September 25, 2007



Why the ‘book trailers don't yet do it for you’?

Martha Southgate

You'll be pleased to hear that I thought Bel Canto was wildly overrated. I didn't buy the central conceit for one second. There are some nice sentences in there---but it's no masterpiece. I'm with you.


"Are we the only ones in the world who didn't go nuts for Bel Canto?"

I didn't find much substance in it. It wasn't horrible, but it wasn't memorable. Yet people recommended it with fervor--as if it were the best thing they'd read all year, and they were proud and relieved to have enjoyed it. Perhaps I read it too superficially, or I expected something other than what I found. Perhaps.

I feel similarly about Diane Ackerman's work: they're lovely words, but they leave me indifferent.

Jack Pendarvis

Poor Dorothy Parker! You know, her ashes sat in a filing cabinet for decades (or something - anyway, many years) in a lawyer's office (or somewhere equally unpleasant, I don't recall) because her friends forgot to pick them up. She can't catch a break.


I thought that a new translation of the Book of Psalms was a strange choice for Wood's first review, since he really has made his name lambasting novelists (and I am unsure of his background in poetics – at least no essay comes to mind).

Steven Augustine

Substituting the concept "James Wood" for the word "God", and the concept "The New Yorker" for the word "Heaven", in the opening passage of his first salvo, we get,

"What is James Wood like? Is he merciful, just, loving, vengeful, jealous? Is he a bodiless force, a cool watchmaker, or a hot interventionist, a doer with big opinions, a busy chap up (at) The New Yorker?"

Well, we're just not sure, are we? But he createth sentences such as the following (which ends the quoted-from passage): *Or are these attributes instead like glass baubles that we throw against the statue of his invisibility, inevitably shattering into mere words?*...and we are sore afraid.


I haven't read Hornby's column in a year or two but I remember it being pleasantly down-to-earth at best and basically innocuous at worst.


I don't understand why so many people are irritated by Hornby's column. I find that it's almost always entertaining, even when it's not insightful (though it's sometimes that, too). In any case, once you learn his biases -- as with any reviewer -- it wouldn't seem difficult to work around them. At least he doesn't write leaden, schoolmarmish sentences like this one: "But you have to be very, very careful when you're advising people to leave down books -- or films, or albums, or whatever -- that feel like hard work." Ugh.


JMW, I completely agree that the sentence (and much of the writing) is inelegant in the piece I linked to, but I do think the observations are essentially correct. Hornby might be clever and diverting but there's an anti-intellectual streak in him that's hard to abide.

Daniel, actually it's not that strange a choice for Wood. He did a very fine review of Alter's Pentateuch for the LRB (easily google-able and worth reading), and his long standing interest in theological matters is well known. Above all, it made me want to read Psalms, which isn't an easy trick to turn.

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  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald


    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe


    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."