MixedThe Spectator (UK)As it is, it rambles and I think Raban would have binned some of the more egregious digressions ... A few clichés slip in.
RaveSpectator WorldImpressive and deeply immersive ... His method is to synthesize sources, mostly secondary ones. The book’s outstanding feature is its brevity, and I mean this as praise ... Draws lightly on culture, but I especially enjoyed its forays into film as myth-manipulating propaganda ... Figes speaks on every page in the crisp, sober manner of a newsreader, while observing the action unfold with an eagle’s eye.
RaveThe Spectator (UK)It seems wrong to categorise this book as military history. It is like reading a film ... Like a cameraman, Beevor twists his lens between the close-up and the wide-angle ... Both Beevor and his research assistant have a novelist’s eye for the telling detail, even though their canvas is half the size of the planet...This kind of detail accumulates to powerful effect ... The field of Russian civil war studies is crowded in many languages, and Beevor, whose books have sold millions of copies, has mined the sources with academic rigour. In this volume he confidently sets out military strategy in all its complexity and confusion, marshalling shifts, tides and patterns as corps, armies, guerrillas, underground cells and loose military alliances on flanks and fronts fragment and consolidate. Sometimes describing events day by day, he charts congresses, offensives and counter-offensives, insurrections, hungry winters, real or invented bourgeois sabotage and the ‘whole imbroglio of misunderstandings’ as strategies alter and alliances weaken ... It does not matter that the reader struggles to follow whether the 14th Division on the left flank of the 9th Army ever did meet up with the 10th Army based in Tsaritsyn: the story steams through the fog of war ... Beevor presents dense data in a resolutely narrative style that is fluent and agreeable ... Directly quoted individual voices are the yeast that allow history to rise ... Together with a strong opening, setting the events of 1917 in their historical place, these glances to the future lend the story a robust sense of context. Otherwise, the book avoids the longue durée approach ... The author is so accomplished that occasional infelicities come as a relief. It is pleasing when days are numbered, word spreads like wildfire, silence is stony and even Vladimir Ilyich does not pull his punches. Beevor might be brilliant, and might have mastered the accessible, vivid style to which all modern historians aspire and, worst of all, have sold those beastly millions, but a cliché beats him from time to time. I will therefore end with a cliché myself. The book is a masterpiece.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalDrawing on his own experience, Mr. Fiennes offers a rare perspective ... Of the inner man the reader learns little, except refrains about dreams of fame and discontent with domesticity ... Mr. Fiennes hasn’t discovered fresh material, but he brings the promised perspective of one who has been there, illuminating Shackleton’s actions by comparing them with his own ... The author reveres his subject, but this is no hagiography. Mr. Fiennes acknowledges that Shackleton is \'a man of many faults.\' The prose style is clear, notwithstanding a proliferation of clichés that slow an otherwise brisk narrative. Anachronistic language at times strikes the wrong tone ... Readers of Mr. Fiennes’s pages will imagine the mental anguish of those days and nights for themselves. Beginners to the Heroic Age will enjoy this volume, as will serious polar adventurers seeking advice. For all readers, it’s a tremendous story.
Charlotte Higgins, Illus. by Chris Ofili
RaveThe Spectator (UK)Charlotte Higgins demonstrates again why the Greek variety have never lessened their grip on the western imagination ... We are in the hands of a fine, fluent storyteller (‘Are you ready? Then follow me’), who is properly attuned to what characters look like ... Throughout, Higgins deploys direct speech and rhetorical devices such as alliteration and repetition with a light touch ... The use of the vernacular is judicious and entertaining ... Source material does not slow the narrative energy ... Higgins, like the bards who first unspooled these tales, creates the illusion of spontaneity (‘And now what?’) and handles suspense brilliantly ... I loved this book.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMs. Angier works like the most dogged of detectives to trace the origins of characters and settings and the way Sebald develops, changes and embellishes his material ... The biographer is a character in the story rather than an agent of the material...But her arguments, closely marshaled and based on deep thought, are on the whole persuasive ... Ms. Angier’s prose is fluent, with only the occasional dash of purple. Unlike Sebald, whose work contains no dialogue, she shakes in plenty of yeasty direct speech to make the book rise. There are nearly 150 pages of end matter to support it, including links to music and film, media important to Sebald ... The book is too long. Does the reader wish to know background details about Sebald’s schoolteachers? The length is especially egregious given the hole at the book’s center: Ms. Angier states at the outset that her subject’s widow would not speak to her, and both she and the couple’s daughter remain nameless in the main body of the text. This in turn meant stringent limitations on the use of quotations from both published and unpublished material. It is a small tragedy, really, as most Sebaldians would love to read this formidably accomplished biography but may not on account of its size. One can only wonder what Ms. Angier and her publisher were thinking when they countenanced this costly indulgence ... remarkable and respectful.
