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A Book Review Review

Friday, March 18, 2005
    Enjoy Your Weekend...

    Between my professional obligations and some minor technical difficulties at ArtsJournal, there's no book review review today. But keep your eyes peeled for Monday, because I've already seen the next NYTBR and am busy formulating a response...
    posted by ron @ Friday, March 18, 2005 | Permanent link

Thursday, March 17, 2005
    Somebody Else's Book Review Reivew

    If you're not reading Sarah Weinman already, well, why the hell not--but specifically you should take a look at her comments regarding Patrick Anderson's most recent Monday WaPo thriller review, in which Anderson suggests time has passed Lawrence Block by in favor of "another generation" that writes crime novels "that are simply more interesting, imaginative and sophisticated than those of decades past." She gently pokes a couple holes in that idea, but it's just one aspect of a concern with the quality of crime fiction that pops up regularly in her blog, as in an even more recent meditation on the literary/genre debate, which is of interest to her not only as a reviewer but as a practicing writer:

    "I can safely say that at the moment, I'm not terribly interested in writing a very long series, using the traditional story structure of a crime novel (read: whodunit), and especially in spending the bulk of my time and energy building things up to an expected (or unexpected) resolution. And although I am interested in having some kind of crime as a focal point of whatever I write, I suspect that focus will be equally mixed with a more general focus on character conflict, especially of the religious variety."
    posted by mclennan @ Thursday, March 17, 2005 | Permanent link

Wednesday, March 16, 2005
    There's Nowt Queer as Folk

    It's been a while since my last look at Bruce Wagner and The Chrysanthemum Palace, so let's look at the two major reviews that ran last weekend.

    Henry Alford (NYTBR) is fairly amusing, as he often is, although the performative aspects of this particular review--presented as a speech given at the "Hollywood Novels Awards lunch," and pairing Wagner with Peter Lefcourt's The Manhattan Beach Project--may strike some readers as a bit much. He recognizes right away, though, that the appeal of the Hollywood novel is that "show business, and depictions thereof, make such a blood sport of status," which is one of those insights that immediately rings true and stays that way as you hold it up against every showbiz novel you can remember in the next ten minutes. (By minute fifteen, you may have realized that a lot of novels make similar sport, but that's a different story.) Alford admits that he's a fan of Wagner's "withering satires," especially here, where the author "marries his dagger-sharp, lapidary wit to an emotionally arresting narrative." In fact, Alford declares, "Wagner--despite being heterosexual--emerges as the century's first great gay comic novelist."

    Now, I know why Alford says this--because Wagner addresses "disenfranchisement and narcissism and the search for family," that's why--but it's still an awfully curious remark that leaves more questions in the reader's head than it answers. Who, for example, were the great gay comic novelists of the 20th century in whose footsteps Wagner follows? And how many of them were heterosexual, too? For that matter, who are the homosexual gay comic novelists of this century that Wagner's just outstripped? I might actually have to try and ask him some of these questions... If I can, I'll run them here! Meanwhile, closer to the novel's California setting, Amy Johnson (SF Chronicle) starts off with an odd rhetorical flourish, wondering, "If we must drool with vicarious hunger, why can't we turn our short attention spans away from the dull details of real people on unreal reality shows and back, instead, to the unreal lifestyles and scandals of Tinseltown?" This question will seem betray an unawareness on the part of the questioner to anybody who has witnessed the last several weeks of Brad&Jen magazine covers, or who has witnessed the bad judgment of Paris, or who has a memory long enough to remember when whichever Olsen twin it was went into the clinic. I mean, hello, blogs such as Gawker and Defamer are popular precisely because, as Johnson immediately acknowledges, "troubled lives of stars still provide an eminently suitable backdrop, replete with Aristotelian spectacle, for grand tales of love and tragedy."

    This isn't news but pseudo-revelation, and frankly it misses the point. What makes Wagner's fiction work isn't that he gives readers a sense of behind-the-scenes dirt that's otherwise lacking in popular culture--rather, it's that he invests celebrity culture with the emotional textures and nuances that are lacking in the ordinary cycle of showbiz gossip. It's not the only point missed; though I'll Let You Go does fall into Wagner's "cellular trilogy," I believe it would be inaccurate to say that the novel "relied primarily on Hollywood satire for its entertainment value," since it is a Los Angeles novel but not a Hollywood novel. (For that matter, I've never felt that his novels "read like intricate novelizations of screenplays," but that's a subjective reaction on which reasonable minds might differ.) And though reaction to the novel has been highly mixed, it seems difficult to reconcile Alford's praise with Johnson's claim that "Wagner's attempts to create complicated, dimensional characters, though admirable, are not successful." Especially when her immediate elaboration of that complaint is that "the three main characters fail to provoke much sympathy." She admits, though, that Wagner does have his strengths, including his depictions of "the real heart-wounds artists suffer when forced to choose crass but lucrative commercialism over art." That Johnson admires this aspect of the novel but laments the lack of sympathetic characters might be construed by some readers as a sentimental streak; for now, I'd be content to suggest that sometimes, just sometimes, the point of a novel isn't to find a character onto whom your sympathies can latch, but to simply observe.

