It’s the last week of August, the last week (perhaps) of unstructured summer reading, and the perfect time to investigate the August issue of Open Letters Monthly, if you haven’t yet. Or even if you have. It’s a fine way to say farewell to the month, the summer, maybe a long stretch of unemployed indolence… whatever you’re bidding adieu, this issue of OLM is stocked with an abundance of good reading to console you.
On the fiction shelves, Amelia Glaser has good words for Mira Jacob’s The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, a family story that’s also about, among other things, “neuroscience (and minds that fail us), photography, the lasting trauma of immigration to the US, and the miracle of finding a soul mate.”
Elisa Gabbert dives into “master manipulator” Ben Lerner’s metafictional novel 10:04, with mixed results.
John William Walker Zeiser enjoys Kyung-sook Shin’s I’ll Be Right There (translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell), both for the storyline and its nostalgic descriptions of “an older Korea that still bursts through the slick glass modernity and high-speed technology that has supplanted it.”
In the nonfiction department, Dorian Stuber declares Bernard Wasserstein’s An Ambiguity of Virtue: Gertrude van Tijn and the Fate of the Dutch Jews, the morally complex story of the woman who helped prepare Holland’s Jews for emigration (and deportation) during WWII, a largely informative book that “allows us to conclude that ambiguity need not undo the possibility of virtue.”
Lianne Habinek examines Denis Donoghue’s Metaphor, which asks the crucial question: “Why say that something is something else?”
Jessica Miller enjoys Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s argument for the relevance of philosophy in the 21st century, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away—which includes bringing Plato here to talk with a Google engineer, a parenting expert, and a Bill O’Reilly type, among others. But far from being a simplistic book, it “challenges, it rouses, and it finally requires thinking participation in some of the most important and enduring questions human beings can ask.”
Jack Hanson is not too impressed with Sam Harris’s Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion, posting that “If Dr. Harris believed that the question of consciousness is a serious one, and not simply a matter of making oneself feel better in world left cold by science, he would attend to it with the intellectual rigor he praises elsewhere.”
Michael O’Donnell takes on William Deresiewicz’s disquisition on what’s wrong with the college careers of privileged Ivy Leaguers, Excellent Sheep—pointing out that, as a good reviewer does, “I put my biases away so successfully that it took me about 80 pages to realize why I wasn’t connecting to the book before I thought, ‘Oh, right. I despise these people.’”
Steve Donoghue’s read on Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan is that, while “Perlstein tells this oft-told tale with great amounts of gusto; as he demonstrated in Nixonland, he’s an enthusiastic and aphoristic storyteller,” the book’s lack of thorough attributions are cause for concern, concluding that the political era covered “deserves a better, more careful, more conscientious, more trustworthy book than it gets here.” (The New York Times picked up on this earlier in the month.)
Adam Golaski pronounces The Mind’s Eye: The Art of Omni, edited by Jeremy Frommer and Rick Schwartz, short on information but long on the weird art we fondly remember from the magazine’s heyday—“fun to look at, even if frequently dumb.”
Brendan Costello Jr. visits Kara Walker’s installation at the Domino Sugar Refinery and declares it a success, especially for its site-specific qualities: “[T]he vaulted ceilings, charred walls, and pervasive odor of burned sugar made “A Subtlety” visceral. History literally permeated the air—you could not help but breathe it in—and it was not pleasant. This art got in your face in a way that Damien Hirst could only dream of.”
In her It’s a Mystery column, Irma Heldman reviews two books: Charles Cumming’s A Colder War and Neely Tucker’s The Ways of the Dead, pronouncing the first “state-of-the-art espionage fiction” and the second a “probing, powerful, edgy debut novel.”
We get not one but two new poems: Bonnie Auslander’s Felix Feels Bitter (“The toothache that seeks out only him, / the quarters his sisters get to keep.”) and Words, by Donald Illich, with its opening line full of promise: “When I wake words want me.”
Stephen Akey takes a look at the ins and outs—and the insides and outsides—of cultural criticism, ignorance, learning and forgetting, and the fine distinction between high- and low-brow, pointing out that “All these books and pictures and poems and great debates have made my life richer, not easier.”
And for this month’s Title Menu, OLM checks out 10 Great “Minor” Works by Major Writers, from Henry Adams’s The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma to Muriel Spark’s Loitering With Intent to Shakespeare’s Richard II (“the other Richard”).