In Short

Mismatch: The Growing Gulf between Women and Men, by Andrew Hacker (Scribner; $25) Inequality in the boardroom and infidelity in the bedroom are complicating relationships between the sexes like never before. The antediluvian notion that a woman is a man’s complement is coming face to face with the modern belief that a woman is a man’s competitor. The trouble is these two mindsets are not stopping to shake hands—instead, they are colliding.

The present situation between the sexes is a tantalizing subject and a book that ventures into such terrain guarantees an audience even before the first chapter begins. Mismatch: The Growing Gulf Between Women and Men is another bold and superficial attempt to explore and explain this discord between the sexes. Hacker promises to cover every aspect of gender relations from marriage to divorce, masculinity to homosexuality, pairing off to parenthood, education to employment, and rape to race— all in a convenient 200-page package.

However, by rushing from one subject to the next, Hacker is unable to avoid sounding perfunctory in every remark. The book is heavy-handed on statistics and falls flat in analysis and argument. Mismatch is laden with overly apologetic conclusions in which the author struggles to be politically correct on topics that should, to be at all jolting, check such constraints at the door. For example, Hacker states, “Of course, not all men rape…indeed most men never will, even when in situations where they would not be caught or censured.” This type of bland, space-filling statement makes even the most enticing subjects wearisome and leaves the reader wading through a sea of common knowledge, restlessly awaiting a new idea or outlook that never comes.

—Kristen Thompson ’05

The King in the Tree: Three Novellas, by Stephen Millhauser (Knopf; $23). In the three novellas that make up 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning author Steven Millhauser’s The King in the Tree, love conquers all. However, the love that triumphs is not clichéd, simpering romantic love, but rather an emotion that overpowers and ultimately destroys everyone it touches. Millhauser’s characters span the ages, but they share the tragedy of thwarted love.

The first novella of the trilogy, “Revenge,” is the most engrossing of the three. It’s told as a monologue, as the narrator is leading a prospective buyer through her home. She reminisces as she walks, and it becomes clear that this is more than a sales pitch. Rather, the narrator is, as the title suggests, exacting a strange revenge. With a few apt words, Millhauser transforms his narrator from innocent victim to calculating avenger. In the second novella, “An Adventure of Don Juan,” Millhauser employs an omniscient voice, shifting the reader’s focus from style to content. The tale inverts the archetypical Don Juan plotline, portraying a man who is weary of the endless procession of loose women and seeking a real challenge. He soon finds himself in an impossible situation: for the first time in his life he’s bewitched by a woman who cannot return his affections. Set in medieval Britain, the title story “The King in the Tree” takes the form of a journal kept by the King’s confidant, Thomas. Thomas describes the relationship between the King and Queen, which is torn apart by the Queen’s affection for the King’s nephew Tristan. Here Millhauser explores the self-deceit and denial that accompany a romantic betrayal, and presents an astute psychological study of reactions to infidelity.

The King in the Tree overall is a fascinating and realistic peek into the psychology of love, bleak and depressing though it may be.

—Julia Solomon ’05

The Dante Club, by Matthew Pearl (Random House; $24.95). Recently, Yale Law has attracted much attention – it was bombed, and (more pertinently here) it’s the home of a new explosion in the literary scene. Joining the ranks of Stephen Carter and Jedediah Purdy is Matthew Pearl, who wrote the best-selling The Dante Club while studying in New Haven.

In part, Pearl is writing history: he tells the story of Henry Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Lowell, who collaborated on the first American translation of The Divine Comedy. But Pearl is also blending his interest in literature (he wrote his thesis on Dante) and in the law to create a murder mystery. The murderer models his killings on the contrapasso punishments from the Inferno. It’s up to the Dante Club, the only members of Boston society who recognize the pattern, to catch the killer. In short, the case is an academic’s wet dream, where literature actually matters.

For a novel about a masterpiece, The Dante Club is not particularly literary. And Pearl grants history too prominent a role – towards the end, I wondered if I had picked up a commentary on the Civil War instead of a novel. The narrator waxes poetic about the confusion of war: “Dust clouds crusted the soldiers’ new blue uniforms so completely as to make them the same dull gray color of the enemy’s.” Fine, but after 30 pages, where’s Dante?

