Michael Dirda is a weekly book columnist for The Washington Postas well as a contributor to The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, and many other periodicals. He is the author of a memoir, five collections of essays, and a prize-winning book about Arthur Conan Doyle. Dirda graduated with Highest Honors in English from Oberlin College and received a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Cornell University. He was awarded the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for criticism.
PanThe Washington PostOxford University Press has done an immense disservice to John Zubrzycki’s fascinating Empire of Enchantment: The Story of Indian Magic. Apart from some print-on-demand atrocities, I’ve seldom encountered a book in which so many words have been repeated, dropped, misspelled or misused. I can only suppose that this slovenliness — \'damming\' for \'damning,\' sentences garbled because of a missing verb or pronoun — indicates over-reliance on a computerized auto-correct function. No competent proofreader would have allowed such an embarrassing farrago to go to press. Oxford’s delinquency is particularly annoying because Zubrzycki, an expert on South Asian history, clearly worked hard to produce what is, despite its textual irritations, a valuable and entertaining book ... Empire of Enchantment should be regarded as quite a good book—though it could have been even better had somebody done a proper job of proofreading. As writers and magicians both know, details matter. One slip may be forgiven but a slipshod presentation breaks the spell.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse
PositiveThe Washington PostThe reader’s interest never flags...[there is] an air of cozy menace...Enjoyable as the book is, a purist will nonetheless fault its loose construction...diverting, light entertainment. It’s always fun to see one Holmes brother or the other dazzle with a showy deduction and Mycroft and Sherlock offers plenty of these.
RaveThe Washington PostSome years ago, the reader and former bookseller James Mustich asked himself: \'What if I had a bookstore that could hold only 1,000 volumes, and I wanted to ensure it held not only books for all time but also books for the moment, books to be savored or devoured in a night? A shop where any reading inclination — be it for thrillers or theology, or theological thrillers — might find reward.\' This, he concluded, would be \'a browser’s version of paradise.\' It would also be an apt description of his...impressive 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die ... Organized alphabetically by author’s name and enlivened with numerous illustrations, Mustich devotes three or four paragraphs to describing each chosen title ... It’s hard to imagine that such a massive compendium could have been done better or demonstrate a more supple and catholic taste.
RaveThe Washington PostAs befits a good Stoic, Farnsworth’s expository prose exhibits both clarity and an unflappable calm ... Throughout The Practicing Stoic, Farnsworth beautifully integrates his own observations with scores of quotations from Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne and others. As a result, this isn’t just a book to read—it’s a book to return to, a book that will provide perspective and consolation at times of heartbreak or calamity.
PositiveThe Washington PostHistorian and biographer Julia Boyd opens her riveting Travelers in the Third Reich with ... firsthand accounts by foreigners to convey what it was really like to visit, study or vacation in Germany during the 1920s and ’30s. Throughout, Boyd draws on contemporary letters, diaries and memorandums written by diplomats and politicians, college students, social workers, famous authors and Englishwomen married to Germans ... Shockingly few of these observers managed to see through the Nazis’ smoke and mirrors ... As Julia Boyd emphasizes, too many people allowed reverence for a nation’s glorious past to warp their judgment about its morally repugnant present. That’s a lesson still worth thinking about.
RaveThe Washington PostWriting for a popular audience has clearly punched up Shippey’s prose, which is lively, friendly and occasionally barbed (mostly when alluding to academic stodginess) ... Though its many Norse names may seem off-putting, Shippey’s magnum opus provides not only an exhilarating, mind-expanding appraisal and retelling of Viking history but also an invitation to discover the cold-iron poetry and prose of the medieval North. Take up that invitation. Most adult readers only occasionally feel the wonder and enchantment that books so easily, so regularly evoked in us when we were young.
Diogenes Laertius, Trans. by Pamela Mensch
RaveThe Washington PostIts stories and quips, its quotations and insights are central to European literature. Thus a modern reader can—like Montaigne, who loved the book—still read Diogenes for intellectual entertainment, especially in this magnificent new edition packed with illustrations and notes. Its extensive appendix, moreover, adds learned background essays...as well as a detailed guide to further reading ... Above all else, Diogenes humanizes otherwise Olympian thinkers ... this isn’t just a book to read—it’s a book to return to, a book that will provide perspective and consolation at times of heartbreak or calamity.
