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About Tom Nissley

Tom Nissley knew he wasn't like the other kids when they assigned Thomas Hardy's "Return of the Native" in 10th grade and he spent dreamy afternoons in Wessex with Clym Yeobright and Eustacia Vye (Eustacia Vye!) and then came back to school to find that everybody else thought it was "boring."

Posts by Tom

Reynolds Price, 1933-2011

Quarter_NorthCarolina_Price When Randall Kenan contributed his list of essential North Carolina books for our Books of the States project a couple of years back, rather than choose a single example of Reynolds Price's books, he just said "Reynolds Price," and Price himself seemed a natural choice as the N.C. writer to honor on the spurious state quarters we were concocting back then. He was raised and educated in North Carolina, and after a Rhodes scholarship took him to Oxford, he returned to Duke, his alma mater, where he remained, teaching writing and Milton, for the rest of his life. For over a quarter century, following a battle with spinal cancer in 1984 that he wrote about in the acclaimed memoir, A Whole New Life, and that, he says, opened the most productive period of his writing life, his legs were paralyzed--confining him to, as he put it in his Paris Review interview, an "existence as a seated man"--and today he died at the age of 77 in Durham, following a heart attack this past weekend.

Price was a legend and an institution, but not the sort of writer associated immediately with a single book. Instead he was known for the consistent and prolific quality of his vision and his loyal attention to the rural North Carolina where he was raised, "the place," he once said in a quote everyone mentions, "about which I have perfect pitch." His first novel, A Long and Happy Life--and its knockout, snakey first sentence--was greeted in 1962 with the sort of hype and excitement that some writers never quite outlive, but Price was in for the long haul, and found some of his greatest successes in his later years, with novels like Kate Vaiden and Blue Calhoun and his series of memoirs, including Clear Pictures and the recent story of his time at Oxford, Ardent Spirits, and over time he wrote more directly about both his Christianity and his homosexuality.

Here's a list of his works:

Novels:

Stories:

Memoirs:

Poetry:

Faith and the Bible:

Essays:

You can read the New York Times obituary by William Grimes, in which Allan Gurganus calls Price "the best young writer this country has ever produced," and a lengthy one in the Charlotte Observer, as well as his Paris Review interview from 1990, an exceptionally congenial exchange with the novelist Frederick Busch, who confessionally reminds Price of the fan letter he'd sent him 20 years before. His discussion of his parents I think is worth quoting at some length:

They were almost too lovable, which is something I’ve heard very few people say about their parents. I think both my brother and I, who were their only children to survive infancy, have all our lives been handicapped by the fact that we seldom meet human beings as loyal, affectionate, or continuously amusing as our parents were. They were both grand talkers, and my father also had a thoroughly first-class verbal and gestural wit. He was a great comedian—and I’m thinking of Charlie Chaplin when I say that—though he never had a moment’s training nor a moment’s professional opportunity to exhibit it. Among all his friends, he was absolutely everybody’s favorite person to see. By the time I was born in 1933, he was a very serious alcoholic—I don’t guess there are any unserious alcoholics—but he made a deal with God when I was born. My mother and I were both in danger during her labor—I was one of the last American bourgeois children born at home—and my father vowed to God that if mother and I survived he would stop drinking. We survived, and he did. It took him a couple of years, but he did.

I learned about the vow very early; from that time forward I took on this unsleeping responsibility for my parents, especially my father. I thought they were children who were much younger than I and who needed all the care I could give. I don’t think that kind of backwards adoption is rare at all. I used to think that I landed myself in a fairly unique situation, but I continuously find people who tell me that their relations to their parents were almost identical to mine, above all if they were only children as I was for the first eight years of my life. So I just put in enormous years of love and sorrow, desperation and joy—enormous years of practice in managing the lives of these two rewarding but endlessly mysterious people and in trying to convince them that I was a valid third within their pairing; amazingly, I think they admitted me.

Then we admitted my brother when he came along, and as families go, I think ours was about as functional as they get. My parents also did something which . . . it’s rather awful to say, but which was another gift to me as a writer: they died when I was a young man. My father died when I was twenty-one years and twenty-one days old, which is like something out of William Butler Yeats. My mother died when I was thirty-two.

