Short Book Reviews


Follow me on Goodreads if you like.

If not, here is a sampling of short reviews I’ve written just for kicks, so far just for Goodreads:

(They are arranged chronologically, earliest to latest, starting from the time I started writing them.)

Chuck Eddy

Rock and Roll Always Forgets: A Quarter Century of Music Criticism

I don’t always, or even often, agree with Chuck Eddy, but I love the way he justifies his love. A lot of people gravitate to critics who confirm their own tastes, but I prefer critics who make me think harder about my own: who make me think, period. That Chuck Eddy makes me laugh while I’m cogitatin’ is a big bonus. Because his interests are so idiosyncratic, he’s often called a contrarian, but I’ve never believed he’s anything but perfectly sincere, whether he’s praising a late Michael Jackson album that all the other critics wrote off before they even listened to it or whether he’s dismissing critical darlings like Grizzly Bear.

More than a compilation of reviews, interviews, profiles, and essays–a time capsule packed with brittle newspaper clippings–this is a grand tour of Eddy’s big beautiful brain. He’s a very confident writer, but he doesn’t pretend to be objective or omniscient. In the remarkable overview essays that precede each section of the book (the pieces are grouped thematically rather than chronologically), he deconstructs his own arguments, points out exactly where he was full of shit and what embarrasses him now, provides some autobiographical and historical context for his opinions, and reminds you that music writing, like every other kind of writing, is heavily contingent on a number of things that really don’t have all that much to do with the subject at hand.

He’s probably the most honest music writer out there, as well as the most entertaining, and if you blow him off because he likes Toby Keith better than Son Volt, Martina McBride better than Bjork, Spoony Gee better than Chuck D, well, it’s your loss, tight-ass. (finished 4/12)

William Styron

Darkness Visible

I reread this after many years, having apparently forgotten how much it sucks. It’s not the content so much as Styron’s style: pompous, dull, self-satisfied, flat, prosaic. I understand his point: that depression (or as he prefers to call it, being a ponderous hack, “Melancholia”) is tedious, that depressed people are insufferable, that it’s all very grim and dreary and Extremely Serious! and so forth. I just fail to understand why this reads like the first draft of an amateur journalist. I don’t remember his novels being this awful. Even the title is pretentious. The only good thing I have to say about this book is that it’s less than 100 pages long. This made me feel slightly less gypped at the end, when oh, hey, Depression Passes! Especially if you go to a hospital, where you can focus on getting well and cut your crappy food with plastic utensils. I also think his sudden revelation at the end, about how his major depression might have been precipitated by misuse of Halcion, is crap artistry. It sounded to me like he was just trying to impose some kind of coherence on a very meandering trajectory. If he was indeed, as he claimed, a compulsive reader of the Physician’s Desk Reference, surely it would have occurred to him before that he was overdoing it with the sleeping aids. He was second-guessing his doctors throughout his illness, so why would he have taken the doctor who prescribed the Halcion at his word? I wasn’t rooting for Styron to get better. I didn’t even believe he was truly suicidal. I just wanted to scream, “Get over yourself, asshole! You’re in motherfucking France, accepting a fancy award they’re deluded enough to think you deserve!” or even, to my shame, “Just shut up and off yourself, already!” For the sake of his long-suffering wife, I’m glad he didn’t commit suicide, of course, but I don’t think he made his darkness visible. He just made a bunch of murky, unbeautiful sentences and annoyed the hell out of me. (finished 4/12)

Sam Lipsyte

The Ask

If you like your satire savage and bleak, Sam Lipsyte is your man. His wordplay dazzles, and every so often he unleashes an aria of outrage so operatic it brings to mind the ultimate stylist’s stylist, Stanley Elkin. There isn’t much to the plot of this novel–a twenty-first-century conspiracy theory, a paranoid rant that touches on capitalism and its unerring ability to ruin everything–but Lipsyte’s language is so beguiling, his observations so awful and true, his dialogue so hallucinatory and hilarious, that a Dickensian narrative would only get in the way. The audiobook, narrated by the author in a deadpan, conversational tone, made me laugh out loud (or at least snicker knowingly) on countless occasions. He reminds me at times of a more misanthropic Saunders and a less exuberant Elkin, and like those writers his highly idiosyncratic style sometimes overwhelms the individual voices of his characters, who tend to spout the same kind of grimlarious pronouncements as the hapless protagonist and indulge in the same extravagant rhetorical flights. It’s a small quibble, though, because I love Elkin and Saunders as much as any two writers in the English language, and I suspect that Lipsyte might join those ranks one day. I look forward to reading more. (finished 4/12)

