A long-awaited, elegant meditation on love, memory and the haunting power of art.
Tartt (The Little Friend, 2002, etc.) takes a long time, a decade or more, between novels. This one, her third, tells the story of a young man named Theodore Decker who is forced to grapple with the world alone after his mother—brilliant, beautiful and a delight to be around—is felled in what would seem to be an accident, if an explosion inside a museum can be accidental. The terrible wreckage of the building, a talismanic painting half buried in plaster and dust, “the stink of burned clothes, and an occasional soft something pressing in on me that I didn’t want to think about”—young Theo will carry these things forever. Tartt’s narrative is in essence an extended footnote to that horror, with his mother becoming ever more alive in memory even as the time recedes: not sainted, just alive, the kind of person Theo misses because he can’t tell her goofy things (his father taking his mistress to a Bon Jovi concert in Las Vegas, for instance: “It seemed terrible that she would never know this hilarious fact”) as much as for any other reason. The symbolic echoes Tartt employs are occasionally heavy-handed, and it’s a little too neat that Theo discovers the work of the sublime Dutch master Carel Fabritius, killed in a powder blast, just before the fateful event that will carry his mother away. Yet it all works. “All the rest of it is lost—everything he ever did,” his mother quietly laments of the little-known artist, and it is Theo’s mission as he moves through life to see that nothing in his own goes missing. Bookending Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, this is an altogether lovely addition to what might be called the literature of disaster and redemption. The novel is slow to build but eloquent and assured, with memorable characters, not least a Russian cracker-barrel philosopher who delivers a reading of God that Mordecai Richler might applaud.
Gilbert’s sweeping saga of Henry Whittaker and his daughter Alma offers an allegory for the great, rampant heart of the 19th century.
All guile, audacity and intelligence, Whittaker, born in a dirt-floored hovel to a Kew Garden arborist, comes under the tutelage of the celebrated Sir Joseph Banks. Banks employs Whittaker to gather botany samples from exotic climes. Even after discovering chinchona—quinine’s source—in Peru, Henry’s snubbed for nomination to the Royal Society of Fellows by Banks. Instead, Henry trades cultivation secrets to the Dutch and earns riches in Java growing chinchona. Henry marries Beatrix van Devender, daughter of Holland’s renowned Hortus Botanicus’ curator. They move to Philadelphia, build an estate and birth Alma in 1800. Gilbert’s descriptions of Henry’s childhood, expeditions and life at the luxurious White Acre estate are superb. The dense, descriptive writing seems lifted from pages written two centuries past, yet it’s laced with spare ironical touches and elegant phrasing—a hummingbird, "a jeweled missile, it seemed, fired from a tiny cannon." Characters leap into life, visible and vibrant: Henry—"unrivaled arborist, a ruthless merchant, and a brilliant innovator"—a metaphor for the Industrial Revolution. Raised with Dutch discipline and immersed in intellectual salons, Alma—botany explorations paralleling 19th-century natural philosophers becoming true scientists—develops a "Theory of Competitive Alteration" in near concurrence with Darwin and Wallace. There’s stoic Beatrix, wife and mother; saintly Prudence, Alma’s adopted sister; devoted Hanneke de Groot, housekeeper and confidante; silent, forbidding Dick Yancey, Henry’s ruthless factotum; and Ambrose Pike, mystical, half-crazed artist. Alma, tall, ungainly, "ginger of hair, florid of skin, small of mouth, wide of brow, abundant of nose," and yet thoroughly sensual, marries Ambrose, learning too late he intends marriage blanc, an unconsummated union. Multiple narrative threads weave seamlessly into a saga reminiscent of T. C. Boyle’s Water Music, with Alma following Ambrose to Tahiti and then returning alone to prosper at Hortus Botanicus, thinking herself "the most fortunate woman who ever lived."
A brilliant exercise of intellect and imagination.
