Reviewing the Review: October 25 2009

International literature gets a decent workout in today’s New York Times Book Review. I’m about to dive into The Book of Fathers, a 300-year family novel by Hungarian favorite Miklos Vamos, and I’m encouraged to hear that Jane Smiley thinks well of it.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Memories of the Future is a tougher call for me. Liesl Schillinger invokes Gogol and Kafka (three separate times) in her account of this long-dead early Soviet-era modernist’s career collection, but I find myself reading between the lines to detect a strong note of weariness in this putatively positive review. Krzizhanovsky clearly likes to explore the fictional boundaries between surreal dreaminess and reality, and personally I know I can live without a lot of fiction that covers this territory. I always like Liesl Schillinger’s sympathetic reviewing style, but at times I wonder: is she capable of actually panning a book she doesn’t like? That’s not to say that she doesn’t like this one as much as she claims to, but after finishing her review I know that I never ever want to read this book.

It’s more fun when a critic just goes apeshit on a respectable book he doesn’t like, as Tom Shone does with Jan Kjaerstad’s The Discoverer:

Reviewing books doesn’t often feel like real work — not the kind of work that makes you break a sweat or join a union. So when an editor from the New York Times calls you up and asks if you want to review a new novel from Norway, and the nmovel turns out to be not only over 400 pages long and largely set in a fjord, but also Part 3 of a trilogy, Parts 1 and 2 of which ran to over 1,000 pages, with multiple narrators and a nonlinear time scheme — yeesss — then you jump at the chance to take your place as a worker among workers.

This is only one of several funny sequences in which Shone demolishes this book. I know little about Kjaerstad and have no idea whether this assault is deserved or not. But I did have fun reading it.

Further brainy material in this Book Review includes Josh Emmons on The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?, which apparently is constructed mainly from questions, David Hajdu on Robert Crumb’s illustrated Genesis and Gaiutra Bahadur on Amit Chaudhuri’s The Immortals, which seems to have something to do with the Bengali raga scene. Less brainy material includes Mary Duenwald on Juliet, Naked, the latest Nick Hornsby book I won’t be reading.

Speaking of books I won’t be reading, Gregory Cowles is very kind to Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City in a lush cover piece. I’ve expressed my lack of affection for Lethem’s fiction enough elsewhere, so I’ll just keep quiet about this one. Whatever you like, Book Review.

I respect book reviewer and Internet-culture critic John Freeman, author of The Tyranny of Email — in fact, I’ve exchanged emails with Mr. Freeman (true to his dislike of the form, his email style is very brief). I would be excited to read nearly any book by John Freeman, so I’m disappointed to find he’s got nothing better to do than join Lee Siegel and Andrew Keen on the bash-the-Internet bandwagon. These kinds of books feel simplistic and obvious to me, and future generations are sure to laugh at them all. At least Ben Yagoda seems to get it, and takes Freeman’s book convincingly to task for assuming that technological innovation can only have a destructive, never a constructive, effect on human creativity.

One Response

  1. Also, note the strange jab at
    Also, note the strange jab at flash fiction in the Lydia Davis collection review: “Years before National Public Radio elevated flash fiction into contest fodder for the terminally distracted…”

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