Book reviews

The week's top releases reads and released, just for you. From Amit Chaudhuri to Joanna Smith Rakoff

Time In
Americans In Paris Charles Glass

Harper Press Dhs130 Available to order from Magrudy’s
When World War II began most of the Americans who had bucketed through ’20s and ’30s Paris on cheap francs, enjoying the permissiveness and culture of this great and welcoming city, cleared out fast. But at least 5,000 chose to stay, and this is their story. They included some extraordinary people, such as the American ambassador, William Bullitt, who was so trusted by the fleeing French that they effectively left him in charge of the negotiations to ensure Paris’s safety as an ‘open city’ when the Germans marched in.

There’s also naturalised American millionaire Charles Bedaux, a conscienceless businessman who did deals with both sides but could not understand why his adopted country accordingly tried him for treason after the war; Clara Longworth de Chambrun, related by marriage to both Teddy Roosevelt and the prime minister of Vichy France, who used her connections to keep the American Library and American Hospital safe even after America entered the war in 1941; Sylvia Beach, founder of the legendary Shakespeare and Company bookshop and publisher of Ulysses, who did her best to keep the American literary world alive during the occupation; and Sumner Jackson, a Maine doctor who resisted the Nazis with everything he had, including his wife and young son.

Glass doesn’t actually limit himself to these large characters: even Polly Peabody, a young ambulance driver for the American Hospital, gets her own chapter, and this is a flaw: it is possible to drown in detail reading this book’s 500-odd pages. But then most of the detail is fascinating and Glass does possess a journalist’s ability to tamp an enormous amount of info into a very small space. Lord knows how long this book would have been if he didn’t.
Nina Caplan

City Kid Nelson George

Viking Dhs111 Available to order from Magrudy’s
As a kid growing up in the Tilden projects in the ’60s, Nelson George was obsessed with his mother’s records: he’d thrill to Motown’s urban polish and Stax’s southern sizzle. Surprisingly, the soundtrack to Mary Poppins also made a strong early impression. This ‘may seem an odd obsession for a little black boy from Brooklyn, but that’s the point isn’t it?’ he writes in this charming memoir. ‘Music can pull you out of the box of your location, circumstances, and the particulars of your life for as long as you can sing along.’

George never stopped singing along, and his passion for music – and film and literature – pulled him out of the projects. City Kid follows the author along his path from promising student to struggling freelancer and finally successful journalist, novelist and filmmaker. This is no VH1’s Behind The Music episode; there are no major setbacks or flare-ups or disgraces.

George comes across as consistent and driven, a writer who was blessed to be living in New York at the dawn of hip-hop. He was there to watch a young Russell Simmons get his hustle on, and he helped midwife the careers of Spike Lee and Chris Rock.

City Kid doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know about pop culture in the ’70s, ’80s or ’90s. But it does give us a front-row seat to New York’s shifting dynamics during that period: a burning Bronx and the drugs epidemic serve as backdrops to George’s personal story. And cameos by Simmons, Lee and Quincy Jones sparkle in George’s crisp prose. Because the chronology jumps around, the narrative occasionally lacks cohesion. Then again, that’s life.
Brian Braiker

The Antelope’s Strategy Jean Hatzfeld. Translated by Linda Coverdale

FSG Dhs59 Available to order from Magrudy’s
The journalist Jean Hatzfeld first travelled to Rwanda in 1994, the year of the massacre. He hasn’t stopped writing about it since. As Hatzfeld admits, he is ‘obsessed’ with the history of Rwanda’s genocide, in which Hutu militias killed approximately 800,000 Tutsis over a 100-day period, primarily using clubs and machetes.

Hence the title of his stunning Machete Season, which collects Hatzfeld’s interviews with the killers. Life Laid Bare, a companion volume, provides an oral history from the survivors’ point of view. Both books are astonishing, but The Antelope’s Strategy, his latest book on the war, may be the most intriguing of the trilogy, because it combines both killer and survivor voices to examine the thorny and existentially frustrating issue of national reconciliation.

In January 2003, a presidential decree released a group of 40,000 killers convicted of genocide from prison. The Antelope’s Strategy – named after the scattering technique of groups of hundreds of hunted Tutsis running in the forest – follows up with the speakers of his previous two books, the killers and the victims, as they struggle to cohabitate in the farming region of Nyamata.

A lucid account of tangled reconciliation efforts, the book coolly observes both national and local politics in a country where ex-killers can now be community court judges. But mostly it probes the nature of forgiveness and remorse without ever presenting a monolithic picture of what either might mean. One Tutsi survivor marries a man who probably killed members of her family.

The Antelope’s Strategy weighs important factual information with an exploration of individual lives and the big questions that motivate Hatzfeld’s fascination with genocide – namely, how people speak about it and record it in its terrible aftermath.
Hillary Chute

A Fortunate Age Joanna Smith Rakoff

Scribner Dhs111 Available to order from Magrudy’s
Opening with a wedding and closing with a funeral, Joanna Smith Rakoff’s debut novel attempts to modernise Mary McCarthy’s 1963 post-collegiate classic The Group. It’s the late ’90s in New York City and a gaggle of recent Oberlin grads are carving out lives as writers, actors and musicians – or trying to. In between the marriage (that of poetry grad student Lil and her older beau, Tuck) and the funeral is a flurry of crises for each member of the posse.

There are professional triumphs (Tal nails auditions, Dave’s band plays the Bowery Ballroom and is featured in Time Out New York) and job losses (Tuck’s magazine folds), unwanted pregnancies, break-ups, illicit affairs and more weddings.

It all happens against the backdrop of a New York during a time when the concept of the hipster is still fresh and the dot-com bubble not yet popped. It’s an era that we might be nostalgic for in another few years, once it’s completely wiped from recent memory, but for now, reading about the novelty of trucker hats and aviator glasses is too cringingly close to home.

Rakoff sometimes captures the uncertainties and anxieties of being in one’s mid-twenties with unsettling accuracy, as her well-educated bohos careen between relationship and career options. But her characters are utterly predictable, each one more a caricature than the next: self-conscious Jewish Beth from Scarsdale, depressive musician Dave, super confident Upper East Side society girl Sadie, etc.

While the clever McCarthy may have accomplished subtle criticism through such satire, Rakoff’s pedestrian writing fails to convey the necessary skepticism about her one-dimensional protagonists and the shortsighted choices they make.
Kate Lowenstein

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