BY SEAN CLARK
[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]
The Fry Chronicles, by Stephen Fry. Reviewed by Simon Callow (The Guardian).
Stephen Fry is very funny (I recommend “Jeeves and Wooster”, a Britcom based on G.K. Chesterton stories in which he co-starred with a pre-“House” Hugh Laurie), and his autobiography seems to be not only humorous, but a well-written book. Callow writes:
So clever is he—and he is the cleverest by a mile of all my contemporaries—that he has written a book which reviews itself… it is verbal Vivaldi, gurgling and burbling deliciously along in its perfect cadences, its occasional unexpected harmonies, its calculated quirks, ever and anon modulating into a more tender, more reflective passage, hinting at, but never too deeply exploring, emotional depths, before speeding off into a joyous allegro vivace of infectious comic bravura.
Callow’s review is a good read in its own right, and I appreciate his willingness to criticize his contemporary where criticism is due.
Nemesis, by Phillip Roth. Reviewed by Michiko Kakutani (New York Times).
Roth is one of those authors you either love or you don’t bother reading. His novels are long and dense, and it’s usually a fairly large endeavor to read one. It’s also usually worth the effort though, as he is inarguably one of the most talented American writers working today. Nemesis weighs in at 280 pages, so it looks like it might not be the behemoth some of its predecessors were, but it’s still a slice-of-life type book; in this case that slice comes from the Polio epidemic of 1944. Kakutani is not overly kind to Roth, in fact, she jabs a bit:
That Bucky is such a one-dimensional character makes for a pallid, predictable story line in which the random workings of fate and the fate of temperament—rather than genuine free choice—are the narrative drivers. It’s all a bit by the numbers, though Mr. Roth executes Bucky’s story with professionalism and lots of granular period detail.
We’ll wait a week to see if the Times pulls a Kakutani Two-Step, but for now, it looks like the review here might be better than the book.
Snakewoman of Little Egypt, by Robert Hellenga. Reviewed by Wendy Smith (Chicago Tribune).
This seems like a pretty interesting novel, about a family in Illinois led by a snakehandling pastor. In a nutshell:
The eponymous heroine is 35-year-old Sunny, who in 1999 has just finished a six-year jail term for shooting her husband Earle after he forced her at gunpoint to put her arm in an aquarium full of poisonous snakes. “Little Egypt” is rural southern Illinois, where Earle is pastor and chief snake-handler at the fundamentalist Church of the Burning Bush in the town of Naqada. Snakes only bite the ungodly, Earle believes, so when he suspected Sunny of cheating, exposing her arm to a pair of copperheads and a diamondbacks was the logical way to test her fidelity.
Smith’s review is mostly plot summary, however the Tribune has a second piece on Hellenga which is a bit more satisfying read.
Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics, by N.C. Christopher Couch. Reviewed by George Gene Gustines (New York Times).
It’s a bit odd I picked two biographies this week, as non-fic books don’t tend to be my reading of choice. This book caught my eye just because it’s about a man who doesn’t seem deserving of a biography. Unless you’re a really big dork, you–like me–have likely never heard of Jerry Robinson. He’s the guy who created The Joker (you know, from Batman). Reading Gustines’s review, the story of the Joker’s evolution over the years might actually be an interesting one. So maybe this is a book worth checking out, even if biographies–or comics–aren’t really your thing.