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.

REVIEW: Galveston

galvestonAuthor: Nic Pizzolatto

2010, Scribner

Filed under: Thriller, Literary

Find it at Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 9
Entertainment..... 3
Depth..... 7

I don’t know what happened to Nic Pizzolatto, but I’m sorry about it.

This is the most distressing novel I’ve ever read. I don’t mean it’s the most violent, although there is some gut-churningly intense violence. I mean the effect of reading this novel is that of having a heavy weight of despair slowly suffocate you. By the end, I was emotionally exhausted and long since ready for it to be over.

That’s not such a far cry from Pizzolato’s more well-known work, HBO’s True Detective, which airs the final episode of its first season on Sunday. That show might be the finest mystery drama I’ve experienced in any medium. It features a tangled mystery at its core, but with a bleak, bizarre, and disjointed telling of that mystery. True Detective’s characters are outstanding, simultaneously unlikeable wrecks of humanity, and fascinating, magnetic alter-heroes boasting a uniqueness rarely seen in a police procedural.

While Galveston has a few of the same tics, and a lot of similarly great prose, as True Detective, its premise isn’t nearly as captivating and its ending is more devastating than satisfying or anything else.
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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.]


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.


Fur People

by “Queen of Noir”

violent folks; bleak settings

book stars a hoarder


All The Heat We Could Carry

fresh poetry book

a meditation on war

about gay soldiers


The Way of Kings

new occupation:

long audiobooks for N

good for what it is



not Crace’s best book

wholly enjoyable still

read Being Dead first



part sad, part funny

Baby Boomer poetry

must suck to get old


The Alloway Files

not without its flaws

Roller writes the absurd well

eager for his next


Sharon Tate and the Daughters of Joy

what a great title

obsession-obsessed poems

Rammelkamp rolling



yet another meh

alternate history tale

merits, but it bores


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.

REVIEW: The White Rail

Author: Clarinda Harriss

2014, Half Moon Editions

Filed Under: Literary

white rail

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 10
Entertainment..... 10
Depth..... 9

Reading Clarinda Harriss’s fiction is like reading another version of Laura Lippman’s and Anne Tyler’s Baltimores mixed up together, from the genteel dilapidation of old Baltimore to the dangerous underbelly of the city’s streets. The White Rail is a slender volume, precious as a poetry collection, consisting of six stories, all set in Baltimore or nearby.

Harriss is first and foremost a poet, and her stories brim with a love of language, the sound of it, spoken by her characters (“Sista, you got some junk in yo trunk,” a random voice says in “The Vinegar Drunker.); the sounds of words together (“…lesbian sex poems whose I’s and S’s send the readers’ tongues licking and lapping like lascivious lovers.”); she wallows gleefully in their rhymes, their rhythms, the derivation and evolution of words.  Indeed, two of the stories, “In the House” and “Bone to Bone,” might accurately be said to be about poetry.  In both, Harriss considers the tension between the everyday street rhythms of spoken language and the metric requirements of formal verse.  “Bone to Bone,” a weird tale of “identity theft” regarding a Pulitzer Prize-winning black female poet, highlights the tension between vernacular poetry, its jazz rhythms, off-rhymes, and the formal verse structures of the traditions of English literature, Elizabethan sonnets, Metaphysical poetry, etc.  “In the House” might be characterized as doing the same, but with regard to Emily Dickinson and African-American poets.
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REVIEW: Dominion

dominionAuthor: CJ Sansom

2014, Mantle

Filed under: Historical, Literary, Thriller

Find it at Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 8
Entertainment..... 5
Depth..... 7

I’m still on my audiobook kick, and I’m still sorting potential titles by length. Dominion weighs in at a solid 21 hours, or just over 700 pages in print. In an odd way, that’s its downfall: length. If this were a short novel, or better yet a short story, its side-story plot arc would be interesting, if still not worth all the world-building. As it is, this is a very well-written alternate history novel that manages to realistically document a quite boring back corner of an epic war.

The premise, or at least the advertised premise, is a great one. In 1940, in real life, when Neville Chamberlain stepped down as prime minister of Britain, Winston Churchill became prime minister, and led Britain and the free world to stand up against the Nazis.

In Dominion, when Chamberlain steps down, Edward Halifax is made prime minister instead. Halifax immediately surrenders to the Nazis and Britain becomes a territory of the Third Reich. Churchill goes into hiding and leads a far-reaching Resistance against the occupation of the Nazis. The first chapter of the book depicts that pivotal moment in history with vivid realism and gravitas befitting it.

