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A Book Review Review

Friday, March 11, 2005
    The Return of the Maslin Watch!

    Or, at least, a brief reincarnation...

    So I'm looking at Janet Maslin's (NYT) review of Drama City, which is "unleashed, not simply set in motion" towards a "daring and unexpected finale." Even her caveats are full of praise: "The book's street eloquence captures the way these lives are ruled by a strict pecking order and Darwinian survival skills--not a new worldview, but Mr. Pelecanos still makes it pack a wallop." And it occurs to me: Janet Maslin seems to spend a lot of time on George Pelecanos, doesn't she?

    Hard Revolution (2004) is "clean, tight, cogent prose with a heartfelt urgency" that "bears out Mr. Pelecanos's often-repeated conviction that the moral lessons of youth shape the destiny of a man." (Interestingly, Maslin's review also displays a not-really-a-problem attitude strikingly similar to her feelings about the latest book: "However convenient the story's timing may be, it packs a serious punch.") And Hell to Pay has "great, hard-boiled appeal" and "manages to pack a lot of moral accountability into a suspenseful, unusually cinematic thriller," although "Mr. Pelecanos is not immune to hokum." Before that, she seems not to have noticed his books, at least not professionally, but once she got a hold of Pelecanos, he became a touchstone for her. We know, for example, that she thinks he's deeper than T. Jefferson Parker and Reed Arvin. And he's even made the shortlist of "masculine, brooding" authors she included in a 2004 review of Ian Rankin that probably serves as the best guide to her neo-noir predilection: "Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben, George P. Pelecanos and Jonathan Kellerman, not to mention Peter Robinson."

    Now, I happen to like Pelecanos too, so I don't really think these reviews are a problem in the way that Sarah Kerr and Judith Shulevitz griped about Maslin's film reviews back in the day. Heck, in a way I'm thrilled for Pelecanos that he has a fan with such potential influence--all writers should be so lucky. And maybe that's what nags at the back of my mind: With such a wide variety of books from which to choose, picking three of one author's last four books--in a four-year period, no less--does in some ways feel almost a little too generous. Pelecanos isn't the only recipient of Maslin's largesse, of course; if I were writing this a couple weeks ago, I'd probably be talking about Rankin or Robinson; one could also make a good case that Pelecanos' books have become more significant over the last four years and thus more deserving of review on their individual merits. Still, one of the things about news is that it's unpredictable...and to the extent that the arts section reflects a "news about the culture" mindset, perhaps the book reviews should be unpredictable as well.

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

Thursday, March 10, 2005
    A Blogger Over Every Editor's Shoulder

    Those professional obligations, they just keep chipping away at your blogging time, is what they do. While I pay the bills, you can catch up with some of the other book review reviewers. Check out Mark Sarvas and his LA Times Book Review thumbnail, Sam Jones evaluating the Chicago Tribune, Ed Champion's evaluation of the NYTBR, Scott Esposito thumbnailing the SF Chronicle, and the Bookdwarf rounds up the Boston Globe.

    Of course, I realize the odds are overwhelming that you, dear reader, are either one of those five authors or read them pretty regularly, but you never know who might stumble onto this blog while Googling Curtis Sittenfeld. (You laugh, but my rough guess is that she's responsible for at least half the Google visits I get!)

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

Wednesday, March 9, 2005
    Also, We Saw Ted Leo in a College Band!

    Notre Dame in the early '90s turns out to have been quite the hotbed of literary talent. My fellow members of the class of '92 include Jeremy Langford, the executive editor of Rowman & Littlefield's religious studies division, and Tasha Alexander, whose first novel, And Only to Deceive, will be published this fall. (Jeremy's got a book coming out even sooner, a celebration of our alma mater co-written with his father, ND professor Jim Langford.) And it turns out that I once shared a film class with Kevin Guilfoile, the author of Cast of Shadows, who graduated two years ahead of me. This sort of prevents me from reviewing his book, I suppose, but not (I hope) from looking objectively at his reviews...

    ...which I've been curious to see ever since Galleycat decided to enable an anonymous pre-emptive striker who claimed the author was benefitting from the "hypocritical clubbiness" of the literary blogosphere. Let's suppose for a second that were an accurate reflection of how bookblogs work. If the novel was somehow receiving artificial hype from online readers, we might expect book reviwers in print media to set the record straight, yes? Instead, we find that perhaps the most important review an author can get--the NYTBR (by Mark Schone)--calls Cast of Shadows an "always surprising medical thriller, complete with elegant prose and well-developed characters," in which Guilfoile "wields the bylaws of his chosen genre to undercut its central premise." He's not just "like a good detective novelist" here, he's "like a good science fiction writer," too.

