Travels with Henry James

New James Side by Side Crop

What is the difference between the Great Lakes and the ocean? A scientist will tell you that the ocean contains saltwater, of course, and a vast ecosystem; the moon’s gravity also exerts a greater pull on it, establishing the tides. Asked the same question, a gifted novelist — indeed, a master — will tell you less, but also more. Twenty-eight-year-old Henry James, gazing for the first time on Lake Ontario in 1871, described what he saw this way: “It is the sea, and yet just not the sea. The huge expanse, the landless line of the horizon, suggest the ocean; while an indefinable shortness of pulse, a kind of gentleness of tone, seem to contradict the idea. What meets the eye is on the ocean scale, but you feel somehow that the lake is a thing of smaller spirit.”

James’s essay is part of a new collection, Travels with Henry James, which brings together twenty-one gems of his travel writing between 1870 to 1879. The irony of the book is that the author — so famous in his novels for depicting society in Boston and New York, Paris and London, along with the minute gradations in his characters’ thoughts — writes most movingly, as a travel correspondent, when his subject is nature. After viewing Lake Ontario, he proceeds to Niagara Falls, where he is most struck not by the raw power of the plunge but by the beautiful arc of the water: “[I]t flows without haste, without rest, with the measured majesty of a motion whose rhythm is attuned to eternity.” If only James had lived to see the centenary of our national park system, which has protected scores of similar treasures across the country, and especially in the West.

Travels with Henry James does not see the West; in fact, James never even approached the Mississippi. Although the mountains of Wyoming and the mesas of Utah might have set his pen on fire, one senses that the urbane and waistcoated James could not have endured truly wild frontier. He confined his American itinerary to a half-dozen locations in the Northeast. James presented the resulting travel essays to The Nation as a sort of audition for a broader assignment to Europe. The magazine wisely agreed, sending him to England and then the Continent, where he filed travel reportage throughout his thirties. He took in towns and cities, cathedrals and frescoes, never overlooking the denizens of these cultured lands: women in their frocks, men checking their pocket watches; the fashionable and garish, the gauche and homely. Nothing goes unobserved by his generous eye.

He is more democratic in his tastes than a reader of novels like The Ambassadors or The Portrait of a Lady might expect. Some of the grand attractions of Europe leave him cold. “There are people who become easily satisfied with blonde beauties, and Salisbury Cathedral belongs, if I may say so, to the order of blondes.” Several of James’s favorite vistas in town are not in the fashionable quarter but at the seaport or near the tracks. He is certainly no muckraker or bleeding heart, and still less a contrarian; he simply pursues the line of beauty where he finds it. This includes the “mouldy-timbered quiet” of old Newport. Through these pages he wanders and pauses, searching out the new and the unexpected. “I can wish the traveler no better fortune than to stroll forth in the early evening with as large a reserve of ignorance as my own, and treat himself to an hour of discoveries.”

The English countryside holds a special appeal — James writes of “this interminable English twilight, which I am never weary of admiring, watch in hand” — and Paris is Paris, but nothing compares to Italy. Here James finds the intersection of beautiful country, structures, people, and light. While observing an open-air theater rehearsal on a Roman afternoon — too far away to hear but comprehended through “the generous breadth of Italian gesture,” he captures the magic of the country in a few simple lines. “It was all deliciously Italian — the mixture of old life and new . . . the dominant presence of a mighty architecture, the lounges and idlers beneath the kindly sky, upon the sun-warmed stones.” I can think of no other writer, except perhaps Saul Bellow or Vladimir Nabokov, with so sure an ear for the music of prose.

Beyond the light it sheds on the master himself, this collection wonderfully expresses the sheer pleasure of travel. Visiting Stonehenge, James seems not to want his day to end. At leisure, with the new and the beautiful in prospect, a person can forget all troubles and bathe in the warm glow of happiness. “I can fancy sitting all a summer’s day watching its shadows shorten and lengthen again, and drawing a delicious contrast between the world’s duration and the feeble span of individual experience.” The only thing that would improve such a day is the company of this book.

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Both Sides of the River: Nonstop Metropolis and The Brooklyn Nobody Knows

Brownsville Mural Crop

It took me forty years to find Vinegar Hill. As the crow flies, that Brooklyn neighborhood was around two miles from my apartment on Gold Street in Manhattan. I knew of Brooklyn; Crazy Eddie’s store was there, where he sold stereo components at prices that were insane, until he got bagged for fraud. The Brooklyn Bridge went there, over the spooky-dark waters of the East River. The river was what you call a psychogeographical barrier, intimately known only to people wearing cement shoes.

I learned of Vinegar Hill when my office moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn Heights in 2012. Not the Brooklyn Heights of Pineapple, Orange, and Cranberry streets, but over east, bordering the courts and the house of detention. That’s Brooklyn for you. That’s New York City for you. There are neighborhoods and, yes, they have histories and distinctivenesses. But they are always rubbing shoulders with the “other” — one street beyond the neighborhood boundary — and it mostly works out. “New York is a triumph of coexistence interrupted by people yelling at one another,” Rebecca Solnit neatly summarizes in Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas. Just so. There is still turf in New York, gang turf: shivs, zip guns, brass knuckles, and lawsuits.

When my office moved to the not-so-great side of the Heights, I went for walks. I’m a geographer, and if I didn’t walk around, I might as well be a sociologist. William Helmreich is a sociologist, up on the Hamilton Heights campus of City College, and he might as well be a geographer. He has walked 6,000 miles in New York City — that’s about every block, chronicled in The Brooklyn Nobody Knows — and he has walked them with an eye to knowing them, a least taking their measure from street level: he studies the architecture, the light, the sounds, the ambience. He is Baudelaire’s flâneur, Guy Debord’s dériviste. Helmreich was eating salted cod in Vinegar Hill before I bought my first turntable from Crazy Eddie.

It is not that Helmreich is all-knowing, but he is as tempting as a sideshow barker. And The Brooklyn Nobody Knows — especially for the 1972 Manhattanite know-nothing archetype like me — is made to order. He has a handful of fine curios. But he has competition in a couple of midway veterans: Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro — big competition, five-borough competition: “a rapture, a misery, a mystery, a conspiracy. A destination and point of origin, a labyrinth in which some are lost are some find what they’re looking for.” New York City, forever dying and being born. Who could resist?

Nonstop Metropolis  — co-authored by Solnit and geographer-writer Jelly-Schapirois impressionistic, a gallimaufry of takes on neighborhoods and topics: hip-hop, doo-wop, jazz, nerdy Scottish bands; wildlife, greed, riots (we like our riots); races, ethnicities, creeds; Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs; Yiddish theater and the West Indian Parade; pickup basketball and Latin radio; stone aqueducts and homeless shelters; Kings, Queens, Breukelen, the Bronck, and Staaten Eylandt, too (with apologies to the Lenape). Each of these essays is as dense and demanding as a prose poem. Some are as sudden as squibs. Don’t miss those; as in the paper newspapers, squibs are often the best parts. Many of the accompanying maps are highly colored, flushed with exuberance: so much to convey, so little space. Others are as quickening as the silk, escape-and-evasion maps given to pilots during World War Two. The writing and the maps are what “place” is about: desire, fear, landmark, memory, imagination, a state of mind, sometimes melting into thin air — but still right there under your feet. “Conventional maps are falling by the wayside as people just consult their phones about where to go. With that, the map as a work of art vanishes, and so does some key part of learning the lay of the land . . . digital devices just teach obedience,” writes Solnit, intuitive geographer extraordinaire.

