Why in the hell is the NYT reviewing Jackie Collins’ new book Lovers & Players in this weeks Book Review? And according to the review’s author Alexandra Jacobs, Collins named the main character’s Jett Diamond? Seriously?
Do you think that if Nick Laird weren’t married to Zadie Smith, his new book Utterly Monkey would be reviewed in the NYT today by Kakutani? I don’t mean to disparage his writing, which I haven’t read, but they seem to reserve Kakutani for the big, writers of renown. I’m sceptical of course that they would have bothered with the review otherwise. A review might be included in the Sunday supplement, maybe in the Fiction Chronicle, but a full review from Kakutani? Forget it. But good for Laird. Kakutani likes it, though she can’t resist from mentioning his wife. “Instead, Mr. Laird – who is married to the novelist Zadie Smith – uses his radar-sharp eye for detail and ear for how regular people talk to give us an ebullient cast of characters, rendered with an idiosyncratic mixture of sympathy and wry humor.”
I finished 2 books earlier this week, that at first glance seem completely unrelated, but after a closer look have a few similarities. The first, a novel that takes place during the American invasion of Haiti in 1994, follows 3 characters whose lives are connected. The second, a memoir from a NYT correspondent about his decades spent in Africa.
You don’t discover the sex of the main character Tory Harris aka Jersey in Voodoo Lounge, which was written by Christian Bauman, until the end of the prologue, and it’s only mentioned in passing. She’s a newly pinned sergeant on board a ship about to land in Haiti. The other 2 main characters are Marc Hall, a half-Haitian captain that she meets on a mission, and Junior Davis, Jersey’s ex-lover. Davis and Jersey’s relationship is visited through flashbacks and you don’t realize the impact it has on the story until towards the end of the novel. I found Bauman’s exploration of what people do under pressure particularly interesting. When Marc Hall contemplates what it means to be part Haitian and also a member of the occupation, we see the internal conflict; And when a group of soldiers are caught in a standoff with some Haitian soldiers, we see what people are capable of when placed in fraught situations.
What does Voodoo Lounge have in common with the other book A Continent for the Taking by Howard French? Both books show the debilitating and often absurd effects American arrogance can have on another society. French spent years traveling all over Africa and came across all kinds of greed, waste, and hypocrisy from all directions. His book really opened my eyes to the devastation that the West has had on Africa. I knew, or supposed I knew what the world has done to that continent. But his experiences show both the small and the big picture of life in Africa. Not everyone is bad of course, but not many come off as good human beings. Like our “aiding” of Haiti, the United States often sets out on misguided efforts to help nations. But more often than not, the government backs whomever will help us the most, be it a dictator known to have perpetrated war crimes or an “elected” official who’s been known to use whatever means necessary to win an election.
Bauman’s rich novel reads quickly, but still has depth and power. French’s book is not only informative but also emotional, capturing both the human and historical angles of the story. I enjoyed reading them both.
There’s much to cheer about as well as much to lament in this past Sunday’s Book Review. On the one hand, we’ve got Gail Caldwell’s beautiful essay and some well-written reviews. On the other hand, most of the reviews of books that came out 3 or more months ago. I’ve included the pub date of each book after the title and author just so you don’t think I am crazy. So follow me after the jump…
There I was all set to read the Book Review section and write a scathing report and I open up the pages of the paper to find it devoted to kids’ books this week. I wonder why? What could make them do that? They at least present us with a few non-kids related columns, which I’ve covered below.
The main piece devoted to secret places at least mentions some oldies but goodies—The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Secret Garden, The Indian in the Cupboard (I remember my fourth grade teacher read us this book everyday after lunch. I loved this book). Jodi Daynard wrote a nice piece on the value of a school’s curriculum and how difficult it can be to balance classics versus newer writers. James Sallis’ devotes his ‘A Reading Life‘ to Ed McBain. It’s a nice tribute to a great writer, who though he wrote many books, had much more to offer.
Amanda Heller has the ‘Short Takes‘ this week and looks at The Mysterious Flam of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco, Lavoisier in the Year One: The Birth of a New Science in an Age of Revolution by Madison Smartt Bell, and Meet the Beatles by Steven Stark. And the last column is ‘On Memoirs‘ by Kate Bolick. She writes about the difference between a memoir and a diary, covering Drawing From Life: The Journal as Art, an anthology edited by Jennifer New and A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit (which I am currently reading). It’s a thought-provoking piece.
That’s it folks. The rest is all kids’ books. I will save the scathing commentary for next week.