BY NICO VREELAND
[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers.]
Inside and Signs and Wonders by Alix Ohlin. Reviewed by William Giraldi in the New York Times.
Amid the latest round of debates over the role of positivity or niceness in book reviewing, William Giraldi decided to messily murder Alix Ohlin’s two recent books, Inside and Signs and Wonders, in the NYT. He makes a few good points (especially about the distasteful effects of bland titles), but also comes off as a bit of an asshole. He over-emotes his criticism (her “lack of register” is described as “appalling”), gives backhanded compliments that hint that he wanted to hate this book (“The story succeeds in spite of the daytime-TV motif”), and quotes passages that often fail to confirm his point (in taking Ohlin’s language to task, he says, “In just 13 pages you will be asked to endure eyes “fluttering,” then “shining,” then “fluttering” again.” Uh. Doesn’t sound that bad.). Fittingly, this unbalanced review provoked an unbalanced response at The Nervous Breakdown (as well as many other responses, several of which are linked below, in the “In brief” section). In the response, Sung J. Woo rather histrionically defends Ohlin, both as if solving a math problem, and as if furiously protecting a child from a bully. Woo’s better points (among them, that Giraldi misquoted and then savaged a perfectly acceptable use of the word “honkingly”) are obscured by his more off-kilter arguments (among them, that Ohlin’s short stories can’t be bad because they were accepted by editors at lit mags). All in all, this is a big blustery lesson in how not to get your point across. Find Inside at Goodreads. Find Signs and Wonders at Goodreads.
Hostage, by Elie Wiesel. Reviewed by David L. Ulin in the L.A. Times.
Now this is how you write a negative book review. Ulin pulls no punches on Wiesel’s latest novel, which he calls “contrived,” but neither does he shout his criticism. Instead, he calmly analyzes the qualities that made Wiesel a famous writer, especially the qualities that made Night a classic, and then he explains the mistakes that Wiesel makes with Hostage. Simple, logical, unemotional, and convincing. Find this book at Google Books.
Umbrella, by Will Self. Reviewed by Mark Lawson in the Guardian.
The Guardian highlights Will Self’s latest novel, which was recently longlisted for the Booker. Lawson calls it a “polyphonic, epoch-hopping torrent” and says it should make the shortlist. Publishing, in its great wisdom, has decided to allow us Americans to buy this book in just five short months. [UPDATE: An error previously attributed this review to Michele Filgate. It was written by Mark Lawson.] Find this book at Goodreads.
In brief: The L.A. Times asked writers to recommend books for the presidential candidates. … J. Robert Lennon writes about bad book reviews for Salon, also mentioning the Giraldi/Ohlin review. … Yet another reaction to the Giraldi thing. … Meanwhile, Laura Miller makes a case for positive book reviews. She seems to have missed the point that nobody’s arguing against positive book reviews, only falsely positive book reviews.