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The Week’s Best Book Reviews 4/8/14

[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]

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lefthandturnA Left-Hand Turn Around the World, by David Wolman. Reviewed by Maria Popova (Brain Pickings).

This might be a weird admission, but I’ve always wished I was a lefty. I’ve even spent time teaching myself to do things left-handed, though the results are invariably sloppier than my natural right-handed efforts. That aside, this book, which explores the history of left-handed sounds fascinating (Latin for left is sinister? I should have taken Latin in school). If this sounds familiar, it’s because Wolman was recently on an (also fascinating) episode of RadioLab talking about this stuff.

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Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record, by Errol Fuller. Excerpted in Scientific American.

Not a review, strictly speaking, but this book looks pretty neat. The title pretty much explains it: the book is a compendium of documentation of animal species that no longer exist. It’s incredibly fucked up that the human race has managed to wipe out as much life as it has, and books like this are a good starting point for reflecting on all the damage progress leaves in its wake. Old nature photography is mesmerizing in its own right too, and particularly in the cases where, as the author notes, “the fact that photographers often had no idea how important their photos would become. They didn’t necessarily have any insight into the notion that their subject would soon become extinct.”

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Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue. Reviewed by Janet Maslin (New York Times).

Donoghue’s last book, Room, at once impressed and infuriated me. It got mostly love around the bookosphere despite, or perhaps due to, its gimmicky narrator. (The story was told from the maladjusted perspective of a 5 year old child of a kidnapped rape victim who had spent his entire life imprisoned in the same small room with his mother.) It doesn’t surprise me then, that without such a crutch there’s not much to like about Donoghue’s latest, which is based on an unsolved murder from the late 19th century. Maslin actually comes right out and says that the “afterword is a more interesting telling of the story.” Ouch.

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Quickly: Home Movies might be my favorite TV show off all time (though I think I’ve also said that about Twin Peaks, Arrested Development, and Miami Vice plenty), and I found this write up of the show particularly astute.I still haven’t read anything by Karen Russell, and I’m not sure I want to start here. John Paul Stevens is convinced Shakespeare wasn’t really the author of all that good stuff.

Albums as Texts: The Day the Country Died, by the Subhumans; Horror Epics, by the Exploited (’80s Hardcore)

“Micky Mouse is dead” — the Subhumans

Sources:
Alan Moore, Watchmen
The Subhumans, The Day the Country Died
The Exploited, Horror Epics
The Ramones, Too Tough to Die

SUBHUMANS[Punk music: what does it mean?  When and where does this turn to hardcore, punk-rock, intellectual hip-hop, grunge, alternative and indie music?  How do social, economic and political moments effect Youth Culture, and how are these interpreted through Youth Culture?  If punk is about tearing down, what remains when all is torn down?  I argue these questions can be answered through a close reading of the best albums in the punk project and the following punk tradition.  We will listen for a close reading of the album as microcosm and the broader macrocosm of Youth Culture in the ‘70s, ‘80s and more recent decades. This column is about lyrics as text, not a history of music column.]

The mid-‘80s were a dark period in the lyrical zeitgeist of the English speaking world.  The very real fear of nuclear destruction at this time is best captured by Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen.  Though the threat-watch color spectrum has mostly replaced notions of a Doomsday Clock, this constant visual motif in the novel of one-minute to midnight– symbolically, doomsday– was a stark reality.  Whether this doomsday would be ecological, nuclear, the gang warfare of Youth Culture, or the best intentions of those trying to save the world–I won’t spoil–read the novel for the greatest climactic gross-out in all of comic-books, a gross-out avoided by the movie.
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Programming note: the end of Book Radar

When I started writing the Book Radar column, almost three years ago, I was working at a bookstore, spending a fair amount of my weekly time paging through catalogs of upcoming releases, and marking the books I was interested in. The column was a natural byproduct of all that casual research.

In the time since, I stopped working at the bookstore and stopped having access to both the catalogs and the spare time to idly flip through them. Instead, I’d pull interesting books from Kirkus, which handily laid out reviews for all the books coming out in the next few weeks. Unfortunately, Kirkus changed their format, and you can no longer sort out upcoming books, and I can’t find a similar website that will let me research a Book Radar column in less than eight hours.

