May 1, 2015
One of the more remarkable English-language publishing stories in recent years is the success—both critical and commercial—of nature writing from the UK. Helen Macdonald has scored an unlikely hit with H is for Hawk, a phenomenon on both sides of the Atlantic, and writers like Robert Macfarlane have brought new vigor to the country walk, helping to revive a venerable English literary genre. More here. I’m picking up my pen and heading to the woods. (All messages c/o Catskills, NY, NY)
April 30, 2015
The Tears of the Rajas
Ferdinand Mount is an unlikely scourge of the British Empire. The former editor of the Times Literary Supplement, Mount is a distinguished member of British Establishment, a liberal-leaning Tory, but a proud conservative nonetheless. Thus the tenor of his new book, about India in the 19th century, and the predatory behavior of the East India Company as it cheated, defrauded and otherwise dishonored various princely states, is a bit of surprise. His ancestors, the Lows of Scotland, were mixed up in this dirty business—there are accusations of war crimes here— and are the focus of his entertaining account. You can find more of my thoughts here in a longer review just out in The National.
April 28, 2015
The Bard of Vintage New York
Always nattily turned out in a Brooks Brothers suit, Joseph Mitchell prowled the streets of New York, working the docks of the old waterfront and bringing out the eloquence of dive bar patrons. He wrote beloved articles for the New Yorker, and then he went silent.
December 9, 2011
My Book of 2011: Into the Silence by Wade Davis
As a critic, you encounter all kinds of books. Some are just awful. Some are worthy, but dull. A few are good; some books even entertain. Then there are books you live in. (They don’t come along very often.) Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest is one of those kind of books. As thrilling as any adventure story, and grounded in awe-inspiring research, this magnificent account of the British Everest expeditions of the 1920s and the doomed attempts of George Mallory to scale the world’s tallest mountain is one of the best books I have ever reviewed.
June 9, 2011
Bobby Fischer Against the World
HBO’s new documentary perfectly captures the pathos and ugliness of one of chess’s all-time greats. It’s a fine compliment to Frank Brady’s new Fischer bio, which I reviewed earlier this year in The Boston Globe.
September 24, 2010
The TLS and the British Spy
In a fascinating piece about the relationship between two quintessential British institutions—the Times Literary Supplement and spying—the historian Keith Jeffery looks at how various TLS hands reviewed spy fiction and memoirs, genres which emerged in the years after WWI. Not surprisingly, the British Secret Intelligence Service was none too happy when ex-employees wanted to tell their story. But there was often not much to tell—Somerset Maugham, who worked as spy during the war, observed that the work of an agent was “on the whole extremely monotonous,” and produced much that was “uncommonly useless.” Maugham’s fictionalized versions of his experiences, which he collected in his Ashenden tales, hardly compare to the over the top action of Ian Fleming’s 007 novels. Indeed, the TLS reviewer, praising Maugham with faint damns, concluded that his work was “only moderately entertaining.”
Then there was the paranoid former Chief of Secret Service who outlined his memoir thus: “The book will be quarto size, bound in red, top-edge gilt, subtitled ‘The Indiscretions of the CSS.’ It will have four hundred pages, all blank.”
September 23, 2010
Wodehouse and Psmith
P.G. Wodehouse is best known for his creations Jeeves and Wooster, yet, as D.J. Taylor writes in a recent issue of the TLS, Wodehouse forged his reputation on the adventures of Ronald (formerly Rupert) Psmith, a “supercharged, upper-class version of the “masher” or “knut” of the Edwardian comic paper.”
September 23, 2010
Happy Birthday, Penguin
Penguin Books is celebrating its 75th birthday this year. Here’s a piece I wrote in 2006 about Penguin founder Allen Lane, and the enduring genius of his imprint’s always eye-catching designs. (The look of this website is an homage to Penguin’s classic orange and black livery).
September 22, 2010
Marguerite Duras on Writing
Back after a very long break with this beautiful passage from Marguerite Duras. Few observations about writing match this one for its force and insight.
“In life there comes a moment, and I believe that it’s unavoidable, that one cannot escape it, when everything is put in doubt: marriage, friends, especially friends of the couple. Not children. Children are never put in doubt. And this doubt grows around one. This doubt is alone, it is the doubt of solitude. It is born of solitude. We can already speak the word. I believe that most people couldn’t stand what I’m saying here, that they’d run away from it. This might be the reason why everyone is not a writer. Yes. That’s the difference. That is the truth. No other. Doubt equals writing. So it also equals the writer.”
March 25, 2009
George Scialabba: A Model Critic
Years ago, when I first started reading the quality literary and political reviews, I kept coming across the name George Scialabba. As I quickly discovered, his essays and reviews were thought provoking and sharply turned. Since then, George has been a model. I can’t say that I share his fondness for the likes of Noam Chomksy, but Scialabba is a member of no party or faction. Like one of his (and my) heroes Irving Howe, George is a social democrat with an independent streak.
“What Are Intellectuals Good For?” (Pressed Wafer, $15) collects almost twenty years worth of Scialabba’s stuff, and there is much here to relish: a bracingly unreverential look at Edward Said (two cheers for that), and a devastating appraisal of Christopher Hitchens, to name just two notable pieces. Scott McLemee, another model man of letters, provides a very fine introduction. I’ll keep this anthology close to hand.
July 16, 2008
A Few Killer Theories
I just got my hands on an advance copy of Library of America’s forthcoming “True Crime: An American Anthology,” which I will be writing about at length in the fall. Included is a piece by Jack Webb on one of America’s most famous crimes, the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short—aka the Black Dahlia—whose whose mutilated body was found in a abandoned lot in LA’s Leimert Park neighborhood. Unsolved to this day, Short’s murder has inspired a lot of crackpot theories about her killer’s identity—someone even fingered Orson Welles as a suspect. Advances in forensic technology have brought us no closer to a solution; the Dahlia killer remains in the shadows, just out of reach, a constant incitement for wild speculation and a lot of factually dubious funny business.
You could say the same thing about one of history’s other elusive killers, Jack the Ripper. Who was he? Everyone from Lewis Carroll to the Duke of Clarence has been named as a suspect. A few years ago, the mystery writer Patricia Cornwell made a complete fool out of herself trying to prove that British painter Walter Sickert was the real Ripper. Not a chance. More recently, in his utterly fascinating book “The Fox and the Flies: The World of Joseph Silver, Racketeer and Psychopath,” the South African historian Charles van Onselen advanced the notion that the Polish-born Silver, a police informant and small-time hood, was the Ripper. Van Onselen doesn’t quite prove his case—much of his evidence is circumstantial—but his research into the late 19th century underworld is staggering. The book didn’t attract much attention, but was the subject of a very fine piece earlier this year by the English writer Charles Nicholl.
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J. Peder Zane