Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Tony Fletcher, Kevin Powers and D T Max.

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by DT Max

A new biography of David Foster Wallace offers an insight into the cult author’s life and writing process.  D T Max thoroughly discusses and dissects every part of Wallace’s life from his birth to his suicide in 2008, leaving no stone unturned. He also includes intriguing descriptions of Wallace’s idiosyncrasies, such as how he always used to put a teabag into his cup of coffee or how he liked to floss and brush his teeth for forty-five minutes at a stretch.  “This is a model biography,” writes Daniel Swift in the New Statesman. “Max has interviewed Wallace’s friends, ground through the archives, hunted down odd anecdotes.” The result is an intimate new portrait of the writer, as well as the man.

“Wallace’s great concern was to catch, in language, life,” explains Swift. “He wrote about the point at which experience meets its verbal expression, where story meets life; his fiction concerns the ways in which words distort or never quite fulfill the hopes we have for them. This sounds abstract and ambitious, and it was.” When Max recounts an argument that Wallace had with an editor about the use of the serial comma, Swift posits that “[Wallace] cared about grammar because he cared about writing and he cared about writing because he believed in its offer of transcendence, community and touch… what Wallace was trying to do – and in this he is perhaps most like Virginia Woolf – was capture life in the living, the flow of reconsideration and memory that constitutes each day.”

Ned Beauman, writing in the Guardian, observes that “it is absolutely no derogation of Max's own abilities to say that for any given sentence he writes in this book, one would prefer to have another sentence of Wallace's . . . In this sense, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story is more tantalising than it is satisfying. But that would be the case with any book about this complex and extraordinary man.” He concludes that “whatever you think of his personal life, you can't finish this book without feeling tremendous respect for Wallace's dedication and integrity as a writer.”

A Light that Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths by Tony Fletcher

This short book by music journalist Tony Fletcher, which comes 25 years after the band's separation, attempts to detail the "saga" of the Smiths: the frequent fallings-out that came to define them as a group, the trajectory of their success and their enduring legacy.  

John Harris in the Guardian feels that in detailing the history of the band, Fletcher is perhaps overly-reliant on cliché. “The main onus on anyone writing about the Smiths is the necessity of evoking the magical singularity of their music, but Fletcher's book doesn't manage the trick,” he muses. “He's too fond of the rock-hack vernacular, so that records are rated by 'fans and critics alike, and music leans towards 'the jazz arena' rather than jazz itself. A group so steeped in literature has long deserved the attention of someone with at least the ambition to be a prose stylist; in the same sense, there is something maddening about music so lithe and lyrical being described in prose that often falls flat.”

Steve Jelbert of the Independent thinks that “[the Smiths’] enduring appeal and influence deserves investigation. A Light That Never Goes Out, though, is just the story of a band, heavy on music business machinations and thin on illumination. A diligent editor could have trimmed it simply by excising the author's speculations on the importance of everything from the vagaries of council housing policies to the career path an unsplit Smiths might have followed. Tony Fletche . . . is certainly informed, but humour is not his strength.”

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

Kevin Powers was 17 when he joined the army. He served as a machine-gunner in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, and it is these experiences that have helped him write The Yellow Birds, a first novel that is attracting a lot of praise and being lauded (in the New York Times) as a “classic of contemporary war fiction”.

John Burnside writes in the Guardian that “The Yellow Birds is a must-read book, not only because it bears witness to this particular war, but also because it ekes out some scant but vital vision of humanity from its shame and incomprehensible violence.” Burnside observes that “while few will have expected the war in Iraq to bring forth a novel that can stand beside All Quiet on the Western Front or The Red Badge of Courage, The Yellow Birds does just that, for our time, as those books did for theirs.”

Michiko Kakutani, writing in the New York Times, is similarly impressed: “The Yellow Birds is brilliantly observed and deeply affecting: at once a freshly imagined story about a soldier’s coming of age, a harrowing tale about the friendship of two young men trying to stay alive on the battlefield in Iraq, and a philosophical parable about the loss of innocence and the uses of memory,” she says. Later in the review, she explains how “in conveying to the reader just how terribly young his heroes are, Mr. Powers gives us a visceral sense of the arcs their lives will trace and their bone-weary yearning to “return to ordinary.” He somehow manages to write about the effect the war has on them… with enormous emotional precision. The recruits quickly learn the art of detachment as a survival mechanism in the face of constant violence and loss.”

