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Old Media Wednesday: Reviewing the Reviewers

OMM_01-31-11
[with apologies for the delay]

New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Paul Berman on The Neoconservative Persuasion by Irving Kristol: "[T]he largest of his inspirations was an insistent nostalgia for the America of his own youth — even if, in the title essay, he explicitly repudiated anything of the sort. But who in the world of sophisticated thinkers does not repudiate nostalgia? And who does not end up yearning, even so, for various Golden Ages of yore? Kristol’s yearnings were relentless, though. In his picture of American life, the virtues of long ago invariably seem more virtuous than the virtues of the present, and even the vices of the past turn out to be roguishly preferable to vices of more recent times."
  • Kakutani on I Think I Love You by Alison Pearson: "Though we know after two dozen pages or so exactly where this novel is headed, Ms. Pearson writes with such humor and affection for her characters that we’re perfectly happy to sit back and see how she steers her people toward that happy ending.... It showcases its author’s skills as an observer and her uncanny ability to render on the page exactly what it’s like to be a teenage girl, trying to navigate the merciless social hierarchy at school, while pouring all her yearnings into the impossible dream of somehow, someday becoming Mrs. David Cassidy and moving to Los Angeles."
  • Jennifer Gilmore on The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard: "One of the most impressive aspects of 'The Fates Will Find Their Way' is how it summons up the elements of a suburban youth, with each image reinforcing the idea that danger has a different meaning for the young.... Memories of even the saddest parts of this childhood — drunken fathers, dying mothers, raped girls — acquire a gossamer quality. And yet the grace of Pittard’s prose makes it difficult to feel the brute force of the book’s central tragedy: we don’t fully understand the boys’ obsession with the disappearance of this girl for whom they once pined."
  • Anthony Gottlieb on The Tell-Tale Brain by V.S. Ramachandran: "Because Ramachandran is an exceptionally inventive researcher who tosses off suggestions at a dizzying pace, readers may sometimes lose track of what is firmly established, what is tentative and what is way out there.... Even if mirror neurons turn out not to be quite as important as Ramachandran thinks — he has elsewhere predicted that they will do for psychology what DNA did for biology — the book is packed with other evidence that neuroscience has made illuminating progress in recent years. Reading such accounts of exactly what our brains get up to is apt to leave one with the disconcerting thought that they are often a lot cleverer than their owners realize."

Washington Post:

  • Charles on The Fates Will Find Their Way: "It's an arresting incantation, and I couldn't believe how strongly the story drew me back to events in my own life that I hadn't thought of for decades, tragedies that smoldered in gossip without the oxygen of any real information.... [But] the novel's voice seems weirdly incorporeal, lacking the visceral sense of what it's like to inhabit a breathing, sweating, working male body. These 'we boys' who grow up to become 'we men' are an oddly sensitive, feminine ideal of male consciousness, filled with quiet sorrow for the transgressions of men."
  • Dennis Drabelle on Shortcut Man by P.G. Sturges: "Sturges has an ample supply of authorial ingenuity, which he distributes throughout the novel. Besides saddling Dick with the burden of, in effect, investigating himself, he puts this shortcut man in the predicament of having 'to kill, convincingly, someone who never lived.' ... [O]verall, this is an assured and diverting performance, with an ending that should impress even the most seasoned fan of hardboiled detective stories. You thought every twist ending in the noir bag had been taken out and used up, P.G. Sturges seems to be saying as the book rushes toward its final page. Well, get a load of this."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Richard Rayner on While Mortals Sleep: Unpublished Short Fiction by Kurt Vonnegut: "The stories set themselves up with neat swiftness, proceed at a clip, and shut down with equal speed. They're very skillfully done, 'mousetrap stories,' as Dave Eggers describes them in his foreword, tales to be taken at a single sitting, with a twist or moral pill that comes so quickly at the end the reader scarcely notices it slipping down.... The endings of some of the stories feel glib or rushed, and that's maybe why they were initially rejected or heaved by Vonnegut into his own reject pile. But vibrating through many of them is the ache, the undercurrent of loss and sadness, that we associate with this most impish yet rueful of American writers."
  • Susan Salter Reynolds on Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty by Phoebe Hoban: "...a fascinating, highly voyeuristic and, at times, vicious biography .... Most of 'The Art of Not Sitting Pretty' is about Neel's transgressions as a parent. Reading the life of an artist, one wants to deepen one's understanding of the work — not judge the artist in her role as mother. Hoban goes too far.... Her work amounts to much more than the terrible sorrow she left behind."

