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

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This Week’s Reading

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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.