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The Week’s Best Book Reviews 4/27/2011

[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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The Tragedy of Arthur, by Arthur Phillips. Reviewed by Michael Dirda (Washington Post).

I’m not really sure what’s going on with this book. It’s a novel that purports to be a release of a lost Shakespeare play. At first I thought it had something to do with Double Falsehood. I’m not really sure quite how the book is set up, but it contains a whole 5 act play and the “preface” is 250ish pages about Phillips so I can’t help but think Pale Fire. Dirda is a book reviewing all-star, but in this case his review only lends to my confusion about this novel–I can’t tell if he’s being tongue-in cheek and playing along or confused as to if this is real or post-modernism (I have to assume the former). Still, it looks like I’m going to have to get a copy and evaluate this for myself.

Get a copy of The Tragedy of Arthur at Powell’s.

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Bottom of the 33rd, by Dan Barry. Reviewed by Stefan Fatsis (New York Times).

Nico already mentioned this book a few weeks back, but I liked this review so I’m listing it. Fastis reviews insightfully. Last time I was home my dad was talking about this book, and though it might sound kind of boring at first (an account of the longest recorded baseball game, played in AAA Pawtucket), it turns out to be rather fascinating. Pretty sure only in baseball would an archaic rulebook omission allow for an unbroken 8 hour event.

Also, it turns out there were some pretty big name players involved, including Wade Boggs and Cal Ripken. Neato.

Get a copy of Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game at Powell’s.

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The Extra 2%, by Jonah Keri. Reviewed by Jon Thurber (Los Angeles Times).

This review’s a little older, but I wanted to point out this book anyway. I just got it from the library and I’m excited to read it. Keri spent a lot of time studying the Tampa Bay (née Devil-) Rays, and documents just what they did to go from basically being another Montreal Expos to the World Series and to becoming a perennial contender in the toughest division in baseball. Sucks for Keri that the book launched alongside a 1-8 start for Tampa, but they’re playing better now so hopefully that helps his sales.

Get a copy of The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First at Powell’s.

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The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde. Reviewed by Brooke Allen (Barnes and Noble Review).

I never really cared much for Wilde, but nonetheless I find it fascinating that the original version of his famous novella has never before been published. I’m not so much amazed that the book was somewhat heavily censored, as I am that the uncensored version has apparently just been sitting on a shelf for a hundred years. If you are into Wilde, or never before read Dorian Gray, this edition is for you. Even if not, Allen’s review is smart and concise and worth reading.

Get a copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition at Powell’s.

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Bonus Book Trailer: Sticks to what I’ve dubbed the Choppy Text PowerPoint Method, but at least they’ve added a little production value and original art. (Joe Croscup reviewed one of the books in this series favorably, might be worth a look.)

The Week’s Best Book Reviews 2/2/2011

[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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Night Soul and Other Stories, by Jospeh McElroy. Reviewed by Stephen Burn (New York Times).

I’m reading this collection currently, and I’m really liking it. It’s dense reading though, and there’s a lot of great writing in these pages that gets buried in confusing narrative. You can read my review next week. In the meantime, Burn does an excellent job of explaining the “problem with the way Joseph McElroy’s fiction reaches the contemporary reader.”

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Punching Out, by Paul Clemens. Reviewed by Scott McLemee (Barnes and Noble Review).

This is a book about the dismantling of a car factory in Detroit. On the surface, that may not sound very interesting, but as McLemee tells it, Clemens takes an unexpected approach. He actually focuses on the dismantling, and not the breathing place it once was. The book doesn’t appear without fault. McLemee writes,

At times, Punching Out feels like a book in search of a thesis to pull it together, and Clemens admits as much. He is keen to avoid indulging in melancholy prose-poetry or cheap philosophizing about the “creative destruction” of postindustrial society. The real vigor of the book comes from its character sketches of the men who shrug off the label “vultures” as they go about their jobs.

The character sketches seem intriguing enough to me to make this book worth a shot.

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Monsieur Pain, by Roberto Bolaño. Reviewed by Ursula K. Le Guin (Guardian)

After reading Amulet I find myself interested in all the Bolaño books being translated to English. This book–a hallucinatory, surreal novel occurring in a Parisian hospital in the 1930s–seems a lot different from the revolutionary South American tale of Amulet, yet Le Guin makes it seem fascinating all the seem. Her review is short, well-written, and worth your time.

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Bonus Essay: I really liked this ranty piece by Neil Genzlinger (The Problem with Memoirs, New York Times) bemoaning the flood of memoirs by people unqualified to write them. He embeds in it 3 negative reviews (of babytown frolics proportions) and one positive one. It’s not too long, and it’s both funny and interesting.

