Guest-Reviewing the Review: August 16 2009

(Please welcome frequent LitKicks contributor Michael Norris in his first appearance in our regular Sunday spot. I’ve enjoyed my time off and will be back next week. — Levi)

This weekend’s New York Times Book Review leads off with a review of Dave Eggers’ new book Zeitoun, by Timothy Egan. Zeitoun is a non-fiction account of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-American who, having sent his family to safety, stays behind as Hurricane Katrina ravages New Orleans. Inexplicably, reviewer Egan starts his piece with an image of Charles Dickens wandering the wreckage of New Orleans, outraged by what he sees. Egan then likens Eggers’ book to a Dickens novel: “Eggers, the boy wonder of good intentions has given us 21st century Dickensian storytelling — which is to say a character driven potboiler with a point.” I just don’t buy the comparison of the Victorian English novelist with this current offering from a postmodernist like Dave Eggers. I have not read the book yet, but I also suspect it is not a potboiler — a shoddy work written quickly for money. Describing the tension that existed in New Orleans before the storm hits, Egan states “It’s Hitchcock before the birds attack.” Egan should have dropped the trite film reference and stayed with his initial description of the mood of the city. And in another discordant note, after describing Zeitoun dropping the fish from his aquarium into the waters rising in his house and quoting Eggers as “It was the best chance they had,” he follows with this observation: “Kids: that’s the kind of reporting detail that makes a book like this come alive.” Hello — we got that from the quotation, you don’t need to beat us over the head!

These lapses aside, Egan provides a succinct and gripping account of the book. And the story itself is riveting. At first Zeitoun paddles around his neighborhood in a canoe, helping people. Then things turn incredibly ugly: He is arrested as a terrorist and held incommunicado for weeks, just because he is of Syrian origin. Reviewer Egan makes the point that “In the end […], Zeitoun is a more powerful indictment of America’s dystopia in the Bush era than any number of well-written polemics.” And in the end, after reading this review, I am compelled to read the book. The reviewer should have been compelled to take a few more edit passes over his article, remove some of the bad writing, and make the piece shine.

Next up is a review of M.J.Hyland’s novel This is How by Erica Wagner. Hyland’s novel is about how things can go terribly wrong in a person’s life. In this case, we have a young Englishman who ends up spending the rest of his life in prison as a result of one brief moment of violence and passion. Wagner describes the repercussions thus: “This is how a life changes in an instant. This is how a decision that can barely be given that name shapes the rest of a life”. Raskolnikov is brought up as a comparison to the protagonist Patrick Oxtoby, and based on Wagner’s description of the novel, I got a definite sense of a modern-day Crime and Punishment. But in the reviewer’s description of the randomness of the events in the protagonist’s life, and in the machinations of the legal system and the absurdity of life in prison, I got the sense that this novel is more Kafkaesque in that the hero moves through a life whose rules he doesn’t understand, and against which he is powerless to defend himself. I may read the first few chapters of this book at Barnes and Noble and see if it worth going all the way with it.

Roxana Robinson turns in an excellent review of That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo. Robinson describes the opening of the book, where the main character, Jack Griffin, is on his way to a wedding. Griffin seems to have it all: he was once a hack writer in Hollywood, but now teaches writing at a small Northeastern college. He is devoted to his family, successful, seemingly happy. “But,” writes Robinson, “something is wrong: a worm of dissatisfaction burrows into his gut.”

This type of scene opens many a novel and movie. What makes it interesting, reviewer Robinson says, is that Griffin’s problems stem from his parents. Both parents are failed professors in that they did not achieve posts at a Northeastern college or University, but instead are exiled to Indiana, where they can barely conceal their contempt for their students, colleagues, or each other. Their only respite is a yearly summer vacation on Cape Cod, where they can reconnect with their Northeastern roots.

Although Griffin thinks he has insulated his family from the bitterness of his parents, some of it has affected him. Robinson writes: “he, like his parents, is unable to commit to the life he has. He also doesn’t realize that he’s got it good.” This applies to a lot of people that we know, and these people also show up in a lot of novels, particularly by writers from the Northeast. However, reviewer Robinson has done an excellent job summing up and analyzing That Old Cape Magic, and I think I’m going to give it a try.

