Defoe turned to writing because he was an inept businessman who lost not only his own money but his wife's substantial dowry. He became "the first master, if not the inventor, of almost every feature of modern newspapers, including the leading article, investigative reporting, the foreign news analysis, the agony aunt, the gossip column, the candid obituary." He began with a gift for amusing satirical verse, and his political opinions (he was a determined Dissenter and an ardent supporter of William of Orange, the Whig Party, and the Hanoverian succession) kept him busily publishing throughout his controversy-ridden time. He was jailed, put in the pillory, always in debt, and often in hiding from creditors. He was a government secret agent in Scotland. He was never a part of the official literary establishment, so Mr. West cannot provide any accounts of him by contemporary observers. He tries instead to reconstruct Defoe through his writings, which leads to rather too much description of the novels but works well with the miscellaneous publications and becomes delightful when the biographer gets to Defoe's late account of travels around Britain. He was a sympathetic observer, a self-deprecating humorist, a bit of a fabricator, and an astonishingly shrewd prophet. Defoe's life has steadily absorbing interest, based on the question What will the man do next?
Mr. Andrus ran for the Idaho state senate in part because John F. Kennedy, campaigning for the presidency, promised a better and more vigorous country. He also wanted improvements to the local school system. He spent $11 on his campaign and became the youngest senator in Idaho history. He has since served as Jimmy Carter's Secretary of the Interior and as governor of his state for four terms. He considers himself a moderate conservationist, ambitious to preserve the natural environment he loves while finding the means to support a human population decently. He has been denounced for this stand by extremists on both sides. A politician who is denounced by extremists left and right must be both honest and intelligent. Mr. Andrus professes to be retired from politics, and presumably means it, for this conversational, witty, acid memoir will earn him more denunciations -- but then, he is rather proud of them.
The first-person narrator of this exceptionally constructed novel is Keizo Yukawa, who represents contemporary, semi-Westernized Japan. He wears designer suits and lives with an abstract-performance artist who appears in Tokyo clubs as a pink-glazed doughnut. When he is offered the post of head curator at an unfinished provincial museum, he flees his stuffy job in Tokyo and lands in the shadow of Mount Fuji. The museum is to contain 365 views of the mountain painted by an artist, unsuccessful in his own day, named Takenoko -- last of the "pictures of the floating world" school. These paintings mostly belong to the Ono family, and it is the oldest brother, the wealthy owner of a robotics factory, who wants the museum. All the Onos are a bit mad, and they ultimately drive Yukawa mad as well -- at least by ordinary standards. The layout of the book is designed to agitate, if not actually madden, the reader. Yukawa's story is paralleled, in marginal notes, by those of the other characters, forcing eye and attention into a constant, dizzying zigzag. The whole complicated tale is a metaphor for the author's view of modern Japanese society as an assemblage of incompatible elements and traditions that create psychological civil war in its citizens. If the novel's purpose is grim, its action is lively and the symbolism is provocative.
Ms. Ernaux's memoir begins, "My father tried to kill my mother one Sunday in June," and from that juvenile jolt develops into a cool, factual, ironic study of life in a small town in Normandy in the 1950s. The style is precise, detached, and stripped of all conventional ornament, but the realities of class and money and prejudice in that time and place cut like a razor.
Admirers of Hildegard's music will find little about it in this respectful life of the influential abbess who advised princes and plebeians, preached to great effect, and corresponded with Popes, giving one of them what amounted to a dressing down for negligence. The text offers little about music, but provides considerable information on the politics of the turbulent twelfth century, and on Hildegard's visions. She wrote, or dictated, descriptions of what she saw along with explanations of what it meant. These texts are covered at some length, and they are interesting for what appears to have been an almost surrealistic gap between the visionary's highly fantastic, sharply described images and the lucid, humane religious principles she derived from them. There is no trace of modern skepticism in the author's treatment of Hildegard.
It may take some patience to reach the merit of Ms. Hirsch's book. She moved to a Boston area called Jamaica Plain, and displays the classic Cantabrigian surprise at discovering the intelligence and efficiency and sensibility of people who never went to Harvard. When she gets to the history and character of Jamaica Plain, she has a good story to report and covers it well. The area was once the equivalent of a prosperous small town, but with the departure of local industries it declined into crime, drug dealing, arson, and empty buildings. Stubborn old residents and energetic newcomers have reversed the decline, some with independent action, some by forming associations and committees, some by learning to influence city hall; and that story is an encouraging example of what cooperation and ingenuity can do to arrest urban decay.