Christmas Critics

Mollie Wilson O’Reilly

“Christmas, how I hate it,” Desmond Bates grumbles. His complaints are typical: the commercial push starts too early; the forced gaiety drags on too long; and then—as the Grinch would say—there’s the noise, noise, noise, noise! For Desmond, the hero of David Lodge’s Deaf Sentence (Viking, $22.95, 291 pp.), “Sounds are meaningful,” but “noise is meaningless and ugly. Being deaf converts so much sound into noise that you would rather have quiet.”

Gradual hearing loss has forced Desmond into early retirement from academia. He’s at loose ends until a pushy young American student turns up looking for help with her dissertation. The stage seems set for farce—but though Lodge’s sense of humor is as reliable as ever, the mood of Deaf Sentence is more reflective than antic. As basic conversation becomes more difficult, Desmond begins to write, making a journal of his “discontents.” He puzzles about his wife’s rediscovery of her Catholic faith, and their growing estrangement (“I think she would be not speaking to me,” he confides, “if it wasn’t for the fact that when she does speak to me I don’t hear what she’s saying half the time”). He worries about the living arrangements of his elderly, even-harder-of-hearing father. He frets about his own future, imagining isolation and helplessness in old age, and amusing himself by morosely punning on “deaf” and “death.” But as he steps back to assess the deprivations of his quiet life, Desmond also finds some rewards. Instead of allowing himself to be caught up in a bedroom farce (as a younger Lodge character might have done), Desmond enrolls in a lip-reading class and learns to laugh at his predicament. Surprised, he finds himself wondering, “Am I half in love with easeful deaf?”

The comic structure of the novel can’t quite support the more extended ruminations on mortality: a stark account of Desmond’s visit to Auschwitz makes an awkward counterweight to his troubles at home. But the domestic scenes are affecting, especially the study of marital intimacy in late middle age. And on the topic of hearing loss, Lodge—who writes from experience—combines sharp quips with sharper insights. Deaf Sentence is delightful company, enlightening and funny.

Where Lodge’s style is casual and colloquial, Mark O’Donnell’s writing is eager and energetic, full of giddy wordplay. His novel Let Nothing You Dismay (Vintage, $12, 193 pp.) follows Tad Leary, a young, gay New York grad student, on a one-day whirlwind tour of seven holiday parties. Along the way, O’Donnell teases bittersweet wisdom and poignant punch lines out of mundane details, like song lyrics, advertising slogans, and a chalkboard in an empty classroom that says, “Please save!”

Tad is working—or rather, not working—on a study of social hierarchies in folklore (for example: angels, archangels, principalities, powers...). But he is less comfortable in the real-life social networks of academia, urban life, and family. For him, the holiday season is one of “joyous strain,” in another phrase borrowed from a Christmas carol. He is haunted by his personal and romantic failures, but cowed by the challenges of intimacy. “He pined for his family,” O’Donnell writes, “But then had the urge to flee in their midst.” The time Tad spends in the midst of his Irish-Catholic family is the novel’s most memorable chapter. Every detail rings true, especially the melancholy brooding of Mrs. Leary, who “always sighed after she laughed, as if to remind everyone she would be resuming her customary burden now.” Tad survives the holiday-party gauntlet, and the novel ends on a hopeful note: Christmas hasn’t arrived yet, but it’s getting closer.

The bleak corporate office of Ed Park’s Personal Days (Random House, $13, 241 pp.) has its own social hierarchy, and even its own folklore: “When you feel a tingling in your fingers, it means someone’s Googling you.” Park reframes everyday absurdities to give them a new, even ominous significance. When a computer asks its operator, “Are you sure you want to quit?” the question sounds like a koan. Personal Days begins as an ironic study of twenty-first-century office culture, but the tone turns dark as paranoia sets in: the unnamed company is in the process of restructuring, and no one knows what to expect. Everyone is hoping to survive what they call The Firings, even as they long to escape. Personal Days is a hilarious, haunting portrait of cubicle life and the oddly impersonal relationships it promotes.

