The Shelf is a running list of recent (and occasionally not-so-recent) releases, with a mix of Second Pass opinion and excerpts from other reviews.

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch

The second book by Deutsch, a physicist and pioneer of quantum computation, has gotten strong — if partly befuddled — notices. Nathaniel Stein says, “Deutsch’s world-view . . . is so novel that even a book so sparklingly clear in both its prose and its conception is, at times, quite confusing. But a reader can be grounded by the most important strand of this many-stranded world-view: the one that focuses on the importance of people, by considering what, exactly, people are.”

OK, maybe that doesn’t clarify much. But reviewers agree that the scope of Deutsch’s interest — which extends from science to philosophy, mathematical infinity, aesthetics, and elsewhere — makes him a thrilling read. The second paragraph of David Albert’s review, in which he compares the book to Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, is a keeper. It begins: “It hardly seems worth saying (to begin with) that the chutzpah of this guy is almost beyond belief, and that any book with these sorts of ambitions is necessarily, in some overall sense, a failure, or a fraud, or a joke, or madness.” He liked the book, a lot.

John Horgan admits he was probably assigned to review the book by editors who thought he would entertainingly slam it — Horgan’s terrific 1996 book The End of Science takes a decidedly more pessimistic view about how much more the field can teach us — but he ended up being inspired by Deutsch’s sunnier view, even though he writes, “Deutsch’s optimism sometimes resembles that of a man standing on a mountaintop, high above the problems afflicting us ordinary folk in the lowlands.” Horgan says:

Making the case for science’s open-endedness, Mr. Deutsch mounts a compelling challenge to scientific reductionism, which explains all phenomena in terms of their physical components. Yes, atomic theory, chemistry and genetics have worked spectacularly well at explaining many features of nature. But small-scale processes, the author notes, spawn so-called emergent phenomena that require understanding on their own terms. Bodies give rise to minds, which in turn give rise to ideas, which have no specific physical properties but can nonetheless influence human behavior in profound ways, as the Enlightenment itself demonstrates.

You can watch Horgan and Deutsch discuss the book and other subjects here. The clip is worth watching on a purely visual level, too, since Deutsch is a sleepy-eyed, bowl-haired genius who looks like he might have been designed by Jim Henson.

The Economist says that Deutsch’s first book, The Fabric of Reality, made him many fans, who will not be disappointed in the follow-up: “The Beginning of Infinity is equally bold, addressing subjects from artificial intelligence to the evolution of culture and of creativity; its conclusions are just as profound.”

The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch
Viking, 496 pp., $30.00

Monday, July 18th, 2011

Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta

Dana Spiotta’s second novel, Eat the Document, received raves and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her third, Stone Arabia, is attracting similar praise. It tells the story of Nik, a once-aspiring musician who meticulously chronicles a make-believe career in the pages of a voluminous journal, and his sister Denise, increasingly worried about her brother’s state of mind now that they’re in middle age.

Kathryn Schulz says, “Instead of spending 30 years documenting a life, Nik Kranis has spent 30 years inventing one. He is a kind of single-minded, graphomanic Walter Mitty.”

David L. Ulin begins his review with a rhetorical question that lets us know how he feels about the author’s work: “Is there a more electrifying novelist working than Dana Spiotta?” He says Stone Arabia shares the concerns of her previous novels: “memory, identity, the tenuous bonds of family, the fragility of everything we hold close.”

Schulz’s enthusiasm for the novel comes across, but she considers it, finally, a mixed bag, thrilled when Nik is the focus, but less so when the spotlight moves to his sister. (“Part of the problem is that Denise feels generic, less a person than a packhorse for all the familiar baggage of modern life.”) But several reviewers have noted the brother-sister bond as one of the novel’s greatest strength.

Karen R. Long says, “Stone Arabia is a profound and moving portrayal of siblings — a rarity in adult literature. Perhaps we must go back to John Barth’s 1960 novel The Sot-Weed Factor to find a brother-sister rendering as seriously, originally fine.” William Giraldi seizes on the siblings theme through much of his review, writing, “As with [George Eliot’s] Tom and Maggie Tulliver, their brother/sister union is both sustenance and heartscourge, Denise too emotionally bedraggled to pry herself away from her self-destructive brother, and Nik too broke ever to be without his faintly more competent younger sister.”

Kate Christensen (whose endorsement on the paperback will likely read: “gritty, intelligent, mordant and deeply sad . . . a work of visceral honesty and real beauty”) compares Nik and Denise to another, more recent famous fictional family: “The siblings seem, in a sense, like the older, poorer, nonreligious, failed West Coast versions of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, another brilliant, hermetically sealed brother-sister pair. But Salinger’s characters are young, their potential and genius still unrealized. The Kranis Chronicle is winding down, possibly finished forever, and broken without any belief in or hope for repair.”

Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta
Scribner, 256 pp., $24.00

Friday, July 15th, 2011

The Report by Jessica Francis Kane

Kane’s first novel begins in London in 1943, with Brits wary of retaliation for a recent and devastating bombing of Berlin. In this heightened state, a siren sends them toward tube station shelters with a particularly quick step. At the Bethnal Green station, something happens in the crowd, a disturbance that leads to a crush. This real-life incident, which killed 173 people, provides the basis for Kane’s gentle, smart reimagining.

The official word from the government is that the shelter took a small hit from the sky. But the reader knows the shelter took no hit at all, and the book’s characters are suspicious: “The East Enders knew what death looked like. Three years of aerial bombardment — the specter of firestorms, collapsed buildings, charred and crushed bodies — had made everyone a coroner, and this quiet compression at Bethnal Green, in which some died and others lived, was, frankly, hard to believe.”

We flash forward to 1972, when Laurence (“Laurie”) Dunne, the magistrate who had been charged with investigating the tragedy and writing its official report, is visited by a young man making a documentary about the historic event. The parallels to 9/11 and its resulting report are clear without being spoken, but also somewhat beside the point — Kane is interested in how both events resemble any and all attempts to understand tragedy and assign blame for it.

The short chapters alternate between the past and present, a tactic that could have been jarring but instead neatly echoes one of the book’s themes: the way the past and present are never as far apart as we like to imagine. Kane, an American, has written of the skepticism some British readers bring to her book, but if anything, her unrushed, occasionally elegiac tone can seem more British than American. Bertram Lodge is a 22-year-old character kept out of the war because of his flat feet, and Kane writes: “It seemed impossible to Bertram that his feet would be the reason he was home watching sparrows instead of fighting.” It’s a lovely and indicative sentence.

Laurie’s inquiry yields voluminous and often contradictory information. The details of the night come to seem as hopelessly knotted as the people on the stairs were, “jumbled together, like fingers clasped in wretched, twisting prayer.” The resolution of the mystery, which I won’t give away here, is not central to the book’s project. For one thing, there’s enough foreshadowing that the answer is given gradually rather than as a eureka moment. But Kane is less interested in suspense than in mood. Her wartime London is grim but affectionately evoked — as seen in one well-chosen image, a churchyard that used flowers that “grew well on bomb sites.”

The Report by Jessica Francis Kane
Graywolf, 256 pp., $15.00

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

House of Exile by Evelyn Juers

Juers’ book, which tracks the lives of brother-writers Heinrich and Thomas Mann, Heinrich’s wife, Nelly, and their social circle with both heavy research and significant use of imagination, has garnered some of the most positive and engaged reviews of the year. In the Guardian, James Lasdun begins: “Two questions are likely to occur to readers as they navigate the cross-currents of biographical data that surge through Evelyn Juers’ House of Exile. What exactly am I reading? And why is it so enthralling?”

Robert McCrum, also in the Guardian, also uses the word enthralling. “This is a book that makes big demands for correspondingly sublime rewards,” McCrum writes. “[A] bold, inventive and often haunting threnody for European letters in a terrible century. Much more than a collective biography, it is really an unconscious act of homage to the great German writer not mentioned in its pages, W.G. Sebald.”

Though the book spans many years (reaching back more than a century for some extended passages), the central moment around which it revolves is the 1940s, when German artists fled their home country. Martin Rubin says, “There have been many portraits of the refugee culture in Los Angeles during the 1940s — e.g., Anthony Heilbut’s Exiled in Paradise (1983) and Ehrhard Bahr’s Weimar on the Pacific (2007) — but none quite like this. It is the great strength of Ms. Juers’ study that she puts her lost-soul subjects in the context of a worldwide phenomenon of dislocation.”

Lasdun says Juers employs a “risky but often richly rewarding associative method.” (Seventy-five pages in myself, I’m not sure any reviewer has emphasized just how much of that method involves essentially fictionalizing moments and thoughts that couldn’t be known to Juers.)

Frederic Raphael is not as taken as some — he thinks the appearances of Virginia Woolf don’t quite work, for one thing, and also says, “On the few occasions when Juers ventures into adding color of her own, it proves her wisdom in not doing it a lot” — but he calls the book “full of good and poignant things” and judges Juers’ approach “largely successful . . . a vibrant patchwork.”

John Simon is perhaps least impressed. He says the lives of Heinrich and Nelly “could make for a wonderful book if the author exercised sufficient self-control rather than showing off in various ways, and kept the work reasonably concise. Unfortunately, Evelyn Juers’ House of Exile is not, or not quite, that book.” He’s most mystified by the “countless passages” about Woolf and her husband, “cropping up seemingly out of nowhere, [going] on for pages…”

Michael Hoffman is the leader of the enthusiastic crowd. Writing in April 2009, when the book had only been published in Australia, he said, “House of Exile is an extraordinary book, and a really rare accomplishment. . . . It’s a very personal book: idiosyncratic, a little wandering, and finally scintillating and rather magical and a triumph. . . . A third of the way into her book, with Hitler in power, and exile the order of the day, Juers evolves a different method. She has largely assembled her personnel by now; she confines herself to giving updates, going from one to another in strictly chronological order, each chapter is a calendar year, and this is where her book . . . really comes into its own, so that I would wish it many thousands of readers. . . . It is amazing how those years, and those people, and those dramas all live in her pages.”

House of Exile: The Lives and Times of Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroeger-Mann by Evelyn Juers
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 400 pp., $30.00

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

Galore by Michael Crummey

Newfoundland-born Crummey has been nominated for Canada’s most prestigious literary prizes. His latest novel, flavored with magical realism and spanning six generations in Newfoundland, opens with a living man emerging from the belly of a beached whale. The man lives the rest of his life without speaking a word, but the rest of the members of Crummey’s sprawling cast speak in “bawdy and blasphemous” dialogue, according to Katherine Govier, one of several Canadian reviewers to praise the novel when it was published up north two years ago.

Govier also called the book “pitch-perfect,” and wrote: “The place lends itself beautifully to a long and confabulating tale featuring naked white men who slide out of whales’ bellies and never lose the fishy smell, children who are sealed in love over a few shared words and never fall out of it until their dying day, ghosts of repentant murderers, usurers who get their ears cut off, connivers who cheat the dying, and so forth. . . . It’s all well told and strangely credible, despite the magic.”

