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A Book Review Review

Saturday, January 29, 2005
    Not Just a Right Bastard, but THE Right Bastard

    I'd previously mentioned on Beatrice that David Orr, the critic who put me in the New York Times, was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle last week. Now I'm able to tell you why, thanks to Tingle Alley's reporting: four essays from the NYTBR and this essay from Poetry, which explores the controversial terrain where poetry meets personality:

    "If youíre going to review a Larkin book, youíre going to do a lot of sighing over the poetís racial slurs, spiteful quips, and dirty magazines. But why is that? Why do we feel the need to judge a Larkin or a Lowell or a Pound ó or at least to judge them morally?"

    In part, Orr explains, it's because we want our poets to adhere to strict rules of behavior and public image, and "weíre less forgiving of poetsí misbehavior if the misconduct also seems to be a departure from these personae. In this, weíre not unlike William Bennett, the famous moralist, Clinton assailant, and slots player." Viewed from that perspective, "Larkin played a part we thought we might like--Common Man--yet he did things we donít want to think are common at all. That we find hard to forgive."

    posted by ron @ Saturday, January 29, 2005 | Permanent link

Friday, January 28, 2005
    Hello, Stranger...

    When I wrote about Wyatt Mason on Proust, I didn't realize that Seattle's sassier alternative newsweekly The Stranger ran an article by Charles Mudede that same week about The Proust Project, a group entry by 28 writers in the Summarize Proust competition that includes short essays on their favorite passages of In Search of Lost Time. "What real readers of Proustís novel want are answers," Mudede says:

    "They want to know why this particular passage is more enchanting than that enchanting passage. They want a critic who can accurately determine where Proust gets his special form of juju from. And if the critic can do that, then they want him or her to expose the means by which this special juju mesmerizes the reader so easily and so effectively. An account of a childhood or college experience will not resolve these pressing matters directly but indirectly--which is why the best that the best of the personal accounts in The Proust Project can do is contribute to the mystery of their selected passages. But what you and I want is less sorcery and more answers; we need treatments that will help neutralize the powerful spell Proust has cast on us.

    Or, to put it a slightly more squirm-inducing way, "If a reader of Remembrance of Things Past wants to become a magician instead of the subject of a magicianís unearthly powers, then he must do his best to get a hold of Proustís Ariel, pull him out of the air, strap his delicate body to an operating table, open him up (rib cage apart, gooey heart squeezed to a stop), and examine the grape- and olive-colored organs of the creature who charmed his ears with Debussian music, his eyes with Whistlerian colors, and his mind with Bergsonian philosophies." Um, right.

    posted by ron @ Friday, January 28, 2005 | Permanent link

    Blogging Has No East Coast/West Coast Rivalry

    Personal matters will call me away from the book review reviewing on Monday, but I've received a very gracious assist from Mark Sarvas, the creator of what Los Angeles magazine (PDF) recognizes as one of that city's seven most essential blogs: The Elegant Variation. He already knows what he's going to write about, and, boy, is he ready to lay down a hurting, so brace yourselves. Circumstances permitting, I return Tuesday.
    posted by ron @ Friday, January 28, 2005 | Permanent link

Thursday, January 27, 2005
    Following Up Some of Our Top Stories So Far...

    (1) More reviews for Haruki Murakami. In London, The Sunday Times, Hugo Barnacle calls Kafka on the Shore "a disciplined mix of the thriller, the fantasy genre and the literary novel" with "a certain peculiar conviction." (Read a bit from the first chapter and see if you agree.) Tobias Hill tells readers of the daily edition the book's "as nutty, funny and silly as any of those that have come before it," but "not Murakami at his best."

    Here in the U.S., Robin Vidimos (Denver Post) calls the novel "a near-mystical river trip into a foreign land" that "requires a floating suspension of disbelief to accept," but finds it worth the effort. (Well, Vidimos's exact words are "hardly a waste of the reader's time," which would seem to overlap with Hill's opinion.) Michael Shelden (Baltimore Sun) has unreserved enthusiasm for Kafka; upon completing the book, he insists, "you won't be sure whether you've just encountered a great Japanese novelist pretending to be a hip American or a great American novelist pretending to be a disaffected Japanese intellectual." (Yes, that's the Michael Shelden whose Graham Greene bio came this close to suggesting Greene committed the Brighton Trunk Murder; this British review of that book is notable for being authored by Peter Parker, who currently has an Isherwood bio out.)

