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What We’re Loving: Self-Help, Self-Hate, Sense and Sensibility

November 1, 2013 | by

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In the last month, thanks to some timely advice from Sam Lipsyte in the Oslo airport, I’ve gone back to two books that I could never get through as a kid: Blood Meridian and Sense and Sensibility. Blood Meridian still defeats me, though I got about halfway through. Does every pueblo have to be ruinous, every puddle some shade of crimson? Will the Judge ever shut up about Darwin? The book it keeps comparing itself to is Moby-Dick, but Moby-Dick doesn’t compare itself to anything, and isn’t—or doesn’t feel—anywhere near as long. Sense and Sensibility, on the other hand, was just my speed. The last two pages are so good, I tore them out and pinned the sheet over my desk as a talisman. (The airport paperback had a painting of Spanish Gibson girls on the cover, and had to be thrown away.) —Lorin Stein

First published in 1957, the late Daniel Anselme’s On Leave chronicles one week in the lives of three soldiers, furloughed in Paris. Anselme, a resistance fighter and journalist, interviewed many conscripted men while researching the novel, and its unflinching look at the horrors of the Algerian conflict meant it was initially ignored by critics and never reprinted or translated. A new edition by Faber & Faber brings this “lost novel” to a whole new readership, and that’s a good thing. While it’s not a light or easy read (although David Bellos’s translation is spare and clear), it remains deeply affecting and, needless to say, relevant. —Sadie O. Stein

J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, the now-classic 1999 novel of post-apartheid South Africa, leaves you feeling “eaten away from inside.” The book’s first sentence reads: “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.” But has he? Surrendering to an unforgivable lust, David Lurie—professor of communications, scholar of Romanticism, and unabashed philanderer—retreats to his daughter’s farm in the Eastern Cape. Yet what waits for him there is the terror of a country undergoing transition, coupled with the personal disgrace of having never quite deciphered his role as a father. I can’t remember the last time I felt so repulsed yet absorbed by a character. —Caitlin Youngquist

I’ve been going at two books this week that could both be accurately titled Getting Even: a collection of situation pieces by Woody Allen (which actually is named that), and the core text of Alcoholics Anonymous. The latter does not lend itself to the subway or the bath (the copy I have is annotated by its owner in ink), whereas the Allen can be finished if you spend three consecutive days going to work and washing, which is what I can report I did.

Early Allen and the AA book may seem an odd, or even ironic, pairing, but there is common ground—both wear their intentions on their sleeve, and both employ a deliberate method to work on the reader, recognizing a need to constantly win her over. Perhaps predictably, the Allen is less consistent. Some conceits work and others don’t, but thanks to Allen’s gift for ventriloquism, historical settings become complicit in the jokes: thus, the mafia “could ruin breakfast for two-thirds of the nation,” while Death is “such a schlep!” He could as easily be annotating core texts from his own bathtub. —Lucie Elven

Running through Facebook and Twitter last night, as friends and foes posted their various Halloween costumes, I came across a black-and-white image of Anaïs Nin at a “Come As Your Madness” party, wearing a skin-colored leotard and a fur belt around her wait, two-inch-long eyelashes, and her head inside a birdcage. Paul Mathiesen and Renate Druks, the latter serving as inspiration for the Master of Ceremonies character in Nin’s final novel, Collages, conceived the masquerade party, which inspired fellow attendee Kenneth Anger to re-create the spectacle in his landmark film Inauguration of the Pleasuredome. The film comes off as a home movie of the Hollywood avant-garde, unlike anything except maybe Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid’s Meshes of the Afternoon. As Deren explained, the film “does not record an event which could be witnessed by other persons. Rather, it reproduces the way in which the subconscious of an individual will develop, interpret, and elaborate an apparently simple and casual incident into a critical emotional experience.” Madness, indeed! —Justin Alvarez

Jessica Lamb-Shapiro has an unusual relationship to the self-help industry: her father is a child psychologist who has authored numerous books on the subject. Lamb-Shapiro’s inherent ambivalence is at the heart of Promise Land: My Journey Through America’s Self-Help Culture, in which the author immerses herself in the world of seminars, mantras, and self-improvement, all the while exploring the nation’s enduring fascination with perfection. By turns funny and sad, the book is, ultimately, a deeply personal story—and a really good read. —S.O.S.