Samantha Hunt, whose own fiction has featured fantastical elements, says, “Crummey . . . will delight readers who like to plumb the depths of northern bleakness: families surviving, or not, on potatoes and salt; mothers who have planted gardens of children; and a beautiful young woman who insists on having all her healthy teeth pulled out so that they won’t cause her trouble later. Like the two-faced ocean they pull their living from, Crummey’s characters in this multi-generational unwinding are icy and surprising.”

Lia Grainger says the setting is the star: “Crummey’s poetics are like the landscape he describes: stark and sparse, but punctuated with a wild richness that creates the impression of something carefully controlled yet on the verge of bursting.”

Finally, Steven Galloway is the clearest in his enthusiasm for Galore, and how it matches up to its influences:

Where Crummey’s first two novels took one or more characters and placed them in a historical context that allowed readers to see both the characters and Newfoundland, which is how most historical novels work, Galore achieves a far more difficult effect. The characters, plot and setting have been fused, in that this book isn’t so much about the people and the events and places that affect them as it is the folkloric sum of Newfoundland, and the characters, as individual and real and compelling as they are, are, for all their strangeness, archetypes, an odd and wonderful mash of biblical and pagan touchstones. It’s an incredibly difficult task to make characters such as these work as human beings as well as elements of folklore, and Crummey does it with as much skill and grace as Gabriel Garcia Márquez does in One Hundred Years of Solitude, a novel very much the forebear of this book.

Galore by Michael Crummey
Other Press, 352 pp., $15.95

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

Fire Season by Philip Connors

For the past several years, Philip Connors, once a copy editor at the Wall Street Journal, has spent part of the spring and summer spotting fires from a small perch overlooking New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness. Only 10% of the country’s lookout towers remain, but Connors clings to the assignment while he can. He calls it “a blend of monotony, geometry, and poetry, with healthy dollops of frivolity and sloth,” as well as the best job he can imagine. His memoir about the solitary time he has spent there is alternately plainspoken and poetic, and a mental escape hatch for anyone who reads it while sitting in a large city. It has won him comparisons to Annie Dillard and Thoreau, among others.

Donovan Hohn says the book “unapologetically belongs to that venerable taxon of American letters trivializingly known as ‘nature writing’ — a phrase that calls to mind the literary equivalent of the dreamy illustrations on view in a Sierra Club calendar or a Yellowstone gift shop. But the best so-called nature writers are also social critics, looking back from afar at what Edward Abbey called ‘syphilization’ (a bit of barbed wordplay that is a hallmark of the tradition).”

Nina MacLaughlin writes, “The book is a few different things at once: an exultant take on the natural world — the wildflowers and lightning and mountain peaks; a history of land and fire management in the United States; an exploration of solitude and an examination of the impulse to live alone on a mountaintop four months of the year and the shifting mental patterns — great storms and calms — that it provokes.”

Bettina Boxall says, “The reader comes to know and like not just the Gila, but Connors, who grew up on a farm in the Midwest. Even then, when there was nothing to see but endless rows of corn and beans, he climbed the silo to look out on his world.”

Impressed by the scope of the view from inside Connors’ little tower, Rob Verger says, “the book rises from what could have been simply a journal-like account of his time on the job and instead becomes a thoughtful, historically minded narrative that balances Connors’ own experiences with context from American history. . . . this is modern nature writing at its very finest.”

Maud Newton, one of the book’s most vocal supporters, interviewed Connors about it for the Paris Review Daily, and had enough material left for another installment at her own blog.

Fire Season by Philip Connors
Ecco, 256 pp., $24.99

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

Malcolm X by Manning Marable

Marable spent more than a decade working on his revisionist biography of Malcolm X, and died three days before its publication, at the age of 60. David Remnick writes: “One of [Marable’s] goals was to grapple with Malcolm’s autobiography, and although he finds much to admire about Malcolm, he makes it clear that the book’s drama sometimes comes at the expense of fact. . . . Malcolm, like St. Augustine, embellished his sins in order to heighten the drama of his reform.”

Adam Bradley says, “Perhaps the most significant departure that Marable’s biography offers from the Autobiography comes in the new trajectory it suggests for Malcolm’s life. Whereas the Autobiography spends nearly half of its 500 pages on Malcolm’s dissolute youth prior to his conversion to Islam and release from prison, Marable dispatches the hustling Malcolm in just under a hundred pages, dedicating the balance of his 500-page book to Malcolm as he would refashion himself as activist and organizer.”

This choice paid off, according to Wil Haygood: “The result is not just a biography, but also a history of Muslims in America and a sweeping account of one man’s transformation — and of the conspiracy, abetted by police inattention, that took his tumultuous life. The tension toward book’s end — when Malcolm was trying to figure out who might murder him — is so gripping it nearly soaks through the pages.”

Overall, the reviews have ranged from positive to raving: Geoff Dyer calls the book “completely riveting . . . it is inevitably much more than a biography of one man (Marable’s nice phrase is ‘the social architecture of an individual’s life’). Marable is intensely and intimately sympathetic, but he brings out Malcolm’s failings and repeated foolishnesses — personal, ideological, and tactical — within the rapid and headlong advances he made in life.” Peniel E. Joseph writes, “Stripped from the cocoon of his posthumous aura of invincibility, Malcolm X emerges from these pages an endlessly fascinating and protean figure whose shortcomings make his political accomplishments all the more remarkable.” Remnick says, “Although Manning Marable may not have succeeded in writing a definitive work, his considerable scholarship does remind us how much is elided by any tale of a pilgrim’s progress.” Haygood says, “It will be difficult for anyone to better this book. It goes deeper and richer than a mere homage to Malcolm X. It is a work of art, a feast that combines genres skillfully: biography, true-crime, political commentary.”

One dissenting voice caused a moment’s controversy: Karl Evanzz was enlisted to review Marable’s work for The Root, a Slate spin-off overseen by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a friend of Marable’s. When the site killed the negative review, there was talk of a fixed game. But Evanzz posted the review on his site, so we could judge it for ourselves. (“Marable’s friends dare to call this his ‘magnum opus.’ To use street vernacular, this ain’t his magnum nothin’.”)

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable
Viking, 608 pp., $30.00

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

The Free World by David Bezmozgis

In the New York Observer, Irina Aleksander writes: “The cruel joke of immigration is that to reach the freedoms promised by the Western world’s relative economic and political stability, the immigrant must, for a period of transition, forfeit certain liberties to which he has grown accustomed. An educated, active member of his past social order, he suddenly finds himself disabled, unable to speak freely or understand when spoken to.”

David Bezmozgis’ first novel (after a lovely collection of stories, Natasha, in 2004) focuses on a Jewish family from Latvia, the Krasnanskys. It’s 1978, and the family is in the way station of Rome for six months, awaiting their visas and word on where they will resettle. Jeet Heer says, “Like the earlier heroes of Kafka or Bellow, they are caught in bureaucratic limbo, and uncertain of their future.” Kafka and Bellow are only two of the heavyweights to whom Bezmozgis has been compared. Others include Philip Roth and Isaac Babel.

Bezmozgis and his family moved to Canada from Riga when he was six, and The Free World has been praised for, among other things, the authenticity of its immigrant-English dialogue. Adam Langer says, “He has created an unflinchingly honest, evenhanded and multilayered retelling of the Jewish immigrant story that steadfastly refuses to sentimentalize or malign the Old World or the New.”

Samuil, the family’s patriarch and an unyielding Communist, is contrasted with his children, including his anti-Soviet sons Karl and Alec, who essentially force their father to leave the country. Adam Kirsch writes, “In a world that has experienced the failure of Communism, Samuil is a melancholy spokesman for the old generation of Eastern European Jews who believed passionately that the Revolution would redeem them. More and more, his memories and reflections dominate the novel.”

Heer feels there is ultimately “something calculated and cold” about Bezmozgis’ style, that “like an old-fashioned documentary filmmaker, [he is] eager to record the movements of his characters but careful not to become involved in their lives.” Kirsch says, “The Free World is a very different book from Natasha, for both good and ill. In moving from the short story to the novel, Bezmozgis has become a more deliberate and objective writer; he has also become a more cautious and dutiful one.”

The most disappointed critique comes in a close reading by Aaron Thier, who writes: “Everything that happens in Natasha feels like a significant moment. To put it another way, there are no insignificant moments. There is nothing that Bezmozgis might as well have left out. This is strange, even incomprehensible, given that the critical failure of [The Free World] is that it makes no distinction between significant and insignificant moments. It’s as dull as Natasha is sharp; baggy where its predecessor is tight as a drum; stuffed to bursting with things that he should have left out. How could this have happened, and why?”

On balance, reviewers have overlooked whatever flaws they found. Heer ends by calling Bezmozgis “unquestionably one of the star writers of his generation,” and other critics, who acknowledge that the pacing of the novel is uneven, say he makes up for that with an acute eye and his gift of style.

In the Guardian, Colin Greenland writes, “The Free World may not have much of a plot, but it is heavy with the consciousness of time, the inevitability of crises. Bezmozgis has the knack of ending scenes, chapters, especially, at the perfect reverberant moment, plangent or ironic.” (This reminds me of the last few lines of the story “Natasha,” one of my favorite endings.)

In the end, it’s the capture of the immigrant experience that has most impressed reviewers. Liesl Schillinger writes, “His characters may seem to be selfish, but they have knowingly jeopardized their own happiness to secure the happiness of those who will come after, and to justify the sacrifices of those who came before.”

The Free World by David Bezmozgis
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 368 pp., $26.00

Friday, March 11th, 2011

Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal

mcgonigal2Every reader has biases; about books, yes, but also about life. One of my biases is against tech-utopianism. I run a website. I play a lot of online Scrabble, and played a lot of Nintendo Tetris in the mid-1990s. I opt to spend a lot of time with my computer. But I wish I spent less. And I think my generation (and those younger) has a relationship to video games that can only be called regressive. So the big idea in Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken — that video games should be embraced, and designed to do things like help us cure world hunger and learn to love household chores — strikes me as deeply unappealing, if not straight-up bonkers.

She has won over some reviewers. It’s not shocking that Cory Doctorow is a fan. But even “avowed Luddite” Janice P. Nimura, in the Los Angeles Times, is seduced by the book’s visions: “Instead of dismissing games as frivolous entertainment or trying to unplug our children, we should take a close look at what games provide and figure out how to make reality as exciting and rewarding — as ‘gameful’ — as the virtual world.” And Pat Kane in the Independent, initially skeptical, concludes: “Armed with an impressive bibliography in psychology and neuroscience . . . Reality Is Broken is the most powerful justification yet for computer games as one of our central literacies — parallel to literature or movies in the way they connect our motivations and energies with the challenges of understanding and intervening in our social worlds.”