    posted by ron @ Wednesday, March 16, 2005 | Permanent link

Tuesday, March 15, 2005
    Another Take on The Orientalist

    Daniel Lazare (The Nation) begins his consideration of The Orientalist by poking a few holes in Edward Said, so it's not a surprise exactly that when he turns his critical eye to Tom Reiss's book, he doesn't have the enthusiasm other critics noted here in the last few weeks have shown towards the book. "Some of it is well done," Lazare admits, "but much of it is embarrassingly simplistic." Simplistic to the extent that it reflects "the political line of The New Yorker, where...moderation and reason are one and the same, [...] the truth lies always in the middle, and [...] extremists of the left and right are brothers under the skin."

    The political argument's more than I can respond to, but I can quibble with Lazare's complaints about the suitability of writing about Lev Nussimbaum in the first place:

    "Nussimbaum is interesting as a case study, but is he really worth an entire book? Ultimately, the answer depends on our assessment of his literary worth... Overwrought and melodramatic,Ali and Nino is a minor bit of exotica that in ordinary times would be no more than a curiosity but, after September 11, is deeply repellent."

    The idea that an author is only a fit subject for biography if "our assessment of his literary worth" is positive enough to warrant it is superficially acceptable, but in practice, it becomes much more problematic. After all, if this standard were to be applied with full rigor, books like Tom Hiney's life of Raymond Chandler might fall by the wayside, since Chandler's literary reputation is still somewhat precarious. For that matter, what of The Quest for Corvo? After all, Hadrian the Seventh is "no more than a curiosity," when you get down to it, but what a book its existence inspired! And, of course, the fact that modern-day Azerbaijan embraces Ali and Nino as its "national novel" ought to be sufficient cultural justification for probing its origins. And clearly Lazare finds the broader topic of Jewish Orientalism worthy of consideration, as the last major section of his article delves into this subject with nary a mention of Reiss. It's actually fairly interesting material, which may make one curious to see his forthcoming book about "the politics of Christianity, Judaism and Islam."

    posted by ron @ Tuesday, March 15, 2005 | Permanent link

Monday, March 14, 2005
    Starting the Week Slow, With Easy Targets

    It's a tossup what's most terrifying about the Jane and Michael Stern (NYTBR) review of Phyllis Diller's memoir. The Kabuki-like death mask André Carrilho makes of Diller's features is scary enough, to be sure, but then there's the fact that a Review which prides itself on a "news about the culture" approach to books honestly felt that the memoirs of a comedian who, strictly speaking, hasn't been substantially relevant since the days of the Dean Martin Celebrity Roast deserved full-page consideration. To compound the problem, of the 965 words in this article, only sixty-seven of them, constituting two complete sentences, can be considered as constituting genuine critical consideration rather than biographical summary or quotation. I reproduce them in full, to keep you lingering on my website a while longer:

    "Like so many comedians, Phyllis Diller found a way to turn anguish into jokes, and her autobiography, Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse, written with Richard Buskin, contains plenty of both... It is fascinating to read her scrupulous analysis of stage technique, where she notes that the name Fang is funny because it ends abruptly with a hard consonant, and that joke delivery is all about pace."

    The Sterns, authors of The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste, have seen more action in the last year as the NYTBR go-to couple for books dealing with tacky celebrity culture. See, for example, their reviews of the memoirs by Pavarotti's manager or porn star Jenna Jameson, both of which also suffer from an excess of summarization and reliance on quoting the text. It wasn't always this way, though. Earlier reviews on dumpster diving and the history of candy. Back in 2001, when they called the National Enquirer coffee table book "like seeing a movie with a $100 million budget and an insipid script," the look down the nose was tempered by careful contextualization, and their thoughts that same year on Jim Harrison's culinary adventures are genuinely fun to read. All of which--along with the fact that I love their Chili Nation cookbook--makes their more recent, seemingly phoned-in material that much more disappointing...both because one knows they can do better on pop culture and, given the recent NYTBR handling of biographies of David Niven and Sean Penn, one knows the Review can do better as well. (Although I have an opinion of the Niven biography that diverges strongly from that in the Review, for what it's worth.)

    posted by ron @ Monday, March 14, 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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