Full Category Index

Posts in “Book Reviews”


Sep 8, 2015
Who doesn’t like an inferred apocalypse?* Maybe you remember the theory of The Sopranos’s ending that proposed Tony, Carmela, children, onion rings, and Members Only all were evaporated by a nuclear bomb that Tony had inadvertently helped smuggle into the country. In Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Purity, there’s a seemingly absurd sub-plot involving a cartel attempting to steal a nuclear bomb with the aid of a drug-dealing nuclear supervisor. The plot fails because he trips and severs an artery after the tequila bottle he’s carrying shatters on the pavement.

James Risen's Pay Any Price

Nov 18, 2014
There’s a line in R. A. Lafferty’s “The Primary Education of the Camiroi” about personality and politics: “Can you imagine a person so sick that he would actually desire to hold high office for any great period of time?” A familiar observation, I think, and one that came to mind as I was reading James Risen’s Pay Any Price. The Camiroi of Lafferty’s story have a comically rigorous educational system and govern themselves by lottery (for short intervals).

Errol Morris’s A Wilderness of Error The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald

Oct 21, 2012
I am from North Carolina. I’m quite familiar with the eastern part of the state, having lived there off and on for almost a quarter-century. Nothing surprised me more in this unusual book than learning there was apparently a thriving “hippie” scene in Fayetteville in 1970. It seems unimaginable from what I experienced, but the returning military from SE Asia, heroin, etc. dynamic was quite different from anything I remember. Anyway, while I was familiar with the broad outlines of the Jeffrey MacDonald case, I have never read any of the books about it (or seen the mini-series or any of the other documentaries).

I Believe in (Joe Pantoliano as Teddy) Magyk

Sep 23, 2012
I finished Elmore Leonard’s Glitz recently. It reads very much like a photoplay wasn’t far from the author’s mind, though I haven’t read enough of Leonard to know if that is his typical style. A made-for-tv version did come out in 1988, with Jimmy Smits as Miami detective Vincent Mora. I couldn’t help but picture Joe Pantoliano in the role of Teddy Magyck, a rapscallion who shoots Mora and plans to do so again for the remainder of the book.

A Review of Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story, by D. T. Max

Sep 6, 2012
The publicity for this book worried me. I thought that some of the revelations sounded improbable or sensationalist. In just about every case, however, this worry came from the journalists responsible for exaggerating or misrepresenting the book. I was promised by those who had read the book already that it contained much that I didn’t know about Wallace, and that’s certainly true. Max’s sources go far beyond what’s been published about Wallace and what’s available in the Harry Ransom Center.

Jack Vance's To Live Forever

Jan 7, 2012
I believe that the following scenario is comparatively rare in science fiction: humanity has developed viable interstellar travel and has discovered habitable planets but has not colonized any of them because of a static social structure. The social stasis of Jack Vance’s To Live Forever has been produced by a combination of artificial intelligence central planning and population control. A relatively small geographic region of a future Earth has sealed itself off from barbarous tribes and has separated its population into strict castes: brood, wedge, third (arrant), verge, and amaranth.

Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods A Review

Nov 13, 2011
The premise of Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods is simple enough: a traveling salesman, who suffers from a plague of fantasies, transforms those fantasies into successful business. The self-help ethos of American salesmanship is what gives this unsuccessful purveyor of the Encyclopedia Britannica the confidence to keep approaching various potential clients until he is able to convince one of them to try it. (Though there’s a mention of Wikipedia in the text, I believe this book was written in a pre-Wikipedia era, and the idea of such a comprehensive encyclopedia being rendered obsolete by a collective internet endeavor, as funny as it is in the context, doesn’t seem present.


Aug 8, 2011
It might be naive to expect your genre fiction to explain itself. Literary, sophisticated genre fiction, especially, will be placed in that category many times by not giving the reader the expected level of information dumping, or payoff, to be found in lowlier and more typical specimens. And I’m ok with this, in general, as a reader. But China Mieville’s The City and the City, which I have only recently read, did not live up to its failure to pay off.

Murder Abstract

May 21, 2011
I remember fondly reading Bill James’s Baseball Abstracts when I was young. I wrote a computer program to tabulate his formulas and tried to apply his sabermetric analyses to my Little League games. Having heard in various places that he was at work about a book on crime in the United States, I naturally assumed that the product would be an exercise in unconventional criminological wisdom. I have an interest, after all, in the rhetoric of true crime narratives; and James has, by his own count, read over a thousand of them over the years.

