Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers
by Tom on April 27, 2010
- Bill Keller on The Publisher by Alan Brinkley: "His Luce is a complicated figure, more tragic than malign. That is not to say this is a particularly flattering profile. The book does full justice to Luce’s outsider insecurity, his blind affinity for men of power and his defects as a family man. But it is a humanizing portrayal, and it credits the role his magazines, Time and Life especially, played in a country growing uneasily into the dominant geopolitical force in the world. Luce’s publications served as a kind of cultural adhesive that bound the middle class to a shared understanding of the world and ushered it through periods of war and economic hardship. It’s hard to imagine any outlet playing such a role in today’s disaggregated media environment."
- Maslin on Hellhound on His Trail by Hampton Sides: "Not many documentaries have the lean, unsparing urgency that can be found in Mr. Sides’s streamlined version. Remarkably, he has embroidered the facts without losing a sense of veracity. He augments the truth, but he does it responsibly. He skirts certain issues, like the question of whether or not Ray acted alone, without losing his sharp focus. And he brings to life the story of Dr. King’s last days without bogging it down in too many small particulars. Both Dr. King and Ray come to life in these remarkable pages, generating great suspense without surprise, thanks to readers’ terrible foreknowledge of what will happen when these two cross paths."
- George Gene Gustines on Market Day by James Sturm: "The splendid artwork in 'Market Day' manages to evoke — depending on the scene — wonder or sadness, though the color palette mostly stays muted.... Mr. Sturm, with Michelle Ollie, founded the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt. That he is overseeing the next generation of graphic novelists posits an exciting future for the medium, particularly if he can impart his mastery at codas. The ending of 'Market Day' is superb in its uncertainty."
- Kakutani on The Lake Shore Limited by Sue Miller: "The result is her most nuanced and unsentimental novel to date. This is a book that does not depend on big, noisy plot developments, topical issues or deliberately withheld secrets to create suspense. Rather, its power grows from Ms. Miller’s intimate understanding of her characters (for once, the men are as keenly and sympathetically portrayed as the women) and from her Chekhovian understanding of missed connections, lost opportunities, and closely held memories that mutate slowly over time."
- Charles on Miller's Lake Shore Limited: "Miller's exquisite new novel, 'The Lake Shore Limited,' is so sophisticated and thoughtful that it should either help redeem the term 'women's literature' or free her from it once and for all. Several times in these pages someone refers to the relentless psychological analysis found in Henry James's novels, which seems a far more relevant influence than TV soap operas. In fact, 'The Lake Shore Limited' may be the closest thing we'll get to a James response to 9/11: no drama, no crisis, barely any action at all -- just a deeply affecting examination of the thoughts and feelings of four people still moving in the shadow of that tragedy."
- Brigitte Weeks on The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas: "Tsiolkas navigates through his story with uncanny skill. One minute he's an aging Greek grandfather; the next he's an adolescent taking an overdose; he is young and old, man and woman, drunk and sober. He gets so close to his characters that the reader almost pleads with him to treat them more kindly.... [F]inally the novel transcends both suburban Melbourne and the Australian continent, leaving us exhausted but gasping with admiration."
- Dirda on Poetry in Person, edited by Andrew Neubauer: "Pearl London died in 2003, and 'Works in Progress,' like most college courses, would have then simply passed into the memory of its participants. But London's seminars had been recorded, though the cassettes were then packed away and half forgotten -- until Alexander Neubauer transcribed and edited them into 'Poetry in Person: Twenty-Five Years of Conversations With America's Poets.' ... [T]he end result is one of the best books you will ever read on how poems are actually made."
Los Angeles Times:
- Art Winslow on Sides's Hellhound on My Trail: "Sides has managed to frame a grim cutout of the 1960s within a few weeks of springtime 1968 by following the paths of King and Ray in a deadly pas de deux.... The result is a taut, vibrant account that shows the synchronicity of movements as King and his colleagues plot political strategy and follow his speaking itinerary, while Ray draws ever closer in what would seem an erratic path if we didn't know, as in myth, that a tragedy foreordained lay on the road ahead."
- Marisa Silver on The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg: "This description does for Francie what Eisenberg does for all the characters in her extraordinary stories: It frames an indelible moment that simultaneously reveals a character and shows us how a thought can expose the ephemeral and inscrutable nature of love. That's a tall order, but there is not a scene in 'The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg' that does not deliver on this intention. These stories are marvels, in which a character's predicament is informed not only by present circumstance but also by personal and political history as well as Eisenberg's abiding engagement with the sometimes-hilarious, often-heartbreaking existential dilemma."
