The New York Times Sunday Book Review section appears in the weekend edition of the “paper.” It’s the literary high point of some weekends; most reviewers are quite capable authors themselves. At times they are able to focus their talent in ways that crystallize some aspects of the books they review. While not necessarily better than the books themselves, the reviews are bite-size morsels that the busy (or lazy) can readily digest.
- Liesl Schillinger on Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table
- David Gates on Janet Frame’s Towards Another Summer
- Tom McCarthy on Clancy Martin’s How To Sell
- Tom Barbash on Howard Jacobson’s The Act of Love
- Chris Hedges on Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefevre and Frederic Lemercier’s (tr. by Alexis Siegel) The Photographer
- Laura Miller on Walter Kirn’s Lost in the Meritocracy
- Jess Row on Anne Michael’s Winter Vault
- Jack Pendarvis on Frederick Barthelme’s Waveland
- Robert Sullivan on Eric Sanderson’s Mannahatta
- David Orr on Frederick Seidel’s Poems 1959-2009
Liesl Schillinger on Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table (14 October 2011)
“Not all the mysteries Ondaatje explores in his account of Mynah’s sea passage — revisited in adulthood from the remove of decades and from another continent — have clear resolutions, nor do they need them. Uncertainty, Ondaatje shows, is the unavoidable human condition, the gel that changes the light on the lens, altering but not spoiling the image. . . ”
“. . it looks ahead to Mary Gaitskill’s sense of a vivid inner ferocity: ‘When Grace studied Philip’s eyes she could feel at the back of her mind the movement of sliding door opening to let out small furry evil-smelling animals with sharp claws and teeth.'”
“. . . she’s overwhelmed by the metastasizing of ordinary comportment.”
“At one point Martin deploys the rhetoric of full-blown Heidegerian phenomenology, having an avuncular figure say to Bobby: “Time, Grandson. . . . A watch puts you in the middle of the stuff of ordinary being.” Quentin’s section of “The Sound and the Fury,” perhaps the greatest of all American novels (or, for that matter, of all novels), begins with an almost identical passage. But there’s a vital difference: reading Faulkner, I’m struck with the exhilarating awareness that immense questions are working themselves out right before my eyes; reading Martin, it’s all too evident that commonplaces, worked out already and elsewhere, are being drafted in, or soldered on, to lend philosophical gravitas to what is, at base, a quite straight-up, noirish moral potboiler.”
“The novel succeeds because, for all his insanity, Felix knows both too much and not enough about his own and Marisa’s emotions.”
Chris Hedges on Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefevre and Frederic Lemercier’s (tr. by Alexis Siegel) The Photographer
“All narratives of war told through the lens of the combatants cry with them the seduction of violence. But once you cross to the other side, to stand in fear with the helpless and the weak, you confront the moral depravity of industrial slaughter and the scourge that is war itself . . . The disparity between what we are told or what we believe about war and war itself is so vast that those who come back, like Lefevre, are often rendered speechless . . . How do you explain that the very proposition of war as an instrument of virtue is absurd?”
“Like many memoirs [it] combines penetrating shrewdness with remarkable blind spots. . . . He has the satirist’s cruel knack for conjuring and dispatching an individual in a single line, like the ‘computer whiz’ described as having ‘all the characteristics of a bad stutterer without the stutter itself.’ . . . [The memoir] betrays the roots of this skill in a wobbly notion of the self as a void encased in a posture.”
“Their [Anne Michaels and Michael Ondaatje] fiction might be described as an attempt to bring together the practice of the lyric poem — density of language, intense sensory observation, a skilled suspension of time — with the novelist’s brick-by-brick construction of drama in time, and, more important, in history. [They] . . . are not novelists of contemporary life but archivists and re-enactors who use poetic immediacy to make the past present — not as an orderly narrative but as a series of fragments or snapshots linked by a kind of dream logic, a hallucination that is neither entirely past nor present. . . Occasionally, in the midst of all this careful composition, these lovingly burnished surfaces, the howl of a very different kind of novel comes through. . . It shatters its own dreamlike stillness.”
“A book-length fascination and loathing culminates in Vaughn’s rapt litany of all the television he could spend the rest of his life watching in bed: ‘news and sports and those incredible game shows and ‘Lost,’ which seems to have a lot of sex in it, and HGTV, all those house-buying shows, . . . a blown-up building one night and a mother killing her children the next.’ To which Greta, the unlikely voice of reason and the heart of this bittersweet, conciliatory comedy says, ‘Uh, no.'”
The fact-intense charts, maps and tables offered in abundance here are fascinating, and even kind of sexy. And at the very middle of the book, the two-page spread of Mannahatta in all its primevil glory — the visual denouement of a decade’s research — feels a little like a centerfold.
“. . . he’s an exhilarating and unsettling writer who is very good at saying things that can seem rather bad. When a Seidel poem begins, ‘The most beautiful power in the world has buttocks,’ it’s hard to know whether to applaud or shake your head.” . . . ‘This combination of barbarity and grace is one of Seidel’s most remarkable technical achievements; he’s like a violinist who pauses from bowing expertly through Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 to smash his instrument against the wall. [Quoting Siedel’s The Cosmos Trilogy]:
It is time to lose your life,
even if it isn’t over.
It is time to say goodbye and try to die.
It is October.