Book reviews: When I Was a Child I read Books | Between Parentheses | Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem

Michael Kerrigan reviews the latest literary releases

When I was a Child I Read Books

by Marilynne Robinson

Virago, £16.99

Rating: ****

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The novelist who gave us Housekeeping (1980) and Home (2008) looks beyond the domestic sphere in these essays to consider everything from history (“in large part nonsense”) to the American view of human nature. A small-c conservative with a lot of off-beat views, she’s intriguing on the debt America owes to its old Soviet adversaries; withering on the literal-minded materialism of the “New Atheists”. Reading is the way forward, she feels. Science itself would benefit from the intellectual elasticity the humanities bring. “I have never heard anyone speculate on the origins and function of irony,” she writes: “but I can say with confidence that it is only a little less pervasive in our universe than carbon.”

Between Parentheses

by Roberto Bolaño

Picador, £12.99

Rating: ****

“All I can come up with are stray sentences,” complains the writer-character in Roberto Bolaño’s novel Antwerp. “Maybe because reality seems to me like a swarm of stray sentences.” The late, great and gratingly abrasive Chilean master was not so much a breath of fresh air for Latin American letters as a violent storm, ungovernably disruptive in its energy. Keats commended “negative capability … the capacity to be in doubt”; Bolaño opted for an aggressive uncertainty that pulls the reader this way and that with extraordinary force. As this collection of essays, reviews and autobiographical and reflective fragments shows, his critical thinking was every bit as conflictual as his fiction. No punch is pulled in judgements which are often as challenging as they are acute and witty.

Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem

by Carol Delaney

Duckworth, £20

Rating: *****

The fashion for a while was for historians to de-sacrify the Crusades, discounting the redemptive in favour of the economic and the political motives. The same debunking spirit saw Columbus and his crew recast, not as romantic voyagers, but as a brutal and avaricious invasion-force. Scepticism is a virtue in a historian, but cynicism may be misplaced: sometimes people are more idealistic than we expect. That’s where a writer like Carol Delaney comes in. No one understands quite how queer folk can be as well as a professional anthropologist. In a fascinating trawl through the 15th-century record, she finds compelling evidence to support the suggestion that the navigator was driven by a fervent desire to fund a fresh crusade which would finally usher in the end-time.