RaveThe Washington Post\"Sometimes a book just bowls you over with how good it is ... Kathryn Hughes’s Victorians Undone is just amazing, and her Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum are so various, so imaginatively structured, so delicately salacious and so deliciously written that I sighed with pleasure as I turned the pages and even felt those tiny prickles along the neck that A.E. Housman once claimed were the sign of true poetry ... As is Victorians Undone in its entirety. While some readers may find it gossipy or even sensational in a negative rather than positive sense, I’m not one of them. This is popularized history done right, done with panache. Hughes has infused new life into dry-as-dust facts to produce a learned work that is brazenly, impudently vivacious.\
RaveThe Washington Post...capacious and astute ... Among the many pleasures of this biography are its frequent quotations from Lear’s journals and fanciful letters ... Among Uglow’s most valuable and personal chapters are those devoted to Lear’s fantastic, in all senses, drawings and verse. Some of his later poems, such as \'The Dong With a Luminous Nose,\' can be decidedly pensive or bittersweet, but as Uglow writes, the limericks in his first collection, A Book of Nonsense (1846), are \'comprehensible as both the foolery of childhood and the foolery of carnival, turning the world upside down.\'
PositiveThe Washington Post...civilized, light entertainment ... The Judge Hunter, then, is a historical novel, albeit one that adopts the breezy, cheeky manner of George MacDonald Fraser’s accounts of the Victorian scoundrel Flashman ... This new novel reminds us that every sort of prejudice, brutality and fanaticism formed part of the tangled root-ball of our nation ... an enjoyable, if slightly uneven patchwork of the comic, serious, satirical, historical, tragic and utterly inconsequential.
RaveThe Washington PostAudrey Schulman has...written a riveting page-turner about bonobos — yes, the chimplike primates — and set the action in a very near and dire future ... Sharply observant of primate behavior (both human and animal), Schulman’s quick-moving and dramatic prose doesn’t really lend itself to ready quotation. Burke, like many a New Yorker, believes Midwestern humor consists mainly of 'knee-slapping guffaws, as intellectual as euchre.' More poetically, she recognizes that 'each important moment in life has about it a stillness, an extra beat, an awareness of the edges.' As a result, when she finds herself falling in love 'something inside her clicked. Some animal part of her brain.' Let me add that in creating white-knuckle tension or describing sudden violence, Schulman can rival any our of our more famous thriller writers.
RaveThe Washington PostImagine, if you will, a Pynchonesque mega-novel that periodically calls to mind the films Inception and The Matrix, Raymond Chandler’s quest romances about detective Philip Marlowe, John le Carré’s intricately recursive Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the dizzying science fiction of Philip K. Dick, William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, Iain Pears’s hypertextual Arcadia and Haruki Murakami’s alternate world IQ84 and even this week’s Washington Post story about China’s push for 'total surveillance' ... Harkaway divides up and parcels out these four narratives over the course of Neith’s investigation. Each, I should stress, is genre-novel exciting just on its own ... Despite the richness of its invention and virtuosic tricksiness, Gnomon is probably a bit too long. Still, it means to dazzle and it does, while also raising serious questions about identity, privacy, human rights and the just society.
RaveThe Washington PostIn Christmas: A Biography, social historian Judith Flanders questions the widespread assumption that ‘a deeply solemn religious event’ has been ‘sullied’ by our own secular, capitalist society … as Flanders repeatedly shows: Yuletide has almost always been more rowdy and secular than reverent or religious … Christmas: A Biography grows increasingly sociological, just as the holiday itself grows increasingly oriented toward children … Throughout, too, her writing remains brisk and witty.
RaveThe Washington Post... prizeworthy literary biography...Like Scribner’s Max Perkins, Garnett was, in all senses of the phrase, an editor of genius ... Edward Garnett was staunchly, even narrowly, realistic in his approach to fiction: Literature, he felt, should focus on and reveal life as it is ... In structure, An Uncommon Reader might be likened to a portrait gallery ...introduces us to Garnett’s various 'discoveries' and literary confidants ... Though An Uncommon Reader is Helen Smith’s first book, one would never know it: She delivers uncommonly good reading, and anyone interested in Edwardian fiction, the history of publishing or literary biography will find it a treat.
RaveThe Washington PostIn Don’t Save Anything, despite its paradoxical title, Kay Eldredge Salter assembles her late husband’s bread-and-butter journalism — yet how delicious good bread and butter can be! ... As always, Salter emphasizes simple, vivifying details. To understand the challenge of ascending the vertical rock face of Yosemite’s El Capitan, 'Imagine a wall more than twice as high as the Empire State Building.' Describing a hospital lab technician, he writes, 'She has blond hair and the decent, American face of a girl in the emergency room who is there when your eyes open and you love her from then on.'”
Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Trans. by Lucia Graves
RaveThe Washington PostIt is a long novel that will remind readers of a good many other novels. This isn't meant as criticism but as an indication of the story's richness and architectonic intricacy. Before everything else, Carlos Ruiz Zafon's European bestseller is a book about a mysterious book, and its even more mysterious author … As the reader tries to figure out the links between modern Spanish history, two passionate and forbidden love affairs and an enigmatic novelist, Carlos Ruiz Zafon periodically lessens the tension of his dark melodrama by introducing humorous interludes or eccentric secondary characters … Suffice it to say that — and here's yet another critical formula — anyone who enjoys novels that are scary, erotic, touching, tragic and thrilling should rush right out to the nearest bookstore and pick up The Shadow of the Wind.
Ingrid Rowland & Noah Charley
MixedThe Washington PostHow these two scholars came to work together isn’t made clear, but their book’s subtitle, Giorgio Vasari and the Invention of Art, seems a somewhat audacious claim. Perhaps ‘the invention of art history’ would be more accurate? Though mainly a life of Vasari — and one contending that he is a major — their book also touches on many of the civic, intellectual and aesthetic currents of 16th-century Italy … Such historical tidbits are unquestionably entertaining, but they also render The Collector of Lives a bit of a hodgepodge — unless, of course, the authors are deliberately emulating what the period’s rhetoricians called ‘copia,’ a flowery abundance. After a sensationalistic opening — Could there be a lost Leonardo behind a Vasari fresco? — the book does settle down, but many points are tediously repeated … Because of these blemishes, The Collector of Lives lacks anything approaching Raphael-like perfection. You should read it anyway.
RaveThe Washington PostThat self-deprecation is characteristic, but Keeping On Keeping On — which covers the years 2005 to 2015 — also shows us this kindly, cultured man enraged and despondent over the state of England and its increasing 'nastification' ... Mostly he deals with the vicissitudes of age — cancer checkups, surgery for a stomach aneurysm, worsening deafness — while getting on with new work...an increasing sense of the valedictory in these pages... Such dry humor, about himself and the world around him, is typical of Bennett... While the first half of this massive volume is devoted to Bennett’s diaries, the latter 300 or so pages reprint talks about books, the opera and theater, the texts of two unproduced plays and notes made...the perfect book at bedtime, providing bite-size diary entries, lively anecdotes and, yes, a quite comforting teddy bearishness — if you allow for the occasional swipe from some surprisingly sharp claws.
RaveThe Washington PostImagine the cult film The Big Lebowski as a novel, with touches of Chinatown and L.A. Confidential thrown in for good measure. Imagine your favorite Raymond Chandler or James Crumley mystery retold as a hippie whodunit, set in Gordita Beach, Calif., at the very end of the 1960s. Imagine a great American novelist, one who is now a septuagenarian, writing with all the vivacity and bounce of a young man who has just discovered girls. Most of all, imagine sentences and scenes that are so much fun to read that you wish Inherent Vice were twice as long as it is. Imagine saying that about a Thomas Pynchon novel … a terrific pastiche of California noir, wonderfully amusing throughout...and a poignant evocation of the last flowering of the '60s, just before everything changed and passed into myth or memory.
PositiveThe Washington PostDespite its many merits, including a terrific annotated bibliography, Bunk may strike some readers as overlong and somewhat ramshackle. While usually clear and journalistic, Young’s prose constantly shifts registers, sometimes veering into cultural theorizing, at other times opting for sassily hip street talk. This tonal restlessness certainly adds a variety and richness to the book, but also reinforces the impression that Young can’t stop talking and can’t bring himself to leave anything out. Still, excess hardly matters when there’s so much to enjoy and learn from in this encyclopedic anatomy of American imposture and chicanery.
John Crowley, Illustrated by Melody Newcomb
RaveThe Washington Post... Ka — an exploration of the bond between the living and the dead — may be a challenge for some readers ...crows have long been regarded as 'death-birds.' Eaters of carrion and corpses, they are sometimes even said to convey the soul into the afterlife. Crowley’s title itself alludes to this notion... Throughout his fiction he returns repeatedly to the notion of recollection, whether of past selves, lost wisdom or secret history ...depicts quiet loneliness — because Dar Oakley connects human and crow cultures he isn’t quite at home in either — and achingly evokes the spring-fever of dawning love ... As that suggests, Ka is nothing if not syncretic. More than a book of stories nested in stories, it is, as the Skeleton implied, a book about Story.
