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If I ever inaugurate an unintentionally dirty-sounding e-review series called “Straight to the author’s inbox,” the first one will be to James Collins, and it will read, “Hey James, how’s it going? LOVED THE FIRST HALF OF YOUR NOVEL! xo talk soon L.” (Note to all the publications who’ve cut their book reviews of late: I will provide these under your institutional umbrella for a reasonable fee.) Because while Beginner’s Greek contains some of the most devastating, vivid characterizations (and character assassinations) I’ve read in the past few years, its lovely prose is marred by the fact that the central characters, Holly and Peter–who meet on a flight, lose contact, and spend the next few years (and remainder of the novel) seeking the lost soulmate–are, compared to the surrounding cast, relatively anodyne constructions. While a bullying husband speculates about his ex-wife, visualizing the clotted hairbrush left out for guests that sums up her pitiable circumstances, Peter chases a veritable ghost, a lovely cipher with whom everyone is immediately enchanted, although all we know about Holly is that when Peter met her, she was reading The Magic Mountain. (“She’s a dead ringer for Garbo. She always beats me at chess. She’s first on every punchline. Her drink is Absolut.”) One of the things I love about Larry McMurtry is that he’s one of the few male writers who can portray difficult, irritating women whom men still manage to like. Collins crushes the women in his novel admirably, but his satire can’t hold up against someone who only gives other people crushes. James: EVERYONE is worthy of crushing. Leave the bewitching, blank siren for Roth. He’s probably trademarked her by now, anyway.
Eat, Pray, Love
A sad truth for those of you out there seeking greater ones: Nothing is more boring than your epiphanies. (Even worse, sojourners–the more particular they are to you, the more they sound exactly like everyone else’s.) Such is the problem with Elizabeth Gilbert’s journey through the particulars of her digestive, spiritual and moral humors–located, for your corporeal information, in the regions of Italy, India and Indonesia, respectively. It’s a bit of a punt to say the book is self-aggrandizing–how could a book focused on one’s spiritual well-being not be?–but it’s the grand the Richard Bachian strokes that provoke the reader beyond speech: “Simply put, I got pulled through the wormhole of the Absolute, and in that rush I suddenly understood the workings of the universe completely.” (Simply put.) However, we’re a girl! Fish-in-barrel elements aside, of course we loved that someone would eat pasta, meditate and tool around Indonesia for a year to get over a broken heart. There’s a lot to be said for pasta in general. P.S. we leave the 16th.
Never Let Me Go
If all butlers from England sound robotic and all English clones sound like butlers, does Kazuo Ishiguro need to stop giving characters affects flatter than a freshly ironed newspaper? These and other points of information plagued me upon my “completion” — you’ll get it — of the author’s sixth novel, wherein a prep-school love triangle worthy of a great piece of teen chick-lit is inexplicably ruined by the fact that the characters all have to give up their organs afterwards. Much has been made of this great “secret” — and, oops, spoiler alert and all — but it’s no more a secret than the fact that, if a girl tells you her boyfriend thinks you’re a slut, it’s a sure bet he has a huge crush on you. HUGE, Kathy, HUGE. Even a butler could see it.
It’s hard to know how to treat the work of Fernanda Eberstadt, whose gusty prose leaves the reader staggering back and forth like a pilgrim in a very high wind. The setting is Manhattan, the parties Gwen, a high-powered Russophile aiding in the democratization of the former USSR, and Gideon, an earthy puppeteer with a sanctimonious faith both in social activisim and Shabbos. The lovers crash, procreate, clash, and spin apart, their once-hot polarities suddenly reversed. Though the prose is more high-spirited — and high Mandarin — than the stuff of Diane Johnson or Louis Begley, the novel leaves the reader with the same feeling of being plunged into a dinner party of international sophisticates — an itchy mix of alienation and admiration. (The author herself? New Yorker and Vogue clips — check. Oxford-educated? Check. Lives in the French Pyrenees? Mais oui!) It’s all as cut-glass and sparkling as an inch-thick goblet — and it still leaves the reader wanting a drink.
Meg Wolitzer gets no respect, and we have no clue why*. Maybe it’s because her novels are…clever? …Funny? ….Delightful? The Wife — not a novel within a novel, but a novel about a novel, a la Philip Roth — was not fluffy but skilled, the type of practiced comedy that fled the Borscht Belt stage right around the time duos singing from the soundtrack to Flashdance reached their height**. And speaking of the horrors of our childhood, The Position is also about a book; The Joy of Sex-esque Pleasuring, whose contents, like everything else that issues forth from parental fucking, destroy — or, at least, wholly render speechless for a few decades — the members of healthy nuclear family.
* Does she really get no respect or did someone just talk smack about her to us once? Well, it matters not — NO ONE MAY SPEAK ILL OF THE WOLITZER. Didn’t she date David Letterman and write for the much lamented New York Woman magazine? Hmmm, that was Merrill Markoe for that first one, there. Either way, respect.
The Interruption of Everything
One of our first jobs as an editorial assistant at the Book of the Month Club was to write flap copy for a reprint of Terry McMillan’s Mama It was a classic first novel: autobiographical, a little clumsy, but with bite — not exactly the lead-in you’d expect for Waiting to Exhale, spot-on genre fiction, one of the great examples of a classic four. We had to give up after Stella, though, a great example of someone listing CDs they bought and what they ate for 200+ pages. Now we’re back, 3/4-heartedly. Interruption has all the McMillan tropes — the semi-distant mother who wants to be called by her first name; genial, well-meaning sons; buddies of varying levels of annoyance; dips into the ghetto from middle-class anomie. Marilyn, like most McMillan heroines, is trying to get her life together after realizing her sons are gone and her husband is boring; but she’s on a great quest to pursue a life of crafting, which, hot-glue aside, is not engaging. On the other hand, there’s a miscarriage, a senior romance, two kids with a methed-out mom, and a few other characters that keep the story moving. The boring husband, who remains boring and is inexplicably redeemed at the end, is a trope McMillan, like her character, should drop — not only does it never ring true, the marriage she slap-dash saves in the novel bears too strong a resemblance to McMillan’s own bond with the page.
