Jeremy Caplan

So much fiction has been published over the last few decades that any complete catalogue would be gargantuan. And given the tremendous amount of new writing, searching for the worthiest novels is a daunting task. Nevertheless, David Rubel has sifted through the annals of contemporary writing and produced The Reading List, a new reference book listing 110 of the most influential authors of contemporary literary fiction. “Because we didn't want to sell you a book the size of the Yellow Pages, we had to pick and choose,” Rubel writes. To be included, an author must be alive and still writing, have published more than one book, and have written in more than a single genre. In addition, writers included have all received critical acclaim. No geographical limitations were set, so a wide array of countries are represented by authors like Chinua Achebe (Nigeria), Kenzaburo Oe (Japan), and Amos Oz (Israel). In addition to a short biographical summary, the entry for each author includes a complete list of the author's fiction in chronological order. Books that by consensus are an author's best are starred, and excerpts from reviews are presented alongside those entries. At the end of each author's section, Rubel recommends a group of authors of related substance or style. What makes The Reading List stand out from other dry reference tools is Rubel's unpretentious, informal tone. In one biographical note, for example, he writes, “although his French-sounding name confuses some people, Louis de Bernieres is thoroughly British.” Be advised, however, that the present book makes no mention of Tom Clancy, Danielle Steele, or John Grisham. Those and other popular writers are either not sufficiently literary, or are associated too closely with a particular genre. But many other popular writers, like Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, and John Irving are listed. And with or without big name writers, Rubel's list will keep any reader busy for quite a long time. Critics seldom agree about the value of new fiction, and by definition, contemporary writers have yet to stand the test of time. As Rubel notes in his introduction, few readers are likely to be interested in all of the authors presented here. By the same token, just as few readers will come away empty-handed. As a welcome reminder of the wealth of great authors now writing, The Reading List successfully whets the appetite for contemporary literary fiction. Reviewed by Jeremy Caplan.

So much fiction has been published over the last few decades that any complete catalogue would be gargantuan. And given the tremendous amount of new writing, searching for the worthiest novels is a daunting task. Nevertheless, David Rubel has sifted through the annals of contemporary writing and produced The Reading List, a new reference book […]

It is often only after the death of a great author that the scope of his unpublished writings is appreciated. In the case of Robertson Davies, two new collections underscore his remarkable literary and artistic range. The Merry Heart illustrates Davies's fascination with the writing and reading of literature, while Happy Alchemy brings to light his diverse musings on theater, opera, and music. Included in Happy Alchemy are speeches, diary entries, critical essays, interviews, and dramatic scenes. The collection's title is a reference to a couplet by English poet Matthew Green and is best explained by Davies himself in the book's opening essay on theater. “What alchemy really means is something which has attained to such excellence, such nearness to perfection, that it offers a glory, an expansion of life and understanding, to those who have been brought into contact with it.” The pieces in this collection are about that pursuit of artistic excellence not only in the theater and the opera house, but in the imagination of the dramatist and the workshop of the librettist. In 33 chapters, the writing included here covers a lot of ground. Whether discussing the virtues of a playwright, the strength of a particular production, or the skill of an actor, Davies writes with energy and enthusiasm.

As a commentator on the performing arts, Davies concerns himself with the creative process as well as the finished product. His love of opera is demonstrated in his thoughtful analysis of Hamlet. In one of the finer sections of Happy Alchemy, he explains why operatic composers repeatedly fail to render it successfully. “It is too complex; its mingling of political and dynastic arguments with the spiritual agonies of the deeply introverted, philosophical hero cannot be accommodated to the chief necessity of an opera libretto, which is simplicity.” In informal, light prose, the critical writing included here is generally appreciative and inquisitory, rarely caustic. In his theater notebook, excerpted here, Davies writes, “I sincerely believe that I have been a good playgoer, and that is something better, perhaps, than having been a well-known critic. Critics often do not like the theater; I have never liked anything better.” Reviewed by Jeremy Caplan.

