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Critics Book Circle
1. David L. Robbins's
War of the Rats review
Mark Bowden interview (2001)
3. Charles Baxter interview
4.Mark Bowden's Black Hawk
5. Iain Pears interview
Mark Bowden interview (2000)
8. David L. Robbins interview
9. George Saunders interview
Murakami's Underground and Sputnik Sweetheart review
An Interview with
An Interview with
Notable American Women
Paperboy: Confessions of a Future Engineer
Charlie Onion &
Wars Part I | Part II
Part III | Part IV | Part
VI | Part VII |
IX | Part X
Minister's Black Veil"
here for our Classic Prose Index.)
here for our Classic Poesy Index.)
to WAG's monthly
Alfred A. Knopf
call the family at the center of Robert Boswell's brilliant new
novel, Century's Son, dysfunctional would be an understatement.
As kind and attentive as Boswell is in presenting them, most
of us wouldn't want to wake up in their shoes. Their diverse
difficulties are also, without a doubt, at least partly the reason
this psychologically complicated, traditionally structured novel
works so well.
As the novel opens, Zhenya, a successful political science
professor in a college town in the Midwest, is grudgingly converting
her study into a guest bedroom so that her father--Peter Ivanovich
Kamenev--can move in with her, her husband and their seventeen-year-old
daughter and granddaughter. Peter--a fading celebrity who once
had a chance to assassinate Stalin--claims to be a hundred years
old and to have once been scolded by Tolstoy in a train station,
but Zhenya has determined that he's closer to eighty or eighty-five,
meaning he was born after Tolstoy died. She has also discovered
that he didn't attend many of the meetings he claimed to have
in the Soviet Union, and her professional jealousy at her father's
success goads her to reveal him for the fraud she thinks he is.
A number of issues holds her back, though. Her marriage to
Morgan, a former union leader who drives a garbage truck, has
been troubled ever since their eleven-year-old son committed
suicide, and she has reached the point in their marriage's quiet
freefall where she is contemplating divorce. But Morgan's mute
passivity renders him so fragile that leaving him--and her father,
daughter and granddaughter--seems to be too self-centered and
unfeeling. "A lot of the worst things that happen,"
Morgan tells a co-worker, "you don't have any choice over"--and
Zhenya hesitates to add to his feeling of helplessness, even
as their worlds slip further and further apart.
Century's Son is a novel about secrets--and the self-preserving
(if suffocating) lies people tell to keep secrets. Some
secrets are plot-turning and epic in scale; others are merely
secrets about our true emotions. But they all serve to distance
us from others, exiling us into a sort of diminished life as
windowless monads, to borrow Leibnitz's phrase. "Most of
the secrets we keep aren't even ours," Zhenya's mother tells
her, but it doesn't make us hold onto them with any less fervor.
Century's Son is also a meditation on the past and
the enduring if slippery impact it has on our lives. As Peter
muses, "For what is the world, after all, for anyone, but
the accumulation of images that change as we record them and
change again as we recall them and change again as we speak them,
the words disappearing at the same moment we give them life?"
At heart, Boswell's characters--each in their own way--need to
make decisions that aren't influenced (or even predetermined)
by their preoccupations with the past. Morgan is the character
most obviously undone by the past. He has been trapped--deep-frozen--inside
a changeless world by his son's death. Unable to act, he grimly
watches entropy erode what's left of his world's foundations.
At 308 pages, Century's Son is remarkably compact.
Boswell has an enviable ability to compress his sentences slyly
without reading like a minimalist, and he can achieve more on
a single page than a reader should reasonably demand. Indeed,
as relatively brief as the time span in the novel's present is,
the backstories' complexity and Boswell's patient examination
of his characters (at times, they feel like vibrant, animated
clocks) make Century's Son feel like a great, full-bodied
saga. (In a grand, Tolstoy-like gesture, he even gives us the
thoughts of the family dog.) This is exactly what a novel should
be: rich in detail, leisurely paced and full of intricate interior
monologues--precisely the sort of things films (and books that
read like films) abhor.
How to Build a Time Machine
I'm about to say may shock the average reader--in fact, if you
failed high school science, you may want to sit down--but here
goes: time is not absolute.
