This post will be sticky in the “reviewing” category.
A friend and I were talking.
One of my favorites is Italo Calvino, she said.
Oh, yes!… I used to review some of his books for the San Francisco Chronicle.
My favorite was Six Memos for the New Millennium.
I love that one! Can you send it to me?… The review, I mean.
Maybe? That must have been around thirty years ago. But I think I do still have some old reviews in a box. I’ll see if I can dig it out for you.
And I did. And here it is.
Writing as a Perfect Crystal
Six Memos for the Next Millennium
The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, 1985–1986
By Italo Calvino; translated by Patrick Creagh
Harvard University Press; 136 pages; $12.95
In Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino, master of startling literary transformations in such works as Invisible Cities, Cosmicomics, and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, shares his personal alchemical formula for literary Gold.
These lectures, intended for presentation at Harvard University in 1985, are precisely worded, carefully crafted, beautifully illustrated examples of the literary essay and inspiring demonstrations of Calvino’s argument that writing should have the definition, luminescence, and perfection of structure of a crystal. (The book is marred only by the failure of Harvard University Press to credit Patrick Creagh’s excellent translation.)
Calvino’s formula is idiomatic and personal. It will be difficult for literary critics to apply it as a test of value or for aspiring writers to use it as a recipe for their own magical creations. But it provides a brilliant, original approach to literature, a key to Calvino’s own work, and a thoroughly delightful and illuminating commentary on some of the world’s greatest writing.
The quirky quality of Calvino’s essays is unintentionally signaled by the omission of the sixth essay promised by the title, on “Consistency.” It remained unwritten at the time of the author’s death in Siena shortly before his 62nd birthday in 1985. The five essays that are included are “Lightness,” “Quickness,” “Exactitude,” “Visibility,” and “Multiplicity.”
Light, quick, exact, visible, multiple — how well Calvino knew himself. These five words effectively summarize his own literary style. But for Calvino these qualities have very particular significance, which he explores and defines through discussion of a great number of literary works.
I read Carl Hiassen’s Razor Girl after seeing several rave reviews, such as two in the New York Times (“irresistible” and “elegant”), one from NPR (“hilarious”), and one in Kirkus Reviews (“unbridled fictional invention”). The book is currently no. 2 on the NYT hardcover fiction best-seller list.
I had read Hiaasen before, so I knew what sort of thing to expect. While the novel mostly delivered on expectations, I did not like the book so much as those reviewers. A few thoughts:
- The book could be thought of as a kind of parody detective story, similar to The Big Lebowski. Donald E. Westlake and John D. MacDonald seem to be influences.
- Hiaasen’s characters are mostly stereotypes: the ruthless mob boss, the rapacious lawyer, the slutty gold-digging girlfriend (a favorite: there are a number of these), the weaselly Hollywood agent, the dumb-as-subsoil thug, the racist cracker, and so on. He disguises their conventionality through grotesque flourishes and exaggerations. Grotesquery is one of his strengths, but some experienced fiction readers might find this an insufficient alternative to actual character development.
- The manic character exaggerations are matched by an overheated storyline. Together with the lack of character depth and story-oriented exposition, this gives the book a brittle quality.
- Hiaasen is an efficient writer. His grotesque elements are made more effective by a clear, compact prose. He has a talent for colorful compounds — shitweasel, fuckwit, numbnuts, thundercunt, fuckwhistle, shitsucker, and so on.
- This sometimes manifests in dialogue: “Baby, you kiss like a blowfish on batteries.”
- The best idea behind Razor Girl is a Duck Dynasty parody. A television reality show features four brothers who are presented as Louisiana poultry farmers. The kidnapping of the alpha brother by a crazed fan who as ransom demands being added to the show as a fifth brother is the fulcrum for the plot. The kidnapping occasions a crise de foi in the victim —an excellent concept, but Hiaasen never really gets sufficiently into the victim’s head.
- The bayou brothers are presented as Louisiana poultry farmers; in fact they are accordion players from Milwaukee. But as a former Wisconsonian, I can report there is rich material there that remains almost entirely unmined by Hiaasen, whose backstories are always sketchy.
- The title concept, which alludes to car crashes perpetrated as a con by a young woman engaged in mechanical vaginal hygiene, is not as fascinating as Hiaasen appears to believe.
- Hiaasen’s heroes are stoners who love nature and sex and his villains are connivers who love money and sex. Mostly they fight over nature and money but sometimes they meet over sex.
