Happy Birthday Kierkegaard | Classic Returns

This month, two underappreciated women novelists return to print, a philosopher turns 200, Manning Marable’s tremendous new resource for Malcolm X scholars is published posthumously, and trans activist Kate Bornstein updates her Gender Workbook for the 21st century.

Adler, Renata. Pitch Dark. New York Review of Books. 2013. 168p. ISBN 9781590176146. pap. $14.00; ISBN 9781590176344. $14. FIC

Adler, Renata. Speedboat. New York Review of Books. 2013. 192p. ISBN 9781590176139. pap. $14.00; ISBN 9781590176337. $14. FIC

Adler, longtime staff writer at The New Yorker and, briefly, the chief film critic for the New York Times (between 1968-69), has long had a place in the firmament of New York letters, though her star has sometimes wavered. In late 2010, the National Book Critics Circle campaigned to have her first novel, Speedboat, which had fallen out of print, reissued. This spring, NYRB Classic complied, publishing the Ernest Hemingway Award-winning book as well as its sort-of sequel, 1983’s Pitch Dark. For a long time Adler was as famous for her conflicts with the literary world as for her writing: her review of New Yorker colleague Pauline Kael’s When the Lights Go Down is infamous for its brutality; she sued Vanity Fair and the Washington Journalism Review for $1 million in 1984; and her 1999 memoir, Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker, bruised many at her former employer. These reprints have ushered in an Adler revival, and the books are well-deserving of the renewed attention. Episodic, nonlinear, and full of a probing, sad beauty, these novels are perfect for fans of Joan Didion, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Janet Malcolm. Here’s a passage I love:

Day after day, when I still worked at the Forty-second Street branch of the public library, I saw the same young man, bearded, intense, cleaning his fingernails on the corners of the pages of a book. “What are you studying for?” I asked him once. The numbers were flashing over the counter as the books came up. “Research,” he said. “I’m writing my autobiography.” There are certainly odd people in that reading room—one who doodles the same bird endlessly on the back of a half of a single bank check, one who hums all the time, and one who keeps asking the other two to stop. A little pantomime concerto. I quit that job soon. The trouble is, I sometimes understand that research project. Or I did understand it. Then.

Bornstein, Kate. My New Gender Workbook: A Step-By-Step Guide to Achieving World Peace Through Gender Anarchy and Sex Positivity. Routledge. May. 2013. 298p. ISBN 9780415538657. pap. $39.95.

Artist and trans activist Bornstein (Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us) has updated her 1997 introduction to gender, sexuality, and making your way through a world that has a lot of ingrained opinions about both. Goofy (you can score as “Captain James T. Kirk” on a gender aptitude test), practical (discussing how to come out to friends), and relevant (tackling issues of trans misogyny), this updated workbook is full of clipart, tweets, and interactive exercises and quizzes. It makes a sometimes-intimidating set of theories accessible and friendly for any reader, not just those already working on their gender. Bornstein dismantles some of the social mores we take the most for granted, and we are all the better for it.

Bowen, Elizabeth. Friends and Relations. Univ. of Chicago. 2012. 159p. ISBN 9780226925264. pap. $16. LIT

Bowen, Elizabeth. The Hotel. Univ. of Chicago. 2012. 208p. ISBN 9780226925240. pap. $16. LIT

This cult-favorite’s fans include Jonathan Yardley, Harold Bloom, Stacey D’Erasmo, and Sean O’Faolain (who was conveniently also her lover). Born in Ireland to penniless gentry in the last year of the 19th century, educated in England (where she lived the rest of her life), a sometimes-member of the Bloomsbury Group, and a prolific author, Bowen wrote ten novels in her lifetime (and several more works of nonfiction and short story collections). Here are two of her early books—The Hotel is actually her first novel—both of which focus on wealthy British people. (Downton fans, take heed.) British tourists take on the Italian Riviera in the 1920s in The Hotel (1927); and Friends and Relations (1931) follows two sisters as they embark on married life but find it quickly derailed by an affair, the repercussions of which are felt widely. D’Erasmo says of Bowen, “She is as ruthless as James, as stylistically uncanny as Woolf, but with an ineradicable sense that history is made of other people’s dirt.” Interested readers might also want to check out Bowen’s most famous novel, The Death of the Heart (1938).