On the other side — or as I like to call it, My Side — are Andrew Klavan and Will Saletan. In the Wall Street Journal, Klavan writes: “[T]he conflicting goals and desires of individuals, the problem of evil, and the presence of death all guarantee that life will remain its old tragic self no matter how many copies Call of Duty sells. Reality is a lot more broken than Ms. McGonigal comprehends.” He goes on to say: “It’s not that she has nothing interesting to say about the role of video games in shaping reality; it’s that she has little if anything to say about reality itself. She writes like someone who has never seen a Shakespeare play or volunteered at a soup kitchen or fallen in love or raised a child or said a prayer.”

And in the New York Times, Saletan writes:

The premise is that since games motivate us more effectively than real life, making them altruistic and bringing them into the physical world will promote altruistic behavior. But is this motivating power transferable? [Virtual worlds are] never boring. They let us choose our missions and control our work flow. They make us feel powerful. They offer “a guarantee of productivity” in every quest. And when we fail, they make our failure entertaining.

Reality doesn’t work this way. Floors need scrubbing. Garbage needs hauling. Invalids need their bedpans washed. This work isn’t designed for your pleasure or stimulation. It just needs to be done.

Reality Is Broken by Jane McGonigal
Penguin Press, 400 pp., $26.95

Friday, February 18th, 2011

Harlem is Nowhere by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts

harlemRhodes-Pitts grew up in Texas and attended Harvard, but her mind growing up was often in Harlem. Her book takes its title from an essay by Ralph Ellison, and in it she mixes her personal feelings about and experiences in the neighborhood with its history, including its appearances in literature.

In her first New Books column for Harper’s (available online to subscribers only), Zadie Smith leads off with Harlem is Nowhere:

We realize how much the idea of Harlem has meant to Rhodes-Pitts, and what a romantic vision of a writer’s business she has: a magpie with a notebook, who collects everything, and always shows her workings — leading to many scenes set in the library. Although this technique of authorial transparency grows long in the tooth — a classic of the genre is A Room of One’s Own — it still has its intimate pleasures. Like Woolf, Rhodes-Pitts is bookish and devoted, interested in everyday matters: how people walk and talk, dress, go about their day.

At the Barnes & Noble Review, Adam Bradley writes, “Channeling Ellison — but also Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and many others, familiar and not — Rhodes-Pitts crafts a compelling narrative voice that is bracingly intimate yet capable of dilating to encompass a chorus of voices and opinions not her own.”

Dwight Garner in the New York Times says, “Ms. Rhodes-Pitts drops us inside her wide-scanning cranium as she searches for her own version of Harlem, one she strains to see through all the graceful and angry words that have already been written about it.” Like other critics, Garner thinks the book lacks focus, and he finds the chorus of voices mentioned by Bradley a bit less satisfying, but he says Rhodes-Pitts is a talent to watch: “At the end you may decide, as I did, that this ambitious racket is somewhat hollow: the book never coheres or locates its own beating heart. But Ms. Rhodes-Pitts’ is a voice you’ll want to hear again, to recapture the scratchy buzz she’s put into your head.”

Smith says the book is less about history, finally, than about all those trips to the library: “Certain key historical facts, surely useful to the general reader, become afterthoughts . . . But once you abandon wanting to know anything very precise about historical Harlem, this is a lovely book about the romance — and dangers — of bibliophily.”

Harlem is Nowhere by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts
Little, Brown, 304 pp., $24.99

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

Caribou Island by David Vann

caribouislandIn Vann’s first novel, Gary and Irene, married three decades, test their already strained union by attempting to build a cabin on a remote, barely populated Alaska island. It’s Gary’s crazy idea, and several reviewers say the book fits neatly into a certain obsessed-male paradigm. Kevin Canty in the New York Times is one of them, but he says Vann puts an important spin on things:

This is familiar territory for a certain kind of masculine writing: man, will, danger, water, trees. We can trace the moment back to Lord Jim and Big Two-Hearted River and even The Sportswriter, the lonely, suffering man expressing himself through action. What’s canny about Vann’s version is his decision to cast the scene from Irene’s point of view, to see it with her eyes and feel it with her heart and watch her try to make sense of it.

John Self says, “To those wishing to cut to the chase of this novel, the executive summary is: Richard Yates in Alaska. The dominant qualities which are both fairly and unfairly assigned to Yates are present here: depictions of human weakness and domestic blitz, a delightfully sour willingness to take the reader to the very end of their rope, and a brutally honest examination of a man’s worst qualities.”

Ron Charles in the Washington Post gives a sense of the book’s mood as the couple plunges into the project: “they haul and saw and hammer, ripping into each other with accusations and resentments stored up over 30 years, both of them baffled by the ruin of their marriage. That they love each other makes their irritation all the more painful as they labor on, often soaking wet, frequently in the dark, in subzero temperatures.”

For Caitlin Roper in the Los Angeles Times, the book’s chorus of characters, which includes Irene’s grown daughter and her depressive boyfriend, brings it to vibrant life: “The book is powerfully propulsive, in part because Vann organizes chapters and sections from each of these characters’ points of view — and these alternations temper the claustrophobic misery of Irene and Gary’s relationship and create a dizzying momentum as well. . . . Vann’s writing is confident — concrete and efficient. His characters’ emotions and experiences bleed directly into the reader.”

Canty, who liked the decision to see things through a woman’s eyes, is still torn over the final result: “Vann does establish these women as characters of stature, fully rounded and perceptive. I just expected more from them: more action, more awareness, more will and more feeling. This creates a narrative drag, too: the underlying situation is established early and never grows more complicated, never really changes.”

Ian Crouch in the New Republic’s Book is perhaps least impressed, comparing the book unfavorably to Vann’s debut collection of stories, Legends of a Suicide: “Vann has flattened out his previous structural idiosyncrasies in favor of a rather dutiful third-person narration that marches this collection of unfortunate characters toward a choreographed and unsurprising end.” But even he describes Vann as a “curious and exciting talent.”

Self ends on the same conflicted note of slight disappointment but larger optimism: “A couple of characters disappear without their stories feeling complete. And Vann seems not always to trust the reader’s own ability to make connections. . . . Overall, the book builds on the promise of Legend of a Suicide and marks Vann out as a writer to keep reading, for stimulation if not for cheering.”

Caribou Island by David Vann
Harper, 304 pp., $25.99

Monday, January 24th, 2011

Ten Walks/Two Talks by Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch

tenwalks1This meditative, slender book, partly inspired by the travel journals of 17th-century Japanese poet Basho, is part of the Dossier series published by Ugly Duckling Presse, a collection of books that includes titles like Notes on Conceptualisms and Made-Up Interviews With Imaginary Artists. Two of the book’s four sections feature selections from Fitch’s walking project: hourlong walks through Manhattan, each described in 60 sentences. An excerpt:

I couldn’t feel the cold as a young Asian woman crossed Canal in clogs and yellow neon socks. Behind her men pushed delivery carts: four Andyboy lettuce boxes, four marked TROUT. There weren’t any Italians yet on Mulberry. They must all drive in from out of state. One dark-skinned boy chipped away at ice. One door sat surrounded by olive oil tins. The one gay pride flag for blocks had gotten entangled in fire escape steps. Neatly stacked Malaysian newspapers had been bound and stamped Recycling.

If you live in New York, this will likely tempt you to maintain a similar noticing journal. (Mine might include: “A young man in Union Square, sitting on a milk crate and wearing brown shorts, a polo shirt and a Boba Fett mask, is playing an accordion.”)

The other two sections are edited, stylized transcripts of conversations between the author-friends while they walked around New York (and sat eating purportedly stolen food at the Whole Foods in Union Square). Bookslut’s Michael Schaub says “the transcripts approach poetry, even — especially — at their most distracted and unguarded. . . . There’s shades of Harry Mathews-style sly humor in there, of course, but nothing about it seems unreal, and nothing seems forced.”

Writer and musician Franklin Bruno says, “[The] project has too many antecedents to list — the book alludes to Thoreau, James Schuyler, and Lyn Hejinian, among others — and focusing on its structure and strategy misses its moment-to-moment humor, the writing’s lightly torqued syntax, and the sweet-natured affect conveyed by both of its voices.”

Jonathan Messinger says it’s an “unusually quiet and beautiful book” that left him trying to decide “if it reminded me more of browsing through an art gallery or watching a foreign film without the subtitles.” Justin Taylor says, “A deceptively simple book, it demands little but offers much.” Laura Wetherington echoes that sentiment: “Everything and nothing happens in this book. That’s the beauty of it.”

Ten Walks/Two Talks by Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch
Ugly Duckling Presse, 88 pp., $14.00

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog… by Andrew O’Hagan

mafthedogAcclaimed novelist Andrew O’Hagan’s latest is a curveball narrated by Marilyn Monroe’s dog. The facts seem to be that Frank Sinatra gave her a pup, and that Monroe playfully named him Mafia Honey (Maf for short). O’Hagan takes this premise and runs with it, birthing the terrier on a Scottish farm and sending him on a quick tour of Bloomsbury before landing him in Marilyn’s stateside bosom.

Critics are skittish. In the Guardian, Sarah Churchwell is ultimately forgiving of the conceit: “Faced with a title as arch as [this one], the staunchest critical objectivity might fail,” she writes. But eventually, the novel “offers a whimsical, sometimes strained, occasionally charming, series of riffs on its chosen themes: not only Marilyn, fame, loneliness and death; but also literature, including the literary pedigree of stories about dogs; cultural pretension, in the form of literary New York and Freudian psychoanalysis; politics and democracy; and even America itself.”

In the New York Times, Robin Romm is perhaps most taken by the larger themes addressed by the dog:

Maf has no shortage of opinions. He’s a devout Trotskyist, a proponent of the working class and — because O’Hagan is too keen a writer to make even a dog pedantic or one-dimensional — a bit of a pompous snob. . . . the relentless historical insights and allusions do more than underscore Maf’s pretensions. They also reveal an immigrant’s anxiety and insecurity with social position and status. No matter that he’s Marilyn’s aristocratic Maltese, he was still whelped on a tenant farm. No amount of reinvention can truly hide what lies beneath. Some part of Mafia Honey will always remain “Sizzle” or simply “Maltese,” just as Natalie Wood will remain Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko and Marilyn Monroe will remain Norma Jeane Baker. The old world, with its hints of poverty and earthiness, collides with the new. The clash causes spiritual conflict, and no one struggles more than Marilyn.

Like everyone else, Louis Bayard (in the Washington Post) praises O’Hagan’s considerable prose talent, but is the most clearly displeased with the uses to which it’s put here, particularly the dog himself, and how he acts as a mouthpiece for O’Hagan’s erudition: “He’s the kind of pedantic pooch who can’t even sit for a spell in Central Park without conjuring up visions of the Ice Age and dinosaurs and the Dutch settlers. . . . and if you’re anything like me, you’ll be reaching for the nearest muzzle or, failing that, a rolled-up newspaper.”