Jonathan Franzen's Freedom A Review

Dec 15, 2010
Both the LRB and NYRB reviews of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom make the astute point that the long autobiographical section of the book is not sufficiently distinguished in style from the rest. Though it’s undeniably Patty’s thoughts, it’s not Patty’s writing that we’re reading. And James Lever argues that this could have been exploited in terms of the reaction that Walter and Richard have when they read it. I do wonder, though, about a comment Walter made about the manuscript after he finds it, which I didn’t actually remember from reading it (it was something about a libel on his “manhood,” about which there were many general things mentioned but nothing as specific-seeming as he seemed to mean it at this point).

The Unpredictable Evolution of Technology

Dec 7, 2010
George Basalla’s The Evolution of Technology (Cambridge UP: 1988) is a fine book, filled with many illuminating examples. In a section on how fads influence technological development, however, Basalla writes: By the mid-1980s, the home computer boom appeared to be nothing more than a short-lived and, for some computer manufacturers, expensive fad. Consumers who were expected to use these machines to maintain their financial records, educate their children, and plan for their family’s future ended up playing electronic games on them, an activity that soon lost its novelty, pleasure, and excitement.


Aug 4, 2010
I read Denis Johnson’s Shoppers tonight, a collection of two related plays that were written and performed in the early aughts. The first, Hellhound on My Trail was genuinely good on the page, though I wonder at how well it would translate to the stage in every particular. The other play, Shoppers Carried by An Escalator into the Flames, gave every indication of being written without revision of any type, and I can’t imagine how it could have been performed, though the introductory material claims that it was.

A Review of Diary of a Very Bad Year Confessions of an Anonymous Hedge Fund Manager

Jul 3, 2010
Keith Gessen’s preface to this book acknowledges a problem: that, while providing a clearly expressed overview of the financial crisis from a knowledgeable participant who seems to share some cultural characteristics with the interviewer and broader audience at n+1 (humanities major, thoughtful and analytic, likely Harvard graduate, doesn’t own a tv, etc.) and who also is as neoliberal as they come, the Anonymous Hedge Fund Manager is not pressed hard enough on his answers.

Peter Straub, A Dark Matter

Jun 15, 2010
Such promise. A guru, a fully tuned-in Aquarian, leads a pack of young cheeseheads past a riot into a meadow to perform a ritual summoning. As a result, one young lady becomes an esoteric Straussian without the eyestrain, another has her eyes strained, one becomes a poststructuralist against his will, an ambitious young man is mugged by the quotidian while his courtier gets lost, one has architectural musings, and the other, the one who most wants to be the guru, like his guru sees only the cynocephalic guardians who’ve been presiding over the affair.

Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall

Jun 13, 2010
I was left very much wanting to know how Mantel intends to handle the final weeks of Cromwell’s life in the next book, which Joan Acocella’s review in the New Yorker, if I have this straight, mentions is coming. (Mantel apparently took more space than she anticipated originally.) The Duke of Norfolk comes across more like a character in a George R. R. Martin saga than a historical figure, and to think of him being involved in a successful interrogation/intimidation of Mantel’s polytropic Cromwell is difficult to credit.

n+1, 1&2

May 12, 2010
I ordered all of the issues of n+1 a while ago, and they arrived today. I’ve never actually read a print issue of it before, though I have followed the magazine’s career with interest. I liked Joshua Glenn’s “The Black Iron Prison” from the first issue, and Chad Harbach’s piece on Oblivion has speculations about what we know now to be The Pale King that are interesting to consider in retrospect.

Steve Erickson's Tour of the Black Clock

May 3, 2010
I read this while giving an exam today. I had forgotten to bring anything to write with, and I was angry, for I was struck with what seemed to be an urgent thought about the book: that Dania’s dance was plainly derived from Slothrop’s V2 attraction. I found a pen at rest on a chalk sill, then scrawled out that and the rest of my increasingly irritated observations: The Man in the High Castle, etc.

The Swedish Model (on Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)

May 1, 2010
This text seems to concern itself at some level with a proposed determinative relationship between finance capitalism and male sadism. Within its fictive logic, the transition from industrialism to a speculative economy is timed more-or-less with the Gottfried Vanger’s death; but Wennstrom is his true son. Gottfried dies, as I remember, in 1966, which is close enough for government work to the dissolution of the Bretton Woods agreement. Wennstrom then begins his speculative career, while Martin labors under the repetition-compulsion of the old regime.

