Monday, August 12, 2013

Good reading: some entertaining books reviewed on other sites

Any ranking of "good" writing and writers seems arbitrary and a simple matter of individual choice, even at the New York Times, although beyond the sales chart it's doubtful James Patterson, Patricia Cornwell, or John Grisham would make a best-read list. It's good to remember that satisfying reading goes beyond best-of lists or sales figures or popular consensus.

And then today comes word that the estate of the eternally-read Barbara Cartland (the romance author died in 2000) will be releasing one hundred sixty new titles by the prolific writer. This will bring Ms. Cartland's complete works to a staggering 883 books, a figure which might even give Stephen King pause.

So it might be good to take a look at a few other titles, reviewed elsewhere, that proved good reading, even if they might never perch at the top of any best-seller lists.

Above: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell (Random House): David Mitchell reinvents himself with each book, and it's thrilling to watch. ... In The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, he harnesses that plenitude into a more traditional form, a historical novel set in Japan at the turn into the 19th century, when the island nation was almost entirely cut off from the West except for a tiny, quarantined Dutch outpost. Jacob is a pious but not unappealing prig from Zeeland, whose self-driven duty to blurt the truth in a corrupt and deceitful trading culture, along with his headlong love for a local midwife, provides the early engine for the story, which is confined at first to the Dutch enclave but crosses before long to the mainland. Every page is overfull with language, events, and characters, exuberantly saturated in the details of the time and the place but told from a knowing and undeniably modern perspective. (Amazon, Tom Nissley)

The Imperfectionists Tom Rachman (Dial Press paperback): Set against the backdrop of a fictional English-language newspaper based in Rome, it begins as a celebration of the beloved and endangered role of newspapers and the original 24/7 news cycle. ... In The Imperfectionists chaos of the newsroom becomes a stage for characters unified by a common thread of circumstance, with each chapter presenting an affecting look into the life of a different player. From the comically overmatched greenhorn to the forsaken foreign correspondent, we suffer through the painful heartbreaks of unexpected tragedy and struggle to stifle our laughter in the face of well-intentioned blunders. This cacophony of emotion blends into a single voice, as the depiction of a paper deemed a "daily report on the idiocy and the brilliance of the species" becomes more about the disillusion in everyday life than the dissolution of an industry. (Amazon, Dave Callanan)

The Surrendered Chang-Rae Lee (Riverhead): June Han is a starving 11-year-old refugee fleeing military combat during the Korean War when she is separated from her seven-year-old twin siblings. Eventually brought to an orphanage near Seoul by American soldier Hector Brennan, who is still reeling from his father's death, June slowly recovers from her nightmarish experiences thanks to the loving attention of Sylvie Tanner, the wife of the orphanage's minister. But Sylvie is irretrievably scarred as well, having witnessed her parents' murder by Japanese soldiers in 1934 Manchuria. These traumas reverberate throughout the characters' lives, determining the destructive relationship that arises between June, Hector and Sylvie as the plot rushes forward and back in time, encompassing graphic scenes of suffering, carnage and emotional wreckage. Powerful, deeply felt, compulsively readable and imbued with moral gravity, The Surrendered does not peter out into easy redemption. It's a harrowing tale: bleak, haunting, often heartbreaking. (Amazon, Reed)

The Age of Wonder, Richard Holmes (Pantheon): Holmes, author of a much-admired biography of Coleridge, focuses on prominent British scientists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, including the astronomer William Herschel and his accomplished assistant and sister, Caroline; Humphrey Davy, a leading chemist and amateur poet; and Joseph Banks, whose journal of a youthful voyage to Tahiti was a study in sexual libertinism. Holmes's biographical approach makes his obsessive protagonists (Davy's self-experimenting with laughing gas is an epic in itself) the prototypes of the Romantic genius absorbed in a Promethean quest for knowledge. Their discoveries, he argues, helped establish a new paradigm of Romantic science that saw the universe as vast, dynamic and full of marvels and celebrated mankind's power to not just describe but transform Nature. The Age of Wonder is sketchy on the actual science and heavy on the cultural impact, with wide-ranging discussions of the 1780s ballooning craze, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and scientific metaphors in Romantic poetry. (Amazon, Reed)

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