Critical Notes

NBCC Roundup August 11, 2010

By Bethanne Patrick

Harvey Freedenberg reviews Bring On the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture, by Jim Collins, for Shelf Awareness:

Countering with aggressive cheerfulness the view of those doomsayers who foresee the demise of literary reading in everything from the Internet to the rise of superstores awash on a tide of lattes, Collins's survey is grounded on a fundamentally optimistic premise: “Popular literary culture,” he observes, “is built.., on the interdependency of the print and visual culture, not a world of books versus wall screens.” Anyone inclined to challenge him on that point should be primed for a robust intellectual sparring match.

In The Nation, Michael O’Donnell considers Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt versus the Supreme Court, by Jeff Shesol:

The Court-packing plan and “constitutional crisis” of 1937 are not well-known outside political history circles and first-year law classes. But Jeff Shesol, in his superb book Supreme Power, reminds us of the episode's historical and contemporary resonance. The showdown was “one of the most ferocious, unpredictable, and consequential fights of the Roosevelt presidency,” he writes. In addition to its legal significance, the Court battle diminished Roosevelt's prestige: he was proven to be fallible, and his support within the Democratic Party slipped. The episode also serves as a warning that future presidents who mess with the Court will get burned.

Give & Take, by Stona Fitch, reviewed in The Washington Post by Michael Lindgren:

Stylistically, “Give + Take” is an odd mix of the clumsy and the poetic. Fitch knows his jazz, and he can be graceful when writing about music — a surprisingly rare ability — but some of the caper sequences are so awkwardly handled that they don't really make sense, even on a second reading. In general, the narrative is stranded in a tonal no-man's-land: not funny enough to be satire, but not ruthless enough to be noir.

Charles E. May marks his 100th blog post on Reading the Short Story:

To mark the occasion of my 100th posting on the “Reading the Short Story” blog, I am offering a list of my 100 favorite short story collections (so far) of the twenty-first century. I am not naming the list “The Best” of anything, just a roll-call of collections I have read and, for whatever reason—made me laugh, made me think, made me envious, made me glad to love this form—I responded to as a grateful reader. If you have a favorite not on the list, let me know.

NBCC Charter Member Alan Caruba’s August 2010 Bookviews column includes a mention of The Debba, by Avner Mandelman:

Also set in foreign shores is The Debba by Avner Mandelman ($14.95, Other Press). In Middle East lore, the Debba is a mythical Arab hyena that can turn into a man who lures Jewish children away from their families to teach them the language of beasts. It is also the name of a play by the main character’s father that was staged just once in Haifa in 1946, causing a riot. The year is 1977 and David Starkman, his son, has renounced his Israeli citizenship and is living in Canada when he learns of his father’s gruesome murder. He returns to Israel to settle his father’s affairs only to learn his father’s will demands the play be staged within 45 days of his death. What unfolds is filled with dark forces as the novel barrels toward its shocking climax.

In The Huffington Post, Anis Shivani stirs up controversy by naming “The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers”:

If we don't understand bad writing, we can't understand good writing. Bad writing is characterized by obfuscation, showboating, narcissism, lack of a moral core, and style over substance. Good writing is exactly the opposite. Bad writing draws attention to the writer himself. These writers have betrayed the legacy of modernism, not to mention postmodernism. They are uneasy with mortality. On the great issues of the day they are silent (especially when they seem to address them, like William T. Vollmann). They desire to be politically irrelevant, and they have succeeded. They are the unreadable Booth Tarkingtons, Joseph Hergesheimers, and John Herseys of our time, earnestly bringing up the rear.

NBCC member Bethanne Patrick is a freelance critic and blogger.