Ian Frazier is a celebrated humorist and essayist whose most widely read work is a pitch-perfect pastiche of the Torah, with a frustrated parent in the role of God: “Neither raise up your knees, nor place your feet upon the table, for that is an abomination to me.” Since its publication in the Atlantic Monthly in 1997, the piece has been widely reproduced (if not always credited). Now it is the title work in a new volume of Frazier’s short comic essays, Lamentations of the Father (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22, 194 pp.). Frazier applies his impressive intellect to a number of thoroughly silly concepts (one standout is called “How to Operate the Shower Curtain”), and the results are often dazzling. Any one of these wise, witty books will challenge the notion that a sad tale is best for winter.  


 


 

 

Casey Nelson Blake

The entire George W. Bush era has had historians like me racing to find a historical context for events that seemed unprecedented. We have spent the past eight years fielding questions that we can’t honestly expect to answer now—or at least answer well. How do the 9/11 attacks compare to Pearl Harbor in their effect on Americans? Is Iraq a greater mistake than Vietnam? Is George W. Bush the worst president in American history? Has U.S. politics ever been more polarized? And now we ask ourselves whether Barack Obama’s election signals a historic realignment in American politics or simply a reaction to Bush’s failed presidency. Has the Reagan era ended, or just the Bush-Cheney debacle? Above all we find ourselves trying to think beyond our astonishment and joy over the election of this nation’s first African-American president to consider its significance for a country whose history is soaked in the blood of slavery and racial violence.

One positive consequence of these politics-obsessed years has been the arrival of ambitious books on the history of American politics over the course of the past century. Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (Scribner, $37.50, 896 pp.) and Sean Wilentz’s The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974–2008 (Harper, $27.95, 576 pp.) have attracted much attention this year for their literary verve, synthetic narratives, and timely assessment of a conservative political era that may be fading before our eyes (or not). Perlstein is at his best in providing a vivid account of how Nixon tapped his own resentments and anger to channel those of the “Silent Majority” he helped conjure out of the political and cultural civil war of the 1960s. From Nixon’s hardhats beating antiwar protesters while singing “God Bless America” to the lunatic cries of “Kill him!” at Sarah Palin rallies, what had long been quarantined in the extremist districts of right-wing zealots has repeatedly penetrated mainstream conservatism. Reagan inherited the ugly cultural populism that Nixon so brilliantly mobilized, with its fury at condescending upper-middle-class liberals and boiling racism, and wedded it to a resurgent laissez-faire economics and aggressive anti-Soviet rhetoric that Nixon himself would never have countenanced.

While Perlstein excels at biography and gripping accounts of the 1960s culture wars, Wilentz emphasizes Reagan’s policies in office, pointing to his failure to shrink the federal government and to his idealist opposition to nuclear arms that inspired his collaboration with Mikhail Gorbachev to end the cold war. Wilentz’s greatest contribution is to place the policy and political debates of the “age of Reagan” in the context of a prolonged constitutional crisis that opened up with Watergate, continued with the Iran-Contra affair and the Clinton impeachment, and culminated in the Bush administration’s actions to insulate executive actions from congressional oversight and public scrutiny. Now forgotten by most Americans, the Iran-Contra affair was a critical episode in the decades-long effort by conservatives to create a secret, unaccountable government within the federal bureaucracy.

Another study of conservative politics, Philip Jenkins’s Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America (Oxford University Press, $28, 352 pp.), received far less attention when it appeared two years ago, but should be read alongside Perlstein and Wilentz for its original view of the consequences of the 1970s crime wave for the right turn in U.S. politics. A shift from rehabilitation to punishment as the rationale for incarceration, the use of mandatory sentencing, and the reemergence of a language of “evil” after decades of sociological explanations for criminality marked a newly punitive culture that responded to Americans’ fears of violence and lawlessness.

The conservative Bush years have sent many historians back to the troubled journey from Populism to Progressivism and New Deal liberalism that Richard Hoftstadter surveyed in his classic Age of Reform (1955). But while Hofstadter took a liberal political consensus for granted, historians today see progressive dominance as the exception, not the rule. Michael McGerr’s A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870–1920 (Oxford University Press, $19.95, 424 pp.), locates the origins of the Progressive impulse in the late-Victorian crusade to redeem the middle-class home as a realm of mutuality and a model for a moral society. In the process, he explains the coexistence of cultural traditionalism and reformist politics in that diffuse but insistently utopian movement.

