In place of my normal “In the Locals” feature, here’s an overview and evaluation of the Chicago Tribune “Books” section this week. As you can see, I’ve adopted a modified version of the Mark Sarvas Thumbnail® format. For similar looks at books coverage in other papers, see Mark on the Los Angeles Times, Scott on the San Francisco Chronicle, and Ed on the New York Times.
You won’t be surprised to see that I focus my detailed comments on reviews of fiction, poetry, and literary non-fiction. I don’t assign grades to individual reviews, but I do give the entire book section a type of pass/fail grade of my own devising.
Full-length fiction reviews: 1
Brief fiction reviews: 1
Full-length reviews of literary non-fiction: 2
Full-length reviews of other non-fiction: 3
Reviews of poetry: 0
Special material: Children’s books, movie books, a profile of a suburban book club.
TITLES, AUTHORS, AND REVIEWERS
DisneyWar, James B. Stewart.
Reviewed by David Greising.
Without Apology: Girls, Women, and the Desire to Fight, Leah Hager Cohen.
Reviewed by Stephanie J. Hull.
American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare, Jason DeParle.
Reviewed by Curtis Lawrence.
Letters to Jane, Hayden Carruth.
Reviewed by Lynne Sharon Schwartz.
The Perfect Hour: The Romance of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ginevra King, James L.W. West III.
Reviewed by Michael H. Ebner.
Beautiful Inez, Bart Schneider.
Reviewed by Laura Demanski
H. P. Lovecraft: Tales, H.P. Lovecraft, Peter Straub (ed.)
Reviewed by Dick Adler.
A selection of books about filmmaking.
Written by Richard Schickel.
Profile of The Park Junior High School Book Club.
Written by Fern Schumer Chapman.
Capsule reviews of four children’s books.
Written by Mary Harris Russell.
* What I liked: Two full-length reviews for literary non-fiction.
* What I didn’t like: Only one full-length fiction review, and a mediocre brief. No poetry.
Stewart’s Eisner book is this week’s cover; fair enough. Cohen’s book on women boxers is new and, of course, very timely given the interest generated by Million Dollar Baby. (Cohen’s also got some widely praised fiction under her belt, which the reviewer doesn’t note.) Schickel’s selection of movie books is also an understandable tie-in for Oscar night.
It was nice to see the Carruth covered, and to read Schwartz’s eloquent, sensitive review. The piece could have been more timely, though: the book came out last September. Ebner’s review of the Fitzgerald book taught me a thing or two I didn’t know — including that Ginevra King, model for Gatsby’s Daisy, is also portrayed in Fitz’s Josephine Perry stories — but isn’t exceptional otherwise.
On the fiction front, we have one winner and one loser. Demanski’s review of Beautiful Inez has all the right elements: careful, thoughtful writing; a nice tour of the plot, characters, and themes; and some crucial (to me) context-setting facts about the author. Why crucial? Well, because I didn’t know anything about Schneider. I did know that his publisher, Shaye Areheart, puts out Robert Waller, and I was curious about whether Schneider’s book was simply a well-written romance novel like Waller’s or something more. (The fact that Demanski praises the book does not, in itself, answer the question. Whether I like them or not, good romance novels should get praised too, right?) Demanski lets us know there’s something more in Schneider.
The review features some lovely lines: “Beautiful Inez depicts a sticky web of illicit affairs, a world of imperfect pairings. The characters tend to cluster into humid little groups of two, secretive cocoons that can feel lonelier than simple solitude.” However, there’s sometimes a tension between the expository purpose of her paragraphs and the figurative language Demanski employs.
For example, the review tells us that “If depression is this novel’s subject, music is the sine qua non in which it’s steeped.” I get this — sort of. But I didn’t really get her message about music in Inez until I read her post this morning on About Last Night: “[The novel's] treatment of music is knowledgeable, intricate, and intense.” People read novels for feeling and for knowledge; sometimes they read them to obtain knowledge through feeling. Knowing that the book incorporates music in an informed way is very useful to me as a reader, but I didn’t really understand it until Demanski told me in that simple, declarative way.
Demanski writes regularly for the Trib, and I’ve commented on her reviews before. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I’ve met her too.) It seems to me that the books she reviews often fall into the hybrid category of literary works that are also “good reads.” Her writing on ALN, on the other hand, sometimes shows a different, more analytical side. I’d love to see what she would do with a literary work that’s “crunchier” than her typical Trib fare; a novel of ideas, an experimental novel, something more left-brain. Though I’m not sure the Trib does “crunchy.”
Dick Adler is hamstrung by space restrictions in his review of the Library of America’s Lovecraft, but he does little with the space he’s given. “Why has the justly esteemed Library of America, which has published beautifully made and sharply edited collections of the best work of writers from Herman Melville and Jack London to Henry James and Willa Cather, chosen to release as its 155th edition 22 stories by a mentally and physically fragile writer named Howard Phillips Lovecraft, a specialist of the horror genre who didn’t have a story published professionally until he was 32, just 15 years before he died in 1937?” Huh? Lovecraft’s health and delayed success aren’t the reasons we wonder about his inclusion in LOA. The real question is why LOA seemingly stooped to embrace a writer from the horror genre. Adler says you only have to read the stories to understand, but can’t he give us a hint? (For that, see Dirda.)
The Chicago Tribune, February 27, 2005, Section 14, “Books.” Worthy or not worthy of this great literary city? My verdict: Not worthy.