Jacket Copy

Books, authors and all things bookish

Category: book reviews

On Sunday: Richard Ford, Clarice Lispector and 'The Other America'

When you think of Richard Ford and sense of place you might summon up New Jersey, the location for his most noted work, the trilogy of Frank Bascombe novels that include “The Sportswriter,” “Independence Day” and “The Lay of the Land.” But Ford is also invested in the West, including Montana and Wyoming, where his books “Rock Springs” and “Wildlife” take place, and now he returns to that region in his latest novel, “Canada.” In this novel,  Ford tells the story of 15-year-old Dale Parsons, who has to take care of himself after his parents are arrested for bank robbery. Our book critic, David L. Ulin, talked to Ford about his new work in the lead piece of our Sunday Arts & Books pages and focuses on the author’s sense of place. (By the way, Ford will be in town Thursday for a conversation with Michael Silverblatt as part of the ALOUD series at the Los Angeles Public Library.)

Also Sunday, writer Scott Martelle, whose latest book “Detroit” focuses on the decline of the once-great American city, reflects on Michael Harrington’s “The Other America: Poverty in the United States,” which is marking its 50th anniversary this year with a new edition from Scribner. Martelle writes that Harrington’s book was quite influential in his life and reflects on the fact that it helped fuel John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to eradicate poverty in the 1960s. Sadly, Martelle notes, that war “has gone about as well as the ones we’ve conducted against drugs and in Iraq and Afghanistan,” which is to say not very well.  

One of the great joys of book review coverage is the opportunity to introduce a writer to a new audience of readers. Carolyn Kellogg does that quite well in her review of four books by the great, but little known in North America, Brazilian-bred writer Clarice Lispector. Kellogg notes that Lispector literally “revolutionized Brazilian letters.” “These four books,” Kellogg writes, “showcase her intellectual heft, restless creative spirit, contradiction, humor and darkness…”

More after the jump

Continue reading »

On Sunday: Bechdel's mom, Theroux's Africa and Mantel's Cromwell


Our book critic David L. Ulin can't say enough about Alison Bechdel’s 2006 family memoir “Fun House.” In his review of Bechdel’s latest foray into graphic novel memoir, “Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama," Ulin says that anyone who hasn’t read “Fun House” should “drop everything and get a copy right away.”  “Fun House” is on his short list along with “Maus,” “Persepolis,” “American Splendor” and "very few others of the greatest works of graphic literature.” “Fun House” dealt with the writer’s father and his untimely death: In her latest memoir, Bechdel turns her attention to her mother. But dealing with mom, Ulin writes, is a bit trickier. The reasons why make for a compelling read in this week's Sunday Arts & Books coverage.

After her wildly successful “Wolf Hall,” which was awarded the 2009 Man Booker Prize, Hilary Mantel is back with "Bring Up the Bodies," another novel about the Tudor dynasty in England and the diabolical Thomas Cromwell. “The good news,” writes our reviewer Martin Rubin, “is that it is more than the equal of its predecessor when it comes to intensity and drama.” Also, this week our YA review “Gilt” by Katherine Longshore has a distinct Henry VIII feel. Susan Carpenter says the book “reads like a more literary version of ‘Gossip Girl' overlaid onto 16th century England.”

Craig Claiborne’s name is largely forgotten in the world of food and, according to our Food Editor Russ Parsons, that’s a shame. While most people would recognize the names of his influential contemporaries James Beard and Julia Child, Clairborne, the longtime food editor and restaurant critic of the New York Times, has largely faded into obscurity. But Parsons notes “if any one person can be said to have created the modern American food world, it is he.” He reviews a new biography of Claiborne, “The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat” by Thomas McNamee.

Paul Theroux is widely traveled and deeply thoughtful about the intersection of the First World and the developing world in his novels and travel books. So it isn’t surprising that he would  journey back to Africa for his latest novel “The Lower River.” The book concerns Ellis Hock, a Massachusetts-based man of a certain age. His wife has just discovered warm, intimate messages written to other women on Hock’s phone, which brings an end to their 30-year marriage. So Hock chucks it all and disappears, not telling his family where he’s going. His destination is Africa, specifically Malawi, which is where he lived and worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s. That’s the set-up, but our Carolyn Kellogg writes that the book about escapist fantasies is less than it might seem.

