.' He can’t resist using the telling, belittling detail whenever he encounters it, which in this case is often. (There’s a funny list of all the names that Murdoch’s wife, Wendi, dropped during Wolff’s interview with her.) The details accrete."

--Tom

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