Friday, December 07, 2007

The Polite Company of William Boyd

In this Sunday's New York Times Book Review, I review William Boyd's Bamboo: Essays and Criticism.
It’s difficult, in fact, to argue with any of Boyd’s conclusions. But if one can’t argue with a review, why bother with it at all? One would rather — at least, I would rather — read a striking if ultimately dubious argument about a book or a movie than the level-headed evaluations provided in these pages. It is more important for a critic to be interesting than to be right. To truly interest the reader, a critic must risk something and be prepared for the embarrassment that follows a questionable enthusiasm or the contrition that’s the result of an ill-considered pan.

Monday, October 01, 2007

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England

My short review of Brock Clarke's second novel is in the October issue of The Believer:
Eighty pages into this, his second novel, Brock Clarke takes a seeming swipe at his first. His narrator, Sam Pulsifer, is wandering through a bookstore when he begins to feel bad for fiction and poetry, those “obsolete states” that have been “mostly gobbled up” by the store’s memoir section, “the Soviet Union of literature.” Sam picks up The Ordinary White Boy—Clarke’s first novel—since he too had “been an ordinary white boy once, before the killing and burning.” But he finds that the novel is not very different from the memoirs, and he decides “never again to feel sorry for the fiction section, the way you stopped feeling sorry for Lithuania once it rolled over so easily and started speaking Russian so soon after being annexed.”

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Slouching Towards Hollywood

The DVD release of The Panic in Needle Park got me thinking about Joan Didion as a screenwriter. I've now written about the subject for Slate:
And though Dunne wrote the first draft, The Panic in Needle Park feels more like a Didion work. It opens with Helen, played by Kitty Winn, looking overwhelmed on a crowded subway. We soon learn that she has just gotten an abortion—a "free scrape," as her artist boyfriend (a young Raul Julia) calls it. As Roger Ebert has noted, this calls to mind Maria Wyeth, the protagonist of Didion's 1970 novel, Play It as It Lays, whose own abortion precipitates her decline into drugs and disaster. (Didion was finishing that novel just as she and Dunne began the Needle Park screenplay.) Helen's youth, and the bohemian trappings of her boyfriend's apartment, meanwhile, call to mind the subjects of Didion's nonfiction—in particular, the drug-addled adolescents in "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," written just a couple of years earlier. Like them, Helen seems lost and uncertain, someone who was "never taught and would never now learn the games that held the society together," as Didion writes in her famous essay.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Felony Theft and a Lot of Taunting

My review of Soon I Will Be Invincible, in the San Francisco Chronicle:
While earlier superhero narratives (most notably, Alan Moore's brilliant graphic novel, Watchmen) have brought out the darker sides of their heroes, Grossman lowers, drastically, the evil quotient of his villain. Though he speaks of destroying the world, Dr. Impossible mostly engages in some felony theft and a lot of taunting. Strangely for a book about superheroes, no one dies.
And a response from Dwight Garner, senior editor of the New York Times Book Review.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Mangling Ernest Hemingway

In Slate, I take a look at an unfortunate cinematic subgenre, Hollywood Hemingway:
widescreen, Technicolor adaptations featuring foreign settings and doomed love, and always at least half an hour too long. Mostly products of the 1950s, they were made when Hemingway was a living legend and motion picture executives—thanks to the collapse of the studio system and the new ubiquity of television—were deeply insecure.
Responses from Joshua Gibson and from Alex Massie, who writes for The Scotsman and The New Republic.

Monday, March 05, 2007

An eccentric collector, a black marketeer, a desperate man.



I've reviewed a novel for The San Francisco Chronicle. It's called The Secret of Lost Things and it's inspired, in large part, by Herman Melville.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Reagan's Favorite Sitcom

My latest for Slate: Alex P. Keaton, conservative hero.
Even after the show shifted its focus to Alex, it trapped him in scenarios seemingly contrived to refute his free-market-├╝ber alles worldview. When we meet Alex's hero—his uncle Ned, a rising young executive memorably played by Tom Hanks in a two-part episode—he is on the run for embezzling $4.5 million... And when Alex leaves his job at a mom-and-pop grocery for a big-box store offering higher pay and possible advancement, he finds himself in charge of cat toys and referred to only as "junior stockboy No. 28." Alex returns to his old job, having learned—well, you know.
Reponses to this article from Lawyers, Guns & Money, Joshua Glenn, Free Republic, The Hotline, and WorldViews.