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A Book Review Review

Friday, January 21, 2005
    Critical Reaction May Be Linked to Cat Ownership

    John Updike (New Yorker) , Charles Taylor (Salon), and David Thomson (NY Observer) all published reviews of Haruki Murakami's latest novel, Kafka on the Shore this week. Thomson adopts a conversational tone, heavy on the plot synopsis, before throwing up his hands and admitting, "I don’t know whether this is 'magical realism' or whatever... I think it’s far more useful to study the bare-bones directness of Mr. Murakami’s prose, the professional insistence on seeing what happened next and how it happened, and then the nearly throwaway touch of poetry." He finds parallels in Murakami's verbal artistry to the visual style of Japanese film director Kenji Mizoguchi, and builds upon the cinematic metaphor by holding the "cutting" between dual narratives responsible for the story's allure.

    Updike also starts out with a fair amount of summary, but eventually finds his way towards a discussion of "Japanese supernature" as viewed through the country's indigenous cult:

    "Shinto, to quote the Encyclopædia Britannica, 'has no founder, no official sacred scriptures, in the strict sense, and no fixed dogma.' Nor does it offer, as atypically surviving kamikaze pilots have proudly pointed out, an afterlife. It is based on kami, a ubiquitous word sometimes translated as 'gods' or 'spirits' but meaning, finally, anything felt worthy of reverence. One of Shinto’s belated theorists, Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), defined kami as 'anything whatsoever which was out of the ordinary.'"

    Though Updike considers Kafka "more gripping than it has a right to be and less moving, perhaps, than the author wanted it to be," he still seems somewhat in awe of the novel...though to a lesser degree than Thomson and, for that matter, Taylor, who roughly mirrors Updike in believing "the book the author seems to think he's writing is less affecting than the one he's actually written." Despite that, he still recognizes that "Murakami's writing strikes a singular balance between the ascetic and the sensual;" bypassing Thomson's cinematic references, Taylor turns to Murakami's beloved jazz to explain how the author "does something in his prose comparable to what Miles Davis did in his great '50s work: His notes are spare but so carefully chosen that together they feel rich."

    Ultimately, though, Taylor confesses, "In big ways, Kafka on the Shore doesn't work." British novelist David Mitchell (Guardian), an admitted fan of Murakami, likewise concedes:

    "Detractors may also point to elements in Kafka on the Shore which repeat themselves throughout Murakami's work with enough regularity to smack of a checklist: portals into Lynchian inbetweenworlds; cool-as-Bogart semi-orphaned teenagers who think and have sex more how male middle-aged writers wished they had thought and had sex when they were teenagers than actual flesh-and-blood teenagers tend to; protagonists on quests for lost women; sexually frank assistants; hyperlinks to war-time paranormal experiences; random citizens who possess a more intimate knowledge of jazz, whiskey, coffee and chamber music than market research in Shinjuku would ever turn up."

    Yet Mitchell eventually makes his way to the point all the reviewers quoted above seem to be circling: though Kafka is "not one of Murakami's masterpieces," he says, "respect is due." (And speaking of respect, Murakami's frequent translator, Jay Rubin, has a thoughtful excerpt from Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words in which he discusses coping with Murakami's most violent scenes, a sentiment many reviewers might share after committing themselves to reading Kafka.)

    posted by ron @ Friday, January 21, 2005 | Permanent link

Wednesday, January 19, 2005
    'Cause I'm an Adult Now...

    Eleni Gage (New York Sun) trails a few days behind the initial reactions to Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep, and the novel reminds her that "youth isn't wasted on the young; it's endured by the young." This steers her into a long aside about celebrity teenagers, whose exploits "make my 30-year-old self wonder what I was doing all those years, wasting my youth when I should have been writing erotic diaries a la Italian literary sensation Melissa Panarello, or working on my singing career."

    Eventually, Gage circles back to the novel--which, being about a scholarship student at an illustrious prep school, doesn't really have much to do with the Olsen twins or Ashlee Simpson but, she proposes, serves as a corrective to the glamorous new public images of teendom that may plague adult women, by reminding us how dramatic even the most ordinary adolescent problems can seem when viewed from the inside. In the end, she confides, "I'm impressed with Ms. Sittenfeld's powerful, evocative prose, and newly content with my own life."

    posted by ron @ Wednesday, January 19, 2005 | Permanent link

Tuesday, January 18, 2005
    You Say Mad-A-Lin And I Say Mad-A-Leen

    Wyatt Mason (New Republic) weighs in the new team translation of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time (including the three volumes which, due to copyright restrictions, can't be published in the U.S. for years). But before he gets to that, Mason takes a long detour that kicks off with the observation that "everyone hates translations" and then explores why:

    "Sentimental, low-born, and bumbling; their work misleading, unclear, and crude: translators--the consensus would suggest--are in the business of turning gold into lead."