That's right. No matter what all the watches in the world
(or the Bard himself, for that matter) seem to say, time
doesn't tick endlessly on in its petty pace from day to day.
And we're not just talking big-scale here. In fact, experiments
have shown that time runs faster at the top of a building than
it does at the bottom. Sure, it only amounts to a slowing effect
of 0.000000000000257 percent in a building that is 22.5 meters
tall, but hey: it's the principle that matters.
Time is not absolute. It is, in fact, elastic.
Of course, scientists have known this for almost a hundred
years (Einstein predicted time dilation in his Special Theory
of Relativity in 1905). And they've conducted experiments to
prove it from here to Sunday (so to speak). But the rest of us
tend to ignore these things, don't we? No matter what the scientists
may prove, we're all blissfully floating in a world driven metronomically
along by Newton's happy laws.
But forget what your fifth-grade teacher taught you. Newton
was wrong--just plain wrong--when it comes to thinking about
time past, present and future.
Which raises one of the great perennial favorite questions
for everyone from girls at slumber parties to scientists at particle
accelerators. That's right, kids: time travel.
And according to Paul Davies (whose previous books include
The Fifth Miracle, About Time and God and the
New Physics), it is possible.
Possible, mind you.
In fact, as Davies argues in How to Build a Time Machine,
it's much easier to travel into the future than it is to go back
into the past.-
To travel into the future-that's not really the correct way
to put it, but hey: neither one of us is wearing a lab coat,
are we?--you'd just need to approach the speed of light. At 99
percent of the speed of light, you could cross the Milky Way
galaxy in 14,000 years. At 99.99 percent of the speed of light,
you'd make the trip in 1,4000 years. And at 99.999999 percent
of the speed of light, you could do it in a single human lifetime.
How, precisely, you'd get that close to the speed of light
lies outside the scope of Davies's book. (As Davies writes, "Our
best spacecraft reach a paltry 0.01 percent of the speed of light.")
He's talking theory, not drawing up time-traveling diagrams.
Traveling into the past is far more complicated--and potentially
dangerous. I don't have the space here (or Davies's expertise,
for that matter) to explain why. Just remember: before you leap
head-first into the nearest wormhole (a black hole "with
an exit as well as an entrance") and head back to the 1600s
so you can openly and repeatedly mock Sir Isaac, you may want
to read over that naked singularity stuff Davies talks about.
It could be unexpectedly unpleasant.
Einstein once said that if you can't explain your idea--no
matter how complicated--to a fourteen-year-old child, you don't
know what you're talking about. By that definition (and it's
a pretty good one, I think), Davies certainly knows what he's
talking about. In fact, he may be the best popular science writer
working today. And How to Build a Time Machine is a superb
(if brief) example of his ability to make complex concepts seem
Just remember: if you use Davies's book to travel into the
future and make a fortune off the stock market, don't forget
to mention it in your memoirs. Books like How to Build a Time
Machine deserve good word of mouth.
Deep in a Dream: The Long
Night of Chet Baker
Alfred A. Knopf
Gavin's Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker
should be mandatory reading for anyone considering taking up
heroin as a hobby. It is a relentlessly grim, dogged documentation
of how the drug ruined the once promising career of the West
Coast jazz movement's most popular trumpeter. But it probably
couldn't stop anybody dead-set on addiction. Baker himself tried
to dissuade friends from following in his footsteps, to no avail.
Still, Gavin is so obviously disgusted by Baker's squandering
his talent that it can't help moving most readers.
Baker, an Oklahoma boy who made up for his lack of musical
training with an impeccable ear, came of age in the bebop era,
when lightning-fast virtuoso playing replaced melody as a jazz
musician's chief interest. Baker worshipped Charlie 'Bird' Parker
and even claimed Parker 'discovered' him. (He didn't, but he
did play on stage with Baker more than once in the early 1950s.)
But Baker's own style evolved away from Parker's furiously paced
bebop attack, and he considered melody his central concern. He
also began--against friends' advice--to sing, and his high, delicate
voice and his hurt-angel face helped make him the first pinup
jazz star, with a strong gay following. (Matt Damon did a strong
impression of Baker singing his signature song, "My Funny
Valentine," in the 1999 film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's
The Talented Mr. Ripley.)
