Staff Favorites

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom
Reviewed by Megan
China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know

Wasserstrom has a difficult task, but he mostly succeeds in providing a solid overview of looming, booming China. The first two-thirds are admirably focused and succinct, guiding the reader from Confucius to the Cultural Revolution. He meanders during the latter part of the book, condensing complicated events into overly long sentences, then adding clumsy parentheses to boot. I suppose such problems are only inevitable when using fewer than 200 pages to cover an incredibly vast subject.

This book won’t help you differentiate the periods of the Jin Dynasty, but it will probably provide you with some needed answers on a rather daunting topic.

Tom Rachman
Reviewed by Megan
The Imperfectionists

Tom Rachman’s debut peels away the glamour of a Roman locale and the glory of international journalism to reveal the static nuts and bolts of dysfunction.

A somewhat standard cast of characters (over-the-hill lush, icy/secretly vulnerable editrix, whip-smart singleton, bumbling naif, darling mensch, abrasive middle-aged dude with a suspiciously lovely younger girlfriend, etc.) comprise the staff of an unnamed English-language newspaper. Each chapter focuses on a different character that highlights their foibles, gripes, and merits. This structure proved appealing, especially since it managed to approximate action in that someone and their neuroses are always being introduced, then unceremoniously brushed aside to make room for the next. The prose is dialogue-heavy, which is all the better to show off Rachman’s deft, effervescent ear. Ultimately though, his facile observational style became mundane, and left this reader hoping for a character, plot, or idea to latch onto.

Although the book made a halfhearted attempt to describe the modest rise and sudden fall of a newspaper in the Internet Age, it has the emotional impact of a third-hand anecdote that allows one to be narrowly analytical and presumptuously accurate. Of course this dinky newspaper founded on the providential economic graces of the ‘50s will be unable to compete with technologically gluttonous conglomerates that provide instantaneous updates and the enterprising snark that is the domain of everybody with computer access! (Sheesh.)

To his credit, Rachman generally avoids sentimentalizing, so he must understand that his gift lies in buoyancy and earned sweetness. That makes me hopeful that his next outing will be like this one, but with a bit more ambition.

Martin Amis
Reviewed by Megan
The Pregnant Widow

Martin Amis’s new novel takes us to an Italian castle in 1970, where a bunch of collegiates convene to test out the tenets of the Sexual Revolution. The group consists of clever, feckless narrator Keith, his levelheaded girlfriend Lily, the mob-inducingly gorgeous Scheherazade, relentlessly amoral Gloria Beautyman, and Adriano—the showboating aristocrat who just happens to stand 4’10’’.

This is Martin Amis, so the magisterial turns of phrase and devastatingly acute observations keep the reader engaged, awed, humbled, and--finally--quiveringly envious. As always, Amis has plenty to say about a topic that few dare to touch. Nonetheless, plot is always a distant second to verbal pyrotechnics in Amis's world, and this proved to be something of an issue during the last sixty pages.

No, it’s not his best work, but it is still better than about ninety-nine per cent of everything I’ve read. Think of it as Jordan in '88: not his most illustrious season, but he could still throw down on anyone with haughty ease.