June 6, 2018

Book review: “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer” by Michelle McNamara

People get obsessed.  They get obsessed with growing orchids.  With the fortunes of the Los Angeles Lakers or the Cincinnati Reds or the Cleveland Browns.  With the stock market. With mountain-climbing.  With old books.  With eating fancy meals. Michelle McNamara was obsessed with tracking down the man she named the Golden State Killer. This obsession grew out of her website True Crime Diary, launched in 2006.  In I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, she explains: When my family goes to sleep, I time travel and reframe stale evidence using twenty-first-century technology.  I start clicking, scouring the Internet for digitized clues authorities may have overlooked, combing digitized phone books, yearbooks, and Google Earth views of crime scenes: a bottomless pit of potential leads for the laptop investigator who now exists in the virtual world. I share my theories with loyal regulars who read my blog. I’ve written about hundreds of unsolved crimes, from chloroform murderers to killer priests.  The Golden State Killer, though, has consumed me the most. When the rapist-killer was active from 1976 through 1986, his crimes occurred in and around three California locations:  Sacramento, Santa Barbara and Orange County.  He was known as the East Area Rapist for […]
June 4, 2018

Finding a rich life by looking out the window: An interview with Patricia Hampl

Patricia Hampl laughs and says, “I have a list.” We’re talking over the phone about that bane of modern life, the to-do list, she in the kitchen of her St. Paul, Minnesota, home and me in Chicago in my own kitchen. I’ve just mentioned that interviewing her is on my to-do list for the day. It’s humorous because the subject of our conversation is her new book The Art of the Wasted Day (Viking, $26) which is about daydreaming, the antithesis of list-making. It’s about how rich life is when one focuses, at least part of the time, on being rather than on doing. “Pursuit” The idea of constantly doing something, of always accomplishing something, seems to be woven into the American DNA. Indeed, as Hampl, a critically hailed essayist, poet and memoir writer, notes in her book, the Declaration of Independence promises the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Which means that, while life and liberty are guaranteed, happiness isn’t, only the job of seeking it. “The essential American word isn’t happiness. It’s pursuit,” she writes. Over the phone, she expands on this: “Any form of rest in our culture is seen as sloth — […]
May 31, 2018

Book review: “The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel” by Robert Alter

It is a bit perplexing that the ancient story of David — the giant-killer, king, adulterer, father, sinner and old man — doesn’t have its own book in the Hebrew Bible. Instead, it’s spread over two full books (1 Samuel and 2 Samuel) and part of a third (1 Kings), 65 chapters in all. As a separate book, David would be the longest in the Bible with 40,000 words, much heftier than the actual leaders, Jeremiah with 33,000 and Genesis with 32,000. Yet, maybe it makes sense, given that David’s story is so sprawling and so meaty and so full of character, event and human dilemmas. A single book of David would be something akin to a single Shakespeare play that would include the plots and psychological depths of Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear. Does that sound like an overstatement? Consider what Robert Alter writes at the start of his 1999 book The David Story, a translation of all 65 chapters with a detailed commentary: The story of David is probably the greatest single narrative representation in antiquity of a human life evolving by slow stages through time, shaped and altered by the pressures of political life, public institutions, family, the impulses […]
May 23, 2018

Book review: “The Patron Saint of Cauliflower” by Elizabeth Cohen

Let me make clear I’m no cook or baker. I have, I’ll admit, followed the directions to produce a Betty Crocker cake (with canned frosting) with relatively edible results. And, over the years, I’ve been able to put various food things in front of my wife and children when it was my turn in the kitchen, and there were few outright refusals. And I do like to eat. But the ingredients of meals, such as cabbage and cauliflower, pesto and olive oil, pears, asparagus, avocados, salt, apples, basil, artichokes and cream cheese, are pretty much a mystery to me. So, maybe I shouldn’t be reviewing Elizabeth Cohen’s collection of 32 seemingly kitchen-centered poems, The Patron Saint of Cauliflower, from Saint Julian Press in Houston. On the other hand, I think I have something to say. What I found particularly interesting about Cohen’s book was how I wasn’t lost in all the recipe language and garden harvests. That’s because, for all its talk about vegetables and seasonings, it’s not really about food. Or, better put, Cohen uses food as a doorway into the mystery at the center of all things.   Thoughts of future pain and incident Her opening poem is […]
May 21, 2018