I’m Not The New Me
“If you’re a female and over 125 pounds, then you can have a fat girl story.” Lawd, ain’t that the truth. We’ve been terribly slow at getting Wendy McClure’s — aka Poundy’s — novel up here, mainly because we’re fat and lazy, or, at least, could find ten or twelve folks who’d tell you so. As you can guess by the title, McClure’s memoir is not a “Not only did I get thin, I got a book deal” memoir, but a meta-critique of the genre, an explosion of it, if you will. It’s also an explosion of the blogger-cum-memoir genre, since the book HAS stuff from the website but also talks about the process of BUILDING the website, so that if you look to your left for even a second, you might find that your ratty IKEA couch has been sucked into a black hole along with a cat and half the sandwich you were eating. (Wendy has been updating her blog with her book tour, too — this web stuff will BLOW YOUR MIND!!!!!) We realize we’re making it sound horrifying. It’s not; the book is FABULOUS. “We know how it happened,” McClure writes. “We get the ‘ate too much’ part. Now tell us the rest.” *
* Some of the rest includes the part about the boyfriend who steals the size-20 Lane Bryant Venezia bootcut jeans which turn out to look okay on him, which we know is on the website, but we can’t find it. Also these. You still have to buy the book, though.
A Changed Man
In 1998, Francine Prose wrote an article for Harper’s reflecting on the massive inferiority of “domestic” women’s fiction entitled Scent of a Woman’s Ink. We have held it against her ever since, to the extent that we a) never read any of her fiction and b) as a student, smirked at her from the back row as she guest-lectured (as we have since, sadly, been smirked upon ourselves, though at far less illustrious institutions and only because we are boring). In any case, we have since been forced to reflect on our own massive inanity, as A Changed Man is easily one of the most delightful novels of the past year. As Mel Brooks proved long ago, for sheer entertainment, you CANNOT beat a Nazi — or skinhead, in this case, especially if he is under the wing of a great Jewish humanitarian, living in the spare room of a sex-starved single mother of two, and allergic to nuts.
It’s unfortunate that a book centered on a hermaphrodite should also peter out halfway through, but that’s the case with the debut novel of Wesley Stace, a.k.a. musician John Wesley Harding, possessor of one of the most beautiful web sites in recent memory. A kind of Victorian Middlesex — we don’t even want to think how many times that got dropped in marketing meetings — Misfortune has the juicy, tri-generational, multi-national breadth of the former without its narrative authority, as heroine Rose struggles to regain both her mansion and her (spoiler alert!) manhood. Artist Sylvie Covey‘s delicate drop caps (you can see the book’s last illustration here) are almost worth the price of admission, though.
* This is one of the reviews we did while inhaling way too many fumes from a very expensive hair gel, or something. Read the corrections here.
To the Power of Three
We have a problem with Laura Lippman. A few problems, in fact, the first of which is that NONE OF HER BOOKS HAS BEEN MADE INTO A MOVIE YET. C’mon, Hollywood: Teens, Murder, Mad Writing Skillz*. Second on our list of complaints is the title, which we could never have thought of and which, for a book about three teen girls and a mysterious shooting, IS THE BEST TITLE OF ALL TIME. Thirdly, we would like to object to this. Stasio, just because a book is longer than 180 pages does not make it “boring”. That is all.
* The fact that we have seen many a Lindsay Lohan movie with the author herself should not be taken as a vote of confidence for teen movies, mean girls, or Lindsay Lohan, but only the act of giving Laura Lippman more money in general. Let us just add that that goes double for Lindsay Lohan.
It’s not clear why Random House threw such a big hissy fit over publishing this novel. (Is it possible that publishing execs, a bit cash-strapped for nannies, felt this novel’s outing of rampant Xerox-and-memo abuse against lowly staffers hit a little too close to home?) The authors’ depiction of your average underutilized college grad’s first years out — first in a hemp-ish feminist nonprofit, then in a O-type startup that degenerates into a porn site — is un petit peu over-le-top, but that was the charm of Nanny Diaries, too. Like a teenage girl with her first tube of Maybelline, the authors color wildly — but charmingly — outside the lines. * **
* The REAL credibility problem with CG’S heroine is she’s a size 4 who “could be a model” who’s main concern with appearing in a bikini is her self-respect, not her cellulite. Let’s keep our character further than one bad hat away from Carrie Bradshaw, people.
** Unrelated: Why is one cover blue, one cover red? Can’t we leave that shit to Dave Eggers?
One day, someone will discover why Chang-Rae Lee’s psyche is tuned exclusively to the “I’m pushing 50 and my family hates me even though I tried to be a good father except I never really talked to my kids and all” channel (is it all the golf?), but until then, luxuriate in the densely crafted and crotchety person of Jerry Battle, whose internal stream of irritation keeps the novel’s melodramatic plot from, shall we say, (No.– Ed) going into a tailspin.*
* On a personal note, we would like to thank Mr. Lee for making moving back in with your folks — kids in all — and then putting in a pool fashionable again. The “Battle” was a little obvious, but that pool’s metaphorical significance hit us like twenty-ton bag of fish (Stop. — Ed) at the end — not easy in the era of The Swimmer and all. Salud.
