This week: the ailments of famous writers, a novel about how novels are dead, and the latest from Mark Z. Danielewski. Plus: a stellar graphic novel about the lost years of a melancholic young Abraham Lincoln.
The Fifty Year Sword by Mark Z. Danielewski (Pantheon) – Danielewski’s novella has the theatrical quality of a children’s ghost story, complete with stitched-art illustrations (designed by the author), sweeping themes, and fairy-tale tropes. But the tale told by the Story Teller, hired to entertain the children, is nested in the all-too adult story of Chintana, a seamstress suffering through the aftermath of a painful divorce. The smallest daily rituals—opening a can of “bitter tea leaves,” putting on shoes—require terrific force, and she has visions of inflicting violence. At her twin’s urging, Chintana attends a Halloween party at an East Texas ranch, where she comes face-to-face with the source of her marriage’s destruction and discovers the Story Teller’s thirst for revenge. Danielewski (House of Leaves) knows that typographical landscaping can be a narrative tool. With rare exception, he unfurls his tale down one side of the page in quoted speech of different colors representing five orphans whose obscure connection is hinted at in an author’s note; text is juxtaposed or shares space with illustrations. More of a narrative poem than a novella, this would be well suited to an oral reading and may be best thought of as an objet d’art that chillingly holds us accountable for our worst thoughts.
Zoo Time by Howard Jacobson (Bloomsbury) - Man Booker Prize-winner Jacobson (The Finkler Question) returns with this smiling meta-look at a novelist struggling to find his next book in a world where there are more writers than readers (and where, "Whatever else, fiction was fucked.") Forty-three-year-old Guy Ableman's London publisher has committed suicide, and his new one is pushing "unbooks" for smart phones. His agent dismisses all of Guy's book proposals, most of which are inspired by Guy's efforts to seduce spirited, red-headed Poppy Eisenhower, whom Guy has longed for since marrying her spirited, red-headed daughter, Vanessa. As monkey-obsessed Guy attempts to go "zoo time" with the inseparable women, he "mouth-writes" novels about his alter-ego, Gid. Acknowledging that a writer who "resorts to writing about writing" is in trouble, Guy moves on to a protagonist based on his Casanova brother Jeffrey "who drinks vodka through his eyes" and whom Guy suspects (with lamentation) is sleeping with his wife, and postulates (with rage) is sleeping with Poppy.
An Unattended Death by Victoria Jenkins (Permanent Press) - Clean prose and impeccable pacing distinguish this regional crime novel from Jenkins (Cruise Control). After a stint in the LAPD, widowed Irene Chavez has returned with her 14-year-old son to her hometown on Puget Sound, where she now serves as a detective in the Mason County (Wash.) sheriff’s department. Irene is the first official on the scene after the discovery of the body of 29-year-old psychiatrist Anne Paris in a slough off the sound, the apparent victim of a sailboat accident.
Driving the Saudis: A Chauffeur’s Tale of the World’s Richest Princesses (Plus Their Servants, Nannies, and One Royal Hairdresser) by Jayne Amelia Larson (Free Press) - In her chronicling of 50 days with Princess Zaahira and her entourage, Larson reveals herself to be an articulate, observant writer. She balances colorful tales of excess with musings on women’s roles, and accounts of bad behavior with considerations of the reasons behind it. There are lovely moments, too: she developed a bond with a nanny and a gaggle of servant-girls, and their kindness offers a counterpoint to Larson’s often disturbing realizations about money, power, and perspective. There’s plenty of fascinating insider info, too, about the job, her charges (Saudi and otherwise), and Los Angeles —altogether, an often thoroughly enjoyable read.
Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture by Daniel Mendelsohn (New York Review Books) - Wide-ranging and absorbing, this new collection of essays from Mendelsohn (The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million), is a joy from start to finish. Mendelsohn is a critic who consistently takes his subjects seriously, be they TV shows (Mad Men), 3-D blockbusters (Avatar), or the poems of Rimbaud. Along with perceptive essays on Anne Carson, Jonathan Franzen, Susan Sontag, and more, the collection adds up to a wonderfully eclectic set of musings on the state of contemporary culture and the enduring riches of classical literature.
Shakespeare’s Tremor and Orwell’s Cough: The Medical Lives of Great Writers by John J. Ross (St. Martin’s) - English majors and medical students alike, not to mention laypeople of all stripes, will enjoy Ross’s first book, a speculative journey through the medical histories of 11 famed authors. The project originated with individual articles, first published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, on the two titular authors, who now bookend eight other, chronologically arranged chapters (Emily and Charlotte Brontë share one). The authors’ personalities, as well as their maladies, are placed under Ross’s microscope—Nathaniel Hawthorne may have struggled with social phobia, and William Butler Yeats with Asperger syndrome. His theories, such as the notion that Jonathan Swift’s uninhibited satire was abetted by dementia, can go only so far, however, before coming up against the wildly different medical ideas of past eras. Ross’s ability to make the likes of Jack London, Herman Melville, and James Joyce come alive anew makes up for the inability to definitively anatomize them.
The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln by Noah Van Sciver (Fantagraphics) - Van Sciver’s psychologically astute examination of what might be termed Abraham Lincoln’s “lost years” (1837–1842) is as gripping and persuasive as the best historical fiction. Despite success in the Illinois state legislature, Lincoln finds it difficult to adapt to life in Springfield, where he knows few people and struggles to maintain a law office with partner John Stuart, through whom he is introduced to Stuart’s cousin, Mary Todd. A tentative engagement to Mary is broken by Lincoln, who is plagued by her family’s disapproval as well as his own demons. Coupled with the dissolution of his law practice, this plunges Lincoln into a deep depression he calls “the hypo”—short for “hypochondriasis” and certainly a misnomer in Lincoln’s case. A thoroughly engaging graphic novel that seamlessly balances investigation and imagination.
The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies by David Thomson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) - From 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies to the latest cable-TV and video game offerings, this fascinating history of movies and their spinoffs celebrates and indicts the flickering image that beguiles. Film critic and historian Thomson (The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood) concentrates on American movies, but takes excursions to other national cinemas and stops in occasionally on I Love Lucy and other gems of the small screen. His is a loose-limbed, conversational narrative, moving fitfully through time, dawdling over directors and films that interest him, shamelessly ogling every starlet that strikes his fancy, spouting provocative opinions. Buffs and casual fans alike will enjoy this extra-large serving of popcorn for thought.
Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves by Henry Wiencek (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) - This meticulous account indicts not only Jefferson but modern apologists who wish to retain him as a moral standard of liberty. Wiencek’s vivid, detailed history casts a new slant on a complex man by revealing that even though many of Jefferson’s contemporaries, such as Quaker plantation owners in the 1770s and a prominent Virginian, Edward Coles, in 1819, freed their slaves. Coles begged Jefferson to lend his voice to the antislavery movement, as did fellow revolutionaries such as Lafayette and Thomas Paine. But, Wiencek says that the founder who referred to blacks as “degraded and different” with “no place in our country,” had a “fundamental belief in the righteousness of his power.”