Book review: “Noir” by Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore, the author of 15 wacky novels, explains in an afterword that he had planned for his latest book Noir to be about a “poor working mug” who got entangled with a “dangerous dame” in a dark and desperate story that involving a lot of fog, gunplay and danger. “What I ended up with is essentially ‘Perky Noir,’ a lot closer to Damon Runyon meets Bugs Bunny than Raymond Chandler meets Jim Thompson…But what was I going to do? ‘Noir’ was already typed at the top of every page.” The central character of a Christopher Moore novel is always a beta male, i.e., a nice guy who’s more than a little aimless, distracted and confused. In Noir, that’s Sammy Tiffin, a bartender in 1947 San Francisco who has a damaged foot and a past that he fears will catch up with him.   The Cheese Often, Moore’s guys are rather randy fellows, such as Pocket, King Lear’s jester in Fool, his 2009 adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. Moore is nothing if not gutsy when grabbing and remaking the works of great writers from the past. Indeed, he even retells — hilariously and, in an odd way, reverently — the story […]
May 16, 2018

Book review: “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, published in 2016, is a pleasant book, so playful and light that I fully expected to find, once I’d finished reading the novel, that a feel-good movie was planned starring Tom Hanks as Count Alexander Rostov. I was wrong. It’ll be a feel-good mini-series, starring Kenneth Branagh as Count Alexander Rostov. On the way to finding that out, I stumbled across a review that called the book Tolstoyan and asserted that it was a worthy update of the Great Russian Novel. I think that reviewer is wrong. True, like Anna Karenina, there is an attempted suicide in A Gentleman in Moscow. The difference is that, in Tolstoy’s masterpiece, Anna is successful, while the Count’s plan is interrupted comically at the last second by an old man obsessed with bees. True, A Gentleman in Moscow is set in Russia as are all Great Russian Novels. But where is the existential angst in the Towles book? Where is the evil? The closest thing to evil is a small-minded party member who’s nicknamed the Bishop for his overweening pomposity. But his appearance on the page never elicits dread. Instead, he’s a comic figure who sets in […]
May 14, 2018

Book review: “Zaftig: A Case for Curves” by Edward St. Paige

It’s not often that the National Catholic Reporter gets quoted in an art book. Nonetheless, the Catholic newspaper’s headline over a 1995 story by Demetria Martinez commenting on popular notions of how a woman’s body should look was incredibly apt for a book titled Zaftig: A Case for Curves. The headline read: “When it comes to women and bodies, God probably said: Let there be flesh.”     A spindly Venus Edward St. Paige who wrote the text and assembled the images in Zaftig notes on an early page: “The tendency of the female body is endomorphism (round and soft), but that has not kept humankind, at various times, from preferring one or another body shape, and using the mysterious force of fashion to promote and reward the prevailing ideal.” Of course, we’re in one of those moments now. St. Paige shows a variety of images of rail-thin women from the 1920s as well as a 16th century painting of a spindly Venus by Lucas Cranach. But he spends very little space on such thin bodies.   Attractive and desirable His purpose, rather, is to celebrate womanly fullness as expressed in art throughout the ages. The nearly 140 images in […]
May 9, 2018

Book review: “The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam” by Barbara W. Tuchman

At the end of The March of Folly, on its last page, historian Barbara W. Tuchman writes that the best way to avoid folly by government — the folly fueled by ambition, corruption, laziness, arrogance, ignorance and emotion — might be to follow the Lilliputians. Those tiny residents of the isle of Lilliput in Jonathan Swift’s 1726 satirical novel Gulliver’s Travels choose their leaders this way: “They have more regard for good morals than for great abilities, for, since government is necessary to mankind, they believe…that Providence never intended to make management of publick affairs a mystery, to be comprehended only by a few persons of sublime genius, of which there are seldom three born in any age. They suppose truth, justice, temperance and the like to be in every man’s power: the practice of which virtues, assisted by experience and a good intention, would qualify any man for service of his country, except where a course of study is required.” Pretty simple, right? A good leader is most likely one with a good character. A good leader, writes Montaigne, also quoted by Tuchman, needs to have “resolution and valor, not that which is sharpened by ambition but that which […]
May 7, 2018