    Mason then goes on to show how translators from Jerome through Tyndale to Nabakov have struggled against that perception (and against the sacredness--literal or literary--of the original text) before coming to light upon Proust and his first English translator. "Reading the French," Mason observes, "one cannot argue the fact that Moncrieff's choices frequently are amplifications of Proust's prose. Although Moncrieff's English, taken on its own terms, is certainly attractive and clear, his consistent departures from the original French do serve to inform Nabokov's marginal 'This translator is insane.'" Mason then considers the revisions of Moncrieff before exploring the new translations, ultimately deciding:

    "After having spent the better part of four months reading the new Viking/Penguin Proust, and the old Kilmartin/Enright Proust, and the erenow Moncrieff Proust, I will tell you there is no comparing them. No matter the local differences aplenty, the global movements of mind and the quality of vision are undeniably, uniformly there. "
    Consider, by way of contrast, Christopher Hitchen's (Atlantic Monthly) observations last year; he focused primarily on Lydia Davis's translation of Swann's Way and decided, "I can't be the judge of whether Davis is right or wrong in saying that Kilmartin's ear for French is deficient. But... the laurels may go in the end to the one who has the superior feeling for English." He does admit, though, that in certain passages "it hardly matters whose English or French ear is the better; the acutest ear in Paris was Marcel Proust's, and there's no dulling it."

    For more insight in Wyatt Mason's approach to translation, Charlie Onion's interview is a good resource. At the very least, it may revive your interest in Rimbaud...

    posted by ron @ Tuesday, January 18, 2005 | Permanent link

Monday, January 17, 2005
    We Can't Wait to See Harold Bloom's Reaction

    It's actually somewhat surprising to see Jessica Winter devote major Village Voice space to reviewing Christopher Booker's The Seven Major Plots, which "compiles a Jungian taxonomy of stories, distilling the entire history of the fictive arts into a handful of flexible but unbreakable archetypes--Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, the Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth--and then extracts from those seven imaginative drops a single battle royal between Dark and Light." Surprising, in that I've read the book (I wrote the PW review, which will appear eventually) and I thought it rather a mess. The ideas in the first couple hundred pages, where those seven plots get enumerated, are mildly engaging (if dogmatic) literary criticism, but they are buried beneath painfully turgid prose. The slog only gets worse in the remaining two-thirds of the book, described accurately by Winter as "a cranky old man muttering to himself about the good old days before the Romantics slurred our speech with their befogging opiates and hippie dream visions."

    Over in England, Roz Kaveney (Independent) matches Winter's assessment:

    "No book on which someone as clever and diligent as Christopher Booker spends 30 years can be wholly worthless. It can, however, be wrong-headed and disappointing if... his extended reading and deep pondering has not changed him fundamentally."

    Kaveney also notes the "great white male" tenor of the criticism, concluding, "There are many virtues to the democratic spirit, and one of them is humility; a humility that sometimes stops intelligent men making asses of themselves in public." Another English reviewer, Kasia Boddy (Telegraph), also observes that "[Booker's] claims for universality, though, would have been strengthened by reference to non-Western traditions." (In defense, there are a few such citations, but she's right: not nearly enough.) She adds, '"The problem with Booker's [theory] is that its increasingly broad strokes require numerous elisions and distortions," citing his bungled presentation of the ending of Middlemarch; the first detail that leapt out at me was when he claimed High Noon had a happy ending. Adam Mars-Jones (Observer) nails Booker on the even dumber mistake of claiming Star Wars is set in the distant future; he also suggests that any critic who "ends up condemning Rigoletto, The Cherry Orchard, Wagner, Proust, Joyce, Kafka and Lawrence--the list goes on--while praising Crocodile Dundee, E.T. and Terminator 2" has some serious flaws in his thinking.

