The Uncommon Reader
by Alan Bennett (FSG)
This witty novella, in which Queen Elizabeth takes up reading in a big way (much to the consternation of her attendants) and discovers what all the fuss is about, is another bonbon from Bennett, the best-selling British novelist and Tony Award–winning playwright (The History Boys). He dispenses his observations on the purpose of reading—aside from pleasure, he contends, there isn’t much reason for it, although it does develop empathy—with the light hand of a true authority. Delectable, yes, but also nutritionally sound.
by Graham Swift (Knopf)
Along with Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and A. N. Wilson, Swift was born around the midpoint of the last century and, like them, writes movingly about middle-aged parenthood. In this, his latest novel, the soft but urgent voice of a mother lying beside her sleeping husband rehearses the life-altering revelation they must make to their twins the next day. The tale she recounts isn’t perhaps as surprising or as shattering as it might be, given the buildup, but Swift’s capable narrative control and many sensitive touches make the book a satisfying read.
by Sebastian Faulks (Doubleday)
One of the most consistently interesting and versatile of today’s British novelists, Faulks is particularly adept at period atmosphere. Whether it’s the First World War in Birdsong or the Second in Charlotte Gray, the author gets the details and—more important—the zeitgeist right. Here he tackles the 1970s in all their squalor, complete with varieties of drugs and sexual experience. Faulks shows restraint and skill in telling the story of his eponymous hero, a scholarship student at an English boarding school and at Cambridge who later winds up at an altogether different type of institution. Getting into the mind of a psychopath and rendering it on paper aren’t easy, but Faulks has performed this twin feat admirably.
Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century
by Cheryl Lynn Greenberg (Princeton)
The vexed topic of black-Jewish relations in 20th-century America requires a brave writer, and Greenberg confronts the issue with honesty and dedication. While she provides ample evidence that the golden age of cooperation between the two groups wasn’t as harmonious as generally believed, she also provides numerous examples of cohesion during the more fraught times. Greenberg is not only adept at uncovering little-known controversies and victories; her brief exposition of the famous New York City teachers’ strike in the late 1960s, an incident widely credited with bringing to a boil simmering black-Jewish tensions, is a masterpiece of compression and insight.
Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles 1910–1939
by Katie Roiphe (Dial Press)
At first glance, this might seem like a chance to trip lightly through territory too well trod to justify yet another retrospective. Does anything about, say, that romantic entanglement at Charleston between Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and David Garnett merit more explication? But Roiphe is original and offbeat. She adroitly exposes the human cost of these brave new experiments, both to the participants and to the innocent victims caught up in their dramas.
Motherland: A Philosophical History of Russia
by Lesley Chamberlain (Overlook/Rookery)
A lifelong student of all things Russian, the British-born Chamberlain reported for Reuters in Moscow; but even after Soviet Russia appeared to have eclipsed Mother Russia, the author continued her search for the country’s national essence. Her earlier books, whether on Russian food or weightier aspects of culture, revealed an uncommonly attractive writer—and she remains so even when taking on the daunting task of summing up a nation’s philosophy. Individualism, she argues, which was burgeoning in the early 20th century before being swept aside in 1917 by the Communist Revolution, is key to a unique Russian philosophical tradition. Chamberlain follows her avatar, the philosopher-sage Isaiah Berlin, who serves as Homer to her Virgil in this heroic task.
The Blair Years: The Alastair Campbell Diaries
by Alastair Campbell (Knopf)
“No man is a hero to his valet” may need updating to “No politician is a statesman to his spin doctor.” True, Campbell’s up-close-and-personal look at Tony Blair includes a comment on the former PM’s underwear, but these are fascinating diaries. Keen observers of Bill Clinton will not wonder that in unburdening himself about Monica Lewinsky, the then-president focused on his own feelings and sense of victimhood. George W. Bush emerges as a far more thoughtful figure than his critics would have him, and given the amount of time the author has spent talking to Bush and observing his interactions with others, Campbell’s is an assessment readers should heed. The author claims to have been careful about including details that would undermine current Prime Minister Gordon Brown; but given what remains, it’s hard to imagine what’s been cut. Still, Brown does shine here as unquestionably the most authoritative and consequential finance czar in modern British history. The author serves up all manner of insider-ish revelations and acute portraits, of everyone from Boris Yeltsin and Nelson Mandela to Queen Elizabeth II and the Princess of Wales. Unique access and sharp observation make this easily one of the most important political memoirs of recent years.
To the Last Salute: Memories of an Austrian U-Boat Commander
by Georg von Trapp (Nebraska)
Long before Georg von Trapp married the former postulant Maria and they became world-famous (through Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical play and then movie of their life), he had a distinguished military career as an Austro- Hungarian submarine commander in World War I (how many remember that the Dual Monarchy was a major naval power?), which he chronicles in his lively, amusing, at-times-gripping memoir of naval warfare in the Mediterranean, and U-boat life. This book, first published in Austria in 1935, has finally found an English translator: von Trapp’s granddaughter. One of its fascinating aspects is the glimpse it offers into the multiethnic makeup of this imperial navy, and the admirable attitudes and behavior of a patriotic officer on the losing side of a great conflict.
Shakespeare was, in Ben Jonson’s view, “not of an age, but for all time.” Wells, for many years the director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, has built a distinguished career on the durability and transcendence of Shakespeare’s poems and plays, but in this book he asks us to consider Shakespeare in terms of the age in which the bard lived. He sets about with elegance and ease to chronicle Shakespeare’s relationships with his fellow workers, that remarkable collection of actors and playwrights without whom there would not have been a golden age of English drama—or, Wells vigorously argues, Shakespeare as we know him.
Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector
by Mick Brown (Knopf)
That a fresh biography of Spector—the unhinged music producer par excellence whose fame and misfortune are legendary (and cautionary)—was overdue is unquestionable. That a sordid Hollywood murder trial seemed to occasion it is unfortunate. (A British journalist, Brown conducted a revelatory December 2002 interview in the lavish manse of the “First Tycoon of Teen” a mere five weeks before the B-movie queen Lana Clarkson turned up dead there—an interview that provided the initial impetus for this volume.) In any event, the author does an admirable job of tracing his subject’s sometimes- reclusive, sometimes-aggressive, always-eccentric life, from youthful tragedy to trailblazing success to flamboyant decline. Though his book stints a bit on its titular promise (a more thorough analysis of Spector’s “Wagnerian approach to rock and roll” would have been welcome), and though it may ultimately serve as mere backstory (the denouement of the current drama seems a ways off), it nevertheless provides an absorbing portrait that is by turns harrowing, farcical, and edifying.
Peeling the Onion
by Günter Grass (Harcourt)
This book comes trailing clouds of controversy because of its revelation that Grass—the conscience (or scold) of his generation about its Nazi past—was himself a member of the Waffen SS at the end of World War II. Readers will have to judge for themselves whether his mea culpa is convincing or merely the ploy of a powerful literary manipulator. But Grass is devastatingly severe in his treatment of his youthful self. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of this book is its portrait of the young soldier-artist as dedicated Nazi: Grass and other Germans really did believe that a hostile world was threatening them even as their nation was waging aggressive war. And when his Allied captors showed the young POW irrefutable evidence of the death camps, he refused to believe. The dialectic between his current and former selves gives this book its special resonance.