More after the jump.

Continue reading »

On Sunday: John Irving, Elizabeth Gilbert's great-grandma in kitchen

John-irving-reviewJohn Irving’s 13th novel, “In One Person,” appears at an interesting time. On Tuesday, North Carolina voted to ban same-sex marriages and civil unions. On Wednesday, President Obama stated that he was in favor of same-sex marriage. The timing of Irving's release is as remarkable as the subject matter of his novel. “In One Person"  concerns the life of Billy, the bisexual narrator who tells the story of his life as a “sexual suspect.” Our critic David Ulin notes that it takes a lot of "guts" for "a mainstream novelist to embrace sexual politics in this culture.” His review leads our coverage in Sunday Arts & Books.

Carolyn Kellogg reviews Madeleine Albright’s “Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948,”  the former Secretary of State's memoir of growing up in Prague and learning, years later, that her family was Jewish and that many of her ancestors had perished in the Holocaust. Kellogg writes that “the stories of their fates form the emotional core of the book, but the threads are slim.” Albright tells the story of World War II from the Czech point of view, certainly a different tact from the standard U.S. or English-centric vision of the conflict.

Lynell George has roots in New Orleans, so reading her pieces on the Crescent City are always a pleasure. Her essay this week is on the Historic New Orleans Collection, an organization committed to preserving the region’s vibrant culture. To that end, it's  publishing “The Louisiana Artists Biography Series,” dedicated to telling the life stories of some of the great artists of the region. Its latest book, written by Ben Sandmel, is “Ernie K Doe: The R & B Emperor of New Orleans.”

Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love” was a runaway bestseller in 2006. Now, she reaches into her family’s history for “At Home on the Range,” a cookbook by her great-grandmother Margaret Yardley Potter that Gilbert has helped get back into print. Gilbert offers an introduction to the work, which had a single printing in 1947. Potter was a food columnist for a newspaper in Wilmington, Del., and Noelle Carter writes that this book is both “delightfully humorous and remarkably insightful.” 

More after the jump

Continue reading »

On Sunday: Lyndon Johnson, Toni Morrison and the history of cookbooks

A recent piece on Robert Caro in the New York Times Magazine carried the cover lines “ Roert Caro Is a Dinosaur and Thank God for That.” Caro is indeed a product of bygone days. He eschews a computer and continues to write on an electric typewriter. And he still composes long, thoughtful prose on the subject that has captivated him now for decades: Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Now  the fourth volume in Caro’s epic study of the 36th president, “The Passage of Power,” is out, and it is the focus of the books coverage in Sunday’s Arts & Books section. Our reviewer, Wendy Smith, notes that this volume covers Johnson’s years of deepest humiliation as he gave up his powerful role as majority leader of the Senate to become a vice-presidential candidate on the Democratic Party ticket headed by John F. Kennedy. This was the pre-Dick Cheney vice presidency, when it wasn't much of a job — and Johnson was indeed the subject of ridicule from the New Frontiersmen who populated much of JFK’s administration.

Fate intervened, however, and Johnson was there in Dallas with Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, when the president was shot to death. He took the oath of office and, over the next few months, took over JFK’s domestic program and made it his own. Johnson “bent Congress to his will as Kennedy had never been able to do,”  Caro writes. Those who have read the three previous volumes of Caro’s work, which carry the overall title “The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” will find that “The Passage of Power” has a “different tone from its predecessors,” Smith writes. It’s a tone of sympathy and admiration "for a man who ‘not only had held the country steady during a difficult time but had set it on a new course, a course toward social justice.”

Also Sunday, book critic David L. Ulin looks at Toni Morrison's new novel, “Home.” In Ulin’s reading, Morrison’s work can be astonishingly uneven. Three of her novels, Ulin says, are masterpieces — “Song of Solomon,” “Beloved” and “ A Mercy” -- but others are less so, and “Home” (at about 148 pages) falls into that category, Ulin writes. His explanation makes for a fascinating read on the construction of novels.

More after the jump.