Point Of No Return
Have you been looking for a book that combines an anthropological examination of a small New England town with the vaguaries of lost rich-girl love with a desperate, almost frantic crisis revolving around a promotion at a bank? Have you ever suspected that such a book could be the best book in the world, with a heart-stopping last line that rivals Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider closing (“Now, there would be time for everything”) with its simultaneous blast of redemption and cruel irony? Well, have you? Look no further.
The Easter Parade
There are only a few characters in all of Richard Yates’ fiction: the tippling mother with the lipstick edging out around the lines of her mouth; the weak, sensitive boy who is a constant trial (most of all to himself); the brutal alpha male who preys upon a former beauty; the women whose love affairs spin them into orbits ranging farther and farther from happiness. The worst thing to be in Yates’ fiction is a liar, and nearly all his characters cannot live up their ideas — much less ideals — of themselves. This is especially true in the story of Sarah and Emily Grimes, who wind up, respectively, as the dowdy battered wife of a useless brute and a spinster who, at 50, “still understands nothing.” It’s more fun than it sounds. It also may be the only novel in which a character teaches — as Yates’did for many years — at the Iowa Writers’ workshop. I would give my left pinkie to know if Yates, like the unsuccessful poet Jack Flanders, was left behind by his small-breasted girlfriend after a long, nasty winter, or if he merely filled in the lines around an actual poet he detested. There’s something both lovely and terrible in the idea of Yates creating an entire narrative to house the memory of a lover who left him.
The Plot Against America
SPOILER SPOILER * We’d put down a serious wad of long green on the hunch that the plot of “The Plot Against America” did not, as many suggested, originate in a flight of fancy about what would have happened if Charles Lindbergh had become President during Hitler’s rise to power, but rather in the child-inside-the-man Roth’s wish that the heroic aviator was not, as he assuredly was, a fascist sympathizer, but had actually been blackmailed by Nazis holding his supposedly kidnapped child through every horrendous concessionary speech. We only think that because it’s more fun to think so, but also because this thrillingly labyrinthine plot establishes that Professor Roth could definitely have a job writing for the TV series Alias, if he ever had a mind to.
We’re more than a little disappointed that we’ve reached the age of 31 without someone taking us aside, shaking us vigorously by the shoulders and hissing in our face, “You goddamn little fool, what are you doing walking around like an acceptable person when you haven’t read BF’s Daughter?” Like the souped-up Chevy that is John Cheever to Richard Yates’ Mercedes, B.F’s Daughter puts its wan shadow, Marjorie Morningstar, to shame. Though it takes place during WWII, it’s somehow indisputably modern. Also, it contains the line, “Nobody cares what happens to a girl if she’s on a yacht.”
“A very busy person” [MBToolbox]
“One of the smartest bloggers on the Web” [Forbes.com]
“Who reads ‘blogs’?” [Telegraph]
“There’s no uniformity about the literary blogs and no editing either, which is sometimes painfully obvious.” [The Denver Post]
“Karaoke.” [New Yorker]
“Already I’m feeling betrayed — and a little bored.” [Washington Post]
“You will learn a lot about the drinking patterns of articulate twentysomethings.” [Village Voice]
“Direct, rude and shamelessly ad hominem.” [The Scotsman]
“The other country in which blogs have really taken off is the United States…” [The Guardian]
We enjoy it. You can reach Old Hag for any good goddamn reason at all at theoldhag AT theoldhag DOT com.
Old Hag is the work of Lizzie Skurnick, critic, blogger, writer, teacher. Don't talk about Jersey. more...
Right On The Money: A ‘Capital’ Book For Our Times (All Things Considered, 6/8/2012)
England has always reveled in its drawing-room dramas, from Jane Austen’s social minefields to E.M. Forster’s Howards End to Upstairs, Downstairs — and yes, the blockbuster Downton Abbey. John Lanchester’s brilliant Capital, set on a once-ordinary London block whose housing prices have skyrocketed, has the distinction of being the first brick-and-mortar novel set squarely in our current times.
That Should Be a Word (The New York Times Magazine)
Click for entire list and links of “That Should Be a Word”s. And call them Sniglets if you must, but you’re dating yourself!
The Complete Compendium of Real Housewives Posts (The Los Angeles Times, 2011-2012)
The Real Housewife Series Deconstructed, Dissected, Clarified, Illuminated, Concordized, Taxa’d and, nominally, Recapped.
50 Shades of Gray, A Self-Published e-Book, is the Future of Publishing (Daily Beast, 3/17/2012)
Every so often a manuscript, like an impudent toddler, rises on unsteady feet and toddles onto the bestseller list without so much as a by-your-leave to that ignorant publishing foursome. Such a work is E.L. James’s 50 Shades of Grey, which, out of a teeny e-publishing community in Australia, managed the neat trick of vaulting to the top of The New York Times e-book and print bestseller lists, garnering a seven-figure deal from Vintage, and leaving readers clamoring for the as-yet-unpublished rest of the trilogy, all without ever being in print in the United States at all.
State of Wonder (Barnes & Noble Review, 6/14/2011)
If the greatest compliment you can give an author is to ask if her book is “really true,” then our digital era’s version may be to skip the author entirely and go straight to Google to separate fact from fiction.
Self Sells: Bethenny Frankel: From Housewives Star to Thriving Mogul (Time, 5/9/2011)
Vulgar, vulnerable, wise and neurotic, Bethenny Frankel, Bravo’s last-minute addition to its blockbuster series The Real Housewives of New York City, was a poor mans Housewife from the first. Not a wife (single Frankel was expanding her catering business) nor a homeowner (she rented her Upper East Side one-bedroom), she weathered patronizing barbs from older, wealthier castmates for these and other deficiencies with a captivating mix of insouciance and insecurity.