Dante, it’s clear, had something that Pearl does not: the genius to build narrative digressions into a poetic form. The Dante Club falls short as a work of literature because it relies on what happens, and not how it is told.

—Juliet Lapidos ’05

The Songs of the Kings: A Novel, by Barry Unsworth (Doubleday; $26). A thousand Greek warriors have assembled on the shores of Aulis, visions of conquests dancing in their heads. Troy lies across the sea, ripe for the taking—but a mysterious wind has descended from the north, staying the Greek ships. As the days creep by, unease mounts: surely the wind is Olympus-sent. Eventually a proclamation issues forth: Iphigenia, daughter of Lord Agamemnon, must be sacrificed before the fleet is permitted to set sail. But what god would desire this slaying of an innocent, and why?

Departing from the Homeric epics and the dramas of Aeschylus and Euripides, Barry Unsworth has re-fashioned the story of Iphigenia into a tale of intrigue. Unlike his ancient Greek predecessors, Unsworth suggests in The Songs of the Kings that the origin of the wind, and the necessity of Iphigenia’s sacrifice, are matters of dispute. The gods never make an appearance per se, and this is tantalizing: are they indeed pulling the strings, or is it simply human greed and superstition that drives the campaign for Iphigenia’s death? Significantly, by the end, the question of a divine mandate becomes irrelevant, as men themselves, through a bureaucratic apparatus cranked too far to unwind, render Iphigenia’s sacrifice necessary.

Unsworth’s novel is masterful in its intertwining of perspectives, and it’s thrilling to see the Greek heroes, elsewhere lofty and impressive as marble statues, presented here in a less flattering light. Achilles is a preening peacock, his famous rage unleashed at the least affront to his vanity. Odysseus is as cold and watchful as a snake. Nestor is now senile, Menelaus a boorish bigot, etc. However, most of the characters are too shallow to be compelling for more than a few chapters, and only the prophet Calchas, a deft study of a man paralyzed by his own intellect, elicits much sympathy in the end. Re-imagining the myth for a contemporary audience takes its toll elsewhere, too: Unsworth’s dialogue is frequently stilted, an uneasy fusion of modern idiom and elevated prose. But these stylistic weaknesses aside, The Songs of the Kings does its predecessors justice, and may well inspire you to dredge up that battered copy of the Oresteia afterwards and have a go.

—Erin Beirnard ’03

Journals, by Kurt Cobain (Riverhead Books; $29.95). A glimpse into these journals chronicling Kurt Cobain’s turbulent rise to stardom and complicated affair with drugs reveals that Nirvana’s legendary singer was no master of the written word. Cobain’s collection of diary entries, love letters, doodles, top ten lists, comic strips, and band memos does afford the occasional insight into the temperament of a genius, but one has to mull through pages of disenchanting, compulsively unreadable scraps before stumbling upon the rare instance of ingenious humor or magical expression.

The work that does smack of Cobain’s brilliance is overshadowed by generic rants, comparisons of America’s susceptibility to media hype about Desert Storm to a Nuremberg rally, reflections that Hendrix would sport a mullet and sequined clothes were he alive in the 80’s, calligraphic attempts at forging Satan’s signature, and letters to band members demanding better punctuality records.

Cobain, in his own words, seems little more than just another punk rocker disenchanted with the age, spewing out grammatically incorrect bursts of self-conscious angst and unconvincing tirades against the world at large. The journals have the overall effect of robbing, rather than enriching, the reader’s sense of the singer’s originality and freshness.

To his credit, Cobain was also a keen observer and an honest chronicler of his own thought processes. The journals’ most exceptional feature is their brutal honesty. Cobain broods over his “lack of education and loss of inspiration” in one of his entries. Indeed, one may wonder where his own muse ran away to every time he put his pen down on paper, but Cobain’s primal sincerity saves his writing from seeming completely trite, and makes the personal writings a unique, if not altogether readable, look into the singer’s life.

—Purnima Anand ’06