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What We're Reading

Nicole Krauss, The Point, and a biography of Albert Einstein.

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I’ve spent the past month enmeshed in other people’s intimate personal stories. Nicole Krauss’s new novel, Great House,a loosely connected mosaic of haunting human portraits, had me from the first page. (See my review on Barnes & Noble Review, an excellent publication tucked away on the bookseller’s website that deserves a wide audience.) 

Everyone has an opinion about Jonathan Franzen and his new novel, Freedom, even those who haven’t read it. I decided to be one of the opinionated masses who has. Freedom—a sprawling novel about marriage, friendship, environmentalism, and much else—has garnered attention in many quarters so laudatory that it verges on unseemly, but Franzen certainly has his detractors, whose spite is every bit as extreme. Even conceding Freedom’s faults, Franzen is terrifically smart and observant about human relationships—though his gimlet eye homes in on weakness and failure. Triumph of the human spirit isn’t his game.
 
I’m currently in the middle of Random Family, an astounding piece of immersion journalism that was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2003. Adrian Nicole LeBlanc spent a decade shadowing members of a Puerto Rican community in the Bronx as they struggled with persistent poverty, the scars of violence that never have time to heal, and the challenge of bringing up children in a world in which the ground is always shifting under their mothers’ feet. It’s the gripping stuff of The Wire,with less glamour and a lot more of the women’s perspective. And it’s true.
 
--Sarah L. Courteau
 
I’ve been enjoying the fall issue of The Point, a new biannual journal of ideas edited by a group of University of Chicago graduate students. The latest edition is as wide-ranging and unapologetically high brow as the two that preceded it, with contributors looking at everything from warfare video games to American conservatism to Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon through a critical lens. Last night I delved into actor Adam Bright’s fun, well-written meditation on improv theater, which overturned my cursory—and humbled—impressions of that beguiling genre of amateur performance. Good improv, Bright writes, happens when “lines of dialogue scroll intact up and through you, and your body moves with an alien intelligence. You are simultaneously in complete control of what you are saying and in a state of submissive surprise. Even though you’re playing a character, everything you say seems somehow closer to truth.”
 
--Megan Buskey
 
 

I've just begun Walter Isaacson's 2007 biography of Albert Einstein and am up to the miracle year, 1905. It hasn't been an easy couple of years for young Einstein--with his inability to land a teaching position, the birth of an illegitimate child, and the death of his father--all since his graduation from the Zurich Polytechnic five years earlier. Despite it all, Einstein's confidence in his own abilities never seems to falter. Isaacson makes a pretty convincing case that without this confidence (some might call it arrogance or even impudence) and several other qualities, Einstein's genius alone would not have been enough to power his enormous creativity.

 
I also want to say a word in praise of Nicole Krauss's new novel, The Great House. The novel centers not on characters or a narrative but on the themes of human connection and loss, and Krauss has a keen eye for the one detail that provides a perfect portrait of a place or person. This is a book I hope to reread soon at a much slower pace, giving each of those details its due.
 
--Rebecca J. Rosen