With so many reviews of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom coming out this week (and so many of them by men named "Sam") in advance of its publication next Tuesday, and with its general anointedness, from Time to the president, as the Book of the Moment (and even the Book That Might Just Save Literature), I thought we could begin tonight's roundup with special Freedom survey, following last week's Kakutani rave:
- Sam Tenenhaus in the New York Times (next Sunday's cover review, released more than a week ahead of time): "The family romance is as old as the English-language novel itself — indeed is ontologically inseparable from it. But the family as microcosm or micro-history has become Franzen’s particular subject, as it is no one else’s today.... Like all great novels, 'Freedom' does not just tell an engrossing story. It illuminates, through the steady radiance of its author’s profound moral intelligence, the world we thought we knew."
- Sam Anderson in New York: "[T]he book would probably be insufferably dull if it weren’t for the fact that it also happens to be a work of total genius: a reminder both of why everyone got so excited about Franzen in the first place and of the undeniable magic—even today, in our digital end-times—of the old-timey literary novel.... Few modern novelists rival Franzen in that primal skill of creating life, of tricking us into believing that a text-generated set of neural patterns, a purely abstract mind-event, is in fact a tangible human being that we can love, pity, hate, admire, and possibly even run into someday at the grocery store."
- David L. Ulin in the Los Angeles Times: "Franzen pulls it off — as he pulls off nearly everything in this rich and nuanced novel — because for all that it appears to be their book, 'Freedom' is more than just the story of the Berglunds' fall. Instead, they are the tip of the iceberg, a filter through which to explore the unresolved tensions, the messiness of emotion, of love and longing, that possesses even the most willfully ordinary of lives.... For Franzen, this is the trick: not to outgrow who we are but instead to accept it, and in so doing, to accept the world of which we are a part. That's the freedom to which the title is referring, the freedom at the center of this consuming and extraordinarily moving book."
- Jonathan Jones in the Guardian (a blog post, not a full-fledged review, but notable for the breadth of its claims): "To put it bluntly, The Corrections made it plausible to speak of Franzen in the company of Philip Roth. This new book demands comparison rather with Saul Bellow's Herzog or something loftier – it is self-evidently a modern classic.... Freedom is the novel of the year, and the century."
- Sam Sacks in the Wall Street Journal: "As with his wallowing memoir 'The Discomfort Zone' (2007), the last 300 pages of 'Freedom' become bogged down with tendentious speechmaking and baleful overanalysis of every mean thought that enters his characters' heads.... Yet despite those frequent lapses, 'Freedom' remains a weirdly addictive reading experience. Whatever you may think of Mr. Franzen's theories (and I don't personally think they bear much relationship to the real world), he has shaped a compelling narrative arc." Ah, a little skepticism...
- And yes, the first true dissenter: Alan Cheuse on All Things Considered: "There isn't a page that goes by without insights you can mull over and sentences you can admire.... But, forgive me, despite the brilliance, or maybe even because of it, I found the novel quite unappealing, maybe because every line, every insight, seems covered with a light film of disdain. Franzen seems never to have met a normal, decent, struggling human being whom he didnt want to make us feel ever so slightly superior to. His book just has too much brightness and not enough color."
- For what my 218 words are worth, I'm with the majority on this one, as you can see on our Best Books of the Month page for August. Now back to the rest of the reading world:
New York Times:
- Sunday Book Review cover: Linda Robinson on The Tenth Parallel by Eliza Griswold: "'The Tenth Parallel' is a fascinating journey along the latitude line in Africa and Asia where Christianity and Islam often meet and clash.... 'The Tenth Parallel' is a beautifully written book, full of arresting stories woven around a provocative issue — whether fundamentalism leads to violence — which Griswold investigates through individual lives rather than caricatures or abstractions."
- Julie Myerson on Let's Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell: "This may be a book about death and loss, but Caldwell’s greatest achievement is to rise above all that to describe both the very best that women can be together and the precious things they can, if they wish, give back to one another: power, humor, love and self-respect."
- Robert Darnton on Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership by Lewis Hyde: "Hyde invokes the founders in order to warn us against a new enclosure movement, one that would fence off large sectors of the public domain — in science, the arts, literature, and the entire world of knowledge — in order to exploit monopolies.... Hyde ... does not merely cull the works of the founding fathers for quotations.... Instead of treating the ideas of the founders as self-contained units of meaning, he explores their interconnections and shows how they shared a common conceptual frame..... Hyde builds his argument by telling stories, and he tells them well. His book brims with vignettes, which may be familiar but complement one other in ways that produce original insights."