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.]
Bird Cloud, by Annie Proulx, reviewed by Dwight Garner (New York Times)
Proulx’s latest work is a memoir about getting her house renovated. That sounds like a tough project to set yourself, and indeed, Garner says, “Few writers can talk about the perks of their success without sounding either defensive or deplorable. Ms. Proulx is not among those few.” Garner’s review is sharp and funny, and yet he never attacks Proulx. It’s a lesson in how to handle a bad book by a good writer.
Gryphon: New and Selected Stories, by Charles Baxter, reviewed by Mark Feeney (Boston Globe)
This quick, simple review makes Baxter’s stories sound both pleasant and affecting. Feeney doesn’t gush, but it’s clear he loved this collection.
Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage, by Kenneth Silverman, reviewed by David L. Ulin (L.A. Times)
Ulin is an impressive reviewer. In this review of a biography about John Cage (the eccentric, influential, experimental composer—try this and this, two of the YouTube clips mentioned in the piece), Ulin balances the requisite stories about the eccentricities of Cage’s work with a fascinatingly insightful thumbnail sketch of Cage’s life and philosophy. It’s the latter—that deeper insight into Cage the man—that Ulin claims the book itself lacks.
Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!, by Douglas Coupland, reviewed by David Carr (New York Times)
Like the Cage book above, this is a biography of an eccentric, fascinating genius (McLuhan was a philosopher who specialized in media theory and said, as Carr points out, “that ‘electronic interdependence’ is the defining aspect of our time … 50 years before anybody ever updated his Facebook page”). Unlike the Cage book, this one features Douglas Coupland, who takes a “fizzy, pop-culture approach to explaining a deep thinker.” I also recommend McLuhan’s crazy art book, The Medium Is the Massage, and check out his appearance in Annie Hall, where the subtitle of this biography originated.
In brief: The latest James Patterson novel will be really, really, really bad, and it should be some sort of crime to give it this good a review. A new book about the fatwa on Salman Rushdie could be interesting. A punny mystery called Lawn Order does not sound as fun as the Globe would have us believe. This essay on watching the Oprah Winfrey Network, by Samantha Bee, is the funniest thing in the WSJ’s books section this week (that might sound like faint praise, but it really is pretty funny). David L. Ulin, the writer of that third review above, also wrote a book called The Lost Art of Reading; here’s a very poor review of it—tough to tell if it’s actually good.