--Tom

Edgar Nominees Announced

Reposting old Jeff Buckley clips isn't the only thing that happens on Edgar Allen Poe's birthday (although unfortunately, this fine tradition no longer does): the Mystery Writers of America also announce the nominees for their annual Edgar Awards. Among the nominees: three books from our overall top 100 books of 2010 (Faithful Place, I'd Know You Anywhere, and Hellhound on His Trail). The winners will be announced on April 28.

Best Novel:

Best First Novel (by an American author):

Best Paperback Original:

Best Fact Crime:

Best Critical/Biographical Work:

Best Young Adult:

Best Juvenile:

Grand Master:

--Tom

Omni Daily News

Staying on message: Ron Charles gets a jump on the anonymous and apparently very earnest tale in O: A Presidential Novel, which will be released next week:

Dramatically, "O" suffers from its concentration on a pair of candidates determined to be civil and restrained. That would be nice for our country, but it's damning for a novel. The author seems incapable of competing with the outlandish real-life characters who have blessed and cursed American political life.

"Language as a toxic substance": Looking a little further ahead, Ben Marcus, a self-described accidental experimentalist, talks to Colin Winnette at HTMLGiant about his new novel, The Flame Alphabet, which will be available in a year:

It’s got scenes and a story and sometimes it might even be suspenseful.  It’s formally a lot simpler than my other books, and it felt entirely new to me when I wrote it.  I’ve never written a single book-length narrative that has a clear plot.  I loved being in such strange waters.  It made me feel vulnerable and confused and completely unskilled, and this drove me crazy enough to bring everything I had to bear on the writing of it.

That creepy Charles Wallace: Speaking of feeling vulnerable and confused, here's an early entry in the 90-Second Newbery contest that Lynette posted about last week, which manages to make A Wrinkle in Time feel pretty much as disturbing and bewildering as it did when I first read it [Via Vulture]:

"Senescent" does rhyme with "liquescent": And speaking of disturbing and bewildering, in honor of the 212th birthday of the alcoholic, cradle-robbing master of the macabre, Edgar Allen Poe, here is Jeff Buckley's dramatic reading of Poe's poem "Ulalume" [Via @randomhouse]:

Moving and shaking: Is the extensive USA Today coverage of Richard Rushfield's American Idol: The Untold Story the reason it's moving and shaking today, or is it just the start of season 10 tonight?

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

OMM_01-17-11
New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review cover features three story collections, including Francine Prose on The Empty Family by Colm Toibin: "For Toibin, memory seems not merely a function of the heart but proof that the heart exists. Even the least appealing of these mostly sympathetic characters is humanized or humbled by an immersion in the past.... Like the Dubliners who populate Joyce’s fiction, many of the people we encounter in these pages can’t escape the fierce, damaging winds gusting from their homeland. Revisiting their birthplace, they experience the pleasures of return, the shock of seeing how poorly reality compares with what they remember, along with a prickly awareness of all the reasons they left."
  • And Joyce Carol Oates on Gryphon by Charles Baxter: "Beneath the shadowless equanimity of Norman Rockwell’s America ... Baxter evokes something like the chilling starkness and human isolation of the work of Edward Hopper: that bleakly beautiful art in which mannequinlike figures are positioned without seeming awareness of one another, tentatively or clumsily posed, staring vacantly into space in scenes that both invite and repel nostalgia."
  • And Roxana Robinson on Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman: "Why in the world had I never heard of Edith Pearlman? And why, if you hadn’t, hadn’t you? It certainly isn’t the fault of her writing, which is intelligent, perceptive, funny and quite beautiful.... Pearlman’s view of the world is large and compassionate, delivered through small, beautifully precise moments. Her characters inhabit terrain that all of us recognize, one defined by anxieties and longing, love and grief, loss and exultation. These quiet, elegant stories add something significant to the literary landscape."
  • Thomas Ricks on The Longest War by Peter L. Bergen: "For years, I tried to read every new novel about how 9/11 affected our lives. Some were very thoughtful, but I always came away unsatisfied, feeling that the authors had worked hard but had somehow fallen short. As I read the stunning first section of Peter L. Bergen’s new book on the war between the United States and Al Qaeda, I realized I had been looking in the wrong genre. None of the novels were as effective or moving as 'The Longest War,' which is a history of our time.... Bergen’s, to my knowledge, is the first to credibly cover the global sweep of events over the last 10 years, exploring not just American views but also Al Qaeda’s." And on Tuesday, Kakutani agrees: "What makes 'The Longest War,' a new book by Peter L. Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst, particularly useful is that it provides a succinct and compelling overview of these huge, complex subjects.... For readers interested in a highly informed, wide-angled, single-volume briefing on the war on terror so far, 'The Longest War' is clearly that essential book."
  • Maslin on Chinaberry Sidewalks by Rodney Crowell: "Becoming a memoirist is a useful change of pace for a 60-year-old musician, especially when the memoir is as rip-snorting as this one. Those who know what a shapely verse Mr. Crowell can turn out may be newly amazed at his way with words when he simply writes sentences.... 'Chinaberry Sidewalks' also steers clear of the particulars of Mr. Crowell’s long career; if he wants to write another memoir, he’s got the goods."

