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2 May 2010

¶ Christopher Buckley on The Imperfectionists, a novel by Tom Rachman. Nothing less than a rave, this review starts on a note of high praise and never dips.

This first novel by Tom Rachman, a London-born journalist who has lived and worked all over the world, is so good I had to read it twice simply to figure out how he pulled it off. I still haven’t answered that question, nor do I know how someone so young — Rachman turns out to be 35, though he looks even younger in his author photo — could have acquired such a precocious grasp of human foibles. The novel is alternately hilarious and heart-wrenching, and it’s assembled like a Rubik’s Cube. I almost feel sorry for Rachman, because a debut of this order sets the bar so high.

¶ Pico Iyer on Kissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theatre &c, by William Vollmann. A drolly, kindly unsympathetic review. Why do the editors assign books that cause "seasickness" — if (even figuratively) true?

If the Oxford English Dictionary had a listing for “all over the place,” Vollmann  much, he starts telling us about a “ghetto prostitute” he met at a bus stop in California. In the next paragraph he’s discussing Heinrich Böll (“whose Nobel Prize was in my opinion otherwise deserved”). Then he’s on to Cicero reporting to Atticus about a man in woman’s clothes who stole into a Vestal Virgin sacrifice at Caesar’s house. The beauty of this procedure — for the admirer — is that you never know what’s coming next, and all the world and its works seem to be part of one huge scroll that could unroll forever. The challenge is that reading for more than 30 minutes at a time can induce headaches, seasickness and worse.

¶ David Gates on Three Chords For Beauty's Sake: The Life of Artie Shaw, by Tom Nolan. Mr Gates must know a lot about Artie Shaw somehow, because although he calls this book "absorbing if somewhat sketchy," he proceeds to slather on trowel-loads of storytelling. The worst sort of nonfiction review.

¶ Jeremy McCarter on Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, by James Shapiro; Shakespeare's Lost Kingdom: The True History of Shakespeare and Elizabeth, by Charles Beauclerk; and Prefaces to Shakespeare, by Tony Tanner. This amiable review nicely summarizes Mr Shapiro's history of doubters, lightly ridicules Mr Beauclerk's advocacy of Oxford (he claims to be a descendant), and sighs relief at the late Tony Tanner's wisely agnostic prefaces.

Consider “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” For a stalwart Oxfordian like Beauclerk, this play, like many others, is an elaborate allegory about de Vere’s frustrations and Elizabeth’s schemes. Bottom’s vision after his enchanted night with Titania “is nothing as banal as the dreamlike memory of an ass’s head,” Beauclerk writes; “it is the specter of the crown which the fairy queen’s love for him seemed to portend.” Tanner, by contrast, says that what happens between Titania and Bottom when they leave the stage is “a vital blank which we never can fill in.” Such mysteries are one reason that he felt no “more magical play has ever been written,” and that so many of us go on feeling the same. Sometimes an ass’s head is just an ass’s head.

¶ Josef Joffe on Ill Fares the Land, by Tony Judt. What can the editors have been thinking, assigning a book by NYRB pillar Tony Judt to an associate of Stanford's Hoover Institute? Do they expect anything useful to come of such a joke?

But enough of the fact-slinging. The central problem with “Ill Fares the Land” is a classic fallacy of the liberal-left intelligentsia, more in Europe than in the United States. Call it the “Doctor State Syndrome.” The individual is greedy, misguided or blind. The state is the Hegelian embodiment of the right and the good that floats above the fray. But the state does not. It is a party to the conflict over “who gets what, when and how,” to recall Harold Lasswell’s definition of politics. It makes its own pitch for power; it creates privileges, franchises and clienteles. This is why it is so hard to rein in, let alone cut back. The modern welfare state creates a new vested interest with each new entitlement. It corrupts as it does good.

¶ Amy Finnerty on  A Thread of Sky, a novel by Deanna Fei. This guardedly favorable review is dampened by Ms Finnerty's lack of sympathy with the novel's younger characters.