- Potentially the most interesting character could have been Buck Nance, “Captain Cock” of the Bayou Brethren clan, as he is the only character who undergoes any development over the course of the novel. Unfortunately, his development is sketchy.
The story arc did not contain many surprises, though Hiaasen certainly makes the details distinctive. This is a diverting book that you will probably want to read quickly so that it doesn’t take up too much of your time.
A nice short review of River of Ink in my local paper:
“River of Ink: Literature, History, Art” by Thomas Christensen (Counterpoint Press, $35, 320 pages). The title of Thomas Christensen’s wide-ranging new history of literacy refers to the Mongol siege of Baghdad in 1258, when the invading hordes killed hundreds of thousands and destroyed the city’s Grand Library, described by the author as “perhaps the greatest repository of historic, scientific and literary documents of its age.” They threw so many books into the Tigris River, he writes, the water ran black with ink for six months. From that incident, Christensen, a Richmond resident who serves as director of publications at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, takes the reader on a world tour of literary landmarks from the invention of movable type in Korea to the “poetry of silence” of Spanish writer José Ángel Valente and the extraordinary tale of Pocahontas in London. The book is beautifully illustrated and Christensen writes with clarity, insight and admiration for these enduring wonders of the world.
The NBCC has announced their 2010 award finalists. I used to be a member of this group but there are too many older books I need to read to spend all my time trying to keep current with the new ones. So I don’t know much about a lot of these books. If you’ve read some, please share your thoughts.
An unusual feature of the NBCC awards is a category for “criticism.” This probably comes about because of the difficulty of comparing nonfiction titles, since nonfiction is such a huge, unruly category. They also have a “biography” category for the same reason.
Dalkey Archive was given a lifetime achievement award.
I think the biggest surprise on this list probably is the omission of Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Or maybe it’s that there are still enough book critics around to form a society. Following is the full list.
A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
To the End of the Land by David Grossman
Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick
Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne
Apollo’s Angels by Jennifer Homans
The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
Half a Life by Darin Strauss
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Crossing Mandelbaum Gate by Kai Bird
The Autobiography of an Execution by David Dow
Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens
Hiroshima in the AM by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto
How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell
The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: A Biography by Selina Hastings
Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History by Yunte Huang
The Killing of Crazy Horse by Thomas Powers
Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends by Tom Segev
One With Others by C.D. Wright
Nox by Anne Carson
The Eternal City by Kathleen Graber
Lighthead by Terrance Hayes
The Best of It by Kay Ryan
The Possessed by Elif Batuman
The Professor and Other Writings by Terry Castle
Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West by Clare Cavanagh
The Cruel Radience by Susan Linfield
Vanishing Point by Ander Monson
Right Reading received this e-mail from Olivia Sears, president of the Center for the Art of Translation.
I hope you are all enjoying The Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction. I wanted to send along some of the press the book has received. Martin Riker at Dalkey Archive Press has done a tremendous job of promoting the book.
Who would have guessed that the San Francico Chronicle‘s Sunday book review would be one of the few standalone newspaper reviews remaining? (It survives as a pull-out from the paper’s opinion section.) That the review has stayed alive is more a testament to the exceptional dedication of the Bay Area book community than to any quality of the review itself.
Continuing our week of
laziness link love while I’m on the road, I Love Typography has a review of Thinking with Type by Ellen Lupton. I think you could say it’s a positive review. For example, “Thinking With Type is to typography what Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time is to physics.”
What we get in newspaper book reviews are critics testifying to what their first encounters with a work were like, before any other people have experienced the work. There can be something awkward in such encounters that gives rise to some of the fun and sometimes frustrations of the readers of book reviews. It is like having a chance to watch someone struggling in the dark not having the faintest idea what sort of creature there might be with him or her in the room. “I feel these fleshy protuberances. Could this be the lithe proboscis of an elephant?” “Ooh, this is icky, sticky, yucky. What have I stepped into?” Awkward, yes; edifying, maybe; but this is one of the most important ways we humans manifest our freedom and model it to one another from one person to another and from one generation to another.
My friend (from kicking around Jerusalem during the 1987 Jerusalem Book Fair) Lindsey Water made some remarks about book reviewing at this year’s BEA. The text has been reproduced at Critical Mass.
Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America, by Gail Pool. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2007. 184 pages, 6 x 9 in., bibligraphy, index, $19.95 (paper).
Gail Pool sent me this book because she picked up a quote from Guy Davenport off this website. I once did a fair amount of reviewing — I was a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association — but, as I’ve mentioned before, I became disaffected with reviewing, and rarely review in print any more. I suppose I was worn down by the banality and mediocrity of most book reviews (a charge from which I do not necessarily exempt my own contributions).
