Literary Review

Most Honorable Number One Biography

chan_bookCharlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang (Norton Books)

There seems to be a new trend in biography. An author takes a deep "core sample" of the entirety of the world around the biography's subject, often even injecting his or her personal experiences researching and writing the book. Weather, stock tables, the history of minstrel shows or solid state engineering or cooking can weave in and out amidst unexpected finds at flea markets and wars.

A bellwether of this kind of tome, for this reviewer at least, was David Hajdu's magisterial Ten Cent Plague, a history of the comic books that could be an x-ray of American art and politics of our time. Yunte Huang's new, essential tome about Charlie Chan is a thrilling addition to this trend.

Still Somewhat Against The Grain

diana-athillLife Class by Diana Athill (Granta)
Growing Old Disgracefully BBC documentary

Diana Athill published Stet in 2000, her amusing and revealing account of her life as an literary editor, when she was 82. One could have been forgiven for considering it an astute piece of literary housekeeping, the final gasp of a pen that was about to be laid down for good. It was her fourth installment of memoirs. 

While My Alter-Ego Gently Sleeps

Rosie-LugosiThings I Did While I Was Dead by Rosie Garland (Flapjack Press) Once there was a vampire lesbian poetess called Rosie Lugosi, who prowled the cellars and subterranean dives of the poetry scene under the discreet but wonderfully protective cover of darkness. Corseted to the point of sublime expiry, she bared her fangs, cracked her whip and, like a fallen angel from one of the better girls' schools of England, lambasted her audiences into quivering submission with her iconoclastic verses. Straight men felt uneasy, and uncomfortably aroused; their women smiled, some in titillation, others to mask their growing sense of having been offended; the gay men approved of the camp spectacle, whilst the Sapphic sisters in the crowd felt all of the above emotions, and more.

The Chronicles of The City

chronic_cityChronic City by Jonathan Lethem (Random House Audio, read by Mark Deakins)

That's right, audio book. Which seems appropriate. Because when listening to Mr. Deakins soar, sink, and hiccough his way through his recitation of the labyrinthine, pulpy narrative that Lethem teases out of the raw materials of millennial Manhattan, my mind's eye thought more than once, "Would that Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater of the Air had their shot at this one!" The clotted, spooky story, full of diabolical artistes, creepy mayoral aides-de-camp, monstrous giants, and cancerous space girls, all orbiting around a consumptive genius, was begging for the same crew that put together "The Shadow Knows," The War of the Worlds, and Citizen Kane.

The Frustratingly Unique Ian Dury

dury_coverIan Dury: The Definitive Biography by Will Birch (Sidgwick & Jackson) Ian Dury was a tremendously English composite whose success against the odds of unlikelihood and disability remains a lasting example of what a determined soul can manage to attain. Ten years after his death, at the age of fifty seven, he has been the subject of Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, a frantically chaotic bio-pic that gives a good thumbnail portrait of a life of immense complexity and contradiction, but misses out on many of the finer points which go a long way to explaining Dury's disparate nature.

With Love Despite Winter

a-cold-snapCold Snap by Francis King (Arcadia) Love stirs in circumstances unlikely to allow its survival. The more the odds stack up against a happy conclusion, the greater the effort the star-crossed undertake to prove the validity of their feelings. Cold Snap is a novel set in a particular winter, 1947, in the refined and snowy setting of Oxford, but one under which the long shadow of the Second World War stretches across that idyllic whiteness.

The Empty Promise of Sundays

kathleen_farrellTake It to Heart by Kathleen Farrell (Rupert Hart Davis) If Kathleen Farrell's first novel, Mistletoe Malice, was a dissection of the dreaded and dreadful family Christmas, her second, Take It To Heart (1953), was a none-too-flattering stab at the motivations and mechanics of love. Hers was not Valentines and flowers, nor the happy-ever-after appropriation of feelings. It is a world driven by need, insecurity, and the wish for control. Love is a condition, but is rarely conditional. A myriad of impulses, far removed from sententious versions of the real, in which she drafts a series of relationships, none of which could be described as fair, balanced, or emotionally genuine, but which drive their perpetrators to distraction and despair.