Bonus Book Trailer: Just…wow. (Also, what is a Super Edition?)

The Week’s Best Book Reviews: 1-25-11

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



Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
, by Amy Chua, reviewed by Janet Maslin (New York Times)

There’s been a lot of both hype and backlash about this book; the NYT’s skeptical, skewering review is the best I’ve read. Maslin convincingly paints Chua as a narcissistic psycho, willing to sacrifice the mental wellbeing of her daughters on her tyrant’s quest to raise productive, excellent, joyless offspring. Maslin shares a few of Chua’s insane adventures, draws parallels to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, and sympathizes darkly with Chua’s poor husband. It’s a good read.


J.D. Salinger: A Life Raised High, by Kenneth Slawenski, reviewed by David L. Ulin (L.A. Times)

Ulin is a solid reviewer who’s appeared several times even recently in this column. This time around he discusses the new biography of J.D. Salinger. Obviously, writing the biography of a notorious recluse is a tricky proposition, and Slawenski’s methods—including a lot of conjecture—make for interesting review fodder, as does Ulin’s commentary on those methods. I probably won’t be picking up the book, but the review itself is a great read for anyone even slightly interested in Salinger.


Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, by Rebecca Solnit, reviewed by Lynell George (L.A. Times)

Infinite City sounds like a fascinating book: it’s half atlas and half essay collection, it comes printed on either cloth or paper, and basically every description of it is captivating. This review is must-read for everybody who lives or has lived in San Francisco. For everybody else: you should endeavor to find Infinite City and flip through it the next time you’re in a bookstore.


Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, by Patton Oswalt, reviewed by Alex Spanko (Boston Globe)

Patton Oswalt is one of the smartest, funniest comedians working today. Perhaps the best praise Spanko can give his new memoir is that Oswalt “successfully transport[s] his comedic voice from the stage to the essay.” Still, this is a slim book at sub-200 pages, and the snippets Spanko presents are less than hilarious. It’s a tough call. But whatever you decide, make sure you check out Oswalt’s special, No Reason to Complain, his comedy-tour documentary, The Comedians of Comedy, and the companion live-performance feature, The Comedians of Comedy: Live at the El Rey. All are available on Netflix Instant Streaming.


In brief: Powerful poems by one of India’s untouchables. David Vann’s new prose-centric Alaska novel, Caribou Island, looks like a contender—the NYT likes it more than the Globe. Kevin Brockmeier’s beautifully surreal stories give me high hopes for his new novel, The Illumination (even if its premise sounds entirely silly). This review of a book by Ahmad Chalabi’s daughter is well worth a read. Here’s a brief note about an upcoming mystery to keep an eye on: it features “a hard-boiled literary PI” who carries the show. Meanwhile, Elmore Leonard’s latest is quite good, according to the Post. Finally, the BN Review highlights a tidy little historical thriller.

The Week’s Best Book Reviews 1/18/10

[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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The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown. Reviewed by Janet Maslin (New York Times).

If you don’t know that this book’s title is an allusion to MacBeth, you probably won’t care about its content in the slightest. The whole book is fan service for Shakespeare dorks. It concerns the three daughters of an eccentric Shakespeare scholar who are named after some of the bard’s characters (Rosalind, Bianca, Cordelia) and speak in Shakespearean dialect. As Maslin describes it–and as that brief synopsis shows–the novel is rife with allusion and direct pulls from Shakespeare. That sounds great to me, though I do fear it could get gimmicky quickly. The review gives a decent taste of the book, give it a read and see what you think.

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Stolen World, by Jennie Erin Smith. Reviewed by Laura Miller (Salon.com via Barnes and Noble Review).

This review is pretty fascinating, and I suspect the book is, too. It’s nonfiction and tells the story of two men who smuggle rare animals. The two seem rather crazy, but that particular kind of crazy that confuses itself with brilliance. I surmise this is one of those cases of literary journalism that tells a story we might not have any reason to care about at first, but we end up finding incredibly engrossing. Also, I really enjoy that the Fish & Game officers are referred to as “duck cops” so hopefully who whole book is funny, too.

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India: A Portrait, by Patrick French. Reviewed Aravind Adiga (The Observer).

Adiga’s review is pretty glowing. He gives the book high praise as both literature (comparing it to V.S. Naipaul) and journalism. I really liked Adiga’s The White Tiger, so I’m inclined to trust his review. French appears to have done thorough research and displays a keen eye for how to describe a place on the page. The review’s not unforgiving, however. French’s prose, which Adiga described as “close to perfection” in a previous work, is called here “over-ripe.”

