8 June, 2009Issue 9.7Review of Reviews

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Review of Reviews

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Orange’s Thick Skin. AS Byatt has called it “sexist“. Tim Lott adds that it is “perverse“. But the Orange Prize—awarded each year to the best English-language novel by a writer with two X chromosomes—remains impervious to attacks. (The chair of last year’s jury has suggested that men should be able to judge—if not compete for—the award, though organisers chose to maintain a male-less panel nonetheless.) American author Marilynne Robinson accepted the ¬£30,000 prize (and the accompanying bronze “Bessie” figurine) last week for her 2008 novel Home and shot back at critics who say a women’s-only award is discriminatory. “I do think it’s a necessary corrective“, Robinson told Reuters. (In contrast to Home, which was “unnecessary and contrived“, according to the New York Times‘ chief book reviewer, Michiko Kakutani.)

The “biggest winner” at the Orange awards was the Oxford-based Francesca Kay, says The Economist. Robinson “hardly needs introductions” (Barack Obama lists Robinson’s Gilead as one of his favourite books on his Facebook page), but Kay—who won the prize for best first-time novelist—could use a name-recognition boost. The Guardian dismissed her debut An Equal Stillness as “heavy-handed” earlier this year (though The Independent was more impressed).

The All-Knowing Noodle. Two weeks ago, the New York Times ran a restaurant review titled “Worshipping at the Alter of Ramen“. Food critic Frank Bruni visited a Greenwich Village noodle shop and concluded that the cuisine was—metaphorically—mesmerizing. But Andy Raskin has taken his love of ramen to another level. A therapist advised the 44-year-old Raskin to “surrender to a higher power“. So Raskin, unattached to any organised religion, adopted instant noodle inventor Momofuku Ando as his deity. His memoirs, reviewed in the Washington Post, also tell the tale of the twice-jailed, thrice-married Ando and his quest for the perfect packaged meal. Apparently, one’s love of instant noodles does not diminish after the university years (as MP Marc Francois’s expense reports also reveal).

The Balance of Gastronomic Power. One’s love of French cuisine does diminish over the years, according to Slate wine columnist Michael Steinberger. And that’s because French cuisine is on a downward trend. The Observer reviews Steinberger’s new book Au Revoir To All That and agrees that the small-town bistro is “withering” while upmarket restaurants are suffering a “crisis of creativity”. The Sunday Times, which reviewed the book last month, agrees that the balance of power in the culinary world is tilting westward: “[I]t is Americans who now uphold the classic French techniques, obsessing over the best raw-milk cheeses made to the old formulas, while the French themselves scoff Big Macs in Le McDo.” (Steinberger, for his part, worried recently in a Slate column that the White House was not upholding its commitment to classy wines: Thomas Jefferson amassed a 20,000-bottle collection, but the cellar’s inventory has fallen under a thousand. The situation is so bad that Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were served a 2004 Newton unfiltered chardonay, a wine that is “cloying”, “buttery”, and “overwrought”).

The Jungle Book, Chapter 11. With two of Detroit’s “Big Three” automakers now bankrupt, the Daily Telegraph says that “Motown is now more like an echoey ghost town“. Not to be confused with the actual Amazon ghost town where “Fordlandia” was once found. The Wall Street Journal reviews a new book on Henry Ford’s ill-fated attempt to build a rubber plantation in the Brazilian rainforest. (His dream was dashed by labour unrest and “very hungry caterpillars“.)

Meanwhile, the London Review of Books looks at the lessons that an army ant trail in Panama may hold for highway traffic management. According to Oxford zoologist Iain Couzin, ants have developed a three-lane system—with the outbound ants taking the outer lanes and the inbound ants coming down the centre. But apparently, not everyone follows the rules of the road:

A constant game of chicken ensues, with the outbound ants holding their ground against the returning ants until the last possible moment, then swiftly turning away from the oncoming traffic. There is the occasional collision, but Couzin says the three-lane structure helps minimise the subsequent delay.

Perhaps not the best model for managing the M40 at rush hour.

