So maybe we've just missed the sucker ... or maybe the gang at LATBR is flexing their muscles a bit to show incoming editor David Ulin what they can do ... or maybe we've been out riding in the sun too long ... but we weren't appalled by the Labor Day issue of the Book Review. Offenses were, with one exception, relatively mild - though we did have the return of the A.I. (Authorial Intrusion) Alert - and a few reviews out and out distinguished themselves. Additionally, we introduce a new feature this week and we note the mysterious disappearance of "Salter" from Susan Reyonds' byline. Let's go and have a look, shall we?
Full length fiction reviews: 2. A bit skimpy this time but the Rushdie review deserves the most of the space it's given. And the letters of Robert Lowell, non-fiction strictly speaking, will appeal to fiction devotees.
Full length non-fiction reviews: 5.
TITLES, AUTHORS & REVIEWERS
The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich. Reviewed by Chitra Divakaruni Grade: B-
Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie. Reviewed by Jonathan Levi Grade: B+ - A.I. ALERT!!
Night Draws Near by Anthony Shadid. Reviewed by Geraldine Brooks Grade: C+
Bait and Switch by Barbara Ehrenreich. Reviewed by Wesley Yang. Grade: A
The Spectacle of Flight by Robert Wohl. Reviewed by Michael Haag. Grade: C
Here's Where I Stand by Jesse Helms. Reviewed by Matthew Continettu Grade: D-
The Letters of Robert Lowell edited by Saskia Hamilton. Reviewed by Marc Weingarten. Grade: B+
Discoveries Column: Live! From Death Valley by John Soennichsen; The Devil's Picnic by Taras Grescoe; and How Not to Get Rich by Robert Sullivan. Reviewed by Susan Reynolds. Grade: A
SCORING THE BESTSELLERS
Inspired by a longtime Publishers Marketplace feature, we thought we'd peruse the LATBR Bestseller List and report on interesting and different titles appearing there. This week, we take note of two local authors climbing up the charts ... Aimee Bender's Willfull Creatures shows up at #12, and Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (a copy of which we recently spotted prominently placed at the entrance of Chevalier's Books in Larchmont) sits at #10. (The list is described as "based on a Times poll of Southland bookstores" which sounds wildly imprecise but we promise to find out more.)
WHAT WE LIKE ...
Lotsa stuff, as it turns out. Although the Erdrich doesn't sound like a title we'd be much interested in (we find her a bit mawkish), she receives an intelligent appraisal from Divakaruni, whose byline we're pleased to see ... Reviewer Levi recovers from an unseemly A.I. in the first two paragraphs of the Rushdie review (Does his memory of a 40 year old documentary on Kashmir have the remotest impact on a critical assessment of the novel? See Subjectivity, below.), and lands with panache, turning in a review that would have won him an "A" sans the unfortunate opening ... He sends us to pluck our copy off the shelves ... Wesley Yang's review of the Ehrenreich is smart, economical - he nails what a solid, two-column book review can be. (Full Disclosure - Yang interviewed us for a piece on the Litblog Co-op but the piece never ran, so recusal seems unnecessary.) ... The review of the Lowell letters has us hungering for a copy, and the Reynolds column scores an automatic "A" for its coverage of The Devil's Picnic, in which its author recounts eating some of the strangest and most unpalatable foodstuffs imaginable, including bulls' testicles and Epoisses cheese "which smells so bad it's said to have been banned from the Paris Metro;" ... You know, we've ridden the Metro with a few Frenchman who should've been banned as well ... But where, or where, has your Salter gone?
WHAT WE DON'T ...
As we said, offenses are minor and, in at least one case (well, probably in all cases except Eugen Weber) terribly subjective ... The review of the Shadid is a disappointing look at what sounds like an important and serious work, but it's riddled with "I" this and "I" that which leads us to confess a deep-seated prejudice - reviews with the word "I" in it ... Although we acknowledge that all reviews are, essentially, the thoughts of an "I", it has always felt an approach that lacks critical rigor, more appropriate for a coffee klatsch than a book review ... Count the number of "I"s in a James Wood review - you'll find them infrequent visitors ... In the case of this review, there are far too many "I wish"es and "I think"s for its own good ... (If you have thoughts about the use of "I" in a book review, please feel free to leave them in the comments section - and we have no doubt there are exceptions; this just isn't one of them.) ... The coverage of the Wohl is appropriate enough - he's a UCLA professor and all - but did we need two full pages? And the review is a bit too laudatory of Lindbergh without even touching on the ugly side of the pilot ... The issue's big offender is the review of the Helms memoir ... Is it just us or does it seem that LATBR always seeks out a conservative to review liberal political titles ... but here the softball pitch goes to a Weekly Standard writer ... so Helms' horrendous record on race, though mentioned, is fairly glossed over (without so much as a mention of his despicable run against Harvey Gantt) ... At least play fair and hand this one to, oh, I don't know, Al Franken to review ...
GRADE: B. Not bad, people, not bad. But as we said at the outset, it could be heatstroke talking. (The current issue does not appear to be online at press time, so in the interim we direct you to last week's review of Percival Everett's latest, Wounded. We're big fans, and once GOTEV finishes up we plan to check it out.)