Washington Post:

  • Yardley on Crowell's Chinaberry Sidewalks: "Rodney Crowell's memoir of his boyhood in southeast Texas is a wonder: wistful and profane, heartbreaking and hilarious, loving and angry, proud and self-lacerating.... Crowell emerges here as a prose stylist of energy and distinctiveness, a gifted storyteller who has, as it happens, an uncommonly interesting and deeply American story to tell.... It's a measure of the subtlety that Crowell brings to his portrait of his parents that he simultaneously is appalled by them and deeply loves them."
  • Charles on Caribou Island by David Vann: "Approach David Vann's first novel the way you would a fresh grave - with a mixture of fascination and fear.... Vann ... handles conflicted feelings of love and resentment, and the raw, existential cries of ordinary people, extraordinarily well. And although he's a graceful writer, he never spins the kind of poetic prose that infects too many literary novels with distracting prettiness. But is the ending too much, too Gothic, too masochistic in its determination to make these hapless characters pay for surviving, for imagining that hope isn't a cheat? As the final pages rise into the piercing registry of Cormac McCarthy - or Euripides - some readers may spot Vann's thumb on the scale, making sure every drop of agony is paid. But just wait: For a few moments after this perfectly choreographed horror, it's impossible to say anything at all."
  • Gerald Bartell on The Diviner's Tale by Bradford Morrow: "The words 'gentle' and 'quiet' are seldom used to describe a contemporary thriller, but they're apt terms for what works best in Bradford Morrow's 'The Diviner's Tale.' Here is a work in which no buildings explode, no one gets stabbed in the throat and no bang-up finish takes up the final 50 pages.... Instead, Morrow ... elicits frissons with gossamer descriptions of still moments that will have some readers drawing a sharp breath, as if they've heard a strange noise in the house."

Los Angeles Times:

  • David Ulin on Pearlman's Binocular Vision: "I'll confess: I had never heard of Edith Pearlman before reading 'Binocular Vision: New & Selected Stories,' a collection of 34 pieces of her short fiction going back more than three decades or so. That's on me. At the same time, had I been familiar with Pearlman for all those years, I would have been deprived of the great joy of discovering her, the thrill of coming upon a writer with an eye, and a command of language, so acute."
  • Ed Park on Yarn by Jon Armstrong: "It's a yarn about yarn, a tale about textiles in a furiously imagined far future in which the delirious thrills of white-hot couture get their naked-lunch close-up. It's a book for devotees of Lady Gaga and William S. Burroughs alike — if those groups aren't already secretly one and the same thing."

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

Omni Daily News

"Every novel is a license to obsess": Fiction superhero Michael Chabon is, by the testimony of his wife Ayelet in the comments (and yes, she still loves his curly locks), finally making his blog debut in January 2011, as one of the guests sitting in for Ta-Nehisi Coates this week. Among the news he brings: word about the Berkeley-set novel he's working on, Telegraph Avenue, and how it's led him back to the world of hip-hop, and, today, an account of his own bowdlerizing of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn when reading them to his kids this summer.

