Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Drowning in an Ocean of Melville

Hershel Parker completed a PhD on Herman Melville in 1963. And since then he has made it his life's work to feed the Melville industry. He has pored over the literary remains, edited the canon, ferreted out even the most tenuously connected sliver of information. And now "the most important Melville scholar of all time" -- as the jacket blurb immodestly refers to Parker -- has written a veritable leviathan of a book about the man: Herman Melville A Biography (Johns Hopkins, ?27.50 or $46). Complete with genealogical tables and acres of footnotes, the most intimidating thing about this 1,000-page volume is that it only represents the head and torso of the beast. Taking Melville's life up from his birth in 1819 until 1851, the reader will have to wait for Volume 2 to get a look at the tail fins.

This kind of attention to detail does not make for lively reading. Herman Melville was the scion of two grand English and Dutch dynasties that were past their prime, but the reader will find endless minor members of the Gansevoort-Melville family parading their dull lives across these pages. Indeed at times, little Herman disappears entirely behind the achievements of his brilliant diplomat elder brother and the bustling cast of aunts and cousins.

It is only with his first literary success at age 28 that the character of Herman Melville begins to take shape for the reader. But this life ring comes too late for the reader who has drowned from boredom in a sea of words.


Fans of Len Deighton's thrillers will already be very familiar with the unassuming character of Bernard Samson. For Deighton's brilliant but frustrated British spy has already starred in no fewer than nine Cold War novels -- and most recently "Faith" and "Hope," the first two parts of a trilogy. And now Samson is back in the concluding novel of the series, predictably named Charity (HarperCollins, $25).

The year is 1988. The Soviet Union is still very much in existence, but the rest of Eastern Europe is quivering in anticipation of change.

The future seems full of promise. However, Samson, living alone in Berlin and estranged from his wife, Fiona, cannot help harking back to the past. Several months before, his sister-in-law Tessa was murdered mysteriously in Berlin on the night that Fiona slipped back to safety under the iron curtain one last time, having been stationed undercover in East Germany, posing as a British traitor.

Perhaps Moscow Central killed Tessa as a way of punishing Fiona, and is planning to take revenge on other members of her family? Perhaps it was Samson himself who killed her? But as Deighton slowly unravels the threads of his plot, attempting to notch up the tension with each successive page, it becomes clear that -- even in the hands of a master craftsman like Deighton -- the mystery surrounding the events of one night in Berlin are not sufficient to sustain the reader's interest over the course of three novels.

-- Compiled from The Sunday Times, The International Herald Tribune and The Associated Press.