Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers
by Tom on August 31, 2010
New York Times (we covered the Sunday Franzen cover review ahead of time last week):
- Kakutani on The Thousand by Kevin Guilfoile: "It’s hard to imagine that a novelist could lift such elements from several of the best-known best sellers of recent years and turn them into something original and gripping, but that’s exactly what Mr. Guilfoile has done in 'The Thousand.' Though there’s some ridiculous mumbo jumbo about the secret society at the heart of the novel, though some of the complicated plot points end up not making a whole lot of sense, the book is jet-fueled by its author’s unerring sense of character and his nimble, fleet-footed prose."
- Jim Krusoe on Meeks by Julia Holmes: "'Meeks' is a wild, woolly, sly, gentle and wry first novel by Julia Holmes, as well as the name of one of the book’s two main characters, a park bum with delusions of grandeur.... 'Meeks' isn’t one of those books a reader snuggles next to for a pleasant trip to the mostly familiar. It’s more like having a dream where everything starts off well enough, and then, without quite knowing why, you’re being chased. It’s a book whose singular vision keeps returning to me at odd moments, one of the most original and readable novels that’s come my way in a long time."
- Mark Harris on Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade by Justin Spring: "Given that Steward lived in an era in which so much of gay history was hidden under mattresses, shoved in the backs of bureau drawers, burnt up in ashtrays and wished away in confessional booths, his desire to document and preserve is in itself as moving as it is rare. Demystification, however, is another matter: his life turns out to have been far too sui generis to exemplify anything except the fact that so much more was going on in gay America than even most gay Americans realized."
- Robin Romm on The Pain Chronicles by Melanie Thernstrom: "'The Pain Chronicles' is an expansive, invigorating mix of medical reportage, history, memoir and cultural criticism... Yes, some people, including Thernstrom herself, learn to manage medication or train their brains to modulate the perception of pain through neuroimaging. Their successes, recounted so meticulously here, will surely prove useful to others. But 'The Pain Chronicles' is no mere self-help manual. It’s a sophisticated, elegantly compiled treatise — as wide-ranging, complex and defiant as pain itself."
- Terrence Rafferty on Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories from the Library of America: "A lot of writers, both in and out of the horror genre, know how to create a sense of dread. What makes Jackson’s sensibility so distinctive is that her brand of dread tends to be self-aware and even, at times, self-amused. There’s often a tinge of embarrassment to her characters’ fear, simply because it’s so tenuous, so apparently sourceless: they can’t tell if what’s troubling them is something or nothing."
- Maslin on True Prep by Lisa Birnbach: "'True Prep: It’s a Whole New Old World,' [is] a surprisingly worthwhile sequel to the now-creaky 'Handbook.' This new compendium moves beyond school days to address matters newly relevant for the core readership: how to remarry, how to dress for a funeral and how to deal with the collateral damage caused by decades’ worth of the party-hearty behavior described in the first book."
- Carolyn See on Growing Up Jung by Micah Toub: "There's nothing more endearing than a family memoir in which the author is actually fond of his family. It's rare; it's close to miraculous. If a person wants to write about his youth and his parents, it's usually because he has scores to settle. Affection turns the whole thing into a miracle.... I hated to see this book end. I loved every person in it, from the wistful dad with his 'fluffy-edged' voice, to Toub's kind and darling mom, his tolerant and loving ex-wife, even that volcanic teenaged sister, who refused to tell stories about the ceiling. 'Growing Up Jung' is a gem."
- Jess Walter on Skippy Dies by Paul Murray: "If killing your protagonist with more than 600 pages to go sounds audacious, it's nothing compared with the literary feats Murray pulls off in this hilarious, moving and wise book. Recently named to the Man Booker Prize long list, 'Skippy Dies' is an epic crafted around, of all things, a pack of 14-year-old boys. It's the 'Moby-Dick' of Irish prep schools."
- Sy Montgomery on The Tiger by John Vaillant: "To those of us who love the embattled cat, 'The Tiger' offers the emotional satisfaction of Quentin Tarantino's film 'Kill Bill' -- with the tiger in the role of Uma Thurman's vengeful bride. But the characters in this book, both human and tigrine, are more nuanced.... Vaillant's book teaches a lesson that humankind desperately needs to remember: When you murder a tiger, you not only kill a strong and beautiful beast, you extinguish a passionate soul."
