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Book Review

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review.

All-Fiction Issue

And here I was wondering how I'd missed A O Scott's explication of Book Review project that established Toni Morrison's Beloved as "the best American novel of the last 25 years" - on the strength of fifteen votes, total. Missed it in print, that is, But I didn't miss it: it has been published in today's Review. I've already said what I have to say about that, so we won't be talking about it today, or ever again.

We'll begin, reversing the usual order of things, with the Essay by Rachel Donadio, "Promotional Intelligence." Basically, the essay demonstrates that the publication of literary fiction is very far from the long-tail business that it ought to be. Don't read the essay if you're in the middle of sending out a manuscript. Getting your novel not so much into print as into stores requires pleasing a few gatekeepers, and "Promotional Intelligence" makes it clear that there aren't very many of these. Ms Donadio deserves a modest tut-tut for failing to allude to the machinery of getting fiction reviewed in the Book Review, where typically only one in every three or four (and sometimes more) titles is a work of non-fiction.

So: nothing but novels and short stories! Fifteen titles! Nine of the writers are women; as are ten of the reviewers. What is that about, d'you suppose? A few of the authors are photographed, but most are subjected to caricatures that approach, in André Carrilho's images of Anne Tyler, Curtis Sittenfeld, and Peter Carey, the insulting. Overall, it's the worst issues of the Book Review that I can recall.

Let's begin with the writer's whom I've never heard of (or forgotten that I've heard of). Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop's Fireworks sounds, in Heidi Julavits's review, like a first novel that got fudged by marketing advice. The central character, a fortyish blocked writer and "man-boy" who drinks too much, appears to be fully realized, but it takes Ms Winthrop too long to get to him. Ms Julavits spends too much time retailing Ms Winthrop's plot. According to Meghan O'Rourke, Charles D'Ambrosio's The Dead Fish Museum is a collection of stories in the tradition of Raymond Carver. Of the unappealingly-titled title story, Ms O'Rourke writes,

The story packs a punch, and fluctuates interestingly between pulpish bravado and thoughtful melancholy. But its artifacts have become slightly orthodox by now.

The Attack, by "Yasmina Khadra," is actually the work of Mohammed Moulessehoul, a retired Algerian officer. Lorraine Adams feels that the writer has erred in deciding not to illuminate a story about Middle-East complexities with a more ample military dimension. She's not crazy about John Cullen's translation, either. Maud Casey's Genealogy sounds good, not least because of Meghan Daum's unqualified enthusiasm. Of the bohemian parents in this family romance, Ms Daum writes,

For all they know about what they don't want, they have never quite figured out what they do want. They're also the kind of benevolent narcissists who have a way of damaging their kids beyond repair.

I find that arresting, somehow. Ana Marie Cox, in contrast, begins her review of Lucy Kellaway's Who Moved My BlackBerry? on a favorable note but concludes as follows:

Who Moved My BlackBerry? is not art. Those in search of a book that gets to the human cost and comedy of modern technology as White Noise or The Corrections did will not find it in the small-screen antics of Martin Lukes. Kellaway's book is a snapshot, a lot of clever messages that ultimately point at their own absurdity. Her frenetic yet motionless characters reflect the irony of BlackBerryed life: It only looks as if you're busy.

Mark Kamine gives Rebecca Johns's Icebergs a distinctly mixed review, calling it an "inviting, occasionally moving, often exasperating first novel." For the most part, he reheats the plot, but he does not that Ms Johns's prose "does not soar." Indeed, the following quotation sunk the book for me as fast as a pair of cement shoes:

the eyes of everyone in the room connected to her like gravity.

As we say in our house, Himmel! How did that image get through? Finally, there's Gatsby's Girl, by Caroline Preston. We get still more plot rehashing from Evan Hughes, but also a stringent caution that this novel, which re-imagines the life of Ginevra King, a Lake Forest girl on whom Scott Fitzgerald had a crush, "begins as retro chick lit and becomes, as Ginevra ages, more like a Merchant-Ivory period piece about a well-born woman's long fall from carefree grace."

