Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers
- Colm Toibin on To the End of the Land by David Grossman: "He weaves the essences of private life into the tapestry of history with deliberate and delicate skill; he has created a panorama of breathtaking emotional force, a masterpiece of pacing, of dedicated storytelling, with characters whose lives are etched with extraordinary, vivid detail. While his novel has the vast sweep of pure tragedy, it is also at times playful, and utterly engrossing; it is filled with original and unexpected detail about domestic life, about the shapes and shadows that surround love and memory, and about the sharp and desperate edges of loss and fear.... This is one of those few novels that feel as though they have made a difference to the world."
- Maslin on Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow: "At 900-odd densely packed pages, 'Washington' can be arid at times. But it’s also deeply rewarding as a whole, and it does genuinely amplify and recast our perceptions of Washington’s importance.... This new portrait offers a fresh sense of what a groundbreaking role Washington played, not only in physically embodying his new nation’s leadership but also in interpreting how its newly articulated constitutional principles would be applied. A more ostentatiously regal leader could never have accomplished as much as this seemingly reluctant hero achieved."
- Steven R. Weisman on White House Diary by Jimmy Carter: "Patient readers will find 'White House Diary' fascinating on two levels: the pace gives a sense of what it is like to be president, and the entries contain blunt appraisals of the people with whom he dealt.... 'White House Diary" would have benefited from even more candor. But the writings here reflect the Mr. Carter we know: boastful and painfully confessional, sanctimonious and callous, insightful and un-self-aware. These are the thoughts of a secular preacher and calculating politician, surrounded by friends and yet often alone."
- Maslin (who may have set a record by reviewing two 900-page books in the space of five days) on Fall of Giants by Ken Follett: "Mr. Follett, who was once a Welsh boy himself but grew up to become his generation’s most vaunted writer of colorless historical epics, kicks off a whopping new trilogy. His apparent ambition: to span the whole 20th century in blandly adequate novels so fat that they’re hard to hoist.... However two-dimensional these characters first seem, and however much they spout talking points rather than human conversation, they have begun to develop interesting baggage after 1,000 pages roll by. If only they had gotten off to a less plodding start."
- Garner on My Nuclear Family by Christopher Brownfield: "Christopher Brownfield’s memoir, 'My Nuclear Family,' is not the best book written by an insider about America’s post-9/11 military, but it’s certainly the most entertaining. It’s got a cocky, star-spangled, wide-angle feel, as if a subversive young novelist had decided to rewrite a Tom Clancy thriller after first piloting some nuclear submarines as a gonzo practice drill."
- Dirda on Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock: "Donald Sturrock's 'Storyteller' enriches the now-familiar outline of an eventful life with much new information, peels away the layers of myth that Dahl promulgated about himself, and makes clear the man's immense charm as well as his cold self-possession and emotional callousness. This is a major literary biography, immensely satisfying to read and worthy of its complex subject."
- Charles on Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans: "I hope Danielle Evans is a very nice person because that might be her only defense against other writers' seething envy.... Now comes the publication of her first collection, "Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self," eight quietly devastating stories that validate the hype.... Again and again, without any histrionics, but with a clear appreciation for the natural drama of our mundane lives, Evans frames such questions in a way that will resonate with any thoughtful reader."
- Daniel Stashower on A Geography of Secrets by Frederick Reuss: "'A Geography of Secrets' has the texture and snap of a modern-day Graham Greene novel, painting a world in which even the smallest choices have devastating consequences -- and where, as one character tells us, 'Secrets don't keep, they putrefy.'"
Los Angeles Times:
- Jonathan Shapiro on The Reversal by Michael Connelly: "Thank God for Michael Connelly. Without him, Los Angeles would just be Houston without humidity, Phoenix with the sea. 'The Reversal,' Connelly's new novel, might be his best: a crackling-good read, smart and emotionally satisfying. It manages to condense decades of time and reams of information into a compelling narrative that adeptly explores various elements of L.A.'s own version of what passes as a criminal justice system."
- Charles Solomon on the Cul de Sac Golden Treasury: "Pundits have long predicted the imminent death of the comic strip, even before the Internet threatened to put the daily newspaper on the endangered species list. But Richard Thompson's delightfully quirky 'Cul de Sac' proves the comic strip remains a viable art form while bucking current trends. It's not an exercise in merchandising, niche marketing or political ax-grinding. It features no boob fathers or saccharine life lessons. In an era of threadbare strips cranked out by second- and third-generation artists, its characters are as original as its artwork."
- Zachary Karabell on A World Without Islam by Graham Fuller: "Just after the attacks of 9/11, Americans passionately sought answers about what had generated such anger and hatred. In the years since, that questioning has given way to hardened lines and ideology that focuses on conflict and apportions blame. Fuller's book is unlikely to alter that dynamic. But it is a needed corrective, a sober call not to settle for historical pabulum and instead recall a past and recognize a present that is far more complicated and layered than any polemic would have us believe."