Nodding to the book’s advance blurbs from the UK, Bayard writes: “It is brilliant, says Roddy Doyle, and moving and very funny. Edna O’Brien predicts it will become a classic. Colm Toibin loves it, too. What does it say about me, I wonder, that I found it a grinding, irksome bore?”

Last (and, in this case, least), Michiko Kakutani makes the highly questionable choice to review the book in the voice of Brian, the dog from the sitcom The Family Guy. (“Like me, Maf is a credit to his species.” And so forth.)

The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe by Andrew O’Hagan
Houghton Mifflin, 288 pp., $24.00

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1

twain-autoTwain famously asked that his autobiographical writings, mostly dictated in the final years of his life, be published 100 years after his death. His estate has partly defied that request, and publishers have bowdlerized the material over the years for various books. But this doorstop is the first of three planned volumes that will see the publication of the autobiography as Twain intended it. The first volume includes more previously published material than the next two will.

In the Guardian, Tim Adams gets a kick out of the fact that Twain asked for the century-long buffer: “Twain insisted on the 100-year embargo before publication in order to allow himself to speak freely, to tell all — though the idea that he had been tight-lipped in his opinions up to that point would have come as news to both friends and enemies.”

Edmund Morris, in the Wall Street Journal, doesn’t think autobiography is the right word:

Perhaps “repository” is a better word for what [Twain] proceeded to pile up over the course of six manic months in 1906 and left behind, still incomplete, at his death: an unorganized, crumbling, sneeze-provoking mass of letters, diaries, oral transcripts (more than 5,000 pages of them), news clips and other memorabilia. Now to be published in its entirety — this is the first of what will eventually be three volumes — Autobiography of Mark Twain aspires to completeness and definitiveness. Yet, as even the publisher admits, it is less a book than a gigantic fragment: the outpourings of [an] egotist so garrulous that the type sometimes dwindles to a size that will constrict your pupils.

But if that sounds like a warning more than a recommendation, Morris says that Twain goes on “a little too long” only once every 50 pages or so: “On the whole, however, this volume is hard to stop reading. Twain’s prosody is so sure, and his powers of observation and selection so great, that he can take the most unpromising material — a real-estate deed, a letter from a would-be author — and make it glitter…”

In the Los Angeles Times, Laura Skandera Trombley says, “Twain’s Autobiography offers a mélange of childhood reminisces, vitriolic diatribes, portraits of individuals admired and despised, eulogies (most movingly of his daughters Susy and Jean), political and religious exegesis and, everywhere, evidence of his astonishing, lightning-quick wit.” In conclusion, she strikes a brief imperative chord that sums up the many positive reviews of the book: “Pull up a chair and revel.”

But all is not positive. A second wave of reviews, in particular, seems almost uniformly skeptical and/or disappointed. Judith Shulevitz at Slate is perhaps the roughest of the work’s readers, saying we can deduce that “Twain simply hated writing his autobiography.” She calls the first installment of the project “a collection of parts . . . that together form a whole so ad hoc and disjointed that it is hard to credit the notion that Twain had a plan for the work that rises to the level of being worthy of punctilious reconstruction,” saying that only Twain scholars should bother with it.

John Eklund is glad the book is selling well, proving that “empty-headed zombie celebrities” don’t have to dominate the nonfiction bestseller list. He also champions it as the product of a university press: “If there is any remaining doubt about why this country desperately needs its university presses, with their commitment to big thinking, long-term publishing and scholarly excellence without regard to instant profitability, the University of California Press has proven it beyond a doubt. Every book lover owes them hearty thanks.”

Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1
University of California Press, 760 pp., $34.95

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut

galgutGalgut’s novel, shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, is divided into three sections, “The Follower,” “The Lover,” and “The Guardian,” each of them following a character named Damon and each set in a different country. As Adam Langer writes in the New York Times: “Each title represents a role at which the narrator finds himself unable to succeed, a relationship to another human being that he cannot fulfill.”

In the Guardian, Jan Morris says the novel functions as great travel writing: “Just as Geoff Dyer’s fictional Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi seemed to me incidentally the best travel book of 2009, so I doubt if any book in 2010 will contain more memorable evocations of place than In a Strange Room.”

John Self calls the book “an original and inspiring work of art,” and finds Galgut’s tactic of switching between the third and first person particularly effective: “The first story is set in 1993, the last one just a few years ago, and the ‘I’ appears more and more frequently as the book progresses: the memories are becoming clearer, the person described experiencing the events is closer to the person recalling them. It is a lovely technique, eloquent and economical.”

Several reviews single out the last section, in which Damon accompanies a suicidal friend named Anna to India, as the standout: Self says, “The depiction of Anna is gripping, urgent and real as she heads for ‘her toxic, terminal rapture.’” And William Skidelsky says, “Galgut spares no details and the whole episode, suspended between horror and comedy, is almost unbearably powerful.”

There also seems to be a shared experience of admiring the book a great deal despite reservations while in the middle of it. Self writes, “I have surprised myself in writing this review by having nothing negative to say about In a Strange Room. At the time I felt lightly disappointed by it . . . Yet in writing about it, revisiting it, I have only praise.” Skidelsky says, “The narrator’s fatalism and, in ‘The Guardian,’ his occasionally lugubrious tone can become oppressive. But the elegance of Galgut’s writing and the relentless and uncompromising pursuit of his themes are remarkable.”

And Morris writes:

There is a good deal of unhappiness in the book: sadness and bickering and the sort of threadbare despair that goes in bad dreams with the loss of a railway ticket or a forgotten deadline. Humor is not Galgut’s strong point, not even black humor, and there is a kind of nihilism to the book’s philosophy. . . . Oddly enough, though, In A Strange Room has left me with a soothing sense of serenity. It is a very beautiful book for one thing, strikingly conceived and hauntingly written, a writer’s novel par excellence without a clumsy word in it.

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut
Europa Editions, 224 pp., $15.00

Friday, November 19th, 2010

Salvation City by Sigrid Nunez

nunezNunez’s sixth novel joins the ever-growing shelf of Apocalyterature. Set after an influenza pandemic has swept through America, Salvation City follows a boy named Cole, whose liberal parents were KO’ed by the plague. He ends up in the titular community, a religious community where he’s raised by doctrinaire Christians. Mark Athitakis says that the dystopian backdrop isn’t really the point:

There’s enough violent imagery to suggest the horrors of living in a time when a substantial proportion of the population has been quickly killed off, but it’s a story about the boy, not the world; the book has more in common with the homey coming-of-age novels of Tony Earley than Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Contrasting Cole’s old and new families, Athitakis also notes that “the novel is as much a culture-versus-culture story as a boy-versus-nature tale.” Jonathan Messinger agrees, writing that “Nunez is more interested in the conflict of faith and reason than a postapocalyptic society, and pandemics and adolescence turn out to be qualified crucibles.”

In the New York Times, Abraham Verghese says, “Nunez tells a fine tale, avoiding clichés and providing powerful insights. . . . . Through Cole’s eyes, the redemption offered by religion is offset by its hypocrisy; he finds his enlightenment not from dogma but from his own painful experiences. By the end of this satisfying, provocative and very plausible novel, Cole doesn’t believe that the world is about to end.”

Athitakis thinks the ending is where Nunez trips up: “Nunez needn’t come down hard on either side, but splitting the world unnaturally into factions means the characters become a little unnatural as well. Cole ultimately comes to a decision about the world he’ll live in, but his late-stage decisiveness feel more like a necessary device to tie the bow on the story than a natural result of his novel-long questioning.”

Salvation City by Sigrid Nunez
Riverhead, 288 pp., $25.95

Saturday, November 13th, 2010

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu

yuYu’s first novel (his debut was a collection of stories called Third Class Superhero) stars a time-machine repairman on a mission to find his father. His best friends, in the small box in which he travels, are computer programs, and if all that reminds you of someone, it should. In the New York Times Book Review, Ander Monson writes: “You might be forgiven for thinking that this setup smells strongly of vintage Douglas Adams. It does. Like Adams, Yu is very funny, usually proportional to the wildness of his inventions, but Yu’s sound and fury conceal (and construct) this novel’s dense, tragic, all-too-human heart.”

In the Guardian, Adam Roberts ups the ante on Douglas comparisons. “[The novel is] sometimes a touch too cute for its own good,” he writes. “But it is all redeemed in the telling by the charm and skill of Yu’s voice, pitched somewhere in that interDouglas space between Coupland and Adams.”

Critics tend to agree that Yu succeeds in marrying his wacky inventions — which Monson calls “enjoyably batty” — to an emotionally engaging story. In the Los Angeles Times, Ed Park says: “Stripped of its [sci-fi] trappings, the emotional core of the novel is about a family trying to make its way in a new country, trying and failing to fit into its culture and learn its strange tongue. What Yu does is take this familiar story (too familiar, perhaps) and, in the guise of science fiction, make it potent again.”

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
Pantheon, 256 pp., $24.00

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

The Hilliker Curse by James Ellroy

hillikerWhen James Ellroy was 10 years old, his mother was murdered, and the case was never solved. This fact has famously inspired his career as a hard-boiled writer, never more directly than in My Dark Places his 1996 nonfiction account of unsuccessfully trying to solve the murder nearly 40 years after it happened. My Dark Places has been described as procedural, orderly, and clinical. The Hilliker Curse, his new memoir, is a more emotional account, in which he admits to wishing his mother dead shortly before she was killed and chronicles his lifelong pursuit of a woman to replace her.

In the Wall Street Journal, Andrew Klavan writes: “The Hilliker Curse . . . is not meant to be merely a confession. It is an act of creation, Mr. Ellroy’s attempt to take the reader into the experience of his anguish and aberrations. It is a show, all right, there is no question about that. He intends to dazzle and seduce us with the romance of his suffering perversity. But there’s a truth of feeling in it, too, an underlying sense of what it is actually like to live in the vortex of an impossible yearning.”

Other critics have been less kind, tiring of Ellroy’s relentlessly jazzy style and his obsessive themes. In the New York Times, Alexandra Jacobs says “it’s impossible not to sympathize” with Ellroy, but that his patented treatment of women (in life and on the page) not surprisingly limits his female audience: “Tough-guy Ellroy is not one to sink into the soft cushions of the therapeutic couch, and any lingering anguish about his grim childhood — along with the bonus trauma of being molested by a German baby sitter — is not analyzed here so much as mystified. To him, members of the opposite sex have always been superheroines, essentially unknowable, powerful beyond measure, goddesses with a capital G (when he can remember their names, that is).”

At The New Republic, David Thomson writes, “Ellroy’s new book injects his mother’s maiden name — Hilliker — into its veins and describes itself as just a memoir. But its subtitle, ‘My Pursuit of Women,’ is more compulsive than candid, and it leaves one uncertain whether this is the demented recitative of Casanova or of Jack the Ripper, Céline or R. Crumb.”

