ROTH UNBOUND: A Writer and His Books
By Claudia Roth Pierpont
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
353 pp., $27
Philip Roth, who last year announced his retirement from writing novels, isn’t completely finished. As Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation) points out, the author still pens essays and letters, writing constantly; he “can’t stop turning life into words.” And although this isn’t a typical no-stone-unturned biography — some girlfriends are barely mentioned — in chronicling and examining Roth’s fictional oeuvre Pierpont brilliantly captures much of Roth’s life in her words. Prolific and provocative, Roth repeatedly wrestled with ideas of Jewish identity, American politics, psychoanalysis, history, and sex. From early fame with “Goodbye, Columbus” and “Portnoy’s Complaint,” Roth’s work included some critically savaged experiments before a kind of renaissance with “American Pastoral,” “The Human Stain,” and “The Plot Against America.” These late novels earned him some of the best reviews of his life, but Pierpont says, “[I]t is equally possible to favor some of the more unruly and ecstatic earlier books, as I do.”
Pierpont describes a man “placidly uninterested in literary trends,” yet rarely placid about anything else. Pilloried by some Jewish voices after “Portnoy” and frequently labeled a misogynist for his treatment of his female characters (and, unfairly in Pierpont’s opinion, in the picture painted of him in his second wife’s memoir), Roth “courted the wrath of the rabbis, the Times critics, and the feminists.” A staff writer for The New Yorker and a friend of Roth’s, Pierpont brings admiration and affection to her assessment, while never relinquishing critical integrity. A “master of the rapturous list,” Roth can go too far, building fiction out of “a compendium of speeches, propositions, and diatribes.” Yet it’s from one of his least successful books that Pierpont mines this gem, “as close to a credo as Roth has ever written’’: “As an artist the nuance is your task. Your task is not to simplify. . . . Not to erase the contradiction, not to deny the contradiction, but to see where, within the contradiction, lies the tormented human being.”
VANISHED: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II
By Wil S. Hylton
Riverhead, 272 pp., illustrated, $27.95
Often overshadowed by their more familiar European counterparts, the Pacific battles of World War II left behind thousands of families whose soldier sons and husbands were declared missing rather than dead. No hushed commemorations at cemeteries in Normandy for the survivors of these casualties, who likely died in the air or water. This kind of loss, writes Wil S. Hylton, is not only devastating but unsettling; loved ones “faced a story with no ending, and their inconsolable grief had as much to do with narrative as with death.”
“Vanished,” which chronicles the search for an airplane crew presumed missing over the South Pacific islands of what is now Pelau, marries an almost cinematically well-paced narrative with a deep sensitivity to the people whose lives it tells. The book, Hylton’s first, blends two stories: One tells of the divers, archaeologists, and amateur searchers whose quest is part adventure, part homage. The other follows the heartbreakingly young airmen, mostly from rural or small-town poverty (for many, Hylton writes, “[t]heir uniforms would be their first suits; their barracks, their first homes with lights and plumbing”), whose plane was shot down in 1944. Their letters home capture their fear and excitement, their boredom, their love for one another — and for the young wives and babies they left behind.
A READER’S BOOK OF DAYS: True Tales from the Lives and Works of Writers for Every Day of the Year
By Tom Nissley
Illustrated by Joanna Neborsky
Norton, 448 pp., $24.95
Believers in astrology will be put off by this book, because how could the zodiac really work if Thomas Mann and V. C. Andrews share a birthday (June 6)? Now, Edgar Allen Poe and Patricia Highsmith (Jan. 19) does make sense. One of those essential household objects, this book lists writers’ birthdays, death dates, and important events (such as the amputation of Arthur Rimbaud’s right leg on May 27). Even more tantalizingly, it combs through the literary landscape to highlight important fictional dates, from the Jan. 1 diary entry by Charlotte Haze in “Lolita” to Dec. 20, the date on which all of the action in Stewart O’Nan’s “Last Night at the Lobster” takes place. Terrifically fun.
THE SMITHSONIAN’S HISTORY OF AMERICA IN 101 OBJECTS
By Richard Kurin
Penguin, 762 pp., illustrated, $50
This is a wonderful idea for a book — telling an entire nation’s history not through the biographies of famous leaders or the dates of major events, but through a well-selected set of objects. Selected by curator Richard Kurin and colleagues, the objects reflect a long timeline (beginning with shale fossils half a billion years old) and a broad conception of history (pop culture, sports, and business, along with the usual political and military stuff).
Still, some might argue that titling a section on World War II “Greatest Generation” represents more hype than history (and another section’s title, “Manifest Destiny,” seems downright retrograde, unless the author meant it ironically). At times the prose feels as if it were written for the very young, or perhaps those visiting from another planet (the chapter on Julia Child’s kitchen begins: “Food acquisition, processing, and cooking are essential to all humans . . . ”), or worse, as if calibrated not to offend (all writing on slavery ends with the triumph of its end). A second volume looking at more vexed objects — a Boston anti-busing sign, for instance — would be welcome.