Open Letters Monthly and Other December Reading

Books

It’s up: another new issue, and this one is as wide-ranging but also as deep as any we’ve published in a while. A small sampling:

Sam Sacks on James Wood and the Fall of Man:

But Wood’s story works brilliantly if it is taken as just that, a story—if it is read conditionally and gleaned for the truths of a work of fiction. Wood personifies the novel; he sets it on a quest, as in a Bildungsroman. He puts it through a crisis of faith and then follows it past obstacles and blind alleys, through low periods of stasis, and into the fugitive joys of innovation and discovery. Most powerfully, he animates the novel with a very human desire: like Thomas Bunting, and like Wood himself, it seeks freedom—from the outdated customs of its upbringing and the fear of public disapproval. Most of all it looks to throw off the chains of self-consciousness, or, to borrow a description from his collection The Fun Stuff, to get away from “the overbearing presence of the self, the insistent internal volume of the self, the dunning inescapability of being who one is.”

Alice Brittan on Colm Tóibìn’s Nora Webster:

Like the painters he admires, Tóibín is devoted to revealing the interior life of the individual, the emotions and thoughts that people hide even from themselves and that you can only see by looking closely and for a very long time. He writes the calmest prose I know. There is nothing showy or grabby about his sentences, and his narrative structures are fairly straightforward. Yet no living writer seems wiser. Few are as moving. “You want plot, read the newspaper!” he said in a recent interview. Tóibín is more interested in the moment when the action stops, and in people who look forward to getting home, shutting the front door, and quietly thinking it all over.

Steve Donoghue on yet another biography of that ‘pestiferous little Corsican,’ Napoleon Bonaparte:

veteran biographer Andrew Roberts this book season has produced an 800-page biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the mere thought of such a thing, let alone the brick-solid reality of it, is an extravagant, almost insulting imposition on the carefully-rationed spare time of his readers. Bonaparte is one of the most exhaustively-studied people in history; in less than a decade, we’ve had gigantic one-volume biographies, gigantic two-volume biographiesgigantic reprints of earlier biographies, studies of the Russian campaignthe Egyptian campaign and dozens of other studies large and small. Bonaparte’s every move has been scrutinized, his every utterance parsed, his locks of hair CT-scanned as often as any Egyptian mummy; no matter how galling it might be for professional historians to admit, there are no substantial secrets remaining in his life.

Greg Waldmann on Leon Panetta’s unworthy Worthy Fights:

Just as Panetta writes himself as a cliché, many of the people he writes about become clichés, and most of his ideas are clichés, too. Political memoirs are often badly written, so in a sense this is no surprise. The genre, however, is a deformed species of apologetic literature, and the way in which these former leaders go about justifying themselves is usually revealing in other ways. George W. Bush’s Decision Points was like its author: Manichean and self-righteous, yet fundamentally insecure. Dick Cheney’s memoirs were contemptuous and not a little sinister. Donald Rumsfeld’s were combative and condescending, quarreling in end notes about semantic minutiae. Worthy Fights, like its author, is stultifyingly conventional, cozy in its Washington milieu, grinding on for page after page of received wisdom and unexamined assumptions about people and the role of American power in the world.

There’s much more equally interesting and worthy of your attention, on topics from Norman Mailer’s letters to contemporary Serbian fiction, from new poetry to the collected stories of Frank Herbert: I hope you’ll head over and explore for yourself. I’m represented this month only through my behind the scenes editing work and my contribution to our annual Year in Reading feature, where my comments about discovering that there’s Dorothy Dunnett beyond Lymond won’t surprise any regular readers of this blog.

kinghereafterI am, however, represented in a couple of other publications this month — one of which is actually Whispering Gallery, the journal of the Dorothy Dunnett Society, where my essay on King Hereafter is being reprinted. Whispering Gallery is available in hard copy only, to members of the Society. I’ve never been much of a joiner (I don’t even belong to the George Eliot Fellowship! and I’m just a little bit scared of the enthusiasm manifested by the members of the Jane Austen Society of North America …) but Whispering Gallery looks like it’s a lot of fun. The last issue included an article called “Jerott Blyth: Dashing Hero or Dumb Idealist?  Part 2,” for instance, which certainly got me thinking, not just about how I’d answer this question (“a bit of both,” maybe?) but also about how great it is that Dunnett has readers who care enough to make this a 2-part feature. (Lymond was just voted “Scotland’s favourite literary character,” by the way, which is as it should be.)

And you’ll also find my byline on an essay in 3:AM Magazine this month: “Sex, Style, and Sewage Farms: Winifred Holtby and Virginia Woolf.”

Woolf, of course, dominates our picture of early twentieth-century women writers: Holtby paid a price in prestige for her commitment to the kind of social realism Woolf eloquently dismissed in essays such as “Modern Fiction” or “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown.” Holtby’s novels offer us not the “luminous halo” of consciousness, but the materiality Woolf rejected as lifeless; to Woolf’s rhetorical question “Must novels be like this?” Holtby implicitly replies that at any rate they can be like this and still convey something important, that the “series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged” may reveal social patterns of genuine significance — not just artistically but politically.

It’s exciting to contribute to another great online journal, and also gratifying to see all that work I did on Brittain, Holtby, and the Somerville novelists bearing new fruit. I’m actually working on another short piece on Brittain for another site, so more about that when it goes live early in the New Year.

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