The week in book reviews: Hearts of darkness

The Pain Chronicles: Cures, Myths, Mysteries, Prayers, Diaries, Brain Scans, Healing, and the Science of Suffering by Melanie Thernstrom (Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 2010.)

Reviewer Robin Romm writes of this new book on chronic pain: “Thernstrom’s passion and intellectual curiosity are infectious. At times, she is the literary critic,” contextualizing pain in books from the Bible to Susan Sontag, and “at other times, she is a fiercely knowledgeable science writer, delivering case studies and research findings with a story­teller’s verve.” Thernstrom, a journalist, is also herself a sufferer of chronic pain due to a spinal condition, and so is in a unique position to write this “sobering” and “infectious” book on the diagnosis, treatment, and assessment of pain. Romm is surprised to find, however, that the least compelling sections of the book have to do with Thernstrom’s own pain: “While her physical descriptions are often precise, she frequently blurs the boundary between romantic and physical pain, to sometimes melodramatic effect.” Still, that does not detract from the overall worth of the book, which transcends self-help to become, according to Romm, “a sophisticated, elegantly compiled treatise.”

The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief by V. S. Naipaul (Picador, 2010).

Novelist Aminatta Forna reviews this new book from Nobel Laureate Naipaul, worrying at first that Naipaul, often called an heir to Joseph Conrad, would write according to his appointed influence: “Already this feels cliched and tiresome; one yearns for the day when an author from outside can approach Africa without invoking the "heart of darkness" mythology.” Adding to that, Naipaul’s history of insensitivity toward other cultures and the criticism he’s earned for it, one can be forgiven for approaching his new book with healthy skepticism. Forna is surprised to find that Naipaul “gets it,” at least at first. “His sources are virtually all African rather than aid workers and expats (you'd be surprised how rare this is).” But travelling through Africa is hard, and in Ghana things begin to unravel for the writer. Less forgivable than his fits of frustration, though, is Naipaul's unchecked relating of events as facts, leading to misrepresentation of the people he encounters. But, in the end, Forna writes, “The Masque of Africa is a book for outsiders, for those who may never visit Africa or may know it only superficially. But it is also a book in which Africans themselves may find something to learn. Naipaul is a difficult, imperfect narrator who does not care to be liked, but he is an honest one and doesn't dissemble. Somehow, by the end of it all, and despite his best efforts, I had grown to like him.”

The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents by Alex Butterworth (Pantheon, 2010.)

This history of anarchism by British historian Butterworth, writes reviewer John Smolens, “depicts the relentless war that anarchists waged against the ruling hierarchies in Russia, Europe and the United States. Their weaponry included guns, knives, poison and dynamite; their campaigns were spectacularly sudden and violent.” It also effectively argues against parallels made between anarchism and today’s terrorism. Smolens summarizes Butterworth’s argument: “Anarchists were stirred not by religious or nationalistic conviction, but by a fervent belief in utopia, which could be achieved only after all established institutions had been destroyed — their dreams were as romantic as their acts were deadly.” However, the conclusion of this “thorough, compelling examination of anarchism,” which traces the history of anarchism from the Paris Commune to the Bolshevik Revolution while analyzing its ideology, does draw a parallel between anarchists and terrorists, not only in the words both groups use to describe themselves–martyr, hero–but that, “they are willing to kill — and to die, if necessary — for their convictions.”

Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010.)

This debut novel, reviewed by novelist Lorraine Adams, tells the story of Jama, a Somali orphan, and his “odyssey from Yemen to Djibouti, onward to Eritrea, Sudan, Egypt, Palestine, Marseille, Hamburg and Wales — and ultimately to an epiphany in London,” and is based on Mohamed’s father’s life. Dickensian elements are both to the novel’s benefit and detriment, the latter when “the sentimental threatens to purple a grim reality better left plainly told.” Comparisons to Somalia’s most famous contemporary novelist, Nuruddin Farah, also lead to Mohamed’s effort coming up short. Adams is optimistic that one day Mohamed might use her “considerable talents” to write a more effective novel. Her debut is not it. The life of her father is told in an overwrought and unfocused way, without conviction. “Even Jama seems to realize that his story may be unconvincing, perhaps just plain crazy.”

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