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Innocence Lost

18 July 2010

¶ Daniel Handler on Citrus County, a novel by John Brandon. This enthusiastic review for a crime/young adult combination thoughtfully places the author in the company of other writers whom the reader may or may not care to read — most helpful.

This feels like adolescence and crime and, in the end, life. With “Citrus County” John Brandon joins the ranks of writers like Denis Johnson, Joy Williams, Mary Robison and Tom Drury, writers whose wild flights feel more likely than a heap of what we’ve come to expect from literature, by calmly reminding us that the world is far more startling than most fiction is. He subverts the expectations of an adolescent novel by staying true to the wild incongruities of adolescence, and subverts the expectations of a crime novel by giving us people who are more than criminals and victims. The result is a great story in great prose, a story that keeps you turning pages even as you want to slow to savor them, full of characters who are real because they are so unlikely. “Citrus County” subverts countless expectations to conform to our expectations of a very good book.

¶ Dennis Lehane on Galveston, a novel by Nic Pizzolatto. This warmly favorable review praises the book's "authenticity and fearless humanism" and presents its story as a kind of apotheosis of pulp.

Pizzolatto shows no contempt for the genre, but in the very early going he seems too self-conscious about its structural baggage. He dispenses with scenes hastily, getting them out of the way in a flurry of blood and viscera and hard-guy stares before releasing his threesome on the open road at a gallop. But once they hit that road — and they do, quickly — he settles into the book he wants to write, an often incandescent fever dream of low-rent, unbearable beauty.

This could be because “Galveston” empathizes with its characters to a degree I’m hard pressed to recall in another recent novel. The addicted thief, the decaying mob boss, the sun-scorched Nancy who believes that the United Nations plans to invade Texas and that Louisiana would be a fine place were it not for all of the Catholics, even the blowhard redneck who ultimately beats his wife to death (“How helpless he’d seemed, and how you could tell that helplessness had made him cruel”) — all are brought to life in the fullest blush of their frightened, addled humanity.

¶ William Boyd on William Golding: The Man Who Wrote "Lord of the Flies": A Life, by John Carey. Mr Boyd praises Mr Carey's work, but quite reasonably spends most of his review on Golding's career.

Carey summarizes the abiding obsession in the novels as the collision of “the spiritual and the miraculous” with “science and rationality,” and it is this per­sistent hypersensitivity to the numinous and immaterial aspects of the world and the human condition that sets Golding apart from the broad river of social realism that so defines the 20th-century English novel. He was a kind of maverick in the way D. H. Lawrence was, or Lawrence Durrell, or John Fowles — to name but three — and I think this strangeness explains how throughout his life, after his initial success, the critical responses to his work were so violently divided. You either loved William Golding, it seemed, or you hated him.

¶ Jay Parini on Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography, by Alexandra Popoff. This sympathetic review notes that Helen Mirren has made us all eager to hear the other side of the story told by Vladimir Chertkov.

What separates this biography from others is Popoff’s access to a trove of unpublished material, including a memoir and countless letters that have been locked away in a vault in Moscow. The memoir, in particular, adds rich detail to what has long been known about Sophia Tolstoy from her brilliant diaries, which were translated into English in the mid-1980s. We learn, for instance, that because her father had sired several children out of wedlock, Sophia feared she herself might not be legitimate. (To prove otherwise, she forced him to produce her birth certificate.) After learning more about her early years, one suspects that in marrying Tolstoy she was reproducing some unhappy but familiar family dynamics.

¶ David Kirby on Where I Live: New and Selected Poems, 1990-2010, by Maxine Kumin. This favorable review talks too much about the poets verses, instead of quoting them.

Kumin’s casual mastery of beat and rhyme suggest her debt to the poets who preceded her. As Emerson knew, poetry is not a terminus but a journey toward a destination never reached — it’s the journey that counts. Poems like “Looking Back in My Eighty-First Year” unroll with a deceptive smoothness that brings to mind Freeman Dyson’s description of the Nobelist Paul Dirac’s papers on quantum mechanics: “Exquisitely carved marble statues falling out of the sky, one after another.”

Inexcusable padding.

¶ Laurie Winer on Hamlet's Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, by William Powers. This giarded review never mentions "practical philosophy" of any kind. Nor does it explain the title. In fact there is nothing to suggest that this book differs significantly from any of the thousands of magazine articles and Web pages that have poured out on technocalyptic themes.

Powers spends too much time describing the techno bind that we find ourselves in today and that we already know so well. But for the most part his ruminations are penetrating, his language clear and strong, and his historical references are restorative. As a salve for those who are perhaps prematurely mourning the death of paper, Powers writes of his preference for jotting down ideas in a Moleskine notebook, a “seemingly anachronistic tool” that he feels is essential to his well-being. Most writers still love paper. Some things are irreplaceable, and Powers explains why. His notebook allows him to “pull ideas not only out of my mind but out of the ethereal digital dimension and give them material presence and stability. Yes, you exist,” the notebook reminds us, “you are worthy of this world.”

¶ Christine Muhlke on Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook, by Anthony Bourdain. An impatient review.

Some essays are simply about the coolness that is his life. “Lust” begins with a Lou Reed quotation and slides into a ­Graham-Greene-meets-Tom-Waits reverie in Hanoi: “I often feel this way when alone in Southeast Asian hotel bars — an enhanced sense of bathos, an ironic dry-smile sorrow, a sharpened sense of distance and loss.” Then we’re whisked away on the back of a scooter for a beautifully observed tour through the city’s streets and pho shops. After debating the cruelty of writing such “food and travel porn,” he gives in and lays out sensual snapshots of international feasts. Somehow, Sichuan peppercorns prompt him to conclude the breathless sampler with the lines: “Pain, you were pretty sure, was always bad. Pleasure was good. Until now, that is. When everything started to get confused.” Until now, that is. When everything started to read as if it were written after the third gin in Cathay Pacific business class.

