Here’s a fact that’s either very surprising or not surprising at all: Samuel Beckett didn’t want his letters to see the light of day. He once wrote to Barney Rosset that he didn’t care for “the ventilation of private documents.” Despite this disinclination, his third volume of letters comes out this week, and it includes, as detailed by John Banville in a review for The Irish Times, a letter in which Beckett asks that none of his plays be produced in Ireland. Pair with: our own Matt Seidel on Beckett’s “Echo’s Bones.”
Michael Robbins is our contemporary poet laureate for beautiful sins of language. The New Republic calls Robbins a prankster. He rather reminds me of that whiskey priest, his lines by turns abrasive and aphoristic, but never apathetic.
You may have heard that our own Emily St. John Mandel has a new book on shelves. The book depicts a post-apocalyptic future in which a group of nomadic actors deal with the aftermath of a devastating flu pandemic. Claire Cameron (who’s also written for The Millions) reviews the book for The Globe and Mail.
I struggled, quite a bit, writing this review. Reviewing books, while easy in certain ways — you have certain aspects of form to follow, there are certain features of books that cannot go unremarked: one must write about character, about language, about technique — and really a rather simple process (much simpler, it would seem, than writing books), can also be a pain. Especially, frustratingly enough, when the book is really good.
Although Adam’s faith drives the plot, it goes oddly unexplored. McEwan seems to have little interest in Jehovah’s Witnesses, and apart from their prohibition against blood transfusions we are told very little about what they believe and almost nothing about their history. This is peculiar, because McEwan is usually one of the most inquisitive of novelists. For previous books about neurosurgeons or physicists or posh girls during World War II, he so intensely studied his characters’ worlds that he was able to write about them seemingly from the inside. Yet Adam’s beliefs never seem particular, as though he could be representing any stubborn believer.
Morris does an especially lovely job of elevating the ordinary. Men without much money or glamour to their lives smoke and drink, ride the bus, and sit home alone in the evenings; he makes it beautiful, transmuting daily existence into something gleaming and sensual the way a car’s dull steel frame shines with chrome. Morris notices a neighborhood with ‘glass glittering on the sidewalks, houses in need of paint, black bruises on the street where cars had leaked their vital fluids.’ Placing a call to Alabama, Doyle imagines ‘Rod Steiger sitting at a desk chain-smoking cigarettes and sending gouts of tobacco juice into a Maxwell House coffee can while the blades of a ceiling fan chopped the foggy air.’ One man’s face ‘sagged like a melting candle.’
At Bookforum, Alexander Benaim reads the latest novel by Jess Row, which I wrote about as part of our most recent book preview. The novel poses a charged, intriguing question: what would happen if it were possible to change your race? (It might also be a good time to read the author’s Year in Reading entry.)
Last week, I wrote about Kathryn Schulz’s innovative interview with David Mitchell, which took place on a walk along the Irish coastline. Now, in the Times Book Review, Pico Iyer reviews the author’s latest. Sample quote: “A perfectly matter-of-fact, unvarnished evocation of how regular folks speak, married to a take-no-prisoners fascination with all that we can’t explain.”