I wish I had known her: Who says there are no second acts in American lives? (Well, it was F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose own curtain fell at age 44.) This weekend saw the passing at the age of 92 of Ruth Cavin, who was in her 70s when she began a two-decade editorial career at Thomas Dunne Books that led to her being known as "The First Lady of Mysteries." Her lifelong family friend Mike Shatzkin posted a wonderful tribute to her that begins "The title of 'nicest person on the planet' is now open."

The Story of O: Who is the White House insider standing behind the time-honored pen name of Anonymous for the upcoming O: A Presidential Novel? The Week wraps up the speculation--including ex-Anonymous Joe Klein, departing press secretary Robert Gibbs, and even the bestselling author in the Oval Office himself. I'm not really convinced by any of the suspects, but my favorite alibi is Obama's longtime political advisor David Axelrod's, who colleagues say is "way too disorganized to have produced a novel in his spare time."

Moving and shaking: Spike and Tonya Lewis Lee's visit to The View today has caused their new picture book, Giant Steps to Change the World to, well, spike to the top of this morning's Movers & Shakers list.

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

OMM_01-10-11
New York Times:

  • David Carr on Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! by Douglas Coupland: "This is the kind of book that will deliver major annoyance to academics who have made a career out of deconstructing McLuhan’s effort to define the modern media ecosystem. But to a reader interested in a little serious fun, a dip into someone we pretend to understand but don’t really know, 'You Know Nothing of My Work!' is a welcome taunt. The book rewards by refusing to slip into the numbing vortex of academic discourse, taking a fizzy, pop-culture approach to explaining a deep thinker, one who ended up popularized almost in spite of himself."
  • Garner on The 4-Hour Body by Timothy Ferriss: "Mr. Ferriss offers advice about so many disparate things — not simply losing weight and building muscle and improving sex and living forever, but learning to hold your breath longer than Houdini (!) and hit baseballs like Babe Ruth (!!) — that paging through 'The 4-Hour Body' is like reading the sprawling menu in a dubious diner, quite certain the only thing you’d dare order is the turkey club. Here’s a better analogy: 'The 4-Hour Body' reads as if The New England Journal of Medicine had been hijacked by the editors of the SkyMall catalog. Some of this junk might actually work, but you’re going to be embarrassed doing it or admitting to your friends that you’re trying it."
  • Maslin on Three Seconds by Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom: "They know how to deliver the kind of stilted, world-weary verbosity that somehow quickens the pulses of this genre’s readers. Even better, they are on a first-name basis with the Seven Dwarfs of Scandinavian Noir: Guilty, Moody, Broody, Mopey, Kinky, Dreary and Anything-but-Bashful.... Fans of the genre are more apt to appreciate the devilishness of [its] plot details than the tiresome, vaguely flawed character development that comes with them."
  • Kakutani on Twin by Allen Shawn: "It’s a book that combines the sympathetic insight of Oliver Sacks’s writings with Joan Didion’s autobiographical candor and Mary Karr’s sense of familial dynamics — a book that leaves the reader with a haunting sense of how relationships between brothers and sisters, and parents and children, can irrevocably bend the arc of an individual’s life, how childhood dynamics can shape one’s apprehension of the world.... This deeply affecting book, like the author’s music, is both a love letter to his twin sister and an intimate reconstruction of the toppling emotional dominoes that her institutionalization set in play in their family more than half a century ago."
  • Stacey d'Erasmo on Annabel by Kathleen Winter: "We like to think of gender as a noun; we have a hard time understanding that it can be a verb as well.... Kathleen Winter’s first novel, 'Annabel' — a No. 1 best seller in Canada — is absorbing, earnest and in many respects quite beautifully written, but as often as it tries to fly into the open space that gender ambiguity creates, it is pulled back by convictions and assumptions that contradict, and deaden, its richer aspirations. Gender and desire want to ramble, but Winter dutifully presses them into the service of a feminist parable, depriving her story of much of its anarchic, unpredictable force."

