Old Media Tuesday: Reviewing the Reviewers
New York Times:
- Jay McInerney on J.D. Salinger: A Life by Kenneth Slawenski: "If you really want to hear about it, what’s missing — and this is not necessarily Slawenski’s fault — is Salinger’s voice. I was tempted to say his inimitable voice, but of course it’s been imitated more often than that of any American writer, except possibly Salinger’s pal Hemingway.... For this reader, the great achievement of Slawenski’s biography is its evocation of the horror of Salinger’s wartime experience. Despite Salinger’s reticence, Slawenski admirably retraces his movements and recreates the savage battles, the grueling marches and frozen bivouacs of Salinger’s war. It’s hard to think of an American writer who had more combat experience."
- Susan Dominus on Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua: "Having read the Wall Street Journal excerpt, and decided, like everyone else, that Chua was intimidating, impressive and Must Be Stopped, I sincerely hoped the book would be a bore, full of niggly detail about rehearsals, competitions and her ancestral origins. Sadly, I must inform you that 'Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother' is entertaining, bracingly honest and, yes, thought-provoking. Many parents who revile Chua’s conduct are probably, nonetheless, seriously considering Suzuki for the first time."
- Garner on Elizabeth Bishop and the New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence: "Bishop published, intentionally, very few poems during her life, only 100 or so. She was a taker-outer, not a putter-inner. ('I’ve always felt that I’ve written poetry more by not writing it,' she said.) Since her death, though, she’s become the Tupac Shakur of American poets, with a fat new remixed volume of her fragments or letters seemingly issued every five years.... 'Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker' is not an overwhelmingly necessary book either. It is repetitive, filled with dreary bookkeeping details and overly polite give-and-take. At the same time, there are those — and, full disclosure, I am among them — for whom this kind of shop talk from an adored poet and her serious editors is uncut catnip."
- Diana Silver on Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser: "Edward Glaeser, a Harvard professor of economics, has spent several decades investigating the role cities play in fostering human achievement. In 'Triumph of the City,' he has embedded his findings in a book that is at once polymathic and vibrant.... Clearly, Glaeser loves an argument, and he’s a wonderful guide into one. 'Triumph of the City' is bursting with insights and policy proposals to debate. Sometimes that’s a bit of a problem: there’s a lot of policy in this book, but not a lot of politics. It’s about ideas, not implementation.... No matter though. If separating ideas from implementation can leave you a little lightheaded, you’ll still walk away dazzled by the greatness of cities and fascinated by this writer’s nimble mind."
- Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum on House of Prayer No. 2 by Mark Richard: "The journey from an odd and difficult childhood to a literary career is not unfamiliar, but the method by which Richard charts his path is unconventional. What’s most striking in his account is the total absence of an 'I.' One could argue that the power of memoir stems from the act of bearing witness — from both the intimacy and the authority of the first-person voice — and that a memoir’s appeal lies largely in the tone of that voice. Yet Richard deliberately chooses detachment over intimacy or winsomeness."
- Charles on The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale: "Benjamin Hale's audacious first novel, 'The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore,' is a tragicomedy that makes you want to jump up on the furniture and beat your chest.... 'The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore' is a brilliant, unruly brute of a book - the kind of thing Richard Powers might write while pumped up on laughing gas.... When the novel's antics aren't making you giggle, its pathos is making you cry, and its existential predicament is always making you think. No trip to the zoo, western Africa or even the mirror will ever be the same."
- Dirda on Endgame by Frank Brady: "Of recent sacred monsters, none is so fascinating and disturbing as Bobby Fischer.... Happily, Frank Brady's superlative 'Endgame' is a biography more than worthy of its charismatic subject. The first half might be likened to an imperial triumph, as the young Fischer progresses toward the world championship of chess; the second half, equally enthralling, depicts what is the human equivalent of a slow-motion train wreck."
