Characters Come Alive

12.10.12

This Week’s Hot Reads: Dec. 10, 2012

This week, a fictionalization surrounding Kafka’s love letters and a history of a lesser-known crisis of Lincoln’s presidency. By Nicholas Mancusi.

Making an Exit
By Sarah Murray

A journalist’s fascinating investigation into the different ways that various cultures of the world face death.

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‘Making an Exit: From the Magnificent to the Macabre—How We Dignify the Dead’ by Sarah Murray. 320 pp. Picador. $16. ()

If funereal practices are as much for the benefit of the living as they are for the deceased, then how we think about death says much about how we think about life. In Making an Exit, Financial Times contributor Sarah Murray attempts to catalog, in a lively manner very much in juxtaposition with the subject matter, the ways in which various cultures across the world approach death and mourning. It is particularly interesting that the observer on these macabre expeditions is a native of England, a land where upper lips are stiff, scenes are generally not made, and the default posture in the face of trauma, death especially, is a dignified stoicism. Although the subject matter is inherently dark, the book is far from morose, and whether Murray is attending a convention for funeral-home directors, skulking through a Palermo crypt filled with corpses in various states of decomposition, or witnessing the spectacle of a gaudy Balinese funeral pyre, her wry and personal prose lends a necessary dash of humor to what would otherwise be perhaps less palatable investigations. Along with larger societal and cultural issues, Murray also shines a light inward, on her own journey dealing with the death of her father.

38 Nooses
By Scott W. Berg

In the darkest hour of the Civil War, Lincoln’s attentions must turn west to an Indian uprising in Minnesota.

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‘38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End’ by Scott W. Berg. 384 pp. Pantheon. $28. ()

Abraham Lincoln was a busy man in 1862, and not only because the outcome of the Civil War was still much in doubt and the wrangling of the Emancipation Proclamation was in full swing. In 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End, Scott W. Berg recalls the little-known story of the six-week Dakota War of 1862, when a series of attacks by warriors of the Dakota tribe in Minnesota caused large civilian casualties. Berg positions the book with the perfect focal length, tight enough to include fascinating and fleshed-out characters such as Little Crow, a skillful leader cursed with the gift of foresight, the captive-turned-supporter of the Indians Sarah Wakefield, and Lincoln himself, but also wide enough to capture the moral arc of the entire nation. Berg paints a picture of Lincoln that is as tormented and fallible as much of the scholarship around him would seem to indicate: Lincoln at once shows mercy to 265 of the 300 Dakotas condemned to die, while at the same time sealing the destruction of their way of life by reaffirming, in one of the many scenes imbued with the sadness and sense of doom that comes along with knowing the conclusion in advance, that he “can see no way in which your race is to become as numerous and prosperous as the white race except by living as they do.”

Kafka in Love
By Jaqueline Raoul-Duval

Part history and part novel, a fictionalization of Kafka’s letters explains some of the underpinnings of his work.

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‘Kafka in Love’ by Jaqueline Raoul-Duval. 288 pp. Other Press. $16. ()

Kafka in Love, by French novelist Jacqueline Raoul-Duval, is presented in a unique form. Not quite historical fiction and not quite a collection of primary documents, it is more of a “dramatic recreation” of Kafka’s letters to the four women who captured his heart. The book shares with its namesake Shakespeare in Love in the intensity of Kafka’s obsessions, but with an added touch of sturm und drang. The letters reveal the writer’s neuroses and penchant for pessimism. As he writes one lover: “My real fear—nothing worse could be said or heard—is that I will never be able to possess you.” And it becomes clear that he was never well suited for any kind of stable relationship. Replies that same woman later: “The only thing that interests you, as you’ve said a hundred times, is tormenting others and being tormented! I’ve had enough of being both your victim and executioner.” Through Kafka’s turbulent personal life, the reader can see the themes of his most enduring works of fiction taking hold in the forefront of his mind; humiliation, fatalism, and trial.

A Possible Life
By Sebastian Faulks

Five different stories by the respected author from the U.K., all very different in time and place. but similar in theme and sensitivities.

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‘A Possible Life: A Novel in Five Parts’ by Sebastian Faulks. 304 pp. Henry Holt and Co. $25. ()

English author Sebastian Faulks’ new novel A Possible Life is really five in one, each in different settings: occupied Poland during WWII, a Victorian poorhouse, a French village in the 1800s, the American Catskill’s in the 1970s, and the very near future after governmental collapse. The novellas feature main characters struggling to get outside of their own head, establish real human connections, and understand their own lives as something coherent and redeemable. Novels like this are generally open to charges of showing off, or that the author sacrificed good storytelling for an inventive structure, and the relatively new idea of a “novel in stories” can sometimes be a bit a of a stretch. But the book, to its own benefit, isn’t nearly as complicated or difficult as the jacket copy might lead the reader to believe. Faulks uses the five novellas to shine light from different angles on to the same truths about love and human experience, and to show how certain things chance across the spectrum of time and place. However, the slightly awkward length of the stories may leave the reader wanting much less (a proper short story) or much more (a proper novel). 

Victorian Bloomsbury
By Rosemary Ashton

An in-depth and original history of the London neighborhood that’s been a hotbed of art and civic progress.

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‘Victorian Bloomsbury’ by Rosemary Ashton. 400 pp. Yale University Press. $32. ()

Place can often be inextricable with our conception of certain artists and movements. As Greenwich Village can be found in the work of Lou Reed or Paris in the work of Gertrude Stein, so too is the London neighborhood of Bloomsbury associated with Virginia Woolf and her clique, John Maynard Keynes and E.M. Forster among them. In Victorian Bloomsbury, University College London literature professor Rosemary Ashton makes the case that Woolf and other great creators didn’t gravitate toward the area by accident but rather due to its rich tradition to progressivism and individuality. And it wasn’t only art that flourished there; displaying an incredible body of research, Ashton shows how the neighborhood was home to many firsts: the first medical school for women, the first kindergarten in Britain, England’s first secular university, etc. This is a highly comprehensive history that may be daunting for casual readers, but will be invaluable for anyone interested in the history of that particular neighborhood or how a place grows and coalescences into a movement.