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Game Change: The EW Review

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up Game Change, but it wasn’t this: a rollicking, profane, funny, incredibly detailed account of the 2008 campaign. Here’s my review:

Journalists, pundits, and bloggers have all chewed over the 2008 presidential campaign so thoroughly, so relentlessly, that there would seem to be little meat left on the bone. But two veteran political reporters – New York magazine’s John Heilemann and Time’s Mark Halperin — have found plenty of fresh dish, and they’ve served it up in Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime.

What makes their book different from others, and so riveting, is the depth of their material–some of it obtained the old-fashioned way, through dogged investigative reporting, and some of it courtesy of their innumerable sources, such as Patti Solis Doyle, Hillary Clinton’s onetime campaign manager. But don’t be fooled: This is no dry history. In fact, in places it reads less like a campaign memoir than like a Jackie Collins novel, packed with seamy details about extramarital sex and screaming arguments. Its pages brim with scandalous tidbits: John Edwards refuses to take responsibility for Rielle Hunter, demanding furiously of a young aide, “Why didn’t you come to me like a  f—-ing man and tell me to stop f—ing her?” Elizabeth Edwards, furious at her husband’s infidelity, dramatically rips open her shirt in an airport, and calls a staffer in the middle of the night: “Get me out of here! I’m not campaigning for this a–hole another day!” John McCain alternately screams obscenities at his wife, Cindy, and refuses to take any interest in the nuts and bolts of his campaign: “He really just didn’t give a s—. The details made his head hurt.” Barack Obama sometimes comes off as moody and difficult, at times almost undone by his cocky self-assurance. “I’m LeBron, baby,” he once told a reporter. “I can play on this level. I got some game.” Interestingly, the one person you’d expect would fare poorly here–vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin–gets a pass. Though the authors duly report that “some in the upper echelons of McCainworld began to believe that Palin was unfit for higher office,” they say bluntly that “the McCain people did fail [her]…. They amassed polling points and dollars off her fiery charisma, and then left her to burn up in the inferno of public opinion.”

Game Change isn’t perfect. The authors obviously have sources in pretty high places (a couple of conversations between the Clintons are recounted verbatim, including a fascinating one on a beach in Anguilla), but without a bibliography, it’s hard to identify them all. (That said, there are a lot more people on the record here than in, say, a Bob Woodward book.) The tone can shift, a little disconcertingly, from elegant description to profanity-laced staccato in the space of a line or two (people are constantly going rips— or apes—. There’s a lot of s— in Game Change). And Heilemann and Halperin are guilty of some pretty mean-spirited caricature, even if it is dead-on. Clinton is “resplendent in fire engine red and wearing a rictus grin” at one event; Rudy Giuliani, when challenged, “would bare his cartoonishly big teeth.” But these are pretty minor quibbles. This is a must-read for anyone interested in the cutthroat backroom hows and whys of a presidential campaign — especially this presidential campaign, filled as it was with scene-stealing characters and bad behavior, and memorable for all kinds of reasons that had nothing to do with Obama’s skin color and everything to do with his impeccably run grassroots organization. And it doesn’t hurt that Game Change reads more bodice-ripper than Beltway. A-


Poetry You Need To Read: Nin Andrews' 'Southern Comfort'

Nin Andrews is the Wonder Woman of poetry. Her golden lasso is the prose poem, a form she’s mastered with more dexterity and wit. (Just read her moving, hilarious, and highly educational 2000 collection The Book of Orgasms for proof.)

Andrews’ latest book, Southern Comfort (CavanKerry Press) is a superb volume for both dedicated readers of poetry and anyone looking for an apparent autobiography in poetic form. Born to, as the dust jacket says, “a southern father and a northern mother,” Andrews’ subjects include a the death of her grandmother, the ghosts her “daddy” sees, the mysteries of a Southern accent, and wasps and centipedes and earthworms and bees, and a boy named Jimmy in poems and prose poems including this one, called “Summer”:

Sometimes in the middle of the day, Jimmy and I’d rest on the upside-down feed buckets beside the sugar maples, sip Cokes and talk about our dreams, maybe watch the horses slurp water and swish off gadflies. Jimmy talked about Sarah Lee, his girl (he liked to say so long after she wasn’t). Then he would lie back with his ball cap over his face while I fished dead frogs out of the trough. I’d think about what it’s like to be the girl every boy talks to about the girl he likes. Sometimes I watched him sleep until the lizards ran out to wait by the water for insects to light. If I wanted to, I’d pick off their tails and show them to Jimmy when he woke.