When Tito Loved Clara (The Barnes & Noble Review, 4/25/2011)
If Jersey has its rightful place, it doesnt mean it gets righteous treatment. Like the one-liners that plague weary residents—”New Joisey?” “Which exit?”—the state, thematically speaking, is hopelessly circumscribed. Sam Lipsyte’s losers hole up in childhood bedrooms; Tom Perotta’s freshmen, now in college, gloom about hometown mistakes; chick-lit mothers dream of escape. TV dwells gustily on the region’s putative violence: Tony Soprano making hits in his tinted SUV; double-muscled, punch-happy “Jersey Shore”-ers; “Real Housewives” who pull out each other’s extensions and flip tables on a dime.
Let Them Eat Baby! The Terrifying New Practice Of The Cake Gender Reveal (The Awl, 4/15/2011)
Immediately after my mother gave birth to my brother, the legend goes, she demanded three things of my father: a crate of avocados, a six-pack of beer and an entire chocolate cake, which last she devoured entirely, bed-bound, before moving on the rest. I believe and like this baby story, because it involves beer, and chocolate cake, two things that have historically gone great with baby. Until now.
Death Becomes Her (Time, 3/28/2011)
Calling a mystery novel a literary one is increasingly being taken as a shot by both camps. But that is the conundrum facing the dedicated fan of Kate Atkinson, whose Started Early, Took My Dog, the fourth in her gumshoe Jackson Brodie series, turns prostitution, the poems of Emily Dickinson, England’s crisis of shoplifting and snippets from The Tempest into something rich — and deeply strange.
The Force Is With Her: Natalie Portman’s Runway Week (Politics Daily, 3/16/2011)
Say what you will for hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway, 2011’s Oscars were a big night for sperm. Not only did the justly feted “The Kids Are All Right” introduce audiences to the concept of the hot donor daddy, but Natalie Portman, after praising her agents, parents, and even her costumiers, wound up her speech by thanking her baby daddy straight out for the good stuff: “. . . and to my beautiful love, Benjamin Millepied, who not only choreographed my role, but has now given me my greatest role in life.”
Tiger, Tiger (Time, 3/14/2011)
It’s fashionable to suggest that memoir writers begin by making sure the events of their lives merit examination. No one could lob this accusation at Fragoso, whose Tiger, Tiger details the years she spent at the mercy of a pedophile, Peter Curran, with whom she had a “relationship” from the time she was 7 until she was 22.
Domestic Disturbances (Bookforum, Dec/Jan 2011)
For a certain swath of American female thirty-somethings, the literary thriller comes with an odd set of associations. In addition to the windswept heaths of Wuthering Heights and Manderley, such books will likely conjure the pine-lined hiking trails of New Mexico, the fiercely policed social boundaries of classrooms and high school cafeterias, and beachy redoubts where teenagers would do well to avoid slippery black rocks.
Zen and the Art of Image Maintenance (The Millions, 9/2/2010)
The movie of Eat, Pray, Love commences with the kind of moment that, depending on your outlook, leads you to find memoirist Elizabeth Gilbert either deeply appalling or appealing.
Jonathan Franzen Freedom Backlash (The Daily Beast, 8/31/2010)
Make of it what you will, but the Twitter-born fracas over Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom proves one thing without a doubt: The American literary establishment are size queens.
How Not to Congratulate Your Ex on Her Wedding Day (Politics Daily, 7/27/2010)
On Saturday, CBS legal correspondent and Politics Daily contributor Andrew Cohen wrote a heartfelt tribute to the love that got away on the occasion of her wedding to someone else. I’ve never had an ex sing my virtues on a massively trafficked Web site, but as someone who’s been dating for almost two decades, I’ve noticed when you date long enough, communications from male exes start to fall into charmingly distinct categories.
Listicle Without Commentary: The 45 Greatest Teen Titles You Have Never Heard of From the Era When They All Mentioned “I,” “Me,” “You” or Some Other Key Person That Are Not ‘Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret’ (The Awl, 7/9/2010)
45. Where Has Deedie Wooster Been All These Years? 44. Trying Hard to Hear You 43. To All My Fans, With Love, From Sylvie42. The War Between The Pitiful Teachers and the Splendid Kids
A Manly Man’s Monster Novel (The Daily Beast, 6/25/2010)
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment one achieves literary success, but when Stephen King picks up the phone to interrupt your Good Morning America appearance to personally thank you for writing your latest book, you know you are in the ballpark.
Three Degrees Of Failure For The Recent Graduate (NPR’s Three Books, 6/22/2010)
It might seem odd to describe a novel that involves barfing in cars, stalking boys and a drunk dad playing beer pong in his underpants as heartwarming, but Beach Week author Susan Coll is a master at finding wisdom in the unexpected.
Books to Steal From Your Teenager (O magazine, July 2010)
Now that millions of adults have discovered the teen-focused J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer series, the concept of “intend audience” for books has changed forever. What makes a so-called teen title something even a mother could love?
HBOs Google Baby: Network of Surrogates, Egg Donors Remakes Childbearing (Politics Daily, 6/16/2010)
Almost every time I ride the Path train from New York home to New Jersey, I find myself seated across from the same ad. There’s a jigsaw image of women’s faces — different races, beaming assuredly — and the text “Become a Dreammaker!”
Sure, We’re Marriage-Obsessed. So Why Aren’t We Hearing From the Men? (Politics Daily, 6/10/2010)
In 1939, the director George Cukor gave us the campy classic “The Women.” Based on the novel by Claire Booth Luce, it was the glossy saga of a sweet wife whose husband is snatched away by his shrew of a mistress — that is, at least, until the wife grows her own talons and snatches him back. (Rent it! You will finally get the joke the next time your gay best friend extends his nails and intones, “Jungle Red!”)