RaveThe Washington Post...a wonderfully engaging memoir of both her father, Clifton Fadiman, and of what it was like to grow up in a highly bookish and privileged household ... By recording both her past experiences and her current thoughts about those experiences, she keeps The Wine Lover’s Daughter consistently absorbing and, once begun, you will be hard-pressed to stop reading, even though the book should probably be savored like a grand cru rather than guzzled down like cheap beer. Either way, though, you’re in for a good time ... Anne Fadiman’s prose, like a proper gentleman’s suit, is beautifully tailored without drawing attention to itself ... [a] clear-eyed and loving memoir.
RaveThe Washington PostA novel that initially seems as if it might have been written by E.M. Forster darkens into something by Dostoevsky or Patricia Highsmith. It also becomes unputdownable. Not that the first part is less so; it’s simply slower, more leisurely in its depiction of a troubled marriage and two sad-hearted women who gradually look to each other for companionship, a little conversation, an occasional picnic together … In The Paying Guests she has written both a beautifully delineated love story and a darkly suspenseful psychological novel. While I’ve been coy about revealing too much about how the plot develops, I will just whisper that the reader is in for a seriously heart-pounding roller-coaster ride.
RaveThe Washington PostBleeding Edge is set in New York City, and the looming shadow of 9/11 touches every page. Nonetheless, many of those pages are outrageously funny, others are sexy, touchingly domestic, satirical or deeply mysterious. All are brilliantly written in Pynchon’s characteristically revved-up, even slightly over-revved style — a joy to read, though the techno-babble of various computer geeks can take SOME getting used to. Still, as spring passes into summer and summer approaches fall, our anxiety grows and intensifies … Bleeding Edge swarms with amazing characters, many of them verging on caricature, although convincing enough on the page … There are, in fact, jokes and puns and put-downs on nearly every page of Bleeding Edge — the conversations between Maxine and her lifelong friend Heidi are particularly catty, affectionate and vulgar. But laughter can’t stave off the book’s encroaching darkness.
PositiveThe Washington Post...this insider’s guide to long-form journalism, though somewhat meandering, is a book that any writer, aspiring or accomplished, could profitably read, study and argue with. However, its opening two chapters, in which McPhee presents his various systems for structuring articles, do require a bit of perseverance ... For over half a century, John McPhee — now 86 — has been writing profiles of scientists, eccentrics and specialists of every stripe. All are exceptional at what they do. So, too, is their discerning chronicler.
PositiveThe Washington PostMany of Mueenuddin's stories conform to a common dynamic: We learn about a character's past, then zero in on the central crisis of his or her life and, even while we expect more development, suddenly find everything wound up in a paragraph or two: ‘The next day two men loaded the trunks onto a horse-drawn cart and carried them away to the Old City.’ (Flaubert or Chekhov might have written that.) In other instances, even so minimal a resolution remains cloudy: Mueenuddin just stops, having given us all that we need to know about the future or lack of future in a love affair or a marriage … As should be clear, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is a collection full of pleasures.
RaveThe New York Review of BooksWhile Canada sets up numerous scenes that teeter on the edge of the comic, they usually slide into the pathetic, macabre, or hallucinatory. The novel’s forlorn tone—of thoughts that lie too deep for tears—quite naturally grows out of the narrator’s painful recollections of a close family destroyed by a foolish act of parental desperation. Ford really excels, however, in his virtuoso command of narrative suspense. He makes us wait … Each part of Canada is superb in its own way, and, as Dell tells us, there are links between them. Nonetheless, the two halves differ as much as the Parsons twins do. While the Montana chapters might be likened to a modernized western (Indians, cattle rustling, a bank holdup), the second half presents a Southern Gothic vision of the North, complete with the depraved half-breed servant, the elegant, corrupt master, dark family secrets, good ol’ boys drinking, whoring, and hunting, and finally the awaited revenant from the buried past.
