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A Book Review Review

Friday, February 4, 2005
    Look at That Mountain, Look at That Tree

    Since I noticed the LA Weekly profile of Bruce Wagner earlier this week, the Carolyn See (WaPo) review of The Chrysanthemum Palace certainly caught my eye (and, in the interests of full disclosure, the fact that I know See enough to say hi to if I ever run into her certainly didn't hurt). Although I'm still not sure about the opener:

    "What does it mean to be famous? Do the famous like to be mean, sucking attention from other people's lives? Do they intend to be that way? If they were aware of it, don't you think they'd wrap themselves in crime-scene tape to keep innocent bystanders away? But the innocent--just a nice word for stupid, after all--would probably wail and crawl and beseech: 'Isn't there any room behind that tape for me?' And the famous, many of them mean by trade and mad for attention, would say, 'Sure. Let me loosen this tape, and we'll get you tied right up. There. That's the end of you.'"

    Because, to be honest, I don't know that I buy into the assumptions of the second question, and I really don't think the famous would wrap themselves in crime-scene tape. But then I get through the plot synopsis to the part where two characters hang out at the bookstore where I got my start in the book trade (and, for that matter, where I met See), and that's cool, although there's a lot of synopsis and little criticism until you get to the last two paragraphs, and that opener never does seem to really hook up with anything, other than maybe you might think Bruce Wagner characters should be wrapped in crime-scene tape, I suppose. And parts of the actual criticism I don't agree with, either, like: "This is certainly a roman clef. But to play guessing games about who is who here is fair neither to the characters nor the writer." Well, I agree with the second sentence because I disagree with the first; writing a novel set in a world recognizably similar to our own does not automatically make that book a roman clef, even if it's written by somebody who lives in that world and even if there's a fairly obvious starting point for some elements, which is to say that just because Wagner's Starwatch series equals Star Trek doesn't mean his character Perry Krohn, who created the fictional show, equals Gene Roddenberry. (For that matter, the whole point of genuine roman clef as I understand it is that there's very little actual "guessing" involved as to who's who, and that the events depicted are understood not to be very fictional at all.) We should be able to appreciate a novel not because of how closely it mirrors historical reality, but because of how closely it mirrors emotional reality. But then I think See would agree with me there.

    Not very many reviews on this book yet, so we may have to come back to it later, but we do have Lev Grossman (Time) putting in his two cents on "Wagner's fifth satirical novel and his fifth set among the moguls and movie stars of Hollywood. Which makes you wonder whether there's really any muck left in Hollywood for him to rake." It's a clear case of literary snobbery towards the show biz world, made even more obvious by Grossman's later assessment: "Wagner boldly goes beyond satire... He finds surprising depths to plumb, even in the land of the superficial." I'm not quite sure why it should be surprising to find depth in the emotional lives of people in the entertainment industry, and I think he's got a very weak idea of satire, which at its best is full of depth and there's no surprise about it. Grossman seems to be presenting satire simply as making fun of fairly obvious targets, when it's really about taking on obvious (and sometimes not so obvious) targets with a very specific critique behind the attacks. And not necessarily mocking them--as the work of Dawn Powell, another satirist of great depth, proved, some of the best satire comes when you fully embrace the humanity of the characters you want to noodge, and you come to accept their flaws as you discover their strengths.

    posted by ron @ Friday, February 4, 2005 | Permanent link

Thursday, February 3, 2005
    Epileptic Reviews That Won't Drive You Mad

    You may recall that on Monday, special guest star Mark Sarvas hit Rick Moody hard for his NYTBR review of the graphic novel Epileptic. So I was a little curious about whether anybody else had anything to say about the book, and in a way that wasn't quite so full of "stupid blanket generalization." And, behold, Stephanie Zacharek (Newsday) describes it as one of the best iterations ever of a literary form where 'words and pictures together amount to a very specific breed of nonverbal poetry." It's also "a bracingly candid memoir, not just for the way it understands how a serious illness can infiltrate the very fiber of family life (whether it weakens it or strengthens it is almost beside the point), but for the way it captures the hostility--mingled, confusingly, with love and empathy--that one person's illness can evoke in the people closest to him." Zacharek also has some useful insights into the graphic qualities of the book, and she gets her point across in a way that advocates for the book's strengths with a welcome minimum of comic book defensiveness. Yes, she hits the "graphic novels really are literature" note early on, but she doesn't linger, and she doesn't try to oversell it.

