Books: July-August 2009

August 1, 2009

Love or Something Like It by Deirdre Shaw '95. Random House, 2009. 239 pages. $25.

In Deirdre Shaw's debut novel, Love or Something Like It, Los Angeles is not Joan Didion's depraved, Santa Ana-devastated wasteland, but a small world of parties, writers, and TV sets—the actual sets—of fake winds, fake neighborhoods, and fake situations. Shaw herself is a TV writer, and she unveils a working Hollywood impossible to find in dime-a-dozen celebrity magazines and websites. Shaw ushers us into the back rooms and alleys, where catty writers, mercurial bosses, and producers—whether talented losers or untalented winners—are all making loads of money, even on terrible shows.

This is the L.A. where Shaw's narrator, Lacey Brennan, lives. A young comedy writer named Toby has swept her off her feet and out of New York. Toby does well as a comedy writer, and Lacey, picking up where she left off as a reporter back East, takes a journalism-lite job with a community newspaper. Drawn to Los Angeles by love and not ambition, Shaw's Brennan is like F. Scott Fitzgerald's Nick Carraway, an outsider at the parties in big houses perched in the hills. She, like Carraway, confidently crosses over from her aimless twenties into her thirties—Toby proposes on her thirtieth birthday—but she discovers that marriage will not easily root her nor direct her.

Shaw renders a place with a shiny surface but a creepy social code. Lacey and Toby make friends with marginally famous pop stars who accept them as "in," but when the couple's status begins to drop, quickly deal them "out." "Driving by clubs on Sunset Boulevard, I was taunted by their names in lights. Once you had VIP access here, the signs said. Once you were a somebody. Not anymore. I had been elevated and then lowered back down. I began to fear that I had already reached my peak in this town…."

Just as the reader is immersed in the surreal L.A. zeitgeist, Shaw diverts the narrative to Lacey's anguished childhood. When she and her twin brother, Sam, are still in elementary school, their mother runs off to Palm Beach with her prom-date sweetheart after their father is caught in an affair. Lacey escapes to boarding school and college, finds a career, and maintains relationships with her parents and friends. Sam, brooding and rebellious, escapes for real, becomes a ski bum out West, then falls off the face of the Earth.

We learn a lot about Lacey during this interruption, but when the story returns to present-day L.A., we're plunged into her unraveling domestic life. The once-confident Toby loses his job, and crawls into couch-bound, boy-man habits of TV watching and beer drinking. Lacey and Toby seek help from a marriage counselor and pinpoint the start of their troubles as the moment during their wedding reception when someone threw a lime wedge and hit Lacey on the chin. That discovery, for some reason, sets them off, and the limes become go-betweens, piquant vessels for anger and resentment. They begin living apart, but maintain dinner dates, and establish a tense pattern of pitching lime wedges at each other. Though Shaw describes it in sharp, striking detail, the way Lacey and Toby tear down their marriage with the help of cold, caustic limes is a nerve-wracking distraction that never helps us to understand what exactly happened between them.

What did happen? Perhaps Lacey's story is the new coming of age, American style. It is in her thirties, divorced and childless, that she stretches herself, and makes some of her worst mistakes. As her marriage crumbles, Lacey merges personal life and work to disastrous effect. Yet with the help of a therapist, she finally triages her emotional wounds. In a satisfying, TV-ready way, Lacey opts for conventional expectations of life and love. It's a shame, though, that the passionate, Fitzgeraldesque character we met early on grows up and turns away so resolutely from that secret, stylish, scathing Los Angeles. In Shaw's hands, that seemed like a world that might reveal something about the nature of fame and ambition, even about ourselves. About love, possibly, or something like it.

—Daphne Howland

Howland '87 is a freelance writer living in Portland, Maine.

Purge. By Sarah Darer Littman '84. Scholastic Inc., 2009. 240 pages. $16.99.

Based on Littman's own struggles with eating disorders, this young-adult novel tells the story of Jamie Ryman, a teenager who is sent to a psychiatric medical facility, where she must survive everyday battles between "the Barfers and the Starvers" and come to terms with a painful secret from her past. Littman's first novel, Confessions of a Closet Catholic, won the 2006 Sydney Taylor Book Award.

