Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers
by Tom on February 23, 2010
New York Times:
- Sunday Book Review cover: William T. Vollmann on The Routes of Man by Ted Conover: "Conover’s travelogues can be fascinating in and of themselves, and his meditations about roads frequently achieve an even higher order — thoughtful, temperate and generous all at once.... As I read this book, I grew increasingly impressed not only with Conover’s bravery and hardihood, which he underplays, but, more important, with that quality one associates with Steinbeck: heart. Here is a man who cares about people everywhere, not merely that convenient abstraction, humanity, but people in particular — not to mention this American toad and that Peruvian sloth."
- Maslin on Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson: "It’s the reader who is apt to be susceptible: read this one page, and you may find you’ve fallen head over heels for Ms. Simonson’s funny, barbed, delightfully winsome storytelling. Don’t say you weren’t warned.... As with the polished work of Alexander McCall Smith, there is never a dull moment but never a discordant note either. Still, this book feels fresh despite its conventional blueprint. Its main characters are especially well drawn, and Ms. Simonson makes them as admirable as they are entertaining. They are traditionally built, and that’s not just Mr. McCall Smith’s euphemism. It’s about intelligence, heart, dignity and backbone. 'Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand' has them all."
- Frank Bruni on Conspirata by Robert Harris: "Will Cicero survive, entrails intact? What of the Republic he governs? History buffs can already answer those questions, so it’s to Robert Harris’s considerable credit that he wrings some suspense from them, producing a fact-based novel that’s deliciously juicy and fleetly paced — maybe too fleetly, all told: the comically foreboding title foreshadows Harris’s principal intentions, which are to make you gasp, titter and turn the pages. This you will surely do, but with an engagement limited by an occasional sense of silly overkill."
- William Giraldi on Apparition and Late Fictions by Thomas Lynch: "[T]he stories and novella here are gifts of precision, narratives with the poise to depict entire lives unstrung by the end of things. Lynch’s aptitude for fiction comes as no shock; he’s been a teller of tales all along, his poems and essays occupied by vivid characters siphoned from the world he moves through. How does a mortician/scribe avoid confusion with the Reaper to tell his own grim tales? Lynch does not recoil from the gruesome facts of his trade or the insights they have allowed him, but he commands the light as well as the darkness. Nihilism is nowhere in these stories, and love is everywhere embraced."
- Carolyn See on Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt: "The story is about coping with grief, caring for children and creating an ad hoc family for as long as this particular configuration is required, but mostly it's a textbook on what constitutes perfect writing and how to be a class act.... 'Making Toast,' with luck, will serve that function ... for many readers who will turn to this for information on how to live a treacherous life with wit, humor, courage and good manners strong enough to hold back the demons of monstrous death and meaningless loss."
- Charles on Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd: "As a reader, this is the kind of opening that makes me think, "NO! NO! RUN!" .... Surely, you keep hoping, his first thriller will get better than this. And it does. Once Boyd lays out that thread-worn crisis, in fact, the rest of his novel quickly grows rich and engaging.... This is a novel about the frailty of identity, the anonymity of modern city life, the frightening and thrilling possibilities of personal reinvention.... What follows is the story of a hunted man, the chapters propelled along thrillingly at just the right moments by sudden reversals, revelations and reprisals."
- Art Taylor on The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum: "Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Deborah Blum['s] immensely entertaining study of New York City's first chief medical examiner, Charles Norris, and his toxicologist, Alexander Gettler.... Blum illuminates these tales of Norris and Gettler and their era with a dedication and exuberance that reflect the men themselves. Not only is 'The Poisoner's Handbook' as thrilling as any 'CSI' episode, but it also offers something even better: an education in how forensics really works."
Los Angeles Times:
- Jonathan Shapiro on The Man from Beijing by Henning Mankell: "Fans of Mankell's earlier Kurt Wallander mystery series will enjoy the intellectual provocations of the new book. Part police procedural, part political manifesto, Mankell manages to wrap an erudite analysis of imperialism around an entertaining whodunit. Not even fellow Swede Stieg Larsson has managed to pull that off.... Like the songs of ABBA, Larsson is sometimes insipid but never boring; like the plays of August Strindberg, Mankell is often dull but never stupid. Larsson's books are immediately addictive and impossible to put down. Mankell's books are an acquired taste, as catchy as a cello sonata, but filled with the kind of deep, ruminative writing that rewards concentration and patience."