    Finally (at least for now), Paul Lafarge (Village Voice) admires Murakami's ability "to cobble together a world that's lifelike enough to hold the reader's attention out of what are, at bottom, gross abstractions." He adds, "He has been compared to the American minimalists Chandler and Carver, but the comparison is inapt; minimalists believe in getting the details right, whereas for Murakami the details are an impediment to seeing the whole picture." Adding Chandler to the minimalist pantheon's a bold touch, but Lafarge may be on to something there. He doesn't love the book unconditionally, but he does embrace the flaws more fully than other critics who have simply proposed that it's time to pay Murakami respect--for Lafarge, Kafka is 'so strange that even its chestnuts take on an air of mystery," and become part of the overall effect.

    (2) As the real-or-made-up debate continues to swirl around Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep, Caitlin Macy (WaPo) informs readers the novel is set at "a (remarkably thinly) veiled Groton" that contains "a character who is a dead ringer for [my] husband." Macy almost certainly scores points with WaPo colleague Jonathan Yardley for declaring the novel's heroine "no disaffected Salingeresque anti-hero coolly outing phonies," and she praises the frankness of Sittenfeld's depiction of her protagonist's adolescent sexual desires (in all its "throbbing, undeniable legitimacy") without the awkward conflation of character and author that marked Daniel Asa Rose's NY Observer review. Meanwhile, in California, Nerissa Pacio (San Jose Mercury News) applauds the "unflinching, nuanced character study" as Jesse Berrett (SF Chronicle) recognizes "one of the most tender and accurate portraits of adolescence in recent memory." So tender and accurate, in fact, that "its relentless self-consciousness is too much to take, at least for readers who are not teenagers."

    posted by ron @ Thursday, January 27, 2005 | Permanent link

Wednesday, January 26, 2005
    "Reality is inside the skull."

    Michiko Kakutani (NYT) tackles Robert O'Harrow's "unnerving" No Place to Hide, which depicts the security-industrial complex that's taking shape right now in America, "not a futuristic place conjured in a Philip K. Dick novel or Matrix-esque sci-fi thriller." But is O'Harrow's reporting really " uncannily reminiscent of the world imagined by Orwell" in 1984? I didn't quite think so when I called the book "a thought-provoking, comprehensive account that strikes the right balance between dismissive and alarmist" in PW a few months back (read chapter one). Other reviewers are equally reluctant to invoke Big Brother so strongly.

    Miguel Helft (San Jose Mercury News) praises O'Harrow for revealing "the extent of the capabilities of the data-collection industry," which "have become virtual intelligence services in their own right." Though he warns that "unchecked government surveillance inevitably leads to abuses of power," Helft doesn't suggest things are quite so bad yet. Ryan Singel (Wired) believes "O'Harrow here shows himself to be one of the nation's finest reporters," but adds, "There is no J. Edgar Hoover in O'Harrow's book, no figure intent on keeping tabs on every anti-war protester using the latest technology." Which would probably stand as a refutation of the Orwell theme, even though Singel later states "there is much to fear in a world where FBI agents use grand jury subpoenas and Patriot Act powers to cull millions of records from a major city's businesses." Still, he points out, following O'Harrow's lead, this isn't a case of Big Brother trying to squash dissent but of basically well-intentioned people who believe they are acting to preserve freedom.

    Over at Mother Jones, Matthew Brzezinski does, in fact, warn that the "secretive new alliance" between corporate data collectors and federal law enforcement "could, if left unchecked, irrevocably alter our notions of freedom." But even one of the most liberal publications in the nation admits "the brains behind the security-industrial complex are not setting out to create an Orwellian state, but rather to use cutting-edge technology to track down murderous extremists." (Although, Brzezinski notes drily, "these bureaucrats and entrepreneurs are not very adept at proving that they are working in our best interests.") Maybe other reviewers in days and weeks ahead will pick up the Orwellian theme; for now, though, Kakutani seems to be the only critic quite so stirred up by O'Harrow's reportage.

    posted by ron @ Wednesday, January 26, 2005 | Permanent link

Tuesday, January 25, 2005
    At the Risk of Offending All My New Readers...