Washington Post:

  • Eric Miles Williamson on Purple Jesus by Ron Cooper: "Though we've had our share of splendid chroniclers of America's good ol' boys, we've rarely had them rendered by a philosopher like Cooper, and perhaps never by an author with such a keen ear and unflagging precision.... The ending of 'Purple Jesus' is harrowing and perfect, Cooper being not only a master of language and thought, of dialogue and metaphor, but a brilliant plotsmith, too. Details seemingly random become crucial, and events and characters converge in an unexpected yet logical flourish. The publication of 'Purple Jesus' is a literary event of the first magnitude."
  • Carolyn See on Stolen World by Jennie Erin Smith: "I'm trying to think of the best way to say how absolutely marvelous 'Stolen World' is and wondering if the answer can't be found in the subtitle: 'A Tale of Reptiles, Smugglers, and Skulduggery.' Yes, it's got all that, along with screwball comedy and a subtle, understated sermon on ecological values. But wait! - as they say in those zany TV commercials - there's more! ... 'Stolen World' is a crazy history of the past 50 years of the reptile trade around the globe, but you could say its larger and loftier theme is the futility of much human endeavor."
  • Elizabeth Chang on Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua: "For a mother whose half-Chinese children played outside while the kids of stricter immigrant neighbors could be heard laboring over the violin and piano, the book could be wickedly gratifying. Reading it was like secretly peering into the home of a controlling, obsessive, yet compulsively honest mother - one who sometimes makes the rest of us look good, if less remarkable and with less impressive offspring. Does becoming super-accomplished make up for years of stress? That's something my daughters and I will never find out.... Readers will alternately gasp at and empathize with Chua's struggles and aspirations, all the while enjoying her writing, which, like her kid-rearing philosophy, is brisk, lively and no-holds-barred."
  • Maureen Corrigan on The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly: "[J]ust as 'Rebecca' has enthralled generations of female readers with its story of a mousy maiden's triumph over her glamorous beyond-the-grave rival, 'The Poison Tree' also offers the twisted pleasures of vengeance within its eerie narrative.... 'The Poison Tree' is graced with a distinctly druggy power.... Kelly gives readers a compelling creeper that intelligently invokes the conventions of the Gothic and plays within the doom-laden confines of the voice-over. More please, Ms. Kelly! Quickly!"

Los Angeles Times:

  • Michael Harris on Devil at My Heels by Louis Zamperini: "The man made the story — carved it out of the bedrock of his life, out of high achievement and almost unbelievable suffering — but the story also made the man. It gave him a vocation as evangelist, inspirational speaker and worker with troubled youth; it made him an authority on the toughness of the human spirit. And in the end, perhaps, the story defined and caged him, as our stories tend to do if we repeat them often enough.... Hillenbrand [in 'Unbroken'] takes nearly 200 additional pages to tell the story than Zamperini does in this crisp yet richly detailed account. She wants to probe the mystery of what makes people like Zamperini stronger than the rest of us. He just gives us the facts, which are extraordinary enough."
  • Ulin on The Wilding by Benjamin Percy: "Benjamin Percy's first novel, 'The Wilding,' manages to nicely subvert this [hunting trip] setup while setting up a tense back-and-forth narrative between those who've taken off and those who've stayed at home.... If it's a thriller you're after, 'The Wilding' doesn't disappoint, taking a story as old as the woods and fashioning it into something a bit sleeker and more psychological — a bit closer to where we live."

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

Omni Daily News

The Hand and the Hare: The Costa Book Awards, which are a biggish deal in the UK though no more well known here than the coffee chain that sponsors them, announced their five category winners last night (the twist with the Costas is that they then choose an overall Book of the Year from those five later this month). Only two of the five have been published in the US yet, but both of those were Best of the Month picks by this here team of editors in 2010:

Mr. Ross and Mr. Shawn: In what is a small dose of candy for a New Yorker-phile like myself, James Stevenson had a page-long graphic reminiscence in yesterday's NYT of his teenage clerkship in the eccentric halls of the magazine in 1945.

Local boy makes good drinks: We were all thrilled when we noticed today that our dear former colleague Brad Thomas Parsons (now guiding novelists through the wilds of Facebook and generally being a foodie-about-town in NYC) has a pre-order detail page live on Amazon for his upcoming book, Bitters: The Spirited Story of a Classic Cure-All, with Cocktails and Recipes. We knew you when, BTP!

Moving and shaking: Lori Gottlieb made an excellent case on All Things Considered yesterday for Elizabeth McCracken's "brilliantly funny and devastatingly painful" memoir of her stillborn child, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, sending it to the top of this morning's Movers & Shakers list.