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Behind the Dream, by Clarence B. Jones. Reviewed by Jonathan Rosenberg (Christian Science Monitor).

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day, a holiday during which some people get off work and others don’t, and most school kids with an off day don’t really grasp the meaning of the day. Jones knew King well (he was his lawyer and aide) so he seems like a great candidate to contextualize Dr. King’s most famous speech for an increasingly out-of-touch audience. Rosenberg recognizes this and sets up his review nicely by opening with a few lines about Glenn Beck’s rally last summer, which some Americans somehow thought was an appropriate thing to do on the anniversary of King’s speech. The review is concise and informed, and the book looks like something a lot of schoolchildren and forgetful, over-privileged adult Americans should read.

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Bonus Book Trailer: What if Jennifer Aniston was your pen pal? What if someone thought that was a good question to write a book answering?

The Week’s Best Book Reviews 1/4/11

[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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The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe, by Andrew O’Hagen. Reviewed by Stefan Beck (Barnes and Noble Review).

A biography of Marilyn Monroe told from the perspective of her Maltese terrier, Mafia Honey? Sounds either really dumb or really funny. According to Beck, it’s neither. Instead it’s a competent and compelling biography. It seems Maf is an engaging and readable narrator, which makes me want to read this book, even if I don’t really care at all about Marilyn Monroe. The review is quick and readable, worth a look.

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Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry: Stories, by Christine Sneed. Reviewed by Andrew Cheuse (Chicago Tribune).

I really like this thought from Cheuse’s review:

That’s what all good fiction does, I think. It gives us the memory of our culture, as writers have conjured it up, and extends our lives in terms of years as well as geographically and psychologically, if not in actual physical longevity. If you think I’ve said something quite silly, stop reading now, please. But if you have the sense, as I do, that reading fiction gives you powers that approximate the strengths of at least the lower rung of the gods, keep going, because I have a recommendation for you.

Sneed’s stories look to deserve a chance.

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The Metropolis Case, by Matthew Gallaway. Reviewed by Scott Timberg (New York Times).

This mystery about a girl who can visualize music seems a little smartypants, but also fairly charming. I’m willing to bet it has many of the same blemishes as most debut novels, but it seems on the whole to be a fairly competent work regardless. Lines like “[p]lot is often an afterthought in this kind of character-based literary novel” cause me to cringe a little, but Timberg follows this with “at times the story seems to meander and scatter pleasantly, but Mr. Gallaway brings things together quite neatly, even startlingly.” The Metropolis Case looks like it will be a nice choice to pick up in a few months, and take with you on a spring vacation.

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Moon: A Brief History, by Bernd Brunner. Reviewed by Cornelia Dean (New York Times).

The concept of this book is really awesome. It explores the history of our moon, but not just from the geological and astronomical angles. This book tells the story of humanity’s relationship with the moon and “the ways it inspired the human imagination to take flight.” Brunner explores literature, art, and anthropology to explain our species’ lunar affinity.

He took a similar approach with his last book, Bears, which also looks awesome.

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Bonus Book Trailer: Uh?

The Week’s Best Book Reviews 12/14/2010

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

I spent the weekend skiing and not reading book reviews, so this is a slightly shorter edition than usual. On top of that, with Christmas approaching, there are more Best Of lists going around than reviews. In any case, here we go.

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While the Women are Sleeping, by Javier Marías. Reviewed by Julius Purcell (Guardian).

I’ve never read Marías, but I have heard about him. Good things. This review isn’t very kind to this collection of supernatural short stories but doesn’t cut it down either. To be honest, despite the slant of the review, this seems like a book I might like. I’m intrigued by anthing that includes a story decribed as “a Lovecraft-style riddle about a Cuban soldier whose heirs are doomed to die before the age of 50″; give the review a read and see what you think.

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The Killing of Crazy Horse, by Thomas Powers. Reviewed by David Treuer (Washington Post).

I saw on the news the other day that the American flag from Little Bighorn, bought by a museum in the seventies for $56, just sold at auction for $2.4 million. Crazy Horse was the leader at Custer’s famously devastating loss in that battle. Personally, I don’t see why so many people are drawn so fully to Civil War-era American history, but it happens. I am, however, definitely in favor of this biography not glorifying the Americans that tried their darnedest to commit genocide. Treuer does note that Powers doesn’t take sides, yet thats not really the gist I get. He makes it clear, too, that more than a biography or historical account, this book does a good job of capturing a larger theme: the story of a place and time, and events there that have “a heart still beating after all these years.” The review is worth read (it’s sharp and well-written–”Fate hangs over the book’s pages like smoke over a battlefield.”), and if you’re into history books, the book probably is, too.