Wall Street Journal:

  • Joseph Epstein on Never Say Die by Susan Jacoby: "Imagine a modern-day Cassandra but one ticked to the max. Ms. Jacoby notes that whenever she hears or reads the phrase 'defying old age,' it fills her 'with rage.' ... 'Never Say Die' is an attack on self-help health efforts and on the belief that medical technology, like the cavalry in a John Ford movie, will ride to the rescue....  One departs this book with the impression that the only protection against the depredations and sheer bloody horrors of old age are lots of money or a benevolent government watching out for one. But the experience of aging is richer, more complex, more subtle and philosophically interesting, I fear, than Susan Jacoby, with her feminist's depth and journalist's breadth, can hope to fathom."
  • Richard Hart Sinnreich on Between War and Peace: How America Ends Its Wars, edited by Matthew Moten: "Read as a reminder of that troublesome reality, the essays in 'Between War and Peace' are a timely and persuasive antidote to military hubris. But while Mr. Spiller may be right that the concept of decisive victory 'is not as useful as orthodox military thought has traditionally assumed,' that devaluation may say more about contemporary Western attitudes than it does about war itself."

Globe and Mail:

  • Scott Taylor on My Friend the Mercenary by James Brazebon: "When you combine the virtually lawless political environment in West Africa with ruthless mercenaries, desperate rebels, shady arms dealers, greedy oil executives, soulless intelligence operatives and the lure of illegal diamonds, you have a recipe for a spellbinding adventure story. With My Friend the Mercenary, first-time author James Brabazon certainly cooks this mix into a fast-paced page-turner."
  • Robert J. Wiersema on Don't Be Afraid by Steven Hayward (available on Amazon.ca): "That balance of conflicting elements and emotions – of sorrow and joy, of grieving and humour – is breathtaking in the way it manages to capture and convey the nature not only of the novel, but of life in general. Don’t Be Afraid will break your heart in both sympathy and empathic celebration. It is both an elegy and an enthusiastic affirmation, darkness and light. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll wish more books were like this."

The Guardian:

  • John Banville on The Immortalization Commission by John Gray: "John Gray has laid bare an astonishing seam of thanatological fantasising and psychical conspiracy running from late-Victorian English high society through the Russian revolution and the Stalinist terror to the computer age neo-spiritualism of today. The Immortalization Commission is a sober account of a hitherto almost unnoticed but remarkably widespread phenomenon – and also a romp of a read.... In this brief, modest-seeming yet profound book he makes his most compelling plea yet for man to come to his senses and stop dreaming of immortality, for himself and for the earth." And Richard Holloway agrees: "His vision is a fierce one, but it is ultimately one of compassion for poor deluded humanity. We flourish briefly like the flowers of the field and are cut down like the grass. Let us not waste our brief flourishing in vain longings."
  • Ursula LeGuin on Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolano: "Readers open to the autodestructive element of modern art may find the surrealist devices in Monsieur Pain more deeply engaging than coherent narrative. I find them curiously old-fashioned, overly cinematic, and all too close to self-parody. But this early Bolaño novel has a moral and political urgency that obliges me to accept its noir banalities. Its tortuous method of approaching the unspeakable reveals the face of evil without glamorising it, as popular literature and film so often do. By indirection it avoids collusion."
  • Antony Beevor on Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore (available on Amazon.co.uk): "The 3,000-year conflict provides a terrible story, which he tells surpassingly well, and although not his purpose, one that is likely to confirm atheist prejudices.... Montefiore's book, packed with fascinating and often grisly detail, is a gripping account of war, betrayal, looting, rape, massacre, sadistic torture, fanaticism, feuds, persecution, corruption, hypocrisy and spirituality."

The New Yorker:

  • Joan Acocella on J.P. Ackerley, especially My Dog Tulip and My Father and Myself: "The real fruit of Ackerley’s candor, however, is the power it lent his writing: the richness of characterization, the tartness of metaphor, the protection that honesty gives against sentimentality, or just a stupid simplicity. His portrait of his mother, whom he loved, is a study in wit and indirection. Netta was a sweet, kind, ineffectual, hypochondriacal, garrulous, silly woman.... But no one benefits more from his unflinchingness than his greatest character, Queenie. He knows that there is a measure of comedy in this passion of his for a dog, and that, to observers, the comedy was magnified by the fact—which he reveals only gradually—that Queenie was a nightmare to have around."

--Tom

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