[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]
I was not supposed to be here. I was supposed to be, literally, on a beach in Jamaica as I type this. I understand that shit’s Mars-cold in Minnesota, but here in Boston we had one day of heavy snow and somehow the airlines are crippled, still, a week later. Our friends who went to Jamaica early (it was a wedding) were supposed to leave Sunday and are still there as of now (Tuesday). But their situation is harder to pity. Anyway, all that’s by way of saying: if I come off just a touch saltier this week, you now know why.
If you agree with Kakutani’s opening premise—that Shteyngart is the funniest working writer among a peer group of super-talented “immigrant” authors including Jhumpa Lahiri and Edwidge Danticat—then sure, I guess keep reading. Personally, I see Shteyngart as the literary equivalent of American Hustle: good, and entertaining, but all of the superlatives feel like reaching (best comedy of the year? seriously? are the Golden Globes completely paid for by Columbia Pictures?). I think Shteyngart is pretty good. His first two novels were indeed pretty funny, although they were basically two different versions of the same story, and neither was as side-splitting as it was cracked up to be. (A few books I have found exceptionally funny: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and anything by Amy Hempel.) I honestly couldn’t finish Super Sad True Love Story, one of those sci-fi books that impress people who’ve never read sci-fi, or watched a sci-fi movie, or heard of Star Trek. I guess my main problem with Shteyngart praise is that I do not believe he offers something notable besides comedy. Kakutani treats him like he’s Nabokov with jokes, and I’m just not convinced.
These philosophical food books that are always coming out usually pique my interest but I’ve never actually read one. This one sounds like exactly the same situation, except for an amusing review. The Guardian’s reviewer is not only an author in the same area as the reviewee, Poole’s book is actually mentioned (kindly, Poole reports) in The Virtues of the Table. What happens next is unheard of in an American paper. Instead of pussyfooting around, trying desperately not to offend his colleague, the author, Poole lays into him (at least, by today’s standards). “I remained serenely unpersuaded by his overall argument,” Poole summarizes, and though he praises a few moments in Virtues, you get the sense of an actual review being written here, and not just another link in the “let’s convince the peasants to buy our wares” publishing chain. It’s refreshing.
The so-called maker movement continues to pick up steam these days, and I count myself among those gravitating toward more “old-fashioned” creativity in a world beset on all sides by cheap, automated manufacturing. Korn takes a decidedly philosophical, almost dreamy approach toward analyzing this movement, and Carlsen finds himself on board.