Does it have to be that way? Gail Pool doesn’t think so, and it’s encouraging to hear that she still believes in reviews, thinks they matter, and imagines that significant industry-wide improvement are possible. I admire her attitude, and I’d like to think she is right. But I can’t fully share her optimism — not, at least, as concerns what she calls “traditional book reviews.”
When I saw that the anchor text for a link on Ron Silliman’s blog was “a review of the most pompous translator of our time” I had a brief moment of concern. Then I remembered that my book on translation isn’t out yet.
Ron’s link is to an article called “Ted Hughes and Translation” by Clive Wilmer. Here is an excerpt from Mr. Wilmer’s fulsome text: “Hughes [took] another poet’s translation of a work by the Hungarian Ferenc Juhasz and, without any knowledge of the original language and no Hungarian speaker to advise him, [turned] that version into a thrilling poem that drives the existing versions off the map.” A thrilling poem, maybe. But is it translation, or is it revision (or re-vision)? Does Shakespeare “translate” Boccaccio?
Sketch of th by tc.
Joe Wilkert makes some good points about book reviewing on his Publishing 2020 blog. Why do so many people like reading the reviews of books on Amazon.com? I think it’s because we all know how much tastes vary. Amazon presents the viewpoints both of those who like a book and those who don’t. Even if no one of these reviews is particularly good, if you read enough of them you can get a pretty good sense of whether the book is likely to appeal to you.
Print media, however, has mostly failed to keep up with the social media revolution. Books reviews in papers have been dropping fast, but those that remain still by and large do things the old way: an editor assigns a book to a reviewer who produces a review to a certain specified length, which is then run without comment, except for the occasional letter to the editor in a subsequent week. Reviewers take pride in not being influenced by the opinions of others (in theory; in practice most recycle the publisher’s press release). But if print book reviewing is to survive it will have to figure out ways to engage a community in a more participatory product.
Marginal Revolution has an interesting discussion of the role of newspaper book reviews. Several people say they just want “the bottom line — buy it, read it, skip it, or burn it.”
Why would you want that? Why would you want to abdicate your own judgment to someone else’s? (“Oh, the book reviewer said I should read this one, guess I’d better buy it. But that one I’m supposed to skip, even though it sounds interesting.”)
All I care about is getting some idea what the book is like. I’ve known a lot of reviewers, and there are very few whose opinions I have a compelling need to know.
Kathleen Parker: America’s Death March to Illiteracy
New York Times: Are Book Reviewers Out of Print?
The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the L.A. Times will cease to publish its book review as a separate section. That would mean that the only stand-alone newspaper book reviews remaining are the NYTBR, the Washington Post Book World, The Chicago Tribune Sunday Book Review, the San Diego Union-Tribune Sunday Book Review, and the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review — I’m a bit astonished tha the Chronicle Book Review is still among that list, as I’ve been hearing rumors about plans to eliminate it from time to time for at least twenty years. (“‘You constantly have to justify your existence,’ says Oscar Villalon, who edits the book section at the San Francisco Chronicle. ‘Why? We don’t bring in ads.'”)
The problem is that book publishers are no longer advertising in the book review supplements (except for the NYTBR, which is still pulling ads, probably mainly because it has national distribution at actual points of purchase). Newspaper ads are expensive and rather ineffective, since you are paying to reach a broad readership rather than a focused demographic of people who actually buy books. Instead, publishers are using most of their money to pay for favorable placement in book stores. This system of paid store placement is just another way that the industry favors the big players and works against such traditional staples of publishing as word of mouth.
I know from my experience as a publisher that most book reviews are really recycled press releases. For years the newspapers’ book review departments and advertising departments operated much too closely together to produce a product that could attract readers on its own right — most book reviews aren’t worth reading.
Still, I’m sorry to see the book reviews go. It’s just another example of the shift from content-based publishing to the current system, which consists of filling books with words in order to sell covers, author photos, and marketing bullets. Maybe the blogosphere offers a ray of hope, a chance to replace the old book reviews and revitalize the publishing industry.
In any case, books will survive. Recently a publisher told me it wants to reissue a book I had done some 17 or 18 years ago. Did I still have the word processing files? I did — but they can no longer be read without special software. That speaks volumes (so to speak) about the world of electronic publishing. Compare that record of obsolescence within decades to a Gutenberg bible or one of the early Asian books — printed books are a perfected technology, one that still works, after hundreds and hundreds of years.