McGerr’s nuanced synthesis should be read alongside Charles Postel’s powerful new The Populist Vision (Oxford University Press, $39.99, 416 pp.), which argues that the movement of agrarian radicals in the 1880s and 1890s was thoroughly modern in its approach to government, finance, economic organization, and administration. Hardly the hayseed cranks caricatured by later generations of liberals—or the traditionalist opponents of capitalist modernization championed by New Leftists and other radicals—the Populists sought to use the state as an instrument for economic regulation and democratic control of their country’s resources. In light of recent events, the Populists’ proposal for a publicly owned national banking system seems prescient, to say the least.

Historians have likewise revised liberal accounts by placing religious faith at the center of many modern reform movements. Michael Kazin’s biography of William Jennings Bryan, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (Anchor, $16.95, 432 pp.), upends the familiar view of the Great Commoner by showing how indebted Bryan’s politics were to his Evangelical and Social Gospel Protestantism. Bryan’s “social Christianity” influenced American reform and radical politics for decades and still resonates in the oratory of our president-elect. David L. Chappell’s pathbreaking study of prophetic Protestantism and the campaign against Jim Crow, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (University of North Carolina Press, $21.95, 360 pp.), makes the case that the civil-rights struggle was as much a mass religious revival as a political movement. The movement succeeded because it revived this country’s language of religious and civic prophecy to condemn segregation without unleashing the virulent cries for retribution that came to define the culture wars of the late 1960s and beyond.

Perlstein ends Nixonland by asking: “Do Americans not hate each other enough to fantasize about killing one another, in cold blood, over political and cultural disagreements? It would be hard to argue they do not.” The most attractive feature of Obama’s candidacy has been his determination to banish such murderous fantasies from American politics and to break with the demonization of opponents that has tainted our public life in the age of Nixon, Reagan, and Bush. If Obama is to succeed-if we all are to succeed-we would do well to learn from those Populists, Progressives, and civil-rights activists who sought, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., to “redeem the soul of America.”


 


 

 

Karen Sue Smith

Though I regularly read and clip book reviews, my pleasure reading tends to be guided less by what is newly published than by my own enthusiasms and the recommendations of friends. This year I have indulged two passions, biography and art, and that led me to four books I can recommend.

The two volumes of Hilary Spurling’s biography of Henri Matisse—The Unknown Matisse: The Early Years, 1869–1908 (Alfred A. Knopf, $29.95, 512 pp.) and Matisse the Master: The Conquest of Colour, 1909–1954 (Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95, 544 pp.)—are at the top of my list. Matisse comes across not only as a groundbreaking artist who moved beyond Impressionism and into the modern era, but also as a family man, perhaps surprisingly conservative and formal personally. A man of culture and lifelong focus, he was also, of course, an artist ahead of his time in many respects. Matisse, who was of French and Flemish descent, lived through two world wars, and Spurling integrates the historical context and personal details of the artist’s life remarkably well. She describes how the times influenced Matisse’s artistic development, international reputation, political involvement, family life, and changing economic circumstances. She marshals evidence, not just speculation, about his relationships with teachers, family members, other artists, dealers, and the women who worked for him throughout his career as models and caretakers. As an artist, Matisse was expansive. He worked as a painter, sculptor, a designer of costumes and sets, and with paper cutouts. As perhaps many readers of this magazine know, he also designed an entire convent chapel, including the vestments, stained glass, and sacred vessels.

Then there is the man himself. Spurling, an Oxford-educated critic, portrays Matisse as a dedicated husband and father, who nevertheless declared to twenty-five-year-old Amelie Payare, his second wife and the mother of his two sons: “Mademoiselle, I love you dearly, but I will always love painting more.” Matisse was particularly close to Marguerite, his oldest child from his first marriage, who lived at home for decades and was her father’s favorite model. Though ill throughout childhood, Marguerite proved heroically strong during World War II, when she and Amelie worked for the Resistance. Spurling draws the family members not as caricatures, but as fully formed, complex individuals with aspirations, talents, crises, and needs. Though the family was supportive of Matisse’s work, his stated preference for his art gradually became an alienating factor in his marriage. The family’s breakup, near the end of Matisse’s life, is seen by Spurling as a major tragedy.

Colorful details enliven this story: Matisse kept three hundred birds; he was a violin virtuoso who might have pursued a career in music; Amelie swore she’d never marry a redhead or a bearded man, but Matisse was both. I hated to finish this wonderful biography, and I plan to read both volumes again.

