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David L. Robbins's War of the Rats review
Mark Bowden interview (2001)
3. Charles Baxter interview
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5. Iain Pears interview
Katherine Mansfield's "Miss Brill"
Mark Bowden interview (2000)
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Century's Son
Robert Boswell
Alfred A. Knopf
308 pp.


To 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.

Highly recommended.

--Doug Childers

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How to Build a Time Machine
Paul Davies
132 pp.


What 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 commonsensical--and exhilarating.

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.

--Woody Arbunkle

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Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker
James Gavin
Alfred A. Knopf
430 pp.



James 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.

--Charlie Onion

Table of Contents

Lenore Hart
Berkley: Signature Edition
241 pp.
$21.95 order now logo


The 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 and children.

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.

--Daphne Frostchild

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Rimbaud Complete
Arthur Rimbaud
Translated, Edited and with an Introduction by Wyatt Mason
Modern Library
607 pp.
24.95 order now logo


Most 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 vexing difficulties:


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 awaits us.


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:


"Young Glutton"


Of silk,

Prick of ivory.



Very black,

Paul watches

The cupboard,


Sticks out

Small tongue

At pear,




And diarrhea.


Here is Paul Schmidt's decidedly looser translation:


"Young Glutton"

Two sick

Young fruits.




Big thick

Black boots,

Paul's trick

Just suits.

"Don't kick,

Just lick."



"Some prick."

"Come quick!"

He shoots.


And finally, here is Mason's translation:










Paul stalks

The hutch,


Towards pear,




Rod, at ready


The runs.


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.

--Charlie Onion

Editor's Note: Click here to read WAG's interview with Wyatt Mason.

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Fire Lover
Joseph Wambaugh
William Morrow
338 pp.
$25.95 order now logo


On 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 unknown.

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.

--Woody Arbunkle

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