July 23, 2008


Nigel Beale

Mark, you're turning from a book reviewer into a literary critic! Also taking advantage of the space this medium affords. Good moves!

Ryan Chapman

This may be tangential, but as a Roth fan I thought I'd mention the beautiful close reading of Sabbath's Theatre's opening by James Wood in his new book How Fiction Works. It sent me right back into the gloomy/enthralling haze of Roth's novel.


Bravo for your thoroughness, Mark. It's the way reviewing should be done (though only the most passionate will demand so much of themselves!). I look forward to seeing the sausage process, especially since the subject is Roth. Most of his books send me into transports of admiration and delight, but sometimes too I just want to groan aloud with exasperation.


Who can forget Brenda's pink breasts floating towards Neil in the pool? Or the basketballs and baseballs dropped beneath the Patimkin's tree like some strange fruit?


I have just finished The Counterlife and have come away feeling, as I usually do, that each Roth I read is in some way better than the last.

Also: TEV shout out in the new Wood!

Jim H.

The med school surgery rotation motto: 'See one. Do one. Teach one.'

Looking forward to it, Mark.

Jim H.

Michael O'D

The question of how much background research is required for a non-fiction review is also interesting. In that context, the issue is not whether the reviewer has the time and will to work through an author’s ouvre, but whether the reviewer can quickly bring himself up to speed in a given field to the point where he can make confident judgments about the book under review. Some (like the editors of the Chicago Tribune’s book pages) apparently take the view that only an expert should be assigned to review a work of non-fiction: a historian for a book of history, a lawyer for a law book, etc. I tend to disagree, and not only because I want to keep working as a generalist non-fiction critic. A Joyce scholar certainly has a unique perspective to assess a new Joyce biography, but on the other hand, one of the benefits of popular as opposed to academic criticism is exposing niche work to a broader audience—of critics as well as readers. Some subjects (the sciences) are just too far beyond my ken, but others (the humanities) strike me as approachable for a generalist critic who’s willing to tackle a few background books on the subject. And doing so can be a great education.


I'm on a Roth kick myself these days. I had read Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint years ago, and never really went back to him. I just read The Counterlife, which I enjoyed quite a bit, and I'm now about halfway through The Ghost Writer. Sabbath's Theater and American Pastoral will follow.

The Human Blog

...but why? You're not, I hope, reviewing his career, but a single novel, Indignation. A good novel can be enjoyed apart from its author's other efforts, and a good review advises readers on whether it's worth their time. A perspicacious critic could, given an anonymous manuscript, say whether it was good or bad, and you don't have to have read anything else by Tolstoy to appreciate, say, the Death of Ivan Illych.

As BR Myers says, there's a feeling now that the writer is more important than the work he produces...

John Self

The Human Blog raises a valuable point. Certainly a review - or piece of criticism - you write having washed yourself in the writer's previous work must be more informed and richer than one you write with limited background knowledge. But the question then arises: who are you writing for? In the Barnes & Noble Review, it's likely that most people reading the review will have read little Roth, maybe only a few of the most famous titles, and they'll have heard of Indignation as the latest from a big name and want to know more about it. Will your deep reading assist that or, more accurately, be a truer reflection of what they would make of the book (which on some level is what they want to find out)? Probably not.

But anyway, a wide reading of Roth is a good thing in itself. For my own part, I know only the Zuckerman Bound books, a couple of Kepeshes and some of his most recent work. I am having a Couple of Years of Roth, unable to match you for Summer intensity. But looking forward to it.

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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."