Reviewing the Review: February 3 2008

A first novel called Beautiful Children by Las Vegas native Charles Bock is off to a big start; the author was profiled in New York Times Magazine and now gets a “bravo”, as well as a “mesmerizing” and several other superlatives, from Liesl Schillinger on the cover of this weekend’s New York Times Book Review.

A rave NYTBR cover review is not enough to turn a young novelist into a superstar — Tom McCarthy’s Remainder got one a year ago, also from Liesl Schillinger, but seems to have fallen off the popular radar since then, as several less worthy novels became breakout successes — but it does place Charles Bock in a big bright spotlight, and I hope he handles the moment well. Liesl Schillinger has a great track record for fiction, so I want to believe that Bock’s book is as good as she says, even though her review does little more than lay out the plot and tell us, using several different synonyms for “good”, that the book is good. I will certainly check it out, but Bock is getting no free ride from me, especially since I find the whole sleazy Las Vegas hype image more annoying than interesting (I don’t watch CSI, I don’t care much about Elvis, I don’t care if what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, and I spent half of James McManus’s Positively Fifth Street wishing the author would forget the murder subplot and go back to the poker table).

But I will give Beautiful Children by new kid in town (cf. Eagles song) Charles Bock a fair read, and I hope you will too.

I’m a bit tight for time this weekend, so will have to breeze through the usual complaints, slanders and accolades. It would have been more fun if the New York Times Book Review had asked me to review Lee Siegel’s Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, but John Lanchester does a fine job of analyzing this specimen. Paul Bloom provides a clear summary of philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah’s thoughtful Experiments in Ethics, emphasizing the finding that human ethics are often tied to transitory emotion (for instance, the smell of fresh-baked bread causes people to be more charitable).

I’m not sure why Dana Goodyear was chosen to review Desparate Passage: The Donner Party’s Perilous Journey West by Ethan Rarick (is there some cannibal joke here?) but Goodyear makes the book sound fascinating. Langdon Hammer makes In The Blood: A Memoir of my Childhood by British poet Andrew Motion also sound good, even though I have mixed feelings about poets writing memoirs. I don’t want this to become a big trend, partly because it seems like a debased form for a poet, and partly because I just don’t have time to read memoirs by all the poets I like. Hammer’s capable review is as close to Motion’s book as I plan to get.

Susan Sontag’s son David Rieff has published a book, Swimming in a Sea of Death, about his mother’s dramatic bouts with cancer. Critic Katie Roiphe places this book in useful context next to Sontag’s own major non-fiction work Illness as Metaphor, for which Rieff’s book must stand as a companion piece, describing the one big metaphor of Sontag’s own final illness.

Rachel Donadio’s informative endpaper about the mechanics of modern book publishing and the internal publicity process it entails is a good finale for this weekend’s modest but solid New York Times Book Review.

One Response

  1. I, too, have decided to pick
    I, too, have decided to pick up Bock’s novel but have been thinking a lot about the hype. As a writer, I find the publicity aspect of publishing astounding. In the end, even if Beautiful Children is the best book of the decade, he will have to start almost from square one with publicizing his next book, especially if it takes him as long to write as this one did. I hope I enjoy the book, but more than that, I hope Charles Bock stays on the public’s radar for more than 15 seconds.

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