RaveThe Washington PostIn this frightening, but not wholly unfamiliar world, Atwood focuses on the interactions of a small group of rebels: the brilliant but unstable genetic scientist Crake; his sidekick, Jimmy, and Oryx, the woman they both love; a bioterrorist group known as MaddAddam, which communicates through a computer game called Extinctathon; and a pacifist religious cult called God’s Gardeners … Does all this sound totally grim, Brave New World meets Blade Runner meets Escape From New York meets The Road Warrior? It’s not. Atwood’s three-part masterpiece is one of those stories that are thrilling and funny and romantic and touching and, yes, horrific by turns and sometimes all at once. Best of all, MaddAddam, like the final volumes of many other trilogies, draws multiple plot strands together, showing how seemingly disparate elements from the earlier books are really deeply interconnected.
RaveThe Washington Post\"...the best account of Baker Street mania ever written ... what Bostrom has accomplished supremely well is to relate, as his subtitle proclaims, \'the story of the men and women who created an icon.\' In effect, he shows us how Sherlock Holmes enchanted the world ... more than a treat, it’s a smorgasbord ... be aware that Bostrom’s narrative style verges on the melodramatic: Each chapter is a short vignette, often ending with a cliffhanger. This can take getting used to, but remember that Holmes himself could never resist a theatrical flourish.\
Jon K. Lauck
PositiveThe Washington PostThis may sound dull as ditch water to those who believe that the 'flyover' states are inhabited largely by clodhoppers, fundamentalist zealots and loudmouthed Babbitts. In fact, Lauck’s aim is to examine 'how the Midwest as a region faded from our collective imagination' and 'became an object of derision.' In particular, the heartland’s traditional values of hard work, personal dignity and loyalty, the centrality it grants to family, community and church, and even the Jeffersonian ideal of a democracy based on farms and small land-holdings — all these came to be deemed insufferably provincial by the metropolitan sophisticates of the Eastern Seaboard and the lotus-eaters of the West Coast ... From Warm Center to Ragged Edge is scholarly — there are as many pages of notes as of text — and Lauck does favor long sentences, which may take getting used to. But this is an important book and these days, especially, deserves to be read and debated.
Laurent Binet, Trans. by Sam Taylor
PositiveThe Washington PostLike Umberto Eco’s conspiracy classic, Foucault’s Pendulum, or Zoran Zivkovic’s Papyrus Trilogy, Laurent Binet — a professor of French literature in Paris — has produced an intellectual thriller that will be catnip to serious readers ... Before long, as in many golden-age mysteries, various characters start to die while mumbling enigmatic words such as 'Sophia,' 'Elle sait' and 'Echo.' None means what it seems ... Like HHhH, Binet’s post-modernist novel about the assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich, The Seventh Function of Language doesn’t just tell a story. Binet is also exploring the relationship between fiction and reality ... To my mind, Binet doesn’t really do enough with these familiar metafictional tropes, and he’s much better at satire and suspense.
RaveThe Washington PostThe Great Nadar lacks the obvious commercial appeal of Begley’s previous biography, a capacious, revealing life of the novelist John Updike, so that it comes across as a labor of love. Yet the word 'labor' hardly characterizes the suavity, swiftness and economy of its text. The book is a pleasure to read, though one could almost buy it just for the pictures ... In a substantial appendix, titled 'Mementos of Nadar’s World,' he presents a gallery of the notables who visited the photographer’s studio.Begley quotes from the funny and eccentric comments these and other clients left in Nadar’s guest book. The result makes for a delightful close to a concise and delightful biography.
RaveThe New York Review of Books...a novel of Faulknerian power and darkness, one that embraces the American experience from the time of the Civil War to the first years of the Depression … While Shadow Country gradually conveys what is known about Watson from records and reminiscences, Matthiessen imagines conversations and the background for certain characters and encounters, even as he deepens the ambiguities of his increasingly tantalizing story … While Book I draws on the down-home voices of the islanders and Book II uses the prose of a good reporter, Book III is written in a rather formal, old-fashioned style, suitable for the scion of proud, if now indigent, Southern aristocrats … Shadow Country is altogether gripping, shocking, and brilliantly told, not just a tour de force in its stylistic range, but a great American novel, as powerful a reading experience as nearly any in our literature.
MixedThe Washington PostNeil Gaiman calls Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell 'the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years' ... Clearly Gaiman likes this book a whole lot ...at heart a book about the present's relationship to the past. In its pages Clarke takes the accepted fabric of English culture and inserts just a single new thread: that during the Renaissance, magic actually worked ...I wonder if this encyclopedic mirroring of so many Romantic styles and situations doesn't slightly weaken the novel by making it too capacious, too loose and baggy...Amid so much richness, I occasionally found myself yearning for a somewhat leaner narrative, but other readers may wallow in just this triple-decker plumminess. At any event, here is God's plenty, and there's plenty of it.
