Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers
by Tom on January 25, 2011
- Two reviews on the Sunday cover: Sarah Bakewell on Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche by James L. Miller: "[H]is entire book conveys a sense that the genuinely philosophical examination of a life can still lead us somewhere radically different from other kinds of reflection.... It is an extraordinary thing to do: a project that remains 'quite personal,' as Husserl admitted, yet that reaches in to seize the whole world and redesign it from the very foundation. Perhaps this is what still distinguishes the philosophical life: that 'once in a lifetime' convulsion, in which one reinvents reality around oneself. It is a project doomed to fail, and compromises will always be made. But what, in life, could be more interesting?"
- And Susan Neiman on All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age by Herbert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly: "Here, two distinguished philosophers from the heart of the profession offer a meditation on the meaning of life, in a sharp, engaging style that will appeal to readers both within the academy and beyond it. They provide a compressed narrative of changes in Western understanding of human existence over the course of nearly three millenniums, and argue that reading great works of literature allows us to rediscover the reverence, gratitude and amazement that were available in Homeric times.... 'The gods have not withdrawn or abandoned us,' they conclude. 'We have kicked them out.'"
- Kevin Canty on Caribou Island by David Vann: "'Caribou Island' reads as briskly and suggestively as a story sequence..., but lingers in the mind with the gravity and heft of a longer narrative. Its interplay of incident and character gives it the feel of a 19th-century novel on the grand scale, only without any particular grandeur: this is a novel made of plywood and plastic sheeting and gravel banks, a world where people make out in the snow on bleachers at the go-kart track."
- Olen Steinhauer on Crime: Stories by Ferdinand von Schirach: "The result is a slim, utterly absorbing collection of 11 stories plucked from his legal career and told in a cool, patient voice that immediately draws the reader in. Von Schirach guides us through the unpredictable sequences of events that can maneuver regular, flawed people into unbearable positions, leading them to abhorrent acts. He presents only the facts he has access to, leaving sentiment to our imagination."
- Maslin on Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall by Frank Brady: "'Endgame' is a rapt, intimate book, greatly helped by its author’s long acquaintance with Fischer ... and his deep grounding in the world of chess.... What changed boyish, chess-loving Bobby into the erratic, loathsome old crackpot and man without a country that he would eventually become? Mr. Brady is not in the business of tossing around facile judgments or easy answers. Instead, he gets as close as he can to a Bobby’s-eye point of view for 'Endgame' and tries to convey what Fischer’s character-warping experiences as a public figure may have been like, and how they shaped him."
- Kakutani on O: A Presidential Novel: "Well, now we know why the author of this much gossiped about, heavily marketed new book wanted to remain anonymous: 'O: A Presidential Novel' is a thoroughly lackadaisical performance — trite, implausible and decidedly unfunny.... The author of 'O' is described on the book flap as someone who 'has been in the room with Barack Obama,' but given this novel’s many inane implausibilities, the reader can’t help but think that the writer was either a lousy observer or that the room was really enormous — a hotel ballroom, perhaps, or maybe a convention center."
- Maslin on Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua: "'Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,' a diabolically well-packaged, highly readable screed ostensibly about the art of obsessive parenting. In truth, Ms. Chua’s memoir is about one little narcissist’s book-length search for happiness.... Wherever she is in this slickly well-shaped story, Ms. Chua never fails to make herself its center of attention."
- Patrick Anderson on Heartstone by C.J. Sansom: "The novel has it all: an ingenious plot, ceaseless suspense, villains galore, tipsy priests, a bull-baiting, a stag hunt, several murders, the horrors of war, a brooding sense of evil and a glittering portrait of a fascinating age. I rank it with Iain Pears's 'An Instance of the Fingerpost' (1998) among the very best of recent historical thrillers. Finishing it, I longed for the leisure to go back and read the previous Shardlake adventures, but my thoughts also turned to those still to come."
- Lily Burana on You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon: "'You Know When the Men Are Gone' is a terrific and terrifically illuminating book.... The highest praise I can give this book - as a critic and a soldier's wife - is that it's so achingly authentic that I had to put it down and walk away at least a dozen times. At one point, I stuffed it under the love seat cushions. If Fallon ever expands her talents into a novel, I may have to hide in the closet for a month."
- Lisa See on Pictures of You by Catherine Leavitt: "The pages here are full of professionals who don't do their jobs, classmates who behave like monsters, and even Charlie, who's so afraid to do anything about his son that he may ruin Sam's life. But of course we know people try to do the right thing all the time, but often fail. This is a novel that invites us to look at our own imperfections, not the dramatic crimes, but the niggling little sins of omission that so often render our lives tragically undernourished and small."
