The Week’s Best Book Reviews: 6/3/14

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

Holy crap it’s been a while.  Any-who, now that I’m free to read again, let’s get sharing.


bugjunkNature’s Nether Regions, by Menno Schilthuizen. Reviewed by Tess Taylor (Barnes and Noble Review).

Yup, it’s a book all about the diverse rainbow of animal junks in the world. Read the review.


Rules of Summer, by Shaun Tan. Reviewed by Sarah Harrison Smith (New York Times).

The best kids’ books, to my mind, are the ones people might think are too heavy for children. Seems like a solid indicator that the book is asking children to consider something of more consequence than sharing on the playground. So I love lines like this in a review:

Though boys in the real world play roughly, and like to imagine adventures in which they are the lone survivors of a catastrophe, the dystopian setting of “Rules of Summer” may disturb readers more than they — or their parents — would like.

Tan’s The Arrival is a beautiful picture book that came out years ago and manages to touch on some heavy themes without a single word of text. Also this one’s got demonic rabbit monsters with fuchsia eyes hunting down the world’s children or something. Awesome.


Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert, by John Drury. Reviewed by Michael Dirda (Washington Post).

There’s actually nothing special about this review of a book that’s basically lit-crit of a relatively obscure poet who died 5 centuries ago. I just really like that Dirda has reached the point where he basically reviews whatever he feels like for WaPo. Good on him. 


Quickly: This Amazon – Hachette thing is getting pretty ugly. Maybe I’d care more if it were somebody else and not Hachette, I have a hard time drumming up any sympathy for the James Patterson factory. British schools aren’t teaching books by American authors anymore, instead are doubling down on the whole dead white (British) man thing, which will surely do wonders for their students’ world views.

The Week’s Best Book Reviews: 4/23/14

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


capitalCapital in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas PikettyReviewed by Daniel Schuchman at the Wall Street Journal.

I’m not sure what the marketing department was thinking when they sent a review copy of this book to the Wall Street Journal. I assume whoever sends out the ARCs just didn’t read it, because it’s the equivalent of sending lamb to be reviewed by a wolf. Among Piketty’s ideas: imposing an 80% tax rate on income over $500,000 in order “to put an end to such incomes,” and further taxing existing wealth at up to 10% annually, which would effectively destroy it. You can just imagine how the Wall Street Journal might respond to such ideas. Schuchman calls the book “a bizarre ideological screed,” and sneers at Piketty for implying a “moral illegitimacy” inherent in the accumulation of wealth. Methinks he doth protest a bit too much, eh? It is great fun, though, to watch two sides so dramatically far apart huffily clash, while simultaneously blinding themselves each to the other’s point of view.


Leaving the Sea, by Ben MarcusReviewed by Stuart Kelly at the Guardian.

I missed this latest Ben Marcus book when it came out. I’ve read Marcus before and found him quite interesting, if not exactly satisfying on a narrative level, like a lot of experimental writers. Kelly sounds positively knocked out by Marcus’s distinct style and these stories, many of which sound more “normal” than the Marcus work I read.


All God’s Dangers, by Theodore RosengartenReviewed by Dwight Garner at the New York Times.

Dwight Garner revisits the nonfiction book that won the 1975 National Book Award (over Woodward and Bernstein, a biography by Robert Caro, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Studs Terkel’s Working). It’s the oral history of an illiterate share cropper named Ned Cobb. Interesting stuff.


In brief: The NYT has a new feature in which authors “discuss” books. This week some asshole I’ve never heard of shits on T.S. Eliot. At least the NYT still accepts negative reviews. … Salman Rushdie writes about Gabriel Garcia Marquez.“The story begins with a long, graphic torture scene, turns to comedy and reaches an unexpected ending.” I bet it ends with me not finishing the book. … New research says that people get nicer as they age. Except Republicans.

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.]


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.


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.”


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.


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.

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.]


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.]


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.


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…


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.)


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.

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.

The Week’s Best Book Reviews 2/19/14

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


A Burnable Book, by Bruce Holsinger. Reviewed by Ron Charles (Washington Post).

Oh man, just read this opener by Charles:

Forget Tom Cruise scaling the Burj Khalifa tower; the hot new super-agent is 14th-century writer Geoffrey Chaucer. Thrill to his daring Middle English rimes! Gasp at his mighty scansion! Here in the pages of Bruce Holsinger’s medieval adventure, that randy old poet finally gets the “Mission Impossible” cameo he deserves.

Sounds dumb, but also kinda awesome. Charles seems to actually have enjoyed the book quite a bit, though it’s hard to tell sometimes whether he is being sincere or derisive. There’s more summary here than we usually get from WaPo, but it’s still worth a read.


barkBark, by Lorrie Moore. Reviewed by Charles McGrath (New York Times).

