Author Topic: Book reviews  (Read 18606 times)

skdadl

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« on: May 28, 2006, 05:48:29 PM »
I'm repeating myself ... but why not.   :wink:

I read too many book reviews. I read so many book reviews that I hardly ever have time to read the actual, y'know, books.

The trouble is, while a lot of book reviewers are pretty ho-hum, some are brilliant, sometimes as good or better than the writers they are reviewing, and I have a weakness for good essays anyway, so I keep ploughing through the reviews.

I'm sure I should be casting my net even more widely, but for the last few years, the one general review I've followed every month has been the New York Review of Books, some of which you can read online.

Since the beginning of the so-called War on Terror and all that that entails, in so many countries, the NYR has had at least one article in every issue, I think, that goes deep into one or another of the stories we now have to think through so carefully for ourselves, in the face of so much official lying. If you want to know about Iran, for instance, track back through the writing that Christopher de Bellaigue has been doing over the last couple of years in the NYR.

There's almost always some article that comes as a complete surprise to me, though, that grips me all the way through on a topic I hadn't been thinking of -- I think, eg, of a brilliant article from several months back on the history of the Belgian Congo that had me simply gnashing my teeth by the end, despairing of all humanity.

Not light reading, no. But a useful digest of the deeps of our times.

faith

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« Reply #1 on: May 29, 2006, 11:33:49 AM »
Skdadl I just  wondered what your thoughts would be as I was reading this article in the Guardian online that gives a review of the whole 'fiction writing world' and not a kind review either.

http://observer.guardian.co.uk/review/s ... 65,00.html

I particularly enjoyed his little bit on Tom Wolfe and 'Bonfire of the Vanities' as I remember when I read this book that I was supposed to find it great contemporary fiction and it just seemed to me to be a literary version of a TV soap, a 'Dallas' or 'Beverly Hills 90210'.
just picture it

brebis noire

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« Reply #2 on: May 29, 2006, 11:55:47 AM »
I feel pretty much the same about book reviews vs the books themselves. When the reviews are good, I feel like I've read the book, or don't need to anymore because the reviewer knows the subject matter so well that they've added to the information in the book and pointed out where the book is lacking.

However, along with the reviews, I've also been drifting more and more into reading non-fiction almost exclusively. A lot of great non-fiction books are very well-written and informative. Not the 'creative' non-fiction - just plain, well-written and well-researched writing, often with a sense of humour and a sense of story. I don't read much fiction anymore, and hardly ever read stuff that has been written in my own lifetime - I've been disappointed too many times. It's possible that I don't know what I've been missing - but I do read the reviews, and it's become pretty obvious that the Globe's fiction reviewers (for example) are very careful not to criticise their peers' efforts, no matter what.

I find the non-fiction reviews to be more critical and informative. Fiction, to me at least, seems to have tumbled into some kind of morass where you can't distinguish memoir from biography from made-up stories (not fiction in the classic sense.) There are a few writers around who can still pull it off, but I'm thinking more of older writers, not the younger (i.e. 40s and under) generation.

But since there's a lot of stuff I haven't read, I probably shouldn't stick my neck out too far.

skdadl

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« Reply #3 on: May 29, 2006, 03:39:20 PM »
There was a time when I was really on top of new fiction, but that time is long past. I pick up names (all those reviews), but there is so much else that I have to read that the fiction usually gets pushed to the end of the list unless someone comes along with overwhelming recommendations -- Orhan Pamuk, here I come!   :wink:

Interesting you should have that sense, brebis noire, that a good many fiction writers are pulling their punches with one another. I'd need to be reading more to pick out examples, but it is a small world, the literary world, it is indeed. This will sound like an excuse -- well, it is an excuse -- but at the moment I am ploughing through a lot of non-fiction with a purpose, a research purpose, and I always feel I haven't done enough yet, so that's another reason the novels get shunted aside (although a couple have been research sources too).

I wonder whether it is hard to read fiction in a time of high anxiety.

faith, thanks for that link -- that's an information-packed and entertaining bit of historical summary. I agree with his general drift -- the whole of the publishing world, not just fiction publishing, has gone through a severe corporate ramping-up. The people running the show in most places now aren't necessarily book people at all, and even some book people seem more focused on marketing and celebrity than on writing something that reaches out and grabs readers by the throat and heart and mind.