- Amy Wilentz on The Room and the Chair by Lorraine Adams: "Lorraine Adams is a singular and important American writer. 'The Room and the Chair' establishes this without question: It is remarkable for its ambitions and its achievements.... [O]ne of the triumphs of this book is that it's a war novel that's mostly about women: Mary, Mabel and Baby as well as Vera, the reporter and truth seeker. Though often unwitting tools and even more often thwarted, they are the fulcrum of the book, lifting what might otherwise be a dazzling thriller into the realm of literature."
Globe and Mail:
- Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams on You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier: "His much-awaited first book, You are Not a Gadget, is certainly the most erudite, albeit slightly disjointed, discussion of the downside of the digital age to date.... The most disappointing aspect of Lanier’s book is his troubling equation of the collaborative communities on the Web with Stalinist-style collectivism. Mass collaboration and Soviet collectivism are really polar opposites.... Lanier is a contrarian of the digital age and an effective one at that. However, the debates that he and others have stimulated about the nature of the Web and its impact on how we work, learn, live and think, ironically belie his core thesis that we are all becoming mindless gadgets marching to some unitary, authoritarian collective voice."
- Susan Pinker on The Trauma Myth by Susan Clancy: "This short, punchy work tells two connected stories. The first is Clancy’s well-written empirical account of how child sexual abuse really happens, why victims often stay silent and the real reasons for the oft-delayed, damaging aftermath of abuse. The second story is about how we crucify scientists whose findings don’t match our preconceptions.... This co-opting of a child’s loyalty and 'participation' is what prompts great distress in victims later, according to Clancy, by reinforcing their sense of culpability and isolation. She argues persuasively that, for most victims, we need to shift our concept of abuse from the violent rape model to something more varied and subtle if we want to succeed at treatment and prevention."
- Blake Morrison on Reality Hunger by David Shields: "They're right to call Reality Hunger an important book. The fiction vs non-fiction debate has become intense in recent years, and Shields cranks it up a notch.... The real problem, though, is the central thesis. It's smart, stimulating and aphoristic, even when the aphorisms are stolen. But the more you think about it, the dodgier it seems.... Shields has written a provocative and entertaining manifesto. But in his hunger for reality, he forgets that fiction also offers the sustenance of truth."
- Marcus Sedgwick on Enchanted Glass by Diana Wynne Jones: "It's always the sign of a truly accomplished writer when their book holds you, despite the fact that not awfully much happens. Enchanted Glass is no exception to Diana Wynne Jones's general rule of using, and possibly abusing, folklore and fantasy for her own splendid ends, mixing the spectacularly ordinary life of a university town satellite village with everyday magic, and a potent dash of A Midsummer Night's Dream.... Wynne Jones belongs to an elect clan of the most treasured of British children's authors, creating her own unique brand of fantasy, in the same manner as Alan Garner and Susan Cooper, and it's surely this experience that breeds the confidence to write with such subtle depth. Blissful."
The New Yorker:
- Louis Menand on Manufacturing Depression by Gary Greenberg and The Emperor's New Drugs by Irving Kirsch: "Two new books, Gary Greenberg’s 'Manufacturing Depression' and Irving Kirsch’s 'The Emperor’s New Drugs,' suggest that dissensus prevails even among the dissidents. Both authors are hostile to the current psychotherapeutic regime, but for reasons that are incompatible.... If Kirsch is right and antidepressant drugs aren’t doing anything consequential to our brains, then it can’t also be the case that they are turning us into Stepford wives or Nietzsche’s 'last men,' the sort of thing that worries Greenberg. By Kirsch’s account, we are in danger of bankrupting our health-care system by spending nearly ten billion dollars a year on worthless pills. But if Greenberg is right we’re in danger of losing our ability to care. Is psychopharmacology evil, or is it useless?"
Harper's (subscription only):
- William Gass on Knut Hamsun: Dreamer and Dissenter by Ingar Sletten Kolloen and Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun by Robert Ferguson: "Hamsun was more than a living encyclopedia of distasteful traits, for traits need only be mentioned once, like the cleft of a chin; whereas our principal biographers—Ingar Kolloen and Robert Ferguson—must bravely repeat the occasions when they are displayed. Hamsun, it seems, had pejorative names for every creature he felt he outstripped, which was most of them—the native Lapps in particular. He grew quickly sick of old people, even when he became one; regarded tourists with disdain; mistrusted intellectuals of every mental elevation; was a practicing misogynist, detesting just those women he most desired. He hated whole nations, especially if they spoke English, or anybody who belonged to the urban working class, and he held in contempt all forms of public life."