Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Michael Burleigh, Chang-rae Lee and Jane Smiley.

Moral Combat by Michael Burleigh

"Michael Burleigh has long been one of our foremost writers on the importance of ethics in history," writes Andrew Roberts in the Sunday Telegraph, "and in this deeply researched, closely argued and well-written analysis of the moral issues thrown up by the Second World War he has reached the zenith of his career."

The book is "full of poignant nuggets of information", Roberts says, "but easily its greatest strength lies in the wise, civilised but unshakeable moral certainty of its author". Thus the 55,000 volunteers who died in Bomber Command operations are "heroes" -- "a refreshing value judgement to find in a serious work of history", Roberts argues.

In the Sunday Times, Dominic Sandbrook writes: "Perhaps the most impressive thing about Burleigh's book is that, unlike so many historians, he has a refreshingly realistic, clear-eyed view of human nature. [Moral Combat] confronts us with the ethical questions millions of people faced in their daily lives, from the statesmen who devised the policy of appeasement to the soldiers for whom, 'at the combat coalface, killing became a job of work'."

But for David Herman, writing in the New Statesman, Burleigh's book, though impressive, "is a missed opportunity". The first section is, in Herman's view, a "not terribly original account of the Second World War . . . Burleigh's account of appeasement, for example, is one-dimensional." And although the historian "has devoured much of the scholarly literature in English and German", there are "surprising absences" from the source material, notably the "growing literature on southern and eastern Europe".

Herman concludes: "Burleigh could have produced the best single-volume history of the Second World War. This isn't it."

 

The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee

"The Korean-American author . . . has aimed high in The Surrendered, his fourth novel," writes Nick Rennison in the Sunday Times. "This is an exceptionally ambitious tale of war and violence and their ruinous impact on those who appear to have survived them." But the book's scope is also its downfall, Rennison opines: "It ends up hamstrung by Lee's overly obvious desire to produce fiction on an epic scale."

Oscillating between the bleak 1980s New York life of a terminal cancer victim, June, and her war-torn past in 1950s Korea, the novel is both "overwrought and overwritten", in Rennison's view -- "a big, fat narrative in which a thinner, sparer story is imprisoned, signalling to be let out".

Leo Robson, for the Observer, was disappointed with the book. "It is not even that Lee's story receives particularly patient unfolding, simply that he tells us everything several times. He uses two adjectives where one would do ('scraggly, patchy', 'matted, tangled') and repeats to no purpose: 'glide through the flak, slip past all disturbances'; 'beneath her skin, her flesh'."

For Alyssa McDonald in the New Statesman, however, "Lee is a quiet and restrained writer who uses language powerfully but without pyrotechnics; the horrors that befall his characters are intensified with dense visual detail." She continues: "At times the characters' misfortunes are so relentless that their power is lost." Even so, "The Surrendered is expertly crafted -- as you might expect from a novelist who is also director of Princeton's creative writing programme."

 

Private Life by Jane Smiley

"Jane Smiley has written a persuasive historical paean to the importance of divorce," writes Lionel Shriver for the Financial Times.

"Private Life dissects the kind of marriage that so many wives continued to tolerate through the first half of the 20th century, when divorce was legally possible yet remained scandalous."

Lorna Bradbury, for the Telegraph, explains: "Smiley, herself married three times, has long been a cheerful advocate of the attractions of divorce. Her 13th novel [examining the staid marriage of Margaret Mayfield in small-town Missouri in the late 1870s] might be seen as a meditation on this argument." The novel's problem, in Bradbury's view, "lies in Smiley's relationship with her heroine. One feels that she desperately wants to release Margaret from the constraints of her increasingly bleak marriage -- and that she only just manages to resist this urge."

Meanwhile, for Christian House, writing in the Independent, "problems . . . are drawn from [the book's] strict realism. The languorous pace, understandable considering the restraints of the pre-feminist era, can still frustrate, while Margaret's tight-lipped complicity in the events stifles sympathy for her." Nonetheless, House also writes, "The physical and psychological stress that [her husband] Andrew imposes on Margaret's life is conveyed with claustrophobic intensity."

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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge