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Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

OMM_11-23-09
New York Times:

  • Stephen King on Raymond Carver by Carol Sklenicka and Carver's Collected Stories: King is pro-Maryann Carver (with a fellow AAer's disdain for Carver's drunken treatment of his first wife) and acidly anti-Gordon Lish: "Any writer might wonder what he’d do in such a case [as Lish's demand that Carver let him rewrite his work]. Certainly I did; in 1973, when my first novel was accepted for publication, I was in similar straits: young, endlessly drunk, trying to support a wife and two children, writing at night, hoping for a break. The break came, but until reading Sklenicka’s book, I thought it was the $2,500 advance Doubleday paid for 'Carrie.' Now I realize it may have been not winding up with Gordon Lish as my editor."
  • Kakutani on Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong by Terry Teachout: "He draws on Armstrong’s wonderfully vivid writings and hours of tapes in which the musician recorded his thoughts and conversations with friends, and in doing so, creates an emotionally detailed portrait of Satchmo as a quick, funny, generous, observant and sometimes surprisingly acerbic man: a charismatic musician who, like a Method actor, channeled his vast life experience into his work, displaying a stunning, almost Shakespearean range that encompassed the jubilant and the melancholy, the playful and the sorrowful."
  • Liesl Schillinger on There Once Was a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya: "Timeless and troubling, these 'scary fairy tales' grapple with accidents of fate and weaknesses of human nature that exact a heavy penance.... Short, highly concentrated, inventive and disturbing, her tales inhabit a border­line between this world and the next, a place where vengeance and grace may be achieved only in dreams.... Again and again, in surprisingly few words, her witchy magic foments an unsettling brew of conscience and consequences."
  • Sean Wilentz on A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of a Continent by Robert W. Merry: "Sometimes reviving the old arguments of Polk’s political foes, contemporary historians describe the war as a shameful act of imperialist plunder, ginned up by the president himself, with the not-so-hidden intention of spreading slavery into new lands.... Robert W. Merry’s book is a refreshing challenge to the new conventional wisdom."

Washington Post:

  • Charles on Family Album by Penelope Lively: "Penelope Lively's new novel comes wrapped as a celebration of old-fashioned domestic joy, with its heartwarming title, 'Family Album,' elegantly embroidered on the dust jacket. But be careful; she's left her needle in the cloth. It's a typical move for this old master, who frequently writes about sharp objects buried in our sepia-toned past. Although this little book can't compete with her Booker-winning 'Moon Tiger' or her fictionalized anti-memoir 'Consequences,' it's another winning demonstration of her wit; every wry laugh is the sound of a little hope being strangled."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Ella Taylor on Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith: "Taken together, they reflect a lively, unselfconscious, rigorous, erudite and earnestly open mind that's busy refining its view of life, literature and a great deal in between.... Returning more than once -- as she does in her novels -- to a fractious but formative relationship with a much older father, whose ashes she once kept in a sandwich bag, Smith shows herself in more ways than one to be a very old, empathetic head on ridiculously young shoulders.... It's in her impassioned, compulsively dialectical and endearingly wonkish inquiry into literature that Smith really takes off."
  • Regina Marler on As God Commands by Niccolo Ammaniti: "Although the shocks escalate, gore-spattered readers who persevere into the next few chapters will probably be won over by Ammaniti's immense gifts for pacing, psychological clarity and singular detail. His steely, quick-moving prose (translated from the Italian by Jonathan Hunt) suits his unsavory material -- he's in and out like a knife thrust."

The Globe & Mail:

  • Guy Gavriel Kay on The Humbling by Philip Roth: "There is matter to admire in The Humbling, and more than a little to think about, but there is also a sense that this material has been covered before by Roth with greater force and subtlety. The book is of interest to those tracking the palette and preoccupations of the man who may be the United States' finest living writer. It is not, however, a good starting place for encountering his art, nor for deepening a response to it."
  • Roger Morris on The Clinton Tapes by Taylor Branch: "Yet the seductions of proximity are lethal. Branch is far more sympathizer and intellectual co-dependent than an even mildly neutral oral historian. The empathetic but critical, thoroughly informed perspectives he brought to his multivolume portrait of Rev. King sadly desert him – or are jettisoned – in one of the most extraordinary opportunities ever given a historian. The result does little service to either the author or his subject."
  • Donna Scanlon on Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins: "The middle book of a trilogy is always dicey territory. Since it is a bridge between the first book and the third book, the potential for suspense can be limited. In most trilogies, the reader expects the protagonist to survive at least until the third book, and that expectation can put pressure on the author and a strain on the plot. Happily, this is not the case for Suzanne Collins. Catching Fire is every bit as suspenseful as The Hunger Games. The numerous plot twists leave the reader breathless and giddy, and the characterizations are razor sharp."

