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.”
In The Bone Clocks, though, Mitchell explores a new theme: regret. Previously, if his characters had regrets, they were, for the most part, regrets about how the world had treated them, about the hand they’d been dealt: Eiji Miyake, for instance, the hero of Number9Dream, who sets off for Tokyo after the death of his beloved twin sister, to find the father they never knew; or Jacob de Zoet, the heartbreakingly persnickety clerk for the Dutch East Indies trading company, nursing a forbidden devotion to Christianity while living in the swamp of greed and brutality that was the late-colonial Pacific. (And Robert Frobisher in Cloud Atlas is not wholly to the contrary—Frobisher is so youthfully rakish, so self-absorbed and talented, that you can’t get too upset with him. He’s a charming, artistic kid hounded by money troubles largely of his own creation, and what millennial can’t sympathize with that?)
Last October marked the release of a new volume in The Cambridge Edition of the Letters of Ernest Hemingway. Spanning three years in the writer’s early twenties, the letters in the volume track events including his first bullfight, the birth of his son Jack and the publication of his first collection of stories and poems. In The New York Review of Books, Edward Mendelson reads through the new volume. This might also be a good time to read our own Michael Bourne on A Farewell to Arms.