So I’m retiring the Book Radar column, and instead we’ll continue to highlight interesting books in the Week’s Best Book Reviews feature, it’ll just be after they come out. (And no, this isn’t the world’s worst April fool’s joke.)

The Week’s Best Book Reviews 3/26/14

[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]

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overwhelmedOverwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, by Brigid Schulte. Reviewed by Jennifer Howard (Washington Post).

Oh man, I wish I was joking in saying I’m too busy to read this book right now. Never in my life have I had so much to do as this spring. Part of me actually loves it, and part of me wants to go live in the woods and eat berries around a campfire for the rest of my days. Much of my consolation though, is knowing that my current busy-ness levels will subside in another month. But what about those of us who are always busy, no matter what our life situation. Why do we do it to ourselves (or why do we construct a society that demands it)? Seems like a decent rumination to base a pop-sociology book on. I’ve added it to my Amazon cart, but I’ll be waiting until I have more free time to actually read it.

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Blood Will Out, by Walter Kirn. Interviewed by Walter Kirn (New York Times).

The pretentiousness of someone interviewing themselves is a pretty big turn off for me, especially when they open with wearing fancy clothes and packing up zebra striped undies. But Kirn’s weirdness (he wrote Up in the Air, which became that Clooney movie a few years back), which is plenty evident in this self-interview, led him–apparently out of boredom between books–to befriend a con-man/impostor/murderer who went by Clark Rockefeller. I don’t know, I probably don’t want to read his book about it, but whatever this is is worth a look.

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Cycle of Lies, by Juliet Macur. Reviewed by John Horn (Los Angeles Times).

I could give two fucks about the sport of cycling or its athletes’ integrity, but I do very much enjoy the schadenfreude that follows a rich, colossal douchebag’s fall from grace. Lance Armstrong’s downfall was his own hubris and assholishness, and the more books like these (the review also discusses Wheelmen by Reed Abergotti and Vanessa O’Connell) that pile on the denigration of his name, the better.

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Quickly: Anyone in DC should try and attend the 826 fundraiser event tomorrow, C4 knows a couple cats who will be there. This book collecting American interpretations of Shakespeare through the years looks fairly interesting. An agent doesn’t like the idea of publishing with Amazon, shocker.

Albums as Texts: Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska; Bad Brains, Rock for Light (Hope Goes Punk)

“We got that PMA. Hey, we got that PMA” — H.R. of the Bad Brains

Sources:
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
The Bad Brains, Rock for Light
Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska
Prince, 1999

bruce-springsteen-nebraska

[Punk music: what does it mean?  When and where does this turn to hardcore, punk-rock, intellectual hip-hop, grunge, alternative and indie music?  How do social, economic and political moments effect Youth Culture, and how are these interpreted through Youth Culture?  If punk is about tearing down, what remains when all is torn down?  How low can a punk get?  I argue these questions can be answered through a close reading of the best albums in the punk project and the following punk tradition.  We will listen for a close reading of the album as microcosm and the broader macrocosm of Youth Culture in the ‘70s, ‘80s and more recent decades. This column is about lyrics as text, not a history of music column.]

Thought I’d write about some music that’s pretty to listen to this week, situated as it is between such aggressive and sonically harsh musics like hardcore punk.  Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska is a return to his minimalist folk roots; and the Bad Brains Rock for Light album is interspersed with uplifting reggae jams, and the hardcore tracks have some of the highest production values of the genre– produced by Ric Ocasek from the Cars.
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The Week’s Best Book Reviews: 3/20/14

[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]

 

broken-roadThe Broken Road, by Patrick Leigh FermorReviewed by Katherine A. Powers at the Barnes & Noble Review.

The recently (posthumously) published travel memoir finishes a trilogy of books that cover a trip taken 80 years ago, when Fermor was a teenager. Fittingly, the ineptitude of memory to do justice to the past is one of the book’s big themes. Otherwise, this is what you’d expect: the final book by a legendary travel writer. The Wall Street Journal also reviewed it, featuring a bit more personal history.

 

Long Man, by Amy GreeneReviewed by Ron Charles at the Washington Post.