The Guardian:

  • James Lasdun on Your Face Tomorrow III: Poison, Shadow, and Farewell by Javier Marias: "A little patience, in other words, is required of the reader, but it is amply rewarded. By the second volume all cylinders in its large and powerful engines are purring smoothly. And with this triumphant finale – the longest and best of all three – it becomes impossible to resist the thought that this deeply strange creation, with its utterly sui generis methods, its brilliant disquisitions on love and loss, its dark playfulness, may very well be the first authentic literary masterpiece of the 21st century."
  • Geraldine Bedell on A Gambling Man: Charles II and the Restoration by Jenny Uglow: "Contemporary readers are quite comfortable with the idea that there is no essentialist, non-performative self, that individuals are made up of the roles they play. And in this case the roles are endlessly fascinating because, to survive, Charles could never stop being the king. There was no such thing as private space. This masterly, wide-ranging biography resists the temptation to take sides on Charles (who has variously been depicted in the past as the 'merrie monarch' and a libertine let-down), though it is impossible not to find him appealing."
  • Michel Faber on The Book of Genesis, illustrated by R. Crumb: "If the book does not intend to ridicule, what exactly is its intent? Hard to imagine. Crumb's lack of religious fervour means the images lack the weird mystery that suffuses the visions of, say, William Blake or David Tibet. But, with his gifts for satire and grotesque playfulness locked away, Crumb merely manages to depict the soap-opera antics of primitive Israelites in a manner that neither illuminates nor nuances them."
  • Andrew Motion on Vincent Van Gogh: The Letters: "Van Gogh's letters are the best written by any artist. Engrossing, moving, energetic and compelling, they dramatise individual genius while illuminating the creative process in general.... There are, of course, harrowing stretches in which he frets about insanity, about poverty and about how others perceive him. But the great majority of them are impressive – even lovable – because, no matter how distressing their surrounding circumstances, they show an extraordinarily calm-sounding good sense and a beautiful directness in their account of complicated emotional states.... The new book (or rather the new books – there are five large volumes of correspondence and a sixth of associated material) is one of the major publishing achievements of our time."

The New Yorker:

  • James Wood lowers the boom on Paul Auster, including the new Invisible: "Clichés, borrowed language, bourgeois bêtises are intricately bound up with modern and postmodern literature. For Flaubert, the cliché and the received idea are beasts to be toyed with and then slain..... Paul Auster is probably America’s best-known postmodern novelist; his 'New York Trilogy' must have been read by thousands who do not usually read avant-garde fiction. Auster clearly shares this engagement with mediation and borrowedness—hence, his cinematic plots and rather bogus dialogue—and yet he does nothing with cliché except use it."

New York Review of Books:

  • Paula Fox on A Meaningful Life by L.J. Davis: "L.J. Davis isn't a satirist. There are no Houyhnhnms in A Meaningful Life. Swift is savage, but the Houyhnhnms offer a standard that one may also call an ideal. Satire has to have such an ideal, without which it is something else. Davis's novel is something else. It is a comic novel of existential loathing, written with a fine spontaneity that reflection and rewriting might have tempered—tempered the existential suggestion right out of it."
  • Claire Messud on My Prison, My Home: One Woman's Story of Captivity in Iran by Haleh Esfandiari: "Esfandiari has written a memoir of considerable delicacy and sophistication. My Prison, My Home is, primarily, an account of her annus horribilis, from the initial staged 'robbery' when she was on her way to Tehran airport on December 30, 2006, that left her conveniently without a passport and unable to leave the country, through her lockup and eventual liberation almost eight months later. But Esfandiari also provides us with a lucid, concise history of Iran through the twentieth century and into the first years of the twenty-first, and with it an outline of her own remarkable life across continents and cultures. She is restrained in her telling—the book is filled with vivid details and facts, rather than emotional outpouring—a decision for which her narrative is only the more powerful; but her position as someone who fully understands both America and Iran affords her the opportunity to elucidate, for American readers, some of the apparent mysteries of her native culture."
--Tom

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