Can attaining “classic” status be the kiss of death for a book? Ulysses And Us (W.W. Norton, $28.95) is an enthusiastic, knowledgeable tour of Joyce’s masterpiece by a guide dedicated to showing readers they can tackle the novel on their own. Declan Kiberd, an Irish literature professor, removes the book from the Empyrean clouds and puts it back where it belongs, in the Dublin of 16 June 1904. He reminds us that Joyce wrote about ordinary people for ordinary people, that he was a socialist and felt more at home among workers than intellectuals. His narrative unfolds through mundane errands, pub chats, jokes, a funeral, a cuckolding, and plenty of drink. The characters observe the goings-on and the passers-by, and out of this modern welter of activity Joyce conveys the dignity and wisdom of everyday life, intending his story to offer a few chuckles and help people cope. Now, what’s so intimidating about that?
Clarice Lispector (1920-1977) was born in the Ukraine but became one of Brazil’s most admired modern writers. Her novels are steeped in Spinoza and Jewish mysticism, yet she was also a popular newspaper advice columnist. She earned a law degree, married a diplomat, and lived in Europe and the U.S., all the while writing fiction that was rich, strange, and even shocking. To produce such a remarkable writer required an incredible set of circumstances, and Benjamin Moser’s fascinating Why This World (Oxford Univ., $29.95) looks back to the years before Lispector’s birth for the sources of her art. Her family barely escaped the pogroms in their small village of Chechelnk. Lispector, though an infant when the family fled to Brazil, always felt a particular guilt: her mother contracted syphilis as a result of a gang-rape by Russian soldiers, and her parents tried the folk remedy of conceiving a baby as a cure. Needless to say, her mother’s condition worsened and she died when Clarice was seven. Such nightmares haunt Lispector’s work, as do passion, mysteries, and the quest for authentic identity.
The Romantic period wasn’t only for literature—it caught up scientists and explorers as well (many of whom were also writers). Together, the groundbreaking work of men like Mungo Park, Joseph Banks, Humphrey Davy, and the sibling astronomers, William and Caroline Herschel, made the late 18th and early 19th century “the second scientific revolution.” In his Age Of Wonder (Pantheon, $40), Richard Holmes, biographer of Coleridge and Shelley, brings this era vividly to life. Encompassing global exploration, botany, geography, geology, chemistry, and astronomy, it led to inventions like the hot air balloon, the dynamo, the miners’ safety lamp, and the smallpox vaccine. Scores of comets and meteors were tracked, and Uranus was discovered. Holmes clearly explains the relevant scientific principles, but it is his details of the actual experience of carrying out forays into the unknown that sets this history apart. He describes, for instance, just how cold and dark a winter night was when spent in a top-heavy telescope tower, buffeted by the wind. Or what Humphrey Davy hallucinated when he overdosed himself in a laughing gas experiment.
Combining adventure, exploration, and biography, the multi-award-winning Age Of Wonder (Pantheon, $17.95) satisfies the needs for excitement, suspense, and plain-old good story-telling. Richard Holmes opens the treasure trove of knowledge and ambition that was Britain in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, taking to the open seas with Captain Cook, experiencing the sensuous exotica of Tahiti with Joseph Banks and his crew, and surveying the night sky over England with William and Caroline Herschel. Then there’s Humphrey Davy and his experiments with laughing gas, unpredictable hot-air balloon flights, Mary Shelley’s examination of humanity’s Promethean aspirations, and the growth of the Royal Society. Holmes has a quick wit and an eye for the telling quirk, making his narrative as entertaining as it is informative.