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California Literary Review

Critics’ Picks: Best Books of 2011

Non-Fiction Reviews

Critics’ Picks: Best Books of 2011


The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka (Knopf)

In exquisitely lyrical, incantatory sentences, Otsuka weaves together voices of Japanese women who arrived in the early 20th century to the United States as picture brides. The narrative, which unfolds using the first person plural “we,” follows the brides from their ship journey and first nights with their husbands, to their backbreaking work, ostracization from the community, experiences of motherhood, and finally, their banishment to Japanese internment camps in 1942. Each chapter bears witness to the women’s resilience throughout their displacement (from Japan to America, and from their American homes to internment camps) and betrayal (first by husbands who misled the brides about their looks and social status, and then by the U.S. government). The great literary risks taken by Otsuka leaves one mesmerized and longing for more. — Abigail Licad

A Man of Parts by David Lodge
A Man of Parts, by David Lodge (Viking)

David Lodge can do no wrong — at least in “my book.” Already, he has shown me that in many of his own works. With such satirical takes as Small World and Nice Work, where he dissects the academic scene, or Therapy, in which he goes after the analytical one, and, in the more recent Deaf Sentence, where he makes fun of the aging process, he has demonstrated his versatility, as well as his dry wit, his relentless eye, along with his elegance as a stylist.

His latest will not disappoint any expectations. Here, he plays at ‘historical fiction,’ taking on a novelistic version of a writer who lived and worked almost contemporaneously with himself, H.G. Wells. Even his title for this novel reveals his angle. He chooses to define “man of parts ,” not by the dictionary’s common definition but by an alternate one.

Parts plural noun: 1. Personal abilities or talents: a man of many parts. 2. short for private parts.

Thus does he set the tone for this venture. To be sure, many of us have become aware of Wells’ lifetime sexual exploits as reported by recent biographers. The wonder of Lodge’s take is how thoroughly he makes these real people function for his fiction. As he puts it in a short preface: “nearly everything that happens in this narrative is based on factual sources — ‘based on’ in the elastic sense that includes ‘inferable from’ and ‘consistent with.’ A master of satire scores again! — Julia Braun Kessler

Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
Mr Fox, by Helen Oyeyemi (Riverhead)

Helen Oyeyemi’s third novel features Mr. Fox, a best-selling author with a habit of killing off his female characters…until one of his fictional creations strikes back, and even gets Mr. Fox’s wife in on the game. A playful, metafictional novel that riffs off of the “Reynard” or “Bluebeard” myths, folk tales, and the battle of the sexes. — Erin Suzuki

This Burns My Heart by Samuel Park
This Burns My Heart, by Samuel Park (Simon & Schuster)

Set in 1960s Korea at the brink of the country’s modernization, Park’s novel unravels the consequences of one woman’s wrong decision. The heroine Soo-ja must choose between two men — one whom she thinks will allow her to have a career as a diplomant, and another towards whom she feels an overwhelming yet frightening attraction. Choosing her ambition over her heart, she selects the first man, a man who soon subjects her to a life of poverty and cruelty. As chance meetings intensify over the years between her and the one true love she rejected, Soo-ja must painfully weigh new decisions between familial duty and personal happiness. The sad turn of events in the novel may make one weep, but Park’s prose, as graceful as a series of well-strung musical notes, will comfort. — Abigail Licad

Those across the River by Christopher Buehlman
Those Across the River, by Christopher Buehlman (Ace)

Buehlman’s novel is a mind-bending amalgamation of some of the most haunting and hair-raising aspects of American literature. Those Across the River combines the earthy gothic of Faulkner’s southern legacy novels with the eerie supernaturalism of Manly Wade Wellman. Quite an accomplishment. — Marla Wick


Blue Nights by Joan Didion
Blue Nights, by Joan Didion (Knopf)

Joan Didion’s latest memoir continues her recollections–begun in The Year of Magical Thinking–of the twin tragedies that struck her family in quick succession: the sudden death of her husband John, and the unexpected illness and eventual death of her daughter Quintana Roo. While her previous memoir focused on the death of her husband, in Blue Nights Didion focuses on her daughter’s life, and her own mortality: for, as she notes in a phrase that repeats like a refrain: “When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.” — Erin Suzuki

Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin
Charles Dickens: A Life, by Claire Tomalin (Penguin Press)