RaveThe Washington PostHollinghurst interlaces three different plots – a Condition of England novel set during the Thatcher era of the 1980s, a Jamesian psychological inquiry cum social comedy about the well-to-do Fedden family and their friends, and a gay coming-of-age story … Throughout Nick remains the center of consciousness, always sympathetic, even as he grows increasingly coarse in his sexual sophistication (and taste for cocaine). What makes the book so fine, though, is its writing -- suffused with enough wit to keep the diction original and lively without overpowering the reader with campiness or excess … Hollinghurst is, in general, singularly adept at choosing just the right words, making unexpected observations and pulling off neat rhetorical gestures. One can, in fact, enjoy The Line of Beauty just for its lines of beauty.
MixedThe Washington PostThe Blind Assassin is, to use an appropriately old-fashioned phrase, grand storytelling on a grand scale. That's not meant to be ironic: For three days I could hardly put the book aside. Still, the novel sometimes verges close to the sentimental and often sounds like a pastiche of period writers … As in so many intricately structured stories, the greatest pleasure derives from the timing of revelations … The Blind Assassin may not be a groundbreaking work of art, but its smoothness, wit and mournful wisdom are deeply ingratiating.
Haruki Murakami, trans. Jay Rubin & Philip Gabriel
PositiveThe Washington PostOnce you start reading 1Q84, you won’t want to do much else until you’ve finished it. Murakami possesses many gifts, but chief among them is an almost preternatural gift for suspenseful storytelling … The world has ‘switched tracks,’ and [Aomame] has entered a kind of parallel reality, which she eventually dubs 1Q84. Not much seems terribly different at first, but gradually she learns that certain aspects of history (and cosmology) have changed, and that nearly all these changes are linked to a mysterious commune called Sakigake … Despite its great length, Murakami’s novel is tightly plotted, without fat, and he knows how to make dialogue, even philosophical dialogue, exciting.
RaveThe Washington PostHer new novel is masterly on almost any level — impressive in its command of every register of English, never tiresome despite its length and astonishingly sympathetic to every sort of human frailty ...center stage stands the Belsey family, arguing, slamming doors, increasingly beleaguered, confused and heartbroken ... As the novel progresses, Smith smoothly shifts into and out of the minds of the various Belseys, as they sigh, quip and agonize against the backdrop of Wellington classes, parties, lectures and faculty meetings ... At times she can be a little extravagant in her imagery...but her overall tone suggests a kindly Voltairean (or, more appositely, Forsterian) tolerance for human weakness. None of the novel's characters is wholly admirable, and yet nearly all are, somehow, loveable ... But after The Autograph Man and now On Beauty, it's evident that Smith is a writer for the long haul, an artist whose books we will look forward to every few years, a real and deeply satisfying novelist. E.M. Forster would be proud.
RaveThe Washington PostThere's nothing flashy in these pages, and yet one regularly pauses to reread sentences, sometimes for their beauty, sometimes for their truth … The time span of Gilead is roughly a hundred years – from the 1850s to 1956, when Ames sets down his story. Implicitly, it looks far into the future – Ames imagines his little boy as an old man – and in spirit back to Biblical times. Eventually one realizes that beyond a portrait of the human condition – prey to isolation and loneliness, ever needful of faith and love – Robinson has subtly introduced that great heartbreaking theme of American history, the often divisive, unfulfilled quest for social and racial justice.
PositiveThe Washington PostChabon takes us everywhere: to the back streets of Prague, the headquarters of the Aryan-American League, a gay party, an Alaskan military outpost during the war, Louis Tannen's celebrated magic shop, the fictional Long Island suburb of Bloomtown. We meet fretful bigwigs, mournful artistes, two-bit fanatics … Ah, but there are so many good things in this novel, it's hard to limit oneself … Michael Chabon has written a long, lovely novel about the American Dream and about comic books (the two, it turns out, may be much the same thing). It's absolutely gosh-wow, super-colossal – smart, funny, and a continual pleasure to read
PositiveThe Washington PostMystery, satire, sex, horror, poetic prose – American Gods uses all these to keep the reader turning the pages … As this apocalyptic novel progresses, Gaiman balances several different narratives…To keep the story from growing too grandiose, Gaiman throws in a fair amount of humor … On the whole the story accelerates crisply toward its surprise ending.