On balance, the reviews present only one of these seven novels as worthy of surviving the triage outlined in Ms Donadio's Essay. The authors of the remaining eight have all established themselves, more or less, and stand only to gain new readers from the coverage afforded them in the pages of the Review. DBC Pierre rocked the world a few years ago when his chaotic Vernon God Little won the Man Booker Prize, but Granta contributing editor Sophie Harrison cuts him no slack for Ludmila's Broken English, which, she says, "takes the hallmarks of Loserstani literature and flogs them to pieces." That's not clear enough? Try this:

All in all, none of it, to use Pierre's own Sufi formulation, really invites "reality's pea to its cup." God knows what would invite reality's pea to its cup, if we could even find the cup, or indeed knew what the chuffing blimey the pea was meant to be. It is a very sad thing to report, but this novel, unlike its predecessor, does not work.

Terrence Rafferty greatly admires The Eagle's Throne, Carlos Fuentes's new novel (translated by Kristina Cordera), and his enthusiasm is catching:

The near-absolute absence of self-knowledge exhibited by the otherwise exceptionally smart people in The Eagle's Throne is what makes it both terrifically sad and oddly festive, in a desperate, end-of-the-party way, with everyone drunk (on power or merely the illusion of it) and dancing crazily and saying things that aren't quite as witty as they were meant to be and laughing their heads off anyway - and with all of them looking for partners so they don't have to go home alone.

Liesl Schillinger almost convinces me to read Anne Tyler's Digging to America (it doesn't hurt that I've heard one very favorable response from a friend). I used to read Anne Tyler as a matter of course, and then, one day, I just couldn't read her anymore. Ms Schillinger catalogues the very things that I got tired of:

her unflashy mastery of the national idiom, her dour whimsy, her tapestries of suffocating families ... and the rogue siblings who try, and usually fail, to become unknitted from their tight weave.

Breaking with the pattern in Digging To America, Ms Tyler is "no longer in search of buried treasure; she's in search of the road ahead. I don't know whether or not I've read any of Amy Hempel's stories, but I do know her name. Erica Wagner's favorable review spends a lot of time trying to capture the essence of Ms Hempel's oeuvre, but in the end it's Rick Moody, author of The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel's Introduction, who nails it, by placing Ms Hempel

alongside Alice Munro, Grace Paley, Ann Beattie and others - women writers who rise above what he sees as the "rage" and posturing of their male counterparts.

Claire Dederer attempts with some success to demonstrate that The Man of My Dreams is right book for Curtis Sittenfeld to have written, while cautioning fans of Prep not to expect another "volatile, hilarious, rage-fueled overhead smash." Ms Dederer gets in a great (if gratuitous) dig, while ostensibly writing about Ms Sittenfeld's protagonist:

Hannah is a social paralytic, a state only worsened by her own relentless self-awareness. Months into her freshman year at college, she gets ready for her first night out. She hasn't got any makeup for dolling herself up, but she does clip her nails - "that's not festive, but it's something." This is something Tom Wolfe's Charlotte Simmons might have said, had she been written with any verisimilitude.

On the facing page, Paul Gray wonders if Peter Carey, the eminent Australian novelist of whom I've never read a word, too off-put by the scent of magic realism, hasn't wandered too far into the suspense-fiction genre for his own good. What begins as a subplot in Theft: A Love Story apparently becomes the main plot by degrees, and it's one that Mr Gray can see Michael Crichton handling very well. Not to put too fine a point on it, the review makes the novel sound like a mess. Dave Itzkoff notes that Douglas Coupland, author of Generation X, has returned to settings that he visited in Microserfs, but that in the new book, JPod, Mr Coupland "employs those same strategies... he actually has a reason for doing so." It's pretty clear nonetheless that JPod is the work of a self-loathing member of the elite (as opposed to a responsible member of the elite), one who levels all cultural artifacts and wallows in pop. Eventually, I hope, someone will persuade Gen X'ers that such behavior is deeply stupid.

Finally, Susann Cokal gives Valerie Martin's new collection of stories, The Unfinished Novel, an unqualified rave. She also makes the collection sound very interesting:

Martin may be undermining our notions of genius, but her belief in the forcefulness of artistic ego is demonstrated in every story. And yet the self-identified mediocrities are often the people who come out best as Martin's plots unfold, achieving a satisfying combination of professional status and private happiness - provided they're willing to make the compromises.

The cover of the Book Review features the original dust-jacket art of twenty-two of the books involved in Sam Tanenhaus's silly project. I wonder if I will ever get round to White Noise, a remaindered copy of which I have on my shelves.


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I met Valerie Martin last week and she was so incredibly real and kind. I am very much looking forward to reading her latest.

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