The Brooklyn Nobody Knows is less flamboyant than Nonstop, and there is much the “walking guide” about it. He knocks around all forty-four neighborhoods, all seventy-one square miles, and may well have wished a good day to each of the borough’s 2.6 million inhabitants. Helmreich is smitten with Brooklyn; I’ll even take the liberty of saying he loves the place, loves the whole city. He’s the kind of guy who asks questions: ” ‘So you’re a hornsmith!’ I exclaim by way of beginning a conversation. ‘What’s that? I didn’t even know there was such a thing,’ ” he inquires of a man in the Prospect Lefferts Gardens neighborhood. He knows there are parts of Brooklyn that can only be disarmed by common decency — not that he isn’t commonly decent — and being an old man. “If I see some bad-ass dude walking up toward me, I don’t put on my gang face, I don’t try to look tough.” (From an interview in the New Yorker, September 17, 2013.) As if. “I do the opposite. I seek to make eye contact, and as soon as they look at me I say, ‘Hey, buddy, how ya doin’?’ ” Not too much eye contact. Thinking he might break the ice with a group of Bloods, “I asked them, ‘How can I get one of those red jackets?’ and they said, ‘Depends what side you’re on.’ ” (New Yorker interview, same date.) That takes a special, radiant aura of street credibility. He also knows the power of laughter, and when to laugh.

Solnit and Jelly-Shapiro write that Nonstop Metropolis will be the last atlas of its kind, which includes San Francisco and New Orleans. “Nonstop Metropolis is the last volume in a trilogy of atlases exploring what maps can do to describe the ingredients and systems that make up a city and what stories remain to be told after we think we think we know where we are.” Sounds like Tennessee Williams: “America has only three cities; New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” Cleveland would make it a tetralogy, which is not in the works. Helmreich does, however: Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island, too. Sail in peace, William, may your legs be strong, your humor tireless, and your wish for a red jacket go unmet. Try camouflage.

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The Poet Descends: Reading Pushkin’s Prose

Pushkin cover crop

I fell in love with Alexander Pushkin as a teenager, smitten with his great novel-in-verse, Eugene Onegin, a moral tale about arrogance and ennui disarmed — too late, alas! — by love. Russian literature, with its philosophical moodiness and combination of optimism and hopelessness, is like literary grapefruit juice for a brooding teenager, quenching deep existential thirst with a bittersweet acidic tang. And while the books that grab you by the throat when you’re young often barely tug your sleeve decades later, I still love Pushkin. Rereading his complete prose in Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s sprightly new translation, I’m freshly amazed by Pushkin’s liberal, incisive take on the moral repugnance and senselessness of racism and torture, and on his attitude toward women, who, as he wrote in his feminist-tinged story “Roslavlev,” “are better educated, read more, and think more than the men” — and are therefore so much wiser.

Even Pushkin’s life story remains mesmerizing: Born in 1799 to the old military aristocracy of Russian boyars on his father’s side, he was not just Russia’s greatest poet but probably its first multiracial one: His maternal grandfather was black, taken hostage from Africa — either Ethiopia, as long thought, or from what is now Cameroon, as has been recently argued — and presented to Peter the Great, who treated him as a godson and educated him as an officer. And then, of course, there’s Pushkin’s wasteful death at thirty-seven, baited into a pistol duel over his very attractive, very social wife’s honor.

Not speaking Russian, I read Pushkin in English and have compared multiple translations over the years. A new translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky, the tsar and tsarina of Russian translators, is cause for celebration — in part because it will draw new readers to his work, as have their vibrant renditions of the great classics of Russian prose, including nine volumes of Dostoyevsky and three of Tolstoy. Could Eugene Onegin or Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons be next?

In his introduction to Novels, Tales, Journeys, Pevear stresses the “openness and lightness” of Pushkin’s prose. He flags the stories’ straightforwardness yet notes that they are more complex than they first appear: “They are cast as local anecdotes, and are told so simply and artlessly that at first one barely notices the subtlety of their composition, the shifts in time and point of view, the reversals of expectation, the elements of parody, the ambiguity of their resolutions.”

Most of the fragments, some little more than literary doodles, are new to me, including the alluringly titled sketch “The Guests Were Arriving at the Dacha.” But the real draw remains Pushkin’s only completed novel, The Captain’s Daughter; his unfinished novel, The Moor of Peter the Great; and the stories, “The Queen of Spades,” “Dubrovsky,” and The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin. Taken in sum, the volume showcases Pushkin’s deliberate experimentation with various forms — epistolary, historical, romantic, folktale, society novel, ghost story, travelogue, and even a narrative from the point of view of a sixteen-year-old debutante. His narratives display a debt to European inspiration (including Shakespeare, Byron, and Walter Scott), yet their sensibility and settings are distinctly Russian. The translators’ annotations, which appear as endnotes, reveal Pushkin’s astonishingly wide range of literary references, which include Homer, Mme. de Staël, Samuel Richardson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and scores more. (Translations from French passages, Pushkin’s first language, are more conveniently located at the bottom of the page on which they appear.)

In the brief introduction to her translation of my well-worn Everyman edition of The Captain’s Daughter and Other Stories, Natalie Duddington wrote, “As a poet, Pushkin is untranslatable: the exquisite beauty and the austere simplicity of his verse cannot be rendered into a foreign tongue . . . But his prose has none of this poetic quality and loses but little in translation. It is vigorous and straightforward and sounds as simple and natural today as it did a hundred years ago.”

Indeed, in these pieces Pushkin himself indicates that while poetry requires inspiration, prose is a step down on the literary ladder and requires perspiration. Ivan Belkin, the fictional author of six top-notch tales about life and love in the provinces — for which Pushkin purports to serve merely as “Publisher” — explains that, while “not born to be a poet,” he was so taken with writing that he decided “to descend to prose.”

Clearly, prose is easier to translate. So it’s not surprising that a comparison of Pevear and Volokhonsky’s new edition with earlier translations — by T. Keane, Rochelle Townsend, and Natalie Duddington — reveals just minor differences: “gloomy Russia” becomes “sad Russia,” “the damned Frenchman” becomes the more humorous “that cursed moosieu.” More salient is the title of Pushkin’s frustratingly unfinished novel based on his great-grandfather Ibrahim Gannibal: The Moor of Peter the Great instead of the more common The Blackamoor of Peter the Great or Peter the Great’s Negro. Despite the avoidance of the racial epithet, none of the ironic edge of this comment is lost in translation: “Too bad he’s a Moor, otherwise we couldn’t dream of a better suitor.”

Of Pushkin’s finished fiction, I was particularly taken with the twists and turns of “Dubrovsky,” one of his many tales of thwarted love. In this heavily plotted story, a young aristocrat goes rogue after being cheated of his inheritance by a nasty neighbor and “the bought conscience of the ink-slinging tribe.”

Love letters figure largely in Pushkin’s work, including Onegin. In “The Queen of Spades,” a ghost story about gambling and greed that’s been popularized by Tchaikovsky’s opera, Hermann’s plot to wangle the old countess’ secret to winning at cards includes disingenuous love letters to her poor, susceptible ward. The fact that they are plagiarized from German novels is a quick tipoff to his character.