    Wil Moss (Nashville City Paper) will probably lose a few graphic novel fans by describing Epileptic as "a 360-page tome as deep as anything in literature" (because, you know, graphic novels really are literature), but then again, maybe not, because this guy knows his comics: in one sentence on David B.'s "brilliant, inky and dark style," Moss works in references to Marjane Satrapi, Taiyo Matsumoto, and Daniel Clowes. Jonathan P. Kuehlein (Metro Toronto) is also a comic book reviewer, so his brief but insightful description of the "meaningful and magisterial work" is wedged next to collections of Plastic Man and Swamp Thing. The Times of London puts Tim Teeman on the case, and while Teeman does place the book squarely in a comics context he never suggests that it's anything less than literature. Although, strictly speaking, the article's about as much an interview with David B. as it is a review of the book, maybe more so.

    posted by ron @ Thursday, February 3, 2005 | Permanent link

Wednesday, February 2, 2005
    And Lenny Bruce Is Not Afraid

    Jared Diamond's Collapse was a easy selection as one of this season's hot books; who's going to want to pass up the latest from the guy who made "guns, germs, and steel" the greatest trio since X, Y, and Z? Heck, Diamond kicked off 2005 by publishing what might as well have been his book proposal as a NYT op-ed (for an actual excerpt, try Seed magazine). So what have the critics been saying? The first obvious place to look is the cover of this week's NYTBR, which promotes Gregg Easterbrook's take, in which he wonders "what literature might be like if every author knew so much, wrote so clearly and formed arguments with such care." On the other hand, he thinks Diamond is "probably wrong," and he feels the same way about the last book, so it's not all love and kisses. It is, however, a long and thoughtful review which really gets into the nuts and bolts of Diamond's arguments.

    Malcolm Gladwell (New Yorker) also pays close attention to Diamond's writing, but holds his evaluative cards fairly close to his vest, preferring to use his skill for anecdote and metaphor to describe Diamond's ideas rather than judge them; e.g., "societies, as often as not, arent murdered. They commit suicide: they slit their wrists and then, in the course of many decades, stand by passively and watch themselves bleed to death." When he does get around to expressing an overt opinion, the revelation that "his discussions are always nuanced" is so subtle you might miss it. On the other hand, it's also pretty plain that Gladwell wouldn't spend so much time on Collapse if he weren't fascinated by it. Stewart Brand (Wired) is less enthusiastic, but still thinks Collapse is "a great work of case study." Scott McLemee (Newsday) would agree; he pegs the book as "a wake-up call to address a potentially global ecological disaster," but doesn't say all that much about his personal critical reaction.

    Robert S. Desowitz (Scientific American) believes Collapse "may well become a seminal work, although its plea for societal survival through ecological conservation is rather like preaching to the choir" and, he thinks, Diamond throws in a bit too much detail. He concludes that you should read it even if you don't end up liking it, because it will "challenge and make you think," which I personally find one of the Great Book Review Copouts, but your mileage may vary (and, frankly, I've leaned on the same crutch myself when I couldn't figure out a better ending, though I've made a conscious effort to stop). St. Andrew's historian Gerard de Groot (Scotsman) points to the Easter Island chapter as especially "fascinating and frightening," especially since the island's plight "might be a metaphor for the modern world." He also admits reading the book "scared the hell out of me":

    "Diamond describes himself as a cautious optimist. He ends the book with some suggestions as to how we might navigate our way out of the mess we have made. But for me, that was the least convincing part of the analysis. I suspect we might all be doomed."

    (You might also want to look at Matthew Yglesias's notes, or Christopher Farrell's (Business Week) rave for more perspectives.)

    posted by ron @ Wednesday, February 2, 2005 | Permanent link

Tuesday, February 1, 2005
    Easing My Way Back Into the Hotseat

    Thanks again to Mark for filling for me yesterday. I just got back home a few hours ago, so I'm going to start off slow and work my way back into full book review reviewing by picking an article that's already been picked over by two great bloggers, Moorish Girl and Sarah Weinman: Wendy Shalit's NYTBR essay on Orthodox Jewish-American fiction.

    Or, to be more precise, fiction by Jewish Americans "[a]uthors who have renounced Orthodox Judaism--or those who were never really exposed to it to begin with," who "have often portrayed deeply observant Jews in an unflattering or ridiculous light." The problem with the premise is that while Shalit's rather good at picking out unflattering phrases--from Jonathan Rosen's novel Joy Comes in the Morning, for example--the extent of her literary criticism seems to be labeling the authors of books that portray the Orthodox unflatteringly as "outsider insiders" who haven't "logged real time among the haredi" (like, we're told, Shalit has). There's even a thinly veiled accusation of what one might describe as internalized anti-Semitism, to the extent that such fiction, in her eyes, "actually reveals the authors' estrangement from the traditional Orthodox community, and sometimes from Judaism itself." She clinches this line of argument by asking, "[D]o some readers want to believe the ultra-Orthodox are crooked and hypocritical, and thus lacking any competing claim to the truth?"

    As Moorish Girl points out, attacking the authors (or even the readers) is not the same as making an argument about the content of the books, and saying that Nathan Englander's short stories were "fictional" isn't much of a criticism. Here's her best shot at a literary thesis: "[B]efore there can be hypocrisy, there must be real idealism; in fiction that lacks idealistic characters, even the hypocrite's place can't be properly understood." This is, of course, simply wrong, as any reader of noir, a genre in which idealism is often defined by its absence, could have told her. The idea that readers can't understand Character Trait A without a counterexample of Character Trait B also implies a lack of intelligence on the part of those readers that Shalit frankly seems to consider a given; e.g. "Englander's sketches were fictional, but did most people realize this?"

