Book reviews: 20 July
THE NEW REPUBLIC by Lionel Shriver (HarperCollins, £14.99)
Edgar Kellogg is a fat, unconfident lawyer looking for a career change who decides to try his hand at journalism. He is posted to Barba, a fictional peninsula off the edge of Portugal, with its own terrorist movement. Edgar becomes foreign correspondent, a position made vacant by the sudden disappearance of notorious reporter Barrington Sadler. As Edgar struggles to fill Barrington's shoes (literally and metaphorically) he begins to realise that this legendary journalist might not merit such high acclaim.
Shriver's huge success with the Orange Prize-winning novel We Need To Talk About Kevin and her National Book Award Finalist, So Much For That, means that The New Republic has a lot to live up to. Sadly, it doesn't compare. First written in 1998, its subject matter, terrorism, fell foul of the real-life events of 9/11 and it was never published. Apparently, we're now ready for this kind of 'playful' approach to murder and mayhem but as Shriver has rendered her protagonist less than sympathetic, it's difficult to feel anything towards him or, indeed, the story.
THE JUMP ARTIST by Austin Ratner (Penguin, £12.99)
Philippe Halsman was America's foremost society photographer. From Marilyn Monroe to the Duke of Windsor, via Richard Nixon, he persuaded his subjects to put aside their inhibitions and – literally – jump in front of his camera. This, claimed Halsman, showed their vulnerability. It was a clever device, employed by a man whose own emotions lurked close to the surface. For the photographer's early life was star-studded in a dark and different way.
His story is told by Austin Ratner in The Jump Artist. In 1928, the young Halsman was accused of patricide after his father was fatally injured in the Austrian Alps. Young, arrogant and Jewish, he was convicted on circumstantial evidence and thrown into prison. There, the young Latvian became something of a cause célèbre for Europe's growing anti-Semitism, attracting celebrity defenders such as Freud and Einstein.
The Jump Artist, says Ratner, is an ode to the man, rather than a faithful portrait. The narrative is guided by Halsman's imagined internal monologue. The account of the murder trial is, seemingly, the only section rooted in fact and based on the author's painstaking translation of letters and articles.
It shows. Ratner has crammed in every detail. Fans of crime writing will revel in this. I found it laborious – but stick with it.
Once the witnesses have stepped down, things pick up and we follow Halsman to Paris, where he attempts to erase his past. It's a fruitless task. He is racked with survivor's guilt and scarred by his incarceration.
Photography proves to be his salvation. It allows Halsman to transcend his youth and become the ultimate jump artist.
SHAKESPEARE IN KABUL by Stephen Landrigan and Qais Akbar Omar (Haus, £12.99)
Passionate, moving, sometimes funny, always candid, account of the trials and tribulations of creating the first-ever Shakespeare production in Afghanistan.
The play was Love's Labours Lost (translated into Dari Persian) and Akbar Omar, who writes the main part of the book, identifies something heroic in this collaborative project, which began in 2005 and wouldn't have been achieved without incredible determination and sacrifice – Parwin Mushtahel had a part in the first Kabul production and her brave husband was murdered because of this, while she had to flee into exile to Canada.
Akbar also describes the work of writers, translators, funders (mainly the British Council), the tough-minded and resourceful French director, Corinne Jaber and the steadfast, if often perplexed, Afghan actors (Shah Muhammad Noori, Nabi Tanha, Faisal Azizi, Arif Bahonar, Kabir Rahimi, Sabah Sahar, Marina Gulbahari, Breshna Bahar, Leila Hamgam, Parwin Mushtahel).
The idea to put on Shakespeare in Kabul arose during a lost time of political optimism in Afghanistan in 2005 – and succeeded against all the odds (Akbar is good on the sheer difficulty of being a woman in Afghanistan). It saw women and men together on stage for the first time in Afghan history and brought joy to audiences and performers alike, showing a different view of that much-troubled country to the world and, importantly, to itself.
An extraordinary life
THE ASTAIRES: FRED AND ADELE by Kathleen Riley (OUP, £18.99)
Fred began his performing life with older sister Adele as a child act on the vaudeville circuit. Their big break came in 1923 in Gershwin's Stop Flirting on Shaftesbury Avenue. Critics were charmed, offers flooded in, then suddenly in 1932, it stopped. Adele married Lord Charles Cavendish and retired to Lismore Castle in Ireland and Fred was left to break into Hollywood alone. His studio strong-armed him into a partnership with Ginger Rogers and Fred's subsequent performances were captured on film. But there's no moving image of Fred and Adele together, or Adele alone. So there's a big gap at the heart of this story – no one will ever know exactly what it was that made Adele, or Fred and Adele, so extraordinary.
BOOK OF THE WEEK
Fifty islands I'll never visit
Christopher Hirst reviews a remarkable book about the world's tiniest, most inaccessible islands
POCKET ATLAS OF REMOTE ISLANDS by Judith Schalansky (Penguin, £12.99)
Flipping through an atlas, we all find ourselves momentarily transported by the names of far-flung places we are unlikely ever to visit. In my case, they include the Chilean port of Valparaiso and the Yemeni capital of Sana'a. In the case of Judith Schalansky, a German typographer, her eye was stayed by the tiny islands on a giant globe in the Berlin National Library: 'They were as full of promise as those white patches beyond the lines indicating the horizon of the known world drawn on old maps.'
