Too Much Happiness
Alice Munro knows women. Yes, she’s a genius with words no matter what the subject, evoking lives rich with secret horrors, but it’s her skill at articulating the nuances of the female experience that makes one gasp with the shock of recognition. This collection, set mostly in classic Munro territory—out-of-the-way places around Ontario—boasts as many of these illuminating moments as her other books. Here, stripped of sentimentality as always, are a woman’s habit of becoming quickly intimate with a new friend, her vulnerability to controlling men, her suspicion of women whose style is different from her own. The reader’s only dissatisfaction arises from the title piece, a novella about the Russian-born Sophia Kovalevsky (a real person), who was both a celebrated mathematician and a novelist. Munro covers so rapidly such a vast spread of material here—from late-19th-century radicalism, to relations between men and women and between sisters and between students and mentors, to mathematical theory, to the temperaments of the citizens of various European countries, to the status of women—that in the end, one feels as delirious as the tale’s subject, who is literally short of oxygen. A novella can be a powerful literary form, but it too often serves as a designation for a bloated short story or an underdeveloped novel. It’s the latter in this case. No matter: Munro is the best living fiction writer in our language. When will she be awarded the Nobel?
The Arabs: A History
Describing the Arab world as perpetually reacting to the superpower du jour, Rogan, an Oxford scholar, provides a prism through which the lay Westerner can view five centuries of tumult, zealotry, and complication. During this period, Rogan writes, Arabs have had to contend with four geopolitical eras: the Ottoman Empire, European colonialism, the Cold War, and the current U.S. hegemony. But they have not been “passive subjects in a unilinear history of decline.” Rather, these diverse people—making up a “national community stretching from Morocco through Arabia” and distinguishing themselves via wondrous linguistic, religious, and aesthetic achievements—“have worked with the rules when it suited them, subverted the rules when they got in the way, and suffered the consequences when they crossed the dominant powers of the day.” Deeply erudite and distinctly humane, Rogan consistently plays up (and never papers over) the bountiful East-West parallels: “Nationalism, imperialism, revolution, industrialization, rural urban migration, the struggle for women’s rights—all the great themes of human history in the modern age have played out in the Arab world.”