I wrote “apparent autobiography” a while back there because Andrews is also a devillish poet. If all you’d ever read of Andrews was Southern Comfort, you’d think you were dealing with a straightforward gal reminiscing about her colorful childhood, spinning yarns and telling true tales.

But if you’ve read more than one Andrews volume, you know that she is also, at various times, possessed of a slashing sarcasm, of a confident knowledge of Kafka, William James, and how angels manifest themselves in everyday lives. She assumes different identities. She radiates a powerful assurance in writing about sex, romance, and loneliness. She’s a sly sophisticate, a raucous verse-maker, a mischievous observer with a long memory.

You could not do much better to begin your new year by reading Nin Andrews’ Southern Comfort.

We read (and watched) Sarah Palin so you don't have to

In her new book — and ubiquitous press appearances — Sarah Palin sounds off on everything from caribou to Katie Couric. Here’s what she had to say:

On John McCain asking her to be his running mate:

“I’d known it was only a matter of time before others saw Alaska’s potential to contribute to America’s future. Now the time was right.”

On Katie Couric:

“Where do I begin?” Palin muses of the infamous 2008 sit-down with the CBS anchor. “In the harried pace of the campaign, I mistakenly let myself become annoyed…with many of her repetitive, biased questions.” (Couric tells EW “the interview speaks for itself.”)

On SNL:

“[Amy Poehler] was very pregnant,” Palin recalls of her campaign stop on NBC’s Saturday Night Live. “She and [my daughter] Bristol compared belly sizes…. Very nice of Amy, I thought. Very down to earth.” She adds, “Josh Brolin, Mark Wahlberg, and the singer Adele were also on the show that night, as was director Oliver Stone, who made a cameo appearance. Unbelievably, he is a supporter of Communist dictator Hugo Chavez, who in a 2006 speech to the United Nations referred to the president of the United States as ‘the devil himself.’ I did not shake Stone’s hand.”

On meeting her husband, Todd:

Love at first sight? Not exactly. READ FULL STORY

Sarah Palin's 'Going Rogue': The EW Review

She cooks a mean moose chili (though, as she admits, she “never pretended to have a huge culinary repertoire”). She doesn’t mention Levi Johnston, the father of her daughter Bristol’s baby — not once. Her passages about her son Trig, who has Down’s Syndrome, are incredibly moving.

But before you start scanning this review of Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue for a lefty New York bias, let me be clear: I’m not affiliated with any political party. I’ve voted for Democrats; I’ve voted for Republicans. That said, Going Rogue is nothing special, a standard bit of political posturing from someone still eyeing higher office. That’s clear from the jacket photo alone: Palin, hair down, gazing sturdily into the distance, clad in a red track jacket (no fancy duds here), an American flag pinned to her chest. I’m like you, the photo says. “[Todd and I] felt our very normalcy, our status as ordinary Americans, could be a much-needed fresh breeze blowing into Washington, D.C.,” she writes.

Though Palin says that in college she “studied journalism because of my passion for the power of words,” she hired a ghostwriter, Lynn Vincent, for Going Rogue. Fair enough: Writing a newspaper article is much different from crafting a full-length book. But Vincent did her no favors. Her attempts to mime Palin’s no-nonsense speech sometimes result in painful manglings: “I breathed in an autumn bouquet that combined everything small-town America with rugged splashes of the Last Frontier.” Still, the first few chapters — about Palin’s early life in Alaska — are down-to-earth and funny (“You know you’re Alaskan when at least twice a year your kitchen doubles as a meat processing plant”). But the passages about her personal politics and her stint as Alaska’s governor are less than forthright, and the description of her time with the McCain campaign reads less like history than like ax grinding.

What’s more, Palin displays virtually no introspection. When McCain asks her to run, she says, “I certainly didn’t think, Well, of course this would happen. But neither did I think, What an astonishing idea. It seemed more comfortable than that, a natural progression.” Wait a minute: Moving swiftly from mayor of Wasilla to governor of Alaska to Vice President of the United States is a natural progression? I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that Palin owes readers a little more than that. Yet maybe that’s naive of me. Palin has just done what almost all politicians do — delivered a mediocre, unsurprising, self-serving memoir. C


'Bloom County The Complete Collection': Totally '80s humor - and a penguin, too!

43932843I can’t really overemphasize the role Berke Breathed’s Pulitzer-winning ’80s comic strip Bloom County played in my life. Its prepubescent hero, Milo Bloom, was a budding journalist of dubious ethics. He had a best friend named Binkley who was fond of wearing tutus (much to the chagrin of his football-loving dad). And they palled around with an endearing penguin named Opus. The fact that I turned out to be a gay, penguin-fancying journalist with an offbeat sense of humor? It ain’t pure coincidence.

