Our Critic's Tip Sheet On Current Reading: Amis on Islam; Harvard's Hot President; James Wood on Character

Is it still schadenfreude when it’s the indestructible Martin Amis getting kicked around? His new book, a collection of essays and stories about militant Islam, The Second Plane: September 11, 2001-2007, won’t be published over here until April Fools’ Day, but it’s already out in the U.K. (Jonathan Cape, £12.90) and was greeted last weekend with a one-two punch that would have left any ordinary writer reeling. On Saturday the Guardian (www.guardian.co.uk) ran a review by the talented Christopher Tayler that concludes bluntly that “the writings collected here add nothing to [Amis’] reputation.” On Sunday, the London Times (www.timesonline.co.uk) let loose historian William Dalrymple, who declares Amis’ book to be “not just flawed, but riddled with basic misunderstandings”; and again, in case we were in any doubt: “not just wilfully ignorant … but … at its heart disturbingly bigoted.”


A SIGH OF relief from Harvard Yard: A year into her tenure as the university’s first female president, Drew Gilpin Faust has published a widely and justly praised scholarly history, This Republic of Suffering (Knopf, $27.95). Eloquent and imaginative, Ms. Faust’s book takes a grim topic—how America coped with the massive death toll from the Civil War—and makes it fresh and exciting. O.K., maybe it’s a touch morbid, but certainly not dry or plodding. And she’s a team player, too. When she gets around to discussing Civil War writers, Ms. Faust quotes an array of Harvard professors past and present: Helen Vendler on Walt Whitman; Daniel Aaron on Herman Melville; Louis Menand on Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. She also quotes the late Richard Marius (who ran Harvard’s expository writing program for 20 years) on James Russell Lowell’s 400-line ode to lost Harvard classmates, which Lowell recited in its entirety at an alumni reunion just a few months after the surrender at Appomattox. “On a hot summer day in Cambridge,” Marius wrote, “this wretched poem must have been only slightly less painful than battle itself.”


JAMES WOOD, HARVARD’S Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism, is not cited by Ms. Faust—but the Guardian (www.guardian.co.uk) last week gave us a taste of his forthcoming book, How Fiction Works, which Farrar Straus and Giroux will publish in July. The 4,000-word excerpt takes up the issue of characterization, with special attention to E.M. Forster’s familiar distinction between “flat” and “round” characters. Along the way he gives brief, perceptive readings of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin. Mr. Wood is in a mellow, open-armed mood: “The truth is,” he writes, “that the novel is the great virtuoso of exceptionalism: it always wriggles out of the rules thrown around it. And the novelistic character is the very Houdini of that exceptionalism. There is no such thing as ‘a novelistic character.’ There are just thousands of different kinds of people, some round, some flat, some deep, some caricatures, some realistically evoked, some brushed in with the lightest of strokes.” But he does eventually declare a preference—“My own taste tends towards the sketchier fictional personage, whose lacunae and omissions tease us, provoke us to wade in their deep shallows”—and Miss Brodie and Professor Pnin turn out to be particular favorites.