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This Sunday: Pico Iyer's Greene agenda and more

January 20, 2012 |  3:07 pm


Pico Iyer and I share something in common and it isn’t writing chops. We share a fascination with Graham Greene.

GetAttachment-2.aspxYears ago, I collected as many of the nice Penguin paperback editions of Greene’s work that I could find.  I loved “The Quiet American,” "The End of the Affair" and “The Third Man” and many others. When I first traveled in Europe, I would stumble into English-language bookstores and my barometer on the quality of their selection was always based on their section of Greene's work. But I’m no expert on Greene and Iyer is -- as witnessed by his latest book “The Man Within My Head.” Our reviewer, Richard Rayner, is fascinated by both Greene and Iyer. In his lively review he notes that “The Man Within My Head” is “literary criticism disguised as autobiography, a book filled with insights, sadness, rumination and splashes of the dazzling travelogue that Iyer’s readers have come to expect.” Rayner’s piece is as much a meditation on Greene as it is on Iyer’s book and it leads our coverage this Sunday.

Book critic David Ulin found a gem in “The Fat Years,’ the first novel by Chinese writer Chan Koonchung to be translated into English. (Michael S. Duke does the honors.) The novel takes place in 2013 after the next great global economic meltdown and China is left standing as the pillar of economic and social stability. The catch here, however, is that between the economic meltdown and China’s emergence as the bastion of prosperity, it has lost a month. Ulin writes that the book “is a cunning caricature of modern China with its friction between communism and consumerism.”

Scott Martelle reviews “Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State and the Birth of Liberty” by John M. Barry. Martelle writes that Williams “for those who don’t remember their colonial history, founded the European settlement that gave rise to Providence, R.I., in pursuit of the still-gestating idea that people should be able to worship God in individual freedom not as a dictum of government." It was, author Barry writes, “the first government in the world which broke church and state apart.” But Williams faced some long odds in selling his message of liberty and paid dearly for his concept. 

Long odds are also in evidence in Stewart O’Nan’s latest novel “The Odds,” which Carolyn Kellogg reviews. A marriage has hit the rocks, so the happy (not) couple head to Niagara Falls, where they spent their honeymoon, carrying with them a history of “insolvency, indecision and stupidity,” as well as a “desperate gambling plan” that, if successful, “will make everything right.”  Kellogg notes that “all of this could make for rather grim melodrama, but not in O’Nan’s hands.”

More after the jump ...

The notion of grim melodrama has a slightly different connotation in the hands of two master purveyors of crime, Elmore Leonard and T. Jefferson Parker. Mike Downey, a former Times columnist, picks up the trail of these two veterans, reviewing Leonard’s latest “Raylan” and Parker’s “The Jaguar.” Downey notes that Leonard’s dialogue is what sets him apart from other writers: "Leonard makes you LOL more than once with skewed and screwy Kentucky-isms from cops, cons and kinfolk, sitting on porches jabbering about rats they’ve shot and weed they’ve smoked.”

And while Downey notes that Parker may not have Leonard’s chops in the dialogue box, he adds that Parker “is as good as any when it comes to action, adventure and down-and-dirty deeds.”

On the YA front this week, Susan Carpenter looks at “Tempest,” the debut novel from Julie Cross, the first in a thriller trilogy, that concerns the vagaries of time travel as practiced by a 19-year-old who can’t quite control the power he possesses.

And, of course, we have our weekly bestsellers list from Southern California stores with another master of crime, Sara Paretsky, making the list with her latest V.I. Warshawski novel. If you missed it, Jessica Garrison reviewed the book earlier in the week. 

Also this week, Rayner reviewed the new biography of Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, “The Real Romney,” by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman. And Susan Carpenter profiled the YA writer John Green, whose latest work, “The Fault in Our Stars,” hit the bestsellers list two days after it was released. And if you are still catching up in the new year, take a look at Pico Iyer's Arts & Books essay from Jan. 8 on writing long sentences in a distracted time.

As always, thanks for reading.

-- Jon Thurber, book editor

Top photo: Graham Greene in Nice, France, in 1982. Credit: AFP / Getty Images  

Bottom photo: Pico Iyer. Credit: Derek Shapton / Alfred A. Knopf