The Light Stuff


Living to Tell

By Antonya Nelson

Scribner, 319 pp., $24

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It is a defining quality of all but the rarest of families that what is withheld is often of far greater importance than what is shared. This reticence is at the heart of Living to Tell, Antonya Nelson’s third novel, in which three generations of the Mabie family share a rambling, grand old home in Wichita. Mona has attempted suicide and only dates married men. Emily has divorced her philandering husband. Winston has just returned home after five years in prison for a drunk driving accident in which he killed his paternal grandmother. Add to this mix a mother who’s losing her sight, a father just retired and hard of hearing, a gregarious teenage cousin, and a menagerie of household pets.

Told from rotating points of view, the novel is largely a series of immensely satisfying studies of characters in motion. Nelson’s great gift is her ability to create characters so lovable—even in the face of their many flaws—that we will happily trail each one around for a while, scarcely caring if they are wrestling with a life-threatening crisis or taking the dog for a walk. The novel is also chock-full of dead-on descriptions. “His posture was bad and his nose leaked,” begins our introduction to a slovenly uncle. Or of the ruined marriage: “Emily and Barry had crawled out of the car, away from the house, apart from each other and into other lives like those spindly little crabs on the beach, scavenging shell to shell.”

Living to Tell engenders the same feelings of frustration as a long-awaited family reunion: Everything is as it should be, yet nothing quite lives up to expectations. Tensions between characters build and build and then are brushed aside with no hint of climax or release. Mr. Mabie, deeply wounded by the death of his mother at the hands of his son, fumes silently about Winston yet never confronts him; Mona finally confesses a guilty secret to her sister, but the scene is conveniently veiled by a drug-induced haze. Nelson’s most difficult moments—the ones we as readers ache to see—are noticeably absent. Nonetheless, it’s tempting to say that this is exactly what the author intends. Despite the avoidance of family feuding, Living to Tell is full of razor-sharp character portraits and a constant, dizzying forward momentum. —Hillary Rosner

Sex and Real Estate: Why We Love Houses

By Marjorie Garber

Pantheon, 243 pp., $23

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What to make of the fact that the Cottage and the Bungalow are the most popular house names in Britain? That summer homes are routinely referred to as “little” places, no matter what their size? That hotels now aspire to resemble private houses, while hotel furnishings are sought after for our homes? Marjorie Garber has some suggestive answers.

Garber is the Harvard English professor best known for the smart and mildly unreadable Vested Interests, but in Sex and Real Estate she aims for a more popular readership. “Sex and real estate—they are two of the most erotic terms in the language,” Garber begins, and continues with the tropes of “house as mother,” “house as beloved,” “house as body,” and so on. Sex and Real Estate offers a broad framework for thinking about the way we inhabit our houses and a deft, often witty survey of relevant literary and nonliterary sources, ranging from Jane Austen to real estate ads to her own experience as a homeowner. Although Garber’s prose is far silkier here than in Vested Interests, I would have wished to hear more of Garber’s own ideas and less of her interpretations of others’.

One tantalizing quote from anthropologist Mary Douglas suggests where Garber should have dug in more deeply. A hotel, Douglas says, is “where every comfort has to be paid for, the mercenary, cold, luxurious counterpart against which the home is being measured.” Home, after all, is where everything is free, where cultural rules dictate that you cannot buy—and your spouse or parents or children cannot sell you—an ice cream or beer or a bed for the night or access to a shower. In an increasingly commercial culture, home is a noncommercial zone. But while we don’t pay for what we consume there, we can buy the place, lock, stock, and barrel. Here is the paradox on which Garber might have built a more profound work, and something to think about as you settle into your summer share—that odd, tangential type of home—or head for a sublimely mercenary hotel. —Ann Marlowe

Lethal Seduction

By Jackie Collins

Simon & Schuster, 476 pp., $26

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The beauty of the trashy novel is twofold: It’s a lightning-quick read, and you can howl in smug superiority as you turn the pages. Lethal Seduction, the latest from well-appointed and leopard-print-swathed Queen of Trash Jackie Collins, is a prime example of page-turning, literary-hauteur-stoking fun.

