Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers
by Tom on May 19, 2009
- Sunday Book Review cover: Bruce Barcott on Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton: "Doug Stanton tells the story of that brief shining moment in 'Horse Soldiers,' a rousing, uplifting, Toby Keith-singing piece of work. This isn’t Afghanistan for those who enjoy (I use the word loosely) Iraq through the analytical lens of a book like 'The Assassins’ Gate,' by George Packer. It’s for those who like their military history told through the eyes of heroic grunts, sergeants and captains. Think of Stephen E. Ambrose's 'Band of Brothers' or Stanton’s own best seller, 'In Harm’s Way,' the story of the survivors of the cruiser Indianapolis, which sank in shark-infested waters during World War II."
- Tom McCarthy on How to Sell by Clancy Martin: "The novel is a good, pacey and ultimately unchallenging read. Why couldn’t they just say that on the cover? 'Entertaining, zippy and unchallenging — X, author of Y.' The reason they don’t, of course, is that ... there’s a bigger sale being made: we’re being asked to buy into the notion that lively storytelling and more-than-adequate craftsmanship constitute great, 'classic' literature. I’m not so sure. To bastardize the Latin, emptors need to sober up and exercise a little caveating over that one. I suspect that real, high-karat literature, with its complexity and ambiguity, its general slipperiness, is sitting in another box, one opening to a dimension that 'How to Sell' doesn’t breach (and, to both its and its author’s credit, doesn’t itself actually claim to)."
- Robert F. Worth on The Weight of a Mustard Seed by Wendell Steavenson: "Too much American reporting from Iraq reads like the dispatches of a group of astronauts on a vicious foreign planet, leavened only by bland historical paragraphs about the Sunnis and the Shiites and their regrettable hatreds. So it’s a relief to read Wendell Steavenson’s 'Weight of a Mustard Seed,' a masterly and elegantly told story that weaves together the Iraqi past and present.... She entwines their memories with bits of period material — speeches, transcripts of old radio broadcasts and the like — making the Iraq of the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s come alive more vividly than any other book I have read."
- Kakutani on Digital Barbarism by Mark Helprin (and Greg Kot's Ripped): "Unfortunately for the reader and for those who share Mr. Helprin’s views on the sanctity of copyright, he serves up these arguments in a pompous, sanctimonious text, full of contempt and the sort of snarky, ad hominem attacks that many of the bloggers he so detests like to use. For every persuasive point that Mr. Helprin makes, he undermines it with a gratuitously nasty attack on his opponents, an absurd generalization or a pretentious digression that does nothing to illuminate his thesis."
- Perry Link on Prisoner of the State by Zhao Ziyang: "Scholars will mine 'Prisoner of the State' for historical nuances. It is clearer here than elsewhere that Zhao was already in serious political trouble in 1988, before the democracy movement began; and that Zhao had bickered with Hu Yaobang over economic policy as early as 1982, even though the two reformist leaders needed each other. Deng Xiaoping appears more strikingly than elsewhere as a Godfather figure: Other leaders jockey for access to him, dare not contradict him and use his words to attack one another. Yet even Deng seeks to avoid responsibility for difficult decisions. The group has dictatorial power, yet is rife with insecurity."
- Charles on Sunnyside by Glen David Gold: "As discombobulating as the book is as a whole, its parts are magnificent, and 'Sunnyside' is flooded with funny, horrible and downright bizarre details of early 20th-century life. Gold's dexterous voice can swing from the exuberant melodrama of silent film to the terror of doomed soldiers to the quiet despair of the world's most beloved man."
Los Angeles Times:
- Kenneth Turan on Gone Tomorrow by Lee Child: "Child has a style that in many ways echoes his protagonist's. Child's writing is both propulsive and remarkably error-free, and he's expert at ratcheting up the tension while dispensing all manner of specific information.... Though Child has a tendency to get too fearfully graphic when describing physical violence, his books don't fully come to life unless and until Reacher unleashes his fearsome physique and destroys whatever is in his path.... Which makes 'Gone Tomorrow' something of an odd duck. Perhaps because it deals with international terrorism, this book is at once creepier and more serious than some others in the series, with not as many opportunities for the old demolition machine to go into action."
- Richard Rayner on Gold's Sunnyside: "Film is a ruthless medium, allowing no longueurs, requiring acceleration through the story line and a strict adherence to tone. Fiction engages its audience one-on-one and relies less on control. As readers, we forgive problems in novels that, as viewers, we simply don't in films. 'Sunnyside' feels, at times, like Dickensian streaky bacon, a bit of a baggy monster. But it has, too, those wonderful Dickensian qualities, namely, the capacity to startle, to thrill, to evoke laughter and, ultimately, to bring tears to the eyes. No reader who sticks for the ride is going to forget it."
Wall Street Journal:
- Toby Young on Home Game by Michael Lewis: "American men now find themselves in the same position as Gorbachev after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Having done the decent thing, and ceded power without bloodshed, they are now looked on with good-humored disdain. (Full disclosure: I am a father of four living in London and can confirm that the situation for British men is no better.) ... Mr. Lewis writes beautifully about his fall in status, but what's missing from 'Home Game' is the trenchant social and economic analysis that he brings to his other subjects."
Globe and Mail:
- Randy Boyagoda on The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen: "The Collected Works of T.S. Spivet is mostly a success. There will be some, for certain, who will dismiss the book for its preciousness. Others will no doubt love it for its preciousness. The rest will find the story — shorn of its sundry marginalia — very good in stretches, but take-it-or-leave-it otherwise, sundry marginalia included. I think it comes down to footwear: If you're over 30 and wear sneakers to work, you're probably going to like this novel. If your children or co-workers wear sneakers to work, buy this book for them and enjoy a probable rise in your cultural currency, sensible flats and boring brogues aside." [Ed: For what it's worth, I wear sneakers to work, most days, but thought it was too precious.]
- Emma Donoghue on The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters: "The Little Stranger is a more traditional piece of storytelling than those previous bestsellers, relying hardly at all on the narrative twists for which she is known. With its single narrator and tense but unhurried linear movement, it tackles tricky matters — family secrets, madness, poltergeists — with a minimum of tricks. While her matter is lurid (and plenty of blood eventually gets splashed on the ripped carpets), her manner is not; though the story might belong in a Stephen King novel, The Little Stranger is notable for its restraint. Perhaps because of my relish for the Waters of Affinity and Fingersmith, I waited in a state of suspense for some revelation that would make me rethink the whole story, and felt let down when it never came."
- Mark Bostridge on The Blue Hour: A Portrait of Jean Rhys by Lilian Pizzichini: "Lilian Pizzichini's cod psychology occasionally comes across as trite. Her book is inadequately sourced, so that one is sometimes uncertain about how much weight to give to certain remarks, and she accepts too readily the idea that most, if not all, of Rhys's writing must be autobiographically inspired. However, there is something genuinely heroic about her determination to recapture Jean Rhys's angry, bleak vision and her gripping narrative is an important contribution to helping us understand the underlying mystery of both the woman and the writer."
The New Yorker:
- David Denby on Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master by Michael Sragow: "Sragow is immensely attentive to Fleming’s films, and he traces in detail the fortunes of all the people connected to them, but his book is held together by what can only be called the romance of movie-making in the studio era—the large, free, hard-drinking life that the men (but rarely the women) enjoyed when movies were still made quickly and relatively cheaply, craft was spoken of with respect, and art was barely mentioned."