Before an alcoholic can begin recovery, by some lights, he or she has to hit bottom. Dan Torrance, the alcoholic son of the very dangerously alcoholic father who came to no good in King’s famed 1977 novel The Shining, finds his rock bottom very near, if not exactly at, the scarifying image of an infant reaching for a baggie of blow. The drugs, the booze, the one-night stands, the excruciating chain of failures: all trace back to the bad doings at the Overlook Hotel (don’t go into Room 217) and all those voices in poor Dan’s head, which speak to (and because of) a very special talent he has. That “shining” is a matter of more than passing interest for a gang of RV-driving, torture-loving, soul-sucking folks who aren’t quite folks at all—the True Knot, about whom one particularly deadly recruiter comments, “They’re not my friends, they’re my family....And what’s tied can never be untied.” When the knotty crew sets its sights on a young girl whose own powers include the ability to sense impending bad vibes, Dan, long adrift, begins to find new meaning in the world. Granted, he has good reason to have wanted to hide from it—he still has visions of that old Redrum scrawl, good reason to need the mental eraser of liquor—but there’s nothing like an apocalyptic struggle to bring out the best (or worst) in people. King clearly revels in his tale, and though it’s quite a bit more understated than his earlier, booze-soaked work, it shows all his old gifts, including the ability to produce sentences that read as if they’re tossed off but that could come only from someone who’s worked hard on them (“Danny, have you ever seen dead people? Regular dead people, I mean”). His cast of characters is as memorable as any King has produced, too, from a fully rounded Danny to the tiny but efficiently lethal Abra Stone and the vengeful Andi, who’s right to be angry but takes things just a touch too far. And that’s not to mention Rose the Hatless and Crow Daddy.
Satisfying at every level. King even leaves room for a follow-up, should he choose to write one—and with luck, sooner than three decades hence.
A searching novel of contemporary manners—and long-buried secrets—by seasoned storyteller Lamb (Wishin' and Hopin', 2009, etc.).
Lamb’s latest opens almost as a police procedural, its point of view that of one Gualtiero Agnello (hint: agnello means “lamb” in Italian), rife with racial and sexual overtones. Fast-forward five decades, and it’s a different world, the POV now taken by an artist named Annie Oh, sharp-eyed and smart, who is attending to details of her upcoming nuptials to her partner and agent, Viveca, who has chosen a wedding dress with a name, Gaia. Notes Annie, reflecting on the Greek myth underlying the name, “[c]haos, incest, monsters, warring siblings: it’s a strange name for a wedding dress.” That thought foreshadows much of Lamb’s theme, which inhabits the still-waters-run-deep school of narrative: Annie has attained some renown, is apparently adjusted to divorce from her husband, a clinical psychologist named Orion (Greek myth again, though he’s Chinese) Oh, and is apparently bound for a later life of happiness. Ah, but then reality intrudes in various forms, from Viveca’s request for a prenup to the long-suppressed past, in which natural disaster meets familial dysfunction. The story is elaborate and unpredictable, and the use of multiple narrators is wise, considering that there are a few Rashomon moments in this leisurely unfolding narrative. The characters are at once sympathetic and flawed and mostly, by the end, self-aware (Orion on Annie: “I’d just let her float away. But at the time, I couldn’t admit that. It was easier to think of myself as Viveca’s victim than to cop to my own culpability”).
We all know that life is tangled and messy. Still, in reminding readers of this fact, Lamb turns in a satisfyingly grown-up story, elegantly written.
A long-after sequel, of a sort, to A Time to Kill (1989), in which dogged attorney Jake Brigance fights for justice in a Mississippi town where justice is not always easy to come by.
That’s especially true when the uncomfortable question of race comes up, and here, it’s a doozy. When local curmudgeon and secret millionaire Seth Hubbard puts an end to a lingering death, he leaves a holographic will placing the bulk of his fortune in the hands of the black woman who’s been taking care of him, cutting his children and ex-wives out of the deal. That will also alludes to having seen “something no human should ever see”—a promising prompt, that is to say, for the tangled tale that follows. When Jake brings the housekeeper, Lettie Lang, news of the extent of her newfound wealth, her world begins to unravel as her husband brings in a battery of attorneys to join the small army of lawyers already fighting over Hubbard’s will. Grisham, as always, is spot-on when it comes to matters of the bar, and the reader will learn a thing or two from him—for instance, that Mondays are the busiest days for divorce lawyers, “as marriages cracked over the weekends and spouses already at war ramped up their attacks.” This being 1988, there’s casual sexism aplenty in Grisham’s tale; it being the flatland Deep South, there are heaping helpings of racial tension, and it’s on that fact that the story turns. Grisham, as ever, delivers a vivid, wisecracking and tautly constructed legal procedural from which the reader might draw at least this lesson: You never want to wind up in front of a judge, even one as wise as the earwig-welcoming Reuben V. Atlee, and if you do, you want to have Jake Brigance on your side.
