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Reviewing the Book Review

Meet, Pay, Love

23 August 2009

Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys: Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money, and Sex — edited by David Henry Sterry and R J Martin Jr — has no place in the Book Review, much less on its cover, but at least Toni Bentley's amused and positive review never stoops to pretending otherwise.

Audacia Ray, who now teaches human sexuality at Rutgers University, certainly earned her degree out in the field, having at one point paired up with a woman named Lily as a massage team offering happy endings. “Money got us hot and bothered,” she writes, and one evening, after Lily cashed a disability check from the federal government for $10,000 (she had no bank account, of course), she poured the money — “mostly $20 bills” — onto the bed. They shut off their phones, bathed together, got “very, very high” and then rolled around “naked in the cash. . . . Even now, when I think of the hottest sex we had, I think about currency stuck to her flesh.” Now there’s an image to promote the beneficence of Uncle Sam.

¶ Walter Kirn gives Thomas Pynchon's silly-sounding Inherent Vice a between-the-lines review. Without saying anything too unkind, he suggests — at least to readers not preoccupied by adolescent conspiracy theories — that some sort of narcotic assistance may be required to make this book readable.

Like the stoned symposium on tuna, Doc’s manhunt for the AWOL billionaire eventually spirals off into absurdity, becoming a collage of trippy interludes peopled by all manner of goofs and lowlifes. These scenes only fitfully advance the narrative and sometimes cause us to forget there is one. But that’s as expected, since Pynchon doesn’t write plots; instead, he devises suggestive webs of circumstance whose meanings depend on the angles from which they’re viewed and can seem ominous and banal by turns, like so many situations in life. In Pynchon, the problem of distinguishing between coincidences and conspiracies, between the prosaic and the profound, is one of the defining tasks of consciousness. For some, like Doc, whose cerebral equipment is particularly unreliable, this perennial mental challenge can prove insuperable, but that may be why Pynchon chose him for the job. His confusion is all of ours exaggerated, his paranoia a version of normal pattern­making amped way up by his intake of hallucinogens. That doesn’t mean he’s blind, though, or delusional. Hyper-awareness makes sense at times, especially when, as in 1970 (the year in which the book is set), the times are changing more rapidly than usual and were radically out of joint to start with.

¶ Helen Vendler's review of a new Wallace Stevens collection, called Selected Poems and edited by John Serio, confused me. On the whole the review is admiring.

What has been omitted? The juvenilia, the unpublished poems of unhappy love, the less interesting verbal experiments and a few of the more difficult lyrics that might turn away beginners. Serio, with distinct courage, has chosen to include most of Stevens’s major sequences, declaring, by this act, that Stevens would not be Stevens without them.   

Earlier, however, she complains rather strongly about one of those editorial decisions.

The only deficiency of the excellent new “Selected Poems” is that it must exclude — being drawn entirely from Stevens’s published volumes — such revealing material. It therefore gives the impression, as the volumes did, of an impersonal poet with no private griefs, a poet chiefly concerned with the relations between the imagined and the real. Stevens himself endorsed this (partial) description; it is not solely the creation of his readers. But it is a mistaken view.

Which is it? Do readers whose shelves already buckle with Stevens collections, or new readers who haven't got far past pale Ramon, need to buy this book?

¶ Frank Bruni's memoir, Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater, gets a warm review from Dominique Browning.

Bruni’s prose is as robust as his story; he clearly enjoys writing as much as eating. He is also, at times, very funny. But the best thing about “Born Round” is that it is so embarrassingly, inspiringly honest. For a guy who has spent much of his life too mortified to take off his coat, this is one laid-bare story. Bruni is open about failed relationships, anger at friends and siblings, crippling insecurity, masturbation (the one time I winced: uh, overshare), guilt and grief. His book does what a memoir should: it entertains and edifies, voicing pain that otherwise many endure in loneliness. It promises to give comfort to souls feeling confused or betrayed by their bodies. Such staggering generosity: “Born Round” is like the Italian dinners Bruni loves — served up noisy, fun, heaping and delicious. Bruni’s readers, at least, are lucky he was born round.

¶ One good thing about Alex Jones's Losing the news: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy is that occasioned Harold Evans's extremely sensical review.

In the end, Jones pins his hopes on newspapers’ developing separate online businesses, with the owners of quality papers settling for lower than historic profit margins and renouncing slash-and-burn strategies. He’s surely right about that. Destroying the editorial value of an editorial product could be commended only in an asylum.

What I most question is his verdict on the reality and the potential of the Web. It can handle more than 150 words perfectly well, and hyperlinks can open a panorama of global multimedia sources (disclosure: my wife is a co-founder of The Daily Beast). I love newspapers, too, but in the end what really matters will not be saving newspapers. It will be, as Jones himself says, “saving the news.”

