Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers
by Tom on September 01, 2009
New York Times:
- Sunday Book Review cover: Jonathan Lethem on A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore: "Moore may be, exactly, the most irresistible contemporary American writer: brainy, humane, unpretentious and warm; seemingly effortlessly lyrical; Lily-Tomlin-funny. Most of all, Moore is capable of enlisting not just our sympathies but our sorrows.... Great writers usually present us with mysteries, but the mystery Lorrie Moore presents consists of appearing genial, joshing and earnest at once — unmysterious, in other words, yet still great. She’s a discomfiting, sometimes even rageful writer, lurking in the disguise of an endearing one. On finishing 'A Gate at the Stairs' I turned to the reader nearest to me and made her swear to read it immediately (well, the dog was between us, but she doesn’t read much, and none of what I recommend)." [Reader, I loved this one too, immoderately, but not everybody's going to--I think it's going to be one of the most interesting debates of the literary year....]
- Ron Suskind on Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder: "That 63-year-old Tracy Kidder may have just written his finest work — indeed, one of the truly stunning books I’ve read this year — is proof that the secret to memorable nonfiction is so often the writer’s readiness to be surprised.... Kidder’s approach is a reminder of what can make American nonfiction so exceptional although, of late, it is rare. It’s that bottom-up quality that defies big-budget marketing and calculation, the search from on high for a 'sure thing.' In this connected age, disruptive change — and transforming insights — bubble up furiously from the least likely places. Kidder saw that bottom-up flash of energy in the smile of a peripheral man. And we are lucky he did." [Yup, I also loved this one, and I'm not the only one: it's the Spotlight pick in our new Best of September list, where you'll also find A Gate at the Stairs.]
- Wyatt Mason on The Skating Rink by Roberto Bolaño: "Readers yet to experience Bolaño’s writing — its narrative variety and verve, its linguistic resourcefulness, its unusual combination of gravity and playfulness, brutality and tenderness — increasingly face the very practical problem of having to divine which book on the widening shelf of Bolaños should be read first. 'The Skating Rink,' the only new Bolaño appearing this year, won’t make the decision any easier: this short, exquisite novel is another unlikely masterpiece, as sui generis as all his books so far"
- Kakutani on Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow: "Mr. Doctorow, using his patented blend of fact and fiction, has [produced] a slight, unsatisfying, Poe-like story that turns out to be a study in morbid psychology....Like characters in a Poe story, Homer and Langley have entombed themselves within their once-elegant mansion — and become the center of 'a circle of animosity rippling outward from our neighbors to creditors, to the press, to the municipality, and, finally to the future.' As reimagined by Mr. Doctorow, however, their story has no Poe-like moral resonance. It’s simply a depressing tale of two shut-ins who withdrew from life to preside over their own 'kingdom of rubble.'”
- William Logan on A Village Life by Louise Glück: "Glück remains our great poet of annihilation and disgust, our demigoddess of depression. At her discomforting best, she reminds me of no poet more than Rilke, who was also a case of nerves and who also lived close to the old myths. Though her comments about him have been hedged, of all the Americans now writing Glück is the closest to being his secret mythographer. Her silences fall at times like moral resistance, and the most striking lines of her chatter are as haunting as an elegy for herself."
- Charles on Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon: "Don't read anything (except this) about Dan Chaon's mesmerizing new novel, 'Await Your Reply.' You need to step into this work of psychological suspense completely unprepared for what lurks in here. If somebody starts telling you what they liked best, put your fingers in your ears and sing: 'La, la, la, la!' But you can trust me -- which is just what all the manipulative creeps in this novel say."
- Marie Arana on Kidder's Strength in What Remains: "That young medical student is the subject of Tracy Kidder's extraordinarily stirring new book, 'Strength in What Remains'....The story of Deogratias, a 22-year-old who boarded a plane in Bujumbura at the peak of the violence and emerged, many stops later -- alone, disoriented and ill-prepared -- on the streets of New York City, is as harrowing an account of human suffering as you will ever read. But it is also a miracle of human courage. In it, a man rises against all odds to achieve his highest aspirations and help countless others along the way."