But it’s John O’Connell in the Guardian who throws the most direct punch:

[Ellroy’s] style is often called “staccato,” but that flatters it by suggesting economy and precision. Here, the clipped, brutal sentences that were once his trademark . . . yield all too often to a ludicrous high-romantic psychobabble, seemingly based on his hero Beethoven’s letters to his Immortal Beloved. Then there’s his weakness for jivey alliteration: “I was frayed, fraught, french-fried and frazzled.” “Pile on the pianissimo and postpone the pizzazz.” Please God, make it stop.

The Hilliker Curse by James Ellroy
Knopf, 224 pp., $24.95

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

Room by Emma Donoghue

roomEmma Donoghue’s Room, shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, takes its premise from the horrific real-life experiences of Elisabeth Fritzl and Jaycee Dugard, two women who were held captive for years and bore children by their captors. Room tells a story like this from the perspective of the child, in this fictional case a 5-year-old named Jack who has never known life outside of his mother’s small cell.

Aimee Bender, among others, is impressed, writing in the New York Times Book Review: “Jack’s voice is one of the pure triumphs of the novel: in him, [Donoghue] has invented a child narrator who is one of the most engaging in years — his voice so pervasive I could hear him chatting away during the day when I wasn’t reading the book.” Even Bender’s few objections, she says, are “based on the very high standards set by the beauty of the book.”

Nicola Barr in the Guardian is equally taken: “In the hands of this audacious novelist, Jack’s tale is more than a victim-and-survivor story: it works as a study of child development, shows the power of language and storytelling, and is a kind of sustained poem in praise of motherhood and parental love. Room is in many ways what its publisher claims it to be: a novel like no other.”

In the Los Angeles Times, David L. Ulin says the book suffers from its constricted point of view, and that in the book’s most pivotal moments, “things unfold too quickly, without sufficient context, inconsistent with how the characters behave.” Ulin also quotes Donoghue as saying that writing the book from the mother’s perspective “would [have been] too obviously sad.”

Which leads to the obvious question of whether writing it from the child’s perspective is too precious. As James Wood wrote in the London Review of Books, the actual bottomless horror of a situation like this in real life doesn’t really lend itself to even slightly charming fictional treatment. He writes: “[U]nfortunately Jack is a child, and unfortunately Jack narrates the novel, and unfortunately Jack is a pretty cute kid, which means that the book itself is never far from cuteness – more Adrian Mole than Ivan Denisovich – which may explain the endorsements of Room provided by sentimental popular novelists like Anita Shreve and Audrey Niffenegger.”

Room by Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown, 336 pp., $24.99

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

A Curable Romantic by Joseph Skibell

curableromanticJudging by Esther Schor’s review at the New Republic, Joseph Skibell’s 600-page novel is impossible to summarize, even in 2,000 words. Schor’s blurb goes like this: “It’s a high-energy, wild performance, as ample as its protagonist’s appetites; the postmodern Jewish novel as mash-up of genres: Yiddish folktale, sentimental education, Freudian case history, erotic confession, utopian parable, all wrapped up in an ‘alternative history’ of Jewish emancipation…” The longer take involves Jakob Sammelsohn, the book’s fictional protagonist; Freud, and a patient of his named Emma Eckstein; the inventor of Esperanto; a notable Polish rabbi killed by the Nazis; and at least one dybbuk, or demonic spiritual possession.

For Schor, it’s a big success, “extraordinary,” “masterful,” etc. James Renovitch, in the Austin Chronicle, says, “A Curable Romantic shifts gears from mystery to history to something approximating Dante’s Paradiso with few snags in the author’s skilled yarn-spinning.” And Publishers Weekly calls the novel “a magnetic collection of personalities,” and writes, “In the figure of Sammelsohn, we see the timid makings of the modern psychoanalytic man.”

Dissent comes from Donna Rifkind in the Barnes & Noble Review, who comes to praise and bury Skibell: “[His] confluence of big ideas and lofty personalities is admirably gutsy. So are his generously dispatched love scenes, in which he propels his eager young narrator into the arms of several delightful fräuleins. But while ambition in a novel is always praiseworthy, it’s never more important than execution [. . .] In general, the clanking machinery of historical fact is a disruption here rather than an enhancement. [. . .] The demonic possession scenes are flat-out ridiculous, lacking any of the supernatural authority that distinguished [Skibell’s] A Blessing on the Moon. Instead of bringing the reader closer to this brave new era, in which brain science is just beginning to clash with religious belief, their clichéd wailing and flailing takes the reader’s attention away.”

A Curable Romantic by Joseph Skibell
Algonquin, 608 pp., $25.95

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

You Lost Me There by Rosecrans Baldwin

baldwin1Baldwin’s novel is one of the more widely noticed debuts of 2010. In it, Victor, a leading Alzheimer’s researcher living in Maine, is still struggling to cope with the death of his wife, Sara, who was killed in a car accident three years earlier. Victor’s grief is complicated by the discovery of note cards on which Sara recorded her thoughts about their relationship—thoughts that don’t always match Victor’s.

In Time Out Chicago, J.C. Gabel says the book’s “clever paradoxical sub-plot” (“Victor is an expert on memory, except when it pertains to his own”) is impressively executed. In the classroom that is Entertainment Weekly, You Lost Me There earns an A- for being “beautiful, brainy, [and] offbeat.”

In the New York Times, Jean Thompson says, “There is a sense in which Victor cannot complete or even begin his mourning until he knows exactly what he lost. Unfortunately for him, verifiable results are hard to find outside the lab. . . . He is the sort of narrator who occasionally moves a reader to sympathy, but just as often makes you want to give him a few good smacks upside the head.”

Michael Schaub’s praise is the most full-throated: “[T]he most surprising thing about You Lost Me There is Baldwin’s self-assured, subtle, and unfailingly moving prose—this book does not read like the work of a young, first-time novelist. [Baldwin] . . . is uncannily perceptive when it comes to the complicated and fraught issues of marriage, death, and sexual desire, and his dialogue is naturalistic and unforced. . . . It’s not always easy to find beauty in pain, but that’s what Baldwin has done, and the result is affecting, profound, and true.”

You Lost Me There by Rosecrans Baldwin
Riverhead, 304 pp., $25.95

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

A Stroll with William James by Jacques Barzun

barzunCultural historian Barzun, now 102 years old, published A Stroll with William James in 1983 to acknowledge “an intellectual debt.” In an introductory note, he wrote, “[W]hile telling here at what a high rate I have benefited from keeping an open account with William James, I know I cannot hope to do justice to the man or to the fullness of his thought.” His goal was to “simply show what [James'] works have meant to me and can mean to others.” He continued:

The tone and temper of his thought, aside from its purport and contents, is a prop to independence of mind, an antidote to the opium of modern ideologies, a tonic in the resistance to the sludge of “modern communications,” popular and advanced. His resolving lucidity in analysis, his hard-won freedom that frees others (a rare consequence of liberation movements) enables me better to endure or enjoy whatever befalls me—and all this in the simplest way of making actual and unmistakable what I would otherwise grope toward or dimly sense.

Reviewing the book in the New York Times, Robert Coles wrote: “The point of the exercise is an engagement of two congenial human beings. [Barzun’s approach is] an edifying act of affection toward a man who loved frank and animated intellectual exchanges and mocked pedantry. . . . Somewhere in the universe the ardent, robust walker William James must be quietly delighted at receiving this eloquent and wise testimonial from a longtime traveling companion.”

In the Virginia Quarterly Review, Martin Lebowitz called the book Barzun’s best since 1941 (as many as 25 books ago, depending on how you count them). He concluded that Stroll is, “in itself, an education in the liberal arts.”

A Stroll with William James by Jacques Barzun
University of Chicago Press, 352 pp., $20.00

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand

metaphysicalclubLouis Menand’s portrait of four American intellectuals and pragmatism’s origins in the wake of the Civil War won a Pulitzer Prize in 2002. The book’s central figures are William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey. The first three were members of the titular conversational club, which met in Cambridge, Massachusetts, throughout 1872.

Reviewing the book upon its publication, George Scialabba wrote that the book is, “full of color, incident, and personality. . . . What is enthralling and illuminating about The Metaphysical Club is its portraits of individuals and their milieus. Menand is wonderfully deft at evoking a climate of ideas or a cultural sensibility, embodying it in a character, and moving his characters into and out of one another’s lives.” Jean Strouse, biographer of William James’ sister, Alice, wrote, “Menand brings rare common sense and graceful, witty prose to his richly nuanced reading of American intellectual history.”

Kenneth Baker noted Menand’s rare talent for holding readers’ attention through complex material: “Menand goes on long digressions into such topics as the rise of statistical thinking, 19th century debates over Darwin and evolutionary theory, the fateful Pullman strike in Chicago and the so-called Howland Will case, the era’s most famous lawsuit. The clarity and energy of his writing never fail. Nor is the reader ever left wondering about the relevance of Menand’s side trips into theory and anecdote.” Baker concluded: “The Metaphysical Club sets a new standard for anyone who would write, or read, the human story of a progress of ideas.”

An essay about William James also leads off American Studies, a collection of Menand’s work.

The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America by Louis Menand
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 568 pp., $16.00

Friday, August 20th, 2010

I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson

pettersonNorwegian novelist Per Petterson’s follow-up to the surprise hit Out Stealing Horses is set in 1989 and stars Arvid Jansen, a 37-year-old communist struggling with the dissolution of his marriage, the impending death of his mother from stomach cancer, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Stacey D’Erasmo writes: “In his books . . . Petterson depicts a literal and figurative geography that, to American readers, might feel a little like the starker reaches of the West, a little like the stonier shores of Maine, a little like Edward Hopper, a little like Raymond Carver.”

Hillary Kelly writes that Arvid Jansen, “meanders over nearly every inch of Oslo and, for a good portion of the novel, into Jutland, at the northernmost tip of Denmark. As he wanders his musings skip haphazardly though time — Arvid’s memory is the only moving limb of an otherwise paralyzed psyche. . . . Petterson’s hauntingly bleak prose and tightly assembled nonlinear narrative are hallmarks of his work, and they shine here.”

Bob Thompson says, “The stubborn mysteries of family conflict are [Petterson’s] subject, and he evokes them in a voice whose straightforwardness belies its subtlety.” Thompson also say that an earlier Petterson novel might hold the key to the mother-son relationship here, and that Arvid is “simply less compelling when his tough, complicated parent is offstage.” John Freeman agrees that Arvid’s mother is the crucial character: “She looms large in this tale, like one of the bruising fathers of Russell Banks’ novels.”

Charles McGrath says, “[T]he book, while just as well written as [Out Stealing Horses], doesn’t have the same historical sweep or resonance. It’s more claustrophobic, trapping the reader inside the gloomy head of its narrator.” But most critics, while noting that same gloominess, recommend the book anyway. Kelly says, “Arvid is simply unlikable,” but that “the hero’s stasis does not forfeit all claims on the reader’s sympathy. This is a finely drawn portrait of a man in suspension.” Likewise, D’Erasmo concludes that, “There is a quality that I can only call charm, or something like charm, to Petterson’s essentially dark and lonely sensibility.”