Madison Castelli, the glam heroine of the “LA Connections” series, returns as what passes for a moral center and protagonist in this tale of cheating, Mafia hijinks, and cover-ups. The black-haired beauty, who is fabulously employed as a Vanity Fair-type celebrity journo, is drawn into a family ordeal that leaves her questioning her father’s profession, her mother’s fate, and her own identity. Parallel to Madison’s story is the saga of bitchy Rosarita Falcon, an implanted and couture-obsessed brat who wishes to be rid of her foxy, soap star husband, Dexter Falcon, in order to hook up with trust-fund greaseball Joel Blaine. In typical Collins fashion, lives intersect and overlap, and in the end, everyone ends up in Vegas for the Big Fight and, of course, the Big Climax.

Lethal Seduction is not Jackie’s best. Her flair for tasteless excess and infatuation with betrayal and power-grabbing seem self-consciously rooted in the 1980s, and that, in fact, was the Ultimate Jackie period. So with her cultural markers and personal obsessions somewhat out of date, she attempts compensation with a slightly goofy, if admirable, stab at multiculturalism (you and your beach blanket mates can fight over which one of you will play Kimm Florian, the teetotaling, sexless Native American lesbian private detective in the movie adaptation). A politically correct Jackie? Hmm, I’d rather see the Native sister get down like all the other characters than play the neutered noble savage. Well, one shouldn’t quibble. Jackie has once again proved that she’s aces at her trade—cranking out a slick, quick, and dirty read we can embrace as simultaneously engrossing and inferior. Long live the Queen! —Lily Burana

The Chinese Garden

By Rosemary Manning

The Feminist Press, 184 pp., $12.95 paper

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Ah, the sweet bondage of the closet. It may be small, but it’s also deliciously dark, intensely private, and compellingly historical. You know you’re not alone there. Rosemary Manning’s The Chinese Garden was originally published in 1962 and has now been reissued by the Feminist Press. Slender as a keyhole, it concerns the sapphic goings-on at Bampfield, a British boarding school for girls, in the late 1920s. All the Mädchen in Uniform elements are in place: a charismatic and mannish headmistress known as Chief, hockey sticks, cold runs before breakfast, footsteps after lights out, heated particular friendships, heartbreak, pathology, and girls calling from bed to bed, “Not tonight.” So overloaded is Bampfield with latent inverted passion that even the piano keys in the music room are “moist and sticky.” Our 16-year-old heroine, who writes plays about “the horrors of marriage” and has a lavish fondness for secret gardens, is the quintessential tender searcher of the genre, simultaneously observant and appetitive: “There resided within me, the schoolgirl Rachel Curgenven,” she reflects, “another self, a restless, hungry, immaculate being.”

Baby. But Manning, who was herself the closeted headmistress of a girls’ school (she died in 1988), leads her Rachel not so much to the discovery of sex as to the discovery of sexual hypocrisy. Even as the just-published Well of Loneliness is being covertly passed from hand to girlish hand, Bampfield, like the boy scouts, is rooting out the very homoeroticism that constitutes it: When two girls are discovered in bed together, the headmistresses, though guilty of the same crimes against nature, cast them out. “Exposed and quivering,” declares Rachel, “lay the lie which ran through the whole school like a nervous system.” First consciousness, suggests Manning, may be even more important than first love. Hot as it is, The Chinese Garden is most provocative, and strangely timely, as a sensuous discussion of ethics. —Stacey D’Erasmo

Beach & Disco

By Massimo Vitali

Steidl, 144 pp., $49.95

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Massimo Vitali, 56, a photojournalist turned movie cameraman, launched these paired photo projects in the wake of a 1994 national election that prompted him to question the sanity of his fellow Italians. While on a Tuscan beach vacation, he says he “made the decision to have a closer look at my compatriots,” and the results are the richly descriptive leisure landscapes gathered here.