Unfortunately, that’s almost the only time we see Churchill in the entire novel, and it’s the last time the actual action in the book matches up with the enormous scale invoked by writing an alternate history of World War II.
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Albums as Texts: Legless Bull by Government Issue (D.C. Hardcore)

leglessbull“Anarchy is DEAD” — Government Issue 

The Chomsky-Foucault Debate
Government Issue, Legless Bull
Bad Brains, Black Dots
Void, Faith, Void/Faith
Minor Threat, Salad Days

[This is a column about lyrics as texts, not a history of music column.  Through close readings of album titles, song titles and close readings of lyrics, we will listen toward the microcosm of the album, and the macrocosm of Youth Culture in the ‘70s, ‘80s and more recent decades.]

Are you ready for nine minutes of hardcorest D.C. punk music?  Check out Legless Bull, the first e.p. by Government Issue, released in 1981.  When punk music first arrived on the District of Columbia music scene in 1979, the city was impoverished and regimented into strict racial ghettos, making it difficult to travel from one side of the city to another.  But D.C. had also a steady stream of upper-middle class government workers, educated and intelligent–the children of whom would soon become the lyricists of bands such as the Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Void and Government Issue.

With D.C. Hardcore music, gone is the freakout-for-the-sake-of-freakout of the New York and U.K. scene, as well as the obsession with chemical intoxication of the West Coast.  The Straight-edge movement of Youth Culture has remnants still today, with Youths tattooing black Xs on the back of their hands, indicating they cannot be served alcohol.

The album Legless Bull goes straight to its most direct critique, with the rhetorical voice of condemnation.  First targets for Government Issue’s lyricist, Stabb, are Evangelical Christians.  “Send us money, and you’ll be saved/ pretty soon you’ll be our slave/…Religious rip-off/ Gospel scam/ Ernest Angeley, Billy Graham/ Upside-down cross is what you should wear ”  Track three, “Rock and Roll Bullshit,” advances the satire of drug culture, as well as corporate acts such as Van Halen, Super Tramp and Rock’n’Roll Camp.

Then comes the lyrical highlight of the album, “Anarchy is Dead.”  In the 90’s, the Sex Pistols’ lyric, “Anarchy in the U.K.” became the immediately identifiable cry of the poser, but Government Issue tackles the hard truth of governmental necessity in 1981.  Which leads us to the Chomsky-Foucault debate. 
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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.

Negative Capabilities Part 5: The Reading List

[In this series, Eric takes on the Bambi/Thumper rule in book reviews and argues for the role of negativity in new media. Find the other installment here.]


Here’s a list of posts and articles from the debate over book reviewing and “niceness” as it’s played out since last fall. Please share any other related resources you might come across in the comments, and if you feel like adding your own two cents on this topic, that would be appreciated, too.

Burying the Hatchet” by Lee Siegel, The New Yorker, September 26, 2013

This Guy Thinks We Shouldn’t Have Negative Book Reviews. Two Thumbs Down!” by Isaac Chotiner, The New Republic, September 26, 2013

BuzzFeed names Isaac Fitzgerald its first books editor” by Andrew Beaujon, Poynter, November 7, 2013

Publicist Takes a Constructive Stand Against Negativity” by Tom Socca, Gawker, November 7, 2013

BuzzFeed Books Won’t Kill Literary Criticism — But Book Snobbery Might” by Michelle Dean, Flavorwire, November 8, 2013

Much Ado About Niceness” by Maria Bustillos, The New Yorker, November 12, 2013

Banning the Negative Book Review” by Bob Garfield, The New York Times, November 29, 2013

On Smarm” by Tom Socca, Tom Socca, Gawker, December 5, 2013

What’s Missing From the Smarm vs. Snark Debate: Honesty” by Michelle Dean, Flavorwire, December 6, 2013

Like, Sympathize, But Don’t Hate: How Social Media’s Enforced Positivity Is Making Us Dupes” by Tom Hawking, Flavorwire, December 10, 2013

Being Nice Isn’t Really So Awful” by Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker, December 11, 2013

Malcolm Gladwell Thinks We Are All Laughing to Our Deaths” by Ryan Kearney, The New Republic, December 11, 2013

Bigger Than Bambi” by Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, December 14, 2013

Everyone Is Missing the Point About Negative Book Reviews” by Madeleine Crum, The Huffington Post, December 18, 2013