It is often only after the death of a great author that the scope of his unpublished writings is appreciated. In the case of Robertson Davies, two new collections underscore his remarkable literary and artistic range. The Merry Heart illustrates Davies's fascination with the writing and reading of literature, while Happy Alchemy brings to light […]

From the perspective of a nine-year-old girl, The Everlasting Story of Nory celebrates the splendor of childhood curiosity. Nicholson Baker, whose writing revels in the oft-ignored nuances of everyday life, is at ease imitating the style and manner of a child. Baker, whose book was inspired by his daughter Alice, explains its title in the words of Nory: “The idea of everlasting life came partly from the kinds of things you say in Cathedral, and partly from a movie called The Neverending Story, which was an extremely good movie in many ways, one of which was that it was unusually rare to have a two-part movie and have the second part be just as interesting as the first, basically.” Although the arc of the story does not include a standard exposition or development, by the end of the book a subtle picture of Nory has been drawn. In 54 brief chapters, Baker reveals her world in a collage of independent episodes. Many of the scenes take place in the Threll Junior School, where Nory ponders everything from the fate of Achilles to the intricacies of a compass. “Really the compass is called a Ôset of compasses,' and the things that stick out are called the Ôarms of the compass.'” Having moved with her family from the United States to England, Nory learns to cope with the peculiarities of her new British classmates, who use words like “bin” and “false palate” to describe garbage cans and retainers. Baker's love for quirky speech shines through here, as he conveys the conversations of children in school. But there is more to this story than witty depictions of child-like language. In portraying the kindness with which Nory befriends the bullied Pamela, Baker illustrates a child's potential for goodness. In Nory's world, kids are not simply sidekicks complementing the adults who surround them. They are the main characters here, puzzling over curiosities and acting out their dreams. It may seem odd that The Everlasting Story of Nory was written by the same man who dreamed up Vox and The Fermata, the sexy novels for which Baker is widely known. But like this one, those earlier books were essentially about fantasy, imagination, and the importance of affection. With fine descriptive skill, Baker has once again created a poignant portrait of emotional intimacy, this time through the eyes of a child. Reviewed by Jeremy Caplan.

From the perspective of a nine-year-old girl, The Everlasting Story of Nory celebrates the splendor of childhood curiosity. Nicholson Baker, whose writing revels in the oft-ignored nuances of everyday life, is at ease imitating the style and manner of a child. Baker, whose book was inspired by his daughter Alice, explains its title in the […]

When historians look back at the Bush administration, foreign policy will dominate their attention. During Bush's four years in the White House, U.S. – Soviet relations changed dramatically, the Gulf War tested the post-Cold War NATO coalition, Germany was reunified, and the political map of Eastern Europe re-drawn. In their thorough new book, former President George Bush and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft share primary documents and personal notes detailing how the United States influenced these and other international developments. Although the nuances of U.S. – Soviet relations may not captivate the average reader, Bush and Scowcroft bring energy to the subject by recording not only committee meetings and public statements, but agreements reached over lunch at Camp David or while boating in Kennebunkport. The narrative alternates between Bush's recollections and those of Scowcroft, both of whom lace their commentary with anecdotes. Although A World Transformed is anything but light reading, it is not devoid of humor. Early on, Bush spends two pages on The Scowcroft Award for Somnolent Excellence, exposing the tendency of certain high officials to fall asleep during meetings. Throughout the book, Bush emphasizes the informal relationships he cultivated with world leaders as crucial to his foreign policy. Maintaining close communication with leaders like Gorbachev, Thatcher, Kohl, and Mitterand afforded Bush numerous opportunities to influence their decision-making on world affairs. As Bush illustrates, for example, the Gulf War coalition held together in part because of the strong personal bonds between Western leaders.

