Reviewing the Review: March 1 2009

Internationally-minded websites Three Percent, Literary Saloon and Conversational Reading are all currently pleased with the New York Times Book Review‘s global reach, certainly a convergence of positivity that has never occurred before (and if the Words Without Borders Blog would weigh in, the online jury’s vote would appear to be unanimous). Has there been some kind of cultural awakening at 40th Street and 8th Avenue? Maybe so, and maybe they even listened to our complaints. Well, let’s hope this represents a permanent change, because smart readers must demand an international, not a national, literary marketplace.

I’m particularly interested in books that are popular in other parts of the world, like Doghead, a rough-riding family novel by Morten Ramsland that, according to critic Clare Clark, has been a sensation in Denmark and all over Europe. Clark compares Doghead to John Irving’s World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany, which helps us understand the author’s style, but the comparison does not work to Ramsland’s favor when Clark reveals that Irving’s works are better and less bleak. After finishing the review, I do not have a good sense of why this book is as popular as the reviewer says it is — but I suppose I’d be confusing literary criticism with sociology if I demanded a clear answer to this question. I guess I’ll have to find the book and try to figure it out myself, and that’s fair enough.

Indeed, there is a danger of confusing international literary criticism with sociology, as when Gaiutra Bahadur weighs Honeymoon in Tehran by Azadeh Moaveni as a “worthwhile” conveyor of news and information about Iran under the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, without giving us any idea of the book’s artistic intent or power (as described here, it sounds like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis without the pictures).

Liesl Schillinger is much more satisfying on once-celebrated mid-20th Century German novelist Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, a new release that may amount to a true event. Schillinger remains the NYTBR’s most consistently excellent critic — as always, she gives this book everything she’s got, beguiling us to join in her immersion.

Floyd Skloot appears to have a high regard for Portuguese novelist Antonio Lobo Antunes, but does not recommend The Fat Man and Infinity, a collection of short newspaper columns. Describing the author’s work, Skloot says:

To probe deeply into troubled consciousness, he uses modernist techniques, eliminating linear narrative, punctuation, standard paragraphs, anything that might stand between a reader and the characters’ thought processes.

I know what he means, and I’m sure many readers will agree with me that these kinds of modernist techniques are often exactly what stands between a reader and a characters’ thought processes.

Here’s a real shocker — Elie Wiesel has written another book about the Holocaust. Mike Peed finds A Mad Desire To Dance “overly simplistic” and I have a feeling I would too.

There’s much to like in this weekend’s Book Review, capped by two important biograpies, Brad Gooch’s Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, reviewed by Joy Williams, and Alexander Waugh’s The House of Wittgenstein, reviewed by Jim Holt. I’ve long known about the wonderfully original philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s celebrity brother, Paul Wittgenstein, who played piano with one hand after losing his right arm in World War I, but I didn’t know just how much there was to say about the Wittgenstein family. Alexander Waugh is more interested in the whole family than in the lone philosopher, according to Jim Holt’s smart review, and based on this summary I think I’ll have to read this book myself. Holt deals smoothly with Ludwig’s controversial standing in the philosophy scene here, and I agree with him that it’s very disappointing to learn that this biographer describes Wittgenstein’s analytical work as “incomprehensible”. This certainly is a shocking mistake; Wittgenstein’s philosophy is not incomprehensible at all, and it’s hard to imagine how somebody who finds it so could work up enough enthusiasm to write this book. Still, studying a philosopher by reading about his family appears to be a uniquely “Wittgenstenian” approach, so the biographer’s strange shortfall here does not necessarily mar the usefulness of the book.

4 Responses

  1. “Flannery: A Life of Flannery
    “Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor.” Really? They couldn’t just call it “Flannery” or “A Life of Flannery of O’Connor”? I guess it could have been worse. “Flannery O’Connor, the Biography: A Life of Flannery O’Connor.”

  2. Good point, Sara. Or they
    Good point, Sara. Or they could call it F, L, A, N, N, E, R, Y, What’s that spell? Flannery: A Biography of the Life of Flannery O’Connor containing Interesting Histoircal Facts and Anecdotal Material Therein.

  3. And let’s not forget the
    And let’s not forget the essay (written by Leah Price) on the Changing Lives Through Literature Program started back in 1991 at Univ of Mass, Dartmouth by an English prof there. That program is the best testament I have heard in along time regarding the power of books to change lives.

  4. Sunday was St. David’s Day,
    Sunday was St. David’s Day, Levi was discussing international literature and The New York Times Book Review‘s foreign coverage, and neither made mention of Welsh literature. Typical.

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