¶ Fernanda Eberstadt reviews Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, Benjamin Moser's book about an author who is colossally famous in her adopted Brazil, but relatively unknown in the Anglophone world, with perhaps too much emphasis on Lispector's unusual life, at the expense of the work that is her real calling card.

Moser is persuasive in reading the novel both as an extended riff on Spinoza and as an allegory of Lispector’s own dueling personalities. For, as Moser reveals, if she was a writer almost cabalistically bent on piercing the veil between “word” and “being,” and not much convinced of the validity of such human categories as good and evil, she was also an orphan who longed to be a perfect wife and mother, and who wrote Miss Manners-type columns advising women not to draw attention to themselves with garish clothing or loud laughter.

Surely these observations merit enlargement.

¶ Laurie Winer gives an emphatically favorable review to Valerie Martin's new "sort-of thriller," The Confessions of Edward Day.

Edward Day possesses a gimlet eye for both the contributions and the eternal follies of his profession. Actors’ memoirs, he wickedly notes, are usually divided into two parts — “stirring tales of my youthful artistic suffering followed by charming profiles of all the famous people who admire me.” Edward points out that actors are too narcissistic to make good narrators. “Katharine Hepburn got it right,” he says, “when she titled her tiresome paean to herself simply ‘Me.’ ”

But Edward also demonstrates that an actor’s wisdom can be an awesome thing. It is because he is an actor that Edward knows that “emotions succeed each other in sequences that are often inappropriate and counterintuitive” and that “this is what polite society was created to conceal.” After he is saved from drowning by Guy Margate, Edward realizes there is one emotional sequence you will never find — humiliation followed by gratitude. “If politicians could only grasp this simple precept,” he thinks, “the world would be a much more peaceful place.” It’s almost enough to make you believe that an actor should run the world. Wait, scratch that — make it a novelist.

¶ A new biography, by Stanislao Pugliese, Bitter Spring: A Life of Ignazio Silone, gets a storytelling review from Geoffrey Wheatcroft, who calls the book "absorbing" but does not otherwise assess it. The review ends piously.

If Silone’s books are less read now than they once were, they ought not to be forgotten, and they will not be. Pugliese quotes a touching story from a professor at a Florida college who was teaching “Fontamara” to his class some years ago. The middle-class white kids couldn’t see the point of this tale of distant peasants fighting brutality and oppression — but his black students were overwhelmed. Whatever the postmodernists may say, justice and freedom are universal values.

¶ Lucinda Rosenfeld lays her aesthetic priorities on the table with the following sentence from her very favorable review of Dan Chaon's "gripping and unrelentingly bleak new novel," Await Your Reply.

In other instances, Chaon’s prose can be sharp and biting. Regarding the old woman who owns the magic shop where Miles works, he writes that, even at 93, she “had the stoic dignity of a beautiful woman who was about to be cut in half.”

She continues,

The underlying premise of Chaon’s book seems to be that, in the modern world, identity has become so fluid as to no longer necessarily exist. This will not be news to students of 20th-century French poststructuralist theory. But it is rare to see the position worked into a novel, the very existence of which would seem to throw this equation into doubt. (Do narratives not require “characters”?) Yet Chaon mostly pulls it off. As George explains to Lucy before the book’s cinematic denouement, complete with Russian mobsters: “It always comes to this. Everyone gets so hung up on what’s real and not real. . . . There isn’t just one version of the past, you know.”

¶ Pat Conroy has a new novel, South of Broad. Roy Hoffman's review is patronizing.

The technique Conroy has used so successfully in earlier works — a lone storyteller urgently sifting and interpreting a chaotic world — becomes constricting here. Our view of Leo’s friends is fore­shortened by his obsession with “the great arching motion of my life.” We often miss their own urgent need to heal, to press on. It’s as if Leo, the newspaper columnist, has churned through this material too many times before, leaving it sapped of its vitality.

Conroy remains a magician of the page. As a writer, he owns the South Carolina coast. But the descriptions of the tides and the palms, the confessions of love and loss, the memories “evergreen and verdant” set side by side with evocations of the “annoyed heart” have simply been done better — by the author himself.

Such slick breeziness is not helpful.

¶ Jacob Heilbrunn's pleasant review of Graham Swift's attempt "to chronicle his evolution into a novelist by weaving together two decades' worth of essays, interviews, and poems," Making an Elephant: Writing From Within, suggests that male British writers, at any event, would rather be doing something else.

One of his most finely rendered essays is a tribute to the publisher Alan Ross, who, Swift says, did two things: “He opened a door of welcome to the literary life as no longer a solitary business, but he also lifted the lid. He let me in and he let me out. He gave me that first, unrepeatable, unforgettable gasp of about-to-be-published oxygen.” Swift also provides some nice glimpses into his friendships with Kazuo Ishiguro, who takes him guitar shopping, and Salman Rushdie, who celebrated a number of Christmases with Swift’s family during the Iranian fatwa years, and who, Swift writes, was as exuberant as anything from his novels, “never anything but an intense bundle of energy and combustion.”

¶ Meryl Gordon's breathless review of Robert Nylen's Guts: Combat, Hell-Raising, Cancer, Business Start-Ups, and Undying Love: One American Guy's Reckless, Lucky Life begins by setting the bar almost as low as the title.

It is haunting to read a memoir by a writer who was racing against incurable cancer to get his words on paper, and died in December 2008 shortly after completing his work. You open Robert Nylen’s book, “Guts,” with a mixture of sadness and curiosity, braced for the inevitable. Damn, he is going to make me care about him, and mourn his untimely death. I was torn between rushing through this absorbing and disjointed story or deliberately slowing the pace, aware that once the book ended, Nylen’s raw, funny, urgent voice would be forever stilled.

¶ Intentionally or not, Neil Gordon's review of Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone, by Eduardo Galeano (translated by Mark Fried), makes his subject sound like a very childish book.

In some 600 short entries, he travels from prehistory to the present, from the impressionistic to the brutally, precisely documented. Each entry is an avatar of outrage over the depredations of power against its multifarious victims, those rendered helpless by poverty, religion, race, sexual identity or — as in the vignettes about Galileo and Isaac Babel — the simple accident of being right when the truth defined by the prevailing authority was wrong.

¶ John Haskell unwisely chooses to review Jim Krusoe's novel, Erased, in terms of the "classical Hitchcockian MacGuffin."

Hitchcock knew that the details of a MacGuffin are unimportant, that its purpose is to supply the hero with a task through which we come to know and connect with him. But when the MacGuffin becomes unmoored from its purpose, when the arbitrary becomes normal, when our attraction to the narrator’s story is based primarily on the charm of its telling, then it doesn’t matter whether Theodore has died and gone to Cleveland, or whether his mother is alive or dead or speaking from beyond the divide between the known and the yet to be known. A strange world of desire separated from its object comes into focus. And Krusoe’s witty book, for all its drifting in the slipstream of realistic narrative, ends up being, in the old and honest and satisfying sense, familiar.

This really does not make any sense.

¶ Before settling down to storytelling, Mark Sarvas usefully shares his opinion of Nick Laird, whose new novel, Glover's Mistake, is under review.

“Who knows what you mean by love?” This question, posed by the immoderately gifted Nick Laird in his 2007 poem “Estimates,” runs like a burning filament through the heart of his fiction and poetry. And it illuminates his new novel, Glover’s Mistake, in which Laird returns to themes he has explored in two poetry collections and his first novel, Utterly Monkey. He continues to be interested in male friendship, in loyalty and in how the arrival of a woman can upend the cultivated effort­lessness of those friendships. But Glover’s Mistake tones down the rollicking beat of its predecessor and sings in a deeper, darker, more controlled key. Deceptively slim, it is as layered as any of Laird’s poems, a searching, heartfelt meditation on the mistakes of youth (and beyond).

¶ Nancy Kline struggles to make Anita Brookner's new novel, Strangers, sound like a new novel, but the process wears her out.

In this, Sturgis resembles earlier Brookner characters who, even if married, are profoundly alone and frequently suffer from the same “chronic condition,” homesickness. How could it be otherwise in a fictional universe where exile defines the human condition and there is no home (though there are numerous hotels), a fact expressed at the end of Brookner’s Booker Prize-winning novel, Hotel du Lac, whose heroine, Edith Hope, crosses out the “not entirely accurate” telegram she has just composed, which reads “Coming home,” and writes instead: “Returning.”

Unlike Edith (who, in addition to telegrams, also writes romance fiction under the pen name Vanessa Wilde), Sturgis is uncoupled. Loneliness and a sense of mortality permeate his story, especially after the death of his “pseudo-relative,” Helena, a cousin by marriage who represents the last shred of his family. “Sturgis,” we are told in the book’s very first line, “had always known that it was his destiny to die among strangers.” He will ruminate, throughout, on the question of which strangers and where. Shall he opt (like his brother-under-the-skin, Lambert Strether) for exile in Paris, in “the ideal hotel” of which he dreams? Or shall he marry one of the two women who have suddenly appeared on his horizon?

I find it mildly surprising that, having mentioned the fictional Strether, Ms Kline does not mention the real-life Howard Sturgis.

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