James, Henry. The Reverberator. Melville House. Apr. 2013. 208p. ISBN 9781612191560. pap. $15. LIT

This slim novella by Henry James has the distinction of being a favorite of his brother’s, philosopher and psychologist William James, who rarely thought highly of his younger sibling’s literary efforts. Awl co-founder Choire Sicha introduces this story of a young American woman abroad in France and a competition for her love that also turns into tabloid fodder. The novel was first serialized in 1888, during a time when the newspaper industry underwent radical changes. As Sicha describes it, it “became louder, bolder, more crime-obsessed, more graphic, and of course more tabloid—tabloid in a manner nearly identical to the one we know today.” Framed as a prescient work of media criticism, this novella is sure to appeal to Henry James’s rabid fan base and any readers who’d like a sampling of what 19th-century celebrity gossip looked lit.

Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death. Princeton Univ. 2013. 499p. tr. by Walter Lowrie. index. notes. ISBN 9780691158310. pap. $14.95; ISBN 9781400846160. $14.95. PHIL

Kierkegaard, Soren. The Seducer’s Diary. Princeton Univ. 2013. 214p. tr. by Howard V. & Edna H. Hong. notes. ISBN 9780691158419. pap. $12.95; ISBN 9781400847341. $12.95. PHIL

Lowrie, Walter. A Short Life of Kierkegaard. Princeton Univ. May. 2013. 293p. ISBN 9780691157771. pap. $16.95. BIO

Kierkegaard hit the two-century mark on May 5, 2013, and Princeton University Press is celebrating with three books by or about the spindly existentialist. Kierkegaard’s first English-language biographer and first translator of many of his major works into English, Lowrie (1868–1959) published his Short Life of Kierkegaard to great acclaim in 1965. In his introduction, Kierkegaard scholar Alastair Hannay says that while “there are by now several English-language biographies of Kierkegaard,” none show “the near devotional respect for its subject that we find in Lowrie’s.” A new edition offering Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death, two of Kierkegaard’s most famous works, also uses Lowrie’s translation, which was the first in English for both. Fear and Trembling grapples with the story of Abraham and Isaac; The Sickness Unto Death describes original sin as existential despair. The Seducer’s Diary, originally from Either/Or, was written after Kierkegaard broke off his engagement with his fiancé of one year, Regine Olsen. Written, Kierkegaard said in his journal, “for her sake, to clarify her out of the relationship,” it was meant to portray the young philosopher as a scoundrel and a rake. Updike called it “a feverishly intellectual attempt to reconstruct an erotic failure as a pedagogic success.” As good a way as any to celebrate Kierkegaard’s 200th birthday!

Leskov, Nikolai. The Enchanted Wanderer: And Other Stories. Knopf. Mar. 2013. 608p. tr. from Russian by Pevear, Richard. ISBN 9780307268822. $35. LIT

Pevear and Volokhonsky are about as famous as translators can get, and here they sink their teeth into the work of 19th-century Russian novelist Leskov. This collection of stories (including two of his most famous, “The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” and “Lefty”) as well as the short novel, The Enchanted Wanderer, which Pevear compares to The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Wanderer follows the peripatetic Ivan Flyagin, whose mother promised God that he’d become a monk  (much to his chagrin as a young man) as he sails to a monastery, a destination of last resort. Chekov, who once named Leskov his favorite writer, called him “a mixture of an elegant Frenchman and a defrocked priest.” A giant of Russian literature who deserves as much attention as his more famous contemporaries.

The Portable Malcolm X Reader. Penguin: Penguin Classics. 2013. 618p. ed. by Manning Marable. ISBN 9780143106944. pap. $22. HIST

Before his death, editor Marable, with his assistant Felber, compiled this reader of documents by and about Malcolm X, while they both worked to finish Marable’s definitive biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, which won the Pulitzer Prize for History and was nominated for ALA’s inaugural Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction in 2012. Here are police reports, court documents, mental health records, newspaper articles, FBI files, correspondence with publishers, oral histories, scholarly articles, and of course Malcolm X’s own speeches and interviews: the raw materials of history. This volume sheds light on Malcolm’s early history, his conversion to Islam in prison, his early activism with the Nation of Islam, his relationship to other Civil Rights leaders, his travels through the Middle East and Africa, his break with the Nation of Islam, and his death, and includes essays from James Baldwin and Eldridge Cleaver, as well as from Marable himself. Malcolm X shook this country in a way very few people have, and the value of this treasure trove of primary sources on his life and work cannot be underestimated.

Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet. Penguin. Mar. 2013. 144p. tr. from German by Louth, Charlie. ISBN 9780143107149. $18. POETRY

In the fall of 1902, a 19-year-old student at the Vienna Military Academy and burgeoning poet, Franz Kappus, discovered that the book of verse he was reading was by an alumnus of his school—Rainer Maria Rilke. He decided to write to the then 27-year-old poet, who was living in Paris while working on a monograph on sculptor Auguste Rodin. Kappus had sent Rilke a packet of poems, asking for his opinion, and in doing so revealed his ambivalence about starting a military career. Rilke declined to critique them, saying “most events are unsayable, occur in a space that no word has ever penetrated, and most unsayable of all are works of art, mysterious existences whose life endures alongside ours, which passes away.” They maintained a correspondence for six years, though nine of the ten letters Rilke wrote Kappus were sent in 1903 and 1904. Rilke emphasized again and again the importance of solitude for an artist: “Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself.” This lovely little volume contains a substantial introduction by Lewis Hyde (The Gift) as well as Rilke’s “Letter from a Young Worker,” an anti-Christian polemic he wrote late in life.

Sōseki, Natsume. Botchan. Penguin. Penguin Classics. Mar. 2013. 143p. tr. from Japanese by Cohn, J. ISBN 9780141391885. pap. $15. LIT

In his introduction, translator Cohn (Japanese literature, Univ. of Hawaii, Manoa; Studies in the Comic Spirit in Modern Japanese Fiction) compares this iconic work by preeminent modern Japanese novelist Natsume Sōseki (1867–1916) to Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye: required reading for most Japanese children and emblematic of Japanese society in a period of transition. Published in 1906, it follows a young, urbane mathematics teacher to his new appointment at a school in a conservative community in southern Japan. The main character, whose name readers never learn, is addressed only as Botchan, the novel’s title and a common nickname in Japan applied to “boys and young men of respectable families,” underscoring the narrator’s relative youth and naiveté. Brash Botchan rubs up against the traditional mores of his new home, where “the feudal period still remained a living memory,” despite the rapid modernization that was taking place across Japan at the turn of the 20th century. A seminal work of Japanese literature.

Tales of the German Imagination from the Brothers Grimm to Ingeborg Bachmann. Penguin. Penguin Classics. 2013. 361p. ed. by Peter Wortsman. tr. from German by Wortsman, Peter. ISBN 9780141198804. pap. $18. LIT

Is it fair to call this a book of creepy German stories? Perhaps not, but it’s true. This collection of nearly 30 tales, edited and translated by Wortsman (Ghost Dance in Berlin: A Rhapsody in Gray), ranges from the Brothers Grimm (Hansel and Gretel make an appearance) to Kafka’s Penal Colony to Paul Celan’s Shadowlight, with pit stops at stories by Rilke, Kurt Schwitter, and Ingeborg Bachmann. In his introduction, Wortsman argues that the enduring appeal of these deeply weird, even sinister, stories is their humor. An anecdote about Kafka appearing at a reading ends with an endearing detail: the author “could hardly keep from laughing.” Rejecting the titles of “allegories, fairy tales, tales of the fantastic, parables, fables, prose poems, and grotesques,” he proposes instead the term “enigmatic stories.” A solid collection of classic stories, whatever their name, this feels like a labor of love.


Houdini, Harry. The Right Way To Do Wrong: A Unique Selection of Writings by History’s Greatest Escape Artist. Melville House. 2012. 112p. ISBN 9781612191676. pap. $15. CRIME

Originally published in 1906, this is, essentially, a how-to guide for crime and deception by one of the greatest escape artists and magicians of all time. Houdini is surprisingly and delightfully free with trade secrets, including for some of his own illusions, explaining how to accomplish feats from sword swallowing to card games to jewel heists carried out via sofa delivery. Bold, brash, self-absorbed, and aggressively, astonishingly clever, Houdini has seemingly endless stories about beautiful women who survive being poisoned by rattlesnakes nightly on stage or men who drink only water, but vomit wine. VERDICT Recommended for readers with an interest in magic tricks and swindles and who’d like a peek at the man behind the curtain.—Stephanie Klose, Library Journal

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Molly McArdle About Molly McArdle

Molly McArdle (mmcardle@mediasourceinc.com, @mollitudo on Twitter) is Assistant Editor, Library Journal Book Review. She also manages the Library Journal tumblr.


  1. Connie Walde says:

    Molly, Thanks for sharing this post. Very informative and useful. Houdini was a very interesting guy!

    Dr Connie

  2. Eli says:

    Hi Molly, Thanks for posting this on Houdini. My Father was a semi-professional magician. He used to freak us out pretty good with his card tricks. He liked Harry Houdini too.

    Thanks, Eli