What We're Reading, Jan. 20-26, 2010This week, a novel from Jonathan Dee looks at the costs (and wild benefits) of living wealthy in America, and a memoir by Patti Smith recalls the singer's long friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe. Also, T.C. Boyle offers a new book of short stories, and a novel dives into Britain's mid-1950s "Cyprus Emergency."
This week, a novel from Jonathan Dee looks at the costs (and wild benefits) of living wealthy in America, and a memoir by Patti Smith recalls the singer's long friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe. Also, T.C. Boyle offers a new book of short stories, and a novel dives into Britain's mid-1950s "Cyprus Emergency."
T.C. Boyle — like the megalomaniac American overachievers at the heart of his quasi-historical novels The Road to Wellville, The Inner Circle and last year's The Women — runs on a powerful mix of ambition and brilliance. "Wild Child," the title novella of his engaging ninth collection of stories, also captures this spirit of hubris. Left to die in a Languedoc forest by his stepmother, the story's title character survived on a foraged diet of raw tubers and rodents. After the boy is captured in the late 1790s, the Frenchmen who attempt to civilize him are convinced that in studying this so-called wild child they can settle fundamental questions about human nature. Their results are equivocal at best. The 13 other stories in Wild Child, almost all attention-grabbers, are set largely in the California hills or working-class upstate New York that have provided the backdrop for much of Boyle's fiction.
There's nothing precious about T.C. Boyle's stories. Boyle isn't a squeamish writer, and there's an exuberant physicality to these stories, which involve rats, chinchillas, snakes, feral tomcats, scorpions, fire, mudslides, a cloned dog and curiosities such as the wild child of Aveyron or a boy born with a mutation that prevents him from feeling pain. Like his novels, the 13 stories and title novella in this collection are lively and entertaining and show off his range and energy — and his delight in posing the kinds of moral dilemmas that can so easily throw us off-balance. — Heller McAlpin, book critic
Not many American writers have tended to write about people with money, but when they have done it the results have often been spectacular. Think of Wharton, Fitzgerald, Capote and the fiction of the lately deceased Dominick Dunne. Add to this list now the work of New York novelist Jonathan Dee, a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine whose 2002 novel, Palladio, looked at American life in the 21st century through the lens of an advertising agency. Dee's newest book, The Privileges, the story of a special marriage in a time quite close to our own, gives every one of his predecessors a, yes, run for its money.
You may think you're in a John O'Hara novel when you first begin turning the pages of The Privileges — the sharply etched sentences about the manners and mores of the bride and groom, Adam and Cynthia Morey, and their families and friends, make you wince and smart. But a bridal party that trashes a fancy hotel is one thing. A couple that takes New York by the cojones and makes piles and piles of money by means of shrewd decisions — some of them criminal — in a market begging to be taken, that's another. Dee has a great eye for detail, physical and emotional, and invites us to watch with eyes wide open as the Morey family sails past disaster into a future most people — until they read about such matters in novels as good as this — would think they would like to inhabit.— Alan Cheuse, All Things Considered book critic
Hardcover, 272 pages, Random House, list price: $25, Pub. date: Jan. 5
Singer, songwriter, poet, painter, rock star — Patti Smith is now an icon. But when she met "hippie shepherd boy" Robert Mapplethorpe on her first day in New York City, in 1967, she was just a 20-year-old Jersey girl. Smith's new book, Just Kids, tells the story of the romance and friendship that blossomed over the 22 years between their fateful meeting and Mapplethorpe's death in 1989. That the pair were close isn't news; Mapplethorpe took the famous photo on the cover of Smith's first album, Horses. But in Smith's telling, their story takes on fairy-tale dimensions: two young artists in the big city protecting each other from loneliness and encouraging the pursuits that would turn each into leading figures in the New York art scene.
Punk rocker Patti Smith delivers many surprises in her new memoir. She's a Bible reader and a teachers college dropout. Most surprising of all are the intimate details of her life-changing romance with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The former altar boy from Long Island and the lanky former factory worker formed an artistic bond. Their relationship is worthy of a tragic opera, a musical form that Smith knows well — another surprise from a singer known as the "Godmother of Punk." The book, which chronicles 1970s New York and a confluence of artists living at the Chelsea Hotel, is funny, reflective and at times sentimental. I was captivated by Smith's descriptions of her younger self, a struggling artist trying to find an outlet for her many talents and creative mind.— Deborah Amos, NPR foreign correspondent
Sadie Jones' second novel, Small Wars, takes place during the mid-1950s Cyprus Emergency — the attempt by an occupying British Army to hang on to one of the last shreds of the British Empire. Major Hal Treherne and his wife, Clara, arrive at the army base in Episkopi full of personal optimism and professional ambition. The Trehernes are decent, conventional British people ready to participate in what they believe to be a decent, honorable British cause. What they increasingly are faced with, however, is the inherent immorality of this particular "small war." The Cyprus Emergency is a conflict without clear goals, during which decent behavior is regularly required to give way before convenience and convention.
I'm a complete sucker for novels that engage me in the making of difficult decisions. Hal and Clara are such thoroughly decent people. I liked them and wished them well from Page 1. Then when they are plopped down into Cyprus, a conflict with obvious resonance to our own current "small wars," I actively pulled for the Trehernes to resist the corruption all around them. Small Wars is a novel that pits innate human goodness against the innate indecency of war. As to what wins out? I'm not telling. You'll have to read the book. And while you're reading it, you'll be drawn, as I was, into contemplating the many parallels between the Trehernes' situation and what our soldiers and their families face today.— Martha Woodroof, book critic
Hardcover, 384 pages, Harper, list price: $24.99, pub.date: Jan. 19