Sociology at its most seductive, Vitali’s study of Italians at play may have been sparked by a moment of shocked skepticism, but it feels generous rather than judgmental. In the contemporary mode (think Gursky, Struth, and Ruff), the photographer maintains a cool distance from his subjects. For his expansive beach panoramas, he stations himself on a high platform just beyond the breaking surf and waits until people forget his presence; for the more claustrophobic pictures at clubs, he perches unobtrusively above the action and rarely catches a dancer’s eye. In both situations, Vitali observes people in various degrees of abandon who have not composed themselves for the camera’s eye, but his godlike surveillance is almost tender. He may have set out to investigate the Italian citizenry, but he ended up with a privileged view of us all: gregarious, lost, foolish, expectant, all too human. —Vince Aletti

Multimedia Goddess Britney Spears

Britney Spears’ Heart to Heart

By Britney and Lynne Spears

Three Rivers Press, 135 pp., $12.95 paper

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Anyone who thinks it’s a little too soon for Britney Spears to have penned a memoir doesn’t understand Britney Spears. The girl is explicitly about being all things to all people—she’s a virgin and a whore—and doing it in the quickest, most accessible way possible. In fact, I’m amazed it took her so long to write a book, but she probably had to search around for the right coauthor before realizing that her mother, Lynne Spears, had the goods and the Polaroids.

Alas, though this ultrasincere epic is less excruciating than the desperate one written by Backstreet Boy Nick Carter’s mom, it’s relatively leaden proof that Britney should be seen and maybe even heard, but never read. Much as I’ve dedicated my life to a kitsch appreciation of Brit, a true multimedia goddess who channels Annette Funicello via Marilyn Monroe, Britney Spears’ Heart to Heart is a gushy teen magazine article in the form of a book, and it doesn’t do justice to her trampily titillating grandeur. As a performer, she’s capable of edge, but the memoir mainly serves up homilies, perky stories, inspiration, and cute captions (“It’s fun to dress up, but I like to kick back and just relax too. It can be exhausting singing and dancing all day.”) What you learn is that the real Britney is a nice, clean, sober workaholic who, when she finally addresses the subject of her surgery, means her knee surgery. Yuck!

The chapters alternate between Mom’s and Britney’s musings, and it’s your call as to who comes off more poignantly banal (“We’re all human!” Mom tells us, while Britney reveals shockers like “I admire the way Madonna always reinvents herself. I think that’s one reason she’s managed to stay a success for so long”). But I still love Britney—from the bottom of my broken heart. —Michael Musto

In The Name Of Salomé

By Julia Alvarez

Algonquin, 357 pp., $23.95

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Camila Henriquez Ureña is about to retire from her longtime job teaching Spanish at Vassar College. Only now, while sorting through family papers, does she get to know her legendary mother, Salomé Ureña, who died when Camila was three. In contrast to Salomé, who in the late 19th century became the Dominican Republic’s national poet and the voice of a revolution, Camila has spent most of her life trying not to offend anybody.

In the Name of Salomé jumps back and forth in time from Poughkeepsie to Salomé’s Santo Domingo childhood to revolutionary Havana in an ambitious crisscross of history that is much broader than it is deep. Alvarez keeps the reader at the periphery of this history: The gore and betrayals of revolution, the heartbreaking dislocations of life in exile are never fully realized, except perhaps in her poetry. But we are privy to few of these poems, and the resulting narrative is a historical collage punctuated with a few revelatory moments and too many staples of Latin American literature, including a baroque family tree, handy clairvoyant episodes, even an obstreperous pet parrot.