Meanwhile, Joshua Blu Buhs, whose previous book was about a fire-ant infestation in the US, turns his attention to a larger creature in Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend, reviewed in this week’s New York Times. In 1968, a pair of amateur filmmakers in Northern California claimed they had captured footage of a large, ape-like creature on the prowl; hundreds of people across North America asserted that they had seen Bigfoot as well. Buhs argues that “white, rural men” in 1960s America who felt “threatened by women’s rights [and] civil rights” chose to believe in Bigfoot as “a way to snub effete, skeptical scientists”. Meanwhile, Bigfoot hunters in Oklahoma said last month that they had found a 15-inch-long footprint, and a new book by a California police officer claims to show compelling evidence of Bigfoot’s existence.

The Novelist and His Labyrinth. For the second time in as many weeks, the New York Times reviews Gerald Martin’s biography of Gabriel García Márquez. This week, Paul Berman weighs in on Maria Vargas Llosa’s allegation that García Márquez is a Castro “lackey”. Berman takes Vargas Llosa’s side of the dispute: “The world’s most popular serious novelist does seem to be a flunky of the world’s longest-lasting monomaniacal dictator.” But the Seattle Times says that Martin offers no new insights on the bizarre feud between the Vargas Llosa and the García Márquez, which began when the Peruvian Thatcherite threw a punch at the Colombian Nobelist, leaving García Márquez with a black eye.

Tonto Fistfight at 30,000 Feet? Whereas Vargas Llosa actually did sock García Márquez, Sherman Alexie only thought about thumping his fellow passenger on a recent flight to New York. Alexie, whose new collection of poems was reviewed in ORB, drew the ire of Amazon.com when he told the New York Times last week that he “wanted to hit” a woman who was reading on her Kindle in-flight. Alexie later elaborated on his remarks in an interview with bloger Edward Champion:

“If eBooks do take over the market, then dozens more independent bookstores will close, and all sorts of communities will lose a vital social force. Does Amazon have any plans to fill the social gaps left by those closed stores?”

Alexie may move closer to answering that question when he meets with Amazon representatives to “listen to their arguments for the machines“. The author says he has reconsidered his ire toward e-readers after receiving notes from Kindle users who, “because of various physical issues”, can only read with electronic assistance. And on his website, Alexie now avows that he “will not beat up anybody at Amazon or Kindle“.

The Bodleian in a Bottle? Amazon’s Jeff Bezos acknowledged last month that “Kindle is never going to have the same smell as a book“. But the world’s 68th richest man now stands corrected. A company called DuroSport has launched a new product line called Smell of Books, a “revolutionary new aerosol e-book enhancer” that will leave your Kindle with the odour of an old library. Alas, it’s a spoof, but the Guardian‘s Alison Flood is intrigued: “I think the idea could really catch on.”

Speaking of online books and old libraries, Cambridge University has announced that it will digitise its collection of pre-1501 incunabula, including a 1455 Gutenberg Bible. The BBC carries an almost certainly apocryphal account of the Bible’s acquisition:

Legend has it the book was handed to the then librarian Alwyn Schofield out of the blue when an old man turned up at the library door saying he had an old bible to donate to the library. The man turned out to be Arthur Young, retired lawyer and member of Trinity College.

Cambridge’s own website reveals that Young’s gifts to the university (340 volumes in total) came in two installments in 1933 and 1934 and a third batch after his death in 1936. If—as the BBC suggests—Young hand-delivered the donation, the octagenarian would have needed to possess superhuman strength.

Body-Building With Books? The San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News carries an op-ed arguing that schoolchildren should not be “forced to lug around antiquated, heavy, expensive textbooks”. The op-ed writer who wants to lighten the load on California schoolchildren is none other than the state’s weightlifter-in-chief, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The “Governator” thinks that the plan could cut costs from the cash-strapped state’s budget, but the state superintendant of public instruction says that the plan is a “pipe dream“.

A ¬£275,000 Mistake. Speaking of Cambridge and first editions, a Sunday Times review of Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living (also reviewed by ORB this week) reveals that Clare College fellow Mansfield Forbes acquired the Joyce novel shortly after its 1922 publication but “was so panicked at the thought of being caught with it that he bundled up his illegal copy and threw it in the Cam“. Treasure-seeking Cantabrigians might take that as a cue to dress up in scuba gear and scour the river bottom for the remains. A first edition of Ulysses sold for ¬£275,000 last week. The vast majority of the pages appear to be untouched; the original owner only read “the racy bits at the end“.