- Richard Rayner on The Friends of Eddie Coyle (newly reissued) by George V. Higgins: "Higgins allows himself the riffs about cheese sandwiches, or mayonnaise, or trust, or Jehovah's Witnesses, or whatever, because his plot, while casually revealed, is weighed and calibrated like the barrel of a pistol. The fact that he's writing about crooks is crucial in some ways, incidental in others. The real subjects here are life's futility and its bleak humor.... Higgins took the tough-guy novel into areas of demented anthropology and re-created a genre."
- John Freeman on The Best of It: New and Selected Poems by Kay Ryan: "Contemporary poetry is a bit like visual art. Much of it makes you grab your chin and nod in stumped appreciation — but you wouldn't want to live with it. Kay Ryan's work, however, hangs well no matter where it goes. Clouds, calendars, time, birds, jackrabbits. Everything her eye falls upon takes on a brisk, beautifully complete clarity. Her tidy lines disguise an enormous intelligence and tonal warmth: a ferocious capacity for finding the essence of things."
Globe and Mail:
- Andre Alexis on The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman: "Has he succeeded in doing anything new or interesting with one of our civilization’s most compelling stories? The answer, for me, is: Well, no, not quite. But this short novel’s flaws are instructive and kind of fascinating in themselves.... [I]t may seem odd to call this a 'successful' novel. But I actually think it is, in its way. Despite its flaws, The Good Man Jesus invites another look at the source, at the New Testament. It made me think of the story of Christ as just that: a great story."
- Anne Fenn on The Bedwetter by Sarah Silverman: "Like food or sex, the best comedy can be tricky, sticky and icky, and Silverman is all three.... Despite what her critics say, it's impossible to read this book and believe there are any mean bones, only funny ones, in Sarah Silverman's body. This is not a woman who got into comedy to 'get back at the world,' but to have as much fun in it as possible."
- Rachel Cooke on Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron, and Other Tangled Lives by Daisy Hay: "Is there anything new to be said about the lives of the Romantic poets? I'm not sure, and doubtless some scholars will complain loudly that there is nothing original or revelatory to be found in Daisy Hay's Young Romantics. But to do so is to miss the point. For the non-scholar, Hay's group biography of the Shelleys, Byron and their circle is complete bliss: a feat of concision and clear thinking that will remind you why, all those years ago, when you were young and foolish, you were so thrilled by these writers, by their unruly credos and marvellous verse-making, by their frilled shirts and luxuriant hair. Truly, it's delicious."
- Alfred Hickling on Into Suez by Stevie Davies: "Stevie Davies is one of our most consistent and continually undervalued writers whose unsentimental, quietly revelatory novels have cropped up on the Booker and Orange shortlists without ever quite converting to a major prize. Into Suez, her 11th novel, deserves to be the one that brings wider renown, as it presents the most fully realised fusion of her personal and political histories to date."
The New Yorker:
- No full-length book review this week, so here's a bit from the capsule review of Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists (the Spotlight pick in our Best Books of April): "The ironies may sound obvious, but Rachman, a former editor for the International Herald Tribune, paints the characters’ small dramas and private disappointments with humanity and humor."
- Benjamin Schwarz on The Evolution of Childhood by Melvin Konner: "This monumental book—more than 900 pages long, 30 years in the making, at once grand and intricate, breathtakingly inclusive and painstakingly particular—exhaustively explores the biological evolution of human behavior and specifically the behavior of children.... This book is the flower of an astoundingly productive and innovative period of scholarship on evolutionary behavior; it sums up a generation’s worth of thinking and research. But although a work of singular importance, it’s not flawless. Konner’s efforts sometimes flag: his writing fails to sustain a consistent precision and focus.... But only a book of such staggering ambition can be faulted for failing to achieve consistent greatness."
- Jon Zobenica on war memoirs, particularly the sources for HBO's The Pacific: "Each generation of soldiers has possessed all the basic virtues we associate with the Greatest Generation, who in turn possessed, in their day, at least as great a share of distasteful quirks and brutal instincts—again, as The Pacific does an admirably vile job of showing. Maybe now we can retire for good any notions of generational exceptionalism, and stop projecting onto our soldiers the fears and ideals of a largely spectator nation. They’re only human."