This Week’s Hot Reads: Feb. 7, 2012

This week: a balloon expedition to the North Pole and Stephen Fry’s memoir.

The Ice BalloonBy Alec Wilkinson

In 1897, three men in a cold, lonely balloon float toward the North Pole—and to their deaths. A haunting book.

Once in a while you come across a book that so fully transfixes your imaginative gaze, it ceases to become a book but simply a story. In 1876, a 23-year-old Swede named S.A. Andrée went to see the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. To be able to afford the ticket fare, he worked as a janitor at the Swedish Pavilion. He fell in love with all the new inventions and visited ballooning pioneer John Wise. From that point on he was gripped by an obsession, and 21 years later, in 1897, he set off with two companions to the North Pole—in a hydrogen balloon. Imagine an orb of ice in the sky, drifting toward a white kingdom. After nearly three days, the frozen balloon grew so heavy and sank so low that they were forced to land 300 miles from the pole, halfway there. They tried to walk back to civilization, and 33 years later their bodies were found on White Island, which is part of Norway. Their photographs and journals were found—documents of ghosts. “It is not a little strange to be floating here above the Polar Sea … How soon, I wonder, shall we have successors?” Andrée wrote in his diary as the others slept. You can see where the inception occurred: the pavilion where a young janitor imagined a future of adventure is now the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre in New York’s Central Park. Such an earthly scene; such a North Star dream.

The Flame AlphabetBy Ben Marcus

Best known for defending experimental fiction in his feud with Jonathan Franzen, the novelist has written his most conventional novel yet.

Ben Marcus has the unenviable position of exhibiting tropes that can be easily mocked. Self-important narration: “This book is the catalog of the life project …” or “I offer this message under duress …” “Ben Marcus” is the “improbable author of this book.” Capital letters rise like popcorn to infuse “Western Worship Boxes” or “Father of Distinction” with the force of metaphor. The nearly biblical title The Flame Alphabet—his first novel in a decade—has such a force, and there’s a real plot here, to the surprise of his familiar readers. Albeit it’s more like a Saramago plot: children’s speech has become deadly for adults, and Sam tries to save his wife, Claire, and reunite with his 14-year-old daughter Esther. The conceit could have played as comedy, but there’s no use complaining about what the author did not intend. Anyway, there is truly good writing here: “Now the little gate opens and out they come, dazed and already ill. No doubt they will not live long,” he writes, describing the “easy-speaking ones.” Early on, there is even “a fiendish strain of childless adults who consumed the toxic language on purpose, as a drug”—as good a metaphor for doting parents who feed off baby talk as I’ve seen. His primary concern is language in all its allegorical powers, but Lydia Davis’s similar but earnest explorations are far more moving than Marcus’s experimentation. Then again, isn’t Davis far more moving than pretty much anyone?

Life SentencesBy William H. Gass

A feared and revered critic (and spectacular fiction writer) shows us the building blocks of sublime sentences—and, as the title tells you, he’s dedicated his life to them.

If you think Marcus’s fiction is difficult or experimental, then what is Gass’s The Tunnel? It is, in one word, overwhelming, designed to be so. But Gass can be very warm, especially in his criticism. “Was it in the summer? It probably was … when you thought you had enough time on your hands to fill them with a book, when an unappointed space had appeared in your life … the summer when you decided to read Proust.” That’s a sentence that contains every reader’s first experience with In Search of Lost Time. No matter the season, it’s always summer with Proust. You thought an “unappointed” space had opened up, and “decided” to start down Swann’s Way—but you’re never in control. You only thought you had enough time, but Proust is too vast, too rich. Proust’s books make summer—any summer—better, and it is this prizing of words over life that positions Gass as one of the most demanding statesmen of American letters. “I write to indict mankind.” This new collection of essays does that, particularly in “Kinds of Killing,” his review of Richard J. Evans’s trilogy of Third Reich history. But Gass is at his best not when he’s misanthropic, but when he celebrates the written word—by always striving for the best combination of them, he pays them proper respect.

Girl ReadingBy Katie Ward

The first-time novelist dramatizes seven works of art that show women reading—and thereby hangs a tale. Well, seven tales, really.

Katie Ward’s first novel is more a collection of thematically connected stories than a cohesive narrative—seven scenes come together into one slide show. The gorgeous opener is a dramatization of the painting of 14th-century Italian artist Simone Martini’s Annunciation With St. Margaret and St. Ansanus. An orphan poses for Martini, and the best thing about this story is what’s not told: silence, mystery, and what’s outside the frame converge, showing that even the imagination can be—must be—limited. Ward’s writing can be delicious—she describes marks on the orphan’s neck as “like bruises on fruit,” and graves as “filled with after-the-fact wisdom.” But there’s a detachment in Ward’s sentences; she doesn’t quite know how to begin or end them. So it is that they do not flow, and are more like vignettes. The title is deceptive: the strength of this promising debut is not in “reading,” but in “seeing.” “He hangs his head, discouraged, unaware how he has pleased his mother.” The writer, from a vantage point, looks on, and records all of these different moments: someone hanging his head, or a girl reading.

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The Fry ChroniclesBy Stephen Fry

The British actor and comedian peppers every anecdote with wisecracks in a memoir covering his life from 18 to 30.

And now for something completely different. Stephen Fry can write. But even very good writers fumble memoirs more often than not. Fry, best known in the U.S. as the bumbling inspector in Gosford Park and comedian Gordon Deitrich in V for Vendetta, has also authored four novels and a memoir of his childhood. Now we have the second volume of his autobiography, covering the years between 1975 and 1987, from the age of 18 to 30. Surely these are the formative years, but Fry’s mistake is that he deprecates himself so much as to make his life seem trivial. It is certainly not that. Partnering with such absurdly talented friends as Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson at and after Cambridge, Fry emerges from the pack able to hold his own—it helps that he reads widely, with a fondness for Forster, Waugh, Wodehouse, and Wilde, whom he played in a 1997 film. What doesn’t help is his insistence on labeling every chapter and every section with words that begin with the letter C. Therefore, “College to Colleague,” “C Is for Cigarettes,” “Comedy,” and even “Create!” and “C Is for C12H22O11.” To say such an extraction of alliteration is forced is unnecessary—it's just that Fry begins to sound like that most beloved character he’s played, Jeeves. The valet is always in control, and the reader, resigned to being a Bertie (who was played by Laurie in Jeeves and Wooster), can’t help but feel he’s being put on. “Between funny and witty falls the shadow,” Fry writes of his insecurities up against his friends. There are sincerely funny moments in this volume, and there are shadows—but, even better, the days of A Bit of Fry and Laurie await.