MixedThe New York Times Book Review... a major book about Los Angeles — unless you’re an Angeleno. At its best, the book shares McWilliams’s bountiful gift for anecdote, the dumbfounded glee of a happy transplant like Banham and Davis’s compassion for those traditionally airbrushed out of the picture ... What’s missing is a shaping idea, some fresh thesis with which to think about the city. In its place, Lunenfeld overworks a flimsy metaphor, tenuously mapping the alchemical elements of earth, air, fire, water and aether onto his 11 chapters. Mercifully, he’s a sucker for a good story, even when its relation to the stories before and after isn’t always apparent ... In other words, this is a classic Los Angeles residential street of a book. Instead of Spanish Revival next door to Polynesian fantasy, we get snide alt-weekly riffing alongside academic theory, punctuated by lots of delightfully shunpike Southern California lore. Some passages read as if written years apart for different conferences. There’s nothing wrong with an essay collection, of course — unless it’s posing as a cohesive tour de force of cultural history ... Disconcerting lapses pop up along the way ... nit-picking is for chimps. Bad prose is something else ... Deep into the book, though, the damnedest thing happens. Lunenfeld gets out of his own way for a spell, and the prose starts to bloom. Chapter 5, for instance, his bracingly original account of the generational leap from ’50s dads in the military to their rock-star kids — among them Jim Morrison and Gram Parsons — will more than reward a masked expedition to the bookstore. But City at the Edge of Forever remains, stubbornly, 11 chapters in search of a book.
Hassan Blasim, trans. Jonathan Wright
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewThere are no sides and no front in the Iraqi exile Hassan Blasim’s arresting, auspicious story collection The Corpse Exhibition, only paranoid top dogs and desperate bottom feeders ... The Corpse Exhibition heralds a writer whose promise deepens as the book progresses. Mr. Blasim peoples his first few stories here with violent Iraqi young men, who count life cheap. They boast, kill, watch movies, even discover good books with that casual fatalism recognizable among futureless teenagers, both abroad and at home ... As with many of the stories here, a somewhat askew framing device brackets the action, raising doubts about the reliability, even the reality, of what’s going on. Yes, more than a few stories here are, unhappy phrase, about storytelling ... The Corpse Exhibition takes Mr. Blasim from pulpy, claustrophobic two-handers about easy death to well-plotted, blackly comic meditations on the difficulty of survival. It’s unclear in what order he wrote these stories, but their sequence imparts a mounting novelistic power.
PositivePublishers WeeklyThe plot's dizzying profusion of murder suspects plays like something out of early Raymond Chandler, under whose bright star Bleeding Edge unmistakably unreels. Shoals of red herrings keep swimming by, many of them never seen again. Still, reading Pynchon for plot is like reading Austen for sex. Each page has a little more of it than the one before, but you never quite get to the clincher … Bleeding Edge is a chamber symphony in P major, so generous of invention it sometimes sprawls, yet so sharp it ultimately pierces. All this, plus a stripjoint called Joie de Beavre and a West Indian proctologist named Pokemon. Who else does that?