David Rakoff

Don’t Get Too Comfortable

I listened to the last disc of the audiobook while walking in the park this afternoon, still trying to absorb the sadness of his death. David Rakoff has made me guffaw so loudly (sometimes in public, since I’m often listening to him read his essays on my iPod), and he has made me cry, and he has made me think. Most of all, he has made me marvel over how extravagantly, unfairly smart he is, how he manages to be both savage to the deserving (Paris Hilton, Log Cabin Republicans, the producers of The Swan) and unexpectedly generous with everyone else. Few stylists in this or the previous century can turn a phrase so beautifully, make sense of senseless events without being reductive or dogmatic, shape paragraphs so that they cohere but still manage to surprise. His arguments are elegant without ever seeming contrived. Even though he admits, in a very funny essay about his obsession with doing Martha Stewart-ish craft projects, that he finds writing excruciatingly difficult (“Writing is like pulling teeth. From my dick.”), he writes so gracefully, with such apparent ease and wit, that it’s hard to believe him. His sentences seem as natural as a Fred Astaire routine: You know a lot of work went into them, but you sure don’t notice the sweat. The Italian courtiers had a word for it: sprezzatura. Rakoff had sprezzatura in spades.

The last essay in this volume, about cryogenics and our pathetic lust for eternal life, gave me a real pang because I really do find myself wishing that someone could somehow deep-freeze his brain or load it onto a hard drive for the benefit of future generations. We’re all the poorer for not having any more Rakoff books to look forward to. But even though I’m sad that he had to die so young, I’m grateful that he left us with three terrific books and several wonderful radio segments. He doesn’t need a stupid cryogenic vault at Alcon. His voice was so distinctive, his bile so brilliant, his humanity so all-encompassing, that I know he’ll live on in the heads of anyone who has ever heard or read him. It comforts me to think that whenever I start to miss That Voice, I can invite it to inhabit my consciousness anytime I choose: all I have to do is pick up one of his books, and there it is. (finished 8/12)

Cheryl Strayed

Tiny Beautiful Things:Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar

Adventures in radical empathy. Strayed writes like a really smart, kind, and ridiculously brave friend, and she gives very good advice. Her letter to the man whose 22-year-old son was killed by a drunk driver made me cry. She’s not bitingly clever like Dan Savage, but she’s very wise, and the way she incorporates details from her own life (including a lot of stuff that must have been really difficult to disclose, even under her original pseudonym) is very effective. (finished 10/12)

Cheryl Strayed

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail

Wild made me tearful, but they were cleansing, purifying tears. It also made me feel as if I need to be a fuck of a lot braver. Despite the fact that my hippie parents were inveterate campers, who insisted on roughing it (“No toilet paper? Drip dry, or use a leaf!”), I am a total sissy. As soon as I got a bunch of bloody blisters on my feet and lost some toenails and a hiking boot and–worst of all!–started to reek because I couldn’t take a shower for 2 weeks, I would have blubbered into a pay phone and begged someone to pick me up. Strayed is WAY more of a hippie than I am, but I greatly admire her fortitude and willpower. I’m pretty sure I would really like her in real life, too, even if she does seem to enjoy lots of music I can’t stand and tolerates people who would no doubt fray my nerves in a very bad way. But the book is not just about hiking the Pacific Coast Trail. It’s also a Bildungsroman, a memoir about Strayed’s difficult youth–losing her beloved mother, who was diagnosed with cancer at 45 and died mere months later; her family disintegrating; the dissolution of a marriage to man she loved but married too young. The most upsetting part for me was when she had to kill her mom’s ailing 31-year-old horse, which is so traumatic that I can’t even talk about it without getting tearful again: the trust in the horse’s eyes giving way to panic, its refusal to die quickly, as she was assured it was supposed to happen. I recommend the book, but it’s hard going at some points, especially that one.

