PositiveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksWhile reading Alejandro Zambra’s Chilean Poet, I wondered if a picaresque can stand still. The author, himself an established poet, has created in his new novel a world full of emotional and intellectual adventures that never wanders far from Santiago, his native city ... Pru is funny and engaging, and her relationship with the much younger Vicente is charming and believable. However, that relationship recedes into the background as the novel becomes a love letter to the country’s poets. Through Pru’s interviews, we get portraits of a dozen or more poets, many of them witty, fierce, and independent. Zambra satirizes the competitive backbiting and petty rivalries within the poetry community, but his depictions are lovingly done, and one imagines a cameo in the novel will give the real-life poets bragging rights for years ... We see in these writers a population committed to a somewhat knee-jerk leftism, with everyone spouting ritualistic invectives against capitalism and fascism. But it’s also clear that many of them suffered tremendously under the brutal Pinochet dictatorship, which is referred to frequently but never discussed in detail ... Despite the close attention to these relationships, and the arc of Gonzalo and Vicente’s relationship in particular, the plot sometimes wanders. Long digressions to recount sexual exploits and embarrassing bowel movements feel like, well, digressions. But the prose is always delightful: taut and funny and full of moments that capture emotions with vivid honesty ... Credit for much of that emotional connection must go to Megan McDowell, an accomplished translator shortlisted several times for the Booker Prize. While laughing out loud at parts of this novel, I could see why she is so esteemed ... an irresistible richness and the feel of an adventure — without once leaving the neighborhood.
RaveWashington Independent Review of Books... a readable, thought-provoking, and, yes, helpful treatise on how to navigate life with the aid of good literature ... Entertainingly, Cohen opens each section with mock interview notes, as if the character we’re about to parse had just completed an analytic session ... The life lessons he extracts get more complex as the issues themselves grow more complex, and he groups characters in sometimes surprising ways to make his points ... The books assembled here aren’t guides, and Cohen’s engaging, sometimes moving volume isn’t self-help. And you wouldn’t need them if they were. If you’re curious enough to read at all, he concludes, you already have what it takes to live. As I’ve passed through the life stages he examines—and see the final one coming into ever-sharper focus—I, too, have looked for lessons in literature along the way. Josh Cohen offers a persuasive defense that it’s been time well spent.
RaveWashington Independent Review of BooksWhether you think modern critical theory a triumph or a travesty—or, alternatingly, both—John Mullan, in The Artful Dickens, has something to offer ... Without academic pretense, [Mullan] offers a careful reading of Dickens’ work that will illuminate the joy fans already experience and assist those who struggle to find a way into these long, old-fashioned novels. Mullan doesn’t claim to have parsed the entire Dickens canon; indeed, this volume reads like an enthusiastic list of favorites ... One of the pleasures to be gained by this book will come after reading it, when you return to Bleak House, Great Expectations, or David Copperfield and find yourself newly able to identify techniques that Mullan did not assess ... on page after page, The Artful Dickens shows us a singular craftsman who was of his time and, simultaneously, timeless.
MixedThe Washington Independent Review of BooksAs Fletcher tells us, asking and answering such queries is not why writers write or readers read. Literature isn’t an argument; rather, it’s a technology designed to improve our lives. Literature generates sensations that readers need to experience, things like love, courage, empathy, and serenity. Literature can help us overcome stress, connect with our fellow humans, and find joy ... In short, we read in order to grow into our best selves. Literature can help us do all this through its verifiable impacts on the brain. Its success hinges on how well an author utilizes various techniques — or \'inventions,\' in Fletcher’s language — that cause specific neurological effects: stimulating the amygdala, reducing activity in the parietal lobe, and releasing dopamine, oxytocin, and cortisol ... Fortunately, Fletcher wears his mastery lightly. His writing is never heavy or even a little academic. He introduces his authors with breezy, often witty biographies that establish their historical context and the human need addressed in their work. It’s not surprising that someone so steeped in narrative studies can tell a good story; this volume is both an original history of literature and a page-turner full of fascinating portraits and eye-catching details ... While Angus Fletcher seems, at times, to have his heart set on an anti-intellectual history of literature, he has nonetheless produced a massive re-reading — and admirable expansion — of the Western canon. To top it off, that re-reading is itself readable, thought-provoking, and, yes, practical. Wonderworks is a fascinating book aimed at people who love to read, whatever they think of literature.
RaveWashington Independent Review of Books... a compelling work [that] involves both painstaking research and serendipity ... The history...is powerful in the way that only the most ordinary things can be powerful ... Shaik has done prodigious and fascinating research on the lives of various members, and on antebellum life in general ... We also get a visceral portrait of how ubiquitous slavery once was, with slave sales taking place on sidewalks and holding pens fouling residential streets ... one of the pleasures here is seeing how many intriguing topics are relevant to this story ... For the most part, this information is woven together smoothly. In a few instances, however, these smaller histories could be clearer. And the extent to which Shaik speculates about various historical matters becomes an issue occasionally. But these quibbles hardly detract from the pleasures and importance of this book. The gift of Economy Hall is that it memorializes a once-active society that was swept up in—and tried to steer—some of the most pivotal events in New Orleans.
Richard J. King
PositiveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksA fascinating, timely exploration of Melville\'s (and our) watery world ... a reading for our Anthropocenic era, a chance to find symbols appropriate for our current environmental crisis in this 1851 masterpiece ... [King] combines his love of Melville’s novel with a technical background that is rare among literary scholars ... The science in Ahab’s Rolling Sea includes a lively review of Melville’s research. One wonderful aspect of the book is its illustrations, both 19th-century engravings familiar to Melville and contemporary graphics that bring the information up to date ... As in Melville’s novel, the science here is accurate.