So imagine my delight to reacquaint myself with the origins of Breathed’s pre-Opus opus, the first of a planned five-volume compendium of the strip’s nearly nine-year, Pulitzer-winning run. Bloom County The Complete Collection, Volume One includes several pages of The Academia Waltz, the strip that Breathed drew for the student newspaper at the University of Texas, Austin in 1978-79. It was very much a Doonesbury homage, as I suspect most college comics were in those days — though it did introduce an early version of both the preppie cad Steve Dallas and the wheelchaired Vietnam vet Cutter John, who would become regulars in Bloom County. READ FULL STORY

Manny Farber's collected movie reviews: 'Farber on Film' is a two-fisted treasure

Manny-Farber_lMother lode, treasure trove – the usual clichés of value plenitude don’t do justice to the just-published Farber On Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber (The Library Of America), edited by the critic and poet Robert Polito. Movie critics and fans of movie criticism know what an event this is, which, given the neglected, beat-down state of professional film criticism these days, will only sell about 39 copies of this 824-page $40 mother lode/treasure trove of prose pleasure.

So I’m writing this for anyone who’s never worn out a copy of the only previous collection of Farber’s reviews, Negative Space, to try and convince you of the immense pleasures that await you here. Manny Farber (1917-2008), critic and painter, wrote movie reviews for publications ranging from the starchy New Republic to the raunchy girlie mag Cavalier. This is your first bit of proof that Farber had an itch to get his opinions in print anywhere he could (one measure of a critic who wants to communicate, not just simmer in theory-juice). He never READ FULL STORY

'Heroes and Villains': Pop culture from Elmer Fudd (yay!) to Josh Groban (boo!)

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David Hajdu’s new collection Heroes and Villains: Essays on Music, Movies, Comics, and Culture (Da Capo) is packed with shrewd, original observations about subjects ranging from Elvis Presley to Elmer Fudd, from Kanye West to (well, whattaya know) Taylor Swift. Over the past decade, Hajdu – a former EW editor — has established himself as an ambitious, wide-ranging critic and biographer. (His previous books include the Bill Strayhorn biography Lush Life and a history of comic-book repression, The Ten-Cent Plague.)

The essays in Heroes and Villains are most often critical assessments mixed with biographical sketches, a rare form in this time of the short review and the widespread assumption that readers will be confused upon encountering an actual opinion in the midst of a profile. Hajdu is the rare first-rate critic who’s also a first-rate interviewer – he’s rarely interested in putting his own opinions ahead of the stated intentions of the artist under discussion. If the critical appraisal is at odds with the good quote, he lets both stand, and a fresh tension is the result.

In writing about Joni Mitchell, for example, Hajdu reports that the singer-songwriter insisted to him that she’d always been a jazz artist, never a folk singer, a notion Hajdu takes quiet but firm issue with in proceeding to give a brief but thorough overview of her career, tracing her (yes) folk period, her jazz period, and her subsequent electronic experiments and, most recently, her re-recordings of some of her best-known songs. It takes a hardy critic to plow through much of Mitchell’s latterday work, and Hajdu listens to this music with a typical clear ear canal.

In his introduction, David Yaffe compares Hajdu to Otis Ferguson and Edmund Wilson, and I would add that he’s also working in the tradition of Gilbert Seldes or Robert Warshow, cultural critics who took the long view without standing aloof from pop culture. Hajdu’s writing is always generous. Even when he’s listening dubiously to Josh Groban (“a wondrously strange living amalgam of imposed ideas about pop artistry, most of them fearsomely cynical”), he can find time to describe his voice as “an airy, robust baritone… an impressive instrument well employed to impress.”

Now that’s a good critic.

'A New Literary History of America': As big and good as the country itself

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The huge, welcoming, exciting, just-published volume A New Literary History of America is a book with which to spend entire days and the rest of your life. It’s a collection of over 200 original short essays that range, as the editors, Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors write in their introduction, “from the first appearance of ‘America’ on a map to Jimi Hendrix’s rewrite of the national anthem,” from the founding of the nation up through Hurricane Katrina and the election of Barack Obama.

