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Thrilling Book Reviews

Here’s a lot of book reviews I enjoyed recently:

Kenneth Champeon writes (in my opinion) book reviews that sparkle with insight, witticism and sympathetic judgment. He is an expat living in Thailand and just seems to review anything remotely related to Asia. I’ve been reading his criticism for more than a year now, and his literary discoveries just wow me, as does his style:

Champeon’s review On John Burdett’s Bangkok 8, Bantam Press, 2003

When I first saw John Burdett’s novel Bangkok 8 in a Chiang Mai bookstore, I suspected that it was yet another failed attempt by a middle-aged white male to explain the city of angels to countless other white males, who know nothing about it except that a practically infinite amount of inexpensive sex with beautiful women can be had there. Such books are myriad, most of them badly written, because the kind of person who is enthralled by semi-literate and often seriously drunk hookers is unlikely to be endowed with a talent for prose, much less the mental capacity to perfect it. Yet nearly everyone who has had contact with this scene starts out believing that they are the first ones ever to do so, and can’t wait to tell the world once again what those of us who live here already know, and for the most part ignore, believing that we are somehow duty-bound to portray Thailand as it exists outside of its self-regarding capital city, outside of its go-go bars, outside of its jails.

After complimenting Simon Winchester’s turn of phrase in River at the Center of the World, Champeon remarks:

Fair enough, although like many contemporary authors Winchester spends too much time congratulating himself for arriving at this less than ingenious scheme. If the book has a main fault it is Winchester’s garrulousness, a writing style as narcissistic as it seems humble, and which might best be summarized in the words, “Welcome to my brain.”

Moorishgirl writes occasional book reviews. About Funny in Farsi, she starts:

Regardless of how poorly people pronounce your name, I bet you didn?t have to be called ?Fritzy, Fritzy Dumb Ass? by a receptionist at the doctor?s office. So you can imagine the kinds of stories that Firoozeh Dumas relates in Funny in Farsi, her memoir of growing up Iranian in Southern California. ?As I stood up for this most linguistically original version of my name,? she writes, ?I could feel all eyes upon me. The room was momentarily silent as all these sick people sat united in a moment of gratitude for their own names.?

Amma Kamat writes about Arthashatra, an ancient Indian book about statecraft discovered 100 in 1909 by a librarian/scholar named Shamashastry. “Royalty and learning can never be compared. The king is revered only in his country. The scholar is revered everywhere”

Cory Doctorow writes a glowing review of Red Mars. I don’t normally venture into sci fi, but when Tim O’reilly raves about the same book, my ears perk up.

I will confess to a certain weakness for Mars books. Ever since Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, I have made it a point to hunt down almost every film with a Mars theme in it. Mars interests me first because I did a science project about Mars in elementary school; second, because we can project our vision of the future onto Mars because it bears such a resemblance to Earth; and third, because getting to Mars is probably the only realistic destination for spaceships in my lifetime.

David Lodge recently wrote a longish book review on Nabokov’s Pnin (which caused me to buy the book!). He argues that Pnin is the first of a genre of “campus novels” :

What the three books have in common is a pastoral campus setting, a “small world” removed from the hustle and bustle of modern urban life, in which social and political behaviour can be amusingly observed in the interaction of characters whose high intellectual pretensions are often let down by their very human frailties. The campus novel was from its beginnings, and in the hands of later exponents like Alison Lurie and Malcolm Bradbury, an essentially comic subgenre, in which serious moral issues are treated in a “light and bright and sparkling” manner (to borrow the phrase applied to Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, who would certainly have a written a campus novel or two if she had lived in our era).

As well as being a pioneer of campus fiction, Nabokov was one of the first writers to whom the epithet “postmodern” may be usefully applied – that is to say, he had absorbed the lessons and achievements of modernism (in prose fiction represented supremely for him by Joyce and Proust) without feeling the need to reject the social realism of the 19th-century novel (he was devoted to Tolstoy and Jane Austen, for instance), but he developed an innovative form of fiction that was distinctively different from both of these traditions.

On another note, I used to write regular book reviews for slashdot, and in fact owe that site 2 book reviews, but I have to admit it just hasn’t been a priority with me. Book reviews (especially in depth book reviews) are never urgent matters. Being a book critic is an iffy proposition. First, it’s a little too tempting to review latest releases (because there is the possibility of review copies. Second, book reviews (as well as reading in general) just sucks up your time. A good book reviewer should read a book and be done with it. Write the review fast and not try to hard to be profound. A very comepetent book critic and friend of mine, Michael Barrett, who writes for the San Antonio Express News, is the ideal type of reviewer: a fast reader (who knows when it is best not to bother finishing a book), who can dash something off that sounds cerebral and informed regardless of whether it actually is. Yes, he is certainly capable of pondering a book or film in depth, but in reviews, (like blogging) quantity is almost just an important factor as quality. A person who writes a review every three or six months will always manage to be dazzling (that I can do). A critic who can toss a review every one or two weeks doesn’t need to be dazzling, merely adequate to gain a literary reputation. In this age where time is at a premium, and most of us do not have stipends or fellowships to feed our literary addictions, writing book reviews is a luxury few of us can afford.

And yet, book reviews are pretty much our only way of finding out about masterpieces.

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