Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers
by Tom on February 08, 2011
- Sunday Book Review cover: Emma Donoghue on Swamplandia! by Karen Russell: "Vividly worded, exuberant in characterization, the novel is a wild ride: Russell has style in spades.... If Russell’s style is a North American take on magical realism, then her commitment to life’s nitty-gritties anchors the magic; we are more inclined to suspend disbelief at the moments that verge on the paranormal because she has turned 'Swamplandia!' into a credible world."
- Susannah Meadows on The Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld (yes, it must be said, the husband of the Tiger Mother): "Too many higher-brow writers forget their obligation to entertain. But Mr. Rubenfeld’s novel bustles with kidnapping, knife throwing, gun fighting, poisoning, bank robbery, corruption. 'The Death Instinct' is that rare combo platter: a blast to read — you’ll be counting how few pages you have left with dread, and you’ll do this before you’re halfway done — and hefty enough to stay with you. There’s a steady beat of intrigue and confusion and explanations you wouldn’t have guessed."
- Garner on Day of Honey by Annia Ciezadlo: "Her book is among the least political, and most intimate and valuable, to have come out of the Iraq war.... There are many good reasons to read 'Day of Honey.' ... These things wouldn’t matter much, though, if her sentences didn’t make such a sensual, smart, wired-up sound on the page. Holding 'Day of Honey' I was reminded of the way that, with a book of poems, you can very often flip through it for five minutes and know if you’re going to like it; you get something akin to a contact high."
- Christopher R. Beha on The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale: "Hale’s novel is so stuffed with allusions high and low, so rich with philosophical and literary interest, that a reviewer risks making it sound ponderous or unwelcoming. So let’s get this out of the way: 'The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore' is an absolute pleasure. Much of its pleasure comes from the book’s voice.... There’s also great pleasure in the audacity of the story itself.... [T]he depictions of interspecies love are certainly discomfiting, but not for the reasons you might imagine. Ultimately, the point of these scenes is not to shock us but to ask what fundamentally makes us human."
- Kakutani on Known and Unknown by Donald Rumsfeld: "The tedious, self-serving volume is filled with efforts to blame others ... for misjudgments made in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the failure to contain an insurgency there that metastasized for years. It is a book that suffers from many of the same flaws that led the administration into what George Packer of The New Yorker has called 'a needlessly deadly' undertaking — that is, cherry-picked data, unexamined assumptions and an unwillingness to re-examine past decisions."
- Holly Morris on The Magnetic North by Sara Wheeler: "This book is about people, and it’s deeply unromantic. Want somersaulting polar bears? Explorer heroics? Inuit magic? Look elsewhere. Wheeler doesn’t trade in sentiment or noble savagery. As for 'the Big Melt,' well, it’s happening, and devastatingly fast. Just so you know. With wry humor and extensive research, Wheeler captures a swiftly transforming region with which we all have a symbiotic relationship."
- Charles on Russell's Swamplandia!: "Russell has perfected a tone of deadpan wit and imperiled innocence that I find deeply endearing, but readers allergic to self-consciously quirky characters should take precautions.... After half-a-dozen detours, skating along a thin layer of plausibility, Russell runs through the final pages as though she's being chased by a seven-foot gator. I know that feeling, but I wish she'd taken her time and given this finale a little more room to breathe. After all, she sends her smart, vulnerable characters to hell. We want to know just how deeply they've been singed."
- Dan Fesperman on Donald by Eric Martin and Stephen Elliott: "If you were to cast this stunt as a war movie, co-authors Eric Martin and Stephen Elliott would be the wily tricksters who don fake uniforms to slip behind enemy lines, speaking the language like natives and clearing all checkpoints until they vanquish the opposing general with his own diabolical weaponry.... Martin and Elliott make it through to the end of this ordeal with both Rumsfeld's and their own humanity intact. Even as the grinding days turn their character's mind inside out, they carefully retain a kernel of his essence. In tone and style, he is still Donald."
Los Angeles Times:
- Tim Rutten on Rumsfeld's Known and Unknown: "It's wearisome always being right, particularly when so many others are so wrong, so often — at least that's the impression a reader is most likely to draw from Rumsfeld's exhaustive, exasperating but vigorously written memoir, 'Known and Unknown.' ... Masterful bureaucratic survivor that he was until he ran out of room to maneuver, Rumsfeld delivers a memoir that is all about shifting blame and settling scores."