“Short Second Life of Bree Tanner”: Stephenie Meyer slays her own vampires (Salon, 6/8/2010)
There are probably only two reasonable reactions to having your first two novels made into blockbusters. The first: to pop some bubbly and raise an eternal glass to your triumph. The second: to freak out at how far your characters have wandered since the good old days, when the only screen they appeared on was your own.
Will the iPad Change Publishing? Ask The Atlantic (The Millions, 5/3/2010)
How far we’ve come since 2005’s dark days, when Atlantic editors winnowed fiction down to a yearly newsstand-only digest! The now-quaint rationale was, “Reporting consumes a lot of space.” But in fiscal year 2009, when book review sections shriveled and houses purged editors and authors alike, dreamy fabulists, note: the Atlantic moved forward to find space for fiction again.
Rielle, Oprah and Zen: America’s Truth-Off. (Politics Daily, 5/2/2010)
Since the publication of “Game Change,” the revelations of a sex tape and the alarming photo accompaniment to Rielle Hunter’s GQ interview, we can safely say that dirt on the John Edwards scandal has entered an era of diminishing returns. America could handle the soap-worthy battle between a cancer-ridden wife and a wanton home-wrecker, but even the most salacious viewer knows that when the lady of the house takes off her pants and kneels next to the stuffed Elmo, it’s time to pick up your toys and go home.
Suzanne Collins–2010 TIME 100 (Time, 4/29/2010)
Remaking society can take decades. But global rebellion is short work for sharpshooter Katniss Everdeen, who single-handedly foments a revolution in Suzanne Collins’ blockbuster young-adult Hunger Games trilogy. America likes its champions reluctant, and Collins specializes in that surly breed: her heroine trounces dystopic despots while chewing her cheek in self-doubt.
Ivy Love: Why Students Really Shouldn’t Sleep With Their Professors (Politics Daily, 4/7/2010)
People are having sex at Yale? Amorously enterprising Elis everywhere must forgive me if that was my first reaction to Salon’s Broadsheet columnist Tracy Clark-Flory, who pooh-poohs the university’s recent prohibition against faculty at Yale having sex with any undergraduate student, not just one of their own. Though I love the idea of that New Haven campus roiling, like some Rona Jaffe novel, with inappropriate liaisons of all kind, as a former student I recall, in 1995, sex at Yale was a pretty dispiriting affair.
The End of Single Women (The Daily Beast, 1/05/2010)
Given our culture’s fascination with getting to the happily ever after, why is it always so unsatisfying to hear from someone already there? Is it that details prized from the circumspect spouses are almost belligerent in their banality? (See Michelle Obama on Barack’s morning breath.) That the narratives themselves are so ludicrously one-gendered? (When’s the last time you saw a husband wrestle in print about a marital bed he still enjoys?)
In today’s movies, girls in peril face many horrors (The Los Angeles Times, 1/02/2010)
At first blush, the heroines of the films “Precious,” “New Moon” and “The Lovely Bones” seem to have little in common — except that they all started out as characters in novels.
‘Staying True’? Most Marriage Memoirs Do Anything But (Politics Daily, 1/8/2010)
Although you can’t make assumptions about what leads anyone to put pen to paper — perhaps Sanford is a secret memoirist who’s been itching to blow the lid off her marriage since the honeymoon — it seems far more likely that this is yet another contribution to the scorned-wives genre, where the spouse offers insta-insights for the benefit of an enthusiastic marketing department, not readers.
Same Old Story: Best-Books Lists Snub Women Writers (Politics Daily, 12/14/2009)
A few weeks ago, two book critics held a hushed conversation via cell phone under cover of darkness. “They better not do it again,” one hissed. “I know,” the other sputtered. “If it happens, I will just –” “I know!” said the other. “SCREAM,” the first finished. “I WILL SCREAM.” The subject was the upcoming season of book awards; “They” was the mass of authors, critics and publishing professions who — including yours truly — dispense them.
Rise of the Alpha Female (The Daily Beast, 12/11/2009)
If nothing else, this year’s series of marriage-fracturing scandals has given us a definitive portrait of the 21st-century mistress. Historically, the creature has been understood as a kind of obligation-free sweetheart one installs in a convenient apartment after fondness for a wife has evaporated. Not so her modern counterpart.
What Tiger’s Mom Saw (The Daily Beast, 12/5/2009)
From what we know, Elin Nordegren and Kultida Woods have a pretty standard mother and daughter-in-law relationship. (When Tiger built Tida a house next door, Elin, according to Australia’s Herald Sun, insisted a stretch of water separate them.) But the news that both Tida and Nordegren’s mother, Barbro Holmberg, were on the scene on the day that Elin commandeered a priceless club to rework the rear window of his vehicle may indicate a happy new phase in in-law relations.
I’m Team Tsing Loh: Whither Germaine Greer, Indeed? (Politics Daily, 12/5/2009)
I live in Jersey City, about as far from a Betty Draper’s magnolia petal-overlaid redoubt as you can get. But every morning, I am mildly taken aback when I find myself marching among a troop that is entirely female, women of my age and station, ranging from the harried to the glamorous, all pushing one or two offspring toward the park in an assortment of urban-optimized carriages. Really? I think.
Fatherhood Gets Hip (The Daily Beast, 12/01/2009)
Jonathan Safran Foer has a son. He’s not the Son, I don’t think, although I might be forgiven for doing so. Because even though it is generally agreed that we are living in a child-centered moment, Eating Animals, the Everything Is Illuminated author’s somewhat reheated contribution to the recent spate of ruminations on flesh eating (verdict: don’t), is a singular entry in the annals of parenting literature—bypassing a now-commonplace obsession with one’s offspring to head straight to sanctification.