On Iraq and the developments leading up to operation Desert Storm, A World Transformed is comprehensive. From the first alert until the final shot, Bush and Scowcroft are meticulous in recording key conversations and strategic decisions along the way. In addition to clarifying how the crisis began, the authors offer insightful analysis. The Gulf War became, in many ways, the bridge between the Cold War and post-Cold War eras . . . Superpower cooperation opened vistas of a world where, unlike the previous four decades, the permanent members of the UN Security Council could move to deal with aggression in the manner intended by its framers. About halfway through the book one wonders how domestic policy was conducted if our leaders were so deeply involved in international affairs. And one cannot help but notice the conspicuous absence of Vice President Quayle from the book's pages. He is mentioned only a few times and rarely seems to have played a significant role in important decision-making. In any case, it is hard not to admire the commitment of Bush and Scowcroft to the task of comprehensive documentation. Their book will give historians a new tool for understanding the turmoil that defined the world during the Bush administration.

Jeremy Caplan is on staff at The Paris Review.

When historians look back at the Bush administration, foreign policy will dominate their attention. During Bush's four years in the White House, U.S. – Soviet relations changed dramatically, the Gulf War tested the post-Cold War NATO coalition, Germany was reunified, and the political map of Eastern Europe re-drawn. In their thorough new book, former President […]

 

When historians look back at the Bush administration, foreign policy will dominate their attention. During Bush's four years in the White House, U.S. – Soviet relations changed dramatically, the Gulf War tested the post-Cold War NATO coalition, Germany was reunified, and the political map of Eastern Europe re-drawn. In their thorough new book, former President George Bush and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft share primary documents and personal notes detailing how the United States influenced these and other international developments. Although the nuances of U.S. – Soviet relations may not captivate the average reader, Bush and Scowcroft bring energy to the subject by recording not only committee meetings and public statements, but agreements reached over lunch at Camp David or while boating in Kennebunkport. The narrative alternates between Bush's recollections and those of Scowcroft, both of whom lace their commentary with anecdotes. Although A World Transformed is anything but light reading, it is not devoid of humor. Early on, Bush spends two pages on The Scowcroft Award for Somnolent Excellence, exposing the tendency of certain high officials to fall asleep during meetings. Throughout the book, Bush emphasizes the informal relationships he cultivated with world leaders as crucial to his foreign policy. Maintaining close communication with leaders like Gorbachev, Thatcher, Kohl, and Mitterand afforded Bush numerous opportunities to influence their decision-making on world affairs. As Bush illustrates, for example, the Gulf War coalition held together in part because of the strong personal bonds between Western leaders.

On Iraq and the developments leading up to operation Desert Storm, A World Transformed is comprehensive. From the first alert until the final shot, Bush and Scowcroft are meticulous in recording key conversations and strategic decisions along the way. In addition to clarifying how the crisis began, the authors offer insightful analysis. The Gulf War became, in many ways, the bridge between the Cold War and post-Cold War eras . . . Superpower cooperation opened vistas of a world where, unlike the previous four decades, the permanent members of the UN Security Council could move to deal with aggression in the manner intended by its framers. About halfway through the book one wonders how domestic policy was conducted if our leaders were so deeply involved in international affairs. And one cannot help but notice the conspicuous absence of Vice President Quayle from the book's pages. He is mentioned only a few times and rarely seems to have played a significant role in important decision-making. In any case, it is hard not to admire the commitment of Bush and Scowcroft to the task of comprehensive documentation. Their book will give historians a new tool for understanding the turmoil that defined the world during the Bush administration.

Jeremy Caplan is on staff at The Paris Review.

 

  When historians look back at the Bush administration, foreign policy will dominate their attention. During Bush's four years in the White House, U.S. – Soviet relations changed dramatically, the Gulf War tested the post-Cold War NATO coalition, Germany was reunified, and the political map of Eastern Europe re-drawn. In their thorough new book, former […]

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Features

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!