New Books October 2009

Cover to Cover

A guide to additional releases
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The Children’s Book
A. S. Byatt
Knopf

As in her Booker Prize–winning novel, Possession, here Byatt has constructed a complete and complex world, a gorgeous bolt of fiction, in this case pinned to British events and characters from the 1870s to the end of the Great War. The central character, a writer of children’s books (who bears a few similarities to the author E. Nesbit), lives with her prodigious family—husband, sister, and seven children—on a romantically meadowed and wooded piece of Kentish property. Of course, real life is more complicated and less child-friendly than the fairy tale she struggles to maintain, and, as in a fairy tale, the characters’ true identities can be a surprise. A tangle of secondary families ranging over rich historical territory—the rise of Fabianism and feminism, the Arts and Crafts protest against industrialism, the new recognition of children as something other than short adults—provides plenty of meaty story. But the magic is in the way Byatt suffuses her novel with details, from the shimmery sets of a marionette show to clay mixtures and pottery glazes.

Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing
Charles Bowden
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

This volume of gonzo musings completes the “accidental trilogy” begun in Blood Orchid and continued in Blues for Cannibals, offering more scorched-earth prophesying by the hard-bitten Bowden, a journalistic iconoclast in the tradition of Hunter S. Thompson, Edward Abbey, and James Agee. Surveying the lethal recent past (Hurricane Katrina, Bali bombings, ecological collapse) with a noirish eye to the future, he wonders, “How can a person live a moral life in a culture of death?” His engaged (though not always engaging) search for an answer amounts to an associative elegy—equal parts reflection, reportage, declamatory fervor, and lopsided natural history—that is as urgently poetic as it is maddeningly discursive.

Blame
Michelle Huneven
FSG

Huneven’s nervy third novel turns a potentially prosaic plot—vivacious, besotted intellectual blacks out, dries out, does time, changes ways, rebuilds life—on its head via zippy dialogue, smart pacing, and, most vitally, a third-act plot twist that magically avoids contrivance. Huneven has a knack for limning the limits of guilt, and as her protagonist takes stock and charge of a too-lived-in life, the outlands of moral ambiguity begin to appear as sunken gardens of familiarity, blooming with humaneness. When the reader looks up at book’s end, it is with eyes brimming with clarity.

Children of the Revolution: The French, 1799–1914
Robert Gildea
Harvard

Like its great founding philosopher René Descartes, France has always exemplified dualism. So it is not surprising that its great revolution spawned the mother of all counterrevolutions. Looking at the long century between the Directory and the beginning of the First World War, Gildea, an Oxford historian, sees a continuing cycle of revolutionary fervor and reaction, although the republican values of secularism and populism endured. With penetration and style, he paints a complex portrait of a society geographically and temperamentally divided, constantly at war with itself, yet managing to forge a cohesive national identity at home and abroad.

The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution
Richard Dawkins
Free Press

The (r)evolutionary Oxford biologist returns with a sequel to his best-selling atheist polemic, The God Delusion. This time, on the occasion of two Darwinian anniversaries (200 years since the naturalist was born, 150 since On the Origin of Species was published), the disputatious Dawkins, aka “Darwin’s Rottweiler,” directly assails creationism, lavishing some of his most impassioned opprobrium on the Intelligent Design movement. Though he looses a shock-and-awe flurry of evidentiary darts (natural selection, fossil records, molecular biology, and much more), he also mutes some of the shriller tendencies that have unhinged—or at least made hectoring and unlovely—his previous works. The result is a sweeping, wryly joyous case for rationality, empiricism, and no God on this green Earth.

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