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A Book Review Review

Friday, February 11, 2005
    Our First Reader Suggestion!

    Well, the first one I've used, anyway. At least, the first one I've used that came from a reader not associated with a major newspaper. Anyway... Reader M. says Gideon Lewis-Kraus's (SF Chronicle) take on Kafka on the Shore is "by far the broadest and most intelligent of any reviews I've read," even though he didn't agree with Lewis-Kraus in the long run. The review opens with a good summary of Murakami's publishing history (and, consequently, the rise of his reputation) in America, then comes around to "the most ambitious and lucid account thus far of Murakami's wide-ranging and deftly entwined thematic concerns," which he also describes as "a book bursting with skillfully overdetermined symbolism--designed, with astonishing success, to evoke the vivid and rich associations of the unconscious."

    There's a lot of plot synopsis, but it's done in a way that weaves in comments on the story's symbolic levels, and finally Lewis-Kraus works his way around to the moment of more direct judgment, in which he skillfully connects Kafka to the two main strands of Murakami's fiction, "the antic tragicomedy and the coming-of-age-inflected tender love story," but winds up suggesting that "in trying to be both kinds of Murakami novel, it manages to be neither." He puts the blame on the author's "taste for characters that carry on through a thoughtfully ironic stoicism," which in this case undermines a story that depends on "the painful acquisition of equanimity rather than its unflappable expression." Is Lewis-Kraus right? I don't know yet (though the Significant Other might have an opinion on the matter). What I do know is that Reader M. was on the right track; I'd put this with Updike's New Yorker take on the top of the list of Kafka reviews that have crossed my path.)

    posted by ron @ Friday, February 11, 2005 | Permanent link

Thursday, February 10, 2005
    "Murakami Haruki Is One of My Favorite Authors"

    I've looked at reviews of Kafka on the Shore, the new Haruki Murakami novel, more than once already, but new reviews from Laura Miller (NYTBR) and Claire Dederer (Newsday) came out this week, so bear with me for another round!

    Murakami lands the front page of this week's NYTBR (sharing it with Glen Duncan, sure, but he's there), and Miller begins with a fairly obvious assessment: "It is easier to be bewitched by Haruki Murakami's fiction than to figure out how he accomplishes the bewitchment." Well, yes; this is generally considered to be a hallmark of great writing; if we could figure out how great writers accomplish the bewitchment, after all, we'd all be doing it. Actually, though, she goes on to imply that Murakami's novels are bewitching despite ordinarily uncompelling components, artfully arranged to leave readers "convinced they've made contact with something significant, if not entirely sure what that something is."

    Part of how he does this, Miller believes, is that "the unreal elements are handled so matter-of-factly that they could hardly be called 'far away' from the realistic ones; the two coexist seamlessly." But in celebrating the simplicity of Murakami's prose, she may risk washing out the genuine strangeness John Updike picked up on in his New Yorker review and pegged as a uniquely Japanese vision of reality in which the real and the unreal may "coexist seamlessly," but the unreal is still no less unreal or jarring for that.

    "While anyone can tell a story that resembles a dream, it's the rare artist, like this one, who can make us feel that we are dreaming it ourselves," Miller concludes. Dederer takes the opposite tack; for her, Murakami's fiction works because he's "just as interested in the real as he is in the fantastic," and coming from a reviewer who seems to hate fantasy--after all, she asks of the novel's unreal elements, "how can we tolerate all this nonsense, anyway?"--this is rather high praise indeed. She invokes the metaphor of a "three-legged stool" to describe Kafka:

    "One leg is the surreal, the fantastic, the over-the-top. One leg is the cultural life of Murakami's characters. And one leg is the texture of everyday life."

    And it's because the real is so real, she decides, that she's willing to accept the unreal. (I wonder how she feels about Bulgakov?) Contrast these two wildly divergent, but equally close, readings of Murakami with Janet Maslin's (NYT) reassurance to readers who think the "trippy" storyline might be too much for them. (Not just "trippy," mind you, but "laid-back [and] hallucinatory.") Don't worry about the wacky ideas characters in the book have about reality and dreams, she says; "great moments in metaphysics do not hinge on such loosey-goosey locutions." Then again, you might not even want to bother after she warns you about the "overbearing... pretensions," "needlessly jive" language, and an "uninspired" narrative structure. (She even knocks the typeface for trying too hard.) It's one of the harshest pans Kafka has gotten yet; apparently Maslin isn't buying into the reputation Murakami enjoys as an "internationally cherished" author, a reputation that has softened the blows from some of the book's earlier reviewers.

    posted by ron @ Thursday, February 10, 2005 | Permanent link

Wednesday, February 9, 2005
    Send This S.O.B. the Bedbug Letter...

    Steve Weinberg (Baltimore Sun) is fed up with authors like Kitty Kelley and Bob Woodward passing off stuff in books as nonfiction without providing references for everything, and he's not going to put up with it anymore, except that he immediately acknowledges that he sorta needs to:

    "The shame is that nine of Woodward's 12 books lack meaningful sourcing--no footnotes, no endnotes, no bibliography. As a result, readers who care about the origin and quality of Woodward's information are left mostly in the dark. This is not a campaign to halt the reading of Woodward's books. They are too important to be ignored. The boycott could take the form of a refusing to buy those books without sourcing. Go ahead and read a library copy, but make sure to give the publisher an earful."

    Yeah, that'll show them.

