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Critical Reception: Summer Spotlight

historian.jpgThe Historian
by Elizabeth Kostova

Praise abounds for Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, the “Dracula-da Vinci Code hybrid” that purpotedly landed its first-time author a whopping $2 million advance. Salon‘s Laura Miller tacitly approves the high cost, calling the debut “a fine Bordeaux to Dan Brown’s overcaffeinated Diet Coke.” USA Today, meanwhile, asserts that “Kostova may have outdone Stoker.” And the Boston Globe assures “lovers of the new genre of bibliophile mysteries” that they “will find much to cozy up to.”

Occasionally, though, critics find that Kostova’s prose amounts to nothing more than a (requisite vampire joke; sorry) pain in the neck. “The vampire’s power to inflict misery pales beside that of the book’s contorted narrative structure,” writes the Times’ Janet Maslin. Weighing in at more than 600 pages, “even the undead,” apparantly, “can be talked to death.”

longwaydown.jpgA Long Way Down
by Nick Hornby

Either to ban the material to another medium entirely, or to help bump readers’ cultural trajectories just a couple degrees shy of future impact, reviewers can’t refrain from calling Nick Hornby’s latest “a screenplay on dry ice, disguised as a story-device novel” (Slate), or, more straight-forwardly, “a formulaic idea for a cheesy made-for-television movie” (the NYT).

More insulting, still, to A Long Way Down‘s credentials is how much air-time — and glee — each review devotes to the possible adaptation’s casting. Hugh Grant and Keira Knightley? suggests Slate. And maybe the ever-tasteful Brenda Blethyn as Maureen? The Times, even less a fan than Slate is, proposes “a younger Tom Selleck,” “Shannen Doherty on speed,” and — here’s the real blow to the nuts — “David Schwimmer.”

Only the L.A. Times likes the book well enough (“[It conveys] an earnest, sincere belief in the humanity of others without becoming [...] fake.”) to glance at its accompanying media kit. If only others had been so thorough, they might know an adaptation is already underway, starring Johnny Depp.

specimen.jpgSpecimen Days
by Michael Cunningham

Depending on your reviewer, Specimen Days is either an “unsettling hodgepodge” (The Plain Dealer) filled with “the kind of choices people make only on the planet Literature” (Newsday) or a “brave new novel” (USA Today), “as ambitious as it is generous” (The NY Observer), and “overflowing with smartness” (Boston Globe).

Critics find themselves especially divided over Cunningham’s appropriation of Walt Whitman. “Leaves of Grass feel like [an afterthought] grafted onto the tales … in an effort to lend them extra philosophical weight,” writes the Times‘ Kakutani. Newsday agrees that “Cunningham, a congenitally melancholy writer, has no affinity for Whitman”:

Some characters appear to have a form of Tourette syndrome that causes them to declaim Whitman involuntarily. But these quotations stick out of the delicate prose like a tuba in a string quartet.

USA Today, however, finds Whitman’s optimism a necessary antidote to Cunningham’s dark worldview: Only “because Whitman remains Cunningham’s inspiration,” does the novel “[offer] hope.”

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