Big Sid's Vincati: The Story of a Father, a Son, and the Motorcycle of a Lifetime. By Matthew Biberman Ph.D. '98. Hudson Street Press, 2009. 288 pages. $25.95.

When Biberman's father suffered a near-fatal heart attack and almost gave up his will to live, Biberman impulsively promised his father that together they would build a Vincati—the granddaddy of all motorcycles, half Vincent, half Ducati. Biberman realized this was exactly the motivation his father needed to pull through. Biberman's father, known as "Big Sid," was a legend among bikers, and was sought after by celebrities such as Steve McQueen and Jay Leno for his ability to refurbish and repair motorcycles, especially British-made Vincents. Biberman teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Louisville and still works on Vincent motorcycles with his father.

Night/Shift. By Lynn Saville '71. The Monacelli Press, 2009. 144 pages. $45.

Photographer Saville is a night photographer, whose focus is New York after dark. Using ambient light from streetlights, the moon, surveillance equipment, and advertising signs, Saville introduces the viewer to places and moments not often seen. Some images seem mysterious and other-worldly, such as her photographs of Central Park; others are simultaneously familiar and unsettling, such as her images of the Brooklyn Bridge and the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Seville's work is widely sought-after by private collectors and institutions, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, and Duke's Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. With a foreword by Arthur C. Danto, professor emeritus of philosophy at Columbia University and art critic for The Nation.

Johnny Cash and the Paradox of America Identity. By Leigh H. Edwards '92. Indiana University Press, 2009. 256 pages. $19.95.

Edwards uses Cash's own writings (autobiographies, lyrics, liner notes, interviews), as well as fan-club materials and critical essays about him, to assert that Cash embodied irresolvable contradictions in American identity—the tensions between freedom and patriotism, individual rights and nationalism, the sacred and the profane. Edwards, an associate professor of English at Florida State University, illustrates how this model of ambivalence is a vital paradigm for American popular music and American identity as well.

Word Comix. By Charlie Smith '71. W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 2009. 96 pages. $23.95.

In his seventh collection of poems, award-winning poet and novelist Smith weaves images of domesticity and disappointment, aging and mortality, compassion and tough-mindedness. The New York Times Book Review observed that "Smith writes with a scalding aortal brilliance that leaves the reader drunk on a dream."

Complete Humanity in Jesus: A Theological Memoir. By John M. Keith '60. NewSouth Books, 2009. 160 pages. $17.95.

Using autobiographical vignettes both humorous and poignant, the author describes the quest for true and complete humanity in the contexts of our encounters with other people, our place in history, our relation to nature, and our introspective understanding of ourselves. Keith is a retired Episcopal priest who also was ordained in the Baptist church.

A Tolerable Anarchy: Rebels, Reactionaries, and the Making of American Freedom. By Jedediah Purdy. Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. 304 pages. $23.95.

Does capitalism perfect or destroy freedom? Does freedom mean following tradition, God's word, or one's own heart? Can a nation of individualists also be a community of citizens? Purdy, an associate professor of law at Duke, takes a provocative look at American freedom throughout history, from slavery to the progressive reforms of the early twentieth century, from the New Deal to the social movements of the 1960s and today's battles over climate change. This is Purdy's third book; he also has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Democracy.

Beyond the Architect's Eye: Photographs and the American Built Environment. By Mary N. Woods '72. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009. 376 pages. $49.95.

Woods, a professor of the history of architecture and urbanism at Cornell University, explores how amateur and documentary photographers used the built environment to capture disparate American landscapes before World War II, when urban and rural areas grew farther apart in the face of skyscrapers, massive industrialization, and profound cultural shifts. Weaving together a narrative that considers works by Alfred Stieglitz, Margaret Bourke-White, Eudora Welty, and Walker Evans, among others, Woods combines the histories of American art, cities, and architecture with visual studies of landscape, photography, and cultural geography.

The Wall Street Journal Guide to Power Travel: How to Arrive with Your Dignity, Sanity, and Wallet Intact. By Scott McCartney '82. HarperBusiness, 2009. 320 pages. $16.99.

McCartney, author of The Wall Street Journal's "The Middle Seat" column and a seasoned traveler, offers advice for saving money (finding the lowest fares, finagling upgrades), minimizing the negative (lost luggage, security delays), and making your voice heard when something goes wrong (complaining effectively, escalating grievances).