    After noting the sexual explicitness of several recent releases, Jerome Weeks (Dallas Morning News) explains Toni Bentley's The Surrender to what I presume is a family readership. Now, the opening line, calling the book "wince-inducing for its subject--anal sex," is pretty funny, but what gets me is the bit about how "Ms. Bentley finds her Big Release in an unexpected place." (No word, however, on whether he says "it reads like a sex guide from Pluto" because she likes it doggy-style.)
    posted by ron @ Tuesday, January 25, 2005 | Permanent link

    Yes, But Is it "Genuinely Insect Repellent"?

    Jonathan Yardley (WaPo) appears to be the first major reviewer to take on Bret Lott's Before We Get Started, which isn't too surprising since it's a trade paperback guide for aspiring writers, not exactly a genre that gets the reviewers's blood racing. Except, apparently, Yardley's...and not in the good way, as he invokes the specters of Gissing and London to attack Lott as an example of how "the rise of the writing schools has added whole new universes of meaning and possibility to hackery," not to mention "smug, self-referential and self-obsessed, literal-minded and careerist to a fare-thee-well." Plus the book itself is "genuinely repellent."

    Tingle Alley has already pointed out that Lott probably lost any hope of a good WaPo reviewed when he cited "J.D. Salinger's stupendously overrated little novel," Catcher in the Rye, as an inspiration, which to Yardley "suggests nothing so much as arrested adolescence and makes all the more dubious [Lott's] claim to have sound counsel for aspiring writers." It's a shame Yardley couldn't think of any better books by writers about writing more recent than those by Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty to steer readers towards; in the last few months, I've found much to like about John Dufresne's The Lie that Tells a Truth, for example. But perhaps it's an even greater shame that the material circumstances of the book's publication won't lead to many other reviews, creating a huge gap between Yardley's slam and the generous assessment by an anonymous Publishers Weekly reviewer who believes "Lott advances a case for a new and radically more hopeful genre of fiction," adding, "He imparts his own brand of wisdom on writing and the world of publishing with resounding candor and sincerity."

    posted by ron @ Tuesday, January 25, 2005 | Permanent link

Monday, January 24, 2005

    ...to the official unveiling of Beatrix. I put together a few things last week so there'd be something when you all showed up; the items below should give you a fairly good idea of where I'll be taking this blog. Please note that the list of links to book review sections at newspapers and magazines is very much a work in progress, one to which I'll be adding rather frequently.

    When I told folks last week I was doing this, one friend asked, "For the love of God, why?" I gave him a flip answer about publicity and traffic-building, which isn't exactly false, but there's a deeper reason: I'm a book reviewer, and I'm always trying to figure out how to make myself a better one. Seeing what makes other people's reviews work (or not work) is part of how I do that. Though I'll try to keep that in the background, so you just get to see the entertaining bits.

    (As to how the name came about...honestly, when I told Douglas I'd be interested in blogging about books for AJ, after Terry was kind enough to put us in touch, he asked me if I had any ideas for what to call such a blog; this is the first thing that came to mind, and nothing else could dislodge it.)

    posted by ron @ Monday, January 24, 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...)


Registration Required?
Some of the newspapers and magazines below require readers to submit personal data before offering up access to their content. If you'd rather not hand over your personal information, try the username "ajreader" (or, if they want an email, add "@artsjournal.com") and the password "access" or "access1." If that doesn't work, the website BugMeNot can provide you with other dummy registrations to most publications with such policies.

Newspapers (US)
Baltimore Sun
Boston Globe
Chicago Tribune
Dallas Morning News
Dallas-Fort Worth Star-Telegram
The Forward
Los Angeles Times
Miami Herald
Newsday (New York)
New York Sun
New York Times
Rocky Mountain News (Denver)
San Francisco Chronicle
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Village Voice (NY)
Washington Post

Magazines (US)
The Atlantic Monthly
Mother Jones
The New Republic


A Sampling of Book Blogs

Book Angst 101
Conversational Reading
The Elegant Variation
Literary Saloon
Maud Newton
The Millions
Moby Lives
Moorish Girl
Old Hag
Rake's Progress
The Reading Experience
Sarah Weinman
Tingle Alley



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AJBlog Heaven
    A Book Review review
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    on the future of music
  Tommy T
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  Midori in Asia
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    June 22-July 3, 2005

  A better case for the Arts?
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    Classical Music Critics on the 
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  Sticks & Stones
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    Bob Goldfarb on Media
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