Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Tuesday Books

“Wendy Lesser’s extraordinary alertness, intelligence, and curiosity have made her one of America’s most significant cultural critics,” writes Stephen Greenblatt. In Why I Read, Lesser draws on a lifetime of pleasure reading and decades of editing one of the most distinguished literary magazines in the country, The Threepenny Review, to describe her love of literature. As Lesser writes in her prologue, “Reading can result in boredom or transcendence, rage or enthusiasm, depression or hilarity, empathy or contempt, depending on who you are and what the book is and how your life is shaping up at the moment you encounter it.”

Here the reader will discover a definition of literature that is as broad as it is broad-minded. In addition to novels and stories, Lesser explores plays, poems, and essays along with mysteries, science fiction, and memoirs. As she examines these works from such perspectives as “Character and Plot,” “Novelty,” “Grandeur and Intimacy,” and “Authority,” Why I Read sparks an overwhelming desire to put aside quotidian tasks in favor of reading. Lesser’s passion for this pursuit resonates on every page, whether she is discussing the book as a physical object or a particular work’s influence. “Reading literature is a way of reaching back to something bigger and older and different,” she writes. “It can give you the feeling that you belong to the past as well as the present, and it can help you realize that your present will someday be someone else’s past. This may be disheartening, but it can also be strangely consoling at times.”

A book in the spirit of E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel and Elizabeth Hardwick’s A View of My Own, Why I Read is iconoclastic, conversational, and full of insight. It will delight those who are already avid readers as well as neophytes in search of sheer literary fun.

Vienna is demolished by war, the city an alien landscape of ruined castles, a fractured ruling class, and people picking up the pieces. Elisabeth de Waal’s mesmerizing The Exiles Return is a stunningly vivid postwar story of Austria’s fallen aristocrats, unrepentant Nazis, and a culture degraded by violence.

The novel follows a number of exiles, each returning under very different circumstances, who must come to terms with a city in painful recovery. There is Kuno Adler, a Jewish research scientist, who is tired of his unfulfilling existence in America; Theophil Kanakis, a wealthy Greek businessman, seeking to plunder some of the spoils of war; Marie-Theres, a brooding teenager, sent by her parents in hopes that the change of scene will shake her out of her funk; and Prince “Bimbo” Grein, a handsome young man with a title divested of all its social currency.

With immaculate precision and sensitivity, de Waal, an exile herself, captures a city rebuilding and relearning its identity, and the people who have to do the same. As mesmerizing as Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, and as tragic as Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, de Waal has written a masterpiece of European literature, an artifact revealing a moment in our history, clear as a snapshot, but timeless as well.

THE SPRING OF 1971 heralded the greatest geopolitical realignment in a generation. After twenty-two years of antagonism, China and the United States suddenly moved toward a détente—achieved not by politicians but by Ping-Pong players. The Western press delighted in the absurdity of the moment and branded it “Ping-Pong Diplomacy.” But for the Chinese, Ping-Pong was always political, a strategic cog in Mao Zedong’s foreign policy. Nicholas Griffin proves that the organized game, from its first breath, was tied to Communism thanks to its founder, Ivor Montagu, son of a wealthy English baron and spy for the Soviet Union.

Ping-Pong Diplomacy traces a crucial inter­section of sports and society. Griffin tells the strange and tragic story of how the game was manipulated at the highest levels; how the Chinese government helped cover up the death of 36 million peasants by holding the World Table Tennis Championships during the Great Famine; how championship players were driven to their deaths during the Cultural Revolution; and, finally, how the survivors were reconvened in 1971 and ordered to reach out to their American counterparts. Through a cast of eccentric characters, from spies to hippies and Ping-Pong-obsessed generals to atom-bomb survivors, Griffin explores how a neglected sport was used to help realign the balance of worldwide power.

From New York Times best-seller and science fiction and fantasy mistress of adventure Mercedes Lackey, Book #3 in a new pulse-pounding saga of modern-day humans with superpowers. The metaheroes deal with supervillain Verdegris, who seeks to destroy them from within, before turning their attention back to the Thulian conspiracy.

It’s go time once again for the meta-heroes including fire-bender John Murdock, hacker-witch Vikki Nagy, healer Belladona Blue, super-quick Mercurye–and most of all for their ghostly ally, Seraphym, the spirit of the world Verdegris knows he must trap and destroy her if he is to take down the metas.

From New York Times best-seller and science fiction and fantasy mistress of adventure Mercedes Lackey together with a team of topnotch collaborators, the third entry in the blockbuster saga of superpowers–and the very human men and women who must learn to wield them.

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