- Susan Salter Reynolds on The Still Point by Amy Sackville: "Many novels explore the sliding planes, the archaeology of past, present and future and the still points where the fabric of time is rent and characters slip through. This is a lot to juggle, especially in a debut novel, but Amy Sackville pulls it off — thrillingly, seductively, dreamily. Not only do all the moving parts hold together, but a new fictional voice emerges here as well; not harsh, brash and shiny, not overly self-conscious and sentimental — somewhere between the calm beauty we expect from novels that invoke Victorian England and the raw edges of modern life."
Wall Street Journal:
- Robert H. Scales on Known and Unknown: "Many of us outside the Pentagon's inner circle would expect Mr. Rumsfeld to be more openly critical of his colleagues in the administration than he is in these memoirs. He treats almost everyone with respect and softens his barbs.... Mr. Rumsfeld inadvertently reveals himself as the 21st century's first marble man: supremely confident of his ability to manage a war of machines and sadly unapproachable to those below him willing to offer an alterative view of the shifting conflict. In truth his formidable and dominating personality, which had served him so well before, now served to impede those trying to steer a different course—the one that would prove successful in Iraq after Mr. Rumsfeld's timely and inevitable departure."
- Sam Sacks on new fiction, including Rana Dasgupta's Solo, "The tacit assertion of this invigorating novel is that the more constrained a person's life, the more his imagination flourishes, until what's real is merely grist for the more vital stuff of dreams," and Alison Espach's The Adults, "one of the funniest books I've read in a long time. Ms. Espach's coup is to chart Emily's growth through her maturing sense of humor. The hilarious first chapter features biting adolescent snark (adults, she complains, are "boring and powerful—saying any boring thing and getting away with it"). But as disasters strike, Emily's reflexive joking becomes layered with a sense of helplessness. Witty ironic detachment becomes her means of escape, and it gives her a strange double identity."
Globe and Mail:
- Zsuzsi Gartner on Hale's Evolution of Bruno Littlemore: "[T]he most unsettling thing here is not bestiality, but rather, a grossly over-blown prose style.... Despite an affinity for both talking animal narratives – whether for children or those of the NC-17 variety – and wordy, maximalist fiction, I found the first 200 pages of this grotesque romp both boring and annoying.... From this point on, there is enough magic and melancholy in this somewhat repulsive but eventually compelling novel to captivate a jaded reader."
- Sara Wheeler (see the last Times review above) on To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron: "[I]n this slim book, Thubron allows his emotional range to expand. This journey, he reveals in the opening pages, is a form of mourning for his mother, who has recently died – the last of his living family.... One misses the sustained themes of the more substantial volumes – the disparity between political borders and ethnic realities, for example – but many of the author's preoccupations reach maturation in these pages. The youthful faith surrendered, the reverence for 'the tang of human difference', the necessary abjuration of sentiment, the doomed pursuit of truth at all costs and a painful joy at the world's wonder. In many ways, all Thubron's books celebrate the terrible, pitiful, beautiful human condition."
The New Yorker:
- Adam Gopnik on books about the Internet: "A social network is crucially different from a social circle, since the function of a social circle is to curb our appetites and of a network to extend them. Everything once inside is outside, a click away; much that used to be outside is inside, experienced in solitude. And so the peacefulness, the serenity that we feel away from the Internet, and which all the Better-Nevers rightly testify to, has less to do with being no longer harried by others than with being less oppressed by the force of your own inner life. Shut off your computer, and your self stops raging quite as much or quite as loud."
- Rebecca Mead on Middlemarch (subscription only): "'Middlemarch' is not about blooming late, or unexpectedly coming into one's own after the unproductive flush of youth. 'Middlemarch' suggests that it is always too late to be what you might have been--but it also shows that, virtually without exception, the unrealized life is worth living. The book Virginia Woolf categorized as 'one of the few English novels written for grown-up people' is also a book about how to be a grown-up person--about how to bear one's share of sorrow, failure, and loss, as well as to enjoy hard-won moments of happiness."