PositiveSpectator WorldSolnit...describes a 1946 Tribune essay in which Orwell mentions the planting as \'a triumph of meandering,\' and this phrase aptly sums up Orwell’s Roses. The most enjoyable sections among many for me were on Tina Modotti and Jamaica Kincaid ... The Antiguan Kincaid, a novelist and keen gardener, receives a sensitive and acute reading, though Solnit could have made her a little less angry. Kincaid can be such a tender writer ... Despite first-person commentary, and a judiciously spare sprinkling of autobiography, Solnit is an agent of her material, not a character within it ... The pages here on Orwell’s last days are wonderful and moving.
Teffi, Trans. by Elizabeth Chandler
RaveThe Wall Street JournalTeffi tells many of her tales in the first person...and her prose creates the illusion both of spontaneity and confidentiality ... The narrator has no authorial omnipotence...thus inviting the complicit reader into a private world ... Descriptive passages are quietly lyrical ... though there is often an elegiac tone, the nostalgia of exile ... But the tales here are not rooted in a geographical place. They are rooted in the spiritual world—a realm that feels lost amid our own tumult of materialism ... The wit that earned Teffi eponymous sweets is visible here in a lightness of touch ... Mr. Chandler and his co-translators are everywhere sensitive to the literal meaning and also, crucially, to context, rhythm and idiom. Teffi often writes in a highly accented vernacular that presents a challenge, one that’s handled with skill here ... Teffi bids us to accept the mystery of this strange business of life in all its delightful quiddity.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Sancton conjures the fug of pipe smoke and unwashed men in the unventilated wardroom, the taste of kjøttboller—spongy canned meatballs resembling \'soft, colorless gobs\'—and the pearly sheen of fluted icebergs ... Mr. Sancton handles the material adroitly, deciphering faulty observations, remaining scrupulous in his reluctance to speculate, and filling in the background of polar exploration with a light touch ... The prose tends toward the purple...But the energy of the narrative never flags, and Madhouse remains an engaging read throughout ... may not match Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World or Frank Worsley’s Shackleton’s Boat Journey, the two best Antarctic books ever written. But what of it? Mr. Sancton has produced a thriller—and a welcome addition to the polar shelves.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... innovative ... It is an ambitious concept, and it works. Mr. Christofi backs up his work with 452 endnotes. In short, he has not made things up ... A personal biography then, but the sociopolitical ferment of Russia does bubble up through Mr. Christofi’s pages ... veils the monstrous side of the subject. What Dostoevsky thought and how he acted were often at variance. (Who among us is immune to this contradiction?) He wrote about humility, but didn’t have much of it ... One sees the novelist at work in these pages. Keeping a hand on the narrative tiller, he understands the importance of specificity, as writers must ... Mr. Christofi’s weakness for cliché corrupts his prose ... Cliché is always regrettable, but especially so in a book on a literary master. The reader might also regret anachronistic language such as \'passive-aggressive.\' I would have liked more glimpses of Dostoevsky’s Petersburg ... I greatly enjoyed this book ... Readers often fear tackling Dostoevsky’s novels, possibly because of the fuggy reverence that occludes his reputation. Alex Christofi’s welcome volume will dispel anxiety. It would be sad to miss out on one of the greatest novelists ever to have lived. And after all, as Dostoevsky wrote in a letter, \'Books are life.\'
RaveThe Spectator (UK)\"Selina Hastings has written a wonderful biography, with lashings of lesbian lovers, which provides a soundtrack to one version of the 20th century ... Hastings has had the cooperation of the Bedford estate and full access to diaries and letters, and she and her researcher have delved heroically and judiciously. She is an accomplished stylist and her prose suits her subject: elegant, deft and restrained, as operatic arias ‘hiss’ from the horned gramophone in the schloss ... The word ‘arrogant’ rings through these pages like a knell and so does snobbery ... Hastings is too accomplished a biographer to pass judgment. She doesn’t have to. Bedford emerges from this fine book as an appalling figure—a monster, really, or a pig ... My favourite Bedford book is A Visit to Don Otavio (1953) ... this and A Legacy will stand the brutal test of time—as will Selina Hastings’s biography.