The Captain’s Daughter, Pushkin’s only completed novel, has more room for character development. Set during a bloody peasant uprising — the Pugachev rebellion of 1773, about which Pushkin also wrote a multivolume history — this action-packed narrative purports to be the memoirs of an honorable — and damned lucky — soldier whose often guileless actions are guided by his determination to save the woman he loves. Pyotr’s unlikely encounters with the impostor Pugachev add a touch of the absurd to the plot, while also showcasing Pushkin’s sympathetic munificence to a wide range of humanity. Intriguingly, this volume includes the rough draft of a chapter Pushkin omitted — wisely, as we see.

Like many of his characters, Pushkin was by turns lighthearted, touchy, volatile, rash, and self-righteous. He also shared their propensity toward womanizing and gambling. Plagued by Tsar Nicholas I’s censors, he was exiled from St. Petersburg for long stretches of his short life — which turned out to be his most productive periods. The pity is that he didn’t live to write more. The marvel is that he managed to produce such brilliant work in multiple genres, and that it has outlasted so many regimes. Pevear and Volokhonsky’s excellent new translation will help sustain that legacy for Anglophone readers.

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Thus Bad Begins

Thus Bad Begins Cover Crop

Americans can be proud that the person many consider Spain’s greatest living novelist and a prospective Nobelist, Javier Marías, is much influenced by writers and films from the United States. Although he has translated a number of English-language authors, the novelists he considers most important for his work are Henry James and William Faulkner. Those influences were not readily apparent in The Infatuations, his last translated novel that was widely and positively reviewed in English. But Thus Bad Begins improves upon that 2013 book by incorporating the baroque style of late James and the historical orientation of middle Faulkner.

A weekly journalist for El País, Marías surely knows the risks of these two unfashionable models, so he employs Hitchcockian plot devices (think Rear Window) and lightens the proceedings with a comic narrator, a bumbler out of Nabokov, another novelist Marías has translated and praised. Like the grandiose confabulator Kinbote of Pale Fire and the fumbling Humbert of Lolita, Marías’s narrator, called “young De Vere” by other characters, has, in Humbert’s words, a “fancy prose style” that attempts to cover up but unwittingly reveals his limitations as a person, his unreliability as an author, and ultimately the serious consequences of his moral obtuseness when the comic “bad” of the title becomes tragic “worse” by novel’s end. The full Humbert quote is “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”

I admit to having a soft spot for writers who employ this kind of narrator or focal character. The moralistic stalker in Poe’s “Man of the Crowd,” the imperceptive captain of Melville’s “Benito Cereno,” Jason Compson in The Sound and the Fury, the false innocent Papa Cue Ball in John Hawkes’s Second Skin, and, most recently, the garrulous dupe in Norman Rush’s Mortals are some of my favorites. They seem peculiarly American, feeling entitled to their viewpoint, confident in their understanding, optimistic, supposedly well meaning in their interpretations and actions — and dangerous to others. I enjoy how the creators of these men make fun of certain readers’ nostalgia for nineteenth-century omniscience, for the passive assumption that fiction writers are earnest truth-tellers and not, fundamentally, elaborate liars like — how could I forget him? — that supposedly naïve, tale-telling hick Huckleberry Finn.

At 450 pages, Thus Bad Begins is certainly elaborate and sometimes over-elaborated as the twenty-three-year-old Juan De Vere struggles to see his acquaintances clearly, understand their complicated relationships, and push forward the investigation his employer asks him to perform as the new assistant of a fiftyish film director from Madrid named Eduardo Muriel. The year is 1980, and Muriel believes a physician friend, Jorge Van Vechten, has done something dishonorable with women in the past; he asks De Vere to entertain the much older man at nightclubs to see what can be learned, an intrigue that leads to some embarrassing moments when the old lecher is more successful with women than the junior informer. Because Muriel and his somewhat younger wife, Beatriz, are unhappy in their marriage (which De Vere learns by some humorous eavesdropping), the randy youth wrongly assumes Muriel believes Beatriz may be sleeping with the doctor. De Vere begins stalking Beatriz, follows her to a religious site, and climbs a tree to get a better view of an upstairs room (Marías is not above parodying the snooping first-person narrator). From the tree, De Vere sees something — that he believes is Beatriz and Van Vechten having sex. But after Van Vechten performs a life-saving favor for the Muriel family, Muriel refuses to hear what his assistant believes he has found. De Vere’s discovery is not wasted, though, for it emboldens him to have sex with Beatriz when she is in psychological extremis.

De Vere’s unexpected shift from loyal acolyte to live-in betrayer is plausible enough but may also be partly the result of Marías’s method of composition, which is the strangest I’ve ever come across. In his Paris Review interview, Marías states that when he begins a novel he has only a very general plan and never alters the first pages (and succeeding pages) that he writes. To avoid being bored, Marías says he changes his plan as his narrator/protagonist develops and changes. Unlike other novelists, Marías does not backfill for consistency. This means some incongruities and even contradictions between early pages and middle pages, so the author may seem no more reliable in plotting than his narrator is in reporting. Accidents, coincidences, and digressions are allowed to control events as they do, Marías suggests, in life.

In the second half of Thus Bad Begins, however, the plotting becomes more pointed and conventional as De Vere turns his attention away from the present of Muriel’s family to how they and others have been scarred by the past of Franco’s dictatorship, which ended shortly before the novel begins. I won’t name names, but De Vere discovers, sometimes by indirection and happenstance, that characters who seemed to be relatively neutral do-gooders, helping leftists despite positions in Franco’s government, were blackmailing helpless women for sex. Ultimately what De Vere stumbles upon leads back to secrets in Muriel’s family, and the political and personal merge — but with little credit for De Vere, who simultaneously advances upon and retreats from a history in which his own diplomat parents may have been complicit.

Although De Vere is telling this story some thirty or more years after the events, he claims to have an excellent memory that permits him to “quote” page-length paragraphs of others’ discourse and to remember equally long passages of his internal monologues. But punctuating and sometimes puncturing his pompously assured style are “seems,” “perhaps,” “might have,” “probably,” and other Jamesian qualifiers. Here is our amateur detective analyzing nameplates outside a building to which he has followed Beatriz:

The name “221B BS” made me suspect it was a detective agency; I couldn’t help associating that strange name with 221B Baker Street, where Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson lived and received their various intriguing commissions. It seemed more likely to me that Beatriz would be visiting them: unhappy people often insist on trying to uncover the full magnitude of their unhappiness, or choose to investigate other people’s lives as a distraction from their own. She could have been visiting Gekoski or Meridianos, whatever they were, or Marius K and his journeys to the Middle East, or someone else, who had no plaque. However, I inclined towards Deverne Films, after all, they were in the same line of work as her husband and she would probably know them.

De Vere remembers all these irrelevant details but shows himself guilty of arbitrary literary associations, projection of his own emotional state, and a suspect “inclination” that may have resulted from finding letters in his name embedded in “Deverne.” Of the dozen or so tenants in the building, De Vere rules out the one — Dr. Arranz — that Beatriz is visiting, an error that might well have shortened his investigation and the novel.

De Vere’s narcissistic personality and verbose style create a “mist” (his word) over the whole account. Marías has said the “filter” through which a story is told is crucial to him. Does Thus Bad Begins imply that De Vere intentionally creates this mist or filter because he feels guilty about taking advantage of an extremely vulnerable woman as several other characters have? Or does Marías imply that three decades after the end of Franco’s regime and after the amnesty provisions of 1977, we can’t be sure of how to distribute guilt for a past rife with turncoats and shrouded in secrets? Maybe by “we” I really mean “I.” The novel includes historical characters — such as the movie producer Harry Alan Towers, the actor Herbert Lom, and the director Jess Franco, Marías’s uncle. I sense that beyond these real people Thus Bad Begins is a roman à clef and that readers in Spain familiar with the convoluted betrayals of their recent past know whom the novel implicates in its compendium of sins.

