There's a very good group of books to talk about this week, and unlike last week, there's a good representation of fiction to counterbalance the nonfiction that dominated the previous week. So without further ado...
Eleanor Henderson begins her review of Amber Dermont's much-talked-about The Starboard Sea by tipping her hat to another reviewer. "Writing in Salon in 2009," Henderson begins, "Laura Miller noted that the canon favors books about 'men in boats' over 'women in houses,' and it's true: the boat is the beloved vessel of the Great American Novel." With a title like The Starboard Sea, you'd be crazy not to expect to see a gunnel or two by the end of the first chapter, so it appears she's on the right path. Henderson then points out, "Unless it's that other favorite setting, the boarding school." In other words, this book is full of canon fodder. Or, as Henderson writes, "So The Starboard Sea, Amber Dermont's engrossing debut novel about a talented young sailor at a New England academy, has the mighty wind of two traditions at its back."
At some point in his review of Robert Harris' thriller The Fear Index, John Schwartz asks, "What's more frightening than a geek with power?" What follows is a description of a "gothic horror" that's based on the brainiac who creates something that threatens to become powerful than its creator- in this case, a hedge fund algorithm that "thrives on panic." Schwartz summarizes the book as follows: "Humans have emerged as the top predators of the biosphere, but Harris warns that a new life form, brilliant and brutal, could be emerging from our algorithms, silicon chips and fiber-optic lines." Definitely worse than a dot-com crash.
Curtis Sittenfeld describes the key to Thomas Mallon's Watergate by stating, "What Mallon captures particularly well is the fundamental weirdness and mystery at the center of the scandal." She also compares the book to "The West Wing," while admitting that it's likely a faux pas to compare a book to a movie. The point to that comparison, though, is that the normally caricatured Nixon is presented as believable, and that bases the novel in believability. "Mallon abandons the usual sweaty, paranoid caricature of Nixon, offering instead a nuanced man who can even be endearing "” quite a feat for those of us in the generation for which a Nixon Halloween mask is as much a reference point as Nixon himself."
Dan Barden's AA-based novel The Next Right Thing "uses a crime story as his vehicle to explore the world of addiction and recovery. His plot is as old as 'The Maltese Falcon': a man determined to learn the truth about his friend's death." This is a dark but funny book, one that strikes true. Reviewer Patrick Anderson sums it up when he writes, "The novel's final passage is a kind of prayer, as angry as it is loving, that Randy offers to his dead friend. As I put the book down, I wondered whether Barden had a friend whose death inspired those haunting paragraphs. It feels that real."
Marie Arana tells us, "In Hari Kunzru's dazzling new novel, a desert is the setting, hero and villain. It isn't the first time this landform has played such a starring role." She lists Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, Coyote the trickster god, even UFOs as having desert-related stories. We read that Balzac said, "The desert is God without men." Arena writes, "Kunzru's Gods Without Men is a great, sprawling narrative, as vast as the canvas on which it is written. In it, half a dozen stories play out on the gaping expanse of the Mojave Desert, where a miscellany of lost souls seeks salvation in the shadow of a three-fingered rock formation." A lot of people come into this story, from monks to hippies, from Native Americans to anthropologists to wounded war veterans. Arana's tells us, "Kunzru has written a big, unabashed salmagundi of a novel."
Michael Dirda reviews a new edition of Pavane, a wonderful book and a classic of the genre "alternate history." Michael Dirda writes, "Some years ago, Anthony Burgess "” himself no slouch as a writer of alternate histories and dystopian sci-fi "” chose Pavane as one of the 99 best novels written in English since 1939. I would add that it is also one of the most thought-filled, a book with the glowing but somber majesty of a stained-glass window, constructed from the most disparate bits and fragments, from the tesserae of multiple lives. What's more, Roberts creates considerable suspense throughout, and his prose can be frequently joyous and lyrical, especially in descriptive passages. And yet, despite its optimistic coda, one closes this book riven with a sweet sadness, as at the end of some great tragedy." If that's not enough, George R.R. Martin fans should know that he calls the book "a masterpiece."
The LA Times has a review of American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, which has been perched atop bestseller lists for weeks. The Times tells us "American Sniper is about one man's evolution from restless civilian to dedicated killer." It also says, "Kyle is unpossessed by political correctness," and I imagine that contributes in part to the book's popularity. "Kyle's view is blunt and simplistic. While its accuracy may be debated, his view represented the position of the ground soldiers who did the fighting "” Army, Marine and SEAL. Kyle's voice deserves attention not as a historic analysis but as the sound of anger from the battlefield and the difficulty of resuming anything that passes for a normal life."
Russ Parsons reports on Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, pointing out that "olive oil is one of the most widely used cooking fats in the world." So why do we want to read about it? Answer: because many people care a lot about it, even if they don't have a full grasp of it. "And therein lies the rub. On the one hand you've got a wondrous, distinctive product made in very small amounts and sold for $35 to $40 a bottle and even more. On the other, you've got a bland supermarket staple (even average grocery stores sell a half-dozen types these days) that can sell for as little as $3 to $5. You can see why what Mueller describes as "the fraudsters" might be interested."
Returning to the New York Times, where the paper reported earlier in the week that William Gay has died. He was a writer from Tennessee whose work could be compared to Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner, and other strong writers of place. Before he was a writer, he worked with his hands, and I particularly liked this quote from the obit: "I've always felt sort of like in between things," he said after he had given up his life as a laborer. "Like I fit in when I was working construction. I more or less could do my job. I didn't get fired. I got paid. I could do it. But it was always sort of like working under cover. Now when I'm meeting academic people and going to these things they have, basically it's still the same thing. I'm still under cover. Then, I was sort of a closet intellectual passing as a construction worker. Now, I'm a construction worker passing as an academic." I think we've all felt that way at times.
Slate is launching a book review section.
Back to the Los Angeles Times, where the paper has already disclosed its Spring preview.
The Atlantic has Ten fantastic novels with disappointing endings.
On the other hand, The Stylist offers up a much more optimistic (and bountiful) list: The 100 Best Opening Lines from Books.