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Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

OMM_06-15-09

New York Times:

  • Leah Hager Cohen, with one of the biggest (and most convincing) raves I've read this year, on A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert: "Her writing wears both its intelligence and its ideology lightly. No manifesto, this is a gorgeously wrought and ultimately wrenching work of art.... Now I must throw up my hands in despair: I’m running out of space, and the only thing I’ve addressed in a modicum of detail is the first chapter — a mere dozen pages! The trouble is that each chapter is like a slice of exquisite cake. But the reviewer’s predicament is the reader’s pleasure. I found myself going back time and again to reread whole paragraphs, not because they’d been obscure, but in the way one might press a finger to the crumbs littering an otherwise cleaned plate: out of a desire to savor every morsel."
  • Kathryn Harrison on Byron in Love by Edna O'Brien: "Thank the gods of literature that George Gordon, Lord Byron, was born in 1788, well out of the reach of psycho­pharmacology. 'Byron in Love,' the Irish novelist Edna O’Brien’s compact and mischievously complicit biography of the great Romantic poet and enfant terrible, skates over its subject’s literary career to showcase the dissolute behavior Byron’s critics decried as that of a 'second Caligula.' Arguably, Caligula was the more moderate soul."
  • Christopher Hitchens on Bite the Hand That Feeds You by Henry Fairlie: "The word 'raffish' might have been coined for him.... Both pushed and pulled across the Atlantic (he was captivated by the spaciousness and generosity of America on his first visit in 1965 and also needed a refuge from libel suits, jealous husbands and maddened creditors back home), he began to produce the reflections and polemics, many of them first published in The New Republic, that are the meat of this new volume. Written in (almost) unfailingly superb English, they retain their appeal mostly because they display a sort of romantic Toryism and traditionalism, with its guarded attitude toward commerce and capitalism, and yet contain a celebration of American individualism."

Washington Post:

  • Daniel Mallory on Darling Jim by Christian Moerk: "And so Niall sinks into his chair, sure 'he wouldn't move until he'd reach the last page.' Neither will the reader of 'Darling Jim,' the spellbinding new novel from Danish-born, Brooklyn-based Christian Moerk. Aglow with fairy-tale inflections, this hypnotic, neo-Gothic suspense story unfolds like a hothouse bloom, lush and pungent; it's a sprig of nightshade, all petals and poison. And it heralds the arrival of an astonishingly gifted storyteller."
  • Charles on The Scenic Route by Binnie Kirshenbaum: "The hard-to-believe pleasure of this novel depends entirely upon the wit and poignancy of Sylvia's digressive patter -- a Jewish woman's version of Colson Whitehead's recent 'Sag Harbor.' Her quirky, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic stories flow one after another, anecdotes nested in anecdotes, interrupted by asides and parenthetical observations, and punctuated by historical footnotes about Shalimar perfume, Raisinets or martinis. I can't imagine what Kirshenbaum told people who asked, 'So, what's your novel about?' and yet it's continually engaging, the illusion of artlessness that only the disciplined artist can carry off."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Paula L. Woods on Black Water Rising by Attica Locke: "'Black Water Rising' is a near-perfect balance of trenchant social commentary, rich characterizations and an action-oriented plot that, after it kicks in, moves rapidly toward some explosive revelations well-suited to the growth-crazed Houston that Locke so accurately evokes. Maybe it's her screenwriting chops (Locke has written scripts for several studios and is currently working on an HBO miniseries) on display, but I couldn't help seeing Locke's taut scenes of campus dissent, union showdowns and Houston politics spooling out across a screen, keeping me awake long past bedtime. But it's Jay Porter, a bruised and broken former radical reaching for redemption, who makes the most lasting impression in 'Black Water Rising' and marks Attica Locke as a writer wise beyond her years."
  • Ed Park's notes on A Monster's Notes by Laurie Sheck: "I started this review before finishing the book, in the form of notes. I didn't know I was writing the review yet. I have another file just as long. Fungibility of the notebook mode. Juxtaposition is easy, at times even arbitrary; effects perhaps no less revelatory or pungent." [His notes weren't really revelatory for me--what do you think?]

Globe and Mail:

  • Mark Kingwell on Mirrors by Eduardo Galeano: "Galeano, the prolific Uruguayan social critic, gives free voice to every truism of anti-imperial outrage, from the fact that those with power have often been cruel to those without – bastards – to the lamentable persistence of racism and religious intolerance, not to mention the gross mistreatment men have consistently visited upon women. All true – except that truth, especially of the banal sort, is insufficient reason for taxing a reader with this book's thudding prose and air of profundity crossed with righteous grievance. The tone is driven by those bulwarks of quotidian thought, the Significant Paragraph Break, the Ponderous Non-Sequitur and the Maudlin Aperçu."
  • Stephen Amidon on Love and Obstacles by Aleksandar Hemon: "As he has proved in previous books such as Nowhere Man and The Lazarus Project, Hemon is a superbly original stylist. As with Conrad and, at times, Nabokov, his late arrival to the English language seems to have endowed him with an ability to conjure surprisingly beautiful phrases. The darkness of an African night is 'uncarvable,' a wayward boy is described as having 'shrimped up' when he absorbed the beating of an irate hotel clerk, a poet's florid wife wears 'eventful earrings.'”

The Guardian:

  • Ursula K. LeGuin on The Complete Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino (available only in the UK): "It's a joy to have all the Cosmicomics within one cover.... If some of the Cosmicomics are a bit geeky, most are thoroughly entertaining, and some attain the true Calvinic sublime: intelligence, humour, poignancy and irony distilled to the purely luminous. Their topics are exhilaratingly immense, the uttermost reaches of space and time, into which warmth and humour enter through all kinds of gaps, quirks and tricks. Calvino's light, dry, clear prose dances over the lightyears, bringing forth homely and vivid images everywhere."
  • Irvine Welsh on The Rapture by Liz Jensen: "In any thriller, you know right from the start that the protagonist is going to come through - it's just one of the rules of the game. The considerable achievement of The Rapture is to render its heroine so susceptible to physical or mental harm, and place her in such repeated peril, that you're never quite confident until the last page that victory will be grasped.... Would-be thriller writers should certainly pick up The Rapture; it's a masterclass on how to write an engaging thriller about a relevant contemporary issue while still respecting the reader's brain cells."

The New Yorker:

  • Kelefa Sanneh on Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford: "Crawford promises more than good taste; his book sets its sights on the blue-collar worker, not on the fussy consumer.... But he can’t feign much enthusiasm for, say, jobs in the health-care sector, no matter how satisfying or useful or plentiful those jobs might be. Really, he likes engines and building things and fixing things; his dedication to his shop is rooted in his admiration for his clients and for what he calls the 'kingly sport' of motorcycle riding. In other words, his work is 'useful' only insofar as it enables men to ride motorcycles—an activity that might fairly be described as useless. Crawford may have set out to write a book about work, but the book he actually wrote is about consumption. No less than Pollan, he is a connoisseur, exercised more by shoddy workmanship than by shoddy working conditions."

--Tom

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