Book review: “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” by Agatha Christie

When characters become the central figures in a long-running series of novels, they enter into some other dimension where they may age but essentially remain the same — where they don’t experience the passing of years in the way the reader does. For instance, in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha Christie’s first published mystery, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is already old. What “old” means isn’t specified, but it would seem not a stretch to say he’s at least 50. This book, written in 1916 and published in 1920, was Poirot’s first appearance. He was the center of 32 later books (out of Christie’s 66), and, by the final one, Curtain, he is definitely old — suffering from heart attacks and in a wheelchair because of his arthritis. Curtain, although written in the early 1940s, was published in 1975, or 55 years after The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Was Poirot 105 when he was solving his last case? Nah. He was residing in that dreamworld of long-running fictional characters.   A full-fledged Christie The Mysterious Affair at Styles, as a Christie murder mystery, is of course complicated although her plotting here seems a bit clunkier than it would be later […]
April 30, 2018

Book review: “The Call of the Wild” by Jack London

In November, 1902, Jack London wrote his non-fiction investigative book The People of the Abyss about the life of the poor of the East End of London. He’d spent seven weeks living there a few months earlier. Of the city’s 6.2 million residents, one in 14 lived in grinding oppressive poverty. Or, as the writer put it: “At this very moment, 450,000 of these creatures are dying miserably at the bottom of the social pit called ‘London.’ ” A month after writing The People of the Abyss, London was at work on the novel that made his name, The Call of the Wild. Both books were published in 1903.   A rejection of civilization? To my mind, there is a direct connection between the two books, and it has to do with a little-discussed aspect of The Call of the Wild. In his non-fiction book, London detailed the world that civilization made — a world in which nearly half a million “creatures” were left on a human trash heap, left to find their way for as long as they could struggle, left to a miserable life and an early death. In his novel, London told the story of the un-taming […]
April 23, 2018

Book review: “The Art of the Wasted Day” by Patricia Hampl

A child of her age, born in 1946, Patricia Hampl did her share of protesting in the streets as a young adult, against war, for human rights, and, through it all, she was proud of her nation’s founding document the Declaration of Independence and its words: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” What other country, she asks in The Art of a Wasted Day, is founded on happiness? Crazy. Good crazy…. We address happiness individually, conceive of it as an intensely personal project, each of us busy about our own bliss. Loved that, love it still. And, yet — as she came to realize later in her life, the Declaration guarantees life and liberty but not happiness, only its pursuit. Happiness in the American credo is a job. No wonder that Hampl, like a lot of Americans, found herself with a to-do list that seemed a mile long. No wonder, too, that, in her fifties, she found herself the victim of panic attacks.  (See my interview with Hampl in the Chicago Tribune.)   “Taking in whatever is out there” No wonder that, in the face of such stress and distress, she decided to embrace daydreaming and redefine happiness as […]
April 16, 2018

Book review: “The Madonna” by Jean Guitton

On the opening page of his text for The Madonna, Jean Guitton, a French philosopher and theologian, notes that, in the Gospels, Mary doesn’t say much. That got me thinking, and, after a little Internet searching, I came across an article that listed the four times when an evangelist quotes the mother of Jesus — twice before his birth and twice after. Guitton’s essay in The Madonna, published in 1963, is interesting but seems theologically dated to me. Instead, I like the idea of considering the many beautiful images of Mary in this book next to the words that Mary says in the Gospels. In presenting them here, I’m not making a direct correlation between image and word. I’m looking at how the two methods of getting to know Mary interact. “I am the handmaid of the Lord” The first instance in which Mary is quoted is the Annunciation (Luke 1: 26-38) when the angel Gabriel comes to her, and this conversation takes place: “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him […]
April 9, 2018

Book review: “Chicago and Downstate: Illinois as Seen by the Farm Security Administration Photographers 1936-1943,” edited by Robert L. Reid and Larry A. Viskochil