As usual, Alvarez is sympathetic and even-handed with her characters; her prose is unsentimental, almost to a fault. Camila’s own submerged desires never quite surface; her disappointments in life and love are as summarily rendered as the history behind them. The unfocused quality of her life mimics the structure of this novel, where cause and effect are jumbled and motives are difficult to comprehend. Perhaps this is Alvarez’s point—to convey a sense of helplessness before the baffling inheritances of a history too complex to fit into a line of poetry or a revolutionary cause, to contrast a life compacted in myth with a life spent living up to the impossible promise of that myth. —Megan O’Grady

Lilith’s Brood

By Octavia E. Butler

Warner Books, 746 pp., $13.95 paper

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There are two schools of thought these days about sequels and trilogies in science fiction. Cynics dismiss them as transparent attempts to commandeer bookstore shelves and reader dollars. For others the trilogy still ranks as a preferred vehicle for Big Speculative Ideas. Certainly, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, William Gibson’s Sprawl series, and Orson Scott Card’s Ender stories were worthy of sequential installments. But of these legendary multiple-volume works, only the Ender sequels ultimately centered around a significant number of nonwhite protagonists. That’s why Octavia E. Butler has become so important. Ever since the mid 1970s, her books have opened up new territory by imagining a future specifically informed by the historical experience of black American females.

Newly repackaged under the collective title Lilith’s Brood, Butler’s “alien genesis” trilogy of Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago first appeared in the 1980s. Butler’s novels share some traits with other sci-fi series: Like the Ender books, Butler imagines human-alien contact, and as in the Sprawl novels, she questions the human ability to transcend self-destruction. But beyond these surface similarities, Lilith’s Brood poses questions that Gibson and Card have never thought to ask.

After poisoning the biosphere to the point of no return, would people choose life or death if survival meant becoming subservient to another species? How might that decision change if a black woman had the deciding vote? Lilith Iyapo is that hypothetical black woman. She must convince a tiny group to accept being rescued by the Oankali, even though it means humans must serve as a breeding stock for a new subspecies of human/Oankali children. The themes of kidnapping, forced impregnation, and involuntary genetic transformation that suffuse Lilith’s Brood clearly parallel the experience of American blacks during slavery, and these are the racial memories Butler draws upon to describe how truly wise, heroic, difficult, and ultimately successful accommodationist politics can be. —Carol Cooper

Blythe’s a beach: from This is Blythe by Gina Garan.

(Gina Garan, from This is Blythe, published by Chronicle)

This is Blythe

By Gina Garan

Chronicle, 96 pp., $12.95 paper

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This Is Blythe is the ultimate summer coffee-table book: beguiling, provocative, and perfectly sized to fit into even the most minimalist beach bag. Blythe is a saucer-eyed doll manufactured for just one year—1972—before being cruelly discontinued. The very thing that attracts us to her is probably what caused her obsolescence: That eerie gaze, sometimes melancholy as the Mona Lisa, sometimes blank as a zombie, is more than enough to wig out the faint-of-heart child.

Although her work is not as loaded as that of doll-fixated artists like Laurie Simmons and David Levinthal, Garan nevertheless infuses her pint-size Cindy Sherman with disturbing presence. She is a whirl of incompatible pop references, summoning up Jon-Benet, Heidi, Japanese anime, Holly Hobby, Madonna, Françoise Hardy. Garan has fun with Blythe—there she is pathetically prone in front of a Slippery When Wet sign; peering seductively from a block of melting ice; posing nude in front of Hooters; or camouflaged with black ink and a crew cut in a “jungle” of weeds. Of course, she is as much mini fashion plate as an object of wonder, and the fabulous ’70s garb adds the final touch of seedy glamour: Blythe in pink suede jacket, bodacious blonde wig, and shades; Blythe with nodded-out eyes and woolly cap; and burnt-out hippie Blythe with bindi. At worst the photos feel slight or silly; at best they reach beyond caricature to conjure an impossibly human moodiness. The It-Girl for the summer. —Joy Press

The Art Of The Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch’s Lost Highway

By Slavoj Zizek

University of Washington Press, 48 pp., $14.95 paper

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Slovenian rock-star philosopher Slavoj Zizek follows up recent opuses on the Cartesian paradigm in Western academia (The Ticklish Subject) and the hidden lineage between Christianity and Marxism (The Fragile Absolute) by subjecting David Lynch’s Lost Highway to a furious Lacanian once-over. Roundly panned on its 1997 release, Lynch’s brash psychosexual noir is not only ripe for revisionist appraisal, but—with its oedipal tangle of alter egos and mindfuck Möbius-strip architecture—a richly porous screen onto which the always excitable Zizek can project madly.