The Tell

Apr 25, 2010
I saw a reference to Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask in Benjamin Kunkel’s LRB essay on Fredric Jameson, and it activated my impulse-buy reflex. I had read nothing by Lipsyte before, but I did glance at some of the Library Thing comments and was intrigued by what would seem to have been a relentless and bleak satire. That it was a satire of academia somehow is what I expected from Kunkel’s reference, which mentioned that the protagonist remembered learning about only two things in college: late capitalism and how to shoot heroin.

Fyodorov and Soviet Cosmonautics

Apr 17, 2010
How many people does it take to make a gang? I would guess that it would be more than two, usually, and so I was surprised when Elif Batuman, in a footnote to her amusing and piquant essays, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, mentioned the “gang of thugs” who accost the unfortunate protagonist of Gogol’s “The Overcoat.” I taught this last semester, as it turns out, and my Penguin edition does seem to indicate that it’s two thugs.

Early Times

Apr 10, 2010
I had trouble reading Suttree in the room with my sleeping infant daughter, as I often couldn’t stop myself from cackling. It’s one of the funniest books I’ve read: probably more funny than Bouvard and Pecuchet, Decline and Fall, Cold Comfort Farm, or any of a variety from Wodehouse, which would be the closest contenders in recent memory. I’ve now taken the step of reading some of the criticism on the book, and I was somewhat surprised that there wasn’t more of it.

More on X-Men Essentials

Mar 28, 2010
When in periods of extended sleeplessness, such as after the birth of a child, I have found myself more interested than usual in comic books. I read almost all of the various Ultimate omnibuses shortly after Henry was born, for example, and this time with Clara I read one of those black-and-white compilations covering 1978-1980 or so of the Claremont/Byrne X-Men. This sequence contains the “Dark Phoenix” storyline, about which I actually wrote a paper in graduate school.

Gene Wolfe's The Sorcerer's House, or, Why I Like Puzzle-Box Fiction

Mar 24, 2010
For those of us who pre-order the latest Gene Wolfe novel and read it immediately, irrespective of the circumstances, the last two books have presented some difficulties. Wolfe seems to have entered a “late style,” where the natural suspicion, caution, and, to be fair, interpretive charity that veteran readers of Wolfe bring to the text have yielded unusual results. Pirate Freedom seems to have escaped much of the exegetical explosion that An Evil Guest received on the Urth mailing list for Wolfe enthusiasts, even though both books involve reality distortion and time travel (well, I think there’s some type of reality distortion in Pirate Freedom), fictional devices that admit no logical limits on narrative analyses.

Banville's The Infinities

Mar 14, 2010
Hermes, the god of pathways, appears at first to be the narrator of John Banville’s The Infinities. The rapid shifts in perspective at the end of the novel reveal that Adam Godley, a mathematician who’s had a stroke, has been creating a type of parallel world, one apparently predicted by what he thinks are his mathematical accomplishments, in which those accomplishments have been at the center of world-historical change. This change extends both backwards in time and forwards—Elizabeth Tudor was beheaded before Mary, Queen of Scots, acceded to the throne (36), for one example.

A Few Questions about DeLillo's Point Omega

Mar 5, 2010
I just read this, and I have to admit that I resent its price. Moving past that minor objection, I have read a few of the reviews (FT, CSM, McGrath piece in NYT), and I would have liked for them to have tackled what seems to me be an important question about the book–i.e., what happens to Jessica. They chose spoiler avoidance, which is understandable, but I have no such compunction.

A Brief Remark on Stephen King's Under the Dome

Dec 10, 2009
I’ve said this before, but the proper analogy between an alien intelligence capable of placing impenetrable spheres around the exact boundaries of a human township is not ants to humans, as in King’s novel, but a virus colonizing some type of formicative intestinal bacterium to Colette, say. I’ve been amusing myself thinking of the type of apoplexy that Stanislaw Lem may have worked himself into when considering the consequences of the book’s premise, as in his essay on Roadside Picnic.

Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City

Nov 1, 2009
It’s still early, certainly, but none of the reviews I’ve read of this seem to understand its premise. There are acknowledgments of direct quotations in the back of the book, an unusual paratextual gesture, but a key conversation in it comes almost directly from an essay by Robin Hanson called “How to Live in A Simulation”. The paper is one of those rare cultural artifacts that instantly refutes any attempt at ideological analysis through proud transparency:

Humphry Clinker

Sep 13, 2009
The best review I’ve read of Inherent Vice thus far has been Thomas Jones’s piece in the LRB. I was especially pleased with the surprising comparison to Smollett. Also, the proposed dialectic relationship between Pynchon’s anarchist utopianism and technocratic capitalism—that the true lesson is that one is not imaginable without the other—leaves us to conclude that Pynchon is not in fact given to sentiment, does not want anyone to keep cool but care, but is rather a nihilist.