Charles contemplatively reviews this seemingly slow-paced book about a small town in 1936 that becomes doomed to slowly flood when Roosevelt’s Tennessee Valley Authority dams the nearby Long Man River. Against that backdrop, a young girl goes missing and her mother desperately searches for her. Charles calls it “an engrossing blend of raw tension and gorgeous reflection.”

 

The Wherewithal, by Philip SchultzReviewed by Adam Plunkett at the New York Times.

Plunkett simultaneously disembowels this book, and seems impressed by its power. It’s an illustrated novel in verse about various horrors witnessed by a young Polish man during World War II. Plunkett describes its lyricality as “almost mock-poetry” and says it functions poorly as both a novel and a poem. Yet, the theme of the book is that such art and artifice becomes meaningless or worse in the face of such widespread trauma. I honestly can’t tell if Plunkett winds up recommending The Wherewithal or not.

 

In brief: Colson Whitehead maintains his membership in excellent standing at the Pretentious Writers Club. … Russell Brand continues to rail against all institutions except those that pay him.The LA Times’s spring books preview. … Tessa Hadley’s Clever Girl sounds like a book full of intense realism, often too much for comfort. … It’s a “silver age” for older writers (beware puns ahead). …

The Week’s Best Book Reviews 3/11/14

[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]

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boysnowbirdBoy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi. Reviewed by Heller McAlpin (Barnes and Noble Review).

If you want to entice me to read a book, just make promises about its ability to “entwine elements of fairy tale, folklore, and ghost stories with thorny issues like racial prejudice, cultural dislocations, and maternal ambivalence.” This retelling of Snow White (I’m also a sucker for retellings) is set in 1950s Massachusetts and is centered around a black man called Boy who passes for white, though McAlpin is pretty guarded about the actual plot. I’m sold though. Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching has been on my list for a while now. I guess one more couldn’t hurt.

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The Black-Eyed Blonde, by Benjamin Black. Reviewed by Janet Maslin (New York Times).

Black (mystery book pseudonym for author John Banville) has taken over Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe character, and this book’s title is even something bequeathed by the late mystery great. I’d probably like Black/Banville’s Marlowe books if I had the time to read them. Maslin certainly seems enamored with the Irish writer’s sensibility for noir Americanese, and I appreciate that she shares very little of the plot–a rich girl hires a private dick to find somebody who’s mixed up in something he shouldn’t be and is now missing. Mostly, though, I want to know how the hell Candice Bergen warranted mentioning in a review of a mystery novel set in the 40′s written by an Irish author…

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Black Moon, by Kenneth Calhoun. Reviewed by Jeff Vandermeer (Los Angeles Times).

Take this book about a worldwide insomnia epidemic or leave it (I’m inclined toward the latter), but make sure to give a glance at this dude’s author picture and tell me it’s not right near the top of the list of douchiest author pics ever. Something about Calhoun’s smarmy, half-sneering expression in that photo makes me want to hate the book and anyone involved in its publication for reasons I can’t even place. (The review is worthwhile though, and I quite like Vandermeer, whose excellent Wonderbook I’ll be talking about on the next podcast.)

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Quickly: I quite liked this Atlantic article about how (not) to teach grammar. Bukowski has been dead 20 years this week, so LA is having a party. Mardi Gras is right up there near the top on the list of things that don’t interest me at all, but if it’s your style, here’s a list of related reading. David Ulin actually describes something Denis Johnson wrote as “one of the signal achievements of contemporary American literature, a book so spare and beautiful and knowing that it makes my eyes weep blood.” Woah.

Books Radar: March 2014

[This monthly feature is a brief look at interesting upcoming books. These are not reviews, these are previews; we have not read these books. Follow Book Radar here. Click the title links to find more info about these books.]


Definitely

brunist-day-of-wrathThe Brunist Day of Wrath, by Robert Coover (out 3/25)

Coover stands out as not only a postmodernist experimenter in the vein of Barth and Barthelme, but also a writer capable of infusing his experiments with the warmth and character of more traditional story-telling. Dave talked about Coover’s crazy book about a fantasy baseball league here. And Coover’s foray into genre territory, Noir, was one of my own favorite books of 2010. This new novel is the long-awaited sequel to Coover’s debut, The Origin of the Brunists. It clocks in at a staggering 1100 pages but promises “a scathing indictment of fundamentalism.” And it sounds like a perfect fit for my “really long audiobooks” reading program.

