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BOOK REVIEWS: Scrumptious September Reads!

BOOKS WE LOVE: In which we editors gush about some recent books that have knocked our respective socks off.

by Jennifer Scanlon
(Penguin paperback, 2010)
In all likelihood, no one suspected the woman to revolutionize the magazine industry would be a cash-poor, average-looking, self-described "mouseburger" hailing from Green Forest, Arkansas. Scanlon's biography of the publishing maven tracks Brown's ascent from the secretarial pool to her thirty-year reign as Editor-in-Chief of COSMOPOLITAN magazine. After years of scrimping in Los Angeles, liaisons with married men, and manipulating office politics, Brown broke out with her scandalous career-girl manifesto, SEX AND THE SINGLE GIRL, which launched her singular mission to pump up the confidence of the working-class woman (while also reaching her other goal: wealth). Scanlon carefully acknowledges Brown's contributions (instigating third wave feminism! advocating abortion!) alongside her contradictions (marrying! promoting sexual wiles in the Steinem era!). This book serves as an unexpectedly intellectual history of the sex-positive, hyper-capitalist ladymag titan who sneakily seized the workplace from the Don Drapers and handed it to the Carrie Bradshaws who command it today. 
LINES WE LIKED: "The cover photograph would show cleavage at least once every three months, and every cover model, including those whose cleavage was kept under wraps, would appear sensual in a grown-up way. The model would always appear sexy. But in keeping with Brown's optimistic take on women's sexuality, paired with her determination to make sexually active women socially respectable, the model would never appear 'moody or sad or dirty or lewd.'"


by Emma Rathbone
(Reagan Arthur/Little Brown, 2010)

Emma Rathbone's novel, THE PATTERNS OF PAPER MONSTERS, is a joyride of a literary debut—an explosion of inventive language and observation so perfectly suited to her scowling, sarcastic narrator that you may find yourself double checking the author photo to make sure she is not a he. The narrator in question is Jacob Higgins, seventeen years old, who is locked up in a juvenile detention center "in the armpit of Northern Virginia." He describes himself as "170 unhinged, haphazardly raised, possibly bipolar juvenile pounds with only the most tenuous impulse of civility." This book goes right into my personal canon of beloved Anti-Coming of Age novels along with Paddy Clarke Ha Ha HaThe Butcher Boy (the book not the movie), and Rule of the Bone—all of which feature adorable little monsters.

LINES WE LIKED: "My anger is wide and nuanced. It is gaping and ancient. It's stronger than when you're in the ocean and a wave pulls you down and you get a sense of some gravitational hinge powering things.... It is all-encompassing and more glinty than five hundred suburban pools at midday."


by Michael Knight
(Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010)

Stationed in postwar, American-occupied Japan, Francis Beck has little discernable skill other than typing one hundred words per minute. He has idle conversations with his specious bunkmate, Clifford. He's married to a woman he doesn't love, whose ring he deigns to wear. In a fortuitous turn, a casual exchange about Alabama football leads General MacArthur himself to enlist Francis as the playmate of his precocious eight-year-old son, Arthur MacArthur. Knight's prose is mercilessly understated and tight, as if mimicking contemporary Japanese masters like Abe or Oe. Add a touch of hopeless resignation in the face of tragedy—that echoes a Graham Greene protagonist—and Francis emerges as a classic, sympathetic non-hero, with no heart worth breaking and a new, tenuous life to improvise. 

LINES WE LIKED: "Another man, local, approached and took a seat beside me and then the bus arrived, sighing and screeching like every bus in every city on the planet. The man got on and I followed him up the steps, not thinking about where I was going....I sat next to a woman holding a pot-bellied pig. When she got off, her place was taken by another woman, about the same age, this one holding a rooster. I felt like the victim of a practical joke."


by Bill Minutaglio
(University of Texas Press, 2010)

"It was like hearing, feeling music—It was like summoning smoke, something over there that you had to at least pursue, even if you had no damned clue—and would never have a clear understanding..." writes Minutaglio on why he loved to read Langston Hughes as a young Italian American in New York City, circa 1968. IN SEARCH OF THE BLUES is, in part, Minutaglio's homage to Hughes: through a sweeping collection of interviews and elegant insight into the generative power of place, the reporter gives voice to African Americans in some of the most neglected corners of America. From communities like Sand Branch in Southeastern Dallas, where "the simple act of raising a cup of water, maybe badly contaminated water, to your lips is never far from your mind," to rumbling blues clubs, Minutaglio's search for the soul of black Texas is relentless.

LINES WE LIKED: "My friend played guitar, and he sat in at the jam at Quall's crumbling house. There was some sort of roaring heater filled with flame. Outside, a big rusted pipe, probably scavenged from an old East Texas oil rig, was being used for a barbecue pit. It was raining like the end of the world. When we finally left, we ran through the downpour toward a little roadside diner in East Texas. We were out of breath, soaked, and the families inside turned to stare at us. We were strangers, and we smelled, I suspect, of whiskey, smoke, and charred meat. The waitress was wary, stiff, formal. The diner grew hushed. My friend, a wag, said sotto voice: 'Damn, it's good to finally be out of prison.'"


by Robert F. Moss
(University of Alabama Press, 2010)

Robert F. Moss's BARBECUE: THE HISTORY OF AN AMERICAN INSTITUTION isn't so much a history of barbecue as it is an account of barbecue throughout history. And though latter chapters are dedicated to the aspects of barbecue with which we are most familiar—the Weber grills, the regional sauces, the venerated restaurants—Moss first discusses the other American institutions on which barbecue depended. These institutions—politics, slavery, war—are neither as popular nor unifying as barbecue, but, as Moss unequivocally indicates, they enabled barbecue's rise as a noun, a verb, a culture, and the food "most intimately linked to the contours of the nation's history."