¶ Louisa Thomas on In Rough Country: Essays and Reviews, by Joyce Carol Oates. This very warm review reminds readers who don't care for Ms Oates's fiction that she is nevertheless a critic with plenty to offer.

Here violence is a fact, and survival isn’t confused with redemption. Oates’s prose can be demanding, with her proclivity for slashes (“public/professional”; “celebrated/controversial”), long block quotes and list-making (a mention of “Southern Ontario Gothic,” for example, summons six names, three of them obscure). Yet her writing is often exquisite. Long sentences unfold with great beauty, and her lines of argument follow not an artificial arc but the natural course of thought. As I began to read “In Rough Country,” I sometimes felt — though I knew it wasn’t true — that Oates was writing without a plan, with only her innate genius to direct her.

About halfway through the book ... I realized that it hardly mattered whether or not Oates had used a map. What mattered was that she had given me one: to Proulx’s fiction.

¶ Azadeh Moaveni on Death to the Dictator! A Young Man Casts a Vote in Iraq's 2009 Election and Pays a Devastating Price, by Afsaneh Moqadam; and Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran, by Roxana Saberi. This unwise conjointure yokes two very different sorts of books beneath a focus that inevitably prefers one to the other. It is utterly unhelpful to learn that the pseudonymous Death to the Dictator! is preferred to Ms Saberi's prison memoir.

While Saberi calls attention to the plight of Iran’s political prisoners, she remains frustratingly vague on her thoughts for Iran’s future. Moqadam, on the other hand, hears the Islamic Republic’s death knell but cannot predict how long this “last and perhaps dirtiest phase” will last. Has the state radicalized Iran’s Mohsen Abbaspours? Or brutalized them into submission? Until the larger story has played out, individual narratives like these offer the only fragments by which we can begin to understand the revolt ­inside today’s Iran.

¶ Susann Cokal on Leaving Rock Harbor, by Rebecca Chace; and The House on Salt Hay Road, by Carin Clevidence. It is difficult to know what considerations of economy inspired the editors to consolidate reviews of these historical novels set in mid-century New England.

The best historical novels recreate the past as a series of intimate interactions and reflections punctuated by the wars, economic booms and busts, and acts of God that are readily checked by scholars. Recently, Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall”; Colm Toibin’s “Brooklyn”; and “The Help,” by Kathryn Stockett, have, in their very different ways, brought history home, and without the gimmicks of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” Now Rebecca Chace and Carin Clevidence are exploring the intersection of self with history in the first half of the 20th century, in “Leaving Rock Harbor” and “The House on Salt Hay Road.” Both novels are moody, with ominous beginnings and plucky protagonists who struggle for happiness despite the intrusion of outside forces. And both succeed as forays into small lives buffeted by great events.

¶ Colin Thubron on Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, by William Dalrymple. A warmly favorable review of a book about heterdox lives in the Subcontinent.

One of the most striking commonalities among these cults is the happiness, almost ecstasy, their adherents claim. This refrain returns again and again in Dalrymple’s interviews, as if no degree of suffering or deracination can quench the devotees’ conviction of the benevolence of their gods or dim their joy in taking to the road. But can this describe the common texture of their lives? Or is this only what they tell themselves?

In his introduction, Dalrymple says he yearns for his narratives to be free of authorial interference. But of course that can’t be. He not only creates their framework but inevitably, if unobtrusively, steers his interviews to the areas of his own interest. Yet these will be the areas of most readers’ interest too. The narratives Dalrymple unearths are fascinating and sometimes painfully moving, and he surrounds them with generous knowledge. This is the India we seldom see, populated by obscure people whose lives are made vivid by their eloquent troubles and reckless piety.

¶ Brian Ladd on The German Genius: Europe's Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century, by Peter Watson. An unsympathetic and very unimpressed review.

In some ways this is also a very German book: long, earnest, plodding. Yet it is not really up to the exacting standards of German scholarship (or of English narrative sparkle), relying, as it does, largely on other scholars’ accounts of the great thinkers in question, and quoting the secondary sources far more than the original works of “genius.” Too often Watson urges us to revere people or books “now recognized,” “widely viewed” or “generally regarded” as brilliant. Readers may grow weary of being told what to think.

In effect, Watson has given us a kind of Dictionary of German Biography, along with a great deal of name-dropping. There were many German geniuses. But what was “the German genius”? To understand what was special about Germany, we need to know more than Watson tells us about the world that produced these thinkers.

¶ Douglas Wolk on Bodyworld, written and illustrated by Dash Shaw. This enthusiastic review seems to find the book's apparent shortcomings exhilarating.

Shaw isn’t yet much of a draftsman, but he’s a hell of an artist, constructing vivid, uncanny compositions with a spectacular sense of color and space. (When he can’t quite communicate with images what’s supposed to be going on, he sometimes just writes it in. One panel, for instance, includes the note “feeling sheet on back.”) His sense of pacing is odd but very effective — a shift to nine panels from 12 per page midway through the book kicks its tone into a higher gear. And he seems to have fully absorbed the visual vocabularies of whole schools of cartooning that barely took notice of one another: old Japanese adventure comics, the art brut Fort Thunder scene, animation storyboards. A sequence in which a human-alien hybrid offloads a chunk of exposition is a bravura pastiche of off-brand ’60s horror comics (right down to the off-register color effects), if something of a cheat as far as plotting goes.

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