Marías says that the quality he most values in readers is “patience,” a word that occurs frequently in the novel. Those who don’t read James and Faulkner with pleasure may be impatient with Marías’s slow-developing and unpredictably ramifying plots, but his barbed wit and Nabokovian puzzles entertain as Thus Bad Begins slouches forward, lurches sideways, and winds back upon itself. The title comes from Hamlet — “Thus bad begins and worse remains behind” — and points to a pattern of Shakesperian allusions and quotations worthy of the Russian gamemaster. Because De Vere shares his name with a man sometimes claimed to be the author of Shakespeare’s plays, characters discuss artistic fraudulence and imposture in general.

Like Pale Fire, Thus Bad Begins is metafictional and metalinguistic, for De Vere continually comments on how life resembles fiction, whether written or cinematic, and shares his hyperconsciousness of words themselves, their roots and hidden connections. Some of Marías’s wordplay, though, may have been lost in Costa’s translation, for Thus Bad Begins has occasional odd diction and unidiomatic sentences perhaps more appropriate for the British than the American reader.

Much of Marías’s earlier fiction turns upon secrets, as does The Infatuations. In that novel, the man who dies is named Deverne; De Vere, in the quoted passage above, sees the nameplate “Deverne Films.” In this self-reference, Marías may suggest (it’s always “suggest” or “imply” with Marías) that he considers The Infatuations more like a movie than, ironically, the movie-saturated Thus Bad Begins. The narrator of The Infatuations works for a publisher, but this new novel is a more bookish and more ambitious book because of its range and scale, its coiled stories of Franco’s abuses, and its detailed portrait of a marriage undone by secrets and even unnecessary revelations.

Perhaps the success of The Infatuations has made Marías fearless, for Thus Bad Begins pushes his methods right up to the edge of excess that his earlier narrator notes when she describes a murderer: “He had a marked tendency to discourse and expound and digress . . . which, with few exceptions, are either absurd, pretentious, gruesome or pathetic.” One of these methods is borrowing from writers he admires. Like Faulkner, Marías carries over characters from one novel to another. Along with Deverne, the pedantic Professor Francisco Rico and Dr. Vidal Secanell return in this new book. Like W. G. Sebald, Marías includes some photographs for his compulsive interpreter De Vere to analyze and project himself upon. The abstract discourse and self-referential qualities of Thus Bad Begins resemble the recent fiction of J. M. Coetzee, another writer Marías respects and a man who, like Marías, grew up under an oppressive dictatorship and distrusts all authority, including his own. With these and earlier comparisons, I don’t mean to suggest that Thus Bad Begins is a pastiche of other novelists’ work but to point out that Marías, like his narrator, who continually poses alternatives and possibilities, incorporates influences and allusions to show that any story can be told — filtered — in many different ways, as Marías may well have learned when he translated that encyclopedia of undecideds, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.

Classic comedies end with a wedding, so De Vere describes his in the final pages Thus Bad Begins. He believes his marriage demonstrates what an upright character he is, but Marías undermines this belief when he reveals the shocking identity of De Vere’s bride. A more serious backstabbing of the narrator by the author also occurs near the end when De Vere barely mentions a pregnant woman’s suicide for which readers, who have been carefully investigating De Vere, may find him partly responsible. In Studies in Classic American Literature, D. H. Lawrence wrote that “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” A man whose family and country were victimized by Franco, Marías didn’t need to read American fiction to understand killing. But like the creators of those “innocent” American narrators I mentioned earlier, Marías knows that naïfs such as “young De Vere” are dangerous men.

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The Fragile Blessing

Good Eating Mr President Crop

 

More than any generation before us, we have cause to be thankful, so thankful, on this Thanksgiving Day. Our harvests are bountiful, our factories flourish, our homes are safe, our defenses are secure. We live in peace. The good will of the world pours out for us.

When President Lyndon Baines Johnson addressed a troubled nation on Thanksgiving evening, 1963, just seven days after the assassination of JFK, he spoke in two very different tones. Passages such as the above were meant to reassure America that its blessings were fundamental and enduring; passages such as the one below, recalling Kennedy’s famous appeal for citizens who would ask what they could do for their country, were meant to warn that there was only one path forward:

Let all who speak and all who teach and all who preach and all who publish and all who broadcast and all who read or listen — let them reflect upon their responsibilities to bind our wounds, to heal our sores, to make our society well and whole for the tasks ahead of us.

Though Thanksgiving’s official status has been defined by presidential decree — George Washington first proclaimed it a holiday, and Abraham Lincoln tied it to the third Thursday in November —  it was Norman Rockwell, says Deborah Solomon in her  biography American Mirror, who put the stuffing in the modern Thanksgiving. He did so, says Solomon, not just in the iconic magazine covers but throughout his half-century career:

The great subject of his work was American life — not the frontier version, with its questing for freedom and romance, but a homelier version steeped in we-the-people, communitarian ideals of America’s founding in the eighteenth century. The people in his paintings are related less by blood than by their participation in the civic rituals, from voting on Election Day to sipping a soda at a drugstore counter. Doctors spend time with patients whether or not they have health insurance. Students appreciate their teachers and remember their birthdays. Citizens at town hall meetings stand up and speak their mind without getting booed or shouted down by gun-toting rageaholics. This is America before the fall, or at least before searing divisions in our government and general population shattered any semblance of national solidarity.

If the communitarian ideals proved shaky in the paintings, they were almost absent in the painter, says Solomon. Behind the tweeds-and-pipe persona, Rockwell felt “lonesome and loveless,” his relationships with his parents, wives, and children “uneasy, sometimes to the point of estrangement.” He did not care for church, and he “eschewed organized activity.” At age fifty-nine, after decades spent with “anxiety and fear of his anxiety,” Rockwell entered therapy with the famous German-born psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, who coined the term “identity crisis.”

Rockwell’s first Thanksgiving magazine cover appeared in 1913, but his most famous ones were painted at midcentury. The Unwinding, George Packer’s bestseller about the “Inner History of the New America,” takes the midcentury Rockwell Nation as its stepping-off point, the moment when “the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way”:

If you were born around 1960 or afterward, you have spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding. You watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape — the farms of the Carolina Piedmont, the factories of the Mahoning Valley, Florida subdivisions, California schools. And other things, harder to see but no less vital in supporting the order of everyday life, changed beyond recognition — ways and means in Washington caucus rooms, taboos on New York trading desks, manners and morals everywhere . . . The void was filled by the default force in American life, organized money.

But Packer’s case-study portraits of those denied “the Roosevelt Republic” — Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address inspired Rockwell’s Four Freedoms, his most famous series of paintings — are not sepia-toned. “The unwinding is nothing new,” he writes, and it “brings freedom, more than the world has ever granted, and to more kinds of people than before.” Cases in in point are provided by the households portrayed in Modern Families, which offers “Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship,” include a post-nuclear family of two adopted girls, one from Nepal and one from India, co-parented by two couples, one lesbian and one gay.
In his recent bestseller Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, J. D. Vance offers a more personal exploration of what happens when families fray and social capital is squandered, especially if exchanged for a materialist alternative. Vance’s memoir gives voice to a working class swept up in a downward-spiraling, lose-lose scenario in which families and communities are destroyed by the pursuit of an American Dream that, like Gatsby’s green light, only seems to recede.

