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.
With the advent of e-readers, books on the subway are getting harder and harder to spot. It takes dedication to get a sense of what people are reading these days. At The Awl, Ben Dolnick sets out to catalogue a week’s worth of sightings, which included a man reading Cloud Atlas and The Stranger and a teenage girl reading Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. You could also read our own Nick Moran on the question of whether e-readers are really green.
But in the absence of conclusive evidence, sleep’s utility—like that of fiction—is still in doubt. How much, in the end, does either one matter? Neither fiction nor dreams are what we call “real life,” that conscious space sandwiched in the sunny hours of each day. No matter how vital my dreams are to me, they—like my writing—exist in the margins of my daily life, the shadowed wings to either side of whatever action is happening onstage. The decrease in the financial support and cultural priority allotted to all forms of the arts has enhanced the sense that what writers are doing is not quite a job, not quite worth professional payment—not quite, well, necessary.
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.
A couple weeks ago, Brian Ted Jones reviewed The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, which “takes place on the margins of a grand, cosmic struggle.” Not long afterwards, at The Rumpus, Woody Brown offered a somewhat negative take on the book, arguing that it makes it too difficult for the reader to suspend her disbelief. You could also read Woody’s Millions review of Haruki Murakami’s new novel.
In my favorite passage from The Handmaid’s Tale, figurative language reminds us that Offred’s flesh is and isn’t flesh, and that although her body is controlled by the state, it’s far from a defined, closed system. This brief unhinging of meaning is an act of defiance. And in a world where all you’re allowed is your female body, it also may be a relief.
What do you think gets fact-checked the most rigorously: newspaper articles, magazine stories, or books? If you guessed books, you’d be surprised to know that they are rarely, if ever, fact-checked. At The Atlantic, Kate Newman questions why we have so much faith in books’ accuracy but why publishers don’t bother.
Last week, I wrote about Josh Weil and Mike Harvkey’s joint book tour, which sees the two driving a Prius across America to promote their latest novels. Now, in their latest dispatch, they reflect on the differences between writers like themselves and midcentury writers like Andre Dubus and Norman Mailer.