With China’s “must sees” as a backdrop, family secrets emerge, and Irene’s privileged daughters grow less sullen as they measure their woes against the cruelties of revolution and war that shaped their mother and grandmother. A fluent storyteller, Fei entwines this family narrative with harrowing passages about the Rape of Nanjing and the oppression of early Chinese immigrants to America. Present day anti-Asian bias, to which the sisters are ever attuned, emerges as a persistent theme, often paired with sexism.

¶ Mark Oppenheimer on Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With the Afterlife, by Lisa Miller. This rather neutral review raises questions about the book's coverage in the Book Review.

And too often, “Heaven” reads like a magazine article on repeat. By the end, I had invented a drinking game: do a shot every time Miller describes the interviewee’s eyes, two shots for the weather, three shots for the meal. The Harvard professor Jon Levenson’s “dark eyes twinkled” as he discussed his efforts to bring belief in bodily resurrection back to mainstream Judaism, while the eyes of Robert Hollander, a translator of the “Paradiso,” “are alight with intelligence and love.” Miller meets Ena Heller, a specialist in early Renaissance art, “over coffee one morning,” and talks to Barbara and Warren Perry, an evangelical couple facing Warren’s diagnosis of terminal cancer, while eating “a lunch of turkey soup and melted cheese sandwiches.” Miller and the Dante scholar Peter Hawkins drank wine “as the sun set over his balcony.” I could go on, but the sky is blue outside, and I am drinking a mocha.

¶ Robert Hanks on Beatrice and Virgil, a novel by Yann Martel. This review, stopping short of saying that the successor to Life of Pi is a waste of time — just — is unsympathetically unhelpful.

Alongside all this trickiness, Martel places truisms and straightforward, unanalyzed emotions. He wants to testify both to the evils of the Holocaust and to “the simple joy” (he’s very fond of the word “joy”) of creative endeavors even as he acknowledges the difficulty of describing these subjects without resorting to cliché. But none of this comes as a revelation. He appears to want to embrace difficulty while retaining all the readers who loved the easy narrative of “Life of Pi.” Although his ambition is admirable, the literary complexity and the simplicity of feeling Martel is aiming for don’t comfortably mesh. “Beatrice and Virgil” has its rewards, but the frustrations are what stick in the mind.

¶ James McManus on Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster, by Jonathan Eig. Mr McManus pauses long enough from the inevitable storytelling to offer a helpful assessment of this new book about a familiar subject.

Much of this tale is familiar from earlier books, with Robert J. Schoenberg’s “Mr. Capone” (1992) thought to be the cream of the crop. Yet Eig’s is a welcome, even necessary, update. He stretched similarly spacious canvases for his well-received portraits of Lou Gehrig (“Luckiest Man”) and Jackie Robinson (“Opening Day”). For his third book, he sketches fresh profiles of scores of Italian, Irish and Polish mobsters, and of three presidents, three Chicago mayors and dozens of minor officials. And he dramatically details the game-changing impact of Gen. John Thompson’s light submachine gun, a “trench broom” designed — about a year too late — to mow down the Germans. Panoramic yet sharply focused, “Get Capone” is as much a dark history of urban America between the world wars as it is another mobster’s life story.

¶ Rob Nixon on Eddie Signwriter, a novel by Adam Schwartzman. A guardedly favorable, coldly dutiful review — more enthusiasm would have been illuminating.

The self-distancing Kwasi gradually reveals himself to us, but not very intimately. Sometimes we see more clearly the fine-grained rural and metropolitan landscapes through which he ventures; in contrast, Kwasi sometimes feels as if he’s being tracked from far above, Google Earthed. But while Schwartzman, who has three volumes of poetry to his credit, doesn’t yet seem entirely comfortable with the novel’s longer form, “Eddie Signwriter” has ample compensations. Not least are its startling finale and its innumerable lyrical flourishes: a house gate Kwasi remembers from his childhood “turning in its hinge like bone grating in its socket,” a Ghanaian preacher in one of his murals, welcoming people to her church and beaming “a great generous smile, as if all her teeth are for sale, her eyes two joyful asterisks.”

¶ Philip Hoare on Insectopedia, by Hugh Raffles. A helpful review.