The Barnes & Noble Review http://ift.tt/2g6pkBK

Moonglow

Chabon Moonglow Side Crop

It’s 1957, New York City, Fifty-seventh Street. A strong-shouldered, tight-lipped salesman at a ladies’ hair barrette company called Feathercombs learns he’s been fired (a higher-up gave his job to Alger Hiss) and snaps. The son of a German-Jewish immigrant family from Philadelphia, the salesman counted on that salary to support his emotionally unstable wife — a raven-browed French war refugee with an “an Ingrid Bergman smile” who had once hosted a horror TV show in Baltimore — and her teenage daughter, whom he’d raised as his own. Unhinged by fury, he storms into the company president’s office wielding a phone with a frayed, dangling cord [(he’d ripped the phone from its base) and starts strangling his boss, deploying garroting skills he’d picked up in the OSS on special detail for Wild Bill Donovan in WWII London and Germany — like a real-life Pirate Prentice from Gravity’s Rainbow.

That irate garroter was the grandfather of Michael Chabon; the raven-browed woman was the author’s grandmother; and her daughter was his mother, according to Chabon’s new novel, Moonglow. Retelling the Feathercombs assault, as his grandfather had described it to him, he writes, “The president tried to stand up, but his legs got tangled in the kneehole of his desk. His chair shot out from under him and toppled over, casters rattling. He screamed. It was a fruity sound, halfway to a yodel.” A secretary prevented the assault from turning fatal by plunging a letter opener into the attacker’s shoulder. Chabon explains, “The bite of metal locked some meridian in the flow of my grandfather’s rage. He grunted. ‘It was like I woke up,’ he said.” Out on bail after a week in lockup at the Tombs, awaiting sentencing, the grandfather only had “enough money for a shave, a bus, a Zagnut bar for my mother, and coffee and a donut for himself.” He went on to serve a year and a half in a low-security prison, where he invented a model rocket that later made him and a business partner rich, for a while. In 1962, that business partner’s nephew married Chabon’s mother, and the next year, Chabon was born. So: no Alger Hiss, no Michael Chabon. What about these dramatic doings would you say stamps them as Chabonesque? Is it the dogged, ingenious charisma of the underdog hero? The nostalgia for postwar coastal metropolises? The sultry horror hostess? The Zagnut bar? Is it not, in fact, all of it?

A kind of DNA resides in the sentences of every writer, especially consistent in the works of the greatest, revealing a continuity of mind, art and worldview. If you were to extract a handful of passages from Great Expectations or David Copperfield and throw them onto a tabletop, unlabeled, alongside passages from For Whom the Bell Tolls and A Farewell to Arms, or Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle, you could sort them into Dickens, Hemingway, or Vonnegut without looking any of them up. This principle holds abundantly true for Chabon. Moonglow contains echoes of his earlier masterpieces — like Mysteries of Pittsburgh, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and Telegraph Avenue — just as those books contain echoes of the stories he remembers in Moonglow, which “consciously and unconsciously found their way into my work.” But in this novel, he redoubles the identifying strand: the DNA of his storytelling is not only literary, it is literal. Moonglow relays the rich, complicated history of the author’s own family, reshaped through fiction.

How much of what Chabon writes here about his relatives and himself is true; and how much is invented, or embellished? He will not say. In an author’s note, he declares, “I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose or the truth as I prefer to understand it.” Further hedging his accountability, he adds that any “liberties” taken with “names, dates, places, events, and conversations,” not to mention with actual historical figures (notably Wernher von Braun, inventor of the V-2 rocket and bugbear of Chabon’s rocketry-obsessed grandfather), “have been taken with due abandon.” Yes, this is Chabon all right; tantalizing, precise, and polytropic, gazing with a scientist’s enthralled raptness at the creatures that divide and grow, seethe and Rorschach, beneath his microscope. But where observation ends and re-imagination begins here is never entirely revealed.

The seeds for this book were planted in 1989, the year after Chabon published his debut novel, Mysteries of Pittsburgh. His grandfather — who, the book explains, was not his biological grandfather but acted as a paternal figure in important ways to Chabon’s mother and her sons — was dying of cancer. As the author, then twenty-six, sat by his sickbed, the grandfather grudgingly filled in episodes from the family’s past that he had not formerly disclosed. He did not want to romanticize himself, or even to think too hard about himself. “My grandfather and his emotions were never really on speaking terms,” Chabon explains. But he told his grandson: “After I’m gone, write it down. Explain everything. Make it mean something. Use a lot of those fancy metaphors of yours.” He added, “Start with the night I was born. March second 1915.”

Chabon, of course, started in his own way, but it took him a quarter century to work up the will to do so. The facts his grandfather told him about himself and his wife, whom Chabon knew as Mamie (pronounced mah-MEE, French for “grandma”) erased the familial certainties Chabon had absorbed from boyhood, certainties that had shaped his identity. He learned that his loving, high-strung, witchy grandmother — reader of fortunetelling cards, baker of tarte tatin, teller of nightmare-inducing fairytales (“wicked children received grim punishments, hard-earned success was forfeited in one instant of weakness, infants were abandoned, wolves prevailed”) — had not been who she said she was. (Not wanting to spoil things, I’ll hold off on exposing her shifts and prevarications here.) This discovery “messed me up for a long time,” Chabon writes. “One by one I began to subject my memories of my grandmother, of the things she had told me and the way she had behaved, to a formal review, a kind of failure analysis, searching and testing them for their content of deceit, for the hidden presence in them of the truth.” His determination not to be misled helps explain his caginess about the reliability of this novel-cum-memoir. It took fiction for him to restore logic and plausibility, if not exact truth, to his personal biography, assembling an ancestral narrative so rich in turbulent adventure that it makes Baron Munchausen look like a shut-in.

Moonglow unfolds in the roller-coaster style familiar to readers of Chabon’s other novels, loosely following the grandfather’s chronology — from his scrappy youth, scavenging coal in the Philly train yards, to his World War II experiences (in Germany he stalks Wernher von Braun, outraged by the scientist’s diversion of the utopian goals of rocketry from space travel to warfare), to his courtship of his wife and their marriage. Interspersed amid this picaresque trajectory are flash-forwards to a love affair in the grandfather’s final year, at a retirement home in Florida, when, long widowed, he takes up with a new resident, whose cat has been devoured (she thinks) by an alligator in a nearby swamp. Gallant as Don Quixote, the grandfather takes up a lance and goes after the malefactor (it turns out to be a python).

But this late romance can’t compete with the “freight-train rumble” of his passion for Mamie. Describing his grandfather’s besotment with his wife, Chabon writes, “In her pain and her vividness and her theatricality, she seemed to have access to some higher frequency of emotion.” In a chapter about one of Mamie’s hallucination-fed breakdowns, a few years before the Feathercombs incident, Chabon mentions a luna moth, which his grandmother had found “expiring with languid wingbeats on a tree in the backyard” and pinned to a bulletin board in her sewing room, “its viridescence fading with time to dull dollar green.” Marking that detail, you shiver, recognizing the touchstone that would recover its glow in the eerie comic book goddess Luna Moth, who makes the fame of Chabon’s Kavalier and Klay. In that novel, Luna Moth sought an earthly warrior to don her green wings and “right the world’s many wrongs.” When her chosen messenger protested that she wasn’t up to the task, Luna said, “You will find . . . that you have only to imagine something to make it so.”