- Carolyn See on Moneymakers: The Wicked Lives and Surprising Adventures of Three Notorious Counterfeiters by Ben Tarnoff: "This tale of counterfeiting is a treat for everyone. If you want to be prepared for any occasion, start by ordering up half a dozen copies to hand out to your inarticulate brother-in-law, that uncle who spends too much time in the garage, any hardworking office slave or an adolescent who daydreams about making a living without having to do any work.... I'd read 'Moneymakers' again and again before handing it to my brother and uncle for their information and amusement."
- Valerie Sayers on A Widow's Story by Joyce Carol Oates: "Is it perverse to suggest that Joyce Carol Oates's memoir of widowhood is as enthralling as it is painful? Oates has always focused her writing so intensely that virtually all her prose is compelling, but this brave account of her recent grief seems composed with something close to abandon. It is as if Oates has decided, after the sudden death of her husband of 48 years, that her own inclination toward privacy is no longer important."
Los Angeles Times:
- Richard Rayner on The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers: "'The Riddle of the Sands' has been described by John le Carré as the foundation stone of the contemporary novel of espionage and the creation of an archetype — the smart, resourceful loner who finds himself in danger but manages to cope. The book does indeed predict not only Le Carré's Smiley but also John Buchan's Richard Hannay, the best heroes of Eric Ambler's wonderful books … and even James Bond.... 'The Riddle of the Sands' retains its ability to thrill and surprise perhaps because it's a one-off, penned by a gifted amateur, a man who was only beginning to suspect how history might, like wind gusting along an estuary, change the course of his own honor and loyalty."
- Susan Salter Reynolds on Swamplandia! by Karen Russell: "'Swamplandia!' the novel is magical realism, American style; lush language, larger-than-life surrealism, a vertiginous line on every page between hopes, dreams and reality, a disorienting mirage of a book. What holds it all together is the voice. Russell's writing is clear, rhythmic and dependable, even as her imagination runs wild."
Wall Street Journal:
- Gabriel Schoenfield (an author, it should be mentioned, of a book called Necessary Secrets) on Inside WikiLeaks by Daniel Domscheit-Berg: "Domscheit-Berg describes an organization dominated by an increasingly mercurial, narcissistic and dictatorial man whose actions threatened to subvert whatever success WikiLeaks could claim for itself.... More than anything else, there is remarkable shallowness to Mr. Domscheit-Berg's memoir. He spends more space detailing the gossip in hacker circles or chronicling mundane matters (dinner one night was 'meat, potatoes, and cauliflower') than addressing the profound questions of secrecy and openness in modern life. Nonetheless, by blowing the whistle on the world's most famous whistleblower, Mr. Domscheit-Berg has performed a public service."
Globe and Mail:
- Elizabeth J. Duncan on A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley: "[I]n this remarkably self-possessed girl, Alan Bradley has created one of the most endearing protagonists the traditional mystery genre, typified by the works of Agatha Christie, has seen in a very long time.... But, as satisfying as the mystery is, the multiple award-winning Bradley offers more. At this point in his series with the charming and quirky titles (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag), he allows Flavia to reveal her insecurities and frailties so readers who found her insufferably precocious in the first book, with her vast knowledge of chemistry and just about everything else, may warm to her in this one."
- Jenny Turner on A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness: "She decided, in answer to her own question, that nowadays vampires and witches would probably work, like her, as academics. Vampires would stick to science – the long hours in chilly labs would suit them. Witches would do well in the humanities. It's a neat concept, and easy to see why the publishers were hooked.... As will be obvious by now, this is a very silly novel. Characters and relationships are stereotyped. The historical background is a total pudding. The prose is terrible. And yet, the ideas have just enough suction, somehow, to present an undemanding reader with some nice frissons."
- Nicola Barr on The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan: "Like all the good love stories, this one is both unique and universal: it's impossible not to nod along in recognition. For all the cutesiness of the form, it is a refreshingly grown-up story of a love affair between adults who should know better but haven't learned a damn thing. Levithan is a generous, warm-hearted writer, and his conceit feels original, a brave way of articulating the fictions we create for ourselves in relationships."
The New Yorker had a double issue last week, so nothing new this week. You'll need the time to catch up with Lawrence Wright's giant piece on Scientology.