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Review-a-Day

Tuesday, August 27th


 

The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster

A review by Brooke Allen

"Hip intellectual" is an oxymoron in this country, and it is therefore appropriate that the hip, intellectual novelist Paul Auster should be a little less popular here than he is in France, where no such contradiction is recognized. Auster has always written from the head rather than the heart. All his novels are built on cerebral conceits, and in spite of his oft observed fascination with chance, coincidence, and contingency, his books are painstakingly constructed: characters are emblems as opposed to people; situations are created out of a feeling for dramatic symmetry rather than from the all-too-messy urgency of human passion. The results can be compelling, but they tend to be on the dry side.

With his new novel, Auster seems to be attempting to work in a more emotional vein, but the effort is not very successful, because the central catastrophe has occurred before the action begins: when we first meet the narrator, a professor of literature named David Zimmer, he is trying...



Ray of the Star by Laird Hunt

Ray of the Star

A review by Matthew Tiffany

Ray of the Star opens with two nods in the direction of French writer Georges Perec. The first, a quotation from his 1967 novel A Man Asleep, serves as entry to the story: Now you must learn how to last. A man named Harry has suffered the unexpected deaths of some people, likely family members, about whom he cares very much. The narrative jumps ahead an unspecified amount of time to Harry abandoning his home, his job, everything. He's running away from everything with nowhere to go. Like the protagonist of A Man Asleep, this is a man realizing he no longer knows how to live -- all that is...



Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881 by Joseph Frank

The Gambler

A review by James Wood

I. The world of "the slap": everyone knows that this is Dostoevsky's world, his "underground" world of humiliations, affronts, jousts, and slights. When, in The Possessed (1872), the repulsive revolutionary Peter Verkovhensky visits Kirilov to tell him that he has murdered Shatov, and Kirilov says, "You've done this to him because he spat in your face in Geneva!," we know that we are deep in the underground, profoundly enwebbed, and we know that this spider's psychology is something new in literature.

Consider a few scenes. The narrator of Notes from Underground (1864), the...



River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West by Rebecca Solnit

Locomotion

A review by David Thomson

It is a wonder there are not more books about Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904). He was an astonishing photographer, intrigued by both immense distances and tiny movements of the human body. To scan the superficial facts of this adventurer's life is to realize that Muybridge contributed significantly to a period of convulsive change, and that he might be the subject of a great novel. But we know only enough about him to be intrigued, not enough to furnish that fictional life.

Rebecca Solnit has never published fiction, which is not to say that she lacks a large, ambitious imagination. She...



Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope by Tariq Ali

The New World

A review by Alan Wise

Packaged like a rip-off of the Disney movie yet overflowing with detailed footnotes, Tariq Ali's Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope provides a political history of South America and a none too subtle warning that American power and influence there is rapidly waning.

Between references to U.S. imperialism, bloated economies and exploited workers, Ali, a long-time liberal critic of U.S. foreign policy, argues that U.S. policy makers are so blinded by the threat of Islamic terrorism and partisan bickering that they're missing a larger and potentially more radical threat down south: the...



The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester

A review by Doug Brown

Several years ago, Simon Winchester gave us a delightful gem of a book: The Professor and the Madman, the story of two very different men who contributed to the venerable OED. After a couple of forays into geology (The Map That Changed the World and Krakatoa) Winchester is back with the larger overall tale of the OED. Editor James Murray, the "Professor" of Winchester's earlier title, is the main character here, and again he is the calm scholarly center around which colorful characters orbit. We meet Frederick Furnivall, the philandering lawyer who, despite being an instigator of the project, ...



Then We Came to the End: A Novel by Joshua Ferris

Cubicles of Mass Destruction

A review by Yvonne Zipp

Right around the time that the NASDAQ crashed, I sat through a presentation on office furniture. The salespeople, armed with PowerPoint and shiny smiles, gushed about the cutting-edge furnishings they were going to bestow upon us.

It was patterned on a hexagonal format that mimicked honeycombs and open arms. In other words, we were good little worker bees who deserved desks that said "hug me." When the Q-and-A started, I was briefly in fear for their lives. (The company I worked for ultimately went a different way.)

Office furniture, as anyone who's ever coveted an Aeron chair from the ...



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