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Review of reviews: Books

What the critics said about the best new books

Book of the week

Bridge of Sighsby Richard Russo(Knopf, $26.95)

In Richard Russo’s new novel, 60-year-old Lou C. Lynch is jotting down his life story and reassessing its limited horizons. “Lucy,” as he’s teasingly known, has never left his fading, upstate New York hometown. “There wasn’t supposed to be any limit to the benefits of hard work and honesty,” he writes, recalling the boundlessness of his youthful faith in the American dream. But it turned out there was a limit. After marrying a high school sweetheart, Lynch succeeded merely in converting his father’s milk route into an “empire” of three convenience stores. Now he needs a more mature perspective—and fast. In days, he and his wife, Sarah, will be flying to Venice, Italy, to reunite with an old high school friend who long ago opted for a more adventurous life.

Lucy Lynch’s preoccupation with the limits of self-invention makes Bridge of Sighs more than Russo’s “most intricate, multifaceted novel,” said Ron Charles in The Washington Post. The author’s long-awaited follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize–winning Empire Falls is also “his most American story.” A “lovely, deep-hearted novel,” it sometimes attempts too much profundity. But as its three main characters mull over the adolescent years they spent together in a town poisoned by an upriver tannery, Bridge of Sighs becomes “a continual flow of little revelations.” If “it does not attain the stature of Empire Falls,” said Janet Maslin in The New York Times, that’s partly because Russo’s previous book also treated us to his vision of small-town life. What’s more, the voice doing the telling this time is damped by “touchingly unglamorous honesty and self-doubt.”

Much of the doubt accumulates around the idea that choice plays a big part in any life, said John Freeman in the Toronto Star. Lynch’s decision to stay put, his wife’s decision to join his path, and their friend Bobby’s decision to run off to Europe to become a painter eventually “don’t seem like choices at all.” They feel like expressions of “the will to power” of that life force known as the American family. Given its fatalism, Bridge of Sighs isn’t likely to replace Empire Falls as Russo’s best-loved work, said Lloyd Sachs in the Chicago Sun-Times. But at least this charming and insightful author has once again provided “the kind of compelling company any serious reader of fiction knows doesn’t come along that often.”

One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets by Bliss Broyard(Little, Brown, $24.99)

Anatole Broyard was nearing death at age 70 when his wife, Sandy, insisted that he finally reveal to their children the great secret of his life. “Your father’s part black,” Sandy told Bliss, 24, and Todd, 21. Their father was, in fact, the lightest-skinned of three siblings in a Creole family on which he had turned his back as he rose to prominence as a New York literary critic. Bliss found this revelation confusing. It felt like a scene that belonged in the Jim Crow South, not 1990 Connecticut. “Anyway, you kids aren’t black,” her mother added. “You’re white.”

Bliss Broyard’s 500-page new memoir takes the long route to concluding that every such statement about racial identity is meaningless, said Jonathan Yardley in The Washington Post. Fortunately, Broyard is too self-aware to let her book become merely the struggle of a “silly white girl” to come to terms with the few drops of “blackness” in her bloodstream. She traces her French lineage back to 1750s New Orleans and introduces us to a great-great-great grandfather who “passed” as black a century later to legally marry a free woman of color. But “boilerplate” social history slows Broyard’s progress as she puts off “the story of greatest interest” for fully 300 pages. It’s her father’s secret-keeping that she needs to explore. “Was my father’s choice rooted in self-preservation of self-hatred?” she asks. “Was he a hero or a cad?” A bit of both would probably be the most honest answer.

Anatole Broyard’s own parents had decided to pass as white in order to secure work in 1930s New York, said Margo Hammond in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. But the family lived as black in Brooklyn, and the “most poignant” moments in One Drop involve the author’s encounters with the sisters—her aunts—who were cut off by Anatole’s decision to obscure his roots. As she finishes her dogged investigation, Bliss Broyard tries in vain to brush past the tragedy embedded in that old phrase “the tragic mulatto,” said Erin Aubry Kaplan in the Los Angeles Times. Deciding that one’s race doesn’t matter is, after all, “the ultimate white privilege.” Her father didn’t have that privilege.