Los Angeles Times:
- Tim Rutten on O: "(It's hard to escape the impression that this is less a political novel than a New York publisher's concept of a third-generation Hollywood sequel, but that's another story. Memo to Simon & Schuster: Don't look so quickly past the book to the film deal.) Perhaps this dreary book's largest shortcoming is its implacably earnest tone. Politics can be raffish, ribald, antic, chaotic and mind-boggling, but an authentic account never reads quite like something pulled out of a newspaper's pile of unsolicited op-ed page submissions from assistant poli-sci professors at the local state college, as this novel too frequently does."
- Susan Salter Reynolds on Gryphon: New and Selected Stories by Charles Baxter: "Baxter knows how to play with a reader's emotions; he knows when to flatten the curve, when to turn up the volume. He knows exactly what you will feel if the thing you fear is about to happen doesn't happen. Because he is so good, his writing so seemingly effortless, his landscapes and portraits so precisely detailed, the effect is harder to shake. And this is the effect: We stumble. A certain disintegration is inevitable; with so much that is known, mapped-out, understood about the human condition, foolish joy is a supreme triumph."
Wall Street Journal:
- Carl Rollyson on J.D. Salinger: A Life by Kenneth Slawinski: "Hamilton and Mr. Alexander both produced what might be called drive-by biographies. Their books were placeholders until someone with the sensitivity of Mr. Slawenski arrived to create a convincing portrait of a man haunted by his own egoism.... [I]t is unlikely that any author will do a better job than Mr. Slawenski capturing the glory of Salinger's life—that for all his meanness and pettiness, he never relinquished the sacred duty he felt called upon to perform. He was a good soldier in the service of literature. If his dedication, in human terms, is rather terrifying, it is also awe-inspiring."
Globe and Mail:
- Sandra Kasturi on The Radleys by Matt Ridley: "[W]hat is so compelling about The Radleys is its very English sensibility – that insouciance and comic weirdness that you don’t really get anywhere else. While it is occasionally gruesome, it’s quite simply a very funny book – social satire masquerading as flippant black humour. It’s rare that you can call a novel charming that involves murder and blood-drinking, but that’s exactly what Matt Haig has provided us: a smart little fable and commentary on suburban living and family dysfunction, told with a sly wink and a great deal of wit and humour that, mercifully, refreshes the often tired vampire genre."
- Joanna Briscoe on We Had It So Good by Linda Grant: "In We Had it So Good, Linda Grant examines a generation which, in her own words, 'never fully understood its own fortune'. And what a rum portrait she paints.... It is most interesting and illuminating as an essay, a portrait of a generation.... Grant captures the wardrobes, habits and especially the mindsets of different times with a distanced, ironic eye, observing rather than fully inhabiting, except in the case of Marianne. It makes uncomfortable, fascinating reading. Babyboomers beware."
- Tim Radford on Incoming!: Or, Why We Should Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Meteorite by Ted Nield (available on Amazon.co.uk): "Ted Nield's book is a happy mix of memoir, mythology, science history, Newtonian and nuclear physics, intellectual fireworks and solid, painstaking geology, and it opens a window on the night sky, and the marvels that streak across it.... [I]n a sense, meteorites remain messengers from the creation of Earth and the heavens around it. Their arrivals have changed our world, and our ideas about the world, and they are still sources of wonder and delight, to be preserved and valued, like this book."
The New Yorker:
- Elizabeth Kolbert on Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother: "According to Chua, her 'actual book' is a memoir. Memoir is, or at least is supposed to be, a demanding genre. It requires that the author not just narrate his or her life but reflect on it. By her own description, Chua is not a probing person.... It’s breezily written, at times entertaining, and devoid of anything approaching introspection. Imagine your most self-congratulatory friend holding forth for two hours about her kids’ triumphs, and you’ve more or less got the narrative."
- Ruth Franklin on The Journey and Panorama by H.G. Adler (subscription only): "[W]hy should the genre [of Holocaust fiction] be nearly impossible? People have always created art in response to adversity; the Holocaust, whatever its historial uniqueness, cannot be an exception to a universal rule. Still, the idea of a Holocaust writer who fails to confine himself to the facts of his experience has always been difficult to accept. We expect our survivors to be witnesses and chroniclers, not artists."