This superb novel shows Chabon at his best; his documentary impulse here reins in the ornate language that can sometimes make his other work gaudy. He loses none of his audacious agency by harnessing his art to biography. But is Moonglow fundamentally a novel, or a memoir? Why quibble? As every novelist knows, it’s in fiction that the important truths get told.

The Barnes & Noble Review http://ift.tt/2gLiYMx

Conclave

Conclave Cover Crop

Robert Harris’s novels are wonderfully tart confections of political conspiracy, opportunism, cynicism, and vainglory. He has found his material in ancient Rome, France of the Dreyfus Affair, Bletchley Park, a (counter-factual) victorious Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, a rogue hedge fund, and the so-called War on Terror. Conclave, his eleventh fictional engagement with high-stakes intrigue, goes straight for the mother lode: the Vatican.

It is 2018, and a pope who resembles the present one in humility, charity, and tolerance has died unexpectedly in his sleep. Cardinals from all over the world are assembling in Rome to choose his successor. The media are slavering, “reporters and photographers . . . calling out to the cardinals, like tourists at a zoo trying to persuade the animals to come closer.” Armed guards, snipers, and surface-to-air missiles have been deployed against the threat of terrorist attack. Carpenters and technicians are preparing the Sistine Chapel for the electoral proceedings, and a number of cardinals begin to position themselves to step into the papal shoes. Factions and coalitions emerge in different permutations: progressive and reactionary parties, combining and splitting with the Italian, Third World, and North American contingents. Beneath it all, churning relentlessly, are the forces of what we may call the deep Curia.

We see events through the eyes of the dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Romeli, an old, modest, and sincerely devout man whose “guilty recreation” is, appropriately enough as it turns out, reading detective fiction. It is his duty to officiate over the conclave and assure that it runs smoothly — which I’m happy to say it does not. A speedy election is desired lest it appear that the Church is falling into terminal discord. But perhaps it is. Romeli learns that, toward the end of his life, the late pope had lost his faith in the Church and, along with that shocker, had made some exceedingly strange decisions. On the very day of his death, he had met privately with one powerhouse cardinal, an aspirant to the papacy, and removed him from all his offices — then died before making the decision effective. What was that all about? And will this last act come out in the conclave? Furthermore, the old pontiff had also appointed a new cardinal whose existence had not been suspected until he arrives on the scene. What’s going on here?

Before unleashing the answers to these crucial question, Harris gives us a few splendidly satirical pictures of the workings of the Vatican, not least in the matter of ecclesiastical pelf. There is the American cardinal “who might come from New York and look like a Wall Street banker” but is not at all up to the job of straightening out the financial management of his department. As one old Italian cardinal remarks to Romeli, he would “never have given the job to an American. They are so innocent: they have no idea how bribery works.” We are also introduced to a dead ringer for the real Cardinal Bertone, whom the actual Pope Francis has censured for his extravagance in knocking together two Vatican apartments to create a vast luxury pad for himself.

As politicking commences and picks up heat, secrets from the past erupt to bury the candidacies of a couple of cardinals. Harris, the writer, loves the maneuverings and machinations of power-mongers, but he is just as superb here in showing men of true faith wrestling with the legitimacy of their own wishes and trying to fathom God’s will as events unfold. He goes so far as to suggest the presence of the Holy Spirit when Romeli discards a prepared homily to deliver an impromptu one of a completely different tenor before the assembled cardinals. It is a speech that sets the conclave on a most unexpected path.

I know this is all rather obscure — that’s the Vatican for you — but I don’t wish to reveal the plot elements that keep the book going against the countervailing force of Harris’s unremitting attention to rules of order and the arcana of ceremonial habiliments and accessories. Just when the story is getting a good head of suspense going, some matter of procedural housekeeping is explained in detail, or our old friend Cardinal Romeli starts putting on or taking off his choir dress, a great assemblage that includes scarlet cassock with thirty-three buttons (“one button for each year in Christ’s life”), cincture with tassel hanging midway up the left calf, rochet, mozzetta, zuchetta, pectoral cross, skull cap, and biretta.

Well before the end of the novel, it becomes clear where things are heading — even if certain details are a bit of a surprise. All in all, Conclave is not one of Harris’s best works; still, the political aspects of papal selection, the pressure of the “news cycle,” and the wheeling and dealing and backstabbing are excellently realized and put forward with a good deal of sardonic wit. This is where Harris excels and why one waits so impatiently for his next offering.

The Barnes & Noble Review http://ift.tt/2gGzH3E

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

Born a Crime Cover Crop

We need our comedians now more than ever. The best, from Samantha Bee to John Oliver, were so incisive during the interminable and punishing election season that their work often functioned less as comedy than as vital journalism. There’s a simpler reason many of us need our comedians, too: those of us who voted blue and are feeling, well, blue will need a way to laugh through our grief and anger as we gird ourselves for the coming Trump administration.

It could be that Daily Show host Trevor Noah, the South African comic unexpectedly tapped last year to replace the revered Jon Stewart, will prove particularly adept at wringing satirical humor out of a reality that already feels to many like dark satire. While during his early months in the hosting chair some complained that, as an outsider, Noah didn’t evince Stewart’s impassioned outrage at American political culture, a recent sketch comparing Trump to scandal-plagued South African president Jacob Zuma demonstrated how instructive an outsider’s perspective can be. (Noah made the case that the “inept and self-serving” Zuma and Trump appear to be “brothers from another mother.”) Noah’s new memoir, the rollicking yet tender Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, provides further indication that Noah’s is a necessary voice for these times.

In addition to that, it’s a great read. The book comprises eighteen autobiographical chapters, each prefaced by a short piece explaining a relevant element of South Africa’s history of apartheid. Many of the chapters center on his relationship with his fearless and devout black Xhosa mother, who risked a prison term of up to five years by having a child with Noah’s white father, a Swiss expat. Noah was indeed “born a crime,” and for the first five years of his life, until apartheid fell, he was mostly kept indoors, whether with his mother in her Johannesburg apartment or with his maternal grandmother in her Soweto township, to minimize the risk that the government would take him away.

“We had a very Tom and Jerry relationship, me and my mom,” writes Noah, a vivid storyteller who fondly recalls epic chases through the neighborhood as his mother sought to punish him for all manner of mischief and as he sought to escape a beating. As he grew fast enough to outrun her, she took to yelling “thief” to get bystanders involved in the pursuit. “In South Africa, nobody gets involved in other people’s business, unless it’s mob justice, and then everybody wants in,” Noah quips. His writing about his mother is loving and bighearted, especially as she becomes involved in an abusive relationship that culminates in a truly shocking outburst of violence that Noah’s mother, miraculously, survives.

Throughout the memoir, Noah slyly illuminates the absurdities of a society built on racial hierarchy. When the light-skinned child was with his mother’s extended family in the township, he was treated as white. Though he was the least well behaved of all the children, he was never beaten by his grandmother as his cousins were. “A black child, you hit them and they stay black,” she told his mother. “Trevor, when you hit him he turns blue and green and yellow and red. I’ve never seen those colors before. I’m scared I’m going to break him. I don’t want to kill a white person.” While he’s somewhat abashed to admit it now, Noah reveled in his special treatment. “My own family basically did what the American justice system does: I was given more lenient treatment than the black kids,” he reports. “Growing up the way I did, I learned how easy it is for white people to get comfortable with a system that awards them all the perks.”

