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Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Olen Steinhauer on Three Stations by Martin Cruz Smith: "Apologies to Russian tourism, but long live Renko. I don’t care how he lays waste to Moscow package tours, for without this despairing seeker of truth, what would that heightened Russia of our imagination be left with? Convenient truths, still-buried secrets and tales that end abruptly before they’ve gotten started. We’d all be the worse for it."
  • Kakutani on Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: "Jonathan Franzen's galvanic new novel, 'Freedom,' showcases his impressive literary toolkit — every essential storytelling skill, plus plenty of bells and whistles — and his ability to throw open a big, Updikean picture window on American middle-class life. With this book, he’s not only created an unforgettable family, he’s also completed his own transformation from a sharp-elbowed, apocalyptic satirist focused on sending up the socio-economic-political plight of this country into a kind of 19th-century realist concerned with the public and private lives of his characters."
  • Stacey D'Erasmo on I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson (a beautiful review): "Arvid, like many of Petterson’s narrators, is much more astro­naut than cowboy, an emotional rocket man floating through a life he no longer understands, searching the past for clues. It sounds bleak, but instead it’s rather dreamy and tenuous, like the thoughts one has in the brief moment between sleeping and waking. Clean sentence after clean sentence, Petterson conveys both the melancholy and the demi-­pleasurable sensation of being fundamentally untethered."
  • Johann Hari on Churchill's Empire by Richard Toye: "In the end, the words of the great and glorious Churchill who resisted dictatorship overwhelmed the works of the cruel and cramped Churchill who tried to impose it on the world’s people of color. Toye teases out these ambiguities beautifully. The fact that we now live at a time where a free and independent India is an emerging superpower in the process of eclipsing Britain, and a grandson of the Kikuyu 'savages' is the most powerful man in the world, is a repudiation of Churchill at his ugliest — and a sweet, unsought victory for Churchill at his best."
  • Vendela Vida on Everything by Kevin Canty: "I always find myself holding my breath as I approach the final pages of novels. If they’ve been good, I’m afraid the writer will let me down — the ending will be too neat or sentimental or vague. I should have known, though, not to worry about what would happen at the end of 'Everything.' Canty is a master of wrapping things up.... When I arrived at the end of 'Everything,' I, too, thought: That’s it. That’s it exactly."

Washington Post:

  • Patrick Anderson on I'd Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman: "I've read hundreds of thrillers in the past 10 years, and some have been excellent, but only a handful -- thanks to their insights, their characterizations and the quality of their writing -- could equal the best of today's literary fiction. Those few certainly include 'What the Dead Know' and 'I'd Know You Anywhere.' In both cases, Lippman began with a real crime and then used the magic of her imagination to produce novels that are not only hypnotic reading but serious meditations on the sorrows and dangers of this world. Some people would segregate Lippman as a crime or thriller writer. That's a shame. She's one of the best novelists around, period."
  • Ann Louise Bardach on The Sugar King of Havana by John Paul Rathbone: "John Paul Rathbone, an editor at the Financial Times, has pulled off a splendid trifecta. He has produced a long overdue biography of Lobo along with a perceptive and unsentimental rendering of pre-revolution Cuba as well as Rathbone's own family story -- tracing his mother's trajectory from dazzling Havana debutante to toy store clerk in London. Rathbone's nuanced blending of familial and national history lends this work poignancy and depth."

Los Angeles Times:

  • David L. Ulin on The Jokers and A Splendid Conspiracy by Albert Cossery: "Albert Cossery, who died in 2008 at age 94, ought to be a household name. He's that good: an elegant stylist, an unrelenting ironist, his great subject the futility of ambition 'in a world where everything is false.' ... 'The Jokers' is a small masterpiece, the story of a group of pranksters who conspire to bring down the governor of the unnamed city in which they live. They do this not by direct action or revolution but rather by a subtle subversion, initiating a campaign to overpraise the official so lavishly that his credibility is destroyed.... [In 'A Splendid Conspiracy'] Cossery achieves a magnificent amorality, devastating and subversive at a level that few works of literature (or any art) ever achieve."
  • Michael S. Roth on Encounter by Milan Kundera: "The artists and writers with whom Kundera keeps company in 'Encounter' produce counter-currents to the tide of kitsch and sentimentality in which we swim. They offer not only intellectual challenges but strong emotional attachments, no matter how crazy powerful feelings may seem in a world warped by banality, easy irony and noise. 'The ludicrous element in our feelings,' he writes of composer Leos Janácek, 'does not make them any less authentic.' Embracing the ludicrous without denying the possibility of deep emotional connection has marked Kundera's writing from the very start."

Globe and Mail:

  • Margaret Cannon on Crime Machine by Giles Blunt (available on "As Blunt takes us back to the chill of a Northern Ontario fall, and a man still grieving over the death of his wife, we get the mood and movement of seasons and time. This is Blunt's greatest talent: his ability to take us to this place, which is as distinctively Canadian as a Tom Thomson painting. Crime Machine has all that and a complicated who-done-it/why-done-it plot that careens from vicious murder to child rape.... Crime Machine is as good as Canadian crime fiction gets."

The Guardian:

  • Edward Docx on The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson (available on "The Finkler Question (longlisted for this year's Man Booker prize) is full of wit, warmth, intelligence, human feeling and understanding. It is also beautifully written with that sophisticated and near invisible skill of the authentic writer.... Indeed, there's so much that is first rate in the manner of Jacobson's delivery that I could write all day on his deployment of language without once mentioning what the book is about." And Alex Clark: "The Finkler Question is a terrifying and ambitious novel, full of dangerous shallows and dark, deep water.... In its insistent interrogation of Jewishness – from the exploration of the relationship between the perpetrators of violence and hatred and their victims, to the idea of the individual at once in opposition to and in love with his or her culture – it is by turns breezily open and thought-provokingly opaque, and consistently wrong-foots the reader."
  • Justine Jordan on Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson (coming to the US in March): "[W]e follow their digressive, meandering voices avidly as they circle around their own particular loves and losses, all knitted together with Atkinson's extraordinary combination of wit, plain-speaking, tenderness and control. She's an old hand at paradox now: 'All roads lead home,' says Julia. 'All roads lead away from home,' Jackson replies."

The New Yorker:

  • The subscribers-only piece on Agatha Christie by Joan Acocella that I was unable to access in last week's double issue now makes itself available: "In response to protests that the resulting denouements were unguessable, and therefore 'unfair,' Christie replied that the reader should have been able to figure them out. The culprit, she said, was always the most obvious person; he just didn't seem so. That is a brazen falsehood. In most of Christie's books, the killer turns out to be a most unlikely person. In one, he is a dead man; in another, a child. In yet another, amazingly, it is Poirot. In one virtuoso performance, all twelve suspects, together, committed the crime.... I read all sixty-six of Christie's detective novels, and I guessed two of the culprits. I'll bet that this is a fairly typical record."

The Atlantic:

  • Joseph O'Neil on Muriel Spark by Martin Stannard (excellent review!): "Muriel Spark, who believed the worst about others, had the self-fulfilling knack of bringing out the worst in them, and it is to the credit of Martin Stannard that, in spite of his personal dealings with his subject and his complex indebtedness to her—Spark effectively handpicked her own biographer—he has produced a life story of splendid equanimity and sympathy. (Or has he? See below.) At any rate, he apparently has followed his commissioner’s instructions to treat her as though she were dead—which eventually required no effort on his part, because Muriel Spark died in 2006."


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