Even in non-fiction, there's a type of bestseller I can smell as soon as I head into the book, well researched, well written, but crafted out of market-think rather than soul. Beneath the glittery surface, I see cookie-cutter!   :wink:

There are tons of awards here too now, and festivals, and book clubs. In a way, it seems mean to me to make fun of the festivals and book clubs. Those at least are for readers and make more and more people feel included -- how can we mock that? But the glitzy side of the awards presentations and festivals -- that can be ridiculous. The glitz factor here was driven up very suddenly about ten years ago when the Giller prize was set up. The founder, Jack Rabinovitch, wanted an evening of glamour above all, and that's what it has remained. Most of the people invited, in what is an exclusive, baroque ritual, are celebrities from other worlds, not books. I always have the feeling that it is an irritant to the organizers to have to find any room at all for the nominees!   :wink:

About Tom Wolfe: I loved the New Journalism when it first appeared, and I still admire much of it and the great practitioners. I think Wolfe was wrong about great fiction, though. He is a conservative ideologue, and that view of literature reflects his prejudices. Those work ok when he is doing short, snappy non-fiction, but they look smug and self-indulgent in his attempts at novels, I think. About Bonfire, I felt as you did -- puzzled at the grand claims when really, it seemed heavy on the glossy and sensational and very light on the psychic depth. I don't think anyone would say that of the C19 novels Wolfe claims to be living up to.

vmichel

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« Reply #4 on: May 30, 2006, 11:42:50 AM »
I read Bonfire of the Vanities and I had no idea that it was supposed to be great literature. Huh. I guess that exposes what I'm about to say next, which is that I read a lot but I don't read a lot of stuff about books, like book reviews or criticism. Now I am intrigued about book reviews!

faith

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« Reply #5 on: May 30, 2006, 12:22:38 PM »
vmichel I am like you in that I love to read but don't take the time to research whether I'm picking up something that is actually worth reading.

I do pay attention to other people's opinions when there is a general discussion. If someone that I think is a rather superficial thinker loves a book I won't bother with it, if someone loves a book and I consider that person thoughtful, or well read I will go and look for the book.

I really think that the world of literature has a lot of parallels to the visual arts world in making celebrities out of people who don't really deserve that status. Sometimes the 'flavour of the month' kind of artist  seems to get the nod for publicity while others with impressive bodies of work get overlooked. Combinations of 'old boys clubs' and the modern force of marketing create these conditions, though that is just my opinion.
just picture it

brebis noire

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« Reply #6 on: May 30, 2006, 12:32:20 PM »
Quote from: skdadl
There was a time when I was really on top of new fiction, but that time is long past. I pick up names (all those reviews), but there is so much else that I have to read that the fiction usually gets pushed to the end of the list unless someone comes along with overwhelming recommendations -- Orhan Pamuk, here I come!   :wink:


Well, this might not count for much, but maybe don't start with My Name is Red. I tried it and found it totally impenetrable. I don't often give up on a book, but I couldn't make any sense of the 'polyphonic narrative' - cacophonic was more like it. I'd be willing to give Snow a try, but I'm not in a hurry.

skdadl

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« Reply #7 on: May 30, 2006, 02:36:23 PM »
I have Snow, still haven't read it ...  What I would like to get is his non-fiction memoir, published in the last year or so -- I think it's just called Istanbul.

Holly Stick

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« Reply #8 on: December 14, 2006, 02:29:15 PM »
The editor of the NYT Book Review answers questions:
I hope this link works.

Quote
...A fiercely negative review, if it's well thought out and intelligently written, reflects the critic's deep involvement with the work in question and so is kindred in its enthusiastic spirit to a rapturously positive review. The civil, polite, or "nice" review often springs from detachment or even evasiveness and, in our view, doesn't serve readers especially well.

This isn't to say reviewers shouldn't be responsible in their appraisals and reasoned in their prose. Of course they should be. But a review can have both those virtues and also be negative and even fierce. The greatest danger facing literature today is the steady devaluing of the published word, a decline characterized in the culture at large not by "nastiness" but by indifference and disengagement. And this is what we at the Book Review wish to combat...


Got the link from the Cliopatria blog at HNN.
Economics is a human creation, borders are human creations and nature doesn’t give a damn about these things. - David Suzuki

skdadl

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« Reply #9 on: December 14, 2006, 03:46:31 PM »
Holly, I will admit that his answer to that first question got my back up a little.

I mean, bollocks, eh? He knows that the NYT has tremendous (if not entirely deserved) influence. He also knows that controversy and negativity sell newspapers, so he's pretending that he doesn't know how much his review section functions as a kind of consumer report, which it does, unquestionably. If he faced up to that truth, he'd have a major moral crisis on his hands, so he doesn't.

It would be worth asking him why he thinks that either reviewer or reader should "engage" with a book that the reviewer thinks is bad. It is entirely possible for a serious reviewer to engage critically with a good book, as we know from the more serious literary reviews like the NYRB or the LRB. Occasionally they will also have someone review a book mainly to take it apart, usually because the book has some kind of significant profile already. But usually, when you head into one of their reviews, you know that the books were considered serious enough to be reviewed in the first place, and that however critical the reviewer is, s/he at least thought the book worth her/his time -- and yours.

The NYT reviews aren't like that. They give smart-donkey reviewers a chance to show off at the expense of authors because they know that that sells. They want some of that. They seek it. Ptui.

Some of his other answers are interesting, though. I enjoyed reading pp 3 and 4.

Holly Stick

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« Reply #10 on: December 14, 2006, 05:02:21 PM »
I think they added the question about translated books since I looked last so there may be a few more added to the end of the week.  

