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This Sunday: The critic's art and Gil Scott-Heron too

January 27, 2012 |  3:51 pm

Updikescottheron
At a time when everyone seems to have an opinion and a venue for expressing it, the art of criticism may seem hard to grasp and even harder to do. Times Book Critic David L. Ulin obviously does this kind of thing for a living. He reads and thinks, thinks and reads ... and when he gets tired of reading and thinking, he does it some more. In our lead piece on Sunday’s Arts & Books cover, Ulin looks at the critical range of two writers perhaps better known for their novels: John Updike and William H. Gass.  Working with Updike’s “Higher Gossip” and Gass’ “Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts,” Ulin draws some interesting conclusions about the relative merits of each man’s critical philosophy and offers a window into what he believes matters most in assessing and writing.

Gil Scott-Heron was considered by many to be “The Godfather of Rap,” but he was more than that to a generation who gravitated to his “Speak-song” recordings from the 1970s and 1980s. (Scott-Heron would laugh off the “godfather” notion by saying “Don’t blame me for that.”) Lynell George reports on his posthumous memoir “The Last Holiday” and writes that the book “is as much about his life as it is about context, the theater of late 20th century America.” For the man whose most famous song was “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” this book offers a narrative that doesn’t really connect all the dots. But the dots it does connect help give us a clearer image of a complex and brilliant prose poet.

The revolution in Egypt last year was not only televised, it was largely a product of the burgeoning world of social media. Scott Martelle reviews “Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People Is Greater Than the People in Power,” a memoir by Wael Ghonim, Google’s top marketing executive in the Middle East, an unlikely revolutionary who became a leading figure in the drive for change in Egypt. Martelle writes that “one of the book’s more remarkable elements is Ghonim’s depiction of how quickly timidity and resignation morphed into a mass movement.” Ghonim will be in Los Angeles on Feb. 6 discussing his book as part of the ALOUD series presented by the Los Angeles Public Library.

More after the jump

Also this week, Susan Carpenter’s “Not Just for Kids” column looks at “Chopsticks,” a wildly inventive novel for the over-12 set that is a broad experience in interactive storytelling. In addition to being a book, “Chopsticks" is an iPhone and iPad app loaded with videos, songs and instant messages. Carpenter writes that all of these elements bring the story of a troubled teen piano prodigy to life “in a way that just isn’t possible with words alone.”

Meanwhile, Bettina Boxall, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Times environmental writer, looks at “Rough-Hewn Land: A Geologic Journey From California to the Rocky Mountains” by Keith Heyer Meldahl, a geology professor at MiraCosta College in San Diego County. This book, Boxall writes, is a “field trip from San Francisco to the Rocky Mountains, tracing the genealogy of the landscape.” She calls it “a fascinating guide to the formation of the West.”

Deputy books editor Nick Owchar takes us through Susan Hill’s “The Woman in Black” in advance of the upcoming release of the film starring Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe. This short novel, he writes, “is a moody, atmospheric tale of a haunting with a tragic hidden cause, set in a treacherous landscape of ‘sudden fogs,’ and ‘moaning winds.’”

Owchar’s online column, “The Siren’s Call,” is back this month with Simon Armitage’s marvelous translation of the Middle English epic “The Death of King Arthur” and Bernard Cornwell’s novel of Vikings and Saxons, “Death of Kings.”

What’s selling around town? This week Jodi Kantor’s book “The Obamas” debuts on the Times bestseller list at No. 5 in nonfiction and Adam Johnson’s novel “The Orphan Master’s Son," debuts at No. 9 in fiction.

As always, thanks for reading.

-- Jon Thurber, book editor

Photo: John Updike in 1989. Credit: Associated Press Photos. 

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