MarkBernstein.org

by Svetlana Alexievich

A fascinating oral history of Soviet women at war. When war came, an astonishing number of women ran to the defense of a country that no longer exists and of a dream that now seems forgotten. Studs Terkel at the front, this masterfully-crafted volume deserves the Nobel it won for its author.

The third edition is now available. Thoroughly revised for Tinderbox 7.3, with lots of entirely new material including a series of design notes exploring key issues in the design and evolution of Tinderbox.

The Tinderbox Way

by Kristen Cashore

Jane is invited by her former tutor, in town for a college reunion, to visit the family house for a holiday gala. Depressed by the recent death of the aunt who raised her, Jane takes her up on the offer and they arrive at the old family mansion, somewhere off the coast of Maine, where everything is always in an uproar. Jane doesn’t know where to look or what to believe.

Like Cashore’s Bitterblue, this book is filled with strangeness and a coyly theoretical sophistication. Cashore’s characters, whatever their stated ages, seem very young: they are impulsive enthusiasts who have no patience and who seldom know themselves. Jane is an accomplished and original artist, yet somehow has never had occasion to give much thought to her own sexuality or to anyone else’s feelings. This lends many scenes a mythic quality, a sense of meeting archetypes, that frequently works very nicely; elsewhere, as when we sit down for a nice chat at dinner, it feels like nobody knows how to behave.

The first encounter with the old family mansion is handled very well. (It’s described as being off the coast of Maine, but this place is more San Simeon or I Tatti than the old summer cottages of the richly rusticating gilded age.) You’ll like the dog, too.

The book had a long genesis, was originally written in second person, and is filled with complex story play. If Bitterblue sometimes seemed a refraction of Beckett through modern medievalesque fantasy, Jane Unlimited feels like David Mitchell or Jennifer Egan performed in the key of Neil Gaiman.

by Thomas E Ricks

Ricks wrote a fascinating account of the construction of this book for The Atlantic. His editor, Scott Moyers, warned Ricks at the outset against writing “an extended book review that leaned on the weak reed of themes rather than stood on a strong foundation of narrative.” That’s exactly the draft he originally sent in. This book is the revision.

In principle, narrative is strong. In practice, there’s not much real narrative here. It often seems that all the 20th-century English writers and journalists knew each other intimately. Take any two writers: if they hadn’t been at school together, the odds are good that one gave the other the pram now sitting in her foyer. Yet Churchill and Orwell never seem to have met; Churchill read some of Orwell’s books, but Churchill read everyone. Orwell admired some of Churchill’s war speeches: who did not? Both Orwell and Churchill entered old age as failures and then achieved the success for which they had been preparing for decades. That’s interesting, but it’s not a narrative.

I loved Ricks’ Fiasco, his superb book on the Iraq disaster. On more familiar ground, Ricks’ touch is less sure. His interpretation of Churchill rests heavily on Manchester’s superb biography, and explaining the history of the second world war tends to crowd out any but the most straightforward thinking about the wartime speeches. Yet if Churchill and Orwell are to be compared, it is these war speeches that matter; Churchill may not have been a great strategist or an ideal negotiator, but Orwell had nothing to do with strategy or negotiation at all. Some interesting points are made about the literary qualities of the war memoirs, but this is not enough — and our interest in those memoirs rests, in the end, on the success of those speeches as well as the success of the war.

by Robin Sloan

Second reading of this charming romp about an unemployed, RISD-trained graphic designer who lands a night-shift job at an all-night North Beach bookstore that is, of course, more than what it seems. So, too, is the craft of this novel, for beneath the genre pastiche lies some lovely lyricism, surprising insight into the magic of technology, and a flair for drawing character or, more precisely, for depicting the narrator’s emotional response on encountering that character.

The perfect antidote to a bad case of the slums.

Oct 17 1 2017

Loner

by Teddy

A psychopath goes to Harvard, and finds himself perfectly at home: this is a strange and unsettling reply to Love Story, Goodbye Columbus, and Portnoy’s Complaint. The Loner follows David Federman, a colorless grind, to Harvard. A good deal of the local detail is good, but Federmans, lacking much color or vast money, seldom get to Harvard these days. David’s physics-loving roommate belongs at MIT, and his intellectual girlfriend probably got into Brown but might well have gone to Smith or Williams. Then again, Federman’s beloved, his own private Daisy Buchanan, really does belong at Harvard. So do her friends. They probably deserve each other.