I thought I was prepared for the Harrowing Horse Incident because I had read a sort of previewish description of it somewhere else, possibly in Tiny Beautiful Things, her recent advice book, which contains a lot of the same biographical details, but still it “gutted” me, to borrow one of Strayed’s favored verbs.

It’s astonishing to me that someone can be so very forthcoming. Strayed must attract all manner of crazy stalkers because she puts herself out there so nakedly. I mean, I sort of feel like a crazy stalker just because I subscribe to her feed and think to myself, “I wonder what Cheryl would say?” I could use one of her pep talks. I need to be braver–not that I’ll necessarily ever hike the PCT, but just about life in general, taking risks, revealing myself more honestly.

The detail about the natural-sponge tampon that she had to squeeze out! The gargoyle/sex queen interlude, her insecurity about the rough patches on her hips from her backpack! The sex and drugs and the self-lacerating, shameful memories about her younger, more oblivious self. All that cruel hindsight.

Overall, and despite the Harrowing Horse Incident, I found the book very inspiring, and although it has its painful moments, it’s mostly about all the beauty in this world and all the love: the unexpected kindness of strangers, weird found communities, and improvised, accidental families. (finished 1/13)

George R.R. Martin

A Clash of Kings

This installment, number 2 in the series, seemed to get a lot more bogged down with gazillions of characters and their crazily involved alliances than its predecessor, and I found myself having to check the appendixes a lot more often than I had to with Game of Thrones, but maybe that was because I haven’t yet seen Season 2 of Game of Thrones (I’d watched the first season before and during the time I read the first book in the series). I did think the characters were better developed in A Clash of Kings, at least the ones I have grown to care about (or know, unlike the nine million Freys, say). In particular, I found myself much more interested in Sansa’s character arc–she was such an insufferable ninny for so much of the first book–and I enjoyed the chapters about Tyrion (my favorite character by far) even more than I had before. The chapters on Arya and Jon Snow were among my favorites, too, but I found Catelyn much less interesting than before, possibly because she didn’t have a lot to do this go-round aside from advise young Robb, who is still a bit of a cipher, at least to me. I did find all the battle scenes quite dull and hard to follow, but I guess the book is called A Clash of Kings, after all. Netflix hasn’t sent me Season 2 yet, and most of my friends are preparing to watch Season 3 any time now, so I guess I’ll have to keep reading ahead. (finished 1/13)

Joseph J. Ellis

First Family: Abigail and John Adams (audiobook)

First, I just want to get this off my chest: I hate the Goodreads star system. Should I have given this book 4 stars instead of 3? Maybe 3.5, although that doesn’t seem to be an option? Is it fair to give this book the same number of stars that I routinely assign to police procedurals without taking into account the considerable scholarship that went into it, the author’s obvious familiarity with the thousands of letters that the Adamses and their circle churned out? At any rate, I learned a lot of stuff I didn’t know before–not just about our second POTUS and FLOTUS but about the Revolutionary War and the early government and the fact that the American political system has always been a disgusting suckfest rife with malignant narcissists and lying, backbiting shitbirds–so in that regard it was a very informative read. Ellis writes in an engaging style, with a deft sense of drama and pacing, and the narrator of the audiobook has a crisp and not overly dramatic reading voice, which I appreciated. Sometimes I imagined that she looked like Laura Linney, although I’m sure she doesn’t. Maybe if I weren’t sick and crabby and depressed right now I would give this book four stars; maybe even five. I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, much to my shame, and my knowledge of American history is lamentably shallow, so it’s hard for me to assess how this book would rank alongside similar books. I would guess that Jefferson, Hamilton, and Franklin, for instance, don’t come across quite so assholishly in bios devoted primarily to them. I did find myself having a lot less respect for many of the founding fathers than I did before. One of many reasons that the laughably self-identified “originalists” (e.g., Scalia) are full of shit is that the founding fathers seemed to disagree about almost everything, and you would have to be a fool or a liar to pretend otherwise. (finished audiobook 1/13)

