Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Useless book reviews in the FT

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

My weekly treat of the Saturday FT is becoming less and less something to look forward to. It’s not just that the fashion shoots are as gauche as those of newspapers everywhere, or that the odious ‘How to Spend It’ bizarrely channels a middle class aspiring to be hot Russian money in London. Nor that Mrs Moneypenny has irrevocably (i.e. on television) revealed herself as a bit of an empty vessel. Nor, even, that my beloved Secret Agent is running out of things to say about the property-acquiring super rich. (I guiltily admit I loved him more when he was melancholy, and still daydream of fixing him up with a friend.) No, my ability to pleasurably drag out the reading for more than an hour is vexed by the increasingly uninsightful and plain old poor value for money that has begun to mark the fiction reviews.

The increasing Americanisation of the FT now has writers review books by their brothers and sisters in arms. The British tradition of publishing book reviews by people who are real-life critics and not part-time cheer leaders and quarterbacks may be nasty, discomfiting and sometimes unfair to writers – and for this I blame editors – but it gives a reader a much clearer view of the essential question; ‘Is it any good?’. I imagine it’s also costing unsung book reviewers their living as money is thrown at superstar writers at the top of the pile.

Case in point: this week’s review by Annie Proulx of a novel, ‘Irma Voth’, by Miriam Toews. Without the name recognition of Proulx, it’s hard to imagine the review being published anywhere except, perhaps, a town newspaper wishing to fill up space and appear cultural by inviting the doyenne of the local book club to write a little something. Proulx dedicates 800 of her 1000 words to describing the plot of the novel from beginning to end; 800 tedious words of ‘this happens and then that happens’, and then a final 50 to more helpfully add that Irma Voth is a parable of redemption with a decent pay-off. It’s just not a very good piece, and yet it is given star treatment.

Proulx’ review occupies the most prominent real estate in the sadly pared back FT book review section, and has an apparently custom-ordered illustration to go with it. The picture alone takes up the same amount of space on the page as 6 of the mini-reviews that comprise the meat of the section. What a waste of space! The books editor may have imagined a gloriously co-branded vista, with the joint intellectual capital of Proulx and the FT expanding geometrically as far as the eye can see. What’s ended up on the page is a colossally wasteful exercise in winner-takes-all back-scratching that is unworthy of either party.

Which is not to say writers don’t have anything interesting to say about books. (And Lionel Shriver’s reviews for the FT are much better than those of Proulx.) Where would the LRB be without writers talking to and about other writers? However, a weekend book review section is for readers, and editors booking puff pieces from rock stars to add to squeezed book sections the illusion of mass would do well to remember this.

First published on Crooked Timber on 14 June, 2100

Sunnyside II – Count no man lucky until he is dead

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

On first reading, Sunnyside seems to be a picaresque with a sting in the tail. In the best spirit of Chaplin’s films, this rambling story of World War I and the movies uses slapstick and pathos to wring out tears of laughter and sadness. Many readers set it down, bemused, scratching their heads, wondering what, if anything, it was all about. Some reviewers said it was an ambitious failure. Sunnyside is a book you need to live with for a while as it unwraps itself. Or not. Like the best comedy, it’s a response, though not an answer, to the despair of the human condition. And it’s very, very funny.

What does it mean to ‘get’ a book, or at least to think you have? It’s something that happens in a reader’s mind when the characters, story, feelings and ideas of a novel unite into something greater than their sum, becoming a complete world of their own, a world that teaches true things about the world we live in. A good book that sits uncomfortably in its own era resists understanding just as it teaches you how to read it. Sunnyside is the sort of book you think about for a long time after reading, and will probably come back to again.

The first time I read Sunnyside, I zeroed in on its theme of whether life has any meaning. In a romp about war and movies, fame and money, cartels and kaisers, fairytale princesses and schoolgirl brides, performing dogs and Parisian whores, the questions are asked again and again; in this crazy, violent and speedy world, does life have a meaning? Can stories give it any? Does history repeat itself? And if it does, so what? (more…)

Sunnyside Seminar with author Glen David Gold

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

A year after I first trailed it on Crooked Timber, we published a seminar on Sunnyside,
by Glen David Gold, who also wrote Carter Beats the Devil. Sunnyside is a vast, shiny, dark and funny novel about Charlie Chaplin, the birth of modern celebrity, America’s diffidence and then wild enthusiasm for World War I, two genius puppies and their fame-seeking GI owner, an apple-cheeked criminal prodigy, and a Detroit devotee of Ruskin’s attempt to rescue three Russian princesses from the Red Army.

I’m a little nervous of the pronouncement that this novel is about the themes it evokes and the questions it implies, not least because it might lessen the fun of reading it and hitting on these questions yourself. But I want to stake very firmly the claim that this book needs to be gobbled up, because picaresque is serious stuff.

Sunnyside made me laugh out loud in public and on my own, pepper Wikipedia with historical queries, plague family and friends with its insights and asides, and cry the embarrassing, heaving sobs of true loss, not the fictive kind. And, annoyingly, in the middle of a grand World War I narrative where faceless millions perish mostly off-screen, Sunnyside made me care very much if the dog makes it.

Three writer/critics from London and New York have very patiently born with me while we pulled this seminar together: