Short Takes

Short Takes: Book reviews, in brief

January 11, 2014 

Fiction

Jeeves and the Wedding Bells:

An Homage to P. G. Wodehouse

Sebastian Faulks, St. Martin’s Press, 251 pages

What ho!

A new novel starring the greatest comic characters of 20th-century English literature, bumbling Bertie Wooster and his unflappable, Spinoza-reading valet Jeeves? How can this be? Didn’t P.G. Wodehouse, who brought Jeeves and Bertie to life, hand in his lunch pail in 1975?

Well, old tops, what we have in “Jeeves and the Wedding Bells” – something even the mentally negligible Bertie could puzzle out unaided by Jeeves’ massive, fish-fed cerebrum – is imitation Wodehouse. Very good imitation Wodehouse, from British novelist Sebastian Faulks, who helped himself to heaps of critical praise back in 2008 for writing a James Bond novel titled “Devil May Care.”

Faulks knows he isn’t Wodehouse and doesn’t try to be. The voice sounds a lot like Wodehouse, but anyone who has read much Wodehouse will know it isn’t the master. That’s not a knock on Faulks: He’s a novelist, not a copyist. And he humbly – if that’s the word I want – labels his book “an homage” to Wodehouse. Best of all, whether it’s Wodehouse or Faulks, “Jeeves and the Wedding Bells” is a funny book, worth reading.

Philadelphia Inquirer

Nonfiction

Roth Unbound

Claudia Roth Pierpont; Farrar, Straus and Giroux,

353 pages

If you’ve been tempted to dismiss Philip Roth as a misogynist, a self-hating Jew or simply an old white male dinosaur, Claudia Roth Pierpont’s “Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books” makes a strong argument for giving the novelist another chance.

At a minimum, Pierpont’s lucid book, intelligent but not academic, makes the case that “The Ghost Writer,” “Sabbath’s Theater” and “American Pastoral” are compelling works of fiction worth reading today. She also finds much of merit in Roth’s other novels, even when she calmly notes their weaknesses.

“Roth Unbound” is Pierpont’s close reading of Roth’s body of work, enhanced by conversations with the novelist and access to his papers and notes, though he did not read her book before publication. It is not a biography per se, though it includes many biographical details and some revelations. It’s a sympathetic book – Pierpont is his friend – but not a hagiographic one.

Pierpont reminds us of Roth’s key role in bringing dissident writers from communist Eastern Europe to American readers: multiple trips to Prague, arranging financial support for European writers, and spearheading the Writers from the Other Europe series that published works by Milan Kundera, Danilo Kis, Tadeusz Borowski and Bruno Schulz in English.

The novelist can be described casually as one of the great American Jewish writers. Pierpont argues convincingly the American side of that equation was as important, if not more important, to Roth, an FDR baby and lifelong Democrat.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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