Justin Cronin

The Twelve

I liked this even better than The Passage. I listened to the audiobook most nights before I went to bed, and it infected my dreams in a compelling, almost addictive way. Cronin is every bit the master plotter that Stephen King is, but his sentences are so much more beautifully crafted and his characters so much more fully developed that the comparison is inapt (I wouldn’t have mentioned King at all if I hadn’t heard/read people griping about how Cronin basically ripped off the plot from The Stand or another SK potboiler). The Twelve seemed to me a masterful combination of a genre pageturner and literary fiction, and even though I am not myself a parent I think anyone with kids would be particularly moved by one of the novel’s major themes: the importance of perpetuating one’s DNA in a world that seems brutal and incomprehensible. Loosely speaking, this is a horror novel, but it’s also a book about love, redemption, and the eternal questions that animate all books worth reading: Why should we remain alive? What are we doing here?

I eagerly await the next installment and will be sorry when the trilogy ends. (finished audiobook 1/13)

Lois Lowry

The Giver (audiobook)

Ron Rifkin is a very annoying reader. I can’t help but wonder if I might have enjoyed this more if I had read it rather than listened to the audiobook, but I’m doubtful. The writing didn’t slay me, and the plot didn’t move me, and I found myself not at all immersed in the world of “sameness” that the author created. I imagine that she was going for some kind of Orwellian vibe, but I could not find her language sufficiently compelling to care about the fate of her protagonist, perhaps because he was so obnoxiously voiced by the audiobook narrator, in a squeaky plangent old-guy approximation of a 12-year-old boy voice. I guess I liked it enough to listen to all four-some hours, but I found it mostly helpful as a sleep aid. I doubt I’ll be checking out the remaining books in the series because I just don’t care enough to find out what happens to Jonas and his little boring charge. (finished audiobook 1/13)

George Saunders

Tenth of December

There are times when I feel horribly inadequate because I can’t write a fraction as well as George Saunders can, and I know I never will be able to, even if I had the discipline to work at it as hard as he has, for as long as he has. But that’s beside the point because what really makes me sorry is that I can’t see the world through his eyes except when I’m reading him, which is as often as I can. I don’t just lack his talent; I lack his compassion (too much Darkenfloxx [TM]? Who can say?) Essentially, what I really want is to *be* the person he is, to see people the way he sees us–to understand us and love us anyway. I’ve read all his books, and he seems to become both a better writer and a more compassionate human being with every story. Take “Puppy,” from this collection, for instance, a kind of contemporary O. Henry story, minus the sap factor and with an irony that is somehow forgiving and not at all distancing, as contradictory and impossible as that sounds (think Gift of the Magi, but not so contrived and, at least to a modern reader, much more gut-wrenching): It tears you wide open and exposes the heart you didn’t think you had–a heart that has room not just for cute puppies, who are very easily to love, insofar as they can’t say horrible, stupid shit to you, but also for seemingly self-important yuppie moms and white-trash moms who appear to be mistreating their pet and child but who are ultimately just people, people who are worthy of our sympathy, even though these two apparently very different moms tragically fail to understand each other. We understand them, though, both of them, and we can’t really take sides because there are no sides, just a dense sphere of absurd us-ness.

In these stories there are no villains, just fucked-up fellow travelers–people who try to do the right thing, who might believe they are doing the right thing, but for whatever reason our screwed and colossally unjust system (i.e., life under Late Capitalism, life in the now or almost now) makes doing the right thing extremely difficult, if not downright impossible. George Eliot believed that the purpose of the novel is to expand one’s sympathies, which Saunders manages to do with every story in this collection. What took Eliot and her fellow Victorians hundreds of pages to accomplish, Saunders can do in an average of eight. It seems magical, a rare gift to allow him to inhabit your consciousness for a while.