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Bonus Essay: It’s not a single review, but the Barnes and Noble Review has got a pretty good essay up (“Beyond the Horizon: 21st-Century SF” by Paul Di Filippo) rounding up some of the best science fiction stories of the last ten years. The essay is worth a read, even if one of his picks is a book I ragged on in my last entry.

Bonus Book Trailer: The title probably says enough. Shark vs. Train:

The Week’s Best Book Reviews: 11/30/2010

[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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Infinite City, by Rebecca Solnit. Reviewed by Adam Kirsch (Barnes and Noble Review).

I’ve always been fascinated with maps. When a book contains one, I refer to it and examine it constantly. Often I find myself flipping through atlasess in libraries. Solnit, as Kirsch describes her work, tells the story of San Francisco through a collection of maps. In his short, but quite good, review, he compares the maps to poetry. I’ve never actually been to San Fran, but I’m betting I’d love this book.
Continue reading »

The Week’s Best Book Reviews 11/16/10

[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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Sh*t My Dad Says, by Justin Halpern, and Emails from an A**hole: Real People Being Stupid, by John Lindsay. Reviewed by Courtney Crowder (Chicago Tribune).

I love the opener to this review: “They may both be Web site-to-print books, but only one of them is funny.” The former is the funny one, just so you know. CBS made a TV show of it staring William Shatner (my inner grammar geek thinks they should have retitled it “Shat, my dad, says…”). The original Twitter feed was pretty funny, so I can’t see why it would be any less funny compiled in a book. In fact, judging from this review, it’s better for it. The review is short, but Crowder does a good job of parsing the good and the bad in these two titles.

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Sunset Park, by Paul Auster. Reviewed by Mark Athitakis (Barnes & Noble Review).

B&N’s web mag is quickly becoming one of my favorite spots to go for book recommendations and reviews. (Also, there’s a pretty good review up now about Elvis Costello’s new album.) I’ve never been much of an Auster guy–I got sick of The New York Trilogy about halfway through. That said, I’ve been meaning to give him another shot for a while now, and Athitakis’s well-written review makes me think that maybe I should start with the author’s newest work before revisiting the old.

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The Interrogative Mood, by Padgett Powell. Reviewed by Steven Poole (Guardian).

We did a JABBIC of this book, which is written entire in questions. Frankly, that sounds like a dumb idea and I’d be pretty shocked if this book didn’t suck. At the very least it has to get grating after 5 pages. Poole’s review rightly lampoons the dumb conceit of this book. It’s fun to read the review, though I think it’s the last thing written all in questions that I’ll read hopefully forever. What do you think? Does it sound annoying? How many questions can I tack on to the end of this paragraph before you just skip to the next? Four?

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Life, by Keith Richards. Reviewed by Liz Phair (New York Times).

I’m not really one for biographies, but you know this Rolling Stone with the resilience of a cockroach–the emperor/exemplar of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll”–has got to be full of juicy stories, and at least some of which have to be incredible. The book’s been getting a lot of press, and been lauded more than once as actually pretty good. Not sure what Liz Phair is doing writing book reviews, but the musician does it competently, and I enjoyed her perspective. This is a long review, but worth the read.

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Bonus Book Trailer: Somewhere out there, there’s a vault with a box full of potent Viagra within! Riveting!

The Week’s Best Book Reviews 10/19/10

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


Museum of the Weird, by Amelia Gray. Reviewed by J. Robert Lennon (New York Times).

I’ve never heard of Amelia Gray, but after reading this review, I’ll be picking up her book. I love short stories. And I especially love short stories that explore the fabulous, or the not-quite-real. Stories about marriage and lonliness bore me, unless the bride is, say, a two-foot bullfrog. Gray seems to be writing just the sort of stories I like. But Lennon’s review, which is quite readable in its own right, gives me some misgivings. He warns of randomness and non-sequitor and worse: “nonsensical events or long, bland verbal exchanges between indistinguishable characters.” But I still think I want to give this one a shot.

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The Instructions, by Adam Levin. Reviewed by Christopher Borrelli (Chicago Tribune).

Releasing an 1,100 page debut novel is pretty ballsy. However, McSweeny’s has a pretty good record of debut novelists since they began pressing books (even managed to find one in his nineties). I’m not sure I have a book that size in me right now, but I’m intrigued all the same. Give the review a read, Borrelli writes well.

