Melville House: 192 pp., $14.95
"Idiocy, that's what we have in common," Lars says proudly to W., his friend and fellow philosopher. W agrees. He's Canadian and refers to his family's move to England as "the Fall." He's interested in God and mathematics and is disgusted by his friend Lars, who is fat and lives in a damp flat. Together, they discuss many topics: "Do you think it's possible to die of stupidity?" they ask each other. "When did you know you weren't going to amount to anything?"
Lars lectures at a university in northeastern England; W. lives in the country's southwest. They are fascinated by their worthlessness and by Polish drinking, all day, which they try assiduously to emulate. They consider suicide but their worthlessness precludes it. They experience joy, then despair. Together they look for a leader to supplant Kafka, who is their favorite writer, though both agree that literature softens the brain. They experience paralyzing pathos. W. offers sartorial advice — get a man-bag. They agree on the beatitude of Spinoza's "Ethics," and they liken the "incessant chatter" to their own endless conversations.
What could be more fun than laughing at intellectuals? This, Lars Iyer's first book, sprang from his blog, Spurious, which sprang from his career as a philosophy lecturer at Newcastle University. I'm still laughing, and it's days later. But who, exactly, am I laughing at?
Being Polite to Hitler
Robb Forman Dew
Little, Brown: 297 pp., $24.99
If you've been reading Robb Forman Dew these many years, fiction and nonfiction, you know that she is, like her main character Agnes Scofield, the consummate matriarch. There is beauty and order in her sentences and in the lives of her characters. There is trauma, pain and uncertainty but also a community of spirit beneath all of her books.
"Being Polite to Hitler" spans almost two decades — from 1953, when Agnes, 54, finds herself "bottoming out," tired of her teaching career, still caring for her grown children and ready to remarry. The novel winds down, after twists and turns familiar to anyone in a large family, with the Kennedy assassination in 1963. But the mythical 1950s, the heyday of suburban living and the ability to control one's destiny, really ended "at ten a.m. or thereabouts, on Sunday, September 15, 1963, when Denise McNair, who was eleven years old, as well as Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, each of whom was fourteen, were killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama." This novel shows why history is supplemented and often surpassed by fiction, by the fleshing out, the empathy, the imagining of lives lived and lost in the not-so-distant past.
An Exclusive Love
Johanna Adorján, translated from the German by Anthea Bell
W.W. Norton: 185 pp., $24.95
Here is a day in the life of an elderly couple, the author's grandparents, at home in Denmark on the day they commit suicide by taking sleeping pills. The year is 1991, and the author, a journalist, was 20. She reconstructs her grandparents' last day as well as telling us about them. Her grandmother was 71, her grandfather, 82; they married in Budapest in 1942, survived the Holocaust and fled the revolution in Hungary in 1956, living a peaceful, happy life in Denmark. Long ago they made a promise to die together one day rather than face old age alone. When the grandfather learns he has a rapidly deteriorating heart condition, they decide to fulfill that promise. Johanna Adorján describes them as "elegant," and the picture she leaves us with is also elegant. Is this what makes their last day so fascinating? Elegance is magnetic, and so is lifelong love. The reader cannot take her eyes from them as they wake up, listen to Bach, eat breakfast, make arrangements for the dog, lie down, hold hands and say "Thank you" to each other.
Salter Reynolds is a Los Angeles writer.