    I especially love this howler: "The Outside World is meant to explain 'the retreat into traditionalism that has become a worldwide phenomenon among young people,' but the uninformed reader might wonder why any young person would want to be part of such a contemptible community." There's another shot at the "uninformed reader," too stupid to make inferences about the veracity or reliability of what she's reading, but what really makes this hypothesis fall flat is Shalit's failure to recognize that young people quite frequently fall in with wrong crowds because, well, they're young, and they want to feel as if they belong with somebody. This failure of empathetic insight is rather striking when one considers that Shalit hasn't even turned 30 yet, even more so when you remember she wrote an entire book that practically begged young women to stop "be[ing] part of the contemptible community" she claimed had been created by the sexual revolution.

    UPDATE: Sara Ivry (Nextbook) takes Shalit to task, branding her a "young scold" who wants fiction about the Orthodox to stand as "affirmation of her life choices."

    posted by ron @ Tuesday, February 1, 2005 | Permanent link

Monday, January 31, 2005
    Rick Moody: Worst Critic of his Generation?

    Mark Sarvas of The Elegant Variation here, standing in for Ron.


    I'd sent our esteemed host an email on the following subject a few days ago, and since he's been called away on personal matters, he suggested that I might step in directly while he was away.  Now, Ron is noted for his civility, whereas I'm noted for my case of advanced pottymouth and generally unsophisticated thinking, so don't delete your Beatrix bookmark if I temporarily lower the standards around here but, as the parable of the tortoise and the scorpion reminds us, we can't fight our nature.


    The cause of my ranting email to Ron was the one-two punch of disbelief I experienced reading Rick Moody's near-incoherent review of Epileptic by David B. in last Sunday's NYTBR.  (Yes, I know it's a week late but you have to factor in fulminating time.)  The "one" of the punch was the foolishness of the offending review itself but the even more potent "two" was that no one called him out on his shabby criticism.  Now, I suppose that because Moody has already been "Peck"-ed to death (one should probably qualify for a lifetime amnesty from criticism after being a victim of Peck's quill), others may have given him a generous berth.  But the review is full of such screaming boners that I'm frankly kinda stunned that no one's cried foul yet.  And since Ron's mission is to review the reviewers, this seemed a worthy forum to examine some of the particular infelicities on display.  Let's dive right in, shall we?


    Moody writes:  "Among the reasons for this popularity is that comics are currently better at the sociology of the intimate gesture than literary fiction is."


    This is such a stupid blanket generalization that I'm not even sure where to begin gainsaying it, but come on.  Does he really believe this, or is he merely seeking to provoke?   I understand that saying "That's stupid" is not a terrific rhetorical tool, but it does seem that some statements are so prima facie ridiculous that no other response will suffice.  Or, if we're opting for a bit more nuance, we might try, "Well, actually Rick, you're wrong.  By a profoundly long shot."  The "sociology of the intimate gesture" (which is, in itself, one of those poetic but nearly meaningless descriptors, but we'll play along with it for now) is the very stuff of literary fiction and it strikes me as a particularly brazen and empty assertion to make that comics are somehow better at this. 


    There's more, sadly.  He goes on:  "Literary fiction, obsessed on the one hand with defending itself against the popularity of cinema, is too preoccupied with story."


    Again, one wonders what sort of "literary fiction" Moody is on about these days.  In fact, it's one of the biggest mainstream knocks against literary fiction that it's not especially narrative heavy.  Why does no one call him on nonsense like this?  A merely cursory list of "plotless" literary fiction titles would probably bring down the AJ servers.


    And then:  "You read this kind of social observation only infrequently today."


    I think Ron and I could cobble up a fairly comprehensive reading list for Mr. Moody, don't you?  It's probably fair to say that the recent much-criticized NBA nomination list suggests that perhaps Moody is looking in the wrong places.  In fact, the pile of galleys that adorn my desk (and Ron's no doubt) seems at times to be concerned with little more than just that.


    Then there's this rickety little construction.  "Just as the European novel has a different set of concerns from its American relations, so does David B.'s story have preoccupations we might not ordinarily find in a graphic novel."


    Now, to quote Will Ferrell in Zoolander, did I take a crazy pill?  Has no one noticed that the first part of this statement bears no logical relationship to the second part?  (Perhaps he should have specified "American" graphic novel, which would make it merely sloppy editing instead of sloppy thinking.)  But as to the larger point, of course European novels differ from American ones.  As do Northern ones from Southern ones.  And urban ones from rural ones.  And Spiegelman from manga.  Is this what passes for critical commentary these days?  This is the sort of annoying space filler that should drive smart readers nuts.


    Once he sets aside the masturbatory introductory antics, he actually has some useful and interesting things to say about Epileptic.  But the discerning reader has long since turned the page.


    OK, I've vented.  I feel better now.  Tomorrow, civility returns to Beatrix.  Godspeed, Ron.  Your readers need you.

    posted by ron @ Monday, January 31, 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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