Apparently, It Takes Time: The Second Life of a Political Classic

As anyone who frequents library sales knows (especially in the DC area, where I grew up), few kinds of books age more quickly than books on politics. (My god, how many books did Art Buchwald write?!?) It's true that modern classics like Theodore White's Making of the President series and Timothy Crouse's The Boys on the Bus are still in print, but it's a rare one that lasts (and I'd guess even those are kept alive by poli sci and history college course assignments). I love a lost-classic story of a book neglected or maligned at its launch and then kept breathing by readers' word of mouth for years after, and it seems especially rare to hear about a political book that has had that second life. But Ben Smith had a nice piece in Politico last week about just such a book, Richard Ben Cramer's What It Takes, his elephantine 1992 account of the 1988 presidential election, a busted would-be blockbuster when it came out but one that, it seems, has found a new generation of readers in young political junkies like Smith himself.

I remember when What It Takes came out: I was intrigued, but put off by its Caro-like enormity and even more so by its subject. The 1988 candidate lineup was a parade of blandness the likes of which our republic hadn't seen, at least since the Franklin Pierce era: George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, Mike Dukakis, Gary Hart, Richard Gephardt, Joe Biden. Admittedly Dole had a compelling life story and could crack wise with the best of them, and Hart and Biden are both serious weirdos (and weirdly serious) in a possibly interesting way, but still: as Smith says, "Who, four years after he lost, wanted to read 100 pages on Dick Gephardt's childhood?" (And to be honest, I'm still not sure I do...)

Clearly, the best character of all is Cramer himself:

When Cramer sold “What It Takes,” he was a celebrated foreign correspondent, having won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the Middle East for the Philadelphia Inquirer, then a hub of the novelistic “New Journalism,” whose icon, Tom Wolfe, he intensely admired. He covered the region from Rome, and he still dressed in the best Missoni suits, with rich red and purple undertones, white sneakers, and a red Rochester Red Wings baseball cap.

He didn’t want to be confused, he said, with “the guy from the Cincinnati Enquirer.”

“Even if they weren’t going to help me, they were going to know who I was,” he said in an interview conducted over port wine in his living room, washing down two massive steaks. 

The reviews of the book at the time were withering (the Boston Globe called it "What It Weighs"), and Cramer, scarred, left writing politics for sports (he's currently enmeshed in the life of another serious weirdo, Alex Rodriguez), but now even former critics like Maureen Dowd admit to admiring it. Meanwhile,
“What It Takes” had been passed — mostly second handed, apparently, as sales are still slow — from reporter to reporter and operative to operative, becoming the seminal text for another generation. And while the bad reviews dated fast, the book endured — in part because of the political operatives who found in it something real.
--Tom

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

OMM_01-03-11
New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: A feature on "Why Criticism Matters," featuring six critics justifying their jobs in the age of, among other things, the Amazon customer review. In part, it's a reminder to me that critics are often better when they have a specific object to write about, rather than a general topic like this. But unsurprisingly I found the most to like in Sam Anderson's piece, especially this bit, which helps explain both the fiction and the criticism that I too am drawn to: "My favorite work is always that which allows itself to imaginatively intermingle with its source text — to somehow match or channel or negate the energy of the text that inspired it. It can be imitative, competitive or collaborative; it can mimic or mock or scramble or counterbalance the tone of the source. It can be subtle or overt. But it will always have this doubled-over, creative quality: one memorable writer responding, in memorable writing, to another.... Balzac’s 'Sarrasine' is a new book, or set of books, now that Barthes has written 'S/Z.' 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man' is radically redefined by Hugh Kenner’s 'Dublin’s Joyce.' Updike’s career is a different thing in the wake of Nicholson Baker’s 'U and I.' Catullus is a different poet after Anne Carson’s 'Nox.' In the grand game of intertextuality — which is, after all, the dominant and defining game of the Internet era — critics are not just referees: they’re equal players."
  • I also liked this from Elif Batuman: "Negative criticism is particularly exciting, not only because of schadenfreude, but because once limitations are identified, we glimpse how to transcend them. Learning the shortcomings of today’s neuronovel, we catch sight of the psychological novel of the future: a novel expressive of the problems we have now, including the encroachment of cognitive science into the concept of the self. When this novel appears, it will be because some people wrote neuronovels and books like 'Proust Was a Neuroscientist' and others identified the ways in which these works captivated us but failed to describe human existence."
  • There were also regular old book reviews, like Geoff Dyer on The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt: "With its vivid haze of detail, 'The Memory Chalet' is the work of a historian forced to do without many of the tools on which he had placed the greatest reliance. It used to be said — maybe still is — that in the instant of death, your life flashes before your eyes. By prolonging Judt’s life the miracles of medical technology effectively extended the process of his dying over several grueling years. So what we have is that instant of compressed recollection expanded and expounded upon. It is the furthest cry imaginable — not a cry at all — from 'The Death of Ivan Ilyich.' You can almost sense the soul of the historian leaving his body, leaving the still-living body of work behind."
  • Matthew Sharpe on The Radleys by Matt Haig: "The vampire novel is a crowded genre these days. To distinguish itself, a book will need inventiveness, wit, beauty, truth and a narrative within which these attributes can flourish. 'The Radleys,' by Matt Haig, has got them, if sometimes in alloyed form.... With its striking visuals, snappy dialogue and high-energy plot, the story should make an appealing movie. But while the plot propels us forward, the novel’s big themes tend to get repeated rather than developed."