I do have to confess I was confusing the NYT Book Reviews with the New York Review of Books here. http://www.nybooks.com/ :oops:
Economics is a human creation, borders are human creations and nature doesn’t give a damn about these things. - David Suzuki

skdadl

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« Reply #11 on: December 14, 2006, 05:08:09 PM »
Oh, that happens all the time, and yet they are so different.

The NYRB takes serious chewing. I'm lucky if I can do one article per night, but they teach me so much.

The NYT reviews are often good -- I don't mean to diss them too hard. But they are more ... commercial. I think they are looking to sell the paper more than the books, and that's fun, in its disposable way. I guess.

'lance

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« Reply #12 on: December 14, 2006, 05:51:55 PM »
I recommend the London Review of Books to anyone who'll listen (and some who won't). I even prefer it to the New Yorker in some ways -- not only is the writing consistently good, but the politics are better (the LRB was always unambiguously against the Iraq war, for one thing).

As for reading book reviews, instead of books -- not only is it true, as skdadl says, that lots of book reviews are better than the books concerned, but from book reviews you can get entertaining (and economical) takes on books you'd never buy or read in a million years, such as the latest on Conrad and Lady Black.

Quote
He and Amiel also seemed to forget the way in which capitalism surrounds all of us, every day, with images of things that we can’t afford, and encourages us to want them. We all know that our economic survival depends on buying only what we can pay for. The Blacks seemed to forget that: they were multi-millionaires who wanted to live like multi-billionaires, and so spent money as if that’s what they were. Many have taken pleasure in their story, but to me it’s as lowering as those increasingly ubiquitous radio and TV ads which target people who have spent their way into trouble. It’s startling to see just how little Black, publisher of some of the most stridently pro-capitalist newspapers in the world, seemed to understand capitalism. The whole point of taking Hollinger public, he said, was because it enabled him to make ‘relatively cheap use of other people’s capital’. No. The people who buy the shares are the people who own the company; they regard the company’s money as their money, for the good reason that, actually, it is. That is why it is called capitalism: because the thing that matters most is the capital. Black made a big public fuss of celebrating capitalism while simultaneously behaving as if its central principle didn’t apply to him. It’s as if Proudhon were to complain about somebody nicking his wallet.


I don't know if the book concerned will be the last word on Black, but that review might just as well be.

For the last year I've also been getting the Times Literary Supplement, but I've tired of that and will let it lapse. It has a lot of stuff on subjects I haven't much interest in, but that wouldn't matter if the writing had the same snap and liveliness as in the LRB. Instead the whole thing comes across as a good deal stodgier and more conventional -- not surprising, to the extent the editors and writers feel themselves to be the grauniads of a tradition, but also not attractive to a reader tired of formulaic reviewing.

So I've replaced that with -- yes -- an electronic subscription to the NYRB. Keeping it in the fambly, considering the LRB began as an offshoot of the NYRB, before going independent.

skdadl

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« Reply #13 on: December 15, 2006, 06:16:37 AM »
Yes, I've switched to the electronic sub as well, 'lance. I was ending up with too many not-quite-finished paper versions piled on my kitchen table -- I can't bear to recycle them until I've read the whole thing, but very rarely do I accomplish that, so ...  Guilt is my Gordian knot where clutter and  pack-rattery are concerned -- I have realized that, and the electronic sub was one small attempt at slicing through it.

Plus that way we get their archives. Everything they've ever published! It's charming to go to their site and realize that you can read it all! All! All!  :D

I must check in with the LRB more faithfully. It's better, I know, on many of the things that interest me, or did in my former life. The NYRB, good as it is, is still very America-focused, about as left-liberal as Americans dare to be, but still ... While it is often absorbing to be drawn so deeply into their tragedies, I sometimes get a funny feeling that it is too easy, too.

leftfield

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« Reply #14 on: December 16, 2006, 10:32:01 PM »
I have to confess that I was shocked by skdadl's admission that "I read too many book reviews. I read so many book reviews that I hardly ever have time to read the actual, y'know, books. "

I think I know where you're coming from with this. Book reviews are a convenient way to know what's going on in the literary world. And I'm sure it's better to read a review if you're not planning to read the book anyway.

But this habit does a terrible disservice to writers. Imagine that you were a writer (a writer of real books, not a net scribbler) and you had poured your soul into that book. How would you feel about the readers who spent 10 minutes or half an hour reading a review of your book and went away thinking that they knew what your book was really about? That's a brutal insult to the writer. Maybe it was an accurate review, maybe it was way off base. But even if it were accurate, the review is very unlikely to capture the richness or nuance of the book. The review of course is a literary piece in its own right, and one can enjoy them for what they are. But not as a substitute for the book they purport to review.

So much of culture these days is already second-hand or worse. Consuming book reviews in place of real books just seems to perpetuate this.

Please take this as a lament, not as a criticism. I don't read book reviews myself. I just read the summaries of them in discussion boards like this. Why read the review when you can read the meta-review?   :P

 

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