    The reviews aren't all bad, of course: John Bayley (Spectator) exclaims, "No critic could have a more penetrating sense of why the great and the good in literature have earned their classic status, or a better nose for detecting a comparable excellence in new or unexpected places." Hyperbolic praise like that, though, just makes one wonder how often Bayley gets out of the house. After all, saying that films and popular fiction can tell tales as engrossing as the Great Books isn't exactly a school of thought Christopher Booker invented.

    posted by ron @ Monday, January 17, 2005 | Permanent link

Sunday, January 16, 2005
    Charlotte Simmons Wishes She Could Be Lee Fiora

    I'd link to Daniel Asa Rose's (NY Observer) review of Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep, except that the Observer seems to believe that making money off its archives is more important than providing easy access to anything more than a week old. So you'll have to take my word for it when I tell you that Rose starts out by pitching the young writer as the Opposite Day equivalent of Tom Wolfe, "a gimlet-eyed novelist posing as a 14-year-old student," but in the second paragraph he begins an odd and somewhat creepy path of simultaneous infantilization and sexualization. Sittenfeld is "all grown up, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the author of a big-buzz debut novel;" later, Rose condescendingly notes the author's Cincinnati roots: "Ever notice how Ohio girls are the ones most enamored of the East Coast? Victims of the so-near-yet-so-far syndrome." (And remember, this is the way Observer reviewers treat the authors they like.) Moving along, Rose not only conflates Sittenfeld's attractiveness, literary and otherwise, with the sex life of teenage narrator Lee Fiora, with particular enthusiasm for the blowjob scene, he freely admits to his critical strategy:

    "Blame the publisher, who made the questionable decision to send out press materials that feature photos of Ms. Sittenfeld’s real-life Groton School junior class, and even of her heartthrob--presumably the recipient of her oral largesse."
    By the time Rose gets to his closing advice--"Keep the gimlet eye, kiddo, but lose the snobbery. With heart and talent like yours, it’s beneath you"--one wonders whether he even remembers the line between author and subject. Other reviewers seem to have kept a tighter rein on their imaginations. Caroline Leavitt (Boston Globe) praises the "boarding-school alumna" for "achingly funny authenticity," but doesn't belabor the point. Amy L. Stoll (Rocky Mountain News) doesn't even mention Sittenfeld's background as she rhapsodizes over the "pure, unrefined narrative on the transcendental experiences of adolescence."

    And though Elissa Schappell (NYTBR) hits many of the same talking points as Rose, including the "gimlet eye" and the pitch-perfect ear for dialogue, she goes out of her way to take the opposite tack in discussing the possible confusion between author and narrator:

    "Most novels are autobiographical in some way, first novels in particular. But even allowing for that, Prep, both in structure and in narrative, feels like a memoir. Without an author photo of a teenage Sittenfeld posed on the quad of an elite East Coast boarding school, we can't know. And it doesn't really matter."
    Are we to infer that Schappell didn't get that Groton class photo in her press kit?
    posted by ron @ Sunday, January 16, 2005 | Permanent link


BEATRIX archives

Ron Hogan is a freelance writer who reviews books and interviews writers for publications such as Publishers Weekly. He is also the author of an illustrated overview of American films from the 1970s called The Stewardess Is Flying the Plane, due out from Bulfinch Press in November 2005.

How did this season's hot books generate their heat? And why do other novels surrounded by buzz turn into duds? Beatrix, a subset of my longrunning literary blog Beatrice.com, openly speculated about these questions in the form of "book review reviews" from January to August of 2005.

Beatrice; or, Where It All Began
I first launched Beatrice.com in 1995 as a venue for author interviews. In late 2003, I switched over to a daily blog of news and commentary about books and authors. What you see here now is essentially one side of that blog's original makeup, the side that dealt with how books were received by the literary culture. The full blog contains not only these "book review reviews," but news items about various writers and original insights from the authors themselves in the form of interviews, blog excerpts, and guest articles.


Write Me:

(syndicate this AJblog)


I'll Show You Mine
One of my regular gigs is as a freelance reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Although some people have a problem with anonymous reviews in PW, I'm all for them in general principle (though I think embargoes are a crock, but that's a different story)...anyway, I'd like to give any reveiwers who might be reading this the same opportunity to critique me, so I'll look into whether it's kosher for me to pull back the curtain. And I'll try to land some assignments with bylines, too. (In fact, if you're reading this, and you can assign book reviews...)


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