I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson
Graywolf, 224 pp., $23.00

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross

peanutRoss’ debut novel describes the marriage of David and Alice Pepin. Alice, who’s allergic to peanuts, is found dead with one lodged in her throat. The cops assigned to figure out whether David is to blame have serious relationship issues of their own. The book, a thorough investigation of marriage with references to video-game design, M. C. Escher, and Möbius strips, has received praise for its prose and condemnation for its cleverness. This dual reaction is found in almost every major review.

In the Guardian, Christopher Tayler writes that “the book’s emotional authority drains away as Ross works up to multiple Atonement-style trick endings, piling up somewhat hackneyed motifs suggestive of recursion (mirrors, Möbius strips).” But: “All the same, it’s an impressive first novel, and there’s no question that the people who signed Ross up had shrewd eyes for talent, a quality he’s jumping with.”

Michiko Kakutani calls Ross a “literary gymnast,” “a sorcerer with words,” who has “David Foster Wallace-like descriptive powers.” And yet? “[T]he novel’s wildly ambitious, Nabokovian architecture — and its author’s heavy use of theme and variation — feels self-conscious and contrived. . . . Mr. Ross has ended up not with a jigsaw picture that clicks weirdly and perfectly together, but rather with a heap of mirror fragments lying jumbled together.” Her conclusion of “dark, dazzling and deeply flawed” is a pretty good summation of the book’s reviews.

Calling Ross a writer of “prodigious talent” on the front cover of the New York Times Book Review, Scott Turow says, “Mr. Peanut requires considerable decoding. This can be annoying, a little like going to a dinner party where all the guests seem bright and amiable but insist on speaking another language. Yet over all, the novel is an enormous success — forceful and involving, often deeply stirring and always impressively original.”

Getting the picture? But not all critics are so conflicted. In the Wall Street Journal, Alexander Theroux accentuates the negative: “Mr. Peanut is positively overlarded with excesses, creating a tedium that might rival that of the worst marriage.” Conversely, at Bookslut, Second Pass contributor Richard Wirick comes closest to unqualified praise, writing, “Like [Edward] Albee and [Richard] Yates, Ross has a staggering gift (especially in such a young writer) for portraying marriage as the most universal and yet mysterious, sometimes unfathomable of relationships.” But even Wirick expresses some irritation at the book’s structural tricks, which he finds unnecessary: “Can’t anyone tell a straight-ahead story anymore?”

Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross
Knopf, 352 pp., $25.95

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

Mentor by Tom Grimes

mentorGrimes’ memoir recounts his time at the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and his friendship with Frank Conroy, the head of the program and the mentor of the title. Grimes was Conroy’s favorite student, and his debut baseball-themed novel, Season’s End was supposed to send him on his way to literary stardom. Things didn’t turn out that way.

In the Washington Post, Michael Dirda praises the book without any reservations in sight:

From now on, anyone who dreams of becoming a novelist will need to read Tom Grimes’ brutally honest and wonderful Mentor. While there have been plenty of books on how to write, or how to get published, or how to promote your work, as well as a number of triumphalist accounts of “making it,” this is a story of what it’s like to just miss succeeding. It’s also a superb reminiscence of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the late 1980s and of its celebrated director, Frank Conroy, author of the classic memoir Stop-Time (1967).

In the New York Times, Dwight Garner says, “This is a book about striding up to the brink of success, only to have success disembowel you with a dull steak knife, bow, and then skip away, cackling.”


Garner’s review has the feel of a recommendation, but with a few caveats near the end: “Mentor is a harrowing book but not always an impressive one. There are plenty of stray details about Conroy . . . but this book isn’t close to a full portrait. [. . .] [Its] tone is often wet and therapized. ‘I arrived fatherless; I departed a son,’ Mr. Grimes writes about Iowa and Conroy. [. . .] I cringed but couldn’t put Mentor down.”

At Bookslut, Grimes talks about the book with J. C. Hallman, a fellow Workshop alum:

Oddly, since I’ve finished writing the memoir, I’ve noticed, as I never did before, how many people, in a variety of professions, speak of having a mentor. So, yes, the need is, at some level, universal, which is why, I’m coming to learn, the book speaks to a variety of people; also because the book is about failure, or the feeling that one is a failure, which is a universal fear as well.

Mentor: A Memoir by Tom Grimes
Tin House, 256 pp., $24.95

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

A Thousand Peaceful Cities by Jerzy Pilch

peacefulcitiesIn the third of Pilch’s novels to be translated into English (I recommended the second, The Mighty Angel, earlier this year), the acclaimed Polish author once again writes about an autobiographical character who shares his first name. Jerzy is a teenager in 1963 Soviet-ruled Poland, and he is influenced by the political philosophizing of his father and a friend named Mr. Traba. Matthew Jakubowski says that Peaceful Cities “bears the hallmarks of Pilch’s prose—it is alternately reflective, zany, and gloomy, as he pulls from his own life to create another short yet potent novel.”

At the center of the story is Traba’s ridiculous plot to kill the Communist General Secretary, named Gomulka. Jakubowski says this plan “provides the novel’s loose framework, in which Pilch skillfully arranges a series of anecdotes about hopeless political resistance, the Lutheran religious minority in Poland, the mysteries of young love, and rampant alcoholism in Wisla, where Pilch was born in 1952.” (Alcoholism is the central subject matter of The Mighty Angel.) Steven Kellman writes, “Despite the scheme to kill Gomulka, the book is less a political thriller than the story of a boy’s coming-of-age in a goofy household in a broken homeland.” David Ulin says, “the book is a testament to the primacy of art, not violence, in the preservation of a culture.” And like other reviewers, he notes the flair of Traba, who “becomes almost a Falstaffian figure, full of highhanded advice on the art of living, rewarding himself with a drink for each bon mot.”

Kellman writes:

Pilch’s antic sensibility confirms that he is the compatriot of Witold Gombrowicz, the Polish maestro of absurdist pranks. But readers with a taste for the fermented Irish blarney of Flann O’Brien, Samuel Beckett, and John Kennedy Toole might also savor Pilch. Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be perplexed. The assassination of Gomulka, which Mr. Traba calmly discusses with a police investigator who advises him against it, is just a MacGuffin on which to hang digressions on Lutheran theology, Romantic poetry, stained glass windows, and feminine pulchritude.”

A Thousand Peaceful Cities by Jerzy Pilch
Open Letter, 143 pp., $14.95

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

Mad Men Unbuttoned by Natasha Vargas-Cooper

mmunbuttonedMad Men Unbuttoned is not officially affiliated with the popular TV series, so if you’re looking for glossy photos of Don Draper and cohorts, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Vargas-Cooper (who still maintains the blog from which this book sprang) is more interested in the show’s cultural background: In dozens of short essays, she writes about the real-life people, firms, and ad campaigns that are reflected in the show; the sexual lives of the characters and real 1960s Americans; and the series’ literary influences, from John Cheever to Ayn Rand.

At the New Yorker’s Book Bench, Meredith Blake calls Unbuttoned, “The most recent, and possibly the richest of the Mad Men books . . . a well-versed primer to the most literate show on television.” At the New York Review of Books blog, Martin Filler writes, “An amusing if only fitfully provocative new book, Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s Mad Men Unbuttoned is likely to become a trivia-lover’s bible, as well as recommended reading for the inevitable college media-studies courses on this pop-cultural phenomenon.” (Stuffed with photos from the era—including some great vintage ads—and witty parallels, Unbuttoned seems intentionally designed as more an amusement than a provocation. The presence of the word “romp” in the book’s subtitle is the clincher.)

In an interview with Blake, Vargas-Cooper drops this prediction, which we’ll have to watch for as Season 4 progresses:

I don’t know what will happen this season, and I’m not sure entirely what they’re going to be reading. But look at the Cheever, Updike, and Philip Roth books that come out at that time. Well, I’m just going to tell you that little Gene Draper doesn’t have a chance: in all those books, a baby dies. I do think that in terms of the literature, if there is one strain that will cross over to the show, it will be the idea that these people have repressed their feelings, and there eventually will be a terrible consequence—say, like what you have in Revolutionary Road. I think it’s going to get really dark. Baby Gene is definitely marked in some way; I think we have an Omen on our hands.

Mad Men Unbuttoned by Natasha Vargas-Cooper
Collins Design, 256 pp., $16.99

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

Witz by Joshua Cohen

witzCohen’s third novel is getting attention for its length (800 pages), its inventiveness with language (downright Joycean, some say), and its conceit (near the turn of the millennium, a mysterious plague wipes out all the world’s Jews but for one, Benjamin Israelien). In the Forward, Dan Friedman writes, “Comparisons to James Joyce are kind to Cohen, but the precocity of Cohen’s talent and his profound love of language from highest to lowest register are reminiscent of the Irishman.”

Stephen Burn says that “manic invention is the key to this restless novel. . . . Without Jews, Judaism becomes hugely popular. But as everyone converts, Ben tries to escape his fame and is excommunicated. While he wanders in exile, a reverse Holocaust is created: heretics who refuse to accept Judaism are put to death in the camps at Whateverwitz.” Burn concludes that “[s]ome will be exhausted by the tentacular punning paragraphs, but Witz is a brave and artful attempt to explore and explode the limits of the sentence.”

Another warning of fatigue comes from Drew Toal, who writes, “Some will find this exhausting.” But Toal evidently isn’t one of them: “These are gun-shy, play-it-safe times for book publishers, and this epic new novel—biblical in scope and content—doesn’t appear suited for casual page-flipping on the beach. But serious readers should be thankful that Dalkey Archive decided to give it a shot, because just beyond the book’s brainy content and intricate structure is a story that’s entertaining, adventurous, and delightfully absurd.”

Jonathan Liu is charmed, but also, yes, exhausted: “It’s the cross-country cinematics of [Benjamin’s] escape—and, of course, the doorstop heft—that suggests Witz as this decade’s Infinite Jest or White Noise, the young man’s big picaresque of ideas. In truth, it’s much too insular, too slapdash, too particularist for the comparison. Cohen’s is a novel of one idea, and as such, could be comfortably shorter by 400 pages or more, though I wouldn’t want to be the one making the cuts.”

In an interview with his publisher, Cohen explained the book’s title:

It means, in Yiddish as in German, ‘a joke.’ But it also means, in assorted Slavic languages, ‘son of’: Abramowitz being ‘son-of-Abram.’ Variants include ‘vich,’ and ‘vitch’: Rabinovich, Rabinovitch. So, the book is both a joke—the entire book is the entire joke—and a son. Benjamin Israelien, my Last Jew, that son of a witz.

Witz by Joshua Cohen
Dalkey Archive Press, 800 pp., $18.95

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

William Golding by John Carey

william-goldingTo write this, the first biography of the Nobel Prize-winning author of Lord of the Flies, Carey, a prominent British critic and academic, was given access to unpublished novels and thousands of pages of private journals. William Boyd believes “it is unlikely that this biography will ever be bettered or superseded,” and several other reviewers seem to agree. “Carey,” Boyd says, “writes with great wit and lucidity as well as authority and compassionate insight.”