Martin Gayford’s The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles (Little, Brown, $14.95, 352 pp.) is an exploration of the relationship between Gauguin and Vincent (as Gayford calls them). When the forty-year-old Gauguin arrived in Arles, Vincent, thirty-five, had reached a pivotal point in his solitary artistic life; the yellow house was packed with masterpieces. He had long dreamed of forming an artists’ community, and the two worked side by side, creating great works in Vincent’s cramped studio. Though fragile from overwork, financial worries, and anxiety about whether Gauguin would like working with him enough to stay, Vincent was full of expectations of camaraderie, and held the older artist in exaggerated esteem. The danger signs are obvious, and Vincent’s demise is well known, but the tragic ending, which follows so quickly upon months of glorious achievement, still comes as a surprise—a credit to the author.

Gayford, chief art critic for Bloomberg Europe, invites us to pay attention to the quotidian: the weather; how each room of the house is furnished and decorated, and who stops in; how the artists mete out the three hundred francs a month that Theo van Gogh is supplying them from Paris; how often they go to the café and frequent the nearby brothels; what both artists are painting, reading, and writing. I admire Gayford’s scholarship, for he read not only the voluminous correspondence of both artists, but also the novels each read and the newspaper accounts that preoccupied them, at times finding common threads to connect the two. Gayford offers a convincing answer to the question of what was wrong with Vincent: he was likely suffering fom bipolar disorder. But despite Vincent’s sudden plunges into depression and self-destruction, his genius, vulnerability, and compassion shone through.

I came across two other books you might enjoy reading or giving to others. Peter Ackroyd’s J. M. W. Turner (Doubleday, $21.95, 192 pp.), is part of the “Brief Lives” series and serves as a congenial introduction to the British artist. Turner, a child prodigy, came from the Cockney working class and lived most of his life with his father. He was an avid walker and a keen businessman who acted as dealer for his own paintings. Ackroyd fills in the ordinary details that lie behind Turner’s extraordinary work.

It has been said that Sidney D. Kirkpatrick’s The Revenge of Thomas Eakins (Yale University Press, $22.50, 576 pp.) would have been the definitive biography of the American artist, had it not been preceded by Henry Adams’s Eakins Revealed. Adams’s book examined Eakins’s preoccupation with nude models (the artist was rumored to be homosexual) and the allegations against him concerning the sexual abuse of women. I was unaware of this controversy when I started to read Kirkpatrick’s book, which I found comprehensive and informative. Kirkpatrick examines the sexual controversies, but does not let them dominate the book, nor is he out to prove any hypothesis about Eakins’s sexuality. I found that refreshing.

I counted it a bonus when the books I read were aligned with major art shows in New York. The experience of reading an artist’s biography is always enhanced when you can study the full-color works in question, so if you have the opportunity, consider making a museum trip part of your reading.


 


 

 

Paul O’Donnell

Testifying at Bill Clinton’s impeachment proceedings ten years ago this month, Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz warned the House Judiciary Committee that if members voted to put the president on trial, “history will track you down and condemn you for your cravenness.” The Republican majority on the committee, of course, ignored Wilentz and voted to impeach. That reckoning didn’t come in the following election—if anything, George W. Bush took the White House thanks to some funny, and favorable, historical bounces.

But now, after their repudiation at the polls last month in favor of the first African-American president-elect, it seems as if history has done a job on the GOP. If the election of Barack Obama came as a surprise that restored some Americans’ faith in their country, there was something inevitable in Arizona Senator John McCain’s defeat. As the economy soured, then collapsed, and the fighting in Afghanistan got worse even as security in Iraq improved, and as the crowds for Obama swelled in St. Louis and Denver to Woodstock proportions, it seemed that some force—one even larger than the $1 billion spent in the campaign—was conspiring to shove McCain and his fellow conservatives off the national stage.

Three recent books are ready to help us take stock of how history played a part in this election. In a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy, Wilentz has written one himself. Like Casey Nelson Blake, I strongly recommend Wilentz’s The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974–2008 (Harper, $27.95, 576 pp.). The book is a captivating chronicle of the Reagan years, and something of an epitaph for the movement that has powered the GOP for more than thirty years.