The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux (Houghton Mifflin, $25)

“It’s a safe bet” that the three “gleefully impenitent” novellas in Paul Theroux’s latest book will not be promoted by India’s Ministry of Tourism, said Pico Iyer in Time. The provocative, peripatetic author of The Great Railway Bazaar wants to show us the darker alleys of that teeming nation, and when his clueless American visitors venture away from their luxury suites, they end up paying for their misperceptions. Boiled down, all three stories are about sex in India, said Tunku Vara­darajan in The Wall Street Journal. A Boston lawyer “has his loins set aflame by a Lolita from the Mumbai slums.” A plain-Jane backpacker attracts more male attention than she can handle. A wealthy vacationing couple engage in dalliances with the staff at their massage spa. All, in essence, are being “liberated from American habits of mind.” Expertly constructed, this trio of stories “hovers near extraordinary,” said Victoria A. Brownworth in the Baltimore Sun. Because the characters “are at once loathsome and poignantly vulnerable,” the book can be wrenching to read. It’s “creepy, unsettling”—Theroux at his best.

Author of the week

Garry Kasparov’s How Life Imitates Chess might be the most daring book of business platitudes you’ll ever read, said Stephen Lynch in the New York Post. The man widely regarded as the greatest chess player in history has become a popular motivational speaker in the West. But what distinguishes Kasparov’s boardroom tips from those of every other brand-name executive coach is that between the lines, Kasparov is also talking about how to confront a dictatorial power. Since retiring from chess two years ago, Kasparov has fashioned himself as the leader of opposition politics in Vladimir Putin’s nominally democratic Russia. Several Russian politicians have been murdered since 2000 after speaking out. That doesn’t deter him. “When facing an authoritarian regime,” he says, “every day you endure sends out a message of hope.”

Kasparov, 44, travels with bodyguards everywhere, said Harvey Blume in The Boston Globe. He avoids consuming food that hasn’t come from a trusted source. Though he expects to soon win the presidential nomination of a group called the Other Russia, he says there’s no chance that Putin’s Kremlin will allow him—or any other legitimate critic—to appear on next March’s ballot. His short-term goal, he says, is simply “to create the idea of opposition in the country.” Of course, Kasparov would be safer offering his criticisms from afar. But doing so, he says, would be “absolutely immoral.”

Also of interest . . . star turns and name-droppers

Clapton by Eric Clapton (Broadway, $26)Judging from this “charming and surprisingly candid” biography, said Chris Willman in Entertainment Weekly, guitarist Eric Clapton might be the least careerist of our living rock legends. Booze, cocaine, and gorgeous women long held more interest for him than building on chart successes. For a guy who lost a 4-year-old son in an accident 16 years ago, he’s surprisingly convincing when he says he only recently was forced to grow up.Revolution of Hope by Vicente Fox (Viking, $27.95)The cowboy and former Coke executive who ended one-party rule in Mexico has once again failed to live up to his promise, said The Economist. Heavy on flattery for other world leaders, the ex-president’s new English-language memoir is “oddly lightweight.” Its aim “seems to be to secure work on the conference circuit rather than to illuminate his years in power.”

I Am America (And So Can You!) by Stephen Colbert (Grand Central, $27)The comic brilliance of Stephen Colbert’s loudmouth TV persona “doesn’t quite make it to the page,” said Janet Maslin in The New York Times. This busy first book from the host of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report “certainly has its moments.” But the opinions of even a mock blowhard grow tiresome after 200-plus pages, and the book’s best lines suffer from the absence of the performer’s “impeccable deadpan delivery.”

Journals: 1952–2000 by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (Penguin, $40)The late historian and Kennedy White House aide Arthur Schlesinger was often “derided by critics” as “a toadying schmoozer,” said Jonathan Alter in Newsweek. His pen had bite, though, and his excerpted diaries prove that “a half-century of dining regularly with important people” can generate worthwhile field research. From the author’s initial skeptical take on Kennedy to his dismissal of Jimmy Carter as “a mean little man,” there are “juicy morsels” on all 858 pages of this book.

Celebrity Detox by Rosie O’Donnell (Grand Central, $24)Shallow musings aren’t Rosie O’Donnell’s style, said Jocelyn McClurg in USA Today. The new memoir from the volatile comedienne is “a train wreck of a book,” equally “baffling and fascinating and brutally honest.” For most readers, it will feel like listening in on a marathon psychotherapy session while lacking “the necessary medical degree to sort through what’s insightful and what’s just nutty.”

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