Even more than David Foster Wallace in his touchingly impassioned essay “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” Zizek makes a case for Lynch as a serious artist, as opposed to a “genius naïf” (per Pauline Kael) with creepily direct access to his (and your) id. Mulling over the “paradigmatically postmodern” Lynchian universe, Zizek indulges in his own love for paradox, seeking out and picking apart—in Lynch’s films and elsewhere—the coincidence of opposites.” He compares the prototypical noir femme fatale (whose punishment is inevitably eclipsed by a “spectral triumph”) with the neo-noir version, the castrating bitch who gets away with it(e.g., The Last Seduction); recasts the abusive patriarch in Thomas Vinterberg’s Celebration as the fantasized defense against the real unimaginable horror of Roberto Benigni’s concentration-camp fabulist in Life Is Beautiful; applies a similar logic to Saving Private Ryan by considering Spielberg’s gory naturalism as a shield against the more traumatizing anonymity of Nintendo-style modern warfare; and discusses the ongoing spate of alternate-destiny movies in the context of cyberspace, which he calls the logical “new artistic medium.” Much of this applies only tangentially to Lost Highway, and the dazzle of the individual insights tends to dim for lack of a coherent big picture, but this 48-page volume is more than sustained by its author’s acrobatic reach, his knack for whiplash allusions, his torrential prose (uncommonly lively for a theory orgy), and his playful, almost alchemical rendering of the most opaque Lacanian ideas. —Dennis Lim

A Density of Souls

By Christopher Rice

Talk Miramax Books, 274 pp., $23.95

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A portentous title; tormented families haunted by dark unspeakable secrets; ancient mausoleums shimmering through a haze of summer rain; soft-focus homoeroticism, a bloodthirsty young man, and the consuming fury of a hurricane named Brandy, all set against a backdrop of New Orleans’ hothouse fetor. . . . No, it’s not Anne Rice, but her 21-year-old son, Christopher, making his literary debut with a novel that stakes a claim to fictional turf occupied by the likes of the Jackies—Suzanne and Collins.

To its credit, A Density of Souls tackles ambitious stuff: Four childhood friends—Stephen, Greg, Brandon, and Meredith (the only girl)—are forever altered by the gay-bashing Stephen endures at the hands of Greg and Brandon once they enter high school. But Rice’s characterizations are thin—mean homophobic jocks, a nice gay athlete with ulcers, a bulimic cheerleader battered by her boyfriend, and Stephen himself, who is portrayed as a wispy blond sexually enthralled by the athletic elite that torments him. Rice’s descriptions of high school life are obviously heartfelt; they’re just not terribly interesting. But he has a good sense of pacing, and once A Density of Souls graduates from high school, the plot rackets along through a labyrinth featuring fundamentalist attacks on gays and revelations about Stephen’s past.

Christopher Rice will be appearing on MTV’s The Real World, and that’s where he’ll meet his ideal audience: people for whom high school is still the defining moment, or adulthood a scary, exciting roller coaster they’ve just embarked upon. —Elizabeth Hand

Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon

By Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock

Norton, 370 pp., $29.95

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Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock’s “unauthorized biography” Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon is misleading on two counts. First, it’s really less a biography than a critical review of her career. Second, the book is more concerned with destroying Sontag’s iconic status than in tracing its cultural development. The principal charge brought against the woman Norman Podhoretz once deemed the “Dark Lady of American Letters” has to do with the way she’s exploited her seductive good looks while hypocritically pretending to be above the whole image thing. National Enquirer beware: Not only has Sontag had affairs with many world-renowned photographers, but she has even vetted the author photos selected for her books!

