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A Book Review Review

Friday, March 4, 2005
    Wrapping Up Some Odds and Ends...

    Following up on our previous encounters with H.P. Lovecraft reviews, we have Alan Cheuse (SF Chronicle) wondering aloud, "How many serious readers would have anything but the slightest awareness of Lovecraft as a pulp writer on the farthest fringe of the literary world except for this handsome new volume from Library of America?" I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that between the collection edited by Joyce Carol Oates and the Penguin Classics edition, the answer to that question might be "more than Alan Cheuse thinks." And that's before we go anywhere near the assumptions loaded into the term "serious readers," but if we started tackling that we could be here all day and into the night. The attempt to contextualize Lovecraft as continuing an American literary strain developed by Hawthorne and Poe is interesting, but his take on Lovecraft's horrific prose is all surface, offering nothing about why Lovecraft might have chosen to depict the world around him as inhabited by "living dead and hideous creatures from beneath the sea and outer space." Then, too, he just gets his facts plain wrong, claiming that Lovecraft returned again and again to "a monstrous pre-Columbian invasion of nearly indescribable monsters from outer space whom he dubs the Cthulhu." Well, perhaps "pre-Colombian" in the sense that the creation of the Earth is "pre-Columbian," but the characterization of the so-called "Ancient Ones" as monsters from outer space is primarily a later interpretation by August Derleth in his attempts to make Lovecraft's "Mythos" more coherent, and there is no such thing as "the Cthulhu," only Cthulhu himself, who "in his house in R'lyeh...waits dreaming." We have a slightly more reliable authority in Michael Dirda (Weekly Standard), and I'm not just saying that because he calls Lovecraft "the most important American writer of weird fiction in the twentieth century." Dirda acknowledges the criticisms reviewers like Laura Miller have made of Lovecraft's language, but nevertheless proposes that he "created a province of the imagination as vivid as William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County--and he did so in prose as distinctive and powerful as Ernest Hemingway's or Raymond Chandler's." More importantly, he probes the existential dimension to Lovecraft's tales that Cheuse ignores, adding a layer of substance to the stories that makes the decision to publish them in an LOA edition more comprehensible.

    Let's take one more look at The Orientalist, this time through the eyes of the Jewish press--which should promise to have an interesting perspective on the tale of a Caucasian Jew who reinvented himself as a Muslim prince, right? Think again: Elizabeth Kiem (The Forward) focuses first on Tom Reiss's efforts to discover the true identity of "Kurban Said," the author of Ali and Nino, noting how the biographer "diligently conducted interviews, pored over letters and manuscripts, and shuttled between Europe and the Caucasus to better pin down the author." She's less satisfied, though, when the biography expands into an "acceptable, if selective, social history of Weimar in which Essad Bey meanders like the hero of a Where's Waldo? book." Of the Jewishness of Essad Bey, né Lev Nussimbaum, she has much less to say, suggesting only that perhaps he converted to Islam because he admired a "multiethnic Oriental worldview." Aharon ben Anshel (Jewish Press) has even less to say on the issue, sticking almost entirely to recapping the story of the search for Said, though he does pick out the detail of Nussimbaum's efforts to convince Hitler that the Azerbaijanian Jews were descended from the Khazars. But all ben Anshel really has to say on the book, he packs into the final sentence, when he faintly praises it as "as much a history of a certain period as it is the story of a life," observing that "Reiss makes a yeoman`s work at determining the various influences of history that came to bear upon his protagonist." It's just really interesting to me: here's a book that, while I'm only a few chapters in, clearly has something unique to offer on the question of forming a personal identity in relation to nationalist and cultural pressures, and two media outlets who might reasonably be expected to treat that issue as meaningful to their core readership barely get past plot summary.

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

Thursday, March 3, 2005
    I Watch the Ripples Change Their Size...