“Insectopedia” is nothing if not experimental. In one stream-of-consciousness riff, Raffles recalls nightmares about slithering, sliding, sucking insects, their stick limbs liable to make a lurking attack from any angle, from the air or the ground or even the toilet rim. This is illustrated by a hilarious graphic of a frantic figure assailed by bugs. Throughout the book, Raffles’s use of photographs, reminiscent of the German author W. G. Sebald, is matched by the often deadpan tone of his text — a sense of sly humor of which Sebald would surely have approved.

Sebald would also have appreciated the book’s accumulated effect. As Raffles moves insidiously toward his deft and subtle conclusions, the apparent looseness of his approach falls into sharp focus. What he is telling us about insects and their natural history reveals just as much about us and our human history.

¶ Brenda Wineapple on Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris, by Graham Robb. It would be nice to know exactly what the following passage, from this slightly incoherent review, is supposed to mean:

Although Robb often narrates various sections from the point of view of his characters, inhabiting them and fudging, to a certain extent, the line between traditional history and make-believe, his characters don’t sound alike, which can be a hazard when a historian affects the pose of a novelist. Robb claims he wrote with “a flavor of the time in mind,” and insists he didn’t insert anything artificial into his stories. That “Parisians” required as much research as his earlier, more conventionally structured book “The Discovery of France” is evident on every page. Yet if “Parisians” resembles Simon Schama’s “Dead Certainties,” which is also about the limits of historical knowledge, Robb, in employing the techniques of the novelist, animates his characters mainly for “the pleasure of thinking about Paris.” That pleasure is also the reader’s.

¶ Geoffrey Wheatcroft on Winston's War: Churchill, 1940-1945, by Max Hastings. A not entirely unhelpful bad-news good-news review.

Like his subject, Hastings has the defects of his qualities. Always a more forceful than graceful writer, he has developed irritating verbal tics, with an addiction to certain words: “perceived” sometimes appears three times on one page, or within the space of a few lines. Hastings takes a brisk or even brusque attitude to the bombings of cities, which killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, or the forcible repatriation, in 1945, of scores of thousands of Russian prisoners of war to be tortured or exterminated by Stalin upon their return. But then, these are not easy matters, posing as they do subtle and profound moral questions, and Hastings doesn’t do morality, or subtlety.

All that is outweighed by his merits. There has been a recent flowering of military history in England, with authors like Antony Beevor and Andrew Roberts, and standing above them the great names of Michael Howard and M. R. D. Foot, two men who served gallantly in the war before writing brilliantly about it.

¶ Sarah Fay on The Birth of Love, by Joanna Kavenna. This unfavorable, too-short review sheds very little light.

Kavenna is the author of a much praised novel, “Inglorious,” which won the Orange Prize for first fiction in 2008, and a well-­regarded travel diary, “The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule.” In this ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful new novel, what seem failures may also illustrate one of her most crucial arguments: that ideas are useless without a human context. To receive a message, we need a messenger. As Semmelweis asks Lucius, “What becomes of the failed messenger?” Reading “The Birth of Love,” we can’t help asking the same question.


¶ Gaiutra Bahadur on Island Beneath the Sea, a novel by Isabel Allende. This unhelpful review contemplates a book about Haiti that Ms Allende did not write.

In a welcome revision, Allende brings women to the forefront of the story of the rebellion. She replaces the African war god Ogun with the love goddess Erzulie. (In the one episode that most approaches magic realism, Erzulie possesses Zarité, but even then it’s unclear whether this is merely happening in Zarité’s imagination.) Ultimately, however, Allende has traded innovative language and technique for a fundamentally straight­forward historical pageant. There is plenty of melodrama and coincidence in “Island Beneath the Sea,” but not much magic.

¶ Jincy Willett on Happy Now?, a novel by Katherine Shonk. An example of the unhelpful product of cramming too much storytelling into too little space.

When at last Claire allows herself to relive the Valentine’s party, she tracks Jay’s movements through the crowd from moment to moment, remembering his words (minimal), his attitude toward her (friendly, detached, tolerant), the exact look of the sky when he parted those black drapes and slipped behind them. In these pages, “Happy Now?” becomes a dark thriller as Claire, ready to face the truth, pursues it with desperation. To Shonk’s credit, the horror of this process overrides the novel’s muted tone. Claire searches for answers she knows will never come. The whole point of a compartment is the wall.

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