Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers
by Tom on July 26, 2010
- Sunday Book Review cover: David Leavitt on The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings: "As I read Hastings’s biography (and I read it in great gulps), I could not help wondering if Maugham might deserve the 'flaying alive' to which she subjects him.... Hastings makes a strong case against Maugham the man. Where she runs into trouble is in her halfhearted attempt to make a case for Maugham the writer.... If so much of Maugham’s fiction comes across today as brittle, arch, world-weary and heartless, it may be precisely because he devoted more energy to maintaining his own double standard than he did to interrogating the double standards of others. He tried to have it both ways, and as his stories so amply demonstrate, those who try to have it both ways rarely come to a happy end."
- Also on the Sunday cover: Colm Toibin on The Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster by Wendy Moffat: "There is a strange moment in Moffat’s book when she refers to 'Maurice' as Forster’s 'only truly honest novel.' But 'Maurice' is, while fascinating in its own way, also his worst. Perhaps there is a connection between its badness and its 'honesty,' because novels should not be honest. They are a pack of lies that are also a set of metaphors; because the lies and metaphors are chosen and offered shape and structure, they may indeed represent the self, or the play between the unconscious mind and the conscious will, but they are not forms of self-expression, or true confession."
- Daniel Gilbert on Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz: "Schulz tells us early on that her goal is 'to foster an intimacy with our own fallibility' and to 'linger for a while inside the normally elusive and ephemeral experience of being wrong.' These goals she accomplishes with aplomb. For most of us, errors are like cockroaches: we stomp them the moment we see them and then flush the corpse as fast as we can, never pausing to contemplate the intricate design of nature’s great survivor, never asking what it might reveal beyond itself. But Schulz is the patient naturalist who carefully examines the nasty little miracles the rest of us so eagerly discard."
- Rebecca Barry on Termite Parade by Joshua Mohr: "In lesser hands, this would be another in a long line of feel-bad books examining the human underbelly, in which reprehensible characters do reprehensible things until you just want them to get over themselves and grow up..... But as Mohr demonstrated in his previous novel, 'Some Things That Meant the World to Me,' he has a generous understanding of his characters, whom he describes with an intelligence and sensitivity that pulls you in.... These people are marginalized and angry, but for good reasons, and Mohr captures them with haunting acuity. His characters are tortured and reckless but still feel familiar."
- Jerome Charyn on Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds by Lyndall Gordon: "'Lives Like Loaded Guns,' Lyndall Gordon's book about Emily Dickinson and the fury that surrounded the publication of her poems, reads like a fabulous detective story, replete with hidden treasure, diabolical adversaries and a curse from one generation to the next.... Gordon is not frightened of the pits and traps and the thousand masks that Emily wears. She takes us into that undiscovered territory of the poet's favorite motif -- the dash. 'Dickinson's dashes push the language apart to open up the space where we live without language.' And it's into this void that Dickinson's very best readers have to go."
- Charles on Red Hook Road by Ayelet Waldman: "Waldman sometimes seems engaged in an act of emotional masochism. It's hard to look away, even when you can smell the burning rubber of such expert manipulation.... Until that point [a "car wreck" of an ending], though, Waldman keeps her eyes on the road, carrying us into dark territory with wisdom and grace. As usual, she offers something to admire and something to annoy -- something borrowed, something blue."
- Dirda on The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto by Bernard DeVoto: "Today, it reads very much as a period piece, directed at male readers, arguing fiercely that there are really only two adult beverages worth caring about: straight whiskey (rye, bourbon or scotch) and martinis made with gin and dry vermouth. Fans of the television show 'Mad Men' will feel right at home.... 'The Hour' isn't an important book, but it is almost a cocktail in itself, being at once soothing and refreshing. And perhaps that's all we require from a book in July."