Even though the Bancroft Prize-winning historian begins with the Ford administration, Wilentz’s survey actually reaches back to 1964, when another Arizona senator, Barry Goldwater, fell to Lyndon Johnson. From that nadir, Wilentz charts the rise of Goldwater’s heirs, including his most successful scion, Ronald Reagan. Wilentz defends Reagan as one of our most significant presidents, but he doesn’t excuse the Reaganites’ willingness to subvert the Constitution when obstacles arose. Wilentz traces this impulse, first from the Iran-contra scandal, through the impeachment of Bill Clinton to George W. Bush’s (and Dick Cheney’s) assertion of executive power in the “war on terror.”

In the wake of Obama’s victory, Wilentz’s book also serves as an elegy for the divisive “Southern strategy” that got GOP presidents from Nixon to W. elected, but failed McCain. According to a New York Times article that appeared soon after the election, holding the South at all costs has marginalized voters in the Old Confederacy and doomed the Republican Party’s future electoral chances outside all but deepest Dixie. Such obituaries have been written before—after Goldwater’s undoing and after Watergate. With the perspective of Wilentz’s thorough study, readers can judge for themselves whether conservative Republicanism can now be counted out.

For a longer perspective, pick up David S. Reynolds’s Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson (Harper, $29.95, 480 pp.). Jacksonian America has become a fascination of late, probably because the era between the end of the War of 1812 and the Civil War so much resembles our own, with sex scandals in the White House, technological innovation leading to a new infrastructure for trade and communication, a boom in religion coexisting with the spread of “spiritual but not religious” sentiments. This is the history they didn’t teach you in grade school, and for good reason: it’s where everything dispiriting and objectionable about America seemed to spawn, from anti-intellectualism to the fanciful branding of political candidates to pompous, philandering preachers. If we have a feel for this period, it’s generally through writers like Edgar Allen Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Reynolds, a professor of English whose 1995 Walt Whitman’s America furnished a gentle (and award-winning) ride through this period, shows how political turmoil went hand in hand with cultural foment.

The Jacksonian period is so similar to our own that in recent years it has become something of a stalking horse for historians arguing over the nature of American identity. Waking Giant doesn’t join this battle; it is content to sit and watch the demotic parade go by. Yet the Reynolds book is a good introduction to the issues, and to the notion that America’s best asset is our country’s “capacity to question itself,” as the author puts it.

Where does that capacity come from? Mark A. Noll, in his short, densely argued book God and Race in American Politics: A Short History (Princeton University Press, $22.95, 224 pp.), sees it rooted in the Calvinist faith of our Puritan forebears. Whereas other religious temperaments are largely agnostic, so to speak, when it comes to their fellow citizens’ behavior, the Calvinist strain burdens Americans with a mission “to purify the life of the community and to uplift the state,” in the words of the French writer André Siegfried, quoted by Noll. The most historically powerful manifestation of that missionary impulse, on Noll’s reading, is the abolition movement, which prompted America’s greatest crisis and forever yoked faith, race, and U.S. politics.

How this triad pushes and pulls its way through our history is the stuff of Noll’s complex study, originally presented as a series of lectures at Princeton University. But in plainest form, that history goes something like this: Abolition’s work, only half-completed in the Emancipation Proclamation, was finished by the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, which, though supported wholly by African-American churchmen, brought unwelcome government intrusion into the lives of (mostly Southern) white Evangelicals and Northern Catholics. That intrusion in turn mobilized Evangelicals against federal power and into a coalition with small-government Republicans that has dominated U.S. politics for thirty years.

That coalition, too, failed last month, and it is tempting to wonder if, by breaking the racial link, Obama’s victory will also loosen Evangelicals’ hold on our politics. Following Noll’s scheme, however, it may do the opposite. The civil-rights legislation of the ’60s forced Southern Evangelicals to reshape themselves politically. “Stripped of racist overtones,” Noll writes, “Southern Evangelical religion...became much easier to export throughout the country.” A black president might force Southern Evangelicals to come to terms with their residual biases, which in turn might make them more palatable as a political force.

All three of these books serve to remind us that, if the Republicans’ history has come home to roost, history never roosts for long.


 


 

Suzanne Keen

Do you need a quick read, or do you want to pick your way across the surface of a novel that flows at a glacial pace? Perhaps you would prefer the sustained immersion in a fictional world that only a sequence of novels can deliver. I’ve read some recent novels that deliver all these experiences, fictions that provoke and entertain while meditating on the perils of the imagination.