‘Blame’ Pushes Past Tragedy To Self-Discovery (NPR’s Books We Like, 10/26/2009)
When a character accidentally kills a mother and daughter within the first 20 pages of a novel, a reader might expect the author to dedicate the remaining pages to picking through the resultant mental debris. But in her third novel, Blame, Michele Huneven has something far more interesting in mind than a redemptive tale about learning to take responsibility. Instead, this thoughtful, arresting novel uses a tragic event to explore the more provoking question of whether, in blaming ourselves for the obvious, we’re avoiding our true responsibilities.
Sometimes, a Doll is Just a Doll (Politics Daily, 10/26/2009)
Once a year, usually around my birthday, my mother laments my childhood Barbie trauma. “I should have bought it for you,” she says glumly. “You wanted it, and I should have bought it.”
‘Jaws': Celebrating Sand, Sex And A Really Big Fish (NPR’s All Things Considered, 8/26/2009)
You’re supposed to feel guilty when you secretly like the movie version of a book better than the book itself, but in the case ofJaws — a book I read and reread long before I was allowed to see the film — I’m far more embarrassed to admit I prefer the novel. Because while Jaws the movie is a bone-chilling update on Moby Dick, Jaws the novel is more like Peyton Place by the sea. Everyone swears like a sailor, and the hunt for the shark comes a very distant second to a bunch of hot summer trysts.
Buck Up: Life Lessons From Young Heroines (NPR’s All Things Considered, 6/10/2009)
You might think of girls’ fiction as one big Cinderella rewrite — that scullery maid who finally gets her night at the ball. But if you’re seeking tips on weathering the economic crisis, your daughter’s bookshelf may be better than Suze Orman. When they’re in a tough spot, teen heroines tame wolves, survive in garrets and live out nine-month snowstorms — without a tiara in sight.
Personal Yet Dazzlingly Eclectic ‘Notes’ On Race (NPR’s Books We Like, 3/3/2009)
In 2002, Eula Biss published a slim book of prose poetry, The Balloonists. Arresting and singular, itsflat, affectless recounting of seemingly disparate events could have been mind-numbing but for the author’s dazzlingly intuitive leaps, in which these odd juxtapositions lead to startling illumination. Biss brings that same alchemy to Notes from No Man’s Land, a collection of essays that examines race across North America, from the media’s view of Katrina victims, to the curiosity of American emigres flocking to Mexico City, to the fate of a Chicago neighborhood teetering on the edge of gentrification.
Marriage By the Book (NPR’s Best Books of 2008, 12/29/2008)
If previous years’ bookshelves were crowded with woeful tales of single living, 2008 marked the year of marriage; even Anna Karenina, the ne plus ultra of domestic dissatisfaction, got back into the act, returning as a resident of Rego Park in Irina Reyn’s What Happened to Anna K.
Revolutionary Road (The Chicago Tribune, 12/27/2008)
I discovered Richard Yates under circumstances the author would have found irredeemably precious, on a residency at Yaddo, working my way through the library of former residents. The desiccated copy of “Revolutionary Road,” its spine half-flaked off, told the unapologetically bleak story of Frank and April Wheeler, a husband and wife in 1950s Connecticut suburbia who are alternately battened by insecurity and misplaced superiority. “Revolutionary Road” was dire without being maudlin, erudite without being show-offy, and cruel yet correct. It was masterful and it was not pleased with itself in the least, and it was exactly unlike every character it depicted.
When Will There Be Good News? (NPR’s Books We Like, 9/29/2008)
Most thrillers cast their murderers from a dependable trinity: Lecter-like mastermind, garden-variety psychopath or misfit bent on revenge. But in the third in a series of mysteries featuring the shambling, world-weary detective Jackson Brodie, novelist Kate Atkinson takes on a depressingly real-life boogeyman: the guy who kills women and children.
Just After Sunset (NPR’s Books We Like, 11/13/2008)
After years of advocacy from fans and critics, several appearances in the New Yorker, and the 2000 publication of his marvelous On Writing, it is now generally agreed that Stephen King is as “literary” as any moody Whiting-award nominee. If King’s new short-story collection, Just After Sunset, is any indication, he too seems to consider the matter settled. Like a character in one of his own novels who has vanquished the bogeyman and emerged into daylight unharmed, the author has deemed it safe to put down his highfalutin pen and return unapologetically to his lurid, gore-spattered roots.
Stephenie Meyer: The Twilight Series (The Chicago Tribune, 8/2/2008)
Roughly once a decade, one or another of the media’s form of the undead — genre — struggles to reinvent itself. This usually takes place in the teen market, the only slice of the pie that receives a crop of newbies with some regularity. Even still, lately, an enormous number of replicants has been served up to the unsuspecting.
Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love (NPR’s Books We Like, 7/29/2008)
Kitchen-table fiction, wherein a cozy author tells the story of a culture through its food, is as easy to find as a packet of Splenda. But Lara Vapnyar’s second short-story collection, the follow-up to her debut, There Are Jews in My House, is a stunning petit four (it’s a slender 160 pages) in a world of saccharin.
Certain Girls (NPR’s Books We Like, 6/30/2008)
Jennifer Weiner’s 2001 debut smash, Good In Bed — which is the kind of book you buy for a plane ride, then are surprisingly pleased you did — introduced us to the agreeably mordant Cannie Shapiro, who, overweight, scorned, and inadvertently on the way to motherhood, writes her way out of a hole and into a career and marriage with a naughty best-seller. (Yes, it’s meta.)
