Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers
by Tom on September 08, 2009
New York Times:
- Sunday Book Review cover: Robert Reich on The Heart of Power: Health and Politics in the Oval Office by David Blumenthal and James Morone: "This timely and insightful book puts Barack Obama's current quest for universal health insurance in historical context and gives new meaning to the audacity of hope. Universal health care has bedeviled, eluded or defeated every president for the last 75 years.... Blumenthal and Morone’s most provocative finding is that presidents who have been most successful in moving the country toward universal health coverage have disregarded or overruled their economic advisers. Plans to expand coverage have consistently drawn cautions or condemnations from economic teams in every administration, from Harry Truman’s down to George W. Bush’s."
- Kakutani on True Compass by Ted Kennedy: "Mr. Kennedy is not a particularly introspective writer ... [b]ut he writes in these pages with searching candor about the losses, joys and lapses of his life; the love and closeness of his family; the solace he found in sailing and the sea; his complex relationships with political allies and rivals. Mr. Kennedy’s conversational gifts as a storyteller and his sense of humor — so often remarked on by colleagues and friends — shine through here, as does his old-school sense of public service and his hard-won knowledge, in his son Teddy Jr.’s words, that 'even our most profound losses are survivable.'"
- Ross Douthat on The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution, 1980-1989 by Steven F. Hayward: "'The Age of Reagan' demonstrates the strengths of partisan historiography as well. Because he takes for granted that Reagan’s presidency was successful, Hayward is free to explore, as few authors have, exactly how he did it.... [I]t’s one of his book’s great strengths that he also recognizes the centrality of compromise to Reagan’s overall success. This was something, he emphasizes repeatedly, that many right-wingers got wrong at the time."
- David Orr on The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker: "Somehow Nicholson Baker has written a novel about poetry that’s actually about poetry — and that is also startlingly perceptive and ardent, both as a work of fiction and as a representation of the kind of thinking that poetry readers do.... Mostly what Chowder does is talk about poetry. And then talk some more. And then, you know, a little more. This wouldn’t be an exciting prospect — it would, in fact, be a dreadful prospect — except that Chowder is possibly the most appealing narrator Baker has invented."
- Maslin on Parallel Play by Tim Page: "Now, in his mid-50s, he has written an improbably lovely memoir about the loneliness that has made him feel throughout his life that he is 'not quite a mammal.' ... In fascinatingly precise detail and often to pricelessly funny effect, he describes ways in which his efforts to feign normalcy have backfired."
- Charles on A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore: "'A Gate at the Stairs' is Moore's first novel in 15 years, which means a whole generation of readers has grown up thinking of her only as one of the country's best short-story writers. Get ready to expand your sense of what she -- and a novel -- can do.... [W]hat's so endearing is Moore's ability to tempt us with humor into the surreal boundaries of human experience, those strange decisions that make no sense out of context, the things we can't believe anyone would do.... [O]ne of the many surprising aspects of this novel is its concern for spiritual issues, despite its sheen of slacker irreverence.... At times, these witty, beautiful sentences made me imagine Marilynne Robinson doing stand-up."
- Gerard DeGroot on The Year That Changed the World by Michael Meyer: "The good historian is a myth buster. Michael Meyer is a very good historian. As Newsweek's bureau chief for Eastern Europe in 1989, he watched the world turn on a dime. The myth he busts in this book concerns the contribution the United States made to the collapse of communist regimes that year....The real story, minus the comic book hero, is more complicated -- and interesting. Reagan still plays a role, but as diplomat, not Rambo.... The events themselves were played out by a cast of thousands in Budapest, Berlin, Prague, Warsaw and Bucharest."
Los Angeles Times:
- David L. Ulin on Collected Stories by Raymond Carver: "The prominence of 'Beginners' adds a subtext that threatens to subvert the larger arc. That's because, in the main, the pared-down versions of the stories are better, which opens the question of where authenticity resides. Are the unedited drafts more essential because they represent the truer Carver? Or is the point the continuum of his writing, developed through the intersection of internal and external influences?"
- Ed Park on My Dead Body by Charlie Huston: "Gruesome and often very funny, 'My Dead Body' throws together moods and ideas and set pieces at top velocity, and revels in the complexity of the mess.... Pitt is perpetually swinging -- usually something called an amputation blade -- but as vivid and claustrophobic as the combat scenes are, it's the inventive banter and bleakly funny asides that make 'My Dead Body' enjoyable."