Benjamin Kunkel’s essay on Norman Rush in the London Review of Books isn’t just the best review I’ve read of Rush’s new novel. It’s the best review I’ve read, of any novel, in a long time. Also check out Andrew O’Hagan on interviewing Norman Mailer for The Paris Review. —L.S.

 

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5 Comments

  1. Swedish Prude | November 1, 2013 at 12:57 pm

    “There is a reason Disgrace was awarded the Nobel Prize.” The NP is awarded to an author, not to an individual work.

  2. Seymour Clifford | November 1, 2013 at 3:29 pm

    No Blood Meridian?

  3. Drew | November 1, 2013 at 6:04 pm

    In Defense of McCarthy:

    Harold Bloom, the author of the “ Western Canon” had a change of heart about Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, after the second try. He, too, had a problem getting through the violence depicted in the book.

    “Nevertheless, I urge the reader to persevere, because Blood Meridian
    is a canonical imaginative achievement, both and American and a universal tragedy of blood.”

    Blood Meridian is Cormac McCarthy’s compilation of sources, influenced
    heavily by the bible, and by recorded history which he is supposed to have
    used verbatim ( controversial at times, some argue bordering on plagiarism) from original records dating from the 19th century. So, in many respects, the vivisecting of characters by the judge and by other ‘killers of men’ in the novel, are not a complete fabrication, and are not very far fetched: the ‘Old West” in Blood Meridian is not “ Zane Gray’s”

    “None of its carnage is gratuitous or redundant; it belong to the Mexico-Texas borderlands in 1849-1850, which is where and when most of the novel is set.”

    “Blood Meridian could be called a ‘historical novel.’

    “Judge Holden, is a villain worthy of Shakespeare, Iago-like and demoniac, a
    theoretician of war everlasting. And the book’s magnificence –its language,
    landscape, persons, conceptions—at last transcends the violence, and
    convert goriness into terrifying art, an art comparable to Melville’s and to
    Faulkner’s.”

    On a personal note, when I picked up and read Blood Meridian, I could
    not put it down. I read it every night and stayed up all night reading because I could not let go. The goriness is central and an integral part of the story, you cannot believe the story without it.

    Compared to Moby Dick and Faulkner: Moby Dick is boring, and Faulkner, only Faulkner is his equal, particularly his Faulkner’s “Sancturay.”

    I would say: “Dear readers, don’t walk, run to your nearest bookstore
    and buy a copy of Blood Meridian today, and don’t put it down until
    you hear the tiny feet of the judge hitting the floor boards; feel
    his mocking laughter, and see the judge playing a fiddle and dancing
    naked at the end of the novel!!”

    ( All quotes from Harold Bloom)

  4. Drew | November 1, 2013 at 7:37 pm

    Correction!

    Not all quotes from Harold Bloom:

    “Nevertheless, I urge the reader to persevere, because Blood Meridian
    is a canonical imaginative achievement, both and American and a universal tragedy of blood.”
    -Harold Bloom

    “None of its carnage is gratuitous or redundant; it belong to the Mexico-Texas borderlands in 1849-1850, which is where and when most of the novel is set.”
    “Blood Meridian could be called a ‘historical novel.’
    -Harold Bloom

    “Judge Holden, is a villain worthy of Shakespeare, Iago-like and demoniac, a
    theoretician of war everlasting. And the book’s magnificence –its language,
    landscape, persons, conceptions—at last transcends the violence, and
    convert goriness into terrifying art, an art comparable to Melville’s and to
    Faulkner’s.”

    -Harold Bloom

    Sorry.

    p.s. …Faulkner’s ‘Sanctuary’

  5. nle | November 4, 2013 at 12:27 am

    Um, BloodMer is all right but not that great. Sure there’s violence (very real), but so what?

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