MixedThe San Francisco ChronicleThe novel's sly private joke is to drop in on its characters every few years, but only in June -- month of weddings and commencements, those two great milestones that never sneak up on anybody. By contrast, life in Three Junes blindsides everybody, visiting joy and heartbreak on these exquisitely drawn characters with no warning whatever. It's a haphazard but life-affirming way to plot a novel, enhanced by Glass' micrometer-like attentiveness not just to a character's feelings, but also to his feelings about those feelings … All this rich layering comes at a cost, however forgivable. The author's time scheme, which fixes each character in a particular month and year only to roam at will through their histories, gets to seeming needlessly cantilevered and baroque.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleAs March's shadow story emerges from behind the veil where Alcott left it, alternately braiding up with hints in the original version and striking out on a path of pure invention, Brooks reimagines Little Women afresh. It's a sterling example of a brazen genre – the novel that burrows inside another novel, borrowing some of its characters and situations but, in this uncommon case, returning to the host book a liveliness that age and fashion had sapped … Brooks keeps a firmer footing when reanimating not historical characters, but fictional ones. Marmee takes over much of the telling when Mr. March lies near death in a Washington hospital, and her demure yet willful voice carries Brooks' story confidently toward its reunion with the narrative we already know.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleThe Fortress of Solitude is most assuredly a novel about all kinds of things – about the last 40 years in America, about popular culture as a salve for the unpopular – but maybe most of all, it's about how whites and blacks misunderstand each other. In exploring this, Lethem winds up confronting race in America with a specificity most white novelists since Mark Twain have been too chicken to try … How the lives of Dylan and Mingus diverge and, ultimately, reconnect, forms the soaring arc of this massively ambitious, profoundly accomplished novel. At its heart is the never-explained mystery of why a magic ring should bestow flight in youth but invisibility in middle age.
MixedThe San Francisco ChronicleNever Let Me Go is a queer fish – a romantic triangle wedged into a science fiction premise – and it compels multiple readings as only a frustrating novel by a great writer can … Ishiguro tries to break our hearts, and half succeeds. More often, alas, he has to console himself with bending our minds … Reading Never Let Me Go is like attending the bedside of an organ transplant patient forever on the verge of rejecting. We yearn for the science fiction and romantic aspects of Ishiguro's story to match and thrive. We want desperately for it to work, but somehow, in spite of all that, it never quite takes.
MixedThe San Francisco Chronicle[Hosseini] instinctively hooked a great image but, alas, doesn't yet have the technique to bring it in for a landing. It's a small failing, symptomatic of this middlebrow but proficient, timely novel … Hosseini shows a much more natural talent when he stops telegraphing his themes and lets images do the work for him. All the material about the Afghan expatriate community in Fremont is fascinating … Hosseini has taken the sorrowful history of his tragically manipulated birthplace and turned it into informative, sentimental but nevertheless touching popular fiction. For every misstep...there's a grace note.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleLahiri writes beautifully controlled prose. She resorts to unusual word choices only when she needs them to fix an important moment in the reader's mind … In zeroing in on her hero's name to epitomize his identity crisis, Lahiri is, as usual, right on the money. Names have always been contested territory in immigrant families … Only near the end do we see that we've been expertly set up, that what passed for deft if slightly repetitive misadventures may really be the painful, Portnoyish loneliness of the immigrant's son. As at the end of ‘The Graduate,’ Lahiri gives us a romantic resolution and then leaves the camera running, overshooting her fairy-tale happy ending and granting us something wiser, darker, fuller.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleFunny, humane, endearingly self-aware, Cal takes the book's most potentially alienating feature – it's told by a boy with a vestigial penis who's mistaken for a girl for the first 14 years of his life – and turns it to improbable, wonderful advantage. Here's a novel that emphatically declines to state whether it's a guy book or a chick book. Instead, it's the most reliably American story there is: A son of immigrants finally finds love after growing up feeling like a freak … [Eugenides’] rarer power resides in the ability to craft scenes whose freshness of incident matches their freshness of description.
RaveThe New York Times...[an] important, alarming book ... Mr. Seidenberg, a veteran cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, makes a strong case for how brain science can help the teaching profession in the meantime. book ... Reading Language at the Speed of Sight could almost function as a reading experiment itself. Give a volunteer a smart, witty, only occasionally poky primer on the science of reading. Then, on Page 200, replace it with focused, impassioned argument ... Mr. Seidenberg’s simmering anger at how teachers themselves are taught erupts over those last hundred pages, and it’s bracing to behold ... Language at the Speed of Sight starts out invigoratingly — if somewhat overgenerously in the Fig. 1 and Fig. 2 department — and soon enough finds an even higher gear. Mr. Seidenberg has that rare knack of sounding reasonable and righteous at the same time.