I think my favorite Saunders piece remains the title story, which made me cry last year when I first read it in The New Yorker and also helped me understand, after 40 or so years, why so many people insist on watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” every xmas. I won’t say that movie leaves me cold, exactly, because yeah, I get it, and the message or the moral or the gist or whatever you want to call it is more or less the same as that of “Tenth of December.” That said, I don’t need to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” ever again, and when I do cry watching it (or, more likely, watching other people cry while watching it), what I’m really crying are tears of embarrassment (aka TOE, a phrase and acronym that my friend Gavin coined, one that comes in very handy when you’re watching most movies or going to, for instance, a local poetry reading). But every time I read the story “Tenth of December,” I think, Wow: THIS is what those “It’s A Wonderful Life” obsessives get out of that “Beloved Classic Film.” For them the storyline is a convincing argument to stay alive, the way the Saunders story is for me. I’ve read “Tenth of December” at least four times now–I even photocopied it when it originally ran in The New Yorker and mailed it to several friends in lieu of a holiday card–and every time, every goddamned time, including this morning, it made me cry with gratitude and wonder. There’s a paragraph toward the end that you’d think I would have memorized by now–it feels like something that actually came out of my own head, only I am incapable of having a thought so perfectly expressed, and I lack the empathy to see the world that way–that could be (very reductively) summarized as follows: “Here is why you should not kill yourself, even though it might seem at the time like the least selfish thing to do, and, under the circumstances, also the most rational thing to do.”

It is a cliché to talk about Saunders’s great humanity–all the blurbists and reviewers do–but usually clichés exist for a reason. And oh yeah: He is funny, very, very funny. I’ve never read anyone like him, and I would envy him terribly if it weren’t so pointless. I might as well envy a snow leopard or an orchid or the Dalai fucking Lama. Anyway, if someone tells you this guy is overrated, don’t believe it. That person is jealous or (even worse) tragically dense, unable to discern the art in what may, on the surface, appear to be artless language. I can’t think of anyone who is a better short story writer, with the exception of Alice Munro, and her style is so completely different that this isn’t a meaningful comparison at all. If I were smarter, more Saunderslike, maybe I could tell you why, but I’d need a Verbaluce (TM) transfusion, stat. (finished 1/13)

Albert Goldbarth

Marriage, and Other Science Fiction

A friend recommended this to me after I found online a jpeg cover of a vintage paperback collection titled Space Poetry and posted it to my Facebook wall. Although all I could see was the cover illustration and the title and the editor/compiler’s name, the concept fascinated me, and I found myself trying to imagine what “Space Poetry” as a genre might comprise. I mused stupidly about it for a bit on Facebook, whereupon my poetry-fan friend James Weber recommended that I read Albert Goldbarth’s Marriage and Other Science Fiction. I have him to thank, along with the collection’s title, which intrigued me, as a married person who enjoys some science fiction, and a vague memory of having read other poems by Goldbarth that I liked.

To say that Marriage, and Other Science Fiction did not disappoint is an understatement. I am extremely picky about what poetry I choose to read, and I often ditch collections before I’m finished if I see no point in continuing, so when people recommend a book of poetry to me, or even suggest a certain poet in general, or, nightmare of nightmares, ask me to give them some input on their own poetry, I am usually evasive, maybe even stooping to the condition of outright rudeness. When it comes to poetry, what I love makes me feel ecstatic and understood, and what I hate makes me feel like vomiting tears or weeping vomit on behalf of our sorry species. Even very well-read friends whom I admire and think are much smarter than I am have steered me to poets who brought on the tearvomit. But that wasn’t a problem in this case, thank our (vast, morally indifferent, and mostly unknown) universe.

The poems in this 1994 collection were all written at various times and published in different literary outlets, but the sections cohere in a way that makes the whole thing seem organic (or cosmic? I guess both words apply equally here, and that’s the point: the precarious balance of it all). Goldbarth’s real gift, I think, is that he somehow unites our little unknowable personal worlds with our infinite unknowable impersonal one and then helps us navigate the circuitous but inevitable routes by which the Ideal gets dredged through the crap of our tiny unlovely lives. He is a connoisseur of the offhand trivial historical detail, and his use of language, both elevated and vulgar, is brilliant without being self-consciously showy or obnoxiously clever. There are other writers who mess with the “high” and “low”, of course (they all have to try, or they couldn’t call what they do poetry), but it’s a very hard trick to pull off, and most self-identified poets, in my estimation, fail. I won’t name names here because I suspect that many readers who love Goldbarth came to him primarily by way of a recommendation from That Guy I Should Like More But I Don’t.

