Hot Reads

01.03.12

This Week’s Hot Reads, January 2, 2012

This week: a satiric novel about the Chinese state, Pico Iyer’s adventures with Graham Greene, the nasty history of Frano-Anglo meddling in the Middle East, thrilling Victorian detective fiction, and a publishing giant’s memoirs.

The Fat Years
By Chan Koonchung

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The Fat Years By Chan Koonchung 336 pages. Nan A. Talese. $26.95. ()

Chan Koonchung's satirical portrait of a world-dominant China, The Fat Years, tells the story of a writer gradually made to question the foundations of a thriving society too content and repressed to examine them. Almost everyone in Koonchung's China is happy, manically happy, including Chen, the protagonist. But when he runs into two old friends, he gets clued into something strange: a month has gone missing from the collective memory. With its obvious allegory for the state's censorship of events like those of 1989, The Fat Years is banned in China. Yet just as some characters in the novel thrive amidst the booming economy and controlling state, the novel became popular online and Chan himself now lives in Beijing.

The Man Within My Head
By Pico Iyer

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The Man Within My Head By Pico Iyer 256 pages. Knopf. $25.95. ()

The latest book by Pico Iyer, travel writer, essayist, and novelist, is both a memoir and a tribute to Graham Greene. Stories of Iyer’s travels are interspersed with musings about his own father and the English author, whom Iyer sees as a sort of spiritual father. Except for an affinity for solo travel and a spiritual bent, Iyer seemingly has little in common with Greene, yet he says he has long found sentences of the author’s popping into his head—hence the title, which is also a reference to Greene’s novel, The Man Within. As Iyer investigates Greene’s life, he finds more parallels with his own, some superficial and some profound, which Iyer susses out in his usual composed, flowing prose. 

A Line in the Sand: The Anglo-French Struggle for the Middle East, 1914-1948
By James Barr

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A Line in the Sand: The Anglo-French Struggle for the Middle East, 1914-1948 By James Barr 464 pages. W. W. Norton & Company. $29.95. ()

Many historians seeking to trace the etiology of the Middle East’s current troubles have examined the period immediately after World War I when Britain and France were divvying up of the former Ottoman colonies. In A Line in the Sand, Barr argues that Britain and France didn’t just botch the job, they cynically fanned the flames of local unrest as they jockeyed for advantage over their ostensible ally. Britain’s backing of a Jewish state in Palestine was cover for the seizure of the eastern side of the Suez Canal; France’s arming of Jewish insurgents, Barr argues, was revenge for Britain’s backing of independence movements in French-controlled Syria. What distinguishes Barr’s account is that it takes place mostly at ground level: among the diplomats, statesmen, and spies conniving against one another in a tangled mess of intrigue.

The Dead Witness: A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Detective Stories
Edited by Michael Sims

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The Dead Witness: A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Detective Stories Edited by Michael Sims 608 pages. Walker & Company. $20. ()

In The Dead Witness, editor Michael Sims collects some excellent well-known and lesser-known examples of Victorian detective fiction, including some by neglected female writers in the genre. The title story, a Gothic-detective hybrid published in Australia in 1866, is the first known detective story by a woman. The collection contains classics from Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as forgotten works, such as a story by William E. Burton, republished here for the first time since its original printing in 1837—before Poe's “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which is generally considered the first true detective story. Each is expertly introduced by Michael Sims, an aficionado of the genre.

The Tender Hour of Twilight
By Richard Seaver. Edited by Jeannette Seaver.

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The Tender Hour of Twilight By Richard Seaver. Edited by Jeannette Seaver. 480 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $35. ()

Richard Seaver was at the center of literary life in 1950s Paris, establishing the magazine Merlin, and publishing Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet. He championed Samuel Beckett in an essay that got the attention of Barney Rosset, the editor of Grove Press, which helped bring Beckett to American audiences. It also got Seaver a job at Grove, where he went on to publish Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer, Naked Lunch, and other iconic works, often over the objections of censors. Seaver died in 2009 and The Tender Hour of Twilight is his memoir, condensed by his wife from 900 pages of notes he wrote over the course of his life.