Books in Brief

January 2023

Russell Banks’s novel features an elderly first-person narrator reflecting on his coming-of-age as a member of the (real-life) New Bethany Shaker settlement in central Florida at the turn of the previous century. Banks’s depiction of the routines in this particular religious community is compelling, while the presence of a charismatic father figure and a beguiling off-limits beauty promises an absorbing character-driven narrative. The novel doesn’t quite achieve the heights of his most successful works (Continental Drift, The Sweet Hereafter, Affliction): drama occasionally deliquesces into melodrama along the way, with moments that strain credulity and dialogue that periodically slips its “authentic” Shaker homeliness and rings jarringly contemporary. Yet Banks, now eighty-two, pens some vivid set pieces in returning us to the Florida of the early 1900s, suggesting that what it is today should not be all that much of a surprise to anyone. 

The Magic Kingdom
A Novel

Russell Banks
Knopf
$30 | 352 pp.

 

What will it take to address climate change? More regulation? More recycling? More renewable energy? In her latest book, Sacred Nature, Karen Armstrong posits that what is instead required of each of us is a rethinking of our relationship with the environment, a renewed recognition of its spiritual importance. Without recovering “the veneration of nature that human beings carefully cultivated for millennia,” she warns, “our concern for the natural environment will remain superficial.” Though she never quotes Pope Francis—a notable omission in a book that draws with great admiration on many different faith traditions—her thesis often echoes his: we cannot protect the environment if we do not strengthen our connection to it and to its most vulnerable inhabitants.

Sacred Nature
Restoring Our Ancient Bond with the Natural World

Karen Armstrong
Knopf
$28 | 224 pp.

 

When he wasn’t having tea with Princess Margaret at Kensington Palace in London, he was getting lunch with Salvador Dalí at the Ritz Hotel in Rome. Born in 1918 to Russian-Jewish immigrants in New York City, Milton Gendel moved to Rome in his early thirties, and ended up staying for seventy years. With his self-effacing curiosity and gentle wit, Gendel became a fixture among the eternal city’s intellectual and aristocratic circles. But he also maintained an expansive inner life, documenting his solitary Roman perambulations in serendipitous photographs and recording his encounters with the likes of novelist Gore Vidal, Fiat’s Gianni Agnelli, and biographer Iris Origo in lucid, insightful journal entries. Gendel captures life in the Italian capital during the sixties and seventies—when the miracolo economico and Fellinian dolce vita yielded to the political terrorism of the anni di piombo, or “years of lead.”
 

Just Passing Through: A Roman Holiday
The Diaries and Photographs of Milton Gendel
Edited by Cullen Murphy
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$35 | 272 pp.

Published in the January 2023 issue: 
Also by this author
Judas, Da Vinci & Us

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