    "I would never buy a book that purports to fall into the category of serious nonfiction if it lacks an index," Weinberg adds, which is why he can't stand a lot of true crime books and celebrity memoirs. Of course, I'm thinking: this guy's a book reviewer. How many books does he really buy? It turns out he's a freelancer rather than a staff reviewer, but still, he seems to read an awful lot of these unsourced books he hates so much, and if he won't buy them, they must be coming from someplace...

    "I find it especially disturbing when books on scholarly subjects by academic authors issued by university presses lack indexes." All I can say is that if you put down Peter Turchi's Maps of the Imagination, a brilliant meditation on the places where literature and cartography intersect, and all you can think about is that the index is missing, you should stop reviewing books and get a job as a copy editor, where you'd be a lot happier. I mean, a guy who complains about 'books that include indexes, source notes and bibliographies--but the source notes and bibliographies are placed at the end of each chapter," because "I personally prefer all the sourcing in one place," just plain has issues.

    One thing worth pointing out: to Weinberg, this is purely a matter of intellectual sloppiness and/or laziness. In some cases, that may be an accurate assessment. In other cases, I'd imagine that the explanations for the lack of a reference infrastructure is purely economic: People need to get paid to create an index, and it can cost money to beef up a book's page count to include an index and/or other back matter. That jacks up the price of the book, and the types of unindexed books Weinberg hates need to be priced to move in order to be successful.

    posted by ron @ Wednesday, February 9, 2005 | Permanent link

Tuesday, February 8, 2005
    Add Hitchens to the "Respect is Due" Roster...

    Since I've read and reviewed Love, Poverty, and War, the new collection of essays by Christopher Hitchens, I'm curious to see whether other reviewers shared my guarded enthusiasm. (And my reservations weren't necessarily about Hitchens's break with the Left, but with some of the book's sillier pieces, not to mention that seeing the man who tore Mother Teresa's corpse a new one engage in sentimentality is somewhat disconcerting, to say the least.) So this weekend, I eagerly turned to Colm Tóibin (NYTBR), who recognizes that "Hitchens is happiest when he has an enemy and least happy when he is most content." He also pulls the same quote on Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 I did--"a sinister exercise in moral frivolity"--which made me feel rather in touch with the zeitgeist, I'll admit. "When he is not being mean and when he is not happy, he can write as well as George Orwell," Tóibin observes, but though he finds Hitchens's polemics against those Americans who chose to blame 9/11 on U.S. foreign policy "passionate and, even in retrospect, persuasive," he does think Hitchens has gone down a bit of a wrong path since then; nevertheless, "his next move should not be missed."

    John Giuffo (Village Voice) knocks the player-haters who've been dissing Hitchens since he split with the Chomskyites over 9/11, then considers the book as "a three-act autobiography, a snapshot of who he is now and how he has changed these past 12 years." He notes the "remarkably coherent discourse" of the book's "Love" section, primarily a collection of book reviews and literary appreciations, and perceives an effort on Hitchens's part "to explain the historical basis of his current political conviction." The review's not super-enthusiastic, but it does a good job of asserting that attention must be paid. And although these two reviews are all that Google News has turned up so far, I just know I'll be coming back to this topic in a week or so... and I can't wait to see how, say, National Review and American Prospect deal with this material.

    posted by ron @ Tuesday, February 8, 2005 | Permanent link

Monday, February 7, 2005
    The Newspaper that Cried Wolfe

    NYTBR essayist Rachel Donadio wonders what the college kids have to say about George Bush's new favorite novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons. First off, she lets us know that Tom Wolfe "has been written off by critics from The Times Literary Supplement to USA Today." What she doesn't mention is that over two months ago, the Book Review itself, at least in the form of Jacob Weisberg, was calling IACS "the weakest of his novels," nor does she remind us that a month before that, Michiko Kakutani hated it even worse. She also leaves out the fact that NYTBR published a lengthy excerpt, and that the Times magazine did a lengthy profile and the paper interviewed Wolfe's tailor... I mean, how much more attention does the Times plan to give this guy?

    "Reviewers have complained that I Am Charlotte Simmons fails as a novel [Donadio writes], since Wolfe never breaks free of the bonds of reportage to soar to the imaginative heights good fiction demands; that at 676 pages it's too long; and that, come on, college students aren't as debauched and lost as all that, are they?"

    Now, while it's true some critics have raised that last question, most notably perhaps Michael Dirda (WaPo), again it's instructive to look at what the Times itself has already said on the subject: Weisberg gives his own call and response, "Is this hellish vision of sex, drunks and gangsta rap the real life of American college students today? As always, Wolfe's notations are brutally precise." And Kakutani complained that "most of his observations will be overwhelmingly familiar to anyone who has been to college, sent children to college or gone to the movies." Both of which could, of course, fall under the first complaint on Donadio's list...oh, and if you want to see a whole bunch of Wolfe reviews, I was tracking them on Beatrice.

    As it happens, the revelations about the president's reading habits do inadvertently make this back-pager a little more timely. But here's the thing, at least for me: Donadio's essays have so far veered between, on the one hand, considerations of the rise of faith-based publishing and the alleged risk of censorship and, on the other, second looks at Tom Wolfe and Stephen Greenblatt... both of whom already received significant attention from the Review on their first go-round. We always hear about how book review real estate is becoming increasingly limited; I would suggest that the problem becomes even greater when review sections dip repeatedly into the same well. "News about the culture" is fine, but it's a big culture out there.

    posted by ron @ Monday, February 7, 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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