PositiveThe Washington Post...her book situates this revolutionary thinker and his thought in the sociological, political and religious crosscurrents of contemporary Germany ... Let me stress that Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet isn’t written by an atheistical Christopher Hitchens wannabe, but by a highly respected historian. Roper’s tone throughout is one of evenhanded scholarly inquiry. Along the way, though, she drives home a harsh truth: People who are reasonable, empathetic and civilized make ideal neighbors but it’s usually the zealots and extremists who, for good or ill, change the world.
PositiveThe Washington Post...an intense, compulsively readable book about the mystery of faith, seen from both an autobiographical and historical perspective. In it, Carrère depicts his spiritual journey and attendant confusions with a self-accusatory honesty that recalls both Saint Augustine’s Confessions and Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground. But that’s just the beginning. He also speculates about the composition of the Acts of the Apostles and the four Gospels, proffering heterodox interpretations that aren’t just novel but novelistic.
RaveThe Washington Post...Holmes’s books, while biographically persuasive, always feel subtly personal. The 'Footsteps principle' allows the narrative to build on clearly visualized scenes, even as the overall tone is that of intimate, civilized conversation. Above all, Holmes never comes across as stiff or stuffy ... All in all, This Long Pursuit offers an abundance of literary entertainment and instruction.
PositiveThe Washington PostThe Invention of Angela Carter, while an exceptionally thoughtful and engrossing biography, has left me wondering whether it’s such a good idea to read about contemporary writers one admires. In the case of Carter, Gordon traces an inner life of intense self-scrutiny, marked at times by melancholy desperation, an almost hysterical search for love, and periodic callousness toward family and friends ... As Gordon, a lecturer at King’s College London, repeatedly points out, any hard-line view of Carter as a champion of gender politics diminishes her as a writer. She was, he stresses, never ideologically pure and 'never saw the oppression of women as categorically different from other forms of oppression' ... As I finished Edmund Gordon’s admirable biography, it struck me that Carter’s constant refrain of love — yearned for and lost — as well as her use of symbolic autobiography in her fiction and a general approach to life as performance, reminded me of just one other great and daring 20th-century writer: Colette.
Kay Redfield Jamison
PositiveThe Washington PostThere are no half measures to Kay Redfield Jamison’s medico-biographical study of poet Robert Lowell. It is impassioned, intellectually thrilling and often beautifully written, despite being repetitive and overlong ... Nonetheless, Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire achieves a magnificence and intensity — dare one say a manic brilliance? — that sets it apart from more temperate and orderly biographies. Above all, the book demands that readers seriously engage with its arguments, while also prodding them to reexamine their own beliefs about art, madness and moral responsibility. Reading this analysis of 'genius, mania, and character' is an exhilarating experience ... Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire would be an unqualified triumph were it not for Jamison’s penchant for overkill: Everything is treated a bit too expansively, many points and anecdotes are repeated twice or three times, and rather than quoting one authority, she quotes a half-dozen.
PositiveThe Washington Post\"Gaiman’s sentences appear so simple and plain that one wonders if the book is actually intended for 9-year-olds. At the same time, the author’s penchant for short paragraphs, some of only a single sentence, adds an air of portentousness. This combination of the faux-naif and the melodramatic is then further complicated by the diction of the gods. They speak a bit like comic-book superheroes ... In fact, despite the mishmash of its styles and the sometimes irritating egregiousness of Gaiman’s celebrity, Norse Mythology turns out to be a gripping, suspenseful and quite wonderful reworking of these famous tales. Once you fall into the rhythm of its glinting prose, you will happily read on and on, in thrall to Gaiman’s skillful storytelling.\
RaveThe Washington PostKenneth Clark is outstanding from every viewpoint: Its author knows the art world, having been a chairman of Sotheby’s UK, his research draws on every available resource, and he tells us both about Clark’s private life and public career in equally fascinating detail. The chapters on the making of Civilisation are particularly engrossing. All in all, this is one of the best and most enjoyable biographies of the year.
David J. Skal
MixedThe Washington Post...comes across as part psychosexual case study and part loose and baggy monster ... Striking factoids abound ... Skal particularly shines in his treatment of 'Hollywood Gothic' and he produces insightful pages about the silent film masterpiece Nosferatu, and the differing interpretations of Dracula ... Something in the Blood consistently represents Stoker as essentially a masochistic homosexual and Dracula as a book packed with homosexual frissons. The evidence for both claims is certainly there...But Skal truly belabors the psychosexual ... All in all, Something in the Blood simply feels overly speculative.