Heroin was certainly the drug of choice for 1950s jazzmen,
but while other musicians managed to break their addictions,
once Baker tried it, he never went without it for long. It wasn't
his only abused drug, though. He was arrested in Italy in 1960
for Palfium abuse and prescription forgery, and soon afterwards,
he began mixing cocaine and heroin 'speedballs.' Not surprisingly,
his addictions made club performances problematic, and to make
matters worse, Baker also found that his material was falling
out of favor as fusion took jazz away from its complex roots
in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He did make money touring
in Europe, but he routinely signed away the rights to his recordings
and never evolved beyond living needle to needle. In 1988, thirty-some
years after being lauded as America's greatest trumpeter, Baker
died in mysterious circumstances in Amsterdam, falling, somehow,
through his open (but tiny) hotel room window. While many fans
and friends believed he was murdered by an angry drug dealer,
the police ruled it an accidental death. Gavin doesn't present
a definitive theory about how Baker died, but he does offer strong
arguments to dispel some of the more extreme conspiracies.
Deep in a Dream is grim reading, but it's undeniably
fascinating, and jazz fans should find it especially strong as
an inside look at a series of volatile periods in jazz history.
Berkley: Signature Edition
plot of Lenore Hart's debut novel, Waterwoman, is deceptively
simple. In the course of a brief two hundred and forty pages,
we watch a young girl named Annie Revels come of age on the Eastern
Shore of Virginia in the early twentieth century. In that isolated,
harsh landscape, Annie faces chauvinism when she expresses a
desire to follow in her father's footsteps by working on the
water, discovers (somewhat belatedly) that having a beautiful
sister can be difficult to accept if you're not attractive yourself,
and realizes that secrets can be powerfully dangerous things
to keep, especially when it comes to marriage, shared lovers
It's rare to find a debut novel as polished and confident
as Waterwoman. Hart's poetic writing voice and her control
of rhythm and plot suggest it's the work of an experienced novelist
who has done this sort of thing many times before and has learned
something new with each outing. It most definitely does not read
like an MFA thesis--which it actually was. Fellow Virginia novelist
Sherri Reynolds encouraged her to submit it to the Berkley Publishing
Group. It is the first novel published under Berkley's new Signature
imprint, and it's certainly an auspicious beginning.
The themes Hart explores--sibling rivalry, familial love and
gender issues, among others--are powerful and emotionally moving.
But Hart shines most brilliantly in her evocation of a distant
time and place. Hart herself lives on the Eastern Shore, so I
suppose we might expect her to capture the Eastern Shore's curious
mixture of prosaic monotony and profound mysteries. (I spent
a lot of time on the Eastern Shore as a child, and Hart's depiction
of it is particularly evocative for me.) But her well-researched
presentation of the early twentieth century waterman's life is
brilliantly convincing. That a first-time novelist is able to
present such historically remote but emotionally alive characters
is an accomplishment, indeed.
She's certainly an up-and-coming novelist to watch.
Translated, Edited and with an Introduction by Wyatt Mason
readers these days undoubtedly know the great French poet Arthur
Rimbaud by reputation only. Somehow, the rock-star allure of
his popularly conceived image (propelled by Rimbaud-worshipping
rock stars like Jim Morrison) trumps the breathtaking poetry
Rimbaud wrote before he abandoned the printed word at the age
of twenty for gun-smuggling and the slave trade in Africa. (In
proper rock star form, he died young, at the age of thirty-seven.)
But as Wyatt Mason argues in the Introduction to his new translation
of Rimbaud's writings, Rimbaud Complete, while the more
radical elements of Rimbaud's biography are certainly tantalizing
(and possibly even true), it presents his readers with
So accustomed have we become to these variations on the Myth
of Rimbaud, that when we turn to the poems themselves it is difficult
to keep our preconceptions at bay. We find ourselves looking
for the Adolescent Poet here, the Hallucinogenic Poet there,
the Gay Poet everywhere. The problem with all of these adjectives
is that they put too plain a face on the poems. And the poems--vessels
of indeterminacy, ambiguity and frequently strange beauty--are
easily disfigured by a blunt critical blade.