Deconstructing Susan, a more fitting description of Rollyson and Paddock’s pseudo-academic smear job, inventories the contradictions between Sontag’s life and work. (Her fascination with gay-inspired camp art, for example, is juxtaposed with her failure to declare herself a lesbian—this despite her well-publicized dalliances with the playwright Maria Irene Fornes and photographer Annie Leibovitz.) Curiously, the first few chapters outlining the early years read like boilerplate hagiography. One sentence sums up the treatment: “With her long dark hair, imposing carriage, and Western temperament, [Sontag] seemed a noble savage.” (Yuck!) Not surprisingly, a backlash effect against the authors’ own susceptibility to the Sontag myth sets in. Whether this is the natural process of the biographers’ disillusionment or simply the frustration provoked by Sontag’s adamant refusal to grant personal access, the result is a holier-than-thou carp-fest (stoked by ex-friends and rabid detractors) of an indeed glamorous if admittedly hard-to-pin-down literary legacy.

Taking another look at Sontag’s polemical “Trip to Hanoi,” which comes under heavy Rollyson and Paddock artillery, it becomes evident that not only are the biographers willfully reading her work in light of their grudge, but that they have little appreciation for the embattled context in which the essay emerged. Yes, Sontag may have overlooked the North Vietnamese’s capacity for aggression. But perhaps the publication of this biography will provide another chance for her to address the subject of human torture. —Charles McNulty

Flux: Women On Sex, Work, Love, Kids and Life in a Half-Changed World

By Peggy Orenstein

Doubleday, 293 pp., $25

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Peggy Orenstein’s Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids and Life in a Half-Changed World feeds the same voyeuristic hunger that’s made detailed, physical descriptions a fixture of women’s magazines. In Flux, fashionably slender Barb, with her blue eyes and a highlighted bob; willowy, long-legged Gayle, with hair “that cascades in rippling curls down to her shoulders”; and tall, wispy Abbey, with her pixie haircut, are all introduced to illustrate the travails of college-educated women in their twenties, thirties, and forties.

If any one thing brings the women of Flux together, it’s that most have had their expectations nurtured by the promise of feminism—and dogged by the practical difficulties of balancing the personal and professional. When taken together, Shay’s search for dates, Emily’s day care dilemma, and Dana’s furtive search for private office spaces to pump her breasts address the well-worn question of whether women can have it all with a nuanced “no.” The most extreme of Orenstein’s subjects believe they can’t manage both families and successful careers, and have either deliberately forgone relationships and kids or have altogether eschewed work. The women that make the starkest impression, though, are still grappling with a desire for everything—or at least with the disappointment of not getting it.

In one of the clearest demonstrations that modern womanhood is in fact only half changed, a group of single, twentysomething women discuss their futures. “I can do what I want: have a career, get married or not, have children or not,” one says confidently. But Orenstein scratches more traditional, panicky expectations that lie beneath this glib surface. When she asks the same women if they can envision being single at 40, they freak out. Orenstein hits on the limits of such half liberation: “If women can’t see single life as a viable alternative with its own set of costs, rewards and challenges, then they remain as controlled by marriage as previous generations, equally vulnerable to making choices negatively—out of fear instead of authentic desire.”

Ultimately, though, the book sags under the weight of Orenstein’s thoroughness; she would have done well to narrow the effort to what is obviously her deepest interest: the question of motherhood. The sections about the challenges of raising young children are her best. And it is not entirely surprising when halfway through the book Orenstein reveals that she put off pregnancy in her early thirties. Since then, she’s decided she wants children, but has been unable to have them after a bout with breast cancer and a subsequent miscarriage. It’s the kind of admission that makes Flux a compelling rea