BY NICO VREELAND
[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]
And the Pursuit of Happiness, by Maira Kalman, reviewed by Leah Hager Cohen (New York Times)
Gift-giving and weird books seem to go hand-in-hand, maybe because weird books never make truly horrible presents—they can be a lot of things, but at least they’re not boring. The NYT seems to know this, because their holiday book guide features a plethora of bizarre books, like And the Pursuit of Happiness. Cohen describes it as “an investigation of the historical underpinnings and current workings of democracy in America. Sort of. Really, it’s more like an impromptu interpretive dance about our country, executed in fat, frolicky color, unprissy brushstroke, a smattering of pleasantly pedestrian photographs and perfectly rambunctious penmanship.” Whoa. OK. Check out this review, and if that’s not enough weird, here’s another NYT holiday selection: a coffee table book about anatomical specimens—looks like an ink-and-paper version of the Mütter Museum.
Look at the Birdie, by Kurt Vonnegut, reviewed by M. John Harrison (Guardian)
This is a collection of Kurt Vonnegut’s early stories, which is pretty much all you need to know. The review describes a few of them tantalizingly, and offers a bit of a lesson on where and how these stories fit into the Vonnegut catalog. But you’ve probably made up your mind already.
Hollywood Hills, by Joseph Wambaugh, reviewed by Jonathan Shapiro (L.A. Times)
I’ve never heard of Joseph Wambaugh, but Shapiro says he “all but created the modern L.A. police procedural” and “writes the way Astaire danced”—lofty, if strange, praise. The premise of this one is not entirely clear, but it seems to be founded on a mixture of hard-boiled detective-work (Wambaugh was once an LAPD detective himself), glitzy Hollywood dreams, and the “rot” that lies under the facade. Potent material for a mystery.
The Passages of H.M., by Jay Parini, reviewed by Ron Charles (New York Times)
Here’s a clinic on how to write a book review. Charles does not hand out easy A’s (“I’m tempted to feel there’s something vaguely cowardly about the biographical novel as a form”), but he doesn’t set out to slam the author at every corner, and he gives praise where it’s due (“Parini is especially sensitive in his portrayal of the desperate loneliness that afflicted the writer throughout his life”). His review is complex and funny, and most of all, it gives you a good feel for the book. Compare that to this Boston Globe review of the same book, featuring almost nothing but plot summary and breathless superlatives, but then capped off with a final (negative) judgment. One of these helps a potential reader, the other does not.