Wall Street Journal (can't really tell online what's part of the new weekend Books section, but we welcome it anyway):
- John J. Miller on Bloody Crimes by James Swanson: "If this semi-sequel isn't quite as gripping as its predecessor—'Manhunt' is one of the most riveting Civil War books of our time—the fault doesn't lie entirely with Mr. Swanson. The Davis manhunt simply isn't as compelling as the stuff of chasing a presidential killer. Yet 'Bloody Crimes' enriches our understanding of Lincoln's assassination and its aftermath."
- James Grant on The Affluent Society and Other Writings by John Kenneth Galbraith: "Re-reading Galbraith is like watching black-and-white footage of the 1955 World Series. The Brooklyn Dodgers are gone—and so is much of the economy over which Galbraith lavished so much of his eviscerating wit.... Now comes the test of whether his popular writings will endure longer than the memory of his celebrity and the pleasure of his prose. 'The Great Crash' has a fighting chance, because of its very lack of analytical pretense. 'History that reads like a poem,' raved Mark Van Doren in his review of the 1929 book. Or, he might have judged, that eats like whipped cream."
Globe and Mail:
- Steve Hayward on The Matter with Morris by David Bergen: "The death of his son sends Morris into a tailspin; this, along with the question of whether he can pull out of it – indeed, whether the concept of recovery has any meaning at all when one is faced with such a devastating loss – is the subject of this immaculately written, trenchantly honest, hugely compelling novel.... For all its darkness, this novel about mourning and melancholy remains an optimistic book; in it, we are presented with some of the irresolvable ambiguities of human existence by a character who is twisted up inside, who at the same time successfully asks to be recognized as sombre and tender and wise."
- Mark Kingwell on Arrival City by Doug Saunders: "Most humans on the planet now live in cities, and over the next few decades another quarter to a third of the world will join them. Saunders calls this shift the most decisive social and cultural change since the Enlightenment and its legacies, including the French and Industrial revolutions, and it is difficult to deny it. Urban migration has not just been massive; it is proving to be one-way, fast and final."
- Jeremy Dyson on The Small Hand by Susan Hill: "Ultimately, this is a wonderful piece of storytelling that does what a good story ought to do: it keeps you guessing, pulls you in. And when the climax comes, the explanation and the source of the haunting are not what you think at all. You really don't see it coming.... The ghost story is an intensely moral form, and one of its most interesting aspects is the alchemy it allows, enabling a writer to render the horrors of life with a strange, icy beauty. Such horrors are easier looked at askance, particularly when, as Susan Hill rightly reminds us, the monstrous is closer to home than we dare admit."
- Misha Glenny on The New Nobility by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan: "'I know the shortcomings of our system better, perhaps, than anyone,' Medvedev told an international forum.... 'But I categorically disagree with those who say that there is no democracy in Russia; that authoritarian traditions still rule.' Stirring stuff, but before the president throws his cap in the air and an emptied vodka glass into the fireplace, he may like to flick through the pages of The New Nobility, which charts the brief decline followed by the resolute resurrection of the KGB as a primary political force in the country. Or rather, he may not like it. Because every page in this book gainsays his claim in the most forceful fashion imaginable that democracy is now decisive in defining Russia's political direction."
There's no long review in the NYer this week, so let's go instead to the Atlantic:
- Benjamin Schwarz on True Prep by Lisa Birnbach: "Three decades later, the sequel, True Prep, by Birnbach and Chip Kidd, lacks the observational precision of the original. Whereas OPH was crammed with fine-grained analysis— defining, say, the subtle distinctions between Brooks Brothers (mainstream), J. Press (old guard), and Paul Stuart (urbane)—True Prep’s analysis seems vague and flabby. Whereas OPH’s preppies belonged to a distinct and inward-looking subculture, the preppies of True Prep, defined largely by what they buy and wear, are in many ways indistinguishable from fancily educated professionals.... Rather than demonstrating a failure of the authors’ powers, True Prep’s imprecision actually reflects the erosion of the distinctiveness of the subculture it attempts to reveal."
- And the reliably resistant B.R. Myers on Franzen's Freedom: "The apparent logic is that the novel can lure Americans away from their media and entertainment buffet only by becoming more 'social,' broader in scope, more up-to-date in focus. This may be the reason we get such boring characters. Instead of portraying an interesting individual or two, and trusting in realism to embed their story naturally in contemporary life, the Social Writer thinks of all the relevant issues he has to stuff in, then conceives a family 'typical' enough to hold everything together. The more aspects of our society he can fit between the book’s covers, the more ambitious he is considered to be."