Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

New York Times

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Christopher Caldwell on Koestler by Michael Scammell: "The biographer Michael Scammell wants to put Koestler’s multifaceted intelligence back on display and to show that something more than frivolity or opportunism lay behind his ever-shifting preoccupations and allegiances. As a source of information, 'Koestler,' the work of two decades, will never be surpassed. As an argument for the man’s importance, however, it must contend with the eccentricity of Koestler’s preoccupations and — although Scammell does not always seem to realize it — his vices."
  • Joanna Smith Rakoff on A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein: "If this sounds tawdry, it’s not. Grodstein ... is a terrific storyteller and an even better ventriloquist. She beautifully captures Pete’s sly self-deceptions: the man-of-the-people persona that masks his deeply rooted elitism, the liberal pose that hides an almost pathological conservatism.... Ultimately, though, this is less a novel about one imperfect citizen than a sharp account of the status-driven suburban culture that turned him into a monster of conformity, a place where the air at parties is rife with 'the vague but persistent smell of striving' and a father can, without irony, deem his son’s dropping out of college a 'tragedy.'”
  • Rick Moody on When Giants Walked the Earth: A Biography of Led Zeppelin by Mick Wall: "Maybe the time for arcana is past, the time for the picayune details of dinosaur rock — such that it’s the dirt, not the song, that remains the same. Maybe some publisher was looking over Mick Wall’s shoulder saying, 'Put more about the shark incident in there!' ... Wall is conflicted enough about the facts that he allows this mythologizing title to be appended to his work: 'When Giants Walked the Earth.' But these were no giants, these were just young people, like you, who for a time happened to have more power and influence than was good for them. In the midst of it all, they made extraordinary music."
  • Jonathan Dee on Summertime by J.M. Coetzee: "For all its self-deprecations, there is no contesting that the 'Scenes From Provincial Life' trilogy is a fundamentally narcissistic project. But the vandalism Coetzee commits upon the easily checked facts of his own life ultimately serves to sharpen a question that does seem genuine, and genuinely self-­indicting: Doesn’t being a great artist demand, or at least imply, a certain greatness of spirit as well? ... 'How can you be a great writer,' says Adriana, 'if you are just an ordinary little man?' Coetzee may feel it is too late to amend his legacy in the second regard, but even from beyond the fictional grave he is determined to expand upon the first."
  • Patrick Cockburn on Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco: "The vividness and pace of Sacco’s drawings, combined with a highly informed and intelligent verbal narrative, work extremely well in telling the story. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how any other form of journalism could make these events so interesting. Many newspaper or television reporters understand that the roots of today’s crises lie in obscure, unpublicized events. But they also recognize that their news editors are most interested in what is new and are likely to dismiss diversions into history as journalistic self-indulgence liable to bore and confuse the audience."
  • Larry Rohter on Your Face Tomorrow: Volume Three: Poison, Shadow and Farewell by Javier Marias: "On the surface 'Your Face Tomorrow' is a strange hybrid. It is almost as if Henry James or Marcel Proust decided to write a novel set in John le Carre's world. There are occasional bursts of action and much clandestine skulduggery. But 'Poison, Shadow and Farewell,' like the two previous volumes, 'Fever and Spear' and 'Dance and Dream' is essentially a rumination on several of the Really Big Themes that tend to captivate great writers: love and death, power and violence, and, above all, betrayal, loyalty and deceit, both personal and at the level of the state.... 'Your Face Tomorrow' requires patience, effort and intellectual discipline of the reader. 'Poison, Shadow and Farewell' delivers a payoff at the end, but the real challenge, and pleasure, is in getting there."

Washington Post:

  • Simon Johnson on Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin: "Andrew Ross Sorkin is the Stephen Ambrose for our financial crisis, with the blow-by-blow story of how rich bankers fought to save the Wall Street they knew and loved. The details in 'Too Big To Fail' will turn your stomach. The arrogance, lack of self-awareness, and overweening pride are astonishing.... Sorkin puts you there -- you see events unfold moment by moment, you hear the conversations, you can sense the hubris. The executives of our largest banks ran their firms into the ground, taking excessive risks that even now they fail to understand fully. But, as these individuals saw it, unless they personally were saved on incredibly generous terms, the world's economy would grind to a halt. This is as compelling as it is appalling."
  • Charles on Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler: "If you know 'Jane Eyre' and love it, don't deny yourself the pleasure of this intense little companion book. South African-born Sheila Kohler, who now teaches at Princeton, sinks deep into the details of Brontë's life to re-create the atmosphere of her tragic, cloistered family. Parallels between Charlotte and her famous heroine are an irresistible subject of critical inquiry, and even if those parallels are sometimes drawn too baldly in 'Becoming Jane Eyre,' Kohler's novel remains a stirring exploration of the passions and resentments that inspired this 19th-century classic."

Los Angeles Times:

  • David L. Ulin on Sacco's Footnotes in Gaza: "Built around two forgotten incidents (the 1956 mass killings of Palestinians in Rafah and Khan Younis), it is a book that digs deep, exploring the relationship of past and present, memory and experience -- rigorously reported yet always aware of the elusive nature of testimony, the way that stories solidify and harden over time.... What is the value of history in such a landscape? How do we make sense of where we are? These are the primary questions raised by 'Footnotes in Gaza,' and it is to Sacco's credit as an artist and a journalist that he proposes no easy answers -- nor, indeed, any answers at all."

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