RaveThe SpectatorNarratives of frozen beards in polar hinterlands never lose their appeal. Most of the good stories have been told, but in Icebound Andrea Pitzer fills a gap ... Pitzer is an able guide to Barents’s three Arctic voyages ... To break up the winter monotony, Pitzer works hard to establish context, whether of exploration in general or polar castaways in particular. Besides traveling in Barents’s footsteps, she has diligently mined the sources ... Pitzer’s prose is robust, clear and sometimes elegant.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... melodious ... These pages sing like a symphony ... Ms. Roberts puts artistic coherence first, as a writer should ... Ms. Roberts [is] a robust and diligent researcher ... As Ms. Roberts adroitly weaves personal quest with Russian history, vignettes feature splinter communities of Old Believers ... The author quotes widely, from early travelers to the poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky and, of course, Chekhov, who made his own journey, delightfully recounted, across Siberia to Sakhalin Island ... Throughout her prodigious travels Ms. Roberts emerges as a fine descriptive writer...She understands the crucial role of specificity in a traveler’s prose ... Notwithstanding the occasional cliché and weak phrase, Ms. Roberts’s prose is on the whole a model of style and clarity. She controls the narrative drive as if with a pianist’s foot pedals and modulates the tone between the flats of long motor journeys and the sharps of emotional intensity.
RaveThe Times Literary SupplementThe detail in the lengthy documents [Hans] left, especially dozens of pages about living and working behind enemy lines...is astonishing. This book will be an important addition to Holocaust literature ... Neumann has a gift for observation and an eye for specificity ... On the whole Neumann avoids speculation, but naturally, questions remain ... But she has borne witness, which is everyone’s duty. We have heard of many of the atrocities recounted in these pages before. But we must go on hearing them. This is a very fine book indeed.
PositiveThe Spectator (UK)MacLean is a fine sleuth ... MacLean is compassionate, and he balances his stories of powerful men and women—a minor oligarch, an American banker—with those of the dispossessed. Much of this ambitious book is not an easy read, with stories of forced labor, human trafficking and worse in Europe’s heart of darkness ... MacLean tends to overwrite...and he uses too many adjectives. He also has a fondness for cliché...and for a dash of purple prose ... But he has a keen sense of place.
PositiveThe Spectator (UK)...engaging ... She conjures the laden caravans of the old Silk Road, pyramids of saffron at the Siyab market in Samarkand and dust on the fabled Pamir highway. Her biographical sketches of the giants of history are strong ... Kari Dickson has fluently translated the book. Fatland produces some excellent phrases — that still-burning methane crater ‘looks like a glowing mouth\' ... like most books, Sovietistan is too long.
Lloyd Spencer Davis
MixedThe Wall Street Journal... an interesting blend of polar history and natural history ... In these pages one sees human knowledge inching forward ... There is plenty of gripping information here about the habits of the hapless Adélies, notably their breeding, which takes place from late October to late January. These passages are the best in the book ... The book includes a biographical sketch of Levick—though the man remains shrouded in the penumbrae of history and one never gets a sense of him ... The history of the whole expedition in A Polar Affair will be useful for those not familiar with the Scott saga, as will, indeed, the details of previous Antarctic exploration and even the Peary and Cook drama at the other end of the earth. I wonder, though, how many who pick up this new volume won’t already know all that. Despite the paucity of information about Levick, there is enough chiaroscuro in his story, and Mr. Davis’s spotlight might have been better trained on it ... The prose style occasionally jars ... A propensity for cliché doesn’t help ... Worse, Mr. Davis tries to link the penguin story with the human one.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Grann ably conjures the rasp of sled runner on ice and the skin burn of minus-40—and that’s before wind chill is factored in—and he understands the importance of specificity and detail ... began life as an article in the New Yorker—Mr. Grann is a staff writer—and it still is an article, really ... A touch of hagiography clings to the tale. Mr. Grann aims to make his subject a hero but sometimes diminishes him with platitudes and cliché ... The style is pleasant, if at times sentimental.
RaveThe GuardianAtmospheric, geological and geographical features that contribute to desert formation are well handled here, as are modern political issues, such as nuclear testing in southern Australia in the 1950s ... The Gobi section is gripping, too ... He correctly identifies desert duality: deathly and forsaken, yet \'the site of revelation, of contemplation and sanctuary.\' He handles the metaphorical aspect of his subject with a light touch ... The Immeasurable World is delightfully variegated. Within a page, Atkins switches from environmental jeremiad to an account of the famous Burning Man festival in Nevada, an event you will never visit after reading this book ... In the end, one wonders what connects the disparate narratives in these chapters, bar vague reflections on the haiku of the desert—biological and social. But it’s an entertaining volume.