Not for Oprah’s Book Club—but readers willing to be lectured will be suitably rewarded.

THE BIOGRAPHER’S TALE

An academic who forsakes the realm of concepts and theories for the quotidian world of “things” is the unlikely—and quite likable—protagonist of Byatt’s formidably learned latest, which echoes rather loudly her Booker Prize–winning Possession (1999).

When Phineas G. Nanson, whose notebooks we are reading, grows tired of postgraduate arcana and decides “to stop being a post-structuralist literary critic,” a mentor’s suggestion leads to his absorption with the late biographer Scholes Destry-Scholes, whose magnum opus was his acclaimed three-volume study of Victorian writer-adventurer Sir Elmer Bole—imagined as an amalgam of Richard Burton, T.E. Lawrence, and perhaps Thomas Babington Macaulay (with just a dollop of Arthur Conan Doyle added). Phineas’s hopes of writing a biography of the biographer are complicated by his serendipitous discovery of three “documents” that were presumably ur-materials for an unwritten triple biography—of, as clues about its subjects gradually clarify, Carl Linnaeus, Henrik Ibsen, and anthropologist-eugenicist Sir Francis Galton. Nor is rummaging about in libraries all. The ever-susceptible Phineas becomes involved with two unusual and irresistible women: Destry-Scholes’s scholarly niece Vera Alphage, who works in a hospital and privately collects X-rays; and “bee taxonomist” (and “eco-warrior”) Fulla Biefield, with whom Phineas soon finds himself plunging through forests in search and defense of the endangered stag beetle. Though this and other similarly loopy sequences are great fun to read, Byatt offers relatively little story, and a top-heavy load of arch speculation about the conflict between Art (Vera) and Life (Fulla), the likelihood that biographers (especially the resourceful Destry-Scholes) invent as much as they record, and the caveat that the “search for authenticity in scholarship can have its dangers.” It’s dry, all right, but admirers of Possession (and a somewhat similar novel, Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes) probably won’t mind.

Not for Oprah’s Book Club—but readers willing to be lectured will be suitably rewarded.

Pub Date: Jan. 24, 2000

ISBN: 0-375-41114-3

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2000

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE

The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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