Given that Golding’s life could be quiet and bleak — he was full of class resentment, over-sensitive to criticism, and prone to episodes of embarrassing drunkenness — “it’s among Mr. Carey’s achievements,” Dwight Garner says, “that this plump and well-researched biography sits lightly in the lap; it reads like a picaresque novel.”

Reviews in Carey’s home country are equally positive. In the Independent, DJ Taylor writes, “One of the great advantages of Carey’s treatment is its unrelenting focus on the way in which a writer’s life is lived at bedrock – how much he gets for his books, what the editor thinks and what the critics say – and the inner demons to which this solitary existence is prey.” Taylor is also thorough (and funny) about the issue of class resentment.

In the Times Literary Supplement, Allan Massie concludes that, “Carey treats [Golding] with sympathy and intelligence, eschewing any attempt at amateur psychoanalysis of this complicated man and writer. . . . this is an admirable and continuously interesting literary biography.” In his review for the Guardian, Blake Morrison shines some light on an odd, formative sexual experience of Golding’s, and also notes that the book benefits from its focus on Charles Monteith, Golding’s longtime editor: “[It was] a 40-year relationship as crucial as Scott Fitzgerald’s with Max Perkins or Raymond Carver’s with Gordon Lish.”

William Golding by John Carey
Free Press, 592 pp., $32.50

Monday, June 28th, 2010

Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis

imperial-bedroomsEllis’ 1985 debut, Less Than Zero, was narrated by Clay, who cataloged the amoral boredom of his social circle’s brand-obsessed, drug-addled lifestyle. The book was made into a quintessentially ‘80s movie starring Andrew McCarthy and Robert Downey Jr., among others. Now, Clay is 43, and back to narrate this sequel.

For more than one critic, the operative word for the new novel is “flat.” In the New York Times, Erica Wagner writes: “Ellis’ work has always been stitched with cross-reference and self-reference, threaded through with a sense that the boundary between fantasy and reality is disturbingly fragile. It’s what makes his work, at its best, so striking. I can well believe the haunted fascination that sparked off Imperial Bedrooms. But the resulting novel falls flat.” In the Onion’s A.V. Club, Ellen Wernecke concludes, “Ellis reliably produces an aura of menace around such mundane activities as looking in a fridge or checking in at a restaurant, but his characters—and Clay’s estimation of them—are flatter than ever.” And in the Wall Street Journal, Alexander Theroux says, “The prose is flat,” and that “the novel’s true subject is a yawning lassitude not philosophical enough to be called profound.”

In the Barnes & Noble Review, Molly Young argues that the flatness is the point: “Ennui is a narrow feeling, and . . . Imperial Bedrooms is, correspondingly, a book with a tiny but complex purview. This isn’t at all a bad thing.”

Of those critics who ignore flatness altogether, most are still disappointed. Janet Maslin lists the five books Ellis has written since Less Than Zero, and says: “Hit or miss, each of those books had more vigor than this one.” In the Chicago Sun-Times, Thomas Conner says readers may find themselves “trudging through this unnecessary continuation of Clay’s hopeless drama.” But in the Guardian, Mark Lawson joins Young on the sunny side of the street:

In terms of American literary inheritance, Easton Ellis adds the playful self-advertisements of Philip Roth to the ambiguously complicit social reportage of F Scott Fitzgerald. Imperial Bedrooms ranks with his best exercises in the latter register, teeming with sharp details of a narcissistic generation.

Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis
Knopf, 192 pp., $24.95

Monday, June 21st, 2010

The Wagon by Martin Preib

the-wagonChicago policeman Martin Preib wrote an acclaimed essay in the Virginia Quarterly Review a few years back, about being called to big up dead bodies at crime scenes. It’s now the title essay in a collection of pieces about his time on the beat.

In one of Preib’s hometown papers, the Chicago Reader, Jerome Ludwig says of the book’s title essay: ““In it, Preib details his work on the vehicle the [Chicago Police Department] uses to pick up dead bodies. It seems incongruous to describe such a gut-wrenching story as gorgeous, but gorgeous it is; Preib’s musings on the recently, often ignominiously departed are particularly affecting, with flashes of morbid humor for relief.”

Reviewing the book in the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Horan, a fellow police officer, writes:

Police thrillers are so widely read and police dramas so commonplace on television that many people think they have a good understanding of what a cop’s world is like. But in truth that world is seldom revealed with anything approaching verisimilitude. We get it with The Wagon.

And in the Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley says the book is a particularly welcome addition to the shelf:

Preib’s is a voice that has almost never been heard in American writing: not merely the voice of an ordinary policeman, which is rare enough, but the voice of someone whose working life has been spent in the service industry, “the place for muddled worldviews, unclear ambitions, blunted desires, and other people who just never got it, or thought they had it but didn’t: the divorced, alcoholics, the new age philosophers, dopers, the indolent, the criminal.”

Yardley notes Preib’s stated appreciation of Walt Whitman and Herman Melville, and, in Preib’s words, his own “kind of faith that lingers in realism, a belief that knowing the city will lead somewhere beyond the city.” Yardley writes: “He has justified and realized that faith in The Wagon, a quite remarkable book that is much larger than its slender dimensions.”

The Wagon and Other Stories from the City by Martin Preib
University of Chicago Press, 176 pp., $20.00

Friday, June 18th, 2010

Role Models by John Waters

rolemodelsIn his new memoir, Waters, once infamous for pushing past the limits of taste on film and now famous for originating a kitschy aesthetic that is firmly entrenched in the mainstream, writes about people he has met and admired, from popular stars to the marginalized to the down and out.

In the New York Times, Tom Carson writes:

Unlike some other Nixon-era provocateurs [. . .] — the late Hunter S. Thompson comes to mind — Waters hasn’t been undone by the realization that he’s not outrageous anymore. Effectively inventing a second career as a droll curator of his first, he’s the best funny uncle America has had since Paul Lynde’s cackle on The Hollywood Squares was confusing innocents in less wised-up times.

He goes on to say that Role Models is the “best of [Waters'] cobbled-together exercises in autobiography at one remove.”

In Bookforum, Liz Brown calls the book “splendid,” and concludes: “Happily, for all the reflective and tender moments, Waters never suppresses his radiant pervert self.” In Time Out New York, Catherine Lacey judges the book, “a self-aware and thought-provoking work for anyone interested in why depressing plays, acidic novels and provocative films might actually make you a happier person.”

Derek Donovan writes:

When John Waters was creating his “celluloid atrocities” in 1970s Baltimore — directing the 300-pound drag queen Divine to commit some of the most nauseating acts ever caught on film — he probably never dreamed that he would one day see two of his movies transformed into big-budget Broadway musicals or that he’d serve as a juror at prestigious European film festivals.

I bet he also never dreamed that his work would be reviewed positively (if at all) in the Kansas City Star, which is where Donovan’s review appears, and where Donovan calls Role Models “a deeply compassionate, insightful book about real-life characters living on the margins of society, both at the pinnacle of achievement and deep in the gutter. . . . William S. Burroughs once pronounced him ‘the pope of trash,’ but John Waters has matured into a thoughtful, often astute essayist.”

Role Models by John Waters
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pp., $25.00

Friday, June 4th, 2010

The Dead Republic by Roddy Doyle

dead-republicThe concluding novel in Doyle’s “Last Roundup” trilogy about a character named Henry Smart whose long life coincides with the 20th-century history of Ireland, The Dead Republic starts with Smart’s return to Ireland in 1951 after eventful years in America. (The first two books were A Star Called Henry and Oh, Play That Thing.) Henry has consulted with American director John Ford on his movie The Quiet Man, only to realize that Ford’s views of Ireland are entirely sentimental and insufficient.

Opinion of the novel seems divided almost exactly down the middle by the Atlantic Ocean. In the UK’s Telegraph, Brian Dillon says that “Doyle works hard to corral the whole of post-war Irish society to fit his hero’s picaresque shenanigans—with increasingly schematic and unconvincing results.”

And the Guardian criticizes the work in not one, but two reviews. Tim Adams writes: “There is a difference between dialogue and voice, and while Doyle is a master of the former—it was his ear for the vernacular that drove his early books to their comic heights—his attempts at an interiorized, rather than a spoken, idiom have generally been less convincing.” And Christopher Tayler follows that up with: “Over-schematic and under-planned, it’s a disappointing end to Doyle’s ambitious trilogy, though the improvisatory quality of Henry’s wanderings often generates powerful individual scenes.”

Enthusiastic reviewers in the States beg to differ. Martin Rubin, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, says the novel “leaves the reader profoundly enlightened about the true Ireland in all its terrible glory.” In the New York Times, Tom LeClair judges The Dead Republic as the best book in the cycle, “allowing the characters to have long talks with (and against) one another and giving readers time to think about the brutal intersection of religion, economics and politics in Ireland.”

And finally, in the Los Angeles Times, Tim Rutten writes:

[T]he larger purpose behind [the] trilogy . . . comes clearly into view, and it’s no less than a smackdown of popular culture’s contribution, particularly as refracted through the lens of Irish American sentimentality, to the mythology of Irish nationalism. Doyle’s is hardly the first hand to work this crooked intellectual furrow, but no one before him has made the excavation even half so entertaining.

The Dead Republic by Roddy Doyle
Viking, 336 pp., $26.95

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

Last Call by Daniel Okrent

lastcallDaniel Okrent’s biggest impact on the culture (and certainly on my life) might always be his invention of Rotisserie/“fantasy” baseball. But of course, he’s also a celebrated author. His latest is a history of Prohibition. In Business Week, Tyler Cowen writes that Okrent has produced “what is likely to be one of this year’s best books on American history . . . the most persuasive, witty, and best-documented explanation yet as to why Americans decided to endure a ban on alcohol, the federal government’s most intrusive regulation of all time.” In order to persuade, Okrent digs into the history of the country leading up to Prohibition: “Figuring per capita, multiply the amount Americans drink today by three and you’ll have an idea what much of the nineteenth century was like.”

In the Wall Street Journal, Russ Smith judges Last Call a “superb history,” and says: “Another of the book’s virtues is that it is likely to prompt the reader to reflect in a benign way on life in America today. It’s the accepted, and lazy, wisdom of the current moment that the nation suffers to an unprecedented degree from a ‘partisan’ and ‘polarized’ political culture. We’ve got nothing on the ‘dry’ versus ‘wet’ combatants.”

In the Louisville Courier-Journal, Matt Frassica writes: “[T]hough the book spares us a subtitle claiming that its subject changed the world forever or created the one we know today, Okrent leaves no doubt that Prohibition did both. Consider some of its consequences: women’s suffrage, single-issue political activism, organized crime syndicates, mixed-gender bars, and Las Vegas.”

