July 26, 2011

Book review: “In Rough Country” by Joyce Carol Oates

I don’t usually read books like this, collections of smaller pieces. In this case, six essays and 23 literary reviews. I call them “literary reviews” rather than “book reviews” because, in them, Oates examines at least a good chunk — and often the entire breadth — of a writer’s work. Her essays deal with the sudden death of her husband after 48 years of marriage; her growing up in and near Lockport, N.Y.; and her life as a prominent author. I prefer the essays. The reviews flummoxed me. They display Oates’s deep knowledge of American literature. (In one of her essays, she estimates that she has read, in part or entirely, “thousands — tens of thousands? — ” of books in her life.) She comments with insight and sensitivity on writers ranging from Cormac McCarthy to Sharon Olds, from Jim Crace to Annie Proulx, from Shirley Jackson to Flannery O’Connor. My difficulty is that I’ve read maybe one or two works by most of these authors, and none by some. So, often here, I’m getting Oates’s analysis of work of which I know nothing, or next to nothing. It’s like reading a Roger Ebert review of a movie I’ll never […]
July 23, 2011

Book review: “I Shall Wear Midnight” by Terry Pratchett

Starting to read a new Terry Pratchett novel, for me, has been a different experience since December, 2007. That’s when Pratchett announced that he was suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Each time, I wonder: Is this the book that will show the impact of the disease? Will this be the one that shows the diminution of his skill? And: What kind of a ghoul am I to be thinking this? How can I worry about the quality of the books when this man — whom I’ve met and interviewed — is watching his brain slip away? A man of great writing skill and imagination recognizing that he is losing so much of what has made him him? It is a high measure of Pratchett’s skill that, once I’ve gotten into one of his post-announcement books, those questions quickly fade away. Pretty much. “I Shall Wear Midnight,” completed in May, 2010, is one of Pratchett’s darker novels. Which isn’t to say that it’s without its humorous asides, its droll footnotes and its odd and odder-than-odd characters. After all, the Nac Mac Feegles, tiny blue people also known as the Wee Free Men, are major figures here (if that’s not a contradiction […]