First Laws of Heroic Fantasy

Aug 4, 2009
Though not actually an avid reader of heroic fantasy, I have nevertheless have high standards for it. If you want to call Wolfe’s New Sun, Vance’s Dying Earth, Harrison’s Virconium, Mieville’s New Corbuzon, and Le Guin’s Earthsea “heroic fantasy,” then that’s what I’ll tend to compare new things I read in the genre to, however unfair that might be. So when I came across a recommendation from Cosma Shalizi about an epic, witty fantasy trilogy that included an inquisitor as one of the main characters and which seemed to be morally ambiguous throughout, I thought that I had never actually read anything by anyone who aspired to be an epigone of Wolfe, so why not try this out?

Private Midnight, A Novel by Kris Saknussemm

May 31, 2009
I requested a review copy of this after reading an interesting-sounding solicitation from a PR outfit. Now, I have to read a lot of things. It’s important to understand this. I have muscles for reading that many people don’t have. I am also a completist and a serialist. If I start something, I finish it; and I read it straight through. I don’t read anywhere near as fast as this mutant; in fact, I think I may read fiction considerably slower than the average person.

Denis Johnson's Nobody Move

May 14, 2009
I’ve looked around a bit at some of the reviews that’ve been posted of this to date, and not many of them, as I remember, invoked Already Dead as the most likely ancestor of this material, though that book is far denser and perhaps as strange as this. The style of Jesus’ Son, which I’ve always guessed–without having any real evidence—to be the most influential of American books published in the 90s in the workshop is on display here as well, though in a looser form.

Some Continued Implausibilities in The Straw Men

Feb 15, 2009
No chance that a Post-Church Commission CIA hires the protagonist. Little chance that the SAC who gives Nina a ride drives a Lexus. All internet sleuthing—very shaky. The mix-tape that Bobby comes up with. Confusion about the effects of heavy metal exposure. The various overt references to Thomas Harris and The X-Files only highlight the deficiencies in this story-world’s internal coherence, while apparently intending to do the opposite.

Implausibilities in the Opening Scene of Straw Men, A Novel by Michael Marshall

Feb 14, 2009
I ordered this after seeing an intriguing summary in a recent TLS. The opening scene involves a McDonald’s shoot-‘em-up, where there are two shooters. The older of the two shoots the younger and flees. If I understood the exposition correctly, no one ever realized, police and all, that there were two shooters. If television has taught me anything, it’s that forensic analysis, even in 1991, would reveal a) that the younger shooter’s death was not self-inflicted and b) that there were two guns used in the massacre.

From Coetzee's Diary of A Bad Year, With Some Comments on James Wood's Review

Jan 6, 2008
Where did the prosecutors [who argued in court that amateurish Al-Qaeda suspects only seemed that way] learn to think in such a way? The answer: in literature classes in the United States of the 1980s and 1990s, where they were taught that in criticism suspiciousness is the chief virtue, that the critic must accept nothing whatsoever at face value. From their exposure to literary theory these not-very-bright graduates of the academy of the humanities in its postmodernist phase bore away a set of analytical instruments which they obscurely sensed could be useful outside the classroom, and an intuition that the ability to argue that nothing is as it seems to be might get you places.

The Pastel City

Mar 24, 2007
I just finished this work, part of the Viriconium collection by M. John Harrison. Anne Redpath’s “Houses near Las Palmas” may metaschematize it for a certain type of reader:The mood is inescapably nouvelle vague Dying Earth. (Gaiman notices this in the introduction. And a wearier Moorcock also.) Or pehaps Roger Ferri’s “Pedestrian City” works better: It’s hard to say. But I’m looking forward to A Storm of Wings and the other books, which apparently diverge.

What species of vectitation

Dec 23, 2006
I ambled through the woods adjoining the Cypress Creekway, woods full of tame does and pileated woodpeckers, woods crossed with impacted trails and pocked with the aluminum remains of impromptu campfires, and saw, near the creekbed, a red brazen jeep, its driver behatted (pileated peckerwood?) and unwary. No one went with Fergus then, as I far as I could see. Am finally reading here, in the public library, Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.

The Scar

Oct 31, 2006
This, the only Mieville I’ve yet to read (well, not King Rat either) arrived yesterday, and I’m taking some time here and there to read it. I’m more than a bit of a sucker for the Fiend Folio bestiary combined with vanguardist class critique. And the opening reminded me of my recent fishing trip, where I succeeded in bringing out of the water only a floating green anole lizard (Anolis carolinensis), who gratefully wrapped himself around my lure, a mullet-looking thing I rather quixotically hoped might interest a passing trout or red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus).

