Critical Notes

NBCC Roundup September 6, 2010

By Bethanne Patrick

We’re playing catch up this week, just like you are on this first post-Labor-Day morning back at your desk.

 — A trio of “Freedom” reviews to kick off summer’s end and fall’s fiction:

 In The San Antonio News-Express, Rayyan Al-Shawaf finds Franzen’s novel “sumptuous and complex, if thematically labored:”

 So mesmerizing are Franzen's protagonists, so minutely detailed and multifaceted, that his story proves compulsively readable despite its occasional drawbacks. The ponderous segments delving into Walter's eccentricities, namely combating overpopulation and preserving songbird-friendly ecosystems in the Americas, never induce the reader to give up on the book. And, happily, Franzen rarely allows his story's tangents to waylay him for too long.

 Mark Athitakis reviews “Freedom” for the Chicago Sun-Times and finds that the author “takes liberties:”

 …for all of its elegance and smart characterizations, the novel closes with the feeling that various conflicting moral certitudes about love, war and culture have busily fought to a draw. Franzen’s command is so assured that it’s frustrating to watch it break down at key moments: A crucial plot turn feels ripped from Howard Beale’s mad-prophet rant in “Network,” a snoozy discussion of overpopulation and freedom literally takes place in a conference room, and when the Berglunds’ son, Joey, accidentally swallows a wedding ring, his recovery effort works an obnoxious metaphor about the difficulty of finding true fidelity.

NPR’s review, by Heller McAlpin, considers Franzen’s novel “a surprisingly moving and even hopeful epic:”

Franzen enriches a classic morality tale — insecure young woman marries kind, devoted guy but remains chronically, destructively attracted to his flashier, unreliable, womanizing buddy — with dizzyingly accomplished nonlinear complexity. He bores deeper and deeper into his characters, and as he reveals various moral lapses — ranging from betrayals of trust to complicity with big coal companies and dubious military contractors — personal, political, environmental and global issues become intricately, impressively commingled

 — On to more reviews:

Greil Marcus reviews Cathi Unsworth’s “Bad Penny Blues” for B&N Review:

 Every character takes on his or her own authority, each with goals, directions, momentum, even fate, that are not altogether clear to anyone—not to the character, not to the reader—and this is so to such a degree that I think if you were to come across the book without a name attached to it, you could not tell if the author were male or female. That means the story itself has taken on the sort of gravity that makes it seem as if it is telling itself—as if it doesn't need an author, which allows the author to disappear into her story and do what she wants, or listen to it, and do what it wants.

 In The New York Times, Lorraine Adams on “Black Mamba Boy” by Nadifa Mohamed:

Nadifa Mohamed’s ambitious first novel tells the story of a Somali orphan’s odyssey from Yemen to Djibouti, onward to Eritrea, Sudan, Egypt, Palestine, Marseille, Hamburg and Wales — and ultimately to an epiphany in London. Toward the end of this trek, the hero meets up with an old friend, with whom he competes “over who had walked the farthest, starved the longest, felt the most hopeless; they were athletes in the hard-luck Olympics.” Earlier, at a bus stop in Gaza, the hero comes across someone who is everything he doesn’t want to be: Musa the Drunk, a homeless Somali man, “the poster boy of failed migration.” Both moments reveal the weaknesses in this young novelist’s phenomenal, fast-­forward story.

 Harvey Freedenberg reviews “The Good Daughters” by Joyce Maynard for

 That Ruth and Dana are both sympathetic characters, albeit with voices that are not particularly distinct, will be enough to keep most readers engaged in the story, though there are times when Maynard’s narrative has a pedestrian quality, as predictable circumstances — illness, aging, marriage and divorce, economic pressures — roll through the lives of the Planks and the Dickersons.

Carl Hiaasen’s “Star Island” is reviewed in the St. Petersburg Times by Colette Bancroft:

 One of the greatest pleasures of Star Island is the return of a couple of Hiaasen's most memorable characters. Readers of his earlier books will recognize that man in the shower cap as Skink, a one-eyed, swamp-dwelling hermit known to wreak strange vengeance upon offenders against the environment.

 — Finally, a few non-review links of interest:

 In The Seattle Times, Book Editor Mary Ann Gwinn considers some Bowker numbers and lists a few great early-autumn area book events:

Women make 64 percent of all book purchases, even among detective stories and thrillers, where they buy more than 60 percent of that genre. 

David Biespiel’s new book, “Every Writer Has a Thousand Faces,” is based on his 2009 Rainier Writers’ Workshop lecture:

Biespiel candidly tracks his own development as a writer and challenges traditional assumptions about writing that can stifle creativity. The liberating message: Working past the brink of failure—being free to try and discard and try again—is what allows the creative process to playfully flourish, keeping the spirit open to unexpected discoveries.

 Roxana Robinson writes in Harper’s about “Learning to live in polio’s shadow:”

 My mother was born on July 3, 1911, the daughter of Samuel Scoville Jr. and Katherine Gallaudet Trumbull Scoville. Her father was a lawyer in Philadelphia, and the family lived in a big comfortable house in Haverford, on the Main Line.

Bethanne Patrick is a member of the NBCC and a freelance critic.