Continue reading »

On Sunday: Alain Mabanckou, Jonathan Franzen and lumber as history

UCLA professor Alain Mabanckou
is one of the more prominent writers to have emerged from the French-speaking world.  A native of the Republic of the Congo, he’s been awarded a prestigious prize in French letters, the Prix Renaudot -- his work, writes our Reed Johnson, “blends humor and oozes terror in quick, steady drips” and has been compared to the satires of Jean Genet. Now his novels are finally being translated into English, and this will give English readers, explains Johnson, “a chance to savor the mordant comedy and biting social commentary of books like 'Broken Glass' and 'Memoirs of a Porcupine.' ”  Mabanckou, who is reading and discussing his work at the Hammer on Tuesday night with novelist Mona Simpson, talked to Johnson about the art of translation and the lost art of storytelling in a fast-paced digital age. His fascinating story leads our Sunday book coverage this week.

Novelist Jonathan Franzen is also an essayist, and his new book “Farther Away” is his third collection, featuring pieces and speeches from the last five years. Our book critic, David L. Ulin, considers the collection and its title piece, which recounts Franzen’s visit to the South Pacific island of Masafuera and uses this as a jumping-off point for a wide discussion of Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe and how Franzen coped with the suicide of his good friend and literary rival David Foster Wallace. It sounds unwieldy and yet, as Ulin notes, it has something interesting to say not only about Wallace but about Franzen himself.

In “American Canopy: Trees, Forests and the Making of a Nation,” our reviewer Emily Green writes that  this “quirky” book is “not primarily about trees.” It is, however, about the importance of wood and how “North America’s virgin forest gave rise to a new nation.”  The author, Eric Rutkow, credits pulp with “no less than democratizing reading, transforming food storage, and revolutionizing personal hygiene,” Green writes.  She points out that although this is a “very good book,” the author would have served the project well by spending a bit more time in the forest with the trees.

More after the jump

Continue reading »

On Sunday: T.C. Boyle's basement, David Treuer and more

T.C. Boyle with the Ransom Center's Megan Barnard
Is there anything in your basement worth $425,000?  The answer to that question informs Carolyn Kellogg’s conversation with author T.C. Boyle this Sunday. It centers around the archive of his life’s work -- manuscripts, research, notes and bound volumes -- all of it residing in the basement of his Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home in Santa Barbara.

When the Montecito Tea fire raged through the area in 2008, Boyle said, “It scared the bejesus out of me” because what was in the basement was irreplaceable. The fire didn’t touch his house, although it claimed more than 200 others. Eventually, the Ransom Center came knocking, offering to buy his archive for that tidy six-figure sum. The center, at the University of Texas in Austin, is now the home for the papers of Norman Mailer and Don DeLillo among others.

Boyle reflects on the center and his archive in the article that starts on Page One of Arts & Books. He will be reading at the Times Festival of Books on Saturday, April 21.

Also in our Sunday coverage is David Ulin’s profile of David Treuer, the novelist and USC professor, about his book “Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation Life,” which recounts Treuer’s childhood growing up on Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota (he’s the son of an Ojibwe mother and a Jewish father).

Treuer says he took on the project after a 16-year-old named Jeffrey James Weise went on a shooting spree at a school on Minnesota’s Red Lake Reservation. He thought the issues of reservation life could be discussed with relative ease, but he found them more complex than he anticipated: “What does identity mean when traditional languages are dying, when the very thing that has brought money into Indian communities -- the commercialization of the casinos -- threatens to undermine a more traditional way of life?" Treuer will also be appearing at the Festival of Books on Sunday, April 22.

Neal Gabler checks in with a perceptive commentary on Daniel Boorstin’s “The Image,” on the 50th anniversary this year of its publication.

Boorstin’s book described the culture’s shift from valuing the genuine to celebrating pseudo-reality. It was considered, Gabler writes, “one of those seminal books that not only capture the zeitgeist but change the American mind-set." The book “invented what would later become known as postmodernism -- the odd cultural Moebius strip by which so many elements of our lives become imitations of themselves.” Fascinating reading from one of our more interesting social critics.

Continue reading »

This Sunday: Figment, Charles Dickens, Etgar Keret and more

FigmentIt’s been a busy week around The Times' book department as we get ready for the Festival of Books in just two weeks (April 21 and 22) at USC. We’ve been planning coverage leading up to the festival and thinking about the great writers, editors and publishing figures coming to town to talk about our favorite subject: books. If you haven’t had time to check the lineup of outstanding panels, conversations and other presentations, please check it here.

