If you’ve read David Mitchell’s earlier, Man Booker-nominated novel, Cloud Atlas, you know this writer can do anything—Atlas was romance, history, mystery, science fiction, coming-of-age tale, all in the same book. Mitchell is a writer of phenomenal energy, and his dialogue doesn’t just crackle, it explodes (see Ghostwritten). THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET (Random House, $26) is his fifth novel; Mitchell has matured. He’s honed his prodigious talent, and the craftsmanship is evident throughout this tale of 19th–century trade, love, loyalty, and double dealings among the Dutch of the East India Company and the wary Japanese they do business with. The eponymous Jacob is an earnest, smart, and upright clerk among earthy rogues and greedy colleagues. Always trying to do the right thing, he transgresses one rule after another. His predicaments are by turns funny, rueful, and downright dangerous. He calls his superiors on their fraudulent trading numbers. He falls in love with a Japanese woman. He stands up to a crew of British interlopers who plan to muscle in on Dutch markets in Japan. There’s a lot of history here, well woven into the salty sailor talk, the poker games, and Jacob’s bittersweet dreams of love.
Homo sapiens has evolved some complex needs since the Stone Age, when all man needed was a cave over his head. By contrast, we of the latest model need separate rooms for cooking, eating, sleeping, bathing, relaxing, and—the list goes on. Bill Bryson believes that the whole history of civilization can be told by tracing the additions to, partitions of, and changes in material utilized for the original dwelling space. It’s impossible to read any Bryson book without hoping it will never end, and AT HOME (Doubleday, $28.95) is his best work yet. As author-host, he amicably leads us through all the new domestic spaces our species has devised on our journey from Stone-Age survival to more recent demands for comfort, health, privacy, entertainment, etc. As food required more preparation, cooking, and storage, the kitchen developed; with greater consciousness of hygiene, bathrooms came along; a sense of privacy required more doors. Never has a house seemed as alive as when Bryson starts deconstructing it.
During her life, Emily Dickinson rightly suspected that her unconventional poems would baffle—even shock—her contemporaries. Later readers have gotten used to her dashes, hymn meters, and slant rhymes, but her tight, riddling lyrics are still a challenge. However, the rewards of reading DICKINSON (Harvard Univ., $35) are many, and there’s no better companion in this endeavor than Helen Vendler, author of studies on Yeats, Stevens, Herbert, and many modern poets. She brings to this selection of 150 Dickinson poems a lifetime of close reading and an amazing ability to empathize with the poet’s position, articulating what Dickinson tried to do, the problems she faced, and how she resolved them. Each commentary addresses formal and thematic elements of a given poem and draws on the poet’s biography and reading, including citations from the 1844 Webster’s Dickinson consulted. Vendler offers a wealth of insight and information, suggesting readings but never closing off options. In each two-to-five-page essay she says more, and says it more clearly, than many critics do in entire books.