During a seven-year period, starting the Great Depression and extending into World War II, sixteen talented photographers from the Farm Security Administration (FSA) recorded more than 270,000 images of daily life in America. Often, these photographers would be asked by their subjects why they wanted to take their picture. “For history,” some of them replied. Larry A. Viskochil mentions this in his opening remarks for Chicago and Downstate: Illinois as Seen by the Farm Security Administration Photographers 1936-1943, which he co-edited with Robert L. Reid. It’s an answer that goes to the core of the FSA effort. The subjects of the FSA photographs tended to be those hardest hit by the harsh economic times and least likely to make a record of their own of what they were going through. They were, in other words, the sort of people who are easily lost to history.   The lives of the common people Consider simply the question of clothing: It’s easy enough to know what King Henry VIII and other royals of his era wore. They posed for many paintings that have survived. But what did the common people put on in the morning or, for that matter, upon going to […]
March 28, 2018

Book review: “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics” by Daniel James Brown

Daniel James Brown tells an exciting and engrossing tale in The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It’s a page-turner, and that’s quite an accomplishment, given that most readers know little or nothing about rowing when they pick up the book and given that, when all is said and done, the eight-oar crew of students from the University of Washington essentially went undefeated during their four years on the water. (Actually, because of changing boat assignments, it was three of the crew members who were undefeated. But even the other five lost very few races while on other crews.) Brown does a good job of explaining how a crew does its job, from the use of the oars to the strategy of the coxswain, from the different responsibilities of each of the nine seats to the grueling physical workout that a race entails. In this and many other ways, he brings the reader deep enough into the world of rowing to know what’s at stake in a race and to feel the yearning and commitment of the rowers to triumph. To humanize his story, he focuses on Joe Rantz, […]
March 21, 2018

Book review: “Curtain” by Agatha Christie

Throughout my 20s, I read a lot of Agatha Christie mysteries, nearly all of them, I suspect. So I’m sure I read Curtain, published in 1975 when I was in the midst of all that reading. It was the last novel published by Christie during her long life, but it had been written in the early 1940s during World War II when she, like many Britons, wasn’t sure she’d survive. Subtitled Poirot’s Last Case, the novel ends with the curtain coming down on the little Belgian detective. Yet, even in death, he solves the mystery, with a particularly unexpected turn. Back at the beginning Curtain was published four months before Christie’s death. It was followed a year later by Sleeping Murder: Miss Marple’s Last Case, also written in the early 1940s — but, by contrast, not involving Miss Marple’s death. In drafting Curtain, Christie playfully locates Poirot’s last case in the same setting as her first Poirot novel — her first published mystery — The Mysterious Affair at Styles, written in 1916 and published in 1920. In that first book, the matriarch of Styles, a country manor in Essex, was murdered with strychnine. In Curtain, set many years later, Styles […]
March 14, 2018

Book review: “Sourcery” by Terry Pratchett

Rincewind — the cowardly and inept wizard whose main skill is his ability to fear so well that he is able to escape from and survive great threats — is the main character in three of Terry Pratchett’s first five Discworld novels, and he makes a cameo in a fourth. He’s far from my favorite character in the Discworld series, and I’ve seen quotes that indicate Pratchett, at least later in his career, wasn’t all that enamored of him either. He’s a one-note Johnny. That, it would seem, was helpful to Pratchett at the beginning when Rincewind served as a kind of Everyman with whom readers could relate. He would move through the novel — like a lot of the central characters in novels by Charles Dickens — and meet a bunch of much more interesting people. Like Conina, the female assassin here in Sourcery, the fifth Discworld novel, the daughter of Cohen the Barbarian, who wants to be a hairdresser but is doomed by hereditary to seek adventure, danger and triumph. And the Librarian, an orangutan who used to be human and has a lot more on the ball than a lot of humans.   Ipslore the Red Actually, in […]
March 7, 2018

Book review: “The Griff: A Graphic Novel” by Christopher Moore and Ian Corson with Jennyson Rosero

The Griff, published in 2011, is like many another graphic novel, which is to say that it’s like many a megaplex blockbuster. Tell me if this sounds familiar: Invaders from outer space (in this case, big flying, fire-breathing dragons) attack the Earth and kill off just about everyone. The only people left are a bunch of misfits (in this case, a game developer, a guy who worked the makeup counter at Macy’s, a dolphin trainer, a guy dressed in a squirrel outfit, a private first class, and a skateboarder) who set out to save the world. And do.   Along for the ride What sets The Griff apart is that one of its co-authors is Christopher Moore, the writer of a string of very, very funny novels. The other is Ian Corson, a filmmaker. The guy who did all the drawings is Jennyson Rosero, and he should probably get more credit than a “with.” In any case, Moore is a very funny guy, but The Griff isn’t all that funny. It appears from Moore’s foreword and Corson’s afterword that the two had a lot of fun writing the text — essentially, a script for a movie that they don’t expect […]
March 5, 2018

