Old Media Monday: Special Freedom Edition
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."
- Charles on My Hollywood by Mona Simpson: "The success of this absorbing novel rests on Simpson's ability to make that well-worn marital argument just as uncomfortable and perplexing as it was when you were having it with your own spouse.... [A]ll the withering insecurities of motherhood are captured here in Claire's stream-of-conversation patter, a mixture of acerbic wit and nervous despair from a smart woman who can't figure out how she can write music and care for a child without growing shrewish and unpleasant.... Simpson may seem focused on the peculiar troubles of the rich and their servants, but with her incisive portrayal of the frustrations felt by working parents, 'My Hollywood' could easily be 'Our Country.'"
- Peter Behrens on Red Rain by Bruce Murkoff: "Bruce Murkoff's "Red Rain" is a rich, thick stew of a historical novel, a powerfully imagined and thoroughly believable vision of America in its nadir summer of 1864.... 'Red Rain' is no Ken Burnsesque slab of the American past, delivered in sepia tones with tinkly piano music. Murkoff offers a substantial and resonant vision of what was arguably America's worst summer. Violence and displacement had thoroughly wormed their way into the country's soul, and these characters live in a culture that's entrepreneurial, often deadly, intensely focused on the price of real estate. Had Dostoevsky sailed up the Hudson in the 1860s, he would have recognized this place."
- Alberto Manguel on The Novel: An Alternative History by Steven Moore: "Moore tells his story with erudition and wit, and in doing so restores to the reader of good fiction confidence in the craft. Ultimately, Moore's book is less a genealogical history of the novel than a reader's treasure trove. It is also a celebration of challenging novels such as 'Finnegans Wake' and 'The Death of Virgil.' Reading, in the deepest, most difficult, ultimately satisfying sense is, and always was, the craft of an elite, but, in spite of what demagogues and anti-intellectuals would have us believe, an elite to which almost anyone can choose to belong."
Los Angeles Times:
- Susan Carpenter on Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (forget Franzen--maybe this is the Book of the Moment): "Fans aren't likely to be disappointed.... More maudlin than the first two books in the series, 'Mockingjay' is also the most violent and bloody and, based on the actions and statements of its characters, its most overtly antiwar — though not so much that it distracts from a series conclusion that is nearly as shocking, and certainly every bit as original and thought provoking, as 'The Hunger Games.' Wow."
- Lynell George on The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings by James Baldwin: "These unvarnished assessments of politics and popular culture provide a chambered time capsule of America in mid- to late last century. He cared deeply about democracy's very heartbeat — and often turned America's presupposed must-have checklist on its ear.... Baldwin's was a long, arduous journey — out in the world and on the page. And what's most striking is how he wrote precisely the way he spoke. The serpentine sentences wandered through the thicket of the problem, then out into the light. He took us with him and left these maps. And though it's tempting, the question shouldn't be 'What would James Baldwin say or do?' He was grooming us to finish that circuitous, complex sentence for ourselves."
Globe and Mail:
- Zsuzsi Gartner on The Four Fingers of Death by Rick Moody: "The Four Fingers of Death is big (in scope, not merely page count), bold, juicy and thought-provoking. With its publication, Rick Moody has become the most fun (I’m tempted to say 'funnest') serious writer in America.... The Four Fingers of Death is like a good old-fashioned 19th-century novel catapulted into the 21st century, trailing the campy, cosmic stardust of the sixties."
- Martin Levin on Burley Cross Postbox Theft by Nicola Barker (UK only so far): "Burley Cross Postbox Theft is an epistolary novel, ... a form decidedly out of fashion, which is perhaps why the endlessly innovative Barker chose it as her way of sketching, and skewering, an entire English village.... Burley Cross Postbox Theft will appeal less to those interested in narrative drive than to readers mesmerized by Barker’s sheer comic energy, her vivacious prose and her obvious delight in creating this small, mad, comic world, full of small intrigues, ungovernable lusts and outraged biliousness."
- Colm Toibin on Human Chain by Seamus Heaney: "In Human Chain, his best single volume for many years, and one that contains some of the best poems he has written, Heaney allows this struggle between the lacrimae rerum and the consolations of poetry to have a force which is satisfying because its result is so tentative and uncertain. Memory here can be filled with tones of regret and even undertones of anguish, but it also can appear with a sense of hard-won wonder. There is an active urge to capture the living breath of things, but he also allows sorrow into his poems."
- Geoff Dyer on Encounter: Essays by Milan Kundera: "There is nothing archaeological or archival about Kundera's absorption in the literature of the past: it is more that his sense of what is contemporary has the deepest possible roots. Which is not the same thing at all as saying that literature is timeless.... The more carefully he is able to define the historical specificity of experiences (his reading, needless to say, is an inseparable part of those experiences), the freer he is to articulate the enduring and non-specific lessons to be drawn from them."
The New Yorker:
- Adam Gopnik on Churchill: "Revisionism, the itch of historians to say something new about something already known, has nicked Churchill without really drawing blood.... Reading all these, one finds a Churchill who is a good deal more compelling than the eternal iron man. Goethe wrote that Hamlet was a man who was asked to do something that seemed impossible for that man to do. Churchill is a kind of Hamlet in reverse, a man who was called on, late in life, to do the one thing he was uniquely able to do, and did it."
Harper's (subscription only):
- Jonathan Dee on C by Tom McCarthy: "In a style concerned much more with precision than with received standards of literary beauty, McCarthy stretches a canvas broad enough to incorporate sex, drugs, war, incest, espionage, suicide, and Egyptology. However openly he may fly the flags of his key influences, one has the distinct sensation while reading C that one has never read anything like it before; and it is pretty late in the game to be able to say that about anybody."
- Eric Foner on The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter: "Despite its formidable title, the book is a highly selective account of the evolution of racial thought. Indeed, the book slights the history of whiteness as a lived experience. More than a concept, whiteness is part of a system of allocating power and resources. One learns much from Painter about racial thinking but little about white supremacy as a historical phenomenon or present-day reality."