Globe and Mail:
- One of my favorite L. Moores on another: Lisa Moore on Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs: "Tassie is a riveting character from the first page. She is quick, funny, indelible. The novel begins with a description of the weather in that fateful season of 2001: 'The cold came late that fall and the songbirds were caught off guard.' In Tassie Keltjin, Lorrie Moore has created a bird's-eye view of America in the midst of a cold, dark, changing season. Here is a voice clear and sweet, but like the canaries', full of warning, dark and bright."
- Cynthia Macdonald on The Wife's Tale by Lori Lansens: "Usually, when books drift onto the Isle of Helen Reddy, it is time to put them down. But self-helpy engine stalls such as these do not impede the journey all that much. The characters in this book may resort to cheap bromides a little too often, but c'est la vie (especially in California, one suspects). It's up to Lori Lansens to find the light and warmth underneath those bromides, the moments of clarity that really get a stuck life going. For the most part, she succeeds admirably."
- Richard Fortey on The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins: "I am not sure whether Dawkins is rehearsing his arguments here to stiffen the backbones of those involved in the debate with 'intelligent designers', or whether he really thinks that the scales will fall from their religious eyes, cauterised by his searing arguments. Indeed, one wonders whether this book will do more than preach to the already converted (isn't it hard to escape the language of the pulpit?)."
- Thomas Jones on Summertime by J.M. Coetzee: "Summertime is both an elegant request that the sum of Coetzee's existence as a public figure should be looked for only in his writing, and ample evidence, once again, why that request should be honoured."
The New Yorker:
- Judith Thurman on Amelia Earhart, including Amelia Earhart: Image and Icon: "Ware regards Earhart’s pose of Lindberghian diffidence with critical amusement. She quotes the great aviator Elinor Smith, who was still flying in 2001, at eighty-nine: 'Amelia was about as shy as Muhammad Ali.' The abuse of the term 'icon' incites iconoclasm, or ought to. Earhart was saintlike only as a martyr to her own ambition, who became an object of veneration and is periodically resurrected—her unvarnished glamour, like a holy man’s body, still miraculously fresh."
BookForum (from the new Sept/Oct/Nov issue):
- Wendy Lesser on Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel: "Hilary Mantel is the finest underappreciated writer working in Britain.... If you are anything like me, you will finish Wolf Hall wishing it were twice as long as its 560 pages. Torn away from this sixteenth-century world, in which you have come to know the engaging, pragmatic Cromwell as if he were your own brother—as if he were yourself—you will turn to the Internet to find out more about him..... You will, I suspect, read each new piece of information about Tudor England with fresh and sharpened eyes. But none of this, however instructive, will make up for your feeling of loss, because none of this additional material will come clothed in the seductive, inimitable language of Mantel’s great fiction."
- Mark Arax on Imperial by William T. Vollmann: "Tipping the scales at four pounds, sprawling 1,344 pages, Imperial comes packaged in the promise of an epic. A separate book of photographs, also published under the title Imperial, presents hundreds of portraits and other revealing images of borderland life that Vollmann snapped himself. In a generation of gadgets and their glow, his painstaking efforts to document the old-fashioned way can be inspiring. Yet the very qualities that have marked Vollmann’s best work—his restless investigative spirit, his eye for the broader sweep of history, his intense verbal energy—tend to backfire in the larger book. The result is a messy, unrealized narrative."
- Rick Moody on The Interrogative Mood by Padgett Powell: "If I say it’s a bit of a masterpiece, what I imagine I mean is that there are just a few books that resemble The Interrogative Mood (Gilbert Sorrentino’s Gold Fools is the only one that leaps to mind), and that if I were to imagine myself writing this book, which I wish I had, I would not have been able to be this clever and this heartfelt, this funny and this disconsolate, and to make/efface so effectively a narrative that tells its tale only through the process of selecting the seemingly impulsive material.... I didn’t know I would be able to make it through The Interrogative Mood with the burgeoning admiration I felt as I proceeded through its layers, both whispered and shouted, its gradual revelations, but then how could I have known?"
- Too many more good ones to excerpt. Buy the issue or subscribe!