    There aren't too many other reviews out yet, except for Henry Kisor (Chicago Sun-Times), who makes the inevitable comparison to Michael Crichton but finds Guilfoile's characters "much more rounded and believable." Two reviews aren't much to build a hypothesis on, but I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that the anonymous griper is just another in a string of whiners who've managed to convince Galleycat to provide space for their crybaby complaints. It would be unfortunate if such a high-profile industry blog were permanently undermined by such overeagerness to generate "controversies" that have yet to pan out.

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

Tuesday, March 8, 2005
    Free Lesson for Future Book Reviewers

    You know, I could say something about how nearly four pages of last weekend's NYTBR were taken up by political commentary that had next to nothing to do with contemporary books (unless you count reading recommendations from left-wing magazine editors, which I don't). But instead I'd like to revisit this "Chronicle" issue, seeing as this is the second week in a row that the Review has had a group review for literary fiction. As I've mentioned before, group reviews don't have to be a bad thing. Suzy Hansen certainly has her heart in the right place, spending a few paragraphs on each of her books, balancing the plot summaries nicely with the critical insights, and even managing meaningful transitions from one book to the next. Sure, one could wish that there were more to say about each book--especially when, having gotten a good part of the way through Pearl Abraham's The Seventh Beggar, one knows there is a lot more to say about its exploration of the Chasidic world, especially considering (a) the Review gave Wendy Shalit two whole pages to complain about what's wrong with contemporary fiction set in Orthodox communities and (b) "Abraham is known for her adept portrayals of Orthodox Jewish women," as Hansen concedes. Yet while the review mentions that Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav was a cabalist, the Chasidic aspect gets no play at all.

    The real lesson mentioned in today's headline, though, comes from last week's group review by freelancer Elizabeth Judd. I'll merely observe in passing that she reviews books by two men and two women, and that each male author gets twice as many paragraphs as the female authors. What we need to talk about is in that single paragraph devoted to Jean Hanff Korelitz's The White Rose, which she describes as "really a roman clef, a sendup of gossip columnists and Manhattan strivers." Since this mistake has come up before, I'd like set the record straight: strictly speaking, not every novel that has even one character you can point to and say, "Oh, that's supposed to be so-and-so," qualifies as a roman clef. For that term to apply, the novel should contain fictionalized versions of real-life people engaged in fictionalized versions of real-life events. Thus, Primary Colors is such a novel, since its main characters really only make sense if you understand them to be stand-ins for the Clintons and their '92 campaign team, whereas, as far as I can tell, The White Rose is not.

    It is, however, dazzlingly satirical while captivatingly sympathetic to all but its most boorish characters, and deserves much more attention than a single paragraph. So far, though, Anthony Giardina (SF Chronicle) is the only reviewer I've found who's dug in. He's not fully satisfied, finding problems with a young male lead who "never seems convincingly male" and in certain descriptive passages "sounds downright girlish," at least to Giardina's ears. (He finds the female leads nearly pitch-perfect, though.) Having read the novel, I never felt that the character's gender identity was anything other than identifiably masculine. Emotionally sensitive, yes; androgynous, no. Even when he puts on women's clothing, he never really gets into a female persona. Perhaps the problem is with Giardina's interpretation of the opening scene, in which the young man "dresses in his lover's clothes and passes himself off as a woman." It's quite clear, in reading the scene, that the other people in the room know immediately that this is a young man in women's clothing, and he arouses their curiosity (and, in one case, libido) precisely for that reason--not because they find him an attractive woman, but because they find him an intriuging transsexual.

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

Monday, March 7, 2005
    There's One Mystery Solved

    The identity of the unnamed reviewer in last week's Sharon Waxman write-up has been revealed: Gregory McNamee (Hollywood Reporter) sent a quick note; clicking on his name will show you the full-length original review. Today is a professional obligations day, so I've got to run right out again and get back to work, but I wanted to get that out there. (Especially since Gregory was writing reviews for Amazon back in the late '90s, while I was there!)
    posted by ron @ Monday, March 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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