Reviewing the Reviewers: Post-Oscars Edition
by Darryl Campbell on February 28, 2011
Shake off your post-Oscars disappointment (or ease yourself down from your post-Oscars euphoria) with some reviewer-vetted great reads:
New York Times:
- Michiko Kakutani on Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton: "Though Ms. Hamilton’s brilliantly written new memoir, 'Blood, Bones & Butter,' is rhapsodic about food -- in every variety, from the humble egg-on-a-roll sandwich served by Greek delis in New York to more esoteric things like 'fried zucchini agrodolce with fresh mint and hot chili flakes' -- the book is hardly just for foodies. Ms. Hamilton...is as evocative writing about people and places as she is at writing about cooking, and her memoir does as dazzling a job of summoning her lost childhood as Mary Karr’s 'Liars' Club' and Andre Aciman’s 'Out of Egypt' did with theirs."
- Janet Maslin on The Adults by Alison Espach: "Although 'The Adults' is quite a good novel, it is easily underestimated. On the surface this is the coming-of-age story of a disaffected girl in wealthy, leafy Connecticut, and please, please try not to start yawning. The book is better than its title. Its sweep is larger than might be expected, its fine-tuning more precise. And the girl, Emily Vidal, is a lot more interesting than the sum of her spoiled suburban parts."
- Scott Hutchins on The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier, one of Amazon's Best Books of February: "All across the world, human pain — physical, and maybe spiritual — has been made visible. Brockmeier devotes his considerable gifts of description to the illuminated wounds of his characters, using lush, quiet prose to detail their cancer, abuse, self-mutilation and just plain old age...'The Illumination' is a hymn to such suffering, and though the novel isn’t always as dynamic as it might be, on this point it never fails to be deeply felt and precisely observed."
- Zoe Slutzky on The Night Season by Chelsea Cain: "The world that Cain creates is as dark and ominous as ever. The novel's greatest menace is the weather, which transforms Portland’s familiar topography into something less than welcoming. Flooded and obscured by rain, the city becomes wild, unknowable: 'The thin wisps of trees lining the sidewalk shuddered, bare-leaved, in the wind. The whole world glistened wet and black, like the Pacific Ocean at night.' When the storm nearly levels its downtown, the sudden shifts in perspective are vertiginous, and thrilling. This is the mood that Cain has mastered: the dread of knowing something is off, but not being able to see it clearly. It is what presses her readers onward, pulses rising along with the waterline."
- Anna Mundow on Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer by Wesley Stace: "There are strong echoes here of Evelyn Waugh's 'Brideshead Revisited,' but Leslie Shepherd is no Charles Ryder. An arch and often snide narrator who embodies the arrogance and xenophobia of his age (he hates Wagner and German culture in general), Shepherd repels sympathy...[midway through the novel,] Shepherd's tone becomes more intimate and the narrative more opaque. A love triangle takes shape, but who are the players? As hints of forbidden passions and shameful secrets multiply, Stace's novel -- which has until then been clever and a little pretentious -- becomes morbidly engaging. The final twist is both affectingly pathetic and suitably operatic."
- Stephen Levingston on Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College by Andrew Ferguson: "Ferguson cuts through the muddle to elevate the discussion and deliver some powerful big-picture analysis. We learn the tortured history of the SAT and how it has become 'the most passionately controversial element in the world of college admissions.' We get a stark portrait of the one-way trend in college costs. Ferguson recalls that his annual tuition bill in 1978 at the small liberal-arts college he attended was $5,100. Adjusted for inflation, his price tag today would be $16,500 - far below the $40,000 his alma mater now charges. He combs over College Board handouts explaining how to pay for school and is repeatedly reminded that $143 billion in financial aid awaits students. He wonders for all of us: 'Maybe it's good news that $143 billion was available for aid. But isn't it bad news that we need the $143 billion in the first place?'"
Los Angeles Times:
- Susan Salter Reynolds on The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok: "Mira Bartok's memoir of her schizophrenic, homeless mother, Norma, is relentlessly sad. Unlike memoirs like 'Angela's Ashes' or 'The Liar's Club,' there is very little triumph over tragedy in the author's life; no forgiveness, no 'closure.' There is only this beautifully constructed, richly detailed book...'Someday,' Bartok writes, 'I will live in a quiet green place, off a winding country road. My house will be small but warm, and the rooms awash with light. The floor will be terra-cotta red.' 'The Memory Palace' is proof that the author has been constructing that safe place, if only in her imagination, for her entire life."
The New Yorker:
- James Wood on Open City by Teju Cole: "At these moments, and, indeed, throughout 'Open City,' one has the sense of a productive alienation, whereby Cole (or Julius) is able to see, with an outsider’s eyes, a slightly different, or somewhat transfigured, city. It is a place of constant deposit and erasure, like London in the work of Iain Sinclair (or in Sebald's 'Austerlitz'), and Julius is often drawn to the layers of sedimented historical suffering on which the city rests. There is, most obviously, the gaping void of Ground Zero: “The place had become a metonym of its disaster: I remembered a tourist who once asked me how to get to 9/11: not the site of the events of 9/11 but to 9/11 itself, the date petrified into broken stones.' But there were streets before the towers went up, cleared to make way for the new buildings, 'and all were forgotten now. Gone, too, was the old Washington Market, the active piers, the fishwives, the Christian Syrian enclave that was established here in the late 1800s...And, before that? What Lenape paths lay buried beneath the rubble?'"