Magazine article The New Yorker

Briefly Noted

Magazine article The New Yorker

Briefly Noted

Article excerpt

The Signature of All Things

by Elizabeth Gilbert (Viking).

Gilbert's sumptuous third novel, her first in thirteen years, draws openly on nineteenth-century forebears: Dickens, Eliot, and Henry James. The plot concerns a botanist named Alma Whittaker, whose conclusions, based on a lifetime's study of mosses, rival those of Darwin in significance, although she never publishes them. Alma is driven to understand "how the world was regulated . . . the master clockwork behind everything." The quest leads her to eminence in science but to utter devastation in the realm of romantic love; the central episode of the novel hinges on an act of cruelty that Alma can never undo. Gilbert's prose is by turns flinty, funny, and incandescent.

The Childhood of Jesus

by J. M. Coetzee (Viking).

In the latest novel by the South African Nobel laureate, a little boy travels unaccompanied on a boat to a new land. A benevolent fellow-passenger makes it his goal to help search for the boy's mother. The duo arrive in a socialist bureaucratic state where all memories of the past are erased. "We are hungry all the time," the man states. He soon finds work as a stevedore, and holds spirited debates with other workers about the nature of labor and love, while continuing his search for the boy's mother. There are almost no points of light in this dark, allegorical book. "It all remains a bit abstract," the man says of his newfound home, and the same can be said of the novel.

Calcutta

by Amit Chaudhuri (Knopf).

Chaudhuri explores ideas of modernity and globalization in this essayistic appreciation of the city of his birth. …

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