Schalansky began obsessively researching these isolated fragments of land. The result is one of the most remarkable books ever published. Each of the '50 islands I have not visited and never will' is depicted in a beautifully drawn map. They consist of volcanic cones such as the unpopulated Russian island of Atlasov ('more beautiful than Mount Fuji'), sandy atolls like Takuu in Papua New Guinea, 'a brittle ring of sand only one metre above the high tidemark', and frozen polar outcrops like Bear Island in Spitzbergen, whose population of nine is explained by the presence of a meteorological station.
The inaccessibility of these oceanic specks is ironically underlined by the book's format, exactly like the little street guides we might use in London or Paris. Any desire to make the prodigiously difficult journeys is dissipated by the little essays that Schalansky provides for each island. We learn that the Pacific island of Fangataufa was evacuated in 1968 for a French hydrogen bomb test and remains uninhabited. The British government forcibly deported 500 families from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to make way for an American military base called, of all things, Camp Justice. On Clipperton Atoll, a lighthouse keeper initiated horrors reminiscent of Golding's Lord Of The Flies. On Pitcairn, a tradition of rape was maintained by descendants of the Bounty mutineers. As Schalansky notes, 'Peaceful living is the exception rather than the rule.'
Her vignettes may be poignant but her maps are transporting, gorgeous scribbles on the vast oceans of this planet. Schalansky acknowledges the power of maps. 'Give me an atlas over a guidebook any day,' she concludes. 'There is no more poetic book in the world.'
BLUE NIGHTS by Joan Didion (Fourth Estate, £7.99)
The courageous sequel to her acclaimed book about bereavement, Blue Nights is a book about another tragedy, her daughter's death. But it's also about fear – the fear of abandonment, time passing, losing control, dying – but written with such honesty and self-knowledge that the result is illuminating.
CHARLES DICKENS: A LIFE by Claire Tomalin (Penguin, £9.99)
'A book that gets to the heart of the mystery of Dickens as a writer', wrote AN Wilson of Tomalin's massive, gripping biography. But Tomalin is also brilliant on Dickens's childhood, marriage and love affairs, and provides amongst other things an intriguing glimpse of everyday life in Victorian London.
YOU ARE NOT ALONE: MICHAEL, THROUGH A BROTHER'S EYES by Jermaine Jackson (Harper, £8.99)
Exhaustive – at just under 500 pages – account of Michael Jackson by his older brother. Lots of music-industry gossip, insights into Michael's fear of assassination, his painkiller addiction, his plastic surgery and so on. A compelling story of what the worst excesses of fame can do to you.
IN DEFENCE OF DOGS by John Bradshaw (Penguin, £8.99)
Scholarly call for a new understanding of man's best friend, emphasising the emotional lives of dogs. Your dog is a specialist in love, fear and joy. Does he love you? Yes, he does, says Bradshaw in this intriguing book. 'Probably even more than you thought.'
THE WOMAN READER by Belinda Jack (Yale, £20)
Women's reading habits through the ages, taking in 13th-century girls (not allowed to read in case they received amorous missives) and Victorian ladies, who could be prevented from having an attack of the vapours with a book upon 'some practical subject such as bee-keeping'. Wonderful.
New Ways to read Jane Austen
Clare Russell discovers what really matters in the novels
What Matters In Jane Austen?: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved by John Mullan (Bloomsbury, £14.99)
If you love Jane Austen, you'll love this book too – it's almost as good as finding an unpublished novel or discovering that she had finished Sanditon after all...
John Mullan, a Professor in the English department at UCL, has used his unparalleled knowledge of the Austen canon to delve into some of the mysteries and idiosyncracies of the texts. It's not dry lit crit as we know it, however; Mullan wants to find the answer to questions such as who is the only married woman in the novels to call her husband by his Christian name? What are the right and the wrong ways to propose marriage? How old is Mr Collins? And what do Austen's characters read?
This last is particularly interesting – many twists and turns of a plot depend on people reading; many suitors are accepted or dismissed on the strength of their reading habits.
Willoughby, for instance, reads his way into the Dashwoods' hearts. Catherine, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, devours Gothic novels, but confuses their contents with reality; the opening sentence of Persuasion reveals thatSir Walter Elliot 'never took up any book but the Baronetage'. 'We catch not just his aristocratic self-regard,' notes Mullan, 'but also his stupidity'.
In his Introduction, Mullan writes that he has tried 'to catch Jane Austen in the act of greatness, by scrutinising the patterns and puzzles that she builds into her novels.' His book is fascinating; the patterns and puzzles he tries to unravel illuminate as well as intrigue – they take you back to the original books and show you new ways to read and understand them.
Related tags:The New Republic  The Jump Artist  Shakespeare in Kabul  The Ataires: Fred and Adele  Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands  Blue Nights  Charles Dickens: A Life  You Are Not Alone: Michale  Through a Brother's Eyes  In Defence of Dogs  The Woman Reader  Jane Austin  What Matters in Jane Austin: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved  Books  Book Reviews  The Lady
Daily tip from the lady archive
“A GRACEFUL walk is a great asset, for sometimes it can create an illusion of beauty where little exists.”The Lady. Pleasant Exercises for Grace. 2nd April 1931