This Week’s Hot Reads: Sept. 30, 2013

From a novel on nostalgia to a novel on paranoia.

Nostalgia by Dennis McFarland.

Summerfield Hayes, a Brooklyn-born soldier late of the Union Army, wakes up in a hospital bed unable to speak. He has been rendered mute by what in 1864 was a medical diagnosis: nostalgia. A modern name for it might be post-traumatic stress disorder. In his new novel, entitled Nostalgia, Dennis McFarland explores how war makes some men prisoners of their own minds. Though in a state of near catatonia, Hayes’s synapses are busily firing. His memories intermittently reveal both his battlefield trauma and an emotionally fraught, too-close relationship with a sister he left in Brooklyn. At his side, volunteering to help the wounded, is the poet laureate of the American Civil War himself, Walt Whitman. Wise, humble and benevolent, this fictional Whitman is a saintly version of the real man, a sort of literary guardian angel for the drifting and damaged Hayes. Nostalgia asks whether men can ever entirely recover from being at war; McFarland never provides a clear answer. He does suggest, however, that America’s broken young men sought relief in an emerging pastime, one that recalled the games of their idyllic youths. Summerfield Hayes is a baseball player, one of America’s first.

—Thomas Flynn

Jack London: An American Life by Earle Labor.

When Jack London died at age 40, The San Francisco Bulletin’s headline read, “He of All Men Was Supremely Alive.” More so than most writers, the life of Jack London was always as much a story as his work was, which despite influencing Hemingway and Steinbeck, has since fallen out of favor. In Jack London: An American Life, Earle Labor sifts through the myths of London’s self-invented “American Kipling” persona to reveal a remarkable and at times remarkably frustrating man. London was famously charismatic, but to those closest to him, he could be vindictively cruel. He was ambitious and productive—he published 50 books before he was forty, Call of the Wild when he was only 27, and wrote 1,000 words every day without fail—but was also a depressed and self-destructive alcoholic. He may have even been bipolar. Despite being the best-selling author of his day, London was constantly broke, often writing to pay his debts. He was an adventurer and thrill seeker, but also an ardent radical socialist. Labor captures all these facets of his, as his wife Charmian put it, “kaledoscopic personality,” while still conveying his remarkable talent and obsessive self-improvement. The London in An American Life is as fascinating for his turmoil and dysfunction as he was in his time for his globetrotting and adventuring.


Shakespeare’s Restless World by Neil MacGregor.

“Explaining Shakespeare is an infinite exercise,” Harold Bloom, the Shakespeare Scholar Supreme, has said. “You will become exhausted long before the plays are emptied out.” Very well, then, we need not linger on the plays, as scholars have of late been devoted to situating the Bard in his time and place, thanks to the ascendancy of New Historicism. To that effort we are thankful for Stephen Greenblatt’s Will In the World and James Shapiro’s A Year In the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, two lucid and balanced accounts designed to remind us that Shakespeare, too, was a product of his age. Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, has recognized that the method he pioneered in the popular BBC radio series and book A History of the World in 100 Objects, in which he told the stories of 100 historical artifacts, could represent the next stage of Greenblatt’s and Shapiro’s approach. The new book is also based on a BBC series, and through 20 objects, MacGregor connects us with the 52 years of Shakespeare’s life. A rapier and a dagger found on the Thames foreshore show us that swordfights routinely broke out on the streets of London. Shakespeare’s rival playwright Ben Jonson killed the actor Gabriel Spencer in a duel in 1596, and the same year a man named William Wayte accused one William Shakespeare to be one of four assailants who attacked him outside the Swan Theatre. The preserved eyeball of the Jesuit priest Edward Oldcorne, who was accused and hung for being involved in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, allowed MacGregor to remind us that “when Guy Fawkes very nearly blew up James I inside the House of Parliament, [it] shook public opinion in much the same way as the destruction of the Twin Towers did the modern world.” Indeed, the news items of the 1600s do turn up in Shakespeare, and the campaign to weed out the plot’s conspirators and eradicate enemies provide some of the most interesting allusions and in-jokes in, say, Macbeth. MacGregor’s 20 objects allow us to look back in time, but unfortunately isn’t as helpful for understanding Shakespeare’s work better. MacGregor knows the objects. But then there are the plays.

—Jimmy So

The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson.

Speaking of the Gundpowder Plot, James I did not hesitate to condemn it as a Catholic conspiracy that involved the Pope, the King of Spain, the Jesuits, and anyone he wished to get rid of. The paranoia he unleashed was so overwhelming that it seeped into every pore of society, including the Pendle witch trials. This is the setting for the new novel by Jeanette Winterson. The Daylight Gate is a cryptic, gothic retelling of the events in 1612, when about a dozen poor women and men were tried and executed for witchcraft, many of them based on the evidence of a 9-year-old girl. The wealthy widow Alice Nutter was also hung for allowing the group to meet on land that she owned. That two of her brothers were executed for being Jesuit priests did not help her case, and Winterson economically (this is a short book) reimagines the lives of the victims, showing just how far the phobias of the powers that be can spread.