James Kidd of the Independent takes a slightly different view. “[Powers] can certainly write, specialising in incantatory rhythms and poetic touches that, despite frequent avowals to the contrary, loads The Yellow Birds with almost absurd significance. “The war tried to kill us in the spring as grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed." This gravely alliterative opening made me worry that The Yellow Birds was suffering a Napoleon complex: a small novel with delusions of grandeur, perhaps?”

Kidd is soon won over though: “fortunately, things quickly settle down. Although he never quite sheds his portentous tone, our narrator… proves a perceptive, eloquent and philosophical guide through the bombs, brutality and blood.” Kidd concludes with the observation that “The Yellow Birds may not be the masterpiece some have cracked it up to be, but it is a wonderful, powerful novel that moves and terrifies.”

The Smiths are the subject of a new book by Tony Fletcher. Photograph: Getty Images
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As the falcon flew towards us, its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle

In your faces, twitchers!

The BBC2 programme Springwatch may have made the RSPB’s reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk the Mecca of popular birdwatching, but Cley on the north Norfolk coast is still its Alexandria, a haven for wanderers of all species and a repository of ancient and arcane knowledge. I learned what little I know about birding there in the early 1970s, sitting at the feet of the bird artist Richard Richardson as he gave his sea-wall seminars on the intricacies of behaviour and identification. Richard could put a name to any bird, but he never believed that this process rigidly defined it.

The reserve at Cley has been gentrified recently, with smart boardwalks and a solar-powered visitors’ centre, but something of its old, feral spirit remains. On a trip early this winter, we were greeted by birders with the news: “Saker! Middle hide.” Sakers are big, largely Middle Eastern falcons, favourites with rich desert falconers. No convincingly wild individual has ever been seen in Norfolk, so it was likely that this bird had escaped from captivity, which reduced its cred a mite.

The middle hide proved to be full of earnest and recondite debate. The consensus now was that the bird was not a saker but a tundra peregrine – the form known as calidus that breeds inside the Arctic Circle from Lapland eastwards. We had missed the first act of the drama, in which the bird had ambushed a marsh harrier twice its size and forced it to abandon its prey. It was now earthbound, mantled over its dinner on the far side of a lagoon. It was bigger than a standard peregrine, and in the low sun its back looked almost charcoal, flaring into unusually high white cheeks behind its moustachial stripes.

Then it took off. It swung in a low arc around the perimeter of the lagoon and straight towards our hide. It flew so fast that I couldn’t keep it focused in my binoculars, and for a moment its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle. At the last minute, when it seemed as if it would crash through the window, it did a roll-turn and showed off the full detail of its tessellated under-plumage. In your faces, twitchers!

It was a thrilling display, but that didn’t entirely quieten the identity anxieties in the hide. One or two dissenters wondered if it might be a hybrid bird, or just a large but eccentrically marked common peregrine. The majority stuck with the tundra option. This form migrates in the autumn to sub-equatorial Africa, and days of north-easterlies may have blown it off-course, along with other bizarre vagrants: an albatross had passed offshore the day before.

Calidus means “spirited” in Latin. The Arctic firebird treated us to ten minutes of pure mischief. It winnowed low over flocks of lapwing, scythed through the screaming gulls, not seeming to be seriously hunting, but taunting a blizzard of panicky birds skywards. At one point, it hovered above a hapless tufted duck that dived repeatedly, only to resurface with the quivering scimitar still above it. Then it took another strafing run at the hide.

Does it matter whether the peregrine was a rare variety, or just an odd individual? Naturalists often categorise themselves as either “lumpers”, happy with the great unlabelled commonwealth of life, or “splitters”, rejoicing in the minutiae of diversity. I swing from one to the other, but, in the end, I can’t see them as contradictory positions.

The bird from the tundra was a hot-tempered peregrine to the core. But its strange facial markings – however much their interpretation panders to the vanity of human watchers – are the outward signs of a unique and self-perpetuating strain, adapted to extreme conditions and yet making a 6,000-mile migration that might take in a visit to a Norfolk village. Lives intersect, hybridise, diverge, in the counterpoint between what Coleridge called “uniformity” and “omniformity”.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage