Click here to read more from Slate’s fall fiction week.
Slatehas asked a number of its contributors to review recent books of note in 300 words or less. Check the responses below for a handy guide to what’s worth reading this fall.
Like You’d Understand, Anyway by Jim Shepard (Knopf). “My head has always been the busiest of crossroads,” says Aeschylus in “My Aeschylus,” a short story from Shepard’s new collection. The character might be speaking for his protean creator. With equal ease, Shepard can channel the fifth-century B.C. Greek playwright, looking back over his life as he prepares to fight a battle in middle age; a French executioner overwhelmed by his bloody work after the Revolution turns into the Terror; or a female Soviet astronaut following her lover into space on one of the earliest manned missions to orbit the Earth. Nor does Shepard traffic only in scrupulously researched period fiction. The quietly brutal “Courtesy for Beginners” follows a lonely 12-year-old boy through his first week at summer camp: Think Lord of the Flies, with lanyards. The stories do share some interests, even some obsessions. They’re all told in the first person, and many revolve around what one narrator delicately terms “brother issues”: the raw struggle for dominance among young men desperate for paternal recognition. But the main thread uniting the collection is Shepard’s deep respect for his characters’ humanity, whether they’re Nazi scientists hunting the yeti in Tibet or Russian engineers who may have shared responsibility for Chernobyl.— Dana Stevens
Ghost by Alan Lightman (Pantheon). Alan Lightman’s gauzy new novel explores how an apparent brush with the paranormal can lead an otherwise rational man into personal chaos. David, a fired-bank-worker-turned-mortuary-assistant, sees a ghostly vapor in the funeral home’s “slumber room.” He is quickly thrust into a (somewhat improbable) media circus; trapped between friends who want him to renounce his apparent vision and leaders of the “Society for the Second World” who are eager to make him a poster boy for belief in the supernatural. A good deal of hand-wringing and philosophizing ensues. In earlier works, like the celebrated Einstein’s Dreams, Lightman created a disorienting netherworld in which questions of science and metaphysics commingle. Though anything by Lightman is worth reading, this book is less substantial than its predecessors. Its minor characters (the psychologist, the mother, the lawyer, the ex-wife) read like incorporeal projections of David’s own inner struggle, which itself feels hazy. Is David’s turmoil the result of a true visitation or the (belated) product of his unhappy childhood and failed marriage? It seems to me that it’s the latter, and so the supernatural elements of the novel feel gimmicky and artificial.— Amanda Schaffer
The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland (Bloomsbury). Douglas Coupland’s new novel is a good quick read, though it could have been quicker and it could have been better. It would take Edward Tufte to map out the book’s narrative structure, but here are the basics: Roger, our hero, is a Staples employee, an alcoholic, and a diarist. One day, Roger writes a somewhat mean-spirited entry in the voice of fellow employee Bethany, an overweight, half-hearted goth. He then proceeds to forget his diary in the break room, where—surprise—Bethany discovers it. She’s miffed that some creep two decades her senior would presume to imagine what goes on inside her head, but she’s also in desperate need of something to distract her from the drudgery of stocking shelves at Shtooples, as she likes to call it. Bethany thus proposes that she and Roger begin exchanging diary entries. So far, so good—the epistolary, and strictly platonic, relationship the two develop is frequently touching, and Bethany’s run-ins with an implacable customer she calls Mr. Rant will ring painfully true for anyone who has ever worked retail. Unfortunately, Roger isn’t just a diarist, he’s also an aspiring novelist, and over the course of the book we encounter the full text of Glove Pond, Roger’s roman à clef (an unapologetic pastiche of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). It’s one conceit too many, and an unfortunate distraction from what otherwise might have been an affecting story of two kindred spirits trapped in a purgatory of paper, pens, and Post-its.— John Swansburg
A Secular Age by Charles Taylor (Belknap Press). In medieval times virtually everyone in the Western world believed in God; disbelief was hard since magic appeared to be everywhere. Charles Taylor describes this earlier time as having “the social grounded in the sacred” and “human drama unfolded within a cosmos.” Today belief in God is often seen as “optional,” most of all in Western Europe. The modern world, Taylor argues, creates an open space where people can wander spiritually. Reason has been exalted as the best road to knowledge, and thus many people choose uncertain detachment rather than commit to one particular religious worldview. Taylor’s masterful integration of history, sociology, philosophy, and theology demands much of the reader. In return you will be convinced that Charles Taylor is one of the smartest and deepest social thinkers of our time.— Tyler Cowen
Reporting Iraq: An Oral History of the War by the Journalists Who Covered It, eds. Mike Hoyt, John Palattella, and the staff of the Columbia Journalism Review (Melville House). While Iraq war correspondents were still shaking the sand out of their boots, Bill Katovsky and Timothy Carlson sat them down for an instant oral history of the invasion for Embedded: The Media at War in Iraq. Katovsky and Carlson produced the book on a magazine deadline, publishing it just six months after the war commenced. Now comes Embedded’s worthy successor, Reporting Iraq. One passage quotes Ali Fadhil, an Iraqi doctor turned reporter, and Canadian freelancer Patrick Graham from a November 2006 panel as they express their frustration at the limits of Western coverage of the war without end. Fadhil’s message is simple: The best journalism is local.