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent
Scribner, 468 pp., $30.00

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

Private Life by Jane Smiley

privatelifeSmiley’s 13th novel has garnered very mixed reactions. It follows a character named Margaret from 1883 to 1942, from a troubled childhood (two brothers die, her father commits suicide) to a troubled marriage with an eccentric (insane?) astronomer named Andrew. In a blurb-ready rave in the Washington Post, Marie Arana calls the novel “extraordinarily powerful . . . brilliantly imagined, carefully chiseled.” Others are qualified in their admiration. In the New York Times, Sven Birkerts concludes:

Private Life reflects the pressures of the larger world on the most intimate aspects of personal existence. . . . Smiley lets [historical] events infiltrate her narrative even as she keeps Margaret’s sad marriage squarely in the foreground. Through every scene and revelation, she keeps in mind the moment she’s building toward: the completion of Margaret’s long-deferred self-recognition. What she finally delivers has a Jamesian twist of the unforeseen, but it’s achieved with a sureness of hand that’s all her own.

Heller McAlpin at the Barnes & Noble Review says the book “is all about detachment, repression, and frustration. It’s a dreary read — but there’s still much of interest here.” As for the book’s real-life incidents (Pearl Harbor, the influenza epidemic, etc.), McAlpin thinks that “public cataclysms scroll by like crudely painted sets behind the play Margaret feels her life to be. The result is not just a protagonist cut off from her own life — as Smiley intended — but a narrative whose relationship with its readers feels similarly unfulfilling.”

In the Los Angeles Times, Richard Eder strikes the most consistently sour notes, saying, “Smiley has points to make, and if blunt, they are not without interest. As a novel, though, Private Life is a ragged affair. There is compelling tension in the early days of the marital standoff, and in following the construction of Andrew as a grotesque. After a while, though, he is too predictably mad and Margaret too predictably hapless to sustain any convincing narrative momentum.”

The novel elicited similar reactions from two women who reviewed it. Arana wrote, “[Private Life] kept me up all night, long after I’d finished it, remembering the lives of my mother and grandmothers, recalling every novel about women I had ever read, from Anna Karenina to My Antonia.” And in the Globe & Mail, Susan Swan says:

Of course, an indictment of middle-class marriage isn’t new. However, I read parts of Smiley’s novel to my 90-year-old mother and, afterward, we found ourselves wondering about our dead female relatives. Had one great aunt really been happy with the man she married to please her mother? And did a great-grandmother let herself be sent to a sanitarium so she could escape domestic chores? I’m sure Smiley would have enjoyed hearing us talk about our female ancestors.

Private Life by Jane Smiley
Knopf, 336 pp., $26.95

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

Reporting at Wit’s End by St. Clair McKelway

mckelwaySt. Clair McKelway, a reporter for The New Yorker from the 1930s to the 1960s and possessor of the greatest author name of all time (pending future discoveries), had a way with opening sentences. Like this one:

One night in August, 1912, when Thomas Patrick Brophy was the Fire Marshal of Brooklyn, four men were getting ready to build a fire in a stable far out on Johnson Avenue, in one of the more desolate sections of the borough.

And this:

Early in the evening of December 8, 1938, a young man named Philip Caruso went outdoors for the first time in two weeks.

You’re hooked already, right? This collection of 18 pieces seeks to introduce him to a new generation of readers and restore his reputation. When Craig Seligman was a young typist at the magazine, he knew McKelway, and he says

the obscurity into which St. Clair McKelway has fallen amounts to a literary crime. His writing for the magazine rivaled that of his far better-remembered colleagues, Joseph Mitchell and A. J. Liebling, both of whose careers he was instrumental in promoting. . . . In his simplicity McKelway comes closer to The New Yorker’s household deities, E. B. White and James Thurber, than to Mitchell and Liebling, who could tend toward the fancy. He’s the kind of unfussy but supremely confident writer who gets his near-invisible effects by patiently accumulating details while keeping his virtuosity to himself.

A heavy drinker who suffered from bipolar disorder, McKelway also wrote on occasion about himself. (The opening of one of those pieces: “On the whole, I haven’t greatly minded, these past couple of years, the fact that the Central Intelligence Agency, in Washington, knows something of what I did during my vacation in Scotland in the summer of 1959.”) But mostly, he was drawn to cops, arsonists, counterfeiters, and other colorful and/or marginal figures. A 1950 collection of his work had an award-worthy title, True Tales from the Annals of Crime & Rascality.

Steven Winn writes that, “McKelway had a master’s touch for delivering his keenest comprehension of a subject in his most unassuming sentences. . . . Even at the sometimes expansive lengths to which New Yorker writers of his era were accustomed, [he] practiced the qualities of economy, compression and perfectly judged detachment that became the hallmark of the magazine’s peerless nonfiction.”

Or, as Adam Gopnik smartly puts it in his introduction to Reporting at Wit’s End:

The typical magazine “trend” piece says, almost always falsely, “More and more people are acting this way!” The classic McKelway piece says, accurately, “Very, very few people act this way, which is what makes the ones who do so interesting.” This belief in the thing for its own sake, which was shared by his generation of New Yorker craftsmen, creates the equanimity that distinguished their work, and still sets it apart from most other journalism: All of them assumed universals of eccentricity, duplicity, and political corruption, and other universals of good fellowship, comradeship, and ironic appreciation as counter-weights. The reformer’s rage was as alien to the style as the reactionary’s revulsion.

Reporting at Wit’s End by St. Clair McKelway
Bloomsbury, 640 pp., $18.00

Friday, May 7th, 2010

Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre

mincemeatRaves all around for a book that sounds irresistible, Ben Macintyre’s Operation Mincemeat. The operation of the title occurred during World War II, when the British, aided by Ian Fleming and others who knew their way around a spy story, dressed up a dead body as a British naval officer and had it wash up on the shores of Spain. On the body were fake papers, which made it seem as if the Allies were going to attack Greece, rather than Sicily. Hitler moved troops accordingly, and the Allies took Sicily with greater ease.

Michael Idov, at The New Republic’s The Book, calls Macintyre’s latest “[a] nearly flawless true-life picaresque. . . . Operation Mincemeat is more than the sum of its Grand Guignol logistics. Along the way, this story of clever men in a cramped basement outsmarting an enemy horde becomes an entirely unexpected ode to intellect, civilization, and wit.”

At the Barnes & Noble Review, Katherine A. Powers calls it “a terrific book written with intelligence and story-telling brio. . . . Macintyre’s account of the plan’s refinement, execution, and remarkable success is fast-paced, witty, and quite as filled with plot twists and suspense as any novel.” She also calls it “a brilliant revisionist history . . . abounding in eccentrics, rum characters, and over-grown boys.” As for those eccentrics, Idov says, “This is the kind of book where every character, major or minor, comes with a set of splendid quirks, at least one of them involving animals. (Is history really so colorful?)”

In The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell is as thrilled by the book as everyone else (he calls it “brilliant and almost absurdly entertaining”), and he uses it as the foundation for a longer piece about the spy game in general. Those behind Operation Mincemeat were cunning, but also lucky — key Germans involved in the story were eager to sabotage Hitler from within, unbeknownst to Mincemeat’s designers. Gladwell:

The deceptions of the intelligence world are not conventional mystery narratives that unfold at the discretion of the narrator. They are poems, capable of multiple interpretations. . . . A body that washes up onshore is either the real thing or a plant. The story told by the ambassador’s valet is either true or too good to be true. Mincemeat seems extraordinary proof of the cleverness of the British Secret Intelligence Service, until you remember that just a few years later the Secret Intelligence Service was staggered by the discovery that one of its most senior officials, Kim Philby, had been a Soviet spy for years. The deceivers ended up as the deceived.

Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre
Harmony, 416 pp., $25.99

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende

allende-islandAllende’s new novel, set in what is now Haiti and New Orleans, focuses on the life of a slave named Zarité. In the San Francisco Chronicle, Carolina De Robertis has her reservations:

Allende is an unabashed romantic, which makes for an engaging read, but also means that characters are sometimes seen through a softened lens. The black women in this book are marvelously strong, which, while admirable, at times glosses over the full brunt of their circumstances.

And while many white characters’ racism and hypocrisy are laid bare, those who support black rights do so with a moral clarity that feels anachronistic. This is not an unflinching, razor-sharp portrait of slavery in the traditions of Toni Morrison, Patrick Chamoiseau or Edward P. Jones.

But her overall assessment is positive: “This is a risky undertaking; however, Allende manages to carry it on the sheer strength of her compassion for the characters.”

At The New Republic, Naomi Daremblum is feeling much less charitable, calling the book “abysmal.” She begins by recognizing Allende’s importance, calling her “the undisputed Grande Dame of the Latin American novel,” and for good reason: “Allende’s not insignificant contribution to Spanish-language letters has been the demand that it finally heed to the Latin female voice. And she has been aided in her mission by a gift for portraying characters in a convincing manner, even when they are fantastical and improbable.” But the praise stops there:

Island Beneath the Sea is . . . an extremely superficial novel that is perennially out of its depth about the subject it purports to be highlighting—the ravages of slavery on both sides of plantation societies. . . . It may be heresy to challenge the literary reputation of Isabel Allende, but reading Island Beneath the Sea one cannot but conclude that some essential inspiration and vitality is now missing from her work.

In Publishers Weekly, novelist Marlon James said that the “effect of [Allende's displays] of research is a novel that is as inert as a history textbook.”

Jessa Crispin wants to make sure that the Bad Sex in Literature Award judges take notice of the novel.

Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende
Harper, 464 pp., $26.99

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg

eisenbergEisenberg has published four collections of highly praised stories over the course of 25 years. They’re all here, in a book that reaches nearly a thousand pages. John Freeman, among others, doesn’t think there can be too many pages: “I dove into this fat, wonderful collection like a man in a hot dog eating contest. No one writes the kind of strange, deeply intuitive short story that Eisenberg writes.”

Jean Thompson, another fine practitioner of the short-story form, writes: “No one would presume to tell any of Eisenberg’s people to have a nice day. They seldom achieve as much as a good mood. They are as acutely self-conscious as they are outwardly inarticulate. Other more assertive and outlandish personalities overwhelm them; the world’s appalling circumstances rightly appall them. Eisenberg conveys their interiority in such a fine grain that one thinks of Virginia Woolf, if only Woolf’s work were leavened with startling humor.”

Freeman marvels at how those characters manage to stay in the reader’s good graces: “Eisenberg is America’s poet laureate of neuroses . . . If many of the people in this book were in my life I’d want to shake them heartily. Or I’d spend several months attaching jumper cables to my chest, hoping to save them. Here on the page, though, they are deeply lovable, so keenly presented it’s hard not to wish for their safe passage with all the force one develops while reading a novel.”

Wendy Lesser has always thought Eisenberg’s stories are so good that it would be crazy to ask her for a novel, but reading the stories together, in order, she finds a way to see them as having “certain novelistic qualities—including, among other things, an overarching plot and personalities that develop over time.”

The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg
Picador, 992 pp., $22.00