The Testing of Luther Albright
242 pp., $23.95
HOW many chances do you get? Luther Albright, a decent man, a civil engineer, gets nine. Nine chances to break through his paralyzing fear of intimacy and have real relationships with his patient wife, Liz, and his increasingly dangerously frustrated son, Elliot. “I had built that house twenty-two years before,” Luther thinks proudly of the home they live in, “and you could lift a roof shingle today and find the sheathing beneath dry as paper.”
And yet, and yet: Elliot, who is 15, cannot, for the life of him, get his father to say one honest thing. Luther is not violent, he is not overbearing or even rude, but the damage he does to those close to him is profound and irrevocable. The novel’s nine episodes are full of cracks and fissures: the earthquake that rocks the house, the crack in the house’s pipes that leaks sewer gas, the crack in the dam that Luther designed.
Bezos is a smooth and terrifying writer, incisive like Denis Johnson, a noticer of the tiniest moods and gestures in relationships (reminiscent of Charles Baxter), and like the best of them he still keeps one eye on the world, the culture, the quality of light on the windowsill.
The Accidental Masterpiece
On the Art of Life and Vice Versa
Penguin Press: 246 pp., $24.95
“ART provides us with clues about how to live our own lives more fully,” writes Michael Kimmelman, who has managed to preserve, through his years as an art critic, his sense of wonder and amazement. Not only for the work but also for the men and women, living and gone, who are impassioned by art. Some are well-known, like the painter Pierre Bonnard, who fell in love with the misanthropic Marthe de Meligny, making more than 400 paintings of her during their life together. The “interior radiance” expressed in these paintings might never have come to light if Bonnard had not met her: an accidental masterpiece.
There’s the Baltimore dentist, Hugh Francis Hicks, who collected 75,000 light bulbs in his basement; the carefully orchestrated suicide of little-known collagist Ray Johnson; the library so carefully tended by the author’s friend Alex in a smallish New York apartment.
There’s the 1,300-page “quasi-fictional diary of text and pictures” created by Charlotte Salomon before she was killed, age 26 and pregnant, in Auschwitz. Many more such masterpieces are contained (although they are so powerful they threaten to burst the binding) in this collection of endless inspiration. “Be alert to the senses. Elevate the ordinary. Art is about a heightened state of awareness. Try to treat everyday life, or at least parts of it, as you would a work of art.”
The Highly Civilized Man
Richard Burton and the Victorian World
Harvard University Press:
368 pp., $27.95
THERE have been many biographies of the flamboyant, iconoclastic explorer Richard Burton (1821-1890). “The Highly Civilized Man” is not a biography. Instead, it is an effort to explain Burton, warts and all, in the context of Victorian society.
Burton wrote more than 20 travel books and translated dozens more, most famously “The Kama Sutra” and “The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night,” the latter of which he called a “talisman against ennui and despondency.”
Dane Kennedy looks at Burton from several angles: the gypsy who favored local costume and relished all differences; the explorer for the British Empire (his years with the East India Co.); the sexologist who experimented with, experienced and did his part to crack Victorian prudery; and the Bohemian in London. Kennedy also looks at Burton the proponent of the then-fashionable “scientific racism,” Burton the proponent of polygamy and perhaps pederasty (although this subject is treated delicately) and Burton the egomaniac. What emerges is a man who, above all, spent a lifetime trying to break out of “the prison life of civilized Europe.”