    After reading the short piece on Francine Prose in this week's issue of New York, I was mildly curious to see what the word on the literary street was about her latest novel, A Changed Man. It's still a bit early in the review cycle, but we do have Mameve Medwed (Boston Globe), who praises it as "wonderful, dark, and hilarious," and Laurie Muchnick (Newsday), who declares, "This book has it all: great characters, dark humor, a racing plot and important themes." Both reviewers rely on snappy descriptions of the novel's setup and its main characters, citing Prose's effective interior monologues, and ultimately conclude that Prose "lovingly satirizes the world of wealthy New Yorkers" with an "eye as sharp as Tom Wolfe's" (Muchnick), displaying a " sly, wicked wit skewers philanthropists, fund-raisers, benefits, foreign adoption, class, TV talk shows, marriage, and all forms of political correctness" (Medwed). Medwed plays up the comedy angle more, though, with a favorable comparison to Mel Brooks. Undoubtedly the Brooks of The Producers rather than, say, Blazing Saddles.

    Benjamin Lytal (NY Sun) bypasses Prose's reformed Neo-Nazi protagonist in favor of a Holocaust survivor turned activist, a character Lytal feels "most interests Ms. Prose's subtle satirical mind," but then boils down the "excellent social novel" to a simple, digestible question: "Can too much good publicity hollow out good intentions?" I have a feeling Prose might like the "social novel" tag, but as we know from New York, all these invocations of satire are going to rankle. And there will, surely, be more to come.

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

Wednesday, March 2, 2005
    They Took the Wrong Way to Hollywood

    The "Page Six" gossip column of the New York Post caught up to filmmaker Quentin Tarantino over the Oscar weekend and apparently asked him what he thought of Sharon Waxman's Rebels on the Backlot, a collection of profiles of "Six Maverick Directors and How They Conquered the Hollywood Studio System." (They don't mention that it's published by HarperEntertainment, which is ultimately owned by the same guy who pays their salaries, but that's a different and all too common story at p6.) His reaction to being depicted as, according to p6, a "ruthless social climber"? "I don't give a [bleep] about her. Should I really give a [bleep] about Sharon Waxman? I got away scot-free in the Peter Biskind book... so I guess it's my due." One supposes that Waxman's male colleagues ought to keep their eyes peeled; p6 forgot to remind readers that the last time a woman wrote something about Tarantino he didn't like, he beat up her business partner. (Come to think of it, maybe when Stanley Crouch sucker-slapped Dale Peck last year, he was just living out his admiration for Quentin Tarantino as best he could...)

    But let's try to maintain some bookish focus: what do book reviewers actually think of Waxman's work? Robert Sklar (WaPo) observes that "no one comes out looking good, as is usual in the Hollywood-behind-the-scenes genre," but concedes that "Waxman tells a fast-paced and always absorbing story of how some of the most significant American movies of the era...got written, financed and made" and celebrates her "journeywoman legwork." David Gates (Newsweek) slams the writing (although it's not fully possible to accept the criticism that somebody uses journalistic clichés when you're told she "[can't] write a lick") while praising the "thorough research," but really isn't so much reviewing Waxman's book as reporting on its story, although he juxtaposes it quite interestingly with a new Orson Welles bio. Michael Machovsky (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review) highlights some of the behind-the-scenes tales, in what appears to be a profile-review (based on the number of "Waxman says" in the story), and observes, "What's amazing is how these directors pushed their often very unmarketable ideas through a studio system that seems designed to shoot down original ideas and sand the edges off challenging films."

    Rene Rodriguez (Miami Herald) picks up on that iconoclasm, contrasting Waxman's contemporary directors with the vanguard of "the last great era of American movies"--the 1970s (essentially duplicating the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls pantheon)--before concluding that the book "winds up heartily supporting the much-debated auteur theory, which claims that despite the collaborative nature of filmmaking, the director is ultimately the 'author' of a movie." An unnamed reviewer (Savannah Morning News) doesn't have a lot of space to discuss Rebels, but he comes away thinking "those rebels didn't quite conquer Hollywood... More and more, it looks as if they merely survived it."

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

Tuesday, March 1, 2005
    Too Good to Be Science Fiction or Fantasy...

    Last week, I mentioned in passing the NYTBR review by Tom Perrotta of Nice Big American Baby, a new collection of short stories from Judy Budnitz. As you might recall, he was generally enthusiastic; although he admits his personal preference against the "new unrealism" type of stories Budnitz usually writes, he also finds her work "wildly imaginative, frequently thought-provoking and occasionally maddening."

