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Interview: "Jane Smiley on Marriage, Politics, and Huffington Post"
Eleanor Barkhorn speaks with the Pulitzer Prize–winning author about her new novel and the many questions it raises.

Private Life
Jane Smiley

This heartbreaking, bitter, and gorgeous story of a woman’s life stunted by marriage is Smiley’s best novel yet. Coming of age on her grandfather’s prosperous Missouri farm at a time when Union and Confederate veterans still march in the Fourth of July parade, bookish, reserved Margaret does not secure a husband until well into her 20s, when she marries an eccentric genius astronomer 10 years her senior and moves with him to a naval base outside San Francisco. Andrew turns out to be Casaubon-like in his egotism and grandiosity—his subject is, after all, the universe—as well as in his professional frustration, but Margaret is no Dorothea. Although her mother assures her that “a wife only has to do as she’s told for the first year,” Andrew exerts a force on her as pervasive as gravity, and she cannot escape his orbit. Nothing is confined about this ambitious novel itself, however. Smiley makes dazzling and meticulous use of her historical scope; the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, the San Francisco earthquake, the World Wars, the influenza epidemic, the Japanese internment, the harnessing of electricity, the evolution of the automobile and the movies, Hearst and Einstein—all are gracefully incorporated into her plot and themes. Even more admirable is her thoroughly convincing rendition of intimate details from the perspective of another era—the feeling of riding a bicycle when it was a new sensation, the subtle yet powerful machinations of a mother and future mother-in-law in arranging a marriage, the commonplace expectation of children’s deaths.

Ask Alice
D. J. Taylor

A clever, stylish entertainment with dark undercurrents, set in the first third of the 20th century, Ask Alice traces the rise of an orphaned Kansas girl from pretty young thing on the prairie to bright young thing in 1920s London to society hostess in the ’30s. Taylor—a British novelist, social chronicler, and biographer of Thackeray and Orwell—alternates point of view between the woman and a boy of uncertain parentage. The book has all the makings of Victorian high drama—a slew of colorful characters, vivid and varied scenes, precipitous changes in fortune, and inescapable revelations of long-buried secrets.

Lyndon B. Johnson
Charles Peters

LBJ has been well served by his exhaustive biographers. He is the subject of two excellent, fair-minded works—a single-volume doorstop, by Randall B. Woods, and a double-volume life, by Robert Dallek—and of the best biography of a 20th-century president: Robert Caro’s multivolume, seemingly never-ending work in progress, The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Now Peters has provided a trim, astute portrait, part of a series of brief presidential biographies conceived by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. A legendary Washington journalist, Peters shrewdly assesses Johnson’s legislative tactics and political manipulations, his idealism and staggering energies, his crudeness and cruelties. As the passions surrounding Vietnam recede, Johnson is increasingly celebrated for his considerable domestic achievements, particularly in civil rights. His role in presiding over America’s decades-long commitment to averting South Vietnam’s fall to Communism is assuming its proper place in assessments of his political career, and this book reflects that trend. As Peters perceptively notes:

During all but the final year of his presidency, his Vietnam policy enjoyed the support of a majority of Democrats and Republicans in Congress … the country as a whole was complicit in the decisions … as were not just the majority but all but one (George Ball) of the national security advisers Johnson had inherited from John Kennedy.

What Becomes: Stories
A. L. Kennedy

In this story collection, her 10th book of fiction, Kennedy, an enormously accomplished Scottish writer, returns to difficult, broken characters and her bleakly humorous métier. Her last book, the Costas Award–winning novel Day, was probably her most accessible—and her least typical. Here Kennedy is familiarly off-kilter (“Story of My Life” revolves around the protagonist’s deadpan, excruciating recounting of her successive dental traumas); unwelcoming (“Sympathy,” a tour de force that could easily be a disaster, recounts entirely in dialogue an episode of anonymous sex in a hotel room); and desolate (most of these stories involve marriages unhappy or unraveling; violence animates several and lurks in most). A preternaturally refined stylist, Kennedy leaves the reader shaken but not depressed: these are stories of endurance, not despair. And humor, albeit of a particularly hard-won variety, suggests Kennedy (a sometime stand-up comic), is vital to fortitude, even if that humor is sidelong and, though humane, unrelentingly cheerless.

Deciphering the Cosmic Number: The Strange Friendship of Wolfgang Pauli and Carl Jung
Arthur I. Miller

Let’s get this over with fast. The cosmic number of the title is 137 (well, actually 1/137), and it is not deciphered in this book. As the American physicist Richard Feynman says in the last chapter:

All good theoretical physicists put this number up on their wall and worry about it … It’s one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics, a magic number that comes to us with no understanding by man.

Even so, Wolfgang Pauli—one of the dazzling young European physicists who led a revolution in theoretical physics in the 1920s—and Carl Jung, the legendary psychoanalyst who espoused the concept of the “collective unconscious,” gave it a good try. Their 25-year correspondence reveals a quest to “link the apparently cold rational world of science with the supposedly irrational world of intuition and the psyche.” This book, as best it can, follows their explorations into alchemy, the I Ching, and the Kabbalah. The text is littered with equations and illustrations, including mandalas. Pauli, born in 1900, is the central character in the book, as he should be. A child prodigy, he was a major force in the world of physics by his 20s, spending his days at the university as Herr Professor and his nights in brothels and bars, womanizing and brawling. Little wonder he came to Jung to have his troubling dreams interpreted; eventually the two joined forces to seek the magic number that would explain everything in the universe. Other physicists shared Pauli’s fascination; he famously wrote that his colleague J. Robert Oppenheimer treated “physics as an avocation and psychoanalysis as a vocation.” But none of the others left behind 25 years’ worth of correspondence with Carl Jung.

Minding the Store: Great Writing About Business, From Tolstoy to Now
Edited by Robert Coles and Albert LaFarge
New Press

By gathering together this sampler of fiction and nonfiction by famous authors living and dead, Coles and LaFarge demonstrate that commerce—its pursuit, its demands and rewards, the social framework it creates—is one of the pivots around which much of life turns. Here are Flannery O’Connor’s Bible salesman and Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, James Agee’s sharecroppers, Gwendolyn Parker’s “Buppie,” and John O’Hara’s vivid saga of small-business competition. The editors provide some loose organization and offer a bit of context for each selection, but for the most part they wisely let these stories speak for themselves.