PositiveThe Washington Post...[a] spledid memoir ... In these pages the account of one blockbuster follows another in a colorful procession of bestsellers...The brilliant failures, the idiosyncratic minor classics, the good, solid novels by dependable mid-list authors — these are essential to a healthy literary culture, and it would have been good to hear about some of them ... Despite my few cavils, Avid Reader will be avidly read by anyone interested in the publishing world of the past 60 years.
PositiveThe Washington PostDenis Boyles doesn’t mention red rot or, for that matter, the minuscule type of the smaller-size cloth-bound edition of the 11th, but Everything Explained That Is Explainable doesn’t overlook much else. Boyles’s account of how this classic reference work came to be published in 1910-1911 makes for enthralling business history...Besides being a biographical and narrative history, Everything Explained That is Explainable is something of a dossier as well. Not only does Boyles reproduce many photographs and period illustrations, he also quotes frequently and at length from myriad letters, Haxton’s various advertisements, newspaper reports and the memoirs of Janet Hogarth, who oversaw the indexing of the 11th and outlived all her colleagues. Even Boyles’s notes and appendices proffer additional anecdotes and useful bits of information.
RaveThe Washington PostLink [once] declared that she loves two kinds of fiction: the kind that 'takes things which are comfortable and familiar and makes them really strange, or else...takes things which are strange and impossible and finally makes them feel comfortable, to a certain extent.' The stories in Get in Trouble do both ... The titles of Kelly Link’s three previous collections — Stranger Things Happen, Magic for Beginners and Pretty Monsters — better suggest her deadpan tone and fantastic subject matter than Get in Trouble. Still, only the marvelous contents of these books can demonstrate Link’s mastery and self-confidence as an author: She believes in her stories, no matter how off the wall they might seem, and she makes her readers believe in them, too.
PanThe Washington PostFew would doubt that Blanche Knopf was denied full credit for all she brought to the success of the company she co-founded. Nonetheless, Claridge depicts her less as a businesswoman or “literary tastemaker extraordinaire,” than as a cosseted, albeit troubled and unhappy socialite who regularly slept around. There is, in fact, a thread of salaciousness that runs through these pages...
PanThe Washington PostWhile certainly valuable to the student, these pages of close reading are a drag on the book as a narrative ... While Wallace Stevens is certainly a major American poet, in Mariani’s pages he seldom comes across as a particularly interesting fellow, let alone a likeable or happy one.
RaveThe Washington PostWhile the 1976 Oxford University Press edition of Stevie Smith’s Collected Poems is an exceptionally handsome book, and probably sufficient for many readers, those crazy about this wonderful and strange poet will obviously want Will May’s splendid All the Poems. It includes not only much hitherto uncollected material but also pages of concise bibliographical notes.
PositiveThe Washington PostDespite its high anecdotal and amusement quotient, Jack Lynch’s fine book does deal with some fairly arcane material. Consequently, it should probably be enjoyed slowly rather than read straight through. Like so many reference-shelf classics, You Could Look It Up even invites browsing. A chapter or two in the evening could be just about right.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalPerhaps some of these apparent loose ends are tied up in the digital edition of Arcadia, available as an app that includes both extra material and tools for tracking the storylines. That said, most readers will probably prefer the carefully orchestrated book version. “Qui moderatur tempus intelligit omnia,” goes the Lytten family motto: 'He who controls time understands everything.' Doesn’t that actually describe the art of plot construction and its master, Iain Pears?
MixedThe Washington PostSailor and Fiddler is enjoyable but a little bland, serving chiefly to reintroduce Wouk’s novels to contemporary readers who might only know their names, if that.
Christine L. Corton
RaveThe Washington Post“Along with historical accounts of the city’s fogs, Corton’s 'biography' looks closely at their representation in art and literature. Her book is packed with newspaper illustrations, reproductions of hazy ‘impressionistic’ paintings by Whistler and Monet, many photographs, and even stills from films about Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes”
MixedThe Washington Post...Bate — a distinguished Shakespeare scholar as well as provost of Worcester College in Oxford, England — proudly calls his book 'unauthorized,' implying its intellectual independence. But that word can’t help but suggest those sleazy tell-alls about Hollywood movie stars. In fact, this biography reads like two books: one an intelligent, even donnish work of criticism that connects the poems to the life, the other a sensationalistic anthology of gossip and subdued malice.