Fadhil: Right now when I read stories in The New York Times, to be honest I find it’s more close to reality than before. And the reason why, I think … Graham: Because the journalists can’t go out.Fadhil:Exactly. It’s coming through the Iraqis who are working with them, who know the place. … Seriously, I believe that because it is going through the Iraqis and they are depending on the Iraqis more, it is becoming close to what is happening really on the ground. Is it fair? I don’t know. Is it like everything is fact checked? I don’t know. … [But] it’s amazing to me as an Iraqi. I read it here, I read it in the way they are putting it. I believe, but again it’s very difficult to verify.
The Conscience of A Liberal by Paul Krugman (Norton). Here is that rarest of policy tomes—an unabashedly liberal manifesto that addresses the problem of economic inequality without proposing a protectionist solution. Krugman is best known for his op-ed column in the New York Times (previously he was a Slate columnist). But he is also a Princeton economist, and this book, though not remotely an academic work, is informed by his expertise. Krugman’s most provocative argument is that globalization and ever-more-efficient market capitalism can’t fully explain our increasingly winner-take-all economy, since inequality is a significantly greater problem in the United States than it is in other wealthy countries subject to the same economic forces. Rather, it is government policies and the societal ethic they encourage that have widened the gap between rich and poor.
Tracing U.S. history over the past century, Krugman finds that the economic inequality of the late 19th century’s Gilded Age—the robber barons’ heyday—held fast until Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, only to return after Ronald Reagan became president in 1980. That might seem intuitively true to political activists, but the standard wonk view (heretofore embraced by me) is that government can affect economic behavior only at the margins. Krugman, though, cites strong academic evidence to argue that the right’s political ascendancy hasn’t reinforced inequality in the United States so much as it’s created it. Rather than offer the usual laundry list of policy solutions typically found in whither-liberalism treatises, Krugman offers one: national health care. His discussion of health-care reform, essentially an expanded and updated version of a superb essay that Krugman and his wife, Robin Wells, published last year in the New York Review of Books, makes the most concise and persuasive case for a single-payer solution that I’ve ever seen.—Timothy Noah
Chic Ironic Bitterness by R. Jay Magill Jr. (University of Michigan). One of the many perks of working at Slate—besides free lighting—are the bound galleys that publishers send for review. Books that would normally be encountered in the musty back rooms of a university bookstore are available fresh from their padded envelopes. Chic Ironic Bitterness caught my eye with its perfect title. The I-word has been sullied and made annoying by misuse, and it’s also a quivering, inchoate concept. Magill deftly delineates the philosophic antecedents that have led to our present conception of irony, and takes the more difficult step of describing the societal effects that a widely adopted ironic viewpoint produces. To wit: “A culture falsely enthusiastic over the trivial is ironically expressing the dead energy of a loftier political ideology.” The author’s self-deprecating style befits his subject, and he demonstrates, with flair, that Generation X did not invent detachment. Hearken to the words of Walt Whitman in 1866: “The men believe not in the women, nor women in the men … and the aim of the litterateurs is to find something to make fun of. … Genuine belief has left us.” Sounds like Gawker to me.— Michael Agger