Washington Post:

  • Wendy Smith on The Lake of Dreams by Kim Edwards: "Edwards aspires to delineate the complex bonds of family and the tangled web of history in her tale of 'beauty and loss surfacing in every generation,' but her insights aren't always up to the level of her ambitions.... But some lovely descriptive passages display a more deft touch, prompting the hope that this talented writer will try to do less and execute more thoughtfully next time around."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Judith Lewis Mernit on Poser by Claire Dederer: "[G]oodness as it turns out is elusive and not terribly interesting for the same reason most books about yoga are unreadable: No one wants to hear about how good you are. We want to hear about how you tried to be good and fell short. And by doing just that, 'Poser' achieves something rare: It's a contemporary book about yoga that doesn't leave you squirming, suspect or bored."
  • Wendy Smith (again) on American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee by Karen Abbott: "Abbott ... needn't have bothered with these sensationally dubious tidbits; they don't add anything essential to the riveting narrative she's fashioned from more reliable material to tell an all-American story of triumphant self-invention shadowed by an inescapable past.... Abbott's empathetic understanding of a stripper whose greatest gift was concealment is her biography's principal strength.... At its core, 'American Rose' is a haunting portrait of a woman 'giving what she has to, keeping all she can,' offering her audiences a sassy, confident self while making sure they would never know the damaged soul who created her."

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

[An abbreviated holiday edition of OMM, with many publications running scaled-back review sections this week]

New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Dale Peck on My Prizes and Prose by Thomas Bernhard: "[P]erhaps it’s a good thing Bernhard isn’t more popular in the wide world. Perhaps acclaim of the kind he describes in 'My Prizes' would smother the idiosyncrasies of his texts with bland, universalizing exegeses. No doubt I’m contributing to that process with these words, in which case probably the best thing you can do is forget everything I’ve just told you and go read one of Bernhard’s books instead. Or, better yet, don’t."
  • Garner on Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss: "Described simply, 'Radioactive' is an illustrated biography of Marie Curie, the Polish-born French physicist famous for her work on radioactivity ... and her equally accomplished husband, Pierre.... Described less simply, it’s a deeply unusual and forceful thing to have in your hands. Ms. Redniss’s text is long, literate and supple.... The electricity in 'Radioactive,' however, derives from the friction between Ms. Redniss’s text and her ambitious and spooky art. Her text runs across and over these freewheeling pages, the boundaries between word and image constantly blurring. Her drawings are both vivid and ethereal. Her people have elongated faces and pale forms; they’re etiolated Modiglianis. They populate a Paris that’s become a dream city."
  • Jason Zengerle on Play Their Hearts Out by George Dohrmann: "The result is 'Play Their Hearts Out,' an often heartbreaking, always riveting exploration of the seamy underbelly of big-time youth basketball — and one of the finest books about sports I’ve ever read.... He’s a reporter, not a polemicist, and he’s comfortable letting the facts speak for themselves. And the facts at his disposal allow him to create a rich narrative. In Keller, Dohrmann found the perfect protagonist."
  • Dani Shapiro on Poser by Claire Dederer: "Yoga! Let the eye-rolling begin. But what makes 'Poser' work on a lot of levels is that first in line to ask searching questions and poke fun is the author herself.... 'Poser' is a powerful, honest, ruefully funny memoir about one woman’s open-hearted reckoning with her demons. I only wish that Dederer had trusted herself just a bit more. Ever the journalist, she has a well-honed instinct to provide backup, context, proof to support her circumstances.... Stop, I wanted to tell her. Breathe and stay still. Keep your gaze close to you. In the hands of a gifted writer, the universal is embedded within the personal."
  • Ben Macintyre on Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia by Michael Korda: "Most treatments of Lawrence’s life can be divided into debunkings and hagiographies. 'Hero' by Michael Korda, as the title implies, is closer to the latter category.... Yet into this baggy but beguiling biography, Korda, the author of several works of history, has also crammed the darker incarnations of Lawrence, the shy depressive, the tortured ascetic, the 'odd gnome, half cad — with a touch of genius,' in the words of one of his companions behind Turkish lines. This book, for all its worship of Lawrence, leaves the impression that his heroism lay in a unique brand of personal eccentricity, a refusal to fit into the expectations of others, an unshakable determination to do things his own way, however peculiar and wrong-headed this seemed."