House of Leaves, Some Thoughts

Oct 24, 2006
I finished this recently, and I’ve also done a tour through the academic literature and some of the reviews. I have not, however, read through much of the forums (that link will likely annoy you, but I lack the will at the moment to give you a proper one); and what little I have read has left me uneasy. Danielewski’s interview in Critique showed flashes of what seemed to me to be unpleasant arrogance, particularly in regards to the ostentatious anticipation of all critical comment (up to that point, at least).

John Sutherland--The Literary Detective

Sep 4, 2006
I just picked up the Oxford World Classics omnibus edition of this in our Greenville-area megabook-jobber for what turned out to be about \$3.33 (and The Meaning of Everything and an unambitious cookbook). I’d–surprisingly, given my natural interest–not read any of these brieflets before, and I’ve amused myself thus far with the Fanny Hill (the proposed efficacy of his scenario invites skepticism) and the two Dracula entries. It’s hard not to appreciate an essay that unashamedly mentions recovering the author’s intent.

Jottings on Manovich

Nov 16, 2005
Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. MIT, 2001. “In this respect the computer fulfills the promise of cinema as a visual Esperanto” (xv, 78). I wonder here, and in the later comments about the universality of the interface, about the distinction between a recovered universal language and an artificial one. Esperanto invokes questions of “ease,” which I believe my friend Bradley discusses in his dissertation. Is the simplest language the most perfect?

New Review of A New Kind of Science

Oct 26, 2005
Polymath Cosma Shalizi has an entertaining review of Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science. I have a paper in various stages of revision on the rhetoric of Wolfram’s book, and Shalizi’s discussion of Wolfram and the taxonomy of crankishness is very apt there. In fact, I invoked his guano comparison in the version I read at a conference. I have to register disagreement in a few places, however. I suspect that there have to be correlations between any useful version of “complexity” and what is visually interesting to the cortex of an East African plains ape.

Chuck Klosterman's Killing Yourself to Live

Sep 1, 2005
[A representative of Simon and Schuster sent me a review-copy of this book.] Chuck Klosterman can write sentences, sometimes even paragraphs, worth preserving: Another 30 percent of those 2,233 have been played less than five times, including one (The Best of Peter, Paul and Mary) I’ve never even listened to once–it’s still wrapped in cellophane (I store it next to a used copy of Husker Du’s Zen Arcade in the hope that they will slowly fuse into a Pixies’ B-side collection) (15).

Tom Wolfe's Been Annoying the Hell out of Me Lately

Feb 22, 2005
I read A Man in Full in about thirty minutes, it felt like, after arriving in Atlanta; and I foolishly thought beforehand that Wolfe would be over the phrenosomatical obsession with muscles and personality I remembered being irritated by when I read Bonfire. From the reviews I’ve read of Charlotte Simmons, it’s only gotten worse. His obituary on Hunter S. Thompson, however, only has one stray comment about “rawboned” and “rangy” men being prone to manic outbursts.

Utterly Arbitrary Jottings on Gene Wolfe's Book of Days

Jan 11, 2005
“How the Whip Came Back” This seems transparently misogynist. Might link Gershenfeld’s When Things Think to the robot. Last image of the husband in chains is clearly meant to be symbolic–should also pay closer attention to what kind of memory alteration the protag. has had. UN again. Soviet domination–penology. Note “Lincoln’s Birthday” “Of Relays and Roses” 32 our economy has come to depend on people getting married more than once

Wolfe's Strange Travellers Scattered Observations

Jan 7, 2005
“Bluesberry Jam”/“Ain’t You ‘Most Done” The first story seems to be told by a dream in the character in the second. Apparently the latter ties-in in some way with Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, which I’ve actually never read. In fact, I’ve read nothing at all by Gaiman. I feel somehow shamed writing that, but it’s true. The second story is the type of backstory that a reader usually has to imagine for himself when reading Wolfe’s fiction, so it’s unusual for things to be as clear as they apparently are.

Brief Comments on Some of Gene Wolfe's Short Fiction

Dec 5, 2004
I’ve read an astonishing amount of Gene Wolfe over the last two years or so, and I just finished his most famous short story collection, The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories and Other Stories. (Other than a few stories in Strange Travellers, some of Castle of Days, the Soldier books, Peace, Castleview, Operation Ares, Free Live Free, the Holly Hollander book, Wizard, and uncollected miscellany, I’ve read it all.