Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers
by Tom on July 20, 2010
- Sunday Book Review cover: Daniel "Lemony Snicket" Handler on Citrus County by John Brandon: "John Brandon joins the ranks of writers like Denis Johnson, Joy Williams, Mary Robison and Tom Drury, writers whose wild flights feel more likely than a heap of what we’ve come to expect from literature, by calmly reminding us that the world is far more startling than most fiction is. He subverts the expectations of an adolescent novel by staying true to the wild incongruities of adolescence, and subverts the expectations of a crime novel by giving us people who are more than criminals and victims. The result is a great story in great prose, a story that keeps you turning pages even as you want to slow to savor them, full of characters who are real because they are so unlikely."
- Dennis Lehane on Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto: "Once they hit that road — and they do, quickly — he settles into the book he wants to write, an often incandescent fever dream of low-rent, unbearable beauty. This could be because 'Galveston' empathizes with its characters to a degree I’m hard pressed to recall in another recent novel.... By the end, the emotional honesty and power of the novel recall nothing of the scores of approximated noirs we’ve been subjected to over the past couple of decades, both on the page and on the screen. Instead, 'Galveston,' in its authenticity and fearless humanism, recalls only the finest examples of the form.... It’s an elegy to the broken and the never-weres, to those who got themselves lost so that someone — anyone — might come looking."
- Maslin on Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters: "These letters can be as long-winded, rambling, visionary and impenetrable as each man’s writing style would suggest. But they can also be sharp, lucid, funny, tender, intimate, gossipy, jubilant and absolutely honest about the two aspiring authors’ gigantic ambitions. And if their correspondence sounds one loud cautionary note, it’s a warning to be careful of what you wish for. The free-spirited energy of their early communications can be seen slowly ossifying into the discourse of eminences too busy being famous to be friends."
- Colin Thubron on Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India by William Dalrymple: "His gifts converge to evoke both the texture of his subjects’ homelands — from the Rajasthani desert to the wetlands of Kerala — and the complex past from which their faiths emerge. His method is resolutely nonanalytic. He elicits from his subjects long, often intimate histories, recorded in their own words.... The narratives Dalrymple unearths are fascinating and sometimes painfully moving, and he surrounds them with generous knowledge. This is the India we seldom see, populated by obscure people whose lives are made vivid by their eloquent troubles and reckless piety."
- Leslie T. Chang on Pearl Buck in China by Hilary Spurling: "This elegant, richly researched work is at once a portrait of a remarkable woman ahead of her time, an evocation of China between the wars, and a meditation on how the secrets and griefs of childhood can shape a writer. At a time of heightened interest in China, Spurling's biography is a compelling tribute to the woman who first focused American attention on the country."
- Carolyn See on Captive Queen: A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir: "Who's at fault here? (Because this isn't a very wonderful book.) I think we have to pin the blame on Eleanor. She's a historic figure, so she can't be jolted too far out of that position. We don't know all that much about what she actually did. And who knows what the woman thought? She seems to have preferred her sons to her husband, but it's hard to make a book about that. She spent a lot of her life within prison walls. It's a good thing she had an extensive wardrobe! It's not that the author doesn't know everything about her subject, but that what she knows isn't enough."
Los Angeles Times:
- Richard Eder on Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg: "The signal quality of Greenberg's book is its genial and sometimes despairing struggle with contradiction. Not many who argue for our planet's endangered species also write the thrill of hunting them. Like the fish he once hooked, he plunges away and is reeled back. 'Four Fish' is a serious and searching study. Written with wit and beauty, it is also play."
- Valerie Miner on What Is Left the Daughter by Howard Norman: "Reminiscent of a classic Robert Frank black-and-white photograph, this candid, everyday portrait discloses intricate webs of wistfulness and resignation.... The epistolary form of this novel is a cri de coeur from an author faithful to the printed word in a time of promiscuous texting, friending and tweeting. Students today who can't write in cursive are able to e-mail across the world. The reflective, personal storytelling in 'What Is Left the Daughter' reminds us of the potential beauty, intimacy and wisdom offered by two endangered genres — the letter and the novel."