Like TGISLMBID, Goldbarth writes on a variety of topics, many of them obscure and scientific and definitely not stuff I could possibly understand in anything but a vague and symbolic sense, but he has a vernacular earthiness that grounds him. Take, for instance, the poem “The Emergence of Flight from Aristotle’s Mud,” which starts off with some vicious insults exchanged by a couple, followed by some revolting images of “earth guts” and maggots and tapeworms; goes on to marvel over the glories of evolution and planetary time before getting back to the vicious couple fight (“You cunt, you asshole–even our sweetest creases used/as armament”); and then somehow, almost miraculously, works in a (possibly apocryphal) anecdote about Cellini, which leads to the most delicious, deviously unpredictable internal almost-rhyme I’ve read in a long time: “Cellini” and “weenily.”

I am reluctant to write reviews of poetry collections (even on Goodreads, for free) because my own taste in poetry is so idiosyncratic (and, in all truth, probably indefensible) and because the whole point of poetry is that it is already distilled to its most potent form, or should be, assuming the poet is any good at all. I don’t want to be reductive, and I can’t quote all the poems I love because I would probably be violating the fair-use law and my pain meds are wearing off, but I did love my first foray into the genre I will now refer to, with some small measure of confidence, as “Space Poetry.” (finished 2/13)

China Miéville


Embassytown blew my mind. The first few chapters were a bit overwhelming because the world described is so very different from ours, and the author (wisely) doesn’t get bogged down in too much exposition. I had to keep rereading certain passages and thumbing back to get my bearings, to make sure I was reading what I thought I was reading.  I’m glad I stuck with it, though, because the book became completely riveting before long. I don’t want to leak any spoilers, but in the most general terms this is a science-fiction novel about semiotics, post-structuralism, post-colonialism, and gender politics. I know this sounds unappealingly dry, but the novel comes to these topics honestly; they’re in the service of the story, which is absolutely fascinating. At various points in the narrative, I thought of William S. Burroughs (particularly the language-as-a-virus concept), David Cronenberg (in a just world Embassytown will be made into a movie, and he’ll be the director, assuming he’s willing to revisit body horror), Jacques Derrida, Paul Ricoeur, and Julia Kristeva. I hope I’m not making it sound boring because it’s anything but. I’ve never read a novel quite like it, one that made the theories of all the aforementioned academic jargon-disseminators seem frightening, exhilarating, and absolutely relevant.

At times Miéville’s sentences are a little awkward–I wasn’t always sure whether it was intentional or not, insofar as the narrator/heroine, Avice, is speaking a future dialect of English, Anglo-Urbiq, that resembles our English but isn’t exactly the same. There were also a few points where Avice’s voice sounded too much like what I imagine Miéville’s must sound like, perhaps a tad too writerly considering that she is supposed to be a kind of no-nonsense foil to her linguist husband, who tends to speak in awkward grad-schoolese.

But those are just minor quibbles. The world that Miéville builds is intricate and believable, and the characters–even the most unrelatably inhuman ones–are, for the most part, fully developed characters. This book is at once cerebral and visceral, and many of its images and concepts will surely inhabit my brain for years to come. Now that I’ve read the novel I would like to listen to the audiobook, just so I can hear Language (the purely transparent, thing=referent/referent=thing language that the Ariekei, or Hosts, and the surgically altered human Ambassadors speak) for myself.

I really wish Goodreads allowed half-stars. I’d give this four-and-a-half, or maybe four-and-three-quarters stars rather than a plain old four if I could. It isn’t perfect, but it made an indelible impression on me that many of my five-star books probably won’t, at least in the long run. (finished 4/13)

Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl (audiobook)

