Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers
by Darryl Campbell on February 21, 2011
New York Times:
- Janet Maslin on Swamplandia! by Karen Russell: "Ms. Russell is one in a million. The proof is in 'Swamplandia!', a novel about alligator wrestlers, a balding brown bear named Judy Garland, a Bird Man specializing in buzzard removal, a pair of dueling Florida theme parks, rampaging melaleuca trees, a Ouija board and the dead but still flirtatious Louis Thanksgiving ... Although there are many, many images of alligators that might have adorned this book’s cover, it uses a sublimely perfect 1899 illustration by Luther Daniels Bradley depicting a swamp, a dark-coated man, an innocent girl and the open jaws of a colossal gator. The picture is a marvel. The book's a marvel too."
- Maslin again on Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn: "On Jan. 10, 1992, a container ship traveling south of the Aleutians, in the region once quaintly known as the Graveyard of the Pacific, en route from Hong Kong to Tacoma, Wash., took a steep roll and lost part of its cargo. The incident had near-mythical repercussions. Among the lost merchandise were 7,200 packs of bathtub toys. Each four-piece set included a blue turtle, a green frog, a red beaver and a yellow duck. This came to be erroneously understood as the story of 29,000 rubber duckies set adrift and washing up all over the globe ... Where did the toys come from? What were they made of? What would they look like after spending more than 15 years as castaways? What kinds of people make flotsam hunting their favorite pursuit, and how are the battle lines drawn between conservationists and environmentalists, litterbugs and industrial polluters? How much cargo vanishes at sea? And if it floats, how and where will it travel? What kinds of weather events occur underwater, and how well do we fathom them? How are the perils faced by huge, U-shaped post-Panamax cargo ships different from those that have always bedeviled sailors? And, since [author Donovan] Hohn was an English teacher, how might Melville fit into all this?"
- Charles McGrath on Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer by Wesley Stace, a.k.a. the singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding: "Wesley Stace's new book, 'Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer,' is both a murder mystery and a novel about classical music, with a character who sometimes assumes another identity. Mr. Stace, an enthusiastic, donnish Englishman with an honors degree in English literature from Jesus College, Cambridge, and a head stuffed full of historical trivia, is an expert on both double lives and music ... Rockers like Steve Earle and Nick Cave have lately tried to demonstrate that they have fiction-writing chops, with not always convincing results. But 'Charles Jessold' is genuinely literary, not a vanity project. Like Mr. Stace’s two previous books ('Misfortune' and 'By George') it's a deeply — almost obsessively — researched historical novel. It's also an intricate, Chinese-box-like puzzle. And it's steeped in music — longhair music, not folk or rock."
- Ron Charles on The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown: "This smart, hopeful novel by Washington-born author Eleanor Brown will be the winter's tale for any book lover who likes her entertainment laced with a touch of Shakespeare ... As in Shakespeare's problem plays, in 'The Weird Sisters' the curtain rises on a scene that looks oddly comic and tragic: Dr. James Andreas, a renowned Shakespeare scholar, has three daughters (I know you're catching the allusions already, but hang on). When his wife receives a diagnosis of breast cancer, he calls them home to the Midwest with a quotation from 'Titus Andronicus': 'Come, let us go; and pray to all the gods/For our beloved mother in her pains.' And so they move back to their parents' house, these three weird sisters, all around 30 years old, all jealous of one another's success, each secretly convinced that she's a failure."
Los Angeles Times:
- Carolyn Kellogg on West of Here by Jonathan Evison: "The trailing end of Manifest Destiny curls back on itself in "West of Here," Jonathan Evison's ambitious novel of the Pacific Northwest. Set dually in 1890 and 2006, the kaleidoscopic story follows those hoping to build their legacies in the wilds of Washington state's Olympic Peninsula ... The fictional town of Port Bonita — a stand-in for Port Angeles — is at the center of the story. That's where Ethan Thornburgh lands in the last days of 1889, a young man with big ideas and a moth-eaten suit, hoping to prove to his onetime girlfriend, Eva Lambert, that he can make something of himself. Eva, pregnant with Ethan's child, is a proto-suffragette from a wealthy family, trying to help a struggling utopian colony come alive."
- Richard Rayner on When the Killing's Done by T.C. Boyle:"Mudslides, earthquakes, floods, fires — nothing quite gets T.C. Boyle's juices going like a natural disaster putting his characters through the wringer ... He's never not a funny writer, whether flexing his muscles in the delirious sprints that are his short stories, or in the intricately plotted and sometimes slightly schematic marathons of novels like this one; he writes lyrically, beautifully — about the ocean, the land, about California history and its pitfalls and perils. His message, though, is almost Swiftian: There's no God, not much hope, and every person, every animal, every organism is indeed involved in a brute war, a war in which victory grants survival but survival always entails consequences of sad irony. Boyle makes us laugh and wonder at his dazzling gifts but his comedy is a dark business."
Wall Street Journal:
- Josiah Ober, professor of classics at Stanford, reviews The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life by Bettany Hughes: "Ms. Hughes presents a high-octane account of Socrates and his age, based on ancient literary sources, current archaeology and her own fertile imagination. She offers vivid slices of imagined Athenian life, taking us behind the public realm dominated by citizen men and exploring the lives of women, slaves and foreign residents in Socrates' city ... She invites the reader to travel as her companion beyond the familiar byways of Greek history, offering a full menu of 'you were there' sounds, smells and textures: noisy Eleusinian cults, stinking excrement, 'the dark, the whispers, the unseen skin pricks connecting flesh to flesh' at a symposium. All of this is great fun."