   Meanwhile, a relatively new communication platform and a decidedly old one highlight our book coverage on Sunday. The new one is Figment, the social networking site primarily for teens, where budding writers can critique their work and the work of others. The site’s slogan is “Write Yourself In,” and in just 15 months, more than 200,000 young people have done so and more than 350,000 individual pieces have been posted. According to Jacob Lewis, a former managing editor at the New Yorker and Portfolio who is in charge of the site’s day-to-day operation, they add 1,000 new pieces a day.

"It’s essential that our users feel a sense of ownership," Lewis told Times book critic David Ulin, who writes about Figment’s rapid rise for this Sunday's Arts & Book section. Currently on Figment, according to Ulin, is a mix that includes the first chapter of Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” as well as Rachel Hawkins’ third “Hex Hall” novel, “Spell Bound.”  “You’re as likely to find a reference to Tom Waits or William S. Burroughs as to ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘The Hunger Games,' ” Ulin writes.  “Its success, then, simply reaffirms what readers everywhere have always known: that literature and reading aren’t going anywhere.” The site’s founders, Lewis and New Yorker writer Dana Goodyear, will be honored on April 20 at the L.A. Times Book Prizes with the Innovator’s Award. 

The decidedly old platform is letter-writing, and this Sunday we look at 450 examples of Charles Dickens' masterful epistolary prose that have been gathered for “The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens,” edited by Jenny Hartley. Our reviewer novelist Nicholas Delbanco notes that “By the time he died, at 58, he was world-famous and besieged with mail; he answered correspondence promptly and received by his own attestation 'three or four score letters every day.' ”  That’s a lot of mail to keep up with. No wonder he died at 58. Think not? Try sitting down and writing a letter — snail mail, that is — to your Aunt Bruce in Cincinnati.  One of our favorite examples from Dickens, which Delbanco notes with pleasure, is this snippet he wrote, when 21, to Maria Beadnell, who had rejected his advances: “I have often said before and I say again I have borne more from you than I do believe any creature breathing ever bore from a woman before.”

More after the jump

Continue reading »

This Sunday: Innovation at Bell Labs, James Brown and Jack's juvenilia

More than half a century ago, long before Apple was a glint in anyone’s eye, the reigning champion of innovation in American business was Bell Labs, an arm of the original AT&T. Its staff of youthful scientists and engineers were assigned, notes our business columnist Michael Hiltzik in this Sunday's Arts & Books section, “to go where their intellects took them, not especially concerned about serving the corporate bottom line, picking up cartloads of Nobel Prizes along the way.” Much of this image, Hiltzik writes in his review of Jon Gertner's “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation,” was more of a public relations invention than a reality. “The Idea Factory” explores this and more, Hiltzik says (though not without some issues).

James Brown had issues too, but, oh my, could he sing. He was, as staff writer Steve Zeitchik notes in his review of “The One: The Life and Music of James Brown,” “demanding, egotistical and prone to pulling a gun on those who disagreed with him.” All that aside, Brown’s biographer, R.J. Smith, offers a complete look at the singer’s life and concludes that he was a key social figure whose life intersected with significant racial trends.

Filed under the loose category of “lost” novels, Jack Kerouac’s early work “The Sea Is My Brother” is finally being published in its entirety, by Da Capo Press. It is, reports Times Book Critic David L. Ulin, not “entirely unreadable.” And while that may be faint praise, it does offer an interesting departure point for Ulin’s thoughtful larger question: “How did such a mannered young writer, self-indulgent and often woefully pretentious, become the purveyor of his own uniquely American idiom, jazz-infected, improvisational, a spontaneous bop prosody?” Ulin explores that issue and reflects on the scope of Kerouac’s early work, his “juvenilia,” on Sunday.  

More after the jump

Continue reading »

This Sunday: John Leonard, AIDS and Carl Hiaasen, too

He was once the literary editor of the Nation and editor of the New York Times Book Review, but John Leonard was perhaps the most important literary critic in the last half of the 20th century. Our book critic David L. Ulin examines Leonard’s collected work “Reading for My Life: Writings, 1958-2008” and finds that Leonard articulated “a worldview through his criticism, to refract his reading through a wider lens.” Ulin also notes that Leonard was “widely credited with bringing such writers as Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Maxine Hong Kingston to the attention of an American readership…”

Ulin also describes his passionate commitment to writing in a passage in which Leonard describes the death threat, the fatwa, against Salman Rushdie. “It has been a disgraceful week. A maniac puts out a $5.2-million contract on one of the best writers in the English language, and how does the civilized world respond? France and Germany won’t publish 'The Satanic Verses'; Canada won’t sell it … and a brave new philistinism struts its stuff all over Mediapolis USA, telling us that Rushdie’s unreadable anyway.”