But when Noah’s mother, who worked as a secretary, was eventually able to buy a home in the suburbs, Noah went from being “the only white kid in the black township” to being “the only black kid in the white suburb.” And although biracial, he was excluded from South Africa’s mixed-race “colored” population, an ethnic group that traces its history back to the seventeenth century, to the sexual unions of Dutch colonists and African natives. He didn’t quite belong anywhere, and growing up, he had few friends.

The book, focusing on Noah’s boyhood, doesn’t describe his decision to pursue comedy, but one can imagine that a childhood spent as a perpetual outsider, observing group dynamics to determine where he might fit in, has served Noah well in his chosen profession. There were so many times, he recalls, when he “had to be a chameleon, navigate between groups, explain who I was.” He survived it (and writes about it) well; expect him, in the coming months and years, to help explain us to ourselves.

The Barnes & Noble Review http://ift.tt/2fKJH9J

A Year in Reading: Ten from 2016

YearReadingSlider

Make a list, regret it twice: choosing the “Best” books in any year is a procedure guaranteed to given any book reviewer grief.  Whatever number you choose, you’ll be leaving out books that make their own arguments for inclusion with urgency and eloquence.  Yet, as the year winds up– particularly a year like this one, in which breaking news often threatened to break us under the sheer flooding volume and seismic consequences– looking back to capture some of what the slower work of the book had to offer seems all the more essential.

Consider this list from the B&N Review to be part of that attempt: an admitted fragment, a snapshot of highlights, a particular edit of a scene a different eye might have filmed quite differently.  We’ve chosen ten new-in-2016 works of fiction and nonfiction that appeared in our pages, books we think  represent this year with particular significance — whether for their urgent attention to the moment we share, their fresh and illuminating point of view, or their achievement in breaking through the cacaphony with a singular voice. (Next month we’ll highlight some significant rediscoveries and new translations as well).  Our selections, along with excerpts of our coverage in the Review, are below:

 

All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister

From Barbara Spindel’s interview with author Rebecca Traister: “American public policy and civic institutions were built with one formulation of the citizenry in mind, a model in which there was a breadwinning person and a domestic laborer. The assumption was that the earner was male. He got a series of things from the government: tax breaks for being married, for having a kid, for owning a home. The assumption has also been that that person had an unpaid or low-paid person, always a woman, who stayed at home and was working to put meals on the table, do laundry, pick up children from school at three o’clock in the afternoon — just think about how our country is built on the assumption that there is somebody who’s going to pick up a child at three o’clock in the afternoon! People don’t live like that anymore.”  Read More.

 

American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin

From our interview with author Jeffrey Toobin: “What gives the book, I think, contemporary resonance is that, you know, terrorism is nothing new in the United States. We are very scared of ISIS today. But in fact, there was more terrorism in the ’70s. …I do think that if you believe, as many people do, that events are shimmering out of control, it may be helpful to know that things have been worse in the past. But I don’t want to pretend that I wrote this book as sort of like a guide to contemporary life. It’s mostly just an extraordinary story from the past that has one woman at the mysterious heart of it.”  Read More.

 

 

 

Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett

From Hawa Allan’s review: “’The white man in this book is a symbol of progress,’ according to the former English literature teacher of Furo Wariboko, the protagonist of A. Igoni Barrett’s novel Blackass... But of course, in the zero-sum politics of settler colonialism, one man’s progress is another man’s decline. “Progress always wins,” Furo’s English teacher had taught, “that’s why it’s progress.”  Read More.

 

 

 

 

Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America by Patrick Phillips

From Tayari Jones’s interview with author Patrick Phillips: “So even as a schoolkid, I asked some of my classmates, ‘Why are there no black people here? Why is everyone so full of hatred when there don’t seem to be any people of color around?’ That’s when I first heard this story in its most mythic terms, which was that, a long-long time ago, this girl had been attacked and, in response, the white people had ‘run out’ all of their black neighbors. That’s the version of it I always knew. And exactly as you say, it was always told in very vague, mythic terms. There were never any names or dates or places. It was stripped of all of the detail. So it seemed like this thing that was just lost in the mists of time.”  Read More.

 

 

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

From Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s interview with author Matthew Desmond: “Americans are matched in their rich democracy with the depth and expanse of poverty. That’s really always unsettled me. So I wanted to get as close as I could and try to understand that from a ground level…So I started by moving into a trailer park on the south side of Milwaukee, and I lived in that trailer for about five months. Then I moved into a rooming house on the north side of Milwaukee, which is a traditional inner-city, predominantly African-American neighborhood, and I lived in that rooming house for about ten months. From those two places, I followed families that were getting evicted and the landlords doing the evicting. If you were getting evicted, I went to court with you, followed you into abandoned shelters and houses… I went to funerals with folks. Slept at their houses. Ate meals at their table. I was there for a birth… I saw landlords buy property, sell properties, pass out eviction notices, and collect rents, and tried to really plumb the complications of that relationship that defines the lives of so many families today.” Read More.

Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn

From Amy Gall’s review and interview with Nicole Dennis-Benn: “It is impossible to read Dennis-Benn’s debut novel, Here Comes the Sun, and not be changed. The book traces the stories of four Jamaican women fighting for selfhood and love in a country that is built upon their exploitation… [The novel]is beautiful and unsparing in its critique of the tourism industry and the ways in which racism, sexual violence, and homophobia warp the lives of the characters. It is a meditation on the possibility of hope and intimacy in the face of great adversity.”  Read More.

 

 

 

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett

From Melissa Holbrooke Pierson’s review: “Imagine Me Gone fulfills its considerable ambitions. It touches greatness, and its seamless interleaving of the deeply personal with the widely collective is one reason. The character of Michael is another. Haslett suggests grief is passed to succeeding generations of a society by the same mechanism it is to individuals. In Michael both converge.” Read More.

 

 

 

 

Mercury by Margot Livesey

From Katherine A. Powers’s review: “Mercury is Margot Livesey’s eighth novel, and just like the previous seven, it is completely different from its predecessors. Her books have been peopled by a most variegated lot, among them an evil child, a lunatic, a blackmailer, an amnesiac, a control freak, a couple of ghosts, and, last time, in The Flight of Gemma Hardy, a mid-twentieth-century version of Jane Eyre. Now we find ourselves sucked deep into the lives of an optometrist, his equestrian wife, and their two children….I came to this story in a state of innocence, and I feel that its terrific power depended in great part on the gradual unfolding of unlooked-for events.”  Read More.

 

 

 

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin

From Megan Abbott’s review:  “‘You once wrote me a letter . . . telling me that I would never be lonely again. I think that was the first, the most dreadful lie you ever told me.’..These wrenching lines appear twice in Ruth Franklin’s magisterial biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life and are, by some measures, the beating heart of the book. They are taken from an undated letter Jackson wrote to her husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. But Franklin employs them not so much for what they reveal about Jackson’s frequently unhappy marriage but instead to tease out the many murky nuances of what ‘lonely’ meant for Jackson — as a writer whose work frequently defied categorization, as a woman chafing against her era’s notions of what a woman could be, and as an artist of singular talent in a time and place when singularity was often suspect.”  Read More.