Samuel J. Freedman turns in an overly long review of The Snakehead, an Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream, by Patrick Radden Keefe. Freedman starts out discussing Theodore Roosevelt and his parting of the ways with muckraking writers Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell, even though they helped in his “Trust Busting” campaign, because their writing was too radical. Freedman then goes on to describe other writers of the muckraking school such as Jacob Riis, who he says “seeks out misery and vice” and unintentionally portrays society’s victims “monochromatically, like a bigot might.” He prefers the tempered criticism of a Hutchins Hapgood, who understood the complexities of the poor, beyond their victimization. Although he does not call Patrick Radden Keefe a muckraker, he wishes that Keefe had more Hapgood in him, and less Riis. When he finally gets around to reviewing the book at hand, which is an account of illegal Chinese immigrants shipped into New York on a derelict vessel named the “Golden Venture”, and their trials and tribulations after the boat runs aground off the coast of Queens, he states that Keefe was able to write a good crime tale, but failed to deliver on the promise of the subtitle to draw the connection between the Chinatown underground and the American Dream.

The reviewer didn’t leave me with a clear sense of what the book was really about, and in my opinion when humans are exploited by other humans, a muckraking approach is the way to wake people up to the problem and mobilize society to help the downtrodden. The review failed to move me either way on the Keefe book, which is a shame, since it seems like a worthwhile read.

To Heaven by Water by Justin Cartwright is reviewed by David Gates. In Gates’s description, the book starts out promisingly for me: two brothers sitting around a campfire in the Kalahari Desert, the older brother blowing reefer and reciting poetry. But the initial interest this sparked is dampened by the triteness of the novel as expressed by the reviewer. Most of the growth in the characters, according to Gates, comes from “coming to realize.”

Gates enumerates an entire litany of these “come to realizes”, such as “rituals in families are no different that religious rituals”, that ”histories may be a series of atrocities worn smooth by the passage of time”, and how about this one: “book clubs … are cover for the myriad longings and disappointments in female life.” Do you want to read this book? I don’t.

At this point I flipped through the pages until a review caught my eye: Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music by Greg Kot, reviewed by Dana Jennings. First of all, I am familiar with Greg Kot’s work, as he is the rock critic for the Chicago Tribune, and author of several rock-related books. Second of all, the evolution in how music is disseminated has always fascinated me.

The review by Dana Jennings is excellent. The book goes back to the early days of taping music off the radio, and reviewer Jennings does a nice job of showing the arrogance and technophobia of the record moguls. As the record companies fought their customers — their customers! — and called them thieves, the music lovers found ever better ways to get music over the internet, from Napster to the iPod.

And we see the record industry for what it is: “Still, the most fascinating part of the book is its retelling of how the big music companies committed capitalist suicide. The executives couldn’t get their analog heads around the digital future. If industry leaders had always followed their mistrust of technology, we’d still be listening to music on 78-r.p.m. shellac, or maybe even wax cylinders.”

This is a well-written, interesting review, and has completely motivated me to buy this book.

There are more reviews in today’s NYTBR, but these were the ones that attracted me.

I have a new-found respect for Levi for doing this every weekend.

2 Responses

  1. Great coverage, Michael. For
    Great coverage, Michael. For a slightly more illuminating take on the Patrick Keefe book see Janet Maslin’s review in today’s NYT. (And yes, after guesting I think we all have new found respect for those who crank out these blogs on a regular basis. Perhaps intentional on Levi’s part?–smile. Definite kudos to those who do.)

  2. I want to read the Greg Kot
    I want to read the Greg Kot book. This is a prime time for a book like Ripped to drop: Kot can step back and observe the big picture as the dust settles (somewhat) from the most recent clash between the music industry and music fans.

    Speaking of music, I saw a great show about Les Paul on TV yesterday, recounting how he pioneered multi-tracking and so on.

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