    Lydia Millet (WaPo), who has recently turned up on my literary radar, reviewed the Budnitz collection two days ago, finding it "offers much in the way of both emotion and imagination" and "dares to be magical without bothering about realism." She pegs Budnitz's main theme as "the relations between parents and their children," especially the "close, sometimes cloying, sometimes distancing and always deeply felt bond" of mothers and daughters--as opposed to Perrotta, who sees her primarily as a political writer. (Millet recognizes the political themes, too, but gives them slightly less play.) Sarah Coleman (SF Chronicle) begins by describing "Miracle," a story about a black child born to a white couple published in the New Yorker last summer, "one of the magazine's most striking stories in years," and a perfect example of how Budnitz "takes human anxieties and overlays them with a surreal twist and a sprinkling of the absurd." For Coleman, the unrealism of the stories is strictly psychological, as "fantasy and horror merely accentuate the emotional drama." Or as Richard Eder (LATBR) rephrases it, "she is attempting to take the implications of our contemporary life, already suffering from distortion, and draw them to a wildly logical extreme." Which he also casts as greater than "mere horror," since what he calls her weaker stories are "not much more than that," and right there and then I'm wondering if Budnitz might not be a science fiction writer in disguise, à la George Saunders, a theory akin to what Donna Rifkind observed in her brief Baltimore Sun writeup.

    After invoking the "this book is so indescribable, let me tell you what it isn't" meme, Joy Press (Village Voice) picks up on the same "mother-child blurriness" that caught Millet's eye, noting of "Miracle" that "Budnitz has so much fun inflating parental ambivalence to mythical proportions that even standard anxieties about lactation and bonding take on an uncanny glow." In the end, though, Press can't quite pin down the genre: "Is this political satire? Allegory? Magic realism? A sick joke?" Or, as Susan Miron (Miami Herald) puts it, is Budnitz "a big talent who juggles the fantastic, surreal, political and futuristic without breaking a sweat"?

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

Monday, February 28, 2005
    No More Predictions for Me!

    Although I wasn't keeping track all day long, the fact that it's a little past midnight and The Orientalist is only up to #276 in Amazon's sales rank suggests to me that my theory about the power of an enthusiastic NYTBR review needs some serious calibration. But not, I assure you, my literary acumen: I firmly believe that if you crack this book open as I have, it will grab and hold your interest. In that respect, I'm genuinely sorry I missed the mark in my anticipation of its online sales activity this weekend. Because of the Oscars hoopla, I don't really have a full-on topic for you today, so I thought I'd tell you about a site called Suspension of Disbelief, which picks out how certain comic books get legal and scientific questions oh so terribly wrong. If you're not remotely into comic books, of course, the entertainment value may not be quite as high as it is for me. But give it a try, and I'll be back by Tuesday morning with the usual sort of book review reviewing.
    posted by ron @ Monday, February 28, 2005 | Permanent link

Sunday, February 27, 2005
    A Quick Visit to Check My Prediction

    Here we are, the weekend half over, and The Orientalist has dropped a little lower on the Amazon charts to #369 (though I note that at least they've figured out that pairing it up with "Kurban Said's" Ali and Nino was a better two-pack idea than the Stalin biography they had it linked to earlier this week). Which would seem to suggest my prediction that the NYTBR review would get the book into the top #150 was off-base--but we'll see what happens in the next 24 hours, especially once Newsday readers read Nina Mehta praise Reiss's "fertile ability to distill history in the service of his story," although she does worry that Lev Nussimbaum sometimes gets lost in all that historical detail. (Kim Iskyan (Moscow Times) has just the opposite complaint, finding Reiss "guilty--a bit refreshingly, in a global culture of the intellectual lowest common denominator--of expecting a bit too much from the reader" by setting the scene with too little detail. Just goes to show how unpredictable book reviewing can be.)

    And if I'm wrong about how the book should do tomorrow, well, the problem would be strictly in my flawed understanding of the way this business works. I did tell you this book review reviewing thing was still largely experimental, right? Yep, I'm totally learning it as I go along... Anyway, it's not a book review, but I thought this interview with Reiss might interest some of you.

    posted by ron @ Sunday, February 27, 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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