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Nightshade, by Andrea Cremer. Reviewed by Susan Carpenter (LA Times)

I picked this one because the book at hand seems pretty lauagable. It’s apparaently a Twilight knockoff (the protagonist is named Calla, to Twilight‘s Bella. Really?), but with a twist. As Carpenter enthusiastically describes it:

A fantastical mash-up of religious warriors and witch hunts, of feminist will and societal oppression, “Nightshade” is historical fiction — with a modern, pop culture twist. An intelligent reimagining of the past played out in the present with shape-shifting werewolves residing in Vail, Colo., “Nightshade” is a book for well-read hopeless romantics who like their heroines conflicted, their love interests smoldering and their passions triangulated and torrid, yet unfulfilled.

Ugh. The review goes on for a while. It’s pretty funny. I wish I had found this book for JABBIC.

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The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life, by Bettany Hughes. (Guardian).

Every couple years I like to tackle a history book. I really like them, but they tend to require a slower read and I don’t have the attention span or patience to absorb them regularly. It’s about time I read another, and Hughes’s book on Socrates could be the one. This isn’t a review, but a short article on Socrates by the author of the book. Give it a read, it’s pretty interesting.

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Bonus book trailer: “He oversleeps after a tryst and chaos ensues…” Ah, smooth soul jams and snapshots of random people really set the mood for a good 2007 Christian romance.

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The Week’s Best Book Reviews 10/6/10

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


The Fry Chronicles, by Stephen Fry. Reviewed by Simon Callow (The Guardian).

Stephen Fry is very funny (I recommend “Jeeves and Wooster”, a Britcom based on G.K. Chesterton stories in which he co-starred with a pre-”House” Hugh Laurie), and his autobiography seems to be not only humorous, but a well-written book. Callow writes:

So clever is he—and he is the cleverest by a mile of all my contemporaries—that he has written a book which reviews itself… it is verbal Vivaldi, gurgling and burbling deliciously along in its perfect cadences, its occasional unexpected harmonies, its calculated quirks, ever and anon modulating into a more tender, more reflective passage, hinting at, but never too deeply exploring, emotional depths, before speeding off into a joyous allegro vivace of infectious comic bravura.

Callow’s review is a good read in its own right, and I appreciate his willingness to criticize his contemporary where criticism is due.

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Nemesis, by Phillip Roth. Reviewed by Michiko Kakutani (New York Times).

Roth is one of those authors you either love or you don’t bother reading. His novels are long and dense, and it’s usually a fairly large endeavor to read one. It’s also usually worth the effort though, as he is inarguably one of the most talented American writers working today. Nemesis weighs in at 280 pages, so it looks like it might not be the behemoth some of its predecessors were, but it’s still a slice-of-life type book; in this case that slice comes from the Polio epidemic of 1944. Kakutani is not overly kind to Roth, in fact, she jabs a bit:

That Bucky is such a one-dimensional character makes for a pallid, predictable story line in which the random workings of fate and the fate of temperament—rather than genuine free choice—are the narrative drivers. It’s all a bit by the numbers, though Mr. Roth executes Bucky’s story with professionalism and lots of granular period detail.

We’ll wait a week to see if the Times pulls a Kakutani Two-Step, but for now, it looks like the review here might be better than the book.

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Snakewoman of Little Egypt, by Robert Hellenga. Reviewed by Wendy Smith (Chicago Tribune).

This seems like a pretty interesting novel, about a family in Illinois led by a snakehandling pastor. In a nutshell:

The eponymous heroine is 35-year-old Sunny, who in 1999 has just finished a six-year jail term for shooting her husband Earle after he forced her at gunpoint to put her arm in an aquarium full of poisonous snakes. “Little Egypt” is rural southern Illinois, where Earle is pastor and chief snake-handler at the fundamentalist Church of the Burning Bush in the town of Naqada. Snakes only bite the ungodly, Earle believes, so when he suspected Sunny of cheating, exposing her arm to a pair of copperheads and a diamondbacks was the logical way to test her fidelity.

Smith’s review is mostly plot summary, however the Tribune has a second piece on Hellenga which is a bit more satisfying read.

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Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics, by N.C. Christopher Couch. Reviewed by George Gene Gustines (New York Times).

It’s a bit odd I picked two biographies this week, as non-fic books don’t tend to be my reading of choice. This book caught my eye just because it’s about a man who doesn’t seem deserving of a biography. Unless you’re a really big dork, you–like me–have likely never heard of Jerry Robinson. He’s the guy who created The Joker (you know, from Batman). Reading Gustines’s review, the story of the Joker’s evolution over the years might actually be an interesting one. So maybe this is a book worth checking out, even if biographies–or comics–aren’t really your thing.