For a slow, attentive journey of a novel that gives readers time to invest in the fates of its central characters, try Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead, $14, 352 pp.), winner of both the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award for best novel of 2007. The extraordinary feats of style in this novel give it an easy pace, and you won’t want to skip the footnotes, where Díaz codes the recent history of the Dominican Republic according to J. R. R. Tolkien’s cosmography and characters. So go slow. Describing this book just makes it sound gimmicky or weird: a novel about an overweight, science-fiction-saturated New Jerseyan teenager (and unrequited lover), whose doomed journey into the Mordor of the Dominican past can only end disastrously. Trust me, it’s mesmerizing.

Díaz’s lively primary narrator, Yunior, carries the tale with an oral storyteller’s verve, switching in and out of Spanglish, teasing the reader with flights of erudition and precipitous plunges of bathos, alluding to the classics, history, pop culture, and video games-making us care about Oscar and his family. The structure of the novel, beneath the stylistic pyrotechnics, is the family saga in reverse (recovering the story of a family doomed and cursed). The interpretive register, inevitably, is political allegory. Though Tolkien resisted it, many read The Lord of the Rings allegorically, and Díaz invites us to read the story of Yunior’s Dominican family as an allegory for the history of the nation and the region. The spirit of the novel, however, is Cervantine: richly comic, outrageous, disastrous, complete with a Don Quixote who sees the world through the revealing and distorting lenses of romance.

For a quick and thrilling read, try Justin Evans’s A Good and Happy Child (Three Rivers Press, $13.95, 336 pp.). This tight, fast-paced gothic horror novel caught my attention because it is set in a thinly disguised version of Lexington, Virginia, where I live, and where the author grew up. Its central premise: What if a child’s imaginary friend is actually a demon? I won’t say a word more about the plot, because this lean, atmospheric, and chilling book is all about the story. Possibly a better Halloween novel than a Christmas book, A Good and Happy Child seems to me perfectly orthodox (in the Catholic sense) in its treatment of demonic possession, though it may provoke unease in readers attuned to the suffering of the mentally ill. Of course, it’s meant to do just that.

If submerging yourself in a fully furnished fictional world that goes on and on is more to your taste, you can do no better than to seek out the hard-to-find Bold as Love series by Gwyneth Jones. Think of it as a quest. For a free taste, check out the series Web site, a multimedia work of art in its own right, at www.boldaslove.co.uk. The five novels take their titles from Jimi Hendrix’s song list, and they tell the story of a near-future “Dissolution” of England, in which rock stars rise to the occasion of holding a nation together in the face of environmental crisis, economic collapse, Internet quarantine, a bloody coup, and the threat of a Neurobomb technology that can break the mind/matter barrier. Three major musician characters, Ax (president of the Rock ’n’ Roll Reich), Fiorinda (protector of the displaced masses), and Sage (who comes back alive from the Zen Self neuroscience experiments), enact an Arthurian saga of power politics and love. Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot in a threesome: these novels are not for children.

Bold as Love (Gollancz, 288 pp.), winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, introduces the large cast of characters Jones employs throughout the series. You may find it in a library or used through online booksellers. If Bold as Love, Castles Made of Sand (Gollancz, 368 pp.), and Midnight Lamp (£6.99, 336 pp.) riff on Arthurian themes, Band of Gypsys (Gollancz, £6.99, 304 pp.) takes a considerably more Shakespearean turn. Like Rainbow Bridge (Gollancz, £7.99, 364 pp.), the final installment in the sequence, Band of Gypsys and Midnight Lamp are in print in the United Kingdom as paperbacks. Literate, highly allusive, and character-driven, these novels will rearrange your conception of what “science fiction” means. Normally, serious literary fiction flirts with sci-fi only in the form of dystopia, but Bold as Love puts the question positively: What would it take to build a utopia, and who would you put in the seats of that Round Table? Rock stars...our new royalty.

Speaking of royalty, you cannot miss Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader: A Novella (Picador, $12, 128 pp.). What happens when the Queen of England stumbles upon the book van at Buckingham Palace? Last Christmas I put this book in my dad’s hands and listened to him hoot at it all day long as I fixed the turkey dinner.  



Read more: Christmas Critics from 2007 and 2009
Published in the 2008-12-05 issue: 
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Suzanne Keen is the Thomas H. Broadus Professor of English at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.

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