The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugresic
S&M of Exile
A review by Tomislav Kuzmanovic
Dubravka Ugrešić's latest novel, The Ministry of Pain, is the story of Tanja Lucić, an exile from Yugoslavia who ends up teaching at the University of Amsterdam. Tanja's job (teaching Yugoslav Literature at the Department of Slavonic Languages) proves completely bizarre: she is supposed to teach the literature of a country that doesn't exist anymore in a language (Serbo-Croatian) that doesn't exist anymore to students who have no country to call their own and who are having a hard time expressing themselves in the language that was once theirs. The students are mostly Yugoslav exiles or...
The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
Threads of History
A review by Alan Taylor
Trained to seek and to interpret written documents, American historians usually are flummoxed when confronted with the past's household objects. What are scholars to do with cloth, clothing, furniture, tools? Of what use is a spinning wheel or a linen tablecloth to a historian? Long abstracted from their original context and deposited in the display cases or dusty drawers of museums, such things seem mute with social meaning and best left to antiquarians and art curators who can doggedly trace the stylistic connections and developments that matter so much to collectors but so little ...
The Ministry of Special Cases: A Novel by Nathan Englander
A review by Ruth Franklin
In one of the best-known stories in For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, the collection of short stories that shot Nathan Englander into the literary stratosphere seven years ago, a middle-aged WASP sitting in a taxicab has the sudden and inexplicable revelation that he is Jewish. The next day he visits a rabbi in Brooklyn, who informs him that he is a gilgul, or reincarnated soul, and sends him off with a copy of The Chosen. But it isn't easy being transcendent: the "gilgul of Park Avenue" must face various hurdles on his path to the truth, including a maid who prepares creamed chicken...
Eyewitness to History by John Carey
Dinner with Attila the Hun
A review by Doug Brown
Eyewitness to History passed under many people's radar when it came out, as it featured a cartoon cover which suggested it was another "history for people who don't want to learn very much about history" book. It actually is a fascinating anthology of writings throughout history, all written by observers contemporary to the events they record. From Thucydides' account of plague in Athens in 430 B.C. to the fall of Marcos in 1986, eyewitness accounts offer interesting perspectives often missing from later texts. The usual overarching interpretations layered on by subsequent historians are not...
Indiscretion by Jude Morgan
A review by Ron Charles
Halfway through Jude Morgan's Indiscretion comes a litmus test for your sensitivity to Jane Austenism: A young woman in an exquisitely appointed manor in the English countryside complains, "There is nothing very grand, or exciting, or even terrible, to be met with in a district like this: it is all just narrow provincial dullness."
If that line inspires an ironic little grin, you have the good sense and sensibility to keep reading. But if, instead, you think, "She's absolutely right," you will already have dropped off into a deep sleep hundreds of pages earlier. This is, after all, a...
Lao-Tzu's Taoteching: With Selected Commentaries from the Past 2,000 Years by Red (trn) Pine
A Wisdom Text of the First Water
A review by Chris Faatz
Everyone needs a Taoteching. After all, Lao-Tzu's is one of the most magnificent, deep, and heady religious voices to have emerged from the world's wisdom traditions. But, there are so many to choose from! There's the Mitchell version, the LeGuin version, and the John C. Wu edition. There's the beautifully illustrated Feng and English edition, and the slightly dated but nonetheless lovely and illuminating Witter Bynner translation. There's even the hoary Legge, if one can deal with its antiquated and clunky English. So, how does one make a choice, considering that there are literally dozens...