McGrath doesn’t really say much about the book, which is Moore’s first story collection in 16 years, instead focusing more on the author herself. Whatever, though, Moore is a really good writer, and at least some of the stories in here are sure to be strong.


Afrofuturism, by Ytasha L. Womack. Reviewed by Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons Reviews).

I like perusing the Strange Horizons site for two things: learning of good sci-fi books I might want to read, and indulging in the occasional teardown. This time, I found something closer to the former in a pretty decent piece of literary criticism about an art aesthetic I’d never even heard of before. I don’t know when I’ll have the time to read Afrofuturism, but I totally want to learn more.


Quickly: Murakami fans can look forward to his latest in English this summer. Describe a book as “a Mexican family’s comic woes vibrantly recall Greek mythology and the young James Joyce” and I’m sold.

The Week’s Best Book Reviews 2/12/14

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


parthenonThe Parthenon Enigma, by Joan Bretton Connelly. Reviewed by Nick Curley (Barnes & Noble Review).

This isn’t actually a review, but an excerpt with an editor’s preface–and it’s fascinating. I wish I had the time to invest in this book, which explores the millennia-old mysteries of one of the West’s most recognizable pieces of architecture, but also its monumental (sorry) impact on the Western thought since the Enlightenment. Give the excerpt a shot, because I’m not doing a very good job of expressing Connelly’s premise. 


H R C,  by Amie Parnes and Johnathan Howell. Reviewed by Michiko Kakutani (New York Times).

I love Hillary and can’t wait for her to be our next president. However, I can’t really stomach contemporary political books though–they either serve a masturbatory role for supporters or an antagonistic one for the opposition, neither of which is worth my time–so I’ll be passing on this, but fans of this sort of thing should enjoy what’s on offer here, which is essentially a start to the 2016 hype machine. Really though, my main hope for this book is that somewhere out there there is a conservative leaning book blog that has a jovial editor (or maybe grumpy in this Bizarro fantasy) that’s gonna get drunk on a podcast and review this book with escalating rage.


Alena, by Rachel Pastan. Reviewed by Carolyn Parkhurst (Washington Post).

I’m a sucker for retellings. I don’t know why, since they are far more often bad than good. But it sounds like Pastan’s modern day Cape Cod retelling of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca might actually be worth a read. Of course, I’ve got to read du Maurier’s original first…


Quickly: Here’s some cute, heart-filled children’s books. I’m by no means a religious person, but I love the new pope, whose latest awesome deed (endorsing the new Ms. Marvel, which sports a Muslim, Pakistani-American female protagonist) caught a lot of people’s attention. This gallery of famous authors’ houses is a nice curio. Maybe BJ Novak’s stories are funny, or maybe they’re terrible.

The Week’s Best Book Reviews: 2/5/14

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


triple-packageThe Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, by Jed Rubenfeld and Amy ChuaReviewed by Hector Tobar at the L.A. Times.

Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother rose to controversial fame on its simple, racist thesis that “Chinese mothers are superior.” Now Chua has teamed up with her husband to controversially explore racism in another book, this one about why certain “national-origin groups” are more successful than others. Tobar gratifyingly dismantles this drek, which he calls “sloppy” and “shallow.” It’s a fun ride.


For Today I Am a Boy: A Novel, by Kim FuReviewed by Jiayang Fan at the New York Times.

The only precious son in a Chinese-American family of daughters desperately longs to be a girl. That’s a simple but surprisingly compelling premise.


The News: A User’s Manual, by Alain de BottonReviewed by Ian Jack at the Guardian.

De Botton retains credentials both as an approachable modern “philosopher” (by publishing yet another slight volume about a narrow subject) and one of the world’s most condescending assholes (that subtitle, blech). Jack wrangles with him well, taking him to task for Gladwellian simplifications and obfuscations, ultimately finding it propagandish and far from thorough.


All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting, by Jennifer SeniorReviewed by Andrew Solomon at the New York Times.

I’m not sure exactly how useful parenting books are to childless people—probably about as much use as my set of Perfect Pushups are to me. Still, the review is a bit interesting. It seems Senior’s book takes a semi-historical view of parenting, tracking the time when children went “from being our employees to our bosses” as she writes. I take exception to the notion that parents are happier than people without children, but Senior does caveat that they are also more miserable. Plus, I find the title intriguing. Not enough to, you know, read the book, but intriguing.


In brief: Well, it’s been 5 months since the last Joyce Carol Oates novel, time for a new one. … Marilyn Stasio calls Isabel Allende’s mystery novel “ungainly,” “eccentric,” “thoroughly charming,” and “a lot of fun to read.” … A film institute is publishing Charlie Chaplin’s novel sixty years after he wrote it.David L. Ulin writes about William S. Burroughs on the occasion of his 100th birthday. … That guy from the office wrote a book of stories (not him, the other guy… no the other other guy).