Book review: Three books from the University of Nebraska’s Discovering the Great Plains series — “Great Plains Bison,” “Great Plains Indians” and “Great Plains Geology”

For most Americans, the Great Plains, covering a million or so square miles in the center of the continent, are a place to fly over or, maybe, drive through. This makes sense since much of the area was once known as the Great American Desert. The average person has a fairly vague idea of what the Great Plains are and what’s happened there. Even experts can’t seem to agree on its boundaries, producing, as R. F. Diffendal Jr. notes in “Great Plains Geology,” more than 50 maps with great variations. There’s general agreement that the area’s western border is roughly the Rocky Mountains. On the south, it’s seen as covering all or much of Texas, and, on the north, it goes up about halfway through the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. But, on the east, some maps stretch as far as Illinois, or even Indiana. But most stop somewhere near the eastern boundaries of Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota.   A variety of perspectives Diffendal’s book is one of three published so far in the University of Nebraska’s Discovering the Great Plains series, and, in a way, those three, plus the three more in the pipeline, […]
February 28, 2018

Book review: “Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York” by Francis Spufford

There are many pleasures to Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York, and the greatest is its sheer unexpectedness. It is fresh in startling ways. It is idiosyncratic storytelling that’s robustly accessible, a literary experiment that melds a variety of novel-writing approaches ranging from the early 1700s up to our present minute — and, yet, always clear and present and eye-opening. And, from start to finish, it has its own language and voice, a vibrantly individual work of fiction. I describe Golden Hill, published in 2016, as an experiment because Spufford had never written a novel before and because it is one of a kind.   Historical fiction, love story, mystery? You could call it historical fiction since it does cover a 45-day period at the end of 1746 in New York City, but this is no fancy-dress tale. It has no hackneyed plot, nor is it an effort to explain what happened behind the scenes of some major event. You could call it a love story since it does involve a very awkward but ardent courtship — as if involving two porcupines — between Richard Smith, a surprise visitor from London, and Tabitha Lovell, the shrewishly […]
February 25, 2018

Book review: “Richard Nixon: The Life” by John A. Farrell

The most striking thing about John A. Farrell’s Richard Nixon: The Life is how evenhanded a biography it is. Picture yourself nearly half a century in the future — in 2061 — and imagine you are reading an even-handed biography of Donald Trump. It’s startling to conceive of such a thing, given the intensely high emotions that the 45th President of the United States elicits from his supporters and opponents. In 43 years, could emotions cool enough that a biographer could write about Trump and his presidency with dispassion? That’s what Farrell has done with Nixon in a book published last year, 43 years after Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace for the Watergate break-in of the Democratic National Committee and a host of other dirty tricks and, most of all, for the democracy-threatening attempt to cover-up all those democracy-threatening shenanigans. Farrell was a college student in 1974 when Nixon left office, and it would be impossible for a reader of this book to have much of a sense of where Farrell stood in that very divisive moment in American history.   Shakespearean Perhaps the question is whether any biography of Nixon should be even-handed. But, before I get into […]
February 22, 2018

Book review: “Glory Days” by Melissa Fraterrigo

Glory Days by Melissa Fraterrigo is a raw piece of fiction about the scarred and wounded lives of people lost in the dying small town of Ingleside, Nebraska. It is sort of a novel inasmuch as it could be described as a novel told in stories or as a collection of related stories. And it has some of the usual imperfections of such variations on the usual form. There are a variety of tones among the fourteen stories (chapters) that, at times, collide somewhat awkwardly with each other. There are confusing time gaps and plot details that would probably be clearer in the context of a straight-ahead novel. Part of the problem may be that Glory Days is Fraterrigo’s first book-length work of fiction, and she’s still finding her voice.   Tormented spirits Even so, “Glory Days” is a brutally beautiful tale about tortured souls in a Midwestern Inferno of lost jobs, lost hopes, lost connections. Everyone in this book is damaged goods — from Luann, the adopted girl whose mother is newly dead in the opening story, to Teensy, her fire-scarred father, to Footer, an orphan who came into the world when a crazy woman sliced his mother open […]
February 13, 2018