 

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild

From Barbara Spindel’s review: “Hochschild sees the Arenos, who are staunch Republicans, as part of what she calls ‘the Great Paradox’: in Louisiana, as in other red states in the South, one finds ‘great pollution and great resistance to regulating polluters.’ Strangers in Their Own Land…grew out of Hochschild’s alarm over the country’s deepening political divide and her heartfelt interest in understanding, in her words, ‘how life feels to people on the right.’ Over a period of five years, Hochschild traveled to Louisiana bayou country from her Berkeley home to get to know a group of men and women she comes to refer to as her ‘Tea Party friends’ and to understand why, in an area that’s suffered from calamitous industrial pollution, they put more faith in industry than in government.” Read More.

The Barnes & Noble Review http://ift.tt/2fht7eN

A Year in Reading: Ten from 2016

YearReadingSlider

Make a list, regret it twice: choosing the “Best” books in any year is a procedure guaranteed to given any book reviewer grief.  Whatever number you choose, you’ll be leaving out books that make their own arguments for inclusion with urgency and eloquence.  Yet, as the year winds up– particularly a year like this one, in which breaking news often threatened to break us under the sheer flooding volume and seismic consequences– looking back to capture some of what the slower work of the book had to offer seems all the more essential.

Consider this list from the B&N Review to be part of that attempt: an admitted fragment, a snapshot of highlights, a particular edit of a scene a different eye might have filmed quite differently.  We’ve chosen ten new-in-2016 works of fiction and nonfiction that appeared in our pages, books we think  represent this year with particular significance — whether for their urgent attention to the moment we share, their fresh and illuminating point of view, or their achievement in breaking through the cacaphony with a singular voice. (Next month we’ll highlight some significant rediscoveries and new translations as well).  Our selections, along with excerpts of our coverage in the Review, are below:

 

All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister

From Barbara Spindel’s interview with author Rebecca Traister: “American public policy and civic institutions were built with one formulation of the citizenry in mind, a model in which there was a breadwinning person and a domestic laborer. The assumption was that the earner was male. He got a series of things from the government: tax breaks for being married, for having a kid, for owning a home. The assumption has also been that that person had an unpaid or low-paid person, always a woman, who stayed at home and was working to put meals on the table, do laundry, pick up children from school at three o’clock in the afternoon — just think about how our country is built on the assumption that there is somebody who’s going to pick up a child at three o’clock in the afternoon! People don’t live like that anymore.”  Read More.

 

American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin

From our interview with author Jeffrey Toobin: “What gives the book, I think, contemporary resonance is that, you know, terrorism is nothing new in the United States. We are very scared of ISIS today. But in fact, there was more terrorism in the ’70s. …I do think that if you believe, as many people do, that events are shimmering out of control, it may be helpful to know that things have been worse in the past. But I don’t want to pretend that I wrote this book as sort of like a guide to contemporary life. It’s mostly just an extraordinary story from the past that has one woman at the mysterious heart of it.”  Read More.

 

 

 

Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett

From Hawa Allan’s review: “’The white man in this book is a symbol of progress,’ according to the former English literature teacher of Furo Wariboko, the protagonist of A. Igoni Barrett’s novel Blackass... But of course, in the zero-sum politics of settler colonialism, one man’s progress is another man’s decline. “Progress always wins,” Furo’s English teacher had taught, “that’s why it’s progress.”  Read More.

 

 

 

 

Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America by Patrick Phillips

From Tayari Jones’s interview with author Patrick Phillips: “So even as a schoolkid, I asked some of my classmates, ‘Why are there no black people here? Why is everyone so full of hatred when there don’t seem to be any people of color around?’ That’s when I first heard this story in its most mythic terms, which was that, a long-long time ago, this girl had been attacked and, in response, the white people had ‘run out’ all of their black neighbors. That’s the version of it I always knew. And exactly as you say, it was always told in very vague, mythic terms. There were never any names or dates or places. It was stripped of all of the detail. So it seemed like this thing that was just lost in the mists of time.”  Read More.

 

 

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

From Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s interview with author Matthew Desmond: “Americans are matched in their rich democracy with the depth and expanse of poverty. That’s really always unsettled me. So I wanted to get as close as I could and try to understand that from a ground level…So I started by moving into a trailer park on the south side of Milwaukee, and I lived in that trailer for about five months. Then I moved into a rooming house on the north side of Milwaukee, which is a traditional inner-city, predominantly African-American neighborhood, and I lived in that rooming house for about ten months. From those two places, I followed families that were getting evicted and the landlords doing the evicting. If you were getting evicted, I went to court with you, followed you into abandoned shelters and houses… I went to funerals with folks. Slept at their houses. Ate meals at their table. I was there for a birth… I saw landlords buy property, sell properties, pass out eviction notices, and collect rents, and tried to really plumb the complications of that relationship that defines the lives of so many families today.” Read More.

Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn

From Amy Gall’s review and interview with Nicole Dennis-Benn: “It is impossible to read Dennis-Benn’s debut novel, Here Comes the Sun, and not be changed. The book traces the stories of four Jamaican women fighting for selfhood and love in a country that is built upon their exploitation… [The novel]is beautiful and unsparing in its critique of the tourism industry and the ways in which racism, sexual violence, and homophobia warp the lives of the characters. It is a meditation on the possibility of hope and intimacy in the face of great adversity.”  Read More.

 

 

 

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett

From Melissa Holbrooke Pierson’s review: “Imagine Me Gone fulfills its considerable ambitions. It touches greatness, and its seamless interleaving of the deeply personal with the widely collective is one reason. The character of Michael is another. Haslett suggests grief is passed to succeeding generations of a society by the same mechanism it is to individuals. In Michael both converge.” Read More.

 

 

 

 

Mercury by Margot Livesey

From Katherine A. Powers’s review: “Mercury is Margot Livesey’s eighth novel, and just like the previous seven, it is completely different from its predecessors. Her books have been peopled by a most variegated lot, among them an evil child, a lunatic, a blackmailer, an amnesiac, a control freak, a couple of ghosts, and, last time, in The Flight of Gemma Hardy, a mid-twentieth-century version of Jane Eyre. Now we find ourselves sucked deep into the lives of an optometrist, his equestrian wife, and their two children….I came to this story in a state of innocence, and I feel that its terrific power depended in great part on the gradual unfolding of unlooked-for events.”  Read More.

 

 

 

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin

From Megan Abbott’s review:  “‘You once wrote me a letter . . . telling me that I would never be lonely again. I think that was the first, the most dreadful lie you ever told me.’..These wrenching lines appear twice in Ruth Franklin’s magisterial biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life and are, by some measures, the beating heart of the book. They are taken from an undated letter Jackson wrote to her husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. But Franklin employs them not so much for what they reveal about Jackson’s frequently unhappy marriage but instead to tease out the many murky nuances of what ‘lonely’ meant for Jackson — as a writer whose work frequently defied categorization, as a woman chafing against her era’s notions of what a woman could be, and as an artist of singular talent in a time and place when singularity was often suspect.”  Read More.

 

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild

From Barbara Spindel’s review: “Hochschild sees the Arenos, who are staunch Republicans, as part of what she calls ‘the Great Paradox’: in Louisiana, as in other red states in the South, one finds ‘great pollution and great resistance to regulating polluters.’ Strangers in Their Own Land…grew out of Hochschild’s alarm over the country’s deepening political divide and her heartfelt interest in understanding, in her words, ‘how life feels to people on the right.’ Over a period of five years, Hochschild traveled to Louisiana bayou country from her Berkeley home to get to know a group of men and women she comes to refer to as her ‘Tea Party friends’ and to understand why, in an area that’s suffered from calamitous industrial pollution, they put more faith in industry than in government.” Read More.

The Barnes & Noble Review http://ift.tt/2fht7eN