Los Angeles Times:
- Troy Jollimore on Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart: "One might, I suppose, accuse 'Super Sad True Love Story' of being nothing more than an extended expression of the paranoia that afflicts so many contemporary intellectuals, who worry that the space for anything resembling a 'life of the mind' (the very phrase has come to sound somewhat quaint) is being squeezed out of existence by our increasingly superficial, increasingly oppressive, consumer culture..... For my part, I find the novel pretty much on target: The Eunice sections aside, it is on the whole both frightening and devastatingly funny. What remains to be seen is whether its depiction of the fall of the American republic will turn out to have been frighteningly, devastatingly prescient."
- Ed Park on BodyWorld by Dash Shaw: "Graphics and text overlap, the timeframes and layers of meaning there to be teased out; in this haze, bits of one body get transferred to another, and it's tantalizingly unclear whose thoughts are being articulated. Most graphic novels are easily consumed at a gallop, but these sequences slow down the speed of 'Bodyworld,' making for a rich experience (or should that be an irony-free synaesthetic experience?) that can't be achieved through words alone."
Globe and Mail:
- Cynthia MacDonald on The Frozen Rabbi by Steve Stern: "This is a novel so rich, full, funny, dense and exhausting, it feels like there may be no more Steve Stern books left to write – by him, or anyone else.... It’s perhaps unusual that a comic writer should also be such an astute historian, but Steve Stern – for all his doppelgangers in the literary world – is truly one of a kind. If good fortune favours him more than it does the Karps, this may finally be the book that marks him as a known commodity. Then again, there is something so achingly sad and funny about the non-fame he already has, and the lovely writing that has given rise to it. Why mess with a good thing?"
- Frank Cottrell Boyce on The Cardturner by Louis Sachar: "The book feels like one long, deadpan dare, as though Sachar has made a bet with himself that he can make the most boring setting thrilling. The American cover even has the cheek to show a young man who has fallen asleep reading. Sachar has Alton admit that he couldn't finish Moby-Dick because he got bored with all the detail. The implication is that Sachar can do what Melville couldn't do. But can he? The genius of Sachar's prose is that it's so plain and unshowy you don't notice the daredevil artistry of his storytelling until it's too late. You don't know you've been cut in half until you try to walk away."
- Irvine Welsh on And the Land Lay Still by James Robertson (available on Amazon.co.uk): "And the Land Lay Still is a wonderful novel, brilliant in a very different way from its acclaimed predecessor, The Testament of Gideon Mack. A panoramic, illuminating and compassionate portrait of a turbulent and confused era, the book represents nothing less than a landmark for the novel in Scotland, and underlines the author's position as one of Britain's best contemporary novelists."
The New Yorker:
- Elizabeth Kolbert on Saved by the Sea by David Helvarg, Managed Annihilation by Dean Bavington, and Four Fish by Paul Greenberg: "The new fish stories can be read as parables about technology. What was, once upon a time, a stable relationship between predator and prey was transformed by new 'machinery' into a deadly mismatch. This reading isn’t so much wrong as misleading. To paraphrase the old N.R.A. favorite, FADs don’t kill fish, people do."
New York Review of Books:
- Wyatt Mason on Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky: "Lipsky’s characterization of what Wallace 'specialized in' is, however, useful: it perfectly miscasts what made Wallace a writer we have a duty to understand. The troublesome word is 'unedited,' and though Lipsky would use it approvingly to suggest a breadth of vision, the word also suggests a lack of proportion that has been the most consistent, lingering, and wrongheaded criticism of Wallace’s work throughout his career."
- Ian Buruma on Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens: "How, then, does Christopher Hitchens think? Several times in the book he expresses his loathing of fanaticism, especially religious fanaticism, which in his account is a tautology. As a typical example he cites the Japanese suicide pilots at the end of World War II..... But if modern Japanese history must serve as a guide to our own times, Hitchens might have mentioned a different category of misguided figures: the often Marxist or formerly Marxist intellectuals who sincerely believed that Japan was duty-bound to go to war to liberate Asia from wicked Western capitalism and imperialism.... The man who emerges from this memoir is a bit like them: clearly intelligent, often principled, and often deeply wrongheaded, but above all, a man of faith."