Trademark Grisham, with carefully situated echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird. A top-notch thriller.
Much-practiced legal proceduralist Turow (Innocent, 2010, etc.) steps onto Joseph Campbell turf in his latest mystery.
Turf is everything in the world Zeus Kronon—a charged name, that—has carved out for himself in Kindle County, turf that, of course, figures in Turow’s oeuvre as Yoknapatawpha County figures in Faulkner’s. Rolling in drachmas, he has just one problem: a wild maenad of a daughter, full name Aphrodite (“There have not been many occasions he has seen Dita when she is not smashed”), who has eyes not just for one of a pair of twin brothers, Paul and Cass Gianis, but both. That spells trouble, as twins in mythology always do. Fast-forward a few decades. Cass has been doing time for her murder, while Paul, “followed by two scrubbed young underlings,” re-enters the scene as a legal whiz and rising politico. Enter the Sapphic former FBI agent Evon Miller, who, working for real estate magnate Hal (that is, Herakles) Kronon—and who minds mixing Shakespeare with Aeschylus?—is determined to get to the bottom of whether Cass or Paul did poor Dita in so brutally. It would spoil the story to do more here than whisper the name Medea in what she eventually turns up. Turow has obvious fun with his mythological conceit, giving, for instance, a local GOP power the sonorous, if unlikely, name Perfectus Elder; and if sometimes the joke wears a little thin, the process of discovery takes nice and sometimes unexpected twists. Amid the supermodernity of DNA tests, the austerity of case law and the tangles of contemporary politics (Hal, horrors, even threatening to vote for Obama), Turow never loses sight of the ancient underpinnings of his story, with a conclusion that places Hal, Zeus, Hermione and Aphrodite in the vicinity of Olympus, their true neighborhood.
The King of Late Night’s lawyer, confidant, tennis partner and butt of his “Bombastic Bushkin” gags appraises their 18-year relationship.
Mainly due to the often bitter jokes he began making about marriage, often at his own expense, around the time of his expensive divorce from his third wife in the early 1980s, Johnny Carson (1925–2005) is known for his marital troubles. Though the late-night host is also known for his reclusiveness from the Hollywood scene—a reputation Bushkin demonstrates was not entirely warranted—most casual observers may not know that Carson had difficulty with all sorts of relationships, beginning with his praise-stingy mother Ruth, whose approval Carson vainly sought until her death, and continuing with his three sons (Carson admitted to being a poor, distant father). Fresh out of Vanderbilt Law School at 23, Bushkin began working for Carson in 1970 and had, arguably, the closest and sturdiest relationship with Carson of the entertainer’s entire life until its acrimonious end in 1988 (“Johnny terminated our relationship in a mere three-minute conversation….There was no final act”). The secret to his success? At the expense of his own marriage and relationships with his children, Bushkin made it his career to keep Carson happy at all hours of the day and night. This might mean getting him a contract with NBC that made him the highest-paid entertainer in the world. It could also mean breaking and entering into Carson’s second wife’s adulterous “love nest” to gather evidence for divorce, listening to a drunken Caron’s self-psychoanalysis at an after-hours watering hole, disappearing discreetly when one of the boss’s many voluptuous playmates appeared, or stepping between Carson and people he wanted to hit or who wanted to hit him.
Carson partisans may find this memoir self-serving (what memoir isn’t?), but most readers will be captivated by this high-definition, off-camera, extreme close-up view of the enigmatic entertainer.
A revelation, from the most accomplished and acclaimed of contemporary short story writers.
