Jane Franklin raised twelve children, as well as several grandchildren and great-grandchildren, in colonial America. She lived in poverty for most of her life, stitching bonnets and managing a boarding house to make ends meet. Her brother Benjamin was one of the most successful men of his generation, a printer, postmaster, essayist, inventor, newspaper publisher, writer of Poor Richard’s Almanac, the most famous scientist on the planet, signer of the Declaration of Independence, representative in France during the Revolutionary War, and a participant in the creation of the Constitution of the United States, among many other things. Although their two lives diverged dramatically, they each remained one of the other’s closest friends, or as Jill Lepore puts it in Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, “He loved no one longer. She loved no one better.”
By the time I first learned that this book was being written I was already a big fan of Lepore’s (see, for example, her work in the New Yorker), and also already something of a Ben Franklin obsessive. It is a pleasure to report that Book of Ages is a strange and remarkable accomplishment. In less than 270 pages, Book of Ages does quadruple duty. (1) It tells the tale of Jane Franklin, her experiences through the American Revolution, and the views that she developed through her difficult, often tragic life. (2) It explores how Benjamin Franklin’s work was influenced by his lifelong relationship with his sister. (3) Even more, Book of Ages ends up being about the colonial world inhabited by people like Jane Franklin, common folk neither rich, nor famous, nor advantaged, nor fortunate. (4) More still, it is a book about history writing itself. Given how little remains of Jane Franklin’s correspondence, it is fascinating to watch Lepore weave together what does exist into a full narrative.
Across the cover and down the spine of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., young Brooklyn women “bursting with vibrant, almost aggressive good health” are profiled in silhouette, their pixie cuts and power bangs offering a taxonomy of the species, like butterflies pinned under glass. These are the conquests of Nate Piven, our antihero. Nate’s romantic history sounds like a lost verse of “Mambo No. 5”: a little bit of Hannah, Elisa, Juliet, Kristen, Justine, Kelly, Jean, Beth, Cara, Emily, another Emily, and a third Emily. With his frumpy Harvard intellectualism and his overblown self-regard, Nate has collected so many aggrieved ex-girlfriends that they could file a class action lawsuit. But they’ll have to settle for this book.
Adelle Waldman’s debut novel raises a wickedly fun question. Can a woman of Nate Piven’s demographic—Waldman is a young Brooklyn journalist with a book deal, just like Nate and all the sad young literary men he stands for—summon the empathy, imagination, and vocabulary required to turn the hipster Lothario of Fort Greene into a decent, relatable human being? The genius of Waldman’s question is that she wins either way. If Nate turns out to be redeemable, then Waldman will have proved that she is a masterful writer, capable of humanizing the devil himself. If he is unredeemable, then Waldman gets to flay him for her readers’ enjoyment.
City of Bohane is all talk: the sharp-edged slang of street gangs, ominous rumors floating on gloomy bogs; the brokenhearted correspondence of erstwhile lovers. Kevin Barry, author of the story collections There Are Little Kingdoms and the forthcoming Dark Lies the Island, wears his Irish heart on his sleeve—like in this passage, which kicks off a chapter in which an ancient feud is about to engulf the city of Bohane.
Solstice broke and sent its pale light across the Big Nothin’ bogs. A half-woken stoat peeped scaredly from its lair in a drystone wall and a skinny old doe stood alert and watchful on a limestone outcrop. Sourly lit, a cruel winter scene—a raven clan soared and watched for scavenge, and there was a slushy melt to the hillside as the distant sun burned, and a puck goat chewed morosely on a high mound there. […] Surge of the water was all to be heard as Ol’ Boy Mannion stood in the first of the year-turn light on a high bank of the river and pensively urinated into it.
I never watched The Hangover: Part II. I loved the original movie deeply, but was told by multiple sources that the second was a trudging, shot-for-shot remake of its predecessor, and what had been so charming and fresh–even in the tired genre of drunk buddy films–lost its appeal with repetition. So with that in mind, let me be the first to ever say: The closest I’ve come to watching The Hangover: Part II was reading Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies.
Bodies was the 2012 Booker Prize winner and one of my most anticipated reads after loving, deeply, its 2009 Booker Prize winning predecessor, Wolf Hall. But throughout the novel, I consistently felt as if I’d seen this all before, and that what had been so engaging in the first go round–even in the tired genre of historical fiction–was less so with repetition.
