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28 may 2016

John Szwed's Billie Holiday is an odd critical biography, written in short bits with some repetition, as if it were a bunch of columns stitched together (though I see no sign that it is). It's meta and sometimes esoteric; it's unconventionally organized; it's consistently interesting.     read more

27 may 2016

First let me get this out of the way: The Stranger? What kind of title is that, Harlan Coben? Are you trying to make your novels run together even more than the last seven nondescript titles suggested? Are you invoking Camus? But you're Harlan Coben; nobody's picking up Harlan Coben thinking it'll be like Camus. Can't you once in a while use a title like The Perils of Piscataway or something I have a hope of distinguishing from any of your others?     read more

26 may 2016

The first thing you notice about David Batchelor's Chromophobia is the color of the cover, naturally: an awful hot pink with a sickly yellow-green inset that looks like a disease germ and in fact is: a tinted electron micrograph of the Hepatitis B virus. The problem with the cover is not so much that it's hideous per se, though it is: it's that it's difficult to put the book down anywhere without it clashing violently with its surroundings. I live among great piles of books, and I like them to look good: I have at times arranged my bookshelves by color. But there's no possible good setting for Chromophobia unless you perch it on the arm of a white chair or leave it all by itself in the middle of a black table.     read more

25 may 2016

Joan W. Blos, now in her late 80s, has worked deliberately over the years on some books for younger children in prose and verse, and on a handful of epistolary novels and fictional diaries that attempt to capture a specific historical period. A Gathering of Days is the best known, because it won the 1980 Newbery Medal. It's still in print, of course, but has never reached classic status; it's a pared-down, patient evocation of New England farm life in the early 1830s, and it lacks a sensational narrative hook or wacky characters. But it's a considerable achievement that could teach novelists for adults a thing or two about depiction of bygone language and customs.     read more