LINES WE LIKED: "Graham started cooking early in the morning on the day before the event, with over ten thousand pounds of meat smoking over the shallow pits and one thousand gallons of Brunswick stew bubbling in iron kettles. He kept the fires going overnight, illuminated by a string of bare light bulbs, which, according to the local paper, drew so many insects into the stew pots that Graham didn't need to any pepper, since 'Bugs was good spice.'"


by David Abram
(Pantheon Books, 2010)

As civilization has developed over hundreds of thousands of years, the human race has created a world in which we are the dominant species; all other living creatures, natural landscapes, and even the heavens sit silently below us in this fabricated hierarchy. Abram's book opposes our modern, technologically centered mindset and challenges readers to adjust their perceptions and see the world—which he calls the "living earth"—by using our innate, animal senses. Rather than understand our existence as set upon the earth, he argues that we need to look around and realize that we live within it. Existing as an equal within nature could prove not to be a regressive act, but a way to move forward and regain philosophical, ecological, and sociological balance.

LINES WE LIKED: "Ultimately, however, it is only the lived, felt relationships that we daily maintain with one another, with the other creatures that surround us and the terrain that sustains us, that can teach us the use and misuse of all our abstractions."


by Elisabeth Tova Bailey
(Algonquin Books, 2010)

Two facts about snails:

Unlike the nose of a human, a snail's nose is the only mucus-free part of its body.

Some snails, like the one in this book, possess around 2,640 teeth; and some snails are cannibalistic.

When Elisabeth Bailey is suddenly bedridden by illness, she acutely feels the absence of the activities that gave her healthy life meaning. "It was all I could do to get through each moment, and each moment felt like an endless hour"—until a friend brings an unlikely companion—a wild snail—to her bedside. Through curious, careful observation, Bailey engages with the snail's world until it grows as large as her own. THE SOUND OF A WILD SNAIL EATING reminds readers that our perspectives are limited. And though small in size, this book is encyclopedic in scope, including the voices of poets, biologists, essays, physicians, and naturalists among Bailey's own graceful prose.

LINES WE LIKED: "The Victorian naturalists were eager to weigh in on a snail's love life. 'The snail is, in fact, a very model lover. [It] will spend hours...paying attentions the most assiduous to the object of [its] affections,' proclaimed the author of 'Snails and Their Houses.' Also smitten, the naturalist Lorenz Oken was much blunter: 'Circumspection in feeling, dainty voracity, and immoderate lust appear to constitute the spiritual character of the...Snails.'"


by Gary Shteyngart
(Random House, 2010)

Right before the collapse of America, two people, forty-year-old Lenny and nineteen-year-old Eunice fall in love. This relationship almost makes sense in a not-too-distant Manhattan where people glued to hypnotic handheld data devices (called "äppäräti" in the book) are judged openly (sometimes by public surveillance) for their financial worth (credit scores appear on "credit poles"), sexual viability (registers immediately on one's äppärät), and how deftly they cling to the veneer of youth. Lenny and Eunice are misfits: Lenny harbors a dangerously passé love of books and loose concept of success; Eunice is cute but not ravishing, and develops a conscience uncharacteristic for her demographic.

Shteyngart's darkly hilarious portrayal of globalized economies run amok in this epistolary novel—swapping from Lenny's arcane diary entries to e-mails from Eunice's GlobalTeens (read: Facebook) account. The frenzied pace of SUPER SAD matches the bombardment of personal data, slang, and self-referential posturing that arrives constantly on one's own äppärätby the end I was almost ready to throw my iPhone in a river.

LINES WE LIKED: "And who can blame them, Lenny? You remind them of death. You remind them of a different, earlier version of our species. Don't get pissed at me, now. Remember I started out just like you. Acting. The humanities. It's the Fallacy of Merely Existing. FME. There'll be plenty of time to ponder and write and act out later. Right now you've got to sell to live."

—Alex V. Cook

by Colin Cheney
(University of Georgia Press, 2010)

Colin Cheney's HERE BE MONSTERS is a desperate and magical exploration of the world as it is and as it lives in the imagination. Mythology meets evolution. History mingles, comfortably, with legend. The poems are lyrical and often classical, yet grounded and fresh, staging their explorations from Brooklyn rooftops, in backyards and kitchens. HERE BE MONSTERS is a clear-eyed blend of Blake-ian themes: the landscape of the mind, creation, destruction, and salvation. I have a feeling we'll be hearing more from Cheney—few writers can traverse such extensive territory as beautifully and seamlessly as he does in this debut collection. 


I love the Arkansas of the American mind
where, in some quantum trick in cells of the brain,
lost things flare back/for a few months only to disappear again.
The Greeks had a name for this empty frame in the Camcorder
left filming in the swamp: Aornos, meaning the birdless.

(From "Lord God Bird")

 —Marion C. Field


Click here to read Editors' Picks from August 2010.


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