Running from the literary lynch mob


Many of you know John Ernst as co-host of our book list call-ins. John is often ahead of the pack–recommending titles months before they’re selected for Pulitzer or Booker recognition. Recently, I asked John if he ever disagreed with the big name critics. Let’s just say I noticed a wicked twinkle in his eye. Herewith, two books the critics raved about, but not John, who mused to me, “…ought to be enough to set a literary lynch mob on my tail.”

THE YELLOW BIRDS — Kevin Powers (2012)

This brief first novel by an Army Iraq veteran who was a poetry fellow at the University of Texas comes trailing a raft of cheers from well-respected writers arid a favorable front page review in the New York Times Book Review.

Though short and punchy, I felt the book was over-written, with paragraph after paragraph of unfocused, solipsistic reflection — something noted by the Times reviewer Benjamin Percy (“lengthy brow-furrowing meditation…” he calls it) but not considered heavily damaging.

The story follows two young soldiers who bond in basic training and are shipped to the same unit in Iraq. Powers conveys the boredom and horror, the constant fatigue and pressure of fear that combat brings. What he does not do is make intelligible characters out of the narrator (Private Bartle) his friend (Private Murphy) or their battle-hardened sergeant. So the effect of the story relies solely on circumstances — the failure of Bartles to protect his friend, as he had promised Murphy’s mother he would do. The details are stark, but Powers doesn’t have the skill to make them moving.

The novel has been compared to Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” to Hemingway’s war fiction, to Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead.” I think this is a real stretch. The novel conveys the bleakness of war, all right, but a “Red Badge of Courage” it is not.

TELEGRAPH AVENUE — Michael Chabon (2012)


The story centers on Archy Stallings and his long-time partner, Nat Jaffe, in their efforts to keep afloat a vintage record emporium called Brokeland Records on the fringe of Oakland and Berkeley. Into the whirlpool of their lives are drawn a circus of raffish characters– ruthless real estate developers, politicians, long-lost progeny, former pro football players, the protagonists’ wives who are partners in a midwife business—just to name a few.

Michael Chabon is an impressively talented writer, but here he spreads the icing on so thick that I choked on it. Riff follows riff. The prose is so ornate that one yearns for a simple sentence. One section of eleven pages consists of a single sentence. Enough, already, Stop! Stop!

This is a novel about BIG issues — race relations in Northern California in the 1970s, Blaxploitation films, the music business, life, death, God. Reading it exhausted me.

READERS! READERS! Do you agree or disagree with John’s take on these two well-received bestsellers? Are there other recent books the critics have loved that have not worked for you? Weigh in…but no lynching.


  1. I loved salvage the bones, but I’m stuck about half way through Bolano’s 2666. His Savage detectives is one of my favorites, and the language of 2666 is beautiful. But the fourth book (I think) were he gets to the meat of the Juarez killings gets tedious. He goes through all the dead women’s police reports and as a story it’s hard to follow.

  2. Ellen Beberman says:

    Loved the Yiddish Policeman’s Union – take your time and it is a lot of fun. But Chabon can overdo it. Wish he would move away from comic books.

  3. Ellen Rocco says:

    I just started–and stopped–two books back to back. Not big name bestsellers like the ones John panned, but on the bookstore “new and popular” shelf. We’ve talked about this before, but just to re-state: the older I get the less patience I have for mediocre writing and just don’t go past the first 10-20 pages if it’s not working for me.

    I’m excited to open a new book tonight, recommended by Nathalie Thill, Executive Director of the Adirondack Center for Writing: Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award winning “Salvage the Bones,” which Nathalie described as the best piece of new fiction she’s read in the last 5-10 years. Wow.

    I need your help fellow readers: I also have a copy of Roberto Bolano’s “2666” which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Have you read it? Thumbs up or down or somewhere in between?

    • I still say thumb up on Bolano’s 2666 (even though I havent finished it yet). It is his self-described his masterpiece, but it isnt easy to read. It certainly isnt a “plot driven” page turner. He is, though, considered one of the world’s most important writers of the last few decades. Supposedly the idea was to release 5 books individually, but after his death, they were published as one huge novel. What he tends to do is write a series of stories about different characters, but the main character in one story might not be in the next story, or might reappear as a minor character. He is a Chilean writer, who lived most of his adult life in Barcelona, but as a young refugee from Pinochet’s Chile, he lived in Mexico City, where he evidently became concerned with the hundreds of disappeared and murdered women in city of Juarez. It is not a political statement or polemic of any sort though. His stories are pretty “edgy”.

      • Ellen Rocco says:

        Thanks, Peter. It’s a big book and it’s good to know you basically give it a thumbs up…even if it’s a lot to get through.

  4. Chris Robinson says:

    Nice take downs, John. I’m not disagreeing with you on either count, though I only started the Chabon to put it down — forever. Next up, if you have the guts, is Roth, Mailer, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

  5. Agree. I haven’t read yellow birds, but I started telegraph avenue and I couldn’t get past the first chapter, which is rare for me. I thought I would like it. I know the area and the culture well, and the book had good reviews, but the writing was treacly.