I wish I could give half-stars. This one would be 3.5, or maybe 3.75. I didn’t like it as much as Embassytown, the last book I ranked with 4 stars, but I liked it more than the last three-star book I ranked, so I guess 4 stars is appropriate. I have said it before, and I’ll say it again: I hate the Goodreads ranking system. In any case, Gone Girl is a very entertaining listen. I imagine it would be fun to read, too, but it’s the perfect choice for the audiobook format: ideal for situations when you want escapist entertainment that isn’t mindless but also isn’t so complex that you need to keep rewinding. The actors who voiced the husband and wife protagonists are excellent and made the story even more compelling. (They even look like the characters, and I had to wonder whether that figured into the casting process.) Not long after I started listening, I couldn’t seem to load the discs into my iPod fast enough. By the time I got to the last disc or two, I was a little disappointed with what struck me as certain implausibilities, but I can’t go into detail without giving away some key surprises. However, Flynn is a good writer, and the novel is very well-paced and suspenseful. Twists and turns abound, but there aren’t too many characters, and most of them are well-developed. Flynn reminds me of an American Ruth Rendell. I will definitely check out her two other novels. (addendum: Since I posted this review, I decided that my 4 stars should probably be unqualified. I was obviously crabby when I posted the preceding. I haven’t been able to get the book out of my head, and I’ve been musing quite a bit about the ingenuity of the structure, the paired unreliable narrators, the interesting back-and-forth chronology. Anyway, ignore the crab-ass remarks at the beginning.

It *is* pretty outlandish in places, but then again real life is often outlandish, too. I’ve read many news stories that wouldn’t have been believable if they were fiction. (finished audiobook 4/12/12)

Emily Hahn

No Hurry to Get Home: The Memoir of the New Yorker Writer Whose Unconventional Life and Adventures Spanned the Century

The fact that Emily Hahn doesn’t have a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame depresses me almost as much as the knowledge that hardly anyone knows who she is anymore. She was not only a superb writer, among the best of the New Yorker’s golden era; she was a fascinating human being and an admirable person. In one of this collection’s most amusing and fascinating essays, she describes her years in China as an opium addict and then the bizarre and mysterious cure that she underwent, which involved hypnosis and psychoanalysis, although she was under the influence of barbiturates during the analysis and never informed what it was she discussed with the doctor, despite having asked him more than once. Other essay topics include her experiences as the first female geological engineer (something she undertook only because she was told by a college administrator that women were not permitted to do it); her childhood and adolescence in St. Louis, which at the time she considered, like the family in _Meet Me in St. Louis_, to be the greatest city in the world; her almost unbelievable travels in the Belgian Congo–sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of a European polygamist and his contentious African wives–when she was in her early 20s; having a baby in China during World War II, where the father of her child (to whom, I believe, she was not yet married) was a British spy imprisoned in a brutal Japanese POW camp; and sundry hilarious experiences with pet gibbons and back-alley Eurasian dentists. She never identifies herself as a feminist, but it seems evident that her entire life was a demonstration of feminism in its purest form. She insisted on having the freedom to live the way bohemian men have always lived, and somehow she succeeded.

I loved this collection and plan to read more of her many, many books in the future. Some are out of print, but I found this one used online (in very good condition, at a bargain price), and I checked out another (a history of American bohemianism, which I didn’t have time to finish, sadly, but plan to return to one day) from the St. Louis Public Library. Her style is so engaging, droll, and lucid that I’m pretty sure I would enjoy anything she wrote, no matter what the topic, although her life is the most fascinating subject imaginable. (finished 4/14/12)

Sara Gran

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead

Set in the Boschian wasteland of post-Katrina New Orleans, Gran’s first installment of what I hope is a long series embodies contemporary noir at its finest. Much like her slim and near-perfect novel Dope, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead distills the conventions of the hardboiled detective novel without resorting to camp. Like Raymond Chandler, an obvious influence, Gran writes in a style that is minimalistic but evocative, at times even poetic. Her tone is unsparing but not ungenerous, sharp but never cruel. Gran’s aversion to sentimentality doesn’t make her go for the cheap shot, and the violence never seems gratuitous.

Gran’s PI, Claire DeWitt, is world-weary and cynical, but she can’t help but betray her empathy for traumatized kids, feral parrots, and sad sacks of all denominations. Despite her no-nonsense demeanor, she’s an unreliable narrator; over and over again she reminds us how tough she is, how single-mindedly, almost autistically compelled to solve cases, and yet her empathy leaks out at unexpected moments, in casual observations she makes about people, actions she takes that aren’t at all necessary to the job at hand but obviously triggered by the heart she tries so hard to deny. She isn’t as jaded as she pretends, and although she calls herself the greatest detective in the world, she is too damaged to come off as arrogant.