Book review: “Death in Chicago: Winter” by Dominic J. Grassi

Cosmo Grande moves awkwardly, humanly, through Chicago, looking for clues and epiphany. Grande, a fiftyish private investigator who drinks too much and smokes too much weed, is the central character created by my friend Dom Grassi for his first novel Death in Chicago: Winter. It’s a murder mystery and is planned to be the first of four, the others taking Cosmo and the sort of skullduggery one enjoys in mysteries through spring, summer and fall. You know, like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, only in this case the Italian isn’t writing music but trying to find his way around Chicago while endeavoring to figure out what’s going on — and avoid getting blown up or otherwise iced. In Death in Chicago: Winter, Cosmo is trying to get to the bottom of a whole lot of messiness, including three suicides that might be murder, a dirty cop, a murdered tow-truck driver, a rogue bishop, a “retired” mob boss and a clandestine group of deacons trying to save the Catholic Church from its bad apples.   A rollicking tale It’s a rollicking tale that pulls the reader along as Cosmo, a former seminarian, maneuvers through a hidden church scandal of wide-ranging financial sins while […]
February 7, 2018

Book review: “The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve” by Stephen Greenblatt

At the end of the 19th century, Mark Twain had fun with the story of Adam and Eve, writing in “Adam’s Diary” about the first man’s confusion over the sudden appearance of the first woman: “This new creature with the long hair is a good deal in the way. It is always hanging around and following me about. I don’t like this; I am not used to company. I wish it would stay with the other animals….Cloudy today, wind in the east; think we shall have rain….WE? Where did I get that word — the new creature uses it.” Such playfulness, though, gives no hint of the two and a half millenniums during which the Bible account of the first people in the Garden Eden was taken very seriously, even to the point of life and death, as Stephen Greenblatt shows in The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve.   “A breath” Greenblatt, a Pulitzer Prize winner and the general editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, has written a book that is thoughtfully readable and deeply erudite, a book steeped in humanity and in the unending efforts of humans to figure out who they are and why […]
February 5, 2018

Book review: “Mort” by Terry Pratchett

There is an awkward disconnect toward the end of Mort, Terry Pratchett’s 1987 Discworld novel, the fourth of 41 in the series. It has to do with Albert, Death’s manservant and cook. OK, if you haven’t read any Discworld novels, that job description may sound odd. As Pratchett’s regular Discworld readers know, Death is the guy in the long black robe with the ever-so-sharp scythe — oh, and he’s a skeleton— who appears in just about every one of these books. You know he’s there, even if he isn’t immediately identified, because of his distinctive way of speaking — in “a voice like lead slabs being dropped on granite,” all in small caps. For instance, when he hires the 16-year-old Mort as his apprentice, Death asks his name: “Mortimer…sir. They call me Mort.” “WHAT A COINCIDENCE.” (“Mort” being the root word in Latin for “death,” and, by way of Middle French and Middle English, the root of such English words as “moral.” But you knew that.)   Stood-still-time Death’s job is to head out each day to be present at the death of, generally but not always, important people. The causes of such deaths can be any of the usual […]
February 1, 2018

Book review: “The Art of Biblical Narrative” by Robert Alter

The writers of the Hebrew Bible, when they’re telling a story, they’re like Homer with the Iliad — they’re omniscient. They know the story as if they’ve watched it unfold from some vantage point above and around and inside the action. However, unlike Homer, the biblical storyteller doesn’t make the characters and their motives clear to the reader. Instead, the storyteller is selective, as Robert Alter explains in his groundbreaking 1981 study The Art of the Biblical Narrative: He may on occasion choose to privilege us with the knowledge of what God thinks of a particular character or action — omniscient narration can go no higher — but as a rule, because of his understanding of the nature of his human subjects, he leads us through varying darknesses which are lit up by intense but narrow beams, phantasmal glimmerings, sudden strobic flashes. We are compelled to get at character and motive, as in impressionistic writers like Conrad and Ford Madox Ford, through a process of inference from fragmentary data, often with crucial pieces of narrative exposition strategically withheld, and this leads to multiple and sometimes even wavering perspectives on characters. There is, in other words, an abiding mystery in character […]