Critical Notes

Wednesday Roundup 2


Balakian award winner Sam Anderson on “a history of hooch”:

“The popular history of a humdrum object—that faddish genre in which the most boring items on your dining-room table (salt, cod, potatoes, bananas, chocolate) are revealed to be secret juggernauts of profound social change—has recently become so popular that it’s probably time for someone to write a popular history of it. If I were forced, I’d diagnose the trend as yet another symptom (like $4 gas or home foreclosures) of our current flavor of late-phase capitalism—a commercialism so far advanced we’ve begun transferring historical glories from our leaders (Napoleon, Churchill, Gandhi) to our products, so that we find ourselves surrounded by greatness in every aisle of Whole Foods. I’d also add, if forced, that the genre’s wild success seems to predict its own obsolescence: The conclusion that everything is integral to the history of everything is perilously close, in the end, to no conclusion at all.

“True to form, Iain Gately’s new book, “Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol,” posits its subject as the lifeblood of the world. Booze has presided over executions and business deals and marriages and births. It inspired the ancient Greeks to invent not only democracy but comedy and tragedy. It helped goad America’s Founding Fathers into revolution.”

NBCC board member David L. Ulin on Erin Hogan’s “Spiral Jetta:”

“Erin Hogan is an unlikely candidate to take a solo road trip to tour the West’s land art. Director of public affairs at the Art Institute of Chicago, she is all urbanite: “I have an urban haircut—very short, trimmed every four weeks,” she writes in “Spiral Jetta: A Road Trip Through the Land Art of the American West.” “. . . . I have urban eyewear—titanium-framed glasses designed by a German. I enjoy the energy and movement of cities, the sense of being part of a larger whole of people and stories and sights and lights.”

“For this reason, perhaps, ‘Spiral Jetta’ is an inconsistent book. The title refers to the car Hogan drove from Chicago to see Robert Smithson’s earthwork “Spiral Jetty” in Utah’s Great Salt Lake, and then through Nevada, New Mexico and finally to Marfa, the Texas town southeast of El Paso that is dedicated to the work of the late Donald Judd. Part memoir, part art travelogue, the book is both smart and self-indulgent.”

NBCC board member Art Winslow on Ted Widmer’s “Ark of the Liberties”:

“Woodrow Wilson is a tip-of-the-tongue name in foreign policy circles these days, largely because the members of the Bush administration are seen as revamped Wilsonians….The persistence of this blend of idealism and religious ideology in politics—along with a belief in American exceptionalism and its accompanying missionary outlook—is a recurring theme in Ted Widmer’s ‘Ark of the Liberties.’ ‘In many ways,’ he asserts, ‘we still live in Wilson’s world.’”

NBCC board member Lizzie Skurnick on “The James Boys:A Novel Account of Four Desperate Brothers” by Richard Liebmann-Smith:

“The biographer’s task is simple: to make history into a compelling tale. But the novelist who chooses to add his own layer to the palimpsest of real-life events has a far more complex challenge—to make sure story isn’t overwhelmed by back story.

“And telling a rollicking saga that never happened using people and events that did is yet another animal altogether. Richard Liebmann-Smith’s “The James Boys: A Novel Account of Four Desperate Brothers,” which strives to winningly depict the adventures of philosopher William and writer Henry James and their outlaw “brothers” Frank and Jesse, ditches the history part rather quickly. (You may have caught that around ‘their outlaw “brothers.” ‘)”

NBCC member Ron Charles on Roxana Robinson’s novel “Cost:”

” ‘Cost’ will get tagged immediately as that story about heroin addiction, but what’s best about Roxana Robinson’s scarily good novel has nothing to do with opiates. Oh, she’s done her homework well, and she writes about every aspect of the drug—its use, its effects and especially its personal, financial and spiritual costs—with flesh-itching precision. But if heroin is what gives this novel its rush, Robinson’s sensitivity to family relations is what makes it so compelling.”

Former NBCC board member Jessa Crispin on “Re-Make/Re-Model: Becoming Roxy Music:”

“The conventional thinking about British art-rock group Roxy Music is that Brian Eno was the brains of the outfit and Bryan Ferry was just the beautiful bimbo in front. But as this fan swooned over Ferry’s aquiline nose, silky voice and perfect hair, it was obvious he was a genius — just look at the way he dressed.

“Michael Bracewell’s history of Roxy Music does not go for conventional thinking — not about the band, and certainly not about how to write a rock biography. There are no stories of life on the road or time spent in recording studios. Bracewell, a British novelist and journalist who has written extensively on art, music and fashion, decided to focus on the path each band member took to get to Roxy Music. Eno and Ferry do not even meet until page 335.”

NBCC member Sarah Weinman on Benjamin Black’s novel by installment “The Lemur,”  “…the bound version of Benjamin Black’s serial published in the New York Times Magazine over 13 weeks in late 2007 and early 2008. Black, of course, is the nom de noir of Booker Prize winner John Banville, and enough ink’s been spilled about his pseudonymous transformation into a crime writer—especially after “Christine Falls,” Black’s excellent and moody debut, was nominated for the Edgar Award. But what bears repeating is that the structural rigors of the genre allow Banville to worry less about maintaining a sometimes claustrophobic style, freeing up Black to play with language under the guise of entertainment.”

NBCC member Paul Wilner on Larry McMurtry’s memoir:

” ‘The older the violin, the sweeter the music,’ Gus McCrae remarks in ‘Lonesome Dove,’ Larry McMurtry’s magisterial western about a cattle drive from Texas to Montana and the havoc wreaked in its path. The silver-tongued devil’s observation is about affairs of the heart, of course, but it could well serve as a description of the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer’s career.

“In his latest work, ‘Books: A Memoir,’ McMurtry, 72, takes an elegiac look back at his life as a buyer, seller and lover of the written word—he boasts that Booked Up, the fabled store he opened in his hometown of Archer City, Texas, a few years back, has 28,000 secondhand volumes of the product we currently hear may soon be eclipsed by Kindle.”