Imagine our surprise when we extracted the Book Review from its bloated, wasteful package to be greeted by one of the most ghastly pieces of cover art we've ever seen. David Hughes' illustration promoting Michael Gorra's review of Ian McEwan's Saturday (of which more anon) is a repellent bit of business. We're not "change the rules mid-stream" kind of guys, so we're not going to downgrade the overall marks because of the sins of the cover, but damn. (We're having scanner problems but will try to upload the cover for you later today.)
Full length fiction reviews: 3 (There's an additional half-length fiction review.)
Full length non-fiction reviews: 8 titles in 6 reviews.
TITLES, AUTHORS & REVIEWERS
The Big Picture by Edward J. Epstein. Reviewed by Richard Schickel Grade: D
The Dog of the Marriage by Amy Hempel. Reviewed by Laurie Stone Grade: D
At the Point of a Gun by David Rieff. Reviewed by Andrew J. Bacevich Grade: A
The British Seaborne Empire by Jeremy Black; and To Rule the Waves by Arthur Herman. Reviewed by Victor David Hanson. Grade: B+
Beneath the Skin by John Rechy. Reviewed by Susan Salter Reynolds. Grade: B-
A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry. Reviewed by Richard Zimler. Grade: C
Saturday by Ian McEwan. Reviewed by Michael Gorra. Grade: A
Django by Michael Dregnl. Reviewed by David French. Grade: B
Memoranda During the War by Walt Whitman. Reviewed by Mark Rozzo. Grade: A
The Swimmer by Zsuzsa Bank. Reviewed by Thomas McGonigle. Grade: B
Discoveries Column: Ghosts in the Garden by Beth Kephart; What Does Mrs. Freeman Want? by Petros Abatzoglou; and The Garden of Reading edited by Michele Slung. Reviewed by Susan Salter Reynolds. Grade: B
John Adams by James Grant. Reviewed by John Rhodehamel. Grade: C
WHAT WE LIKE ...
A number of nice bits this week ... We're not the most voracious non-fiction readers out there, so it's always interesting to see which non-fiction reviews catch (and hold) our interest ... The reviews of the Rieff, and the two British navy books, were models of well-written non-fiction reviews - concise, efficient, informative, not presuming prior knowledge of the subject matter ... The Rieff certainly seems like a relevant title, whereas the question of relevancy to an L.A. audience dogs the British navy reviews, hence the point shaved off there ... Michael Gorra's review of Saturday is a rare L.A. Times example of matching the ideal reviewer to a book - he's a serious reader who makes interesting connections to Mrs. Dalloway and White Noise ... Like him, we read "the last 100 pages at a sitting" ... That said, and the "A" grade notwithstanding, we don't quite come to the same conclusions ... To begin, we've been a little surprised at how universally the book is being praised - we found it often riveting but often shockingly clunky and ham-fisted, the overtly political sections living in uneasy harmony with the rest of the narrative ... Moreoever, we wouldn't characterize that Perowne "accept[s] the case for war" - even as he argues with his daughter, he feels genuine ambivalence ... Perhaps we're the only one reading it this way but we've felt that the events of Saturday - a Figure of Authority misusing his authority and lying to protect himself for perceived harm, and the unexpectedly messy violent consequences - can be read much more deeply as a rebuke of the Iraq war than anything the characters actually say in the book ... But how often does an LA Times review get you thinking like that? ... The review of the Django Reinhardt biography is solid if workmanlike, and the look at the Whitman is thoughtful, intelligent, and rich with historical context ... We're sure our pals who live for literature in translation are pleased to note the inclusion of The Swimmer, and its Hungarian setting interests us for obvious reasons ... and although we're not sure what it is with Susan Salter Reynolds and gardens lately, two of the three Discoveries sound moderately interesting, indeed.
WHAT WE DON'T ...
Richard Schickel is one of the few film critics who doesn't normally annoy us but we thought his review overlong (the opening three grafs could be reduced to one), weirdly incoherent and finally, a bit too much about what Richard Schickel Thinks About Cinema instead of the books themselves ... The review of the Hempel collection suffers from overwriting (moments "slip onto the reader's lap almost accidentally, like dried leaves falling from a book") and occasionally veers into the downright inscrutable ... The Times also follows the tiredly predictable routine of favoring women to review A Certain Kind of Book ... (They're guilty of the reverse predictability as well.) .... The review of the Barry is another in a string of oddly juvenile sounding reviews, pieces that sound more like high school book reports than reviews in so august a newspaper ... The review of the Adams book is a mixed bag, although we're not excited about calling Adams "a founding father you can cuddle up to" ... We're further mystified by Rhodehamel's contention that the McCullough book is "mammoth" (736 pages) whereas the Grant book is "compact" (530 pages) ... We had no idea what a difference 200 pages makes.
GRADE: B- More good pieces than bad this week, although the bad tilt toward being pretty crummy, indeed. The editorial gatekeepers should kick it up a notch to a more consistent level of critical engagement, allowing fewer reviews like that of the Barry. And that cover just blows. Still, not bad overall outing. We've seen worse.