Our Critic’s Tip Sheet On Current Reading: Week of August 13th, 2007

Justin Cartwright’s The Song Before It Is Sung (Bloomsbury, $24.95) is a many layered reimagining of the friendship between Isaiah Berlin and Adam von Trott, the “good German” who took part in von Stauffenberg’s bomb plot against Hitler. Although the novel is painfully uneven, its deepest layer—an account of the events of July 1944—is first-rate historical fiction, both compelling and authoritative. But nothing Mr. Cartwright has written is as mysteriously arresting as this passage, which he quotes on the penultimate page of his novel, from W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz: “It does not seem to me that we understand the laws governing the return of the past, but I feel more and more as if time did not exist at all, only various spaces between which the living can move back and forth as they like, and the longer I think about it the more it seems to me that we who are still alive are unreal in the eyes of the dead, and that only occasionally, in certain lights and atmospheric conditions, do we appear in their field of vision.” 

The screen version of Ian McEwan’s Atonement (directed by Joe Wright from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton) will open the Venice Film Festival on August 29. If you’re worried, as I am, that the film will disappoint—and mess with precious memories of the novel, and interfere with rereadings—here’s a glimmer of hope: Mr. Wright, who directed Keira Knightley in Pride & Prejudice (2005), apparently insisted that the script follow the three-part structure of the book. In an article in London’s Sunday Times (Aug. 5, timesonline.co.uk), he strikes a reassuringly humble note: “I don’t know how to make Ian McEwan’s work any better than it already is, and I would never presume to know.” 

The contributors to Marooned: The Next Generation of Desert Island Discs (Da Capo, $16.95) may represent the last roundup of music writers willing to play this parlor game according to the old rules. Why choose an album when you can slap together a playlist? A foreword by Greil Marcus, whose Stranded put the same favorite-record question to rock critics almost 30 years ago, raises a stickier issue: He notes that in the intervening decades, forward-thinking “pop” musicians have increasingly “worked to erect barriers between themselves and [a] mass audience, if only to ensure that whoever made it to the other side really wanted to be there.” Hence Marooned’s occasional lapses: rock snobbism, breathless lit theory and self-indulgent memoirs that seem to celebrate music-listening as an ever more insular experience. “But enough about me,” writes Matt Ashare, sensibly, and then nominates his fav: Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.

Our Critic’s Tip Sheet On Current Reading: Week of August 13th, 2007