Washington Post:

  • Dirda on Long, Last, Happy by Barry Hannah: "Before going any further, let me say straight out that I was a fool to have waited so long to discover Hannah. Agatha Christie mysteries we read for their plots, Sherlock Holmes stories we return to for their gaslight and hansom-cab coziness, but the very best writers we love for the sound of their sentences, the shiver of pleasure delivered by unexpected words and astonishing turns of phrase, by the way their language makes us feel glad to be alive. You don't pick up James Joyce's 'Ulysses' because you want to learn about the events in Dublin on June 16, 1904; you don't read Hunter S. Thompson because you want to find out about the nightlife in Las Vegas. What Joyce and Thompson offer is simply the glorious experience of the English language knocking your socks off. Barry Hannah belongs in this noble company. And then some."
  • Daniel Stashower on Mr. Hooligan by Ian Vasquez: "Vasquez has a bone-deep connection with his setting that transforms an otherwise conventional story line into a dark modern-day morality play, complete with a pot-smoking ex-nun, Sister Pat, who comments on the action from the sidelines.... The author's crisp dialogue and low-life atmospherics have drawn comparisons to Elmore Leonard, with whom he shares an abiding respect for the cruel loyalties that can lead decent men astray."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Susan Salter Reynolds on The Killing of Crazy Horse by Thomas Powers: "No one is even really sure of Crazy Horse's date of birth, and the ambiguity carries through to his death. Powers is determined to untie the knots, to find out how Crazy Horse really died and why. There is a sustained feeling of excitement throughout the book, a sense of the historian's hunt as Powers ferrets out the answers. At most junctures, there is more than one telling of events: Words that mean one thing in English mean something else in Sioux. In every newspaper report, the career and bias of the reporter are considered as well as the surge of public opinion at the time. With every firsthand report, Powers reveals the bias of the teller — his relationship to Crazy Horse, his investment in the myth of the man.... He writes that he is grateful for the firm foundation of primary sources. But Powers has also clearly inhabited this story, living in it as one does a home or a piece of clothing that holds meaning for the wearer."

The New Yorker:

  • Dan Chiasson on One with Others by C.D. Wright (subscription only): "It turns out that the literary genre least likely to get in the way of this story [one woman's life from the often-told Civil Rights Movement] is poetry, which, despite its reputation for gilt and taffeta, comfortably veers close to 'documentary' conventions. It comes especially close in Wright's angular strain of postmodern poetry, which draws on refractive techniques now a hundred years old: collage, extensive quotation, multiplicity of voice and tone, found material, and, often, a non-authorial, disinterested stance.... No longer disorienting, not yet shopworn, they are, for the reader, transparent, like a documentary camera: you can see right through them to the subject matter."

--Tom

Omnivoracious™ Contributors

April 2014

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