But: if we can manage to ignore what we know about Rimbaud
or believe we know, if we can focus briefly on what he made rather
than what he may have done, the opportunity to explore one of
the most varied troves of individual expression in literature
To that end, Rimbaud Complete offers all of Rimbaud's
known literary output in a single bilingual edition, with fifty
pages of material that has never before appeared in English,
and the focus is decidedly on the written word rather than the
myths. The previously untranslated material includes Rimbaud's
early poetry, all the fragmentary verses and an early draft of
A Season in Hell, among other pieces. It is, without a
doubt, a powerful tool for Rimbaud students and enthusiasts.
Literalists, beware, though. Mason adheres to a school of
thought that values the spirit of the translation over
its mere literal accuracy. Mason himself provides an excellent
comparison with the way he and two other translators approached
Rimbaud's "Jeune goinfre." Here is Wallace Fowlie's
determinedly literal translation:
Prick of ivory.
Here is Paul Schmidt's decidedly looser translation:
And finally, here is Mason's translation:
Rod, at ready
The distance from Fowlie's stolid if literally accurate translation
to Mason's gleefully playful, inventive version is broad, indeed.
Fowlie's can never free itself from the original French, while
Mason's stands gloriously on its own as a subversive work of
art. This is undoubtedly why the English translations occupy
the first half of Rimbaud Complete, with the French originals
appearing in the second half. Most bilingual editions, of course,
place the original work and its translation on facing pages,
to facilitate comparison and shaky foreign-language skills. But
the reader's movement back and forth between the two runs counter
to Mason's notions of the purpose of translation.
Personally, I think he's right. It makes the translator's
work more difficult--after all, he's reaching for art, not mere
word matches--and a bad translation can go far astray both artistically
and literally. But Mason's work is consistently inspired as well
as informed, and he's added significantly to the Rimbaud oeuvre
with this new edition.
Editor's Note: Click here
to read WAG's interview with Wyatt Mason.
the evening of October 10, 1984, a terrible fire broke out in
an eighteen-thousand-square-foot hardware store in South Pasadena,
California. As Joseph Wambaugh recounts in the opening pages
of his new Fire Lover, the fire began in a display of
highly flammable polyurethane foam products, and it spread through
the store so quickly that the firemen who responded were unable
to get it under control for four hours, even though they arrived
only minutes after the fire began. Tragically, because so few
stores catch fire during business hours, the store's steel fire
doors were designed to close in a fire, and four people--including
a grandmother and her two-and-a-half-year-old grandson--were
trapped inside and died in the inferno.
Remarkably, minutes after the hardware store fire began, another
fire erupted in a market just blocks away. And earlier in the
evening, another store fire had erupted seven miles away. In
hindsight, it seems easy to conclude the three fires were the
work of an arsonist. Nonetheless, the arson cop who investigated
the hardware store fire concluded he could not rule out an electrical
fire in the attic space.
As rare as fires are in retail stores during business hours,
that October night's fires weren't the first of their kind in
the Pasadena area. In fact, the area had experienced a series
of suspicious fires for four years. And it continued--from brush
fires to store fires set in highly flammable displays (everything
from pillows to potato chips). In time, it became clear that
the fire investigators were sifting through the work of a serial
arsonist, but while they recovered 'signature' incendiary devices
from some of the fire scenes, the arsonist's identity remained
Then a fire investigator in Bakersfield who was investigating
two same-day arson fires there came to a startling conclusion:
the fires were being set by a fireman. Unfortunately, nobody
listened to him. And the fires continued. In time, though, the
investigation proved the Bakersfield fire investigator right:
John Orr, one of southern California's leading arson investigators
(and the man who had trained many of the men investigating his
fires), was responsible.
Wambaugh spends the first half of Fire Lover tracing
Orr's firesetting efforts and providing the sort of biographical
details that might help us understand why he set the fires. It
is certainly riveting reading. The second half recounts the criminal
trials that Orr faced once he was caught, and while it's decidedly
tamer material, it has its fair share of surprising twists.
Since The New Centurions appeared in 1970, Wambaugh
has built a reputation as the country's premiere cop writer,
but he shows here that he's equally adept at presenting the intricacies
of fire fighting--from the technical elements of the tasks to
the subtle politics that drive firefighters and the cops they
sometimes have to work with.
Highly recommended for Wambaugh fans as well as for readers
who enjoy True-Crime mysteries.