It’s no surprise that every story in the latest collection by Canada’s Munro (Too Much Happiness, 2009, etc.) is rewarding and that the best are stunning. They leave the reader wondering how the writer manages to invoke the deepest, most difficult truths of human existence in the most plainspoken language. But the real bombshell, typically understated and matter-of-fact, comes before the last pieces, which the author has labeled “Finale” and written in explanation: “The final four works in this book are not quite stories. They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last—and the closest—things I have to say about my own life.” The “first” comes as a surprise, because her collection The View from Castle Rock (2006) was so commonly considered atypically autobiographical (albeit drawing more from family legacy than personal memory). And the “last”? When a writer in her early 80s declares that these are the last things she has to say about her life, they put both the life and the stories in fresh perspective. Almost all of them have an older character remembering her perspective from decades earlier, sometimes amused, more often baffled, at what happened and how things turned out. Most pivot on some sort of romantic involvement, but the partners are unknowable, opaque, often even to themselves. In “Train,” a character remarks, “Now I have got a real understanding of it and it was nobody’s fault. It was the fault of human sex in a tragic situation.” In “Leaving Maverley,” she writes of “the waste of time, the waste of life, by people all scrambling for excitement and paying no attention to anything that mattered.”
The author knows what matters, and the stories pay attention to it.
Farmer and philanthropist Buffett (Threatened Kingdom: The Story of the Mountain Gorilla, 2005, etc.) examines how to improve the world's food supply and make it more secure.
The author—a U.N. World Food Program Ambassador—has committed the foundation his better-known father, Warren, helped him establish to putting his knowledge and experience to work in the particular circumstances of countries in Africa, Asia, and South and Central America. The author’s earlier travels on behalf of wildlife conservancy—supporting mountain gorilla and cheetah survival—and his studies on the impact of conflict and war undergird his foundation's focus on the protection of the global food supply. With tireless enthusiasm, Buffett has worked to recruit educators to upgrade methods in the countries he has visited, and he introduces many here. He sees an important role for America in the maintenance of worldwide agricultural productivity, but it depends on accumulated improvements in skills, physical and cultural infrastructure, and technology and cannot simply be exported to areas lacking the culture, infrastructure or soil quality. The author discusses how he searches out the expertise required to consistently, successfully address specific problems of growing food crops with the tools and seeds available on local soils. This effort is very much in the tradition of Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. Buffett believes that improvements in seed stocks and soil management and technology upgrades are absolutely necessary, as are people qualified to impart the required knowledge and skills. The author’s commitment to education, and action, on behalf of such capacities, shines through his book.
An impressive example of how an individual’s diligent work can truly affect the world.
A far- and free-ranging meditation on the age-old struggle between underdogs and top dogs.
Beginning with the legendary matchup between the Philistine giant and the scrawny shepherd boy of the title, New Yorker scribe Gladwell (What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures, 2009, etc.) returns continually to his main theme: that there are unsung advantages to being disadvantaged and overlooked disadvantages to being “advantaged.” Though the book begins like a self-help manual—an early chapter on a middle school girl’s basketball team that devastated more talented opponents with a gritty, full-court press game seems to suggest a replicable strategy, at least in basketball, and a later one shows how it’s almost patently easier to accomplish more by being a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond—it soon becomes clear that Gladwell is not interested in simple formulas or templates for success. He aims to probe deeply into the nature of underdog-ness and explore why top dogs have long had such trouble with underdogs—in scholastic and athletic competitions, in the struggle for success or renown in all professions, and in insurgencies and counterinsurgencies the world over. Telling the stories of some amazingly accomplished people, including superlawyer David Boies, IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad, and childhood-leukemia researcher Jay Freireich, Gladwell shows that deficits one wouldn’t wish on anyone, like learning disabilities or deprived childhoods, can require a person to adapt to the world in ways that later become supreme benefits in professional life. On the other hand, children of the newly wealthy who have had every good fortune their parents lacked tend to become less well-equipped to deal with life’s random but inevitable challenges.
In addition to the top-notch writing one expects from a New Yorker regular, Gladwell rewards readers with moving stories, surprising insights and consistently provocative ideas.