The Brotherhood of S.E. Hinton (The Chicago Tribune, 5/31/2008)
“S.E. Hinton is a girl?” my friend’s husband, incredulous, asked me last weekend. It wasn’t the first time. Given the fact that the author’s “The Outsiders,” her iconic work, is still read in classrooms across the country, and that her particulars—she published the work when she was 17 as, yes, a girl—are splashed on nearly every copy, it’s a perplexingly enduring question. Perhaps for readers of any age it’s still difficult to believe that this profoundly diligent explorer of male adolescence, the woman who brought philosophizing, switchblade-bearing toughs with way too much hair oil and free time onto every teenager’s bookshelf, probably did it in a bra.
The Late Show (The Lost Angeles Times, 11/11/2007)
“Mother is gone / only Things remain” reads the epigraph to “Classic Layer Cakes,” one of the central poems in David Trinidad’s confection-laced collection, “The Late Show” (Turtle Point Press: 110 pp., $16.95 paper). The Denise Levertov quote could easily serve as the epigraph to the entire work. Trinidad is a meticulous curator of pop-culture flotsam — silver-screen sirens, Barbie, ’60s-era lip gloss — and his autobiographical verse is a graceful, merry wink to gay culture. (In “A Poem Under the Influence,” he goes so far as to declare, “To this day, if I can fit ‘pink’ in a poem, I do.”) But “The Late Show” is an hommage to both Hollywood and Trinidad’s own ghosts flickering across the screen. Chief among these are his mother, dead of cancer, and his lover, poet and artist Joe Brainard, whose 1970 work “I Remember” used that phrase as a jumping-off point and spawned a poetry workshop standard. “The Late Show” is a kaleidoscopic “I Remember” where now-gone players from the poetry world — James Schuyler, Tim Dlugos and Rachel Sherwood — make apperances, bracketed by Trinidad’s usual ready referents: actress Thelma Ritter, the Lana Turner version of “Imitation of Life” and Water Wiggle. Trinidad uses a jumble of forms to evoke them all: sonnets, odes, sestinas, free verse, with nods to Neruda, Wilde, Dickinson and Plath. (At times, quotes from Trinidad’s friends rival the snappy patter of screenplays: “He’s been crossed off guest lists I didn’t know existed.”) It’s no accident that the forms at which Trinidad excels — pantoums, sestinas — do not propel a narrative forward but circle back, repeat, emphasize. “The Late Show” is less a monument to the past than a salvage. Like the adult narrator of “Classic Layer Cakes,” who scours flea markets to acquire the complete set for a Deluxe Reading Barbie Dream Kitchen, Trinidad scours his own past for each cracked, orphaned accessory.
TimesCouplets (New York Magazine‘s Daily Intel)
Fiction Chronicle (The New York Times Book Review, 4/8/2007)
Take a young man, successful but lacking in experience. Add a woman, opaque and mysterious, her past a dark negative the narrator holds up to the light, finding only his own reflection. Throw in a war, a disillusioned journalist as the antagonist whose world-weary asides counter the young man’s tedious ignorance. It’s an old story, made fresh by the first-time novelist Michael FitzGerald….
Chick Lit, the Sequel: Yummy Mummy (New York Times, 12/17/2006)
EARLIER this year, an icon of youthful abandon — bubbly, blond, a perpetual adolescent — left the grove of girlhood and gave birth to a baby boy. No, not Britney Spears. The puckish heroine Bridget Jones, whose fictional diary of the urban dating life was a best seller a decade ago, and whose recent journey to the delivery room has been serialized in The Independent in Britain.
Confessions of a Memory Eater (The New York Times Book Review, 9/17/2006)
Is it a coincidence that an author who seemed to have reached the apex of her popularity a decade ago has come back on the scene with a novel in which a memory pill allows a professor to return to his own golden days? Possibly, though the literary chameleon Pagan Kennedy charges into the future with impressive dexterity, even as her latest character is sucked back into the past.
Talk Talk (The Baltimore Sun, 7/23/2006)
What’s the cost of being 20 minutes late for a dentist’s appointment? Running a stop sign? Having a cross word with your boss? In the real world, maybe an extra hour in the waiting room; a $40 ticket; getting the fish-eye for a week at work. But in T.C. Boyle’s new novel, Talk Talk, these inconsequential events do not pass into the realm of the quickly forgotten. Instead, they are the small jagged snips that unravel three people’s lives.
The Whole World Over (The Baltimore Sun, 6/11/2006)
One might think that a novel spanning the art of cookery and Sept. 11 (or, as the Library of Congress has it, “1. Women cooks-Fiction. 2. September 11 Terrorist Attacks, 2001-Fiction.”) might take its title with a decent pinch of salt as well. But Julia Glass’ The Whole World Over, the follow-up to the National Book Award-winning Three Junes, means to live up to its title, double connotation and all.
Carry Me Down (The Baltimore Sun, 4/9/2006)
If we got rid of the child narrator, would anybody miss him? Surely his characteristics have gone from enduring to inuring. First and most foremost, there’s his fractured family, usually in the form of a drunken father and an ineffectual mother – one overly close to her charge, mourning a great and fragile beauty. His parents have often produced an alternately raging and principled older brother, already dead or soon to die, and a preternaturally innocent young sister, who utters gnomic statements and, if the older brother lives, is not long for this world herself.