The audiobook jacket describes DeWitt as a cross between Nancy Drew and Sid Vicious, but that’s just silly blurbage. If she put a gun to my head (which she wouldn’t hesitate to do if she needed to, although I doubt she’d pull the trigger), I’d call her a cross between Philip Marlowe and Agent Cooper. She is gimlet-eyed and streetwise, pushy to the point of rudeness, but she throws the I Ching and experiences epiphanies after prophetic dreams, sometimes brought on by the deliberate use of various hallucinogens. Her method comprises both the scientific and the aleatoric. She expertly navigates the city’s seamy underbelly, but she never comes off like an anthropology student who’s slumming—the damaged and lost and irrevocably fucked people are her people, and she shares many a PCP-laced joint with its denizens. She is an acute observer, a tenacious seeker of evidence, but when she’s in serious trouble she prays, using a mantra she learned from a Tibetan monk interspersed with arbitrary invocations of Catholic saints.

We learn her backstory in bits and pieces—she’s one of the many unsolvable mysteries that make up this palimpsest of a plot—and we want to know more. We get fascinating anecdotal tidbits about her late mentor, an older New Orleans woman who was a disciple of the enigmatic Jacques Silette, whose PI primer Detection is an absurdist Bible for its devotees, both a manual and an antimanual, an existential treatise on the necessity and the futility of solving mysteries. Passages from Detection (fictional nonfiction within a fiction) are peppered throughout the novel, and the purely textual Silette is, in his own way, a major character in Gran’s book.

New Orleans is a major character in this novel, too, and it’s far more developed and nuanced than it is in the disappointing Treme. Through her protagonist, Gran brings a sociological perspective to the city and its residents, but it’s never preachy or hackneyed. DeWitt isn’t just observing these people; she’s living among them, part of the city’s fraying fabric. We learn that she used to call it home, used to love it unreservedly, until it became too painful for her to continue. We get glimpses of the mysterious Indian tribes, their rituals and traditions. We see the neighborhoods, both as they were in those heady antediluvian days, when DeWitt remembers her years as a novice detective, and now, in Katrina’s dismal aftermath. The city and DeWitt are haunted by ghosts. They can’t be solved, but they can be loved. (finished audiobook 5/4/13)


Wendy Lesser

Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets


In the epilogue to this meticulously researched and gracefully written Shostakovich study, Wendy Lesser acknowledges the hazards of her project: “Like the interpretation we impose on a work of art in order to bring its alien majesty closer to our understanding, the narrative arc is a device we impose on a life to make it more comprehensible, more graspable. But our interpretation of a life (as of an artwork) could easily be wrong, and in any case it can never be wholly true, for a life is as complicated as a work of art—more so, in some ways, because of its arbitrariness. In life, things happen out of order, and that is what makes it particularly different to distinguish cause from effect, personal choices from impersonal givens, and random incidents from significant foreshadowings.”


Unlike so many biographies of composers and most music criticism, this book offers a multiplicity of possible interpretations, and it never falls victim to the easy equivalencies and reductive readings that plague the genre. Lesser is a passionate amateur, not a musicologist, something she turns into an asset rather than a deficiency. Although she sets out to examine Shostakovich the man through the lens of his string quartets, she recognizes the elusiveness of her subject, the many uneasy contradictions between what he said publicly and what he felt privately. All lives are almost certainly unknowable, but Shostakovich’s is particularly so, given his historical circumstances as a Soviet-era composer and his unique temperament: a self-described coward who was often very brave on behalf of his friends; a sardonic and humorous man who struggled with melancholy; a passionate man who was also shy and reserved.


Lesser meets this challenge as a biographer by being as allusive and open-ended as her subject. An attentive, insightful listener, she describes her own impressions of the music, but she doesn’t stop there; she proposes other possibilities and acknowledges the capacity of the music to elicit radically different interpretations. In addition to consulting the standard authoritative sources, she interviewed many people to supplement her own understanding of the works, and she quotes them liberally. Shostakovich’s family members, friends, and associates are well represented, but so are many musicians who know the composer in a way that is arguably even more intimate: by complete immersion in his music.


This is an enormously sympathetic biography, but it doesn’t overlook Shostakovich’s personal flaws. Instead, it makes a strong case for the ways in which the man’s imperfections, his sometimes shameful moral failings, deepen and humanize his work. (finished 7/14/2013)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s