Review of reviews: Books
Book of the week
The Fix: How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World in Decline
by Jonathan Tepperman (Tim Duggan, $28)
“In many ways, 2016 seems like the worst year in recent memory in which to publish a book made out of optimism,” said Steve Donoghue in CSMonitor.com. But journalist Jonathan Tepperman has done all of us worriers a favor by focusing on 10 stories around the globe that suggest leaders still can tackle seemingly intractable problems. Brazil, we learn, has dramatically reduced extreme poverty by making direct cash payments to families. In Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, inviting Islamist factions into the ruling coalition has quelled violent extremism. Political corruption, government gridlock, and financial panics also come up for case-study treatment. Though Tepperman identifies only top-down solutions, and doesn’t always reveal potential pitfalls, The Fix proves to be “an ultimately inspiring performance.”
Tepperman, who’s currently the managing editor at Foreign Affairs, “goes into impressive detail in each case study,” said Michael Hirsh in The New York Times. He traveled the globe to observe his heroes’ work in action, and includes among his interviewees the current or former presidents of Brazil, Indonesia, Rwanda, and Mexico. America’s southern neighbor may seem an unlikely source of a story about good governance, but before President Enrique Peña Nieto was lambasted for meeting with prospective wall builder Donald Trump last month, he’d managed to convince his nation’s political elites that they had nothing to lose by breaking through partisan gridlock. Tepperman stresses that many of the efforts his book highlights are works in progress and could fail. But the bigger question is whether they’re transferable. Canada’s success in integrating immigrants, for example, may have less to do with its political leadership than the fact that its citizens have a vast, sparsely populated territory to share.
Tepperman acknowledges that none of the good works he describes are quick fixes, said James Crabtree in the Financial Times. Canada’s immigration policy was explicitly racist before Quebec’s 1970s separatist movement forced a long, gradual shift to the multicultural spirit of today. Elsewhere, leaders risked short-term unpopularity to put their nations on a better path; “in a number of Tepperman’s cases, the successful fixers themselves lose public support.” But in the age of Brexit and ISIS and rising impatience among American voters on both the Left and Right, the prospect of the old world order unraveling could be enough to stir our leaders to action. “What feels like a moment of undisguised calamity may actually be just the moment to rebuild.”
Novel of the week
The Lesser Bohemians
by Eimear McBride (Hogarth, $26)
Eimear McBride’s second novel is “every bit as urgent” as her celebrated 2013 debut, said Toby Lichtig in The Wall Street Journal. “It is also more well-rounded, better.” This time out, McBride’s narrator is an 18-year-old drama student who during her first year in London takes up with a devilish Lothario twice her age. As in A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, the word order of the sentences here is often scrambled—“ to ingenious and poetic effect.” As the tumultuous affair unfolds, often in sex scenes that advance the story or reveal character, McBride channels her narrator’s mental life “with an intensity that few authors can achieve.” I only wish I’d had longer with Eily’s whirring interiority before Stephen colonized her thoughts, said Annalisa Quinn in NPR.org. To be fair, Stephen gradually grows more compelling, and we’re expected to miss the old Eily. “The Lesser Bohemians is a love story, yes, but it is really an electric and beautiful account of how the walls of self shift and buckle and are rebuilt.”
Ferrante ‘unmasked’: Can no author choose privacy?
One of the world’s great literary mysteries has apparently been solved, and readers everywhere are furious, said Constance Grady in Vox.com. In a story published this past Sunday in The New York Review of Books and three European newspapers, Italian journalist Claudio Gatti announced that he had identified the novelist who has risen to global fame as Elena Ferrante. Denunciations came swiftly, and “it’s not hard to see why.” Ferrante, who’s become a cult figure since her quartet of Neapolitan novels began appearing in translation in 2012, has said she cherishes her anonymity and would stop writing if unmasked. Her fans were stunned to learn that the author they love is a translator named Anita Raja, who grew up in Rome, not Naples. But they’re angry at Gatti, not Raja, because a crime has occurred: “We have killed Elena Ferrante.”
“This isn’t as simple as a private woman being exposed against her will,” said Amanda Whiting in Washingtonian.com. Raja has been engaged in a grand deception. In recent email interviews, and in Frantumaglia, a forthcoming book of autobiographical jottings, Ferrante claimed she was raised in Naples by a seamstress, has three sisters, and is single. Raja has no sisters, is married to a novelist, and her father was a magistrate. The discrepancies “represent a deliberate attempt to defraud Ferrante’s readers into thinking she is something other than she is.”
Still, it’s hard to see Gatti’s naming of Raja as “anything other than an attempt to do her harm,” said Charlotte Shane in TheNewRepublic.com. Her crime, apparently, is that she wanted to participate in the public sphere while setting boundaries around her private life. Gatti has even suggested that Raja’s husband helped write the books. “Of course a woman alone could never write books as imaginative and forceful as hers.” What’s most infuriating, said Aaron Bady in TheNewInquiry.com, is that Ferrante’s beloved novel series about two female friends is “literally and directly and magnificently about female self-making,” about controlling one’s identity in the face of the hostility of the patriarchy. They are, in short, “about why not to do this.”