Strong stuff from a firm believer in a writer’s right to write. Ulin’s review leads our coverage in Sunday Arts & Books.

About 180 degrees away from Leonard’s work is the latest young-adult offering from Carl Hiaasen. The title is “Chomp” and the story is a sendup of reality television. In this story's case, the show is “Expedition Survival,” and its star is Derek Badger, a former Irish folk dancer, who can swallow a live salamander without actually vomiting. And while he may not throw up, he has other attributes that are a bit troublesome in a reality setting populated by cumbersome critters. He’s a klutz. And that’s how the story develops. Carpenter calls this “delightful” and “laugh out-loud” funny.

Also this week, Thomas H. Maugh, a former staffer who made science and medicine issues easily understandable for decades, turns his hand to  “Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It,” a history of the pandemic by journalist Craig Timberg and Daniel Halperin, a medical anthropologist and epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health’s AIDS Prevention Research Project. Repeated analyses have shown, the authors argue, that AIDS became epidemic only in regions where the number of each person’s sexual activity was high. The authors' views on controlling the spread of the disease suggest that “the best solution is a change in sexual mores.” They cite the example of Uganda, where the biggest inroads against the disease were made in the 1980s and 1990s. Leaders in that country used a potent weapon: fear.

 “Thinking the Twentieth Century” is a fearless exploration of ideas from a great public intellectual, Tony Judt, while he lay dying of Amytrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease). This is Judt’s swan song, and he's joined by Timothy Snyder, a Yale history professor. Our reviewer, Martin Rubin, writes that Judt’s focus is on Europe and takes the reader “on a wild ride through the ideological currents and shoals of 20th century thought.”

More after the jump

Continue reading »

On Sunday: Luis J. Rodriguez's memory bank, and Dwight Eisenhower too

Luis J. Rodriguez talks about the process of memoir in the Los Angeles Times Arts & Books section
Luis J. Rodriguez has a vast and interesting resume: former gang-banger, literary icon of Chicano letters and now, as Times staff writer Reed Johnson notes in his interview with him, "distinguished-looking 57-year-old grandfather with a silvery goatee and a companionable paunch." But that's not all he has: He has memories, and they are the stuff of two books -- cautionary tales to a new generation of youths. Though his books often name names, he heaps the toughest criticism on himself for the life he lived before he knew a better life. His latest memoir, "It Calls You Back," was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in the autobiography category. His story leads our coverage in Sunday's Arts & Books section.

At the other end of the spectrum is "Eisenhower In War and Peace," the massive biography of the key World War II general and two-term president by Jean Edward Smith. His book, writes reviewer Wendy Smith (no relation), is critical of Eisenhower as a war strategist but is also a "measured but fundamentally admiring account" of his long years of public service. In the end, our reviewer writes, "Eisenhower proved himself to be precisely the kind of leader America wanted and needed at the time."

Time is at the essence of Susan Carpenter's review of the hot new YA talent Lissa Price and her novel "Starters. Another foray into a dystopian world, this telling, by debut author Price, is about a genocide that kills everyone between the ages of 20 and 60, leaving only the very young and the very old. And the very old with means are able to rent the bodies of nubile teens and control them through a neurochip. You can imagine the consequences (or not). Carpenter calls this "dystopian sci-fi at its best."

"At its most challenging" may be the best words to describe the new novel by Hari Kunzru, "Gods Without Men," which our book critic David Ulin reviews this week. In this work involving several overlapping stories taking place across decades and centuries, the desert becomes a magnet for many hoping to piece together a fallen world. And the central dilemma of each is understanding what we can and cannot know.

More after the jump ...

Continue reading »

Recommended on Facebook


In Case You Missed It...


Explore Bestsellers Lists





Tweets and retweets from L.A. Times staff writers.