There are essays here on the Salem witch trials and on Tarzan; on the founding of the Hudson River School of painting and the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous; on The Book of Mormon and The Catcher In The Rye. The essays are written by well-known names (Jonathan Letham, Sarah Vowell, Richard Schickel, Gish Jen) and less famous but no less revelatory writers (I direct you immediately to Stephen Burt’s essays on poetry and to Dave Hickey’s acute “The Song in Country Music”). Where else are you going to read Camille Paglia on Tennessee Williams, Mary Gaitskill on Norman Mailer, and Walter Mosley on the hardboiled detective novel? Don’t you want to do that right now?

Much as he did as a writer in his discography for the 1979 anthology Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island — choosing and elaborating upon key recordings in a way that cohered as a history of rock music — so, as an editor here, Marcus has placed in chronological order other writers’ interpretations of key moments in American history, and ended up with a surprisingly complete yet completely surprising view of our nation’s progress. And its mistakes, its sins, its grand follies; its most fervent dreams, and its most livid realities.

Talk about an all-American value: You could read this 1,000-plus-page book forever and never use up its revelations and its pleasures.

Jacquelyn Mitchard's sequel to 'Deep End of the Ocean' disappoints

40732444I don’t have anything against sequels. Honest. I can think of countless ones I’ve enjoyed. (And series are a whole other matter — I love a great series.) But there are two kinds of book sequels I can’t abide. The first, of course, is the sequel that’s written by someone other than the original author (the best recent examples of this are Gone With the Wind sequels, Scarlett and Rhett Butler’s People, both licensed by Margaret Mitchell’s estate). And then there’s the sequel written by an author who just doesn’t seem to be able to come up with anything else and so returns to one of the books that made him or her famous in the first place: Thomas Harris’ Hannibal. John Updike’s The Widows of Eastwick. And now Jacquelyn Mitchard’s No Time to Wave Good-bye.

You remember Jacquelyn Mitchard. Back in 1996, her first novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, was plucked from obscurity by none other than Oprah, who used it to launch her now-famous book club. The tale of kidnapping and grief in a Midwestern family, the Cappadoras, went on to sell 3 million copies; it was later made into a movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Treat Williams. For the sake of Shelf Life readers, I won’t give away plot points of No Time to Wave Good-bye. Suffice it to say they’re doozies. As I turned the pages, I kept shaking my head and thinking, What next? Haven’t the Cappadoras been through enough? What was in the first book a heartbreaking family drama has become almost ludicrous caricature. By the time I finished, I was more than a little annoyed at Mitchard for dredging up (and, to my mind, ruining) her old story for the sake of a few bucks.

And it’s a trend that doesn’t look like it’s ending anytime soon. Back in April, Grand Central Publishing announced that Scott Turow is writing a sequel to one of my all-time favorite thrillers, Presumed Innocent.

I’m already worried. You?

EW review: Dan Brown's 'The Lost Symbol'

6a00d8341bf6c153ef011570de1436970c-800wiDan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has spawned a raft of imitators, most of which pale in comparison; the latest, The Lost Symbol, is by Brown himself. Once again, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon is summoned to the scene of a gruesome attack, joins forces with an attractive and erudite love interest, and speeds around a world capital chasing clues, solving puzzles, and risking his life while dropping cocktail parties’ worth of scholarly minutiae. Even the setting, though new, will be familiar to most readers: Washington, D.C.

This time, Langdon is lured to the Capitol to save his mentor, Peter Solomon, a prominent member of the Freemasons who’s been kidnapped by a cryptic, heavily tattooed, Homer-reading psycho calling himself Mal’akh — a vicious fellow even less plausible than the albino monk in The Da Vinci Code. Our hero is also in possession of an ancient Masonic artifact whose clues lead him on a treasure hunt to various D.C. tourist spots as he searches for a secret long hidden by the brotherhood.

That secret, of course, is one giant MacGuffin — though Brown is the rare thriller writer who seems to lavish as much attention on the object that sets his plot in motion as he does on the action itself. But for thriller fans, it’s the chase that really matters. Especially since the secrets of Freemasonry just aren’t as compelling as, say, a controversial theory about Mary Magdalene and Jesus.

Luckily, Langdon remains a terrific hero, a bookish intellectual who’s cool in a crisis and quick on his feet, like Ken Jennings with a shot of adrenaline. The codes are intriguing, the settings present often-seen locales in a fresh light, and Brown mostly manages to keep the pages turning — except when one of his know-it-all characters decides to brake the action for another superfluous, if occasionally interesting, historical digression. (Did you know there’s a carving of Darth Vader on the National Cathedral?) Even after the book’s climactic showdown, you must slog through another 50-plus pages of exposition that Brown couldn’t cram into the main narrative. Sometimes it seems that authors, like their villains, don’t know when to leave well enough alone. C+

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