Our Critic’s Tip Sheet On Current Reading: Week of September 24th, 2007

Greater than the sum of its parts … Over the past several years, Janet Malcolm has published a series of essays in The New Yorker about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, their life together in France, especially during World War II, their writings and their Jewishness. Now that they’ve been gathered together and melded into a coherent whole, the essays, which had seemed somewhat arbitrary in isolation—particularly since Ms. Malcolm has at best mixed feelings about both Stein and Toklas—express a brighter purpose in harmony with the author’s ongoing investigations into the mysteries of biography. Here’s a taste from Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (Yale University Press, $25): “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas slyly mocks the immortality biography seeks to bestow on its subjects. If you listen to the book’s music, you will catch the low hum of melancholy. If you regard it as an exercise in whistling in the dark, you will understand its brilliance.”

The movie version of Atonement, which has already opened in London but won’t be seen in New York until December 7, is a lesser achievement than Ian McEwan’s book (Anchor, $14.95), to my mind the most satisfying novel of the millennium thus far. The film is engrossing, gorgeous, intelligently faithful, weepy—and less grandiose and Oscar-straining than I’d feared. With the soundtrack still echoing in my ears (the clickety-clack of typewriter keys features too prominently, too cleverly), I plunged back into the book: It’s intact, wonderfully supple and evocative, untroubled by the afterimage of Keira Knightley and James McAvoy.

Say you’re an author who’s written novels called The White Castle, The Black Book, and My Name Is Red—what title do you give to a book that’s “shaped as a sequence of autobiographical fragments, moments and thoughts”? Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish writer who won the Nobel Prize in 2006, made the obvious choice: Other Colors (Knopf, $27.95). A special bonus: Mr. Pamuk has included the essays in which he recorded his impressions of New York when he first arrived in 1985 and resolved to “draw the secret from this streetscape” by a humble and patient gathering of “little observations.”

The award for best book cover goes to Kyle MacDonald’s One Red Paperclip: Or How an Ordinary Man Achieved His Dream with the Help of a Simple Office Supply (Three Rivers Press, $13.95). Radically simple and blissfully uncluttered—no title, no author’s name—just the eponymous paper clip embossed on a field of pure white, the design is as charmingly direct as the premise of Mr. MacDonald’s book. He traded a red paper clip for a fish pen (oh, the wonders of the Web!), and the fish pen for a doorknob and the doorknob for a camping stove, and on and on—and made lighthearted journalistic magic out of his madcap bartering.