- Ella Taylor on The Thieves of Manhattan by Adam Langer: "When an author quotes with equal gusto from Jorge Luis Borges, Pippi Longstocking and Milli Vanilli, one nervously anticipates yet another exercise in promiscuously relativist hipsterism. Yet 'The Thieves of Manhattan' is as soulful and morally committed as it is funny and clever.... If 'The Thieves of Manhattan' were nothing more than a boisterous skewering of the crisis-ridden publishing industry — a soft target already heavily lampooned in countless romans à clef — it would still be a gas. But Langer has grander existential plans for his hero, if that's the word for this credulously unreliable narrator."
Globe and Mail:
- Claire Cameron on Trespass by Rose Tremain: "At the heart of this dark and powerful novel is the question of how our past colours our present.... It is possible .... to leave the past behind? Can we ever be truly free? As with the best novels, Trespass puts more emphasis on asking questions than providing answers. That said, given the character's intricate histories, the ending of the novel, while surprising, is also the only way that the story could have played out."
- Ami Sands Brodoff on A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: "What is wonderful and bracing about Egan is that she cares about freedom, risk and venturing into new territory more than about producing the perfect, pretty package. Many well-crafted novels are dead; many wonderful novels have ragged edges. Remember, novel means new. Though contemporary life can be numbing, Egan’s edgy novel is flexible and alive, the perfect antidote."
- Simon Callow on Music and Sentiment by Charles Rosen: "As a general reader myself – an attentive and committed listener, but one with no musical training – it's no good pretending that the book is anything other than challenging, but, with rare exceptions, his analysis is so clear and cogent, so evidently deals with the very life-blood of the pieces in question, that if you're prepared to stay the course, he reveals with surgical precision the actual processes that so affect you.... What is astonishing, given the rigour of the analysis and the apparent technicality of the approach, is how moving the book is."
- Tom Holland on Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore by Stella Duffy (Amazon.co.uk only): "Duffy certainly makes the most of her material: not only is Theodora herself engagingly brought to life as a sassy, wise-cracking tart with a heart, but Constantinople, the great imperial capital whose crowds she woos and seduces, is also a pulsingly vivid presence.... Those who have read their Procopius will know that the dramas of Theodora's career have barely begun: dramas that Duffy, often elliptically, has been hinting at throughout her novel.... All is set for the sequel, then. I look forward to it."
The New Yorker:
- Anthony Gottlieb on Numbers Rule: The Vexing Mathematics of Democracy, from Plato to the Present by George Szpiro: "The book happens to be timely. The voting method that is used in Britain—and that has been kept on in some of its former colonies, including the United States—may finally be replaced.... Szpiro, who is more interested in math than in politics, says relatively little about how voting systems have played out in the real world.... But it’s clear that no country would pick first-past-the-post voting today. Of democracies with no significant British past, only Nepal now elects its national assembly this way."
Harper's (still subscription only, I think):
- Dave Hickey on The Professor and Other Writings by Terry Castle (one of the most contagiously rapturous reviews of the year): "I picked up Terry Castle’s The Professor and Other Writings, despite the title, despite the shadowy prospect of tenured vipers slithering across the Persian Soumak in the faculty lounge. This was the right thing to do. I read page 1, then read the book three times straight through, like a kid imprinting a new chunk of Sleigh Bells. The Professor, it turned out, is a bravura collection of autobiographical essays with the musical attribute of altering and renewing itself every time you punch repeat. The tone darkens with each reading, but there are always new angels in the clouds."
- Jenny Diski on Our Times: The Age of Elizabeth II by A.N. Wilson (as well as Family Britain by David Kynaston): "The Britain Wilson would like to live in is so utterly lost—deference, order, world influence, good manners, spirituality, Englishness . . . gone, all gone—that I felt almost sorry for the poor old thing, until I realized that he is three years younger than I am and is moping about a vanished way of life that certainly hasn’t existed since the Victorians, and very likely didn’t actually exist then. Except, of course, if you were, as Wilson seems to have been, already of pensionable age and opinion when you were born."