- And then there's Ron Charles, who has indeed turned his mixed review of Franzen's Freedom (which I linked to last week) into his second video book review. In this case, thanks to some funny homemade effects and a camera-ready subject, I think video beats print:
Los Angeles Times:
- Carolyn Kellogg on Three Delays by Charlie Smith: "Billy and Alice are a tripped-out Scott and Zelda, a Jane Austen romance via Hunter S. Thompson, a Romeo and Juliet on the burned-out edge of the baby boom.... This fictional relationship, like those in real life, ultimately excludes those not a part of it. There is no effort to seduce the reader; Billy tells us how deeply he knows Alice, but we can't go there with him. Coupled with the unimportant plot and unclear chronology, the refrain of this relationship fails, at times, to carry the book's weight. Luckily, there is Charlie Smith's engulfing prose, full of surprises and possibility, to lift it up. Which it does."
- Marion Winik on Guilfoile's The Thousand: "If you like Scott Turow, Stan Lee, Dan Brown, or Michael Crichton, then you are in the target audience for Kevin Guilfoile's novel 'The Thousand.' Unfortunately, like smoked duck ravioli with wasabi-tomatillo sauce, Guilfoile has fallen under the sway of one influence too many."
The Globe & Mail:
- J.C. Sutcliffe on Little Hands Clapping by Dan Rhodes (UK only): "The characters are not complex, and indeed are often utterly ridiculous and unpleasant, but Rhodes is fond of his creations and never makes fun at their expense. His great strength is finding someone's heart, parsing the nuances of its language, and then translating it for the skeptical reader, even in the unlikeliest places. Part fairy tale and part gruesome whimsy, the delightful inventiveness of Little Hands Clapping will intrigue and entertain from first page to last."
- Spider Robinson on Packing for Mars by Mary Roach: "I finished the book in a single day, and although I was interrupted many times, I never needed a bookmark: Whenever I picked it back up, I just looked for the place where my underlining stopped. Roach educated me, entertained me, cracked me up repeatedly, forced me to rethink some long-held beliefs and, even more unexpected – I'd have said it was impossible – several times she totally grossed me out. But while she appreciates a really outrageous anecdote, she has an even greater fondness for the truth."
- Stuart Jeffries on Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz: "In this lovely book about human mistakes the sickeningly young, forbiddingly clever and vexingly wise American journalist Kathryn Schulz ... argues passionately for the value of error. The experience of being wrong, she argues, helps to make us better people, with richer lives.... What is most cherishable about this bumper book of other people's booboos is its insistence that to experience error is, at its best, to find adventure – and even contentment.... The book, if too long, is for the most part delightfully written. It reminds me of what we want clever Americans to be: positive, without a raincloud for a heart, and yet with the wit to make that optimism compelling."
- James Lasdun on Nourishment by Gerald Woodward: "If Gerard Woodward seems something of an outsider in the English literary scene, it is perhaps because of the very Englishness of his work. It would be hard to think of a writer less overtly influenced by fiction from elsewhere.... English embarrassment and the equally English love of provoking it through farcical surprise or scatological shock are a large part of his stock in trade. At the same time, with his gift for pushing situations to their furthest possible extreme, he can strike notes of piercing anguish and joy. His sensibility seems to hover somewhere between Stanley Spencer and Benny Hill."
The New Yorker:
- Jill Lepore on The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson: "Wilkerson has taken on one of the most important demographic upheavals of the past century—a phenomenon whose dimensions and significance have eluded many a scholar—and told it through the lives of three people no one has ever heard of. Narrative nonfiction is risky; it has to be grabby, telling, and true. To bear analytical weight, it has to be almost frighteningly shrewd.... This is narrative nonfiction, lyrical and tragic and fatalist. The story exposes; the story moves; the story ends. What Wilkerson urges, finally, isn’t argument at all; it’s compassion. Hush, and listen."
- James Wood on 03 by Jean-Christophe Valtat (subscribers only): "Nothing happens in '03.' The narrator has his thoughts, and then the book ends: boy and girl are still at the bus stop, as they were at the start. '03' has the afternoon listless of adolescence. It is a risky and ambitious book, though it does not seem 'experimental' as such, in part because it is so grounded in the real, in the boredom and self-aggrandizement of being a teen-ager."