Reviewing the Review: January 17 2010

Nice Reviewing the Review moment #1: last week I wondered why a reviewer mentioned a character named Maud Norton in Gail Godwin’s novel Unfinished Desires without clarifying whether or not this was intended to refer to a well-known blogger named Maud Newton. Gail Godwin emailed me to explain that the name was not only a coincidence but an inspired one:

I chose “Maud” for this particular girl in Unfinished Desires because of Tennyson’s spooky poem: “Come into the garden, Maud; the black bat night has flown …” And Norton, I don’t know why. Perhaps because, combined with Maud, it slid fairly easily off the tongue.

That’s all I ever need, a friendly email and a Tennyson quote.

Nice Reviewing the Review moment #2: opening this weekend’s issue and finding more than enough good stuff to make up for last weekend’s paucity. I recently interviewed Katharine Weber about her exciting novel True Confections at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn. We talked for an hour and I thought we covered most of the book’s angles, but Jincy Willett’s highly favorable review of Weber’s novel makes some connections I didn’t even stumble onto, focusing on the novel’s immigration narrative and concluding that “True Confections is a great American tale”. Dat’s tasty!

Is this “writers I like” week at the Book Review? Roxana Robinson, another of my very favorites, reviews Jonathan Dee’s The Privileges, in which a confused, smitten husband commits Madoff-esque Wall Street fraud to please his wife. Robinson sees the novel as a statement about family and morality, and persuades me to pick the book up. Robinson’s last novel reminded me of King Lear, but strangely she doesn’t mention whether or not Dee’s work references Macbeth.

As a longtime Sam Shepard reader, I wasn’t as impressed as I would hope to be by Walter Kirn’s cover piece on the playwright’s self-referential story collection Day Out of Days (however, I’m hoping to finally catch the movie based on Kirn’s Up In The Air this weekend, and will post a report once I do). Pankaj Mishra provides a disappointingly academic appraisal of Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. A reviewer who wishes to emote with Zadie Smith rather than compete with her would have been a better choice.

It’s also disappointing when a gossipy new political book like John Heilemann and Mark Helprin’s Game Change (about the 2008 USA presidential election) hits the stores and is instantly ravaged by book journalists for hot news bites, as if political books had no value beyond their gossipy tidbits. Jacob Heilbrunn’s review is exactly like every other article about this book — he lays out the revelations and gives no sense at all of the book’s value, purpose or achievement as a whole. Will there be any reason to read Game Change ten years from now, or is it just a blip of news product in hardcover format? If there’s anything timeless about this book, Heilbrunn should say so; if not, the Book Review shouldn’t bother reviewing it.

But Susan Pinker is fascinating on Shankar Vedantam’s The Hidden Brain, and Stephen Elliot’s endpaper essay on the results of his offer to read from his memoir The Adderall Diaries in private homes for anyone who invites him is better than the usual stuff that graces the final page.

And finally, nothing in the Times book section this week is as powerful as this sad photo essay of earthquaked Haiti.

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