 

blazing-worldBlazing World, by Siri Hustvedt (out 3/11)

Hustvedt’s sixth novel follows a no-name female artist who suddenly gets great reviews when she launches a series of shows under a male pseudonym. Then there’s also a murder involved, and the whole thing is told as a series of found texts. Hustvedt herself is getting great reviews for this book, so it sounds like a risky premise that she’s pulled off.


shotgun-lovesongsShotgun Lovesongs, by Nickolas Butler (out 3/4)

The premise sounds like off-the-shelf debut lit novel fare: four friends, having grown up together and moved away, now move back to their hometown and sort through their issues. It’s hard to tell from the flap copy whether there’s a single dark secret they’re uncovering (which wouldn’t be too original, but would be better than the alternative), or just the “strong, American stuff” that usually turns out to be boring. However, I can’t ignore tons of great early reviews, most of which are already crowning Butler as an all-time great novelist. I would settle for a good book.


all-our-namesAll Our Names, by Dinaw Mengetsu (out 3/4)

Speaking of buzzed-about authors, Mengetsu is on just about every “under” list there is: the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 and the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35. He’s also been the recipient of a MacArthur genius grant and a whole host of other awards. This new novel has gotten a mixed response, which might not be a surprise for a writer working in the controversial political novel tradition of “Naipaul, Greene, and Achebe.” The book’s about a pair of friend who grow up during an African revolution. Worth a try, at the very least.

 


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reviews in haiku: January/February 2014

Skipped a month, now we’re back.

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Fur People

by “Queen of Noir”

violent folks; bleak settings

book stars a hoarder

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All The Heat We Could Carry

fresh poetry book

a meditation on war

about gay soldiers

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The Way of Kings

new occupation:

long audiobooks for N

good for what it is

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Harvest

not Crace’s best book

wholly enjoyable still

read Being Dead first

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Imperial

part sad, part funny

Baby Boomer poetry

must suck to get old

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The Alloway Files

not without its flaws

Roller writes the absurd well

eager for his next

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Sharon Tate and the Daughters of Joy

what a great title

obsession-obsessed poems

Rammelkamp rolling

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Dominion

yet another meh

alternate history tale

merits, but it bores

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The White Rail

great writing lauded

Hariss saw and sent her own

read her review soon

The Week’s Best Book Reviews: 2/26/14

[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]

 

burnable-bookA Burnable Book, by Bruce HolsingerReviewed by Ron Charles at the Washington Post.

Evidently this book stars Geoffrey “perced to the roote” Chaucer as the hero of a thriller. The story, rife with murders and prostitutes, revolves around a book that seems to prophesy the deaths of kings. Holsinger is a Guggenheim-winning Chaucer scholar who might just have turned in a legitimately compelling novel. Charles’s review is typically entertaining, though it bogs down a bit through the slightly convoluted plot synopsis—hard to tell if that’s Charles’s fault or Holsinger’s. In any case, if you like Dan Brown’s style of mystery but hate everything about his writing (as I do), this could be the next book for you.

 

Strange Bodies, by Marcel TherouxReviewed by Alan Cheuse at the Dallas Morning News.

Theroux (the son of famed travel writer Paul Theroux) has written a literary-ish novel about the creation of a “mankurt” or a kind of golem. Twists and turns abound; the short review doesn’t quite detail these, but Cheuse does say that “genre-writing for the literary connoisseur,” a proclamation that I find intriguing, but one that should always be taken with a grain of salt.

 

One More Thing, by B.J. NovakReviewed by Teddy Wayne at the New York Times.

Wayne fails to sell me on Novak’s book (a collection of 64 vignettes of roughly 4 pages each), but it’s an amusing review. This was my favorite line: “The melancholy sensibility and verbal élan elevate Novak’s book beyond a small-beer exercise in clever monkeyshines and into a stiff literary cocktail.”

 

In brief: Amtrak now has free “residencies” for writers who like to write on trains. Bizarre but possibly genius marketing. … I’ll bet this guy has already put in his Amtrak residency application. … USA Today is a bit too free with its 3.5 star reviews. … Dan Brown’s Inferno was the best-selling book in 2013. It’s awful. Here’s my podcast review.