25 Books to Read Before You Die

Reviews From



Monday, August 17th


Collected Poems by Mervyn Peake

The Bard of Gormenghast

A review by Jeff Bursey

Best known for penning the splendid, unpredictable, and lushly written novels Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950), and Titus Alone (1959), Mervyn Peake (1911-1968) earned respect, prizes, and even a living with his abilities as a painter, illustrator, novelist, playwright, costume designer, and writer of light verse. The Titus books contain a language that compels one to read passages aloud, to delight in the sounds matching the scenes. They also feature a fairly hapless Poet whose verse appears here and there. Yet that verse won't prepare one for the strength and depth of Peake's Collected Poems, assembled by R. W. Maslen.

Collected Poems contains all of Peake's poetry save for his nonsense verse and "one long poem from his adolescence." The straightforward introduction provides illuminating context for the poetry, and the notes at the back indicate where Maslen has stepped in to attend to unpolished poems. To Maslen's credit, he refrains from special pleading and lets Peake's...

A Tear at the Edge of Creation: A Radical New Vision for Life in an Imperfect Universe by Marcelo Gleiser

Embracing Nature's Imperfections

A review by Lee Smolin

We live in an era of the personal: Fiction is often structured as a character's journey of discovery, memoirs are hugely popular, and in the wake of the "new journalism" of Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Truman Capote and others, it is not unusual for the author of a work of nonfiction to include himself or herself as a character. In some of the best recent writing by scientists, such as Janna Levin's A Mad Man Dreams of Turing Machines and Joao Magueijo's A Brilliant Darkness, the disembodied voice of authority has been abandoned for a more novelistic style in which the author's search for...

Case Histories: A Novel by Kate Atkinson

A review by Georgie Lewis

Kate Atkinson's novels have always contained layers, filtered information effortlessly and playfully released, secrets unlocked incrementally. She won the Whitbread for her first novel, Behind the Scenes of the Museum, an amazing, supremely beautiful work, then went on to write two more gorgeous novels and a collection of short stories. But with Case Histories she turns her energy toward the mystery genre and does so while maintaining the unique and charming style that has garnered her success.

Frequently enough authors with a "literary" reputation have tackled genre writing...

Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer by Tom Shone

A review by Chris Bolton

Tom Shone's Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer is a direct rebuttal of Peter Biskind's magnificent Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, an ode to the first (and to some, including Biskind, the last) truly independent period of American film: the 1970s. Biskind details the decade that simultaneously allowed brilliant filmmakers to express their personal vision and enabled drug-addled narcissists to wallow in their masturbatory excess. Shone took exception to Biskind's vilification of two filmmakers in particular. I quote from my own review of the Biskind book...

Mad, Bad, and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors by Lisa Appignanesi

Mad, Bad, and Sad

A review by John Leonard

Consider Hannah Green's rose garden, Sylvia Plath's bell jar, Virginia Woolf's lighthouse, and Marilyn Monroe's pills. Or such textbooks on falling apart as Doris Lessing's The Four-Gated City, Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, R.D. Laing's The Divided Self, Erving Goffman's Asylums, and Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilization. Not to neglect the revisionist analysis of Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Freidan, Susan Brownmiller, Phyllis Chesler, Julia Kristeva, and Juliet Mitchell. Nor the impassioned witness of Kay Redfield Jamison, Kate Millett, and Germaine Greer. If you've already ...

Oscar Niemeyer: Curves of Irreverence by Styliane Philippou

A Vision in Concrete

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

It was a heroic and inhuman scheme. From 1956 to 1960, Brazil -- in an effort to cleanse itself of its colonial past, to flee its burgeoning social afflictions, and to fulfill its long-prophesied emergence as a great power -- conjured a new capital, Brasilia, on an empty plateau in an endless savanna 3,500 feet above sea level. The city's planner, the architect Lucio Costa, found the setting "excessively vast ... out of scale, like an ocean, with immense clouds moving over it." No invented city could accommodate itself to this wilderness. Instead, Costa declared, Brasilia would create its own ...

The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments by Gertrude Himmelfarb

Light sources - Paris, Washington, London: departure points for the modern world

A review by Jonathan Clark

Postmodernists dislike grand narratives; and here is a grand modernist narrative indeed, wearing its wide learning with a deceptive grace. For Gertrude Himmelfarb, a distinguished American historian of Victorian Britain, this book is an attempt to "reclaim the Enlightenment. . . from postmodernists who deny its existence and historians who belittle or disparage it". It seeks to do this by reinterpreting the Enlightenment in Britain, America and France to create a scenario for Western history.

The Enlightenment begins the book in the singular but soon divides into three national examples...

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