Forget banquet, life for Charles Dickens was a Lucullan feast. While most poor suckers were figuratively (and literally) starving to death, Dickens was insatiable in his hunger for fame, fortune, London, love, charity, plays, puddings, games, holidays, and, of course, a good story. Any biographer would be hard pressed to match such appetites, but Tomalin’s rich account is an enjoyable starter. Pair it with a rich glass of port and a roaring fire this winter. — Elinor Teele

Chavs by Owen Jones
Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, by Owen Jones (Verso)

Connecting the dots between TV shows, political speeches, jokes down the pub and columns in the Sunday papers, Owen Jones makes an impassioned argument that the British discussion of class has mutated in a particularly ghastly way. Chavs examines the way working-class people have been demonized by a political and professional class keen to insist that everyone has chosen their place in our society. The analysis of social trends is impressive, but the book’s real persuasive force comes from how skillfully it anatomizes the image the media continually offers us of a “feral underclass,” picking apart the familiar phrases and showing up the ugly world-view which they promote. — Jem Bloomfield

Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon by Martin Kemp
Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon, by Martin Kemp (Oxford University Press)

There are a lot of art books that pick the “Greatest” works of art and tell you why the fifty or one hundred paintings, sculptures or photos deserve to make the cut. Martin Kemp, world-renowned authority on Leonardo da Vinci, takes a less conventional approach to a select group of eleven key images and reflects on how they achieved the status of icons: becoming instantly recognizable and powerful symbols for millions of people.

The status of icon, perhaps the most abused term in contemporary writing , should only be accorded to a truly evocative creative work. Kemp has chosen his list with great insight both to the relative importance of the eleven images during the era that they were created and of their continuing significance. Some of Kemp’s choices, like the images of Christ or Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, are natural for inclusion in the book. Others, especially the Vietnam War photo of a young girl set aflame by a “friendly fire” napalm attack, may catch you off-guard. But this photo and Kemp’s brilliant analysis will remain lodged in your mind and in the “mind’s eye” of civilized culture for a long time to come.

Kemp’s outstanding book is likey to remain a fixed point point of reference in this important cultural debate, making it an icon of sorts as well. — Ed Voves

River of Darkness by Buddy Levy
River of Darkness: Francisco Orellana’s Legendary Voyage of Death and Discovery Down the Amazon, by Buddy Levy (Bantam)

Here is a tale straight from history that proves as sensational as any devised for adventure fiction. Buddy Levy’s account of the expedition, back in 1541, of Conquistador Gonzalo Pizarro and his lieutenant Francisco Orellana who hope to uncover the rumored, La Canela, or ‘Land of Cinnamon’ and, in it, ‘a golden man,’ the legendary El Eldorado, keeps pace with any such fiction.

Soon after their plunders of the Inca, one of the Pizarro brothers had set out from Quinto, Peru with his soldiers and Indian slaves, only to find themselves lost in the jungle and beset with disease and starvation. Worse still, there came the attacks from fierce natives all around them. The Captain decided in desperation that his best course was to dispatch his trusted lieutenant Orellana and some of his mercenaries to proceed down river in search of food, while Pizarro and the others awaited their return. For this purpose, the crew quickly constructed a makeshift boat and went forth.

Their subsequent adventures, along with their realization that the Amazon’s swift currents would permit them no return, and their ultimate desertion of their Captain, are presented to us by Levy with the assistance of newly discovered evidence from those times. We learn as well of Orellana’s decision to continue down-river to the Atlantic Ocean, which, it turned out was thousands of miles away. In the end, this astonishing journey was to become the first successful crossing of the length of the Amazon River in all of recorded history! — Julia Braun Kessler

The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt
The Swerve, by Stephen Greenblatt (W. W. Norton & Company)

A far-encompassing book of literary history, The Swerve traces the discovery of the long dormant first century BC poem by Lucretius, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), and explains its significance in shaping modern thought. In the classical poem, Lucretius upholds the universe as being comprised of atoms that continually hurtle and swerve. Lucretius believed that the atoms’ sole immortality freed men from the fear of death and extolled a life lived with contentment and the pursuit of pleasure. Greenblatt narrates the daring of discoverer Poggo Bracciolini, an Italian book hunter in search of texts from the Roman Empire at a time when the Church dictated thoughts to unquestioning men. The vivid descriptions of events and details (from Bracciolini’s attire to monks’ manuscript margin notes), make for a suspenseful and enlightening read. — Abigail Licad

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