[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]
The Mirage, by Matt Ruff. Reviewed by David L. Ulin in the L.A. Times.
In my February Book Radar, The Mirage earned the unillustrious bottom spot, reserved for books I think I’ll probably hate. Ulin, with characteristic insightfulness, explains what I might have been feeling: while couched as alternative history, Ruff’s construction turns out to be “a high concept, in which reality is less important than spectacle.” Ulin compares Mirage to Philip K. Dick’s alternative history novel The Man in the High Castle. In Castle, the Allies lost World War II and America is split between two occupiers, Germany on the east coast, and Japan on the west—Dick takes a real historical event and branches out at a specific point, exploring history through fictional alternatives. Ruff’s novel, on the other hand, takes the details of a real event (9/11) and projects their mirror images in a pseudo-fictional near-satire, with no real message behind itself. In Mirage, Osama bin Laden is a special agent for the United Arab States (but he still acts like a terrorist), and LBJ leads Timothy McVeigh and David Koresh in a religious attack on the World Trade Center in Baghdad. Ulin calls it a terrific setup, but laments how poorly the pieces play out, and how hollow they feel, being, as the title implies, an illusion separate from the “real world.” I think “terrific” is a stretch for this premise: to me it feels like an arbitrary, even exploitative, reshuffling of history, made for shock value and not meaningfulness.
Zona, by Geoff Dyer. Reviewed by Sukhdev Sandhu in the Guardian.
A few weeks after slews of breathless blurbs got me all pumped up for Geoff Dyer’s new book, some real reviews have given me pause. In this one, Sandhu praises Dyer’s engaging, approachable handling of a very difficult-to-watch movie (Stalker, by Andrei Tarkovsky)—but I don’t really care about Dyer’s handling of the movie, I care about his weird non-sequiturs, and the unpredictable rambling I was promised. Regarding those, Sandhu says the book is mostly a movie synopsis, accompanied by “riffs and asides more whimsical than enlightening.” Dyer’s prose, meanwhile, lacks the “bruised lyricism that lit up earlier works.” I won’t be pulling the trigger on this one just yet.
Gypsy Boy, by Mikey Walsh. Reviewed by Dwight Garner in the New York Times.
Evidently Britain loves its Gypsies. Gypsy Boy, just the first of a passel of Gypsy memoirs slowly making their way to America, concerns Mikey Walsh, the descendant of a long line of Gypsy bareknuckle boxing champions (the descriptions reminded me a lot of Snatch). There’s only one problem: Mikey is gay, and because of that his father put a bounty on his head. Dwight Garner, one of the Times’s premier book reviewers, can’t quite bring himself to whole-heartedly recommend Gypsy Boy, calling it “melodrama” and “grim” by turns. But the pleasure he took in reading it is undisguiseable.
Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck, by Eric G. Wilson. Reviewed by Peter Lewis in the B&N Review.
Train Wreck is an English professor’s exploration of why we all find disaster so enthralling. Lewis describes it as a comfortably written book, even if its subject matter (like the market for Jeffrey Dahmer memorabilia) is sometimes distasteful.
In brief: Barnes & Noble releases a $200 Nook Tablet, probably because they were getting thumped by the Kindle Fire. … Ron Charles in Shit Book Reviewers Say … The Elements of Style, rapped. … I’m guessing the latest “Facebook book” will be about as mediocre as the last Facebook book. … And the Authors Guild calls Amazon’s pricing “predatory.” Only about 15 years late to the party, fellas.