Biography and Memoir Reviews: Richard Russo and “The Fractalist”

Unsure what new book to read next? Sit back: We read the book reviews in case you missed them. Below are the collected reviews of two new books being discussed in leading journals and magazines. Today we look at Elsewhere: A Memoir by Richard Russo and The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maverick by Benoit Mandelbrot.

Elsewhere: A Memoir by Richard Russo

A Pulitzer-Prize winner, Richard Russo has made the trials, tribulations and trajectories of small-town America a theme in his eight novels. In this, his first memoir, the author focuses on his relationship with his mentally ill mother while giving readers insight into the upbringing that echoes throughout his fictional work, including a childhood spent in New York’s Gloversville, a once prosperous mill town on its way to economic decline when Russo was just a boy.

"'Elsewhere: A Memoir' is the chronicle of a curious mother-son bond, cemented on her side by love and need and on his by love, duty and guilt," writes Roger K. Miller in the Chicago Sun-Times, before later concluding, "It is perhaps a testimony to Russo and his wife that their marriage survived three-plus decades of such strain and that under it he was able to produce eight outstanding works of fiction. And now, out of it, this equally outstanding memoir."

Calling the memoir "powerfully moving", Doug Childers of the Richmond Times-Dispatch makes a similar observation, writing that "Russo hasn't written a Springsteen-like book about the decline of mill towns and the effect their collapse had on residents… It's more complicated and troubling than that," noting the true subject of "Elsewhere" is Jean, Russo’s anxious, peripatetic, and dependent mother—a portrait Childers believes "will linger long after the last page of the book is reached."

In her review for The Wall Street Journal, Amy Finnerty is taken with Russo’s depiction of Gloversville, but it is Russo’s portrait of Jean that again is central, with Finnerty asking, "How could he abandon her? He couldn't, and this is why his memoir is both moving and darkly funny," going on to say, "The greatest charm of this memoir lies in the absence of self-pity and pretension in the author's take on his own history. Now that he is sitting atop a fruitful career and solid family life, Mr. Russo's dominant emotions seem to be gratitude and relief… In the end, we can't help feeling that Jean must have done something right—that, even as she clung to her son like a barnacle, the laserlike intensity of this single mother's love for her only child was enough to turn him into an admirable adult."


The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maverick by Benoit Mandelbrot

The mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot is credited with creating fractal geometry -- an eerily pervasive pattern found in everyday life -- which Random House’s book description notes, "has significantly improved our understanding of, among other things, financial variability and erratic physical phenomena." His life's journey, however, is as unpredictable as a fractal is not: He spent his boyhood under Lithuanian parents in Warsaw, then took flight with his family to France in the wake of Nazism, and finally grew up to forge deep affiliations with IBM, Harvard and Yale. Mandelbrot, who died in 2010 at the age of 85 before this memoir was published, is deeply concerned with the application of visual geometry to the world we live in.

In a critical review penned by Dwight Garner in The New York Times, this narrow focus is bemoaned as lacking “a sort of glorious roughness,” but Gardner’s view of "The Fractalist" softens when he notes that, "Beautiful minds don’t always write beautiful books. Life isn't fair that way. But 'The Fractalist' evokes the kinds of deceptively simple questions Mandelbrot asked — 'What shape is a mountain, a coastline, a river or a dividing line between two river watersheds?' — and the profound answers he supplied."

The lack of personal life details is a similar sticking point for Kirkus Reviews, but the reviewer qualifies this absence thusly, "Interestingly, the narrative deliberately avoids mathematics and therefore gives only the vaguest suggestion of his actual work. That decision undoubtedly makes the book more accessible to general readers, but it also throws the emphasis on the more superficial aspects of his career. Nonetheless, the portraits of his contemporaries and their milieu are worth the read."

Adam Kirsch, writing for Tablet magazine, says "For this reviewer, reading 'The Fractalist' is rather like reading about a poet who wrote in a foreign language for which no adequate translation is available. You know Mandelbrot is up to exciting things, but you have to take them mostly on faith," and later positively notes that, "What makes 'The Fractalist' compelling, even for a non-mathematician, is its first half, which describes Mandelbrot’s childhood and adolescence as a Jew in wartime Europe. The fact that he survived to adulthood is itself something of a miracle."