Rust and Bone (The New York Times Book Review, 12/25/2005)
It may, as the conventional wisdom goes, be harder to write comedy than tragedy–but it’s also easy for a writer to shoot for the second and hit the first. That’s what happens in Craig Davidson’s short-story collection, where the author plunges a child under the ice and into a permanent coma, rips the face off a dog, lets a killer whale bite off his trainer’s leg and finally snaps a character’s manhood in two in a series of unsuccessful attempts to win the reader’s sympathy that are equal parts amusing, appalling and just plain gross.
The Reasons I Won’t Be Coming (The Baltimore Sun, 12/25/2005)
At these times Perlman often attempts to save himself with a poetical flourish. The widow in “Manslaughter” lies down among dusty salad leaves in a supermarket after the jury renders a not-guilty verdict, her “life marked down, drastically reduced.” In “The Hong Kong Fir Doctrine,” the narrator, a lawyer, intones that the “terms of the contract” with his ex-love were “partly oral, partly implied and partly imagined. It has been breached in a way that makes its further performance impossible. I am entitled to treat it as an end, but I am unable. There is damage.”
On Beauty (The Baltimore Sun, 9/18/2005)
When an established author updates a classic, it’s generally considered bad form to spend the great majority of your reading sniffing out salient “Aha!” moments. But On Beauty, Zadie Smith’s third novel, a vigorous homage to Forster’s Howards End, not only invites, but demands, such sniffing. The author — whose debut, White Teeth, catapulted her into the kind of galactic literary orbit of which lesser authors, crashing and burning through unearned advances, can only dream — has transposed her countryman’s novel of love and class in turn-of-the-century England into a treatise on race and class in current day America.
An Atomic Romance (The Baltimore Sun, 8/28/2005)
When we begin Bobbie Ann Mason’s An Atomic Romance — the author’s first book in a decade — the life of hero Reed Futrell, ladies’ man, chemistry buff, and outdoor enthusiast, is, both metaphorically and literally, up in the air. The self-dubbed “Atomic Man,” a longtime employee of a uranium-enrichment plan, has just found out that his workplace may or may not have stockpiled its own employees with neptunium and plutonium. His girlfriend Julia, an amateur biologist, may or may not have completely called it quits with him, peeved not only at Reed’s blind trust in his superiors at the plant, but at his choice of a contaminated camping ground for their recent romantic excursion.
Lunar Park (The Baltimore Sun, 8/21/2005)
Bret Easton Ellis needs no introduction. Not because his first novel, Less Than Zero, was a “zeitgeist touchstone,” or because he has been profiled in “every magazine and newspaper that existed,” or because his name is as “recognizable as most movie stars’ or athletes’.” No, it is because, for those of you who may not be aware of these facts, the author notes all of the above and more in his handy 30-page preface to Lunar Park, which constitutes his sixth novel, or, if you will, a gathering of “controlled, cinematic haiku.”
We’re in Trouble (The Baltimore Sun, 5/1/2005)
In the sizable acknowledgments section of this debut short story collection, it is safe to say that only the dentist has been cast out of the warm circle of the author’s gratitude. Christopher Coake gives the ubiquitous nod not only to current and former partners, his family, his agent, and his editor, but also to the entire writing faculty of two MFA programs, all of his fellow workshop participants in each…
I Got Somebody in Staunton (New York Times Book Review, 4/10/2005)
A story that rides on its own melting also runs the risk of dissolving entirely. In William Henry Lewis’s second collection of short fiction — his first, ”In the Arms of Our Elders,” was published by Carolina Wren Press a decade ago — the slow, lyric stories of love, loss and longing have a sensuous appeal, but they often threaten to disappear into the ether before they get off the ground.
The Professor’s Daughter (The Baltimore Sun, 2/13/2005)
The author whose biography nearly mirrors that of her protagonist plays a dangerous game. Memories have as good a chance as imaginings to bloom into a successful piece of fiction, but a novel in which circumstances and characters are readily identified can seem like a half-hearted memoir. In Emily Raboteau’s The Professor’s Daughter, the sections that diverge from the author’s life are by far the most absorbing, and the specter of the author – who, like Emma Boudreaux, was raised in Princeton, attended Yale and, as the product of a black father and a white mother, looks neither white nor black – rises so frequently, one wonders why one genre won out over the other.
Home Land (New York Times Book Review, 1/30/2005)
Few activities are as likely to bring on a fit of depressive jealousy as leafing through the back pages of one’s alumni magazine. While you molder in a studio apartment, stuck in a dead-end job, your former classmates are founding clinics in Thailand, cranking out best sellers and unveiling major new paintings — as well as bearing exceptional children. You thought you’d be a success, or at least have a chance to make a decent stab at it while you were still young. Sorry.
Shadowed (Bantam Books For Young Readers, November 2004)
SOPHOMORE YEAR. HARDER classes. Nicer dorms. Stronger friendships. And Sydney Bristow’s biggest mission yet: retrieve top-secret KGB research in Berlin. But someone else is on the job. Someone people keep confusing with Sydney.
Unlubricated (New York Times Book Review, 10/24/2004)
It might not seem possible — to say nothing of advisable — to write a comic novel about Sept. 11 and its aftermath, but that’s what Arthur Nersesian has given us with ”Unlubricated,” his sixth novel, an urban caper about a would-be actress…
Runaway (New York Magazine, 10/23/2004)
No one would ever mistake Alice Munro for an author of delicate sensibilities. (In “Carried Away,” from 1994’s Open Secrets, a man plucks a recently decapitated head off a factory floor.) Still, a grim streak runs through Munro’s new collection, Runaway, greater than the physical carnage of her earlier work…
The Summer Guest (Washington Post Book World, 8/22/2004)
The telling moment in Justin Cronin’s debut novel, the 2002 PEN/Hemingway award-winning Mary and O’Neil, occurs when the female half of the title heads out to terminate an unplanned pregnancy.
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