I am begining to think that The London Review of Books is pretty much the only place (in the UK) to find an actual book review. By which I mean a piece of writing that engages with the way in which a book is constructed, how it achieves its aims (or fails to), what it means in the context of other, similar works- in short, whether the book is good (or not) and why.
I used to read the Saturday Guardian and The Observer religiously, but the space devoted to books has shrunk, as the ‘cultural analysis’ of reality TV and footballer’s wives has grown (and if an utter disinterest in this sort of thing makes me an elitist, I shall willingly march to the scaffold). Now the majority of book reviews seem to consist of little more than a plot synopsis followed by some vacuous phrase intended for the back cover.
Lest this post consist entirely of griping, here are some extracts from the November 20th edition (I am always a few months behind, as even the pieces on the history of sweaters seem to compel my attention).
From Michael Wood’s piece on Kafka’s Office Writings:
‘We might think of Kafka’s response to his friend Max Brod’s question about hope and whether there was any outside the world as we know it. “Plenty of hope,” Kafka said. “But not for us.”
‘The crows maintain that a single crow could destroy heaven. This is beyond doubt, but doesn’t prove anything against heaven, since heaven means, precisely, the impossibility of crows.’
From Elif Batuman’s review of Philosophy in Turbulent Times by Elisabeth Roudinesco:
‘Helene was a Russian Jewish emigree, a Resistance fighter (unlike Althusser, who spent the war in a prison camp), eight years older than her husband, and not beautiful. By the time she got married all her closest friends had been killed by the Nazis. Her parents had died long, slow deaths from cancer before she was 14; the family doctor, her only friend at this time, betrayed her by abusing her sexually and eventually forcing her to euthanise her own parents with morphine injections. Life with Althusser was never easy either. In his manic periods, the philosopher compulsively seduced younger, more attractive women and brought them home to ‘show’ his wife. The actual murder took place when he was giving Helene a “neck massage”- on the front of her neck. The great Marxist pressed “his thumbs into the hollow at the top of Helene’s breastbone and then, still pressing, slowly moved them both… up towards her ears,” squeezing so hard that he felt pain in his forearms. He noticed this pain before he noticed his wife’s glazed and protruding tongue.’
‘For the most part, Roudinesco leaves the obscurities of Deleuze and Guattari unplumbed- “Be the pink panther,” said the two authors, “And may your loves be like the wasp and the orchid, the cat and the baboon.”‘
There are also many fine quotes in the piece from Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas, a work I think I should like to have close at hand:
‘NOVELS: Pervert the masses.
GYMNASTICS: One can never do enough. Wears children out.
HYGIENE: Must always be maintained. Prevents illnesses, except when it causes them.
In closing (and fairness) I should acknowledge the possibility that The Times Literary Supplement (and maybe, perhaps, The Literary Review) sometimes have decent reviews. However, I am yet to be convinced of this.
The LRB is available in WH Smiths, and most decent newsagents, but your best bet really is to subscribe (£20 quid for 6 months (12 issues), £34 for the year).
I’m not going to defend either The Grauniad or The Obserevr because I fully agree with your assesment. What annoys me is that The Grauniad launched The Review section, which for a brief while burned brightly, but lately has tailed into a tedious sort of, “oh look, books, aren’t they lovely” tone. The reviews of poetry and children’s books are actually much better, they have critics, especiually Julia Eccleshare on children’s books, who understand their given field, and engage with a work and its use of the form and evaluate it in those terms. I wonder if it is just easier to do that in niche areas. Book reviews these days seem to just consider how good a read a book will be on the beach. Non-fiction has glimpses, for instance (I’ve just gone to the Guardian’s website to grab a link and note that the Arts section is a subset of culture. I think they used to be sisters, Arts and Culture. Now it seems as though culture has been elevated, that the way Woody Allen appreciates Scarlett wotsername’s chest is the birthpool of Art. and who is to say they are wrong?) Anyway, here’s the link I was groping for, “Bigfoot was here”, which feels as though the author would like to tackle more than the space and perhaps the editor will allow. “He is, however, unwilling to ask why people want to believe in these things in the modern age.” Reviews of fiction, however, are something to read on the toilet.