This is not to say that Bring up the Bodies is not worth your time, or anywhere near as bad as the second Hangover was rumored to be. Continue reading
I first read Christopher Hitchens in college, when I was gifted a copy of The Trial of Henry Kissinger. This was in the post-9/11, Bush Administration days when I was reading books like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, marching in rallies, and attending lectures like the one where I picked up a large, yellow, homemade button reading I KNOW KISSINGER IS A CRIMINAL and quickly pinned it to my messenger bag. The childhood naiveté I had recently shed left me vulnerable to Hitchens’ moral confidence and chilled outrage, and I adopted a more adult naiveté, where solutions took the form of boycotting logos, starting zines, going to poetry readings in campus common rooms and calling on the Hague to bring a former American official to trial on war crimes.
My affinity didn’t last. Hitchens had a book out about how Mother Teresa was some kind of monster. This seemed odd, but not damning. My greater concern was Hitchens’ great complaints about Bill Clinton — which I actually could have accepted had they not been followed by his support of George W. Bush, a man who couldn’t match Clinton in competence, intelligence, or even folksiness. And yet here was Hitch, mobilizing a mind fortified by philosophy, history, literature and poetry to defend a dangerously incurious and incompetent president. I gave Hitch’s line on Iraq no quarter because it coincided with the Bush line, and ultimately concluded that Hitchens was someone who didn’t mind a few thousand people dying if it meant that we could forcibly shove The Enlightenment into new acreage. Continue reading
I thought Seven Houses in France would be a political allegory about Europe. The author, Bernardo Atxaga, is from the Basque Country, and he writes in the Basque language, Euskara, which has only 715,000 speakers. Those are good reasons to have a chip on your shoulder—to feel a need to correct people’s assumptions about your little corner of the world.
So why is Atxaga writing about Belgian soldiers in the Congo in 1903?
At the height of the Belle Epoque, King Leopold II of Belgium cavorts on the French Riviera while his soldiers—the Force Publique—are stationed in the Congo, drinking Veuve Clicquot, raping village girls, and whipping the slaves who harvest the king’s rubber from the jungle. In clean, candid prose that sharpens the absurdity and brutality of the historical moment, Atxaga tells the story of three Belgian officers and one African servant whose sedentary lifestyles are interrupted by the arrival of a new comrade. But it’s less Heart of Darkness and more Beetle Bailey.
Atxaga draws his characters with the strong, clear lines of a comic strip. There’s the captain, Biran, who condones all sorts of crimes against the Congolese while writing lyric poetry about the glories of Africa; Donatien, a dimwitted orderly who fetches virgins from the jungle for the Captain to rape; Van Thiegel, an alcoholic brute; and Livo, the long-suffering native guide. Continue reading
WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead, depending on how sensitive you are about these kinds of things.
With his epic saga about the battle for control of a throne, George R.R. Martin has become the undisputed king of fantasy writing in our time. The “Song of Ice and Fire” offers up a richly imagined, painstakingly detailed world that sprawls across geographies and narratives, and Martin winds stories together that are multiple parts Shakespeare, Tolkien, Arthurian legend, Dungeons and Dragons, late-night Cinemax, and gritty realism. There are true ethical quandaries, palace intrigues, love stories, complex political dramas, and disputes between established religions. There are also zombies and dragons and warlocks.
Most readers who picked up book one have proceeded to read all five volumes, whipping through the story in 700-900 page installments and itching for more. Some can fill the void by perusing Game of Thrones blogs and watching the ongoing HBO adaptation of the books. Others go so far as to read the official Game of Thrones cookbook, use Game of Thrones wedding invitations, and drink Game of Thrones beer.
As with any truly effective fantasy epic, the devotions are strong and feelings run high. And those who have made it to the end of the fifth book, as I recently did, tend to share a similar sentiment toward George R.R. Martin and his stories, which is typically something along the lines of the following: Continue reading
In his first novel Hari Kunzru gave us a chameleon, a boy who could disappear into other identities and cross the social boundaries of India and England. Now in his fourth novel, Gods Without Men, he offers a coyote, an American Indian trickster at the crossroads between this world and the next, who makes children disappear.
The main story follows Jaz and Lisa—a Wall Street banker with roots in India, and his Jewish American wife—as they struggle to raise an autistic son, Raj, who subsequently vanishes in the Mojave Desert. A reporter wonders if the child may have been carried off by a coyote, which, in the hodgepodge mythology of Gods Without Men, is both totally wrong and somehow right. The rest of the book loops through time, from 1920 to 1778 to 1871 and beyond, weaving together the history of a unique spot in the desert where strange energies collide. Continue reading