Short Takes

Short Takes: Book reviews, in brief

December 1, 2012 

Nonfiction

Saul Steinberg: A Biography

Deirdre Bair, Doubleday, 752 pages

Deirdre Bair, author of well-regarded books about Samuel Beckett, Carl Jung and Simone de Beauvoir, has taken stock of New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg in a 600-page volume that is the first comprehensive biography his death in 1999 at age 84. An architect by training, he delighted in drawing fantastic buildings and cityscapes, including his iconic “View of the World From Ninth Avenue,” the New Yorker cover endlessly parodied since it was published in 1976.

Steeped in the Dada, surrealist and cubist art movements of his youth in Romania and later Italy, Steinberg never lost his off-kilter, intentionally childlike and absurdist view of the world. Even as a penniless Jewish refugee awaiting permission to enter the U.S. at the start of World War II, Steinberg found success selling his offbeat cartoons to the New Yorker. Once he was finally settled in New York, nothing could stop his rapid rise to the pinnacle of the art world, not even his hypochondria, anxiety and lifelong depression.

Readers learn that Steinberg was a man of insatiable appetites: for women, books, objects and travel. Bair gets bogged down at times in the details, but overall she has done an excellent job of trying to answer the question that perplexed even Steinberg’s lifelong friend Hedda Sterne when she considered his work: “Where did this come from?”

Associated Press

Fiction

Colin Fischer

Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz; Razorbill, 256 pages

Every high school student could use a friend like Colin Fischer, the protagonist in a new mystery novel called “Colin Fischer.” He has a quality unusual in a high school student: He’ll tell you the truth, even when that means telling the girl he’s sweet on not only that her “breasts got bigger” over the summer but that that “is a perfectly normal reaction to elevated hormone levels during puberty.” Obsessed with truth and lies, as well as math and a number of other subjects, Colin has Asperger’s syndrome. He’s not naturally adept at social life and hates to be touched. But he works hard to make up for what doesn’t come easily, carrying around drawings to help him decipher the emotional meaning of the faces around him. And he devises a complicated chart to sort out the pecking order at West Valley High.

“Colin Fischer” was written by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz, the screenwriters of “X-Men: First Class” and “Thor.” But there’s no trace of superheroes here. Instead, the first-time authors use journal entries and footnotes to flesh out the interior life of an unusual teenager who happens to love mysteries. So when a gun goes off in the chaos of the school cafeteria, there’s just no chance that Colin won’t start to investigate who brought it to school. I fell for Colin, enough so that I didn’t mind the kind of cheesy setup for the mystery. This boy may be one of a kind, but it’s clear that “Colin Fischer” is intended to be the start of long relationship.

Los Angeles Times

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