I planned to write one-sentence reviews of each of the books I read.
Alan Moore: Jerusalem
Alan Moore's Jerusalem is a maximalist novel in all the best ways. Rich in character, observation, and event, it is equally rich in a philosophy and metaphysics that are informed by cutting edge physics. It is, however, in once sense, minimalist: Almost every one of the 1200+ pages of the novel are set in Moore's hometown, Northhampton, where he still lives. One quickly sees, however, that the geographical limitations he has imposed upon himself (there are occasional side-trips to Blake's Lambeth) are the farthest thing from impoverishing. Rather, because Moore, like certain cutting-edge physicists, takes seriously the notion that the past isn't really past, that everyone who has ever lived, lives, the Northhampton he gives us is anything but constrained. Indeed, one feels he could have given us another thousand pages set there that would have been as riveting as those he has given us. One reason for this is that the prose, always rich, sometimes bordering on the baroque, and never amenable to skimming, is well-wrought enough that one finds oneself returning to reread sentences, paragraphs, pages simply for the pleasure of letting the words dance through one's mind again. One is glad, though, in the end, that Moore stopped exactly where he did because the novel is an exquisite formal object, one in which every one of the many, many threads is neatly, but never glibly or perfunctorily, tied off. It's probably heresy to say so, but it seems to me a pity that Moore, a great novelist (his little-read first novel, Voices of the Fire, is also excellent) wasted so many years on comics.
Teju Cole: Known and Strange Things: Essays
Teju Cole is, I think, the most interesting writer of his generation. One reason for this is that he manages to blend a very sophisticated aesthetic sensibility with an equally sophisticated political engagement. His masters are, on the one hand, W.G. Sebald, and, on the other, John Berger. Having placed Cole where I believe he belongs in the pantheon, I am a bit surprised that I didn't enjoy his collection Known and Strange Things more than I did. The essay is a favorite form, and the essays of Cole's I've read here and there have always been stimulating. In fact, several of those previously read essays are included in this collection, and they are just as good as I remembered them. I have to confess, though, that it's those essays, his greatest hits, as it were, that seem to me the best in the collection. It's not that the other essays are not worthy; indeed, several of them are, no doubt, essential for anyone who wants to think seriously about photography. That could be me: I remember my excitement upon first encountering Susan Sontag's On Photography, but Cole's essays seem to me more for the specialist than Sontag's tour de force. It is probably just that, though the reviews, appreciations, memories and other fugitive pieces here collected, though models of their kind, taken together lose some of their power, a slackening I never felt when turning the pages of Open City. I only hope that, unlike other multi-talented authors who've written superb novels and then turned away from the form—Pankaj Mishra, Ian Buruma—that Cole hasn't decided to abandon the genre in which, thus far (and it's still early days) he's had his most impressive success to date.
John Williams: Butcher's Crossing
This western novel by John Williams of “Stoner” fame is about dreams and human frailty, and the squalor and rigor of frontier life when hunters followed the buffalo. In classic style, it opens with the arrival of a city boy in a dusty prairie town, and ends with a departure, not long afterward in terms of time, but a lifetime of experience later. The location, characters and story are described in movie-like detail. It’s a solid, muscular depiction of a mythical reality that’s part of America’s rural roots. (****)
Anthony Doerr: All the Light We Cannot See
The lives of a small cast of disparate characters, charted in short, impeccably written sections, gradually intersect and swirl together through the rise of Nazism in Germany, and during the occupation of France. It’s a vivid picture of the painful devastation of war, and of human endurance and courage, written for maximum empathy, and told with page-turning suspense. (****)
In Tearing Haste: Letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor
This collection of letters between two good friends, a down-to-earth aristocrat (youngest of the Mitford sisters) and an urbane, cosmopolitan writer and war hero, spans most of their lifetimes. They write to entertain and support each other, and in the process we get glimpses of aristocratic pursuits, the Mitfords, and the restless life of an adventurer missing publisher’s deadlines. All in all, a correspondence sparkling with fun and gossip. (**)
Rachel Joyce: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
It’s sometimes sketchily written, sometimes overwrought, and characters feel subordinate to the books big ideas. But what ideas! That our lives can become fossilized. That good people can make horrible mistakes. That receiving is as difficult and blessed as giving. This novel of an unlikely man’s walk through England is compelling enough to overcome its shortcomings. (***)
Dodie Smith: I Capture the Castle
The diary of a teenager captures her eccentric and impoverished family as they rattle around an English castle between the World Wars. A celebration of England, literature, family, growing up, and a simple country life, told with warmth and humor. A gem of a book. Thanks to Levi Stahl’s I’ve Been Reading Lately blog for the recommendation. (****)
Jonathan Franzen: The Corrections
This story of ageing parents and their grown children is, as a relative said of another Franzen novel, rich and full. It stands out for its width and depth of understanding, its truth, and its humor, captured in language of astonishing precision. Compelling, eye-opening and very satisfying. (*****)
Jonathan Franzen: Purity
A rich and satisfying story set in our broken world (East Germany before the wall came down, and contemporary California). Characters you sympathize with (or cringe at), who grow (or don’t). I thank the author for crafting all this so meticulously for our reading pleasure, and that we might know more about how people (ourselves included) are, and so feel more compassion. What a wonderful book. I didn’t want it to end, and in a sense it doesn’t, because, through the memory of it, we continue observing ourselves and the world carrying on, doing the best we can. (*****)