Los Angeles Times:
- David L. Ulin on Doctorow's Homer & Langley: What Doctorow's previous books "share, however, is a sense of moment, of the significance of their stories, the idea that they are situated somewhere between memory and myth. 'Homer & Langley' never does achieve such stature. Like so much of Doctorow's writing, it is set against the sweep of history. After Langley is gassed in the trenches of World War I and comes home damaged in body and spirit, the brothers linger, like ghosts in an abandoned reliquary, through Prohibition, the Depression, the Cold War and on into the hippie days. These are long lives, and yet nothing really happens, no lasting attachments, nothing more than the relentless passage of the days."
- Dana Goodyear on Glück's Village Life: "Not many poets can be electrifying while keeping the stakes this hypothermically low. Glück is a master, finely calibrating the shocks and their intervals. This collection, her 11th, is frightening the way a living statue would be frightening if it were to smile at you."
Globe & Mail:
- Anne Enright on Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro: "There is a part of me that listens to the response Munro's work now elicits and says, 'Would everyone be quiet a minute, and read.' ... [T]hese stories are not asking for our praise, they ask for our attention. They are not written for the crowd, but for the individual reader. They don't ask for noise, but for silence – and not an awed silence at that (though awe is certainly possible), but the silence that happens when you close a book and pause and continue with your life, less lonely than you were before."
- Patrick Lohier on Waiting for Columbus by Thomas Trofimuk: "Waiting for Columbus ... offers up present-day characters looking for answers hidden in the past.... It is one of those rare gems that works on a number of levels and makes ingenious use of eras shadowed by anxiety, uncertainty and tectonic, historic change – times like ours. Thomas Trofimuk's novel throws you for a loop, pulls you back, twists you around and opens your eyes to the world not just as it was, but as we find it."
- Ursula K. LeGuin on The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood: "Margaret Atwood doesn't want any of her books to be called science fiction.... Who can blame her? I feel obliged to respect her wish, although it forces me, too, into a false position. I could talk about her new book more freely, more truly, if I could talk about it as what it is, using the lively vocabulary of modern science-fiction criticism, giving it the praise it deserves as a work of unusual cautionary imagination and satirical invention. As it is, I must restrict myself to the vocabulary and expectations suitable to a realistic novel, even if forced by those limitations into a less favourable stance."
- Julie Myerson on Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby: "Hornby has made no secret in the past of his admiration for the simplicity and soul of Anne Tyler's work, and there's nothing in the plot of this novel that I couldn't imagine that writer tackling. But I found myself longing for a little of Tyler's sly ambiguity, for her ability to leave you worrying, hoping, caring. When Hornby tells us what's going on in a character's head, it's not that we don't believe him, more that it leaves us too little to do. I wanted gaps, I wanted subtext, I wanted uncertainty."
The New Yorker:
- Caleb Crain on The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates by Peter T. Leeson: "Are pirates socialists or capitalists? Lately, it’s become hard to tell the categories apart. Toward the end of his book, Leeson suggests that pirate self-governance proves that companies can regulate themselves better than governments can, as if he sees the pirate ship as a prototype of the modern corporation, sailing through treacherously liberal waters. Such arguments haven’t aged well over the past year, but even in piracy’s golden age people were aware that an unregulated marketplace invites predators. During the South Sea Bubble of 1720, speculators claiming to be able to make wealth out of debt fleeced British investors and ruined many banks. Pirates who spent that year killing and plundering, Nathaniel Mist grumpily wrote, could salve their guilty consciences, if they had any: 'Whatever Robberies they had committed, they might be pretty sure they were not the greatest Villains then living in the World.'"
- Joyce Carol Oates's review of Homer & Langley is behind the subscription wall: "Homer & Langley is a subdued, contemplative, and resolutely unsensational recounting of the brothers' fatefully intertwined lives."
Harper's (also subscription-only):
- Jonathan Dee on Moore's Gate at the Stairs (a smart overview of her career that balks at some of the later elements in the new book): "Fifty years from now, it may well turn out that the work of very few American writers has as much to say about what it meant to be alive in our time as that of Lorrie Moore, a fact that will have nothing at all to do with references to 9/11 or Afghanistan or any other newsworthy datum in her fiction. The skin of comic self-consciousness that defined her early work has been emphatically shed; perhaps the strange incursions of the real into the final chapters of A Gate at the Stairs are evidence only of a temporary, attendant rawness, a painful receptivity toward all the influences to which her art has now opened itself up. If so, I suspect this receptivity will wane, and she will recognize that her own prodigiously articulate, compulsively funny, extraordinarily humane sensibility is more than sufficient unto itself."