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The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick

Edited by Darryl Pinckney. New York Review Books, $19.95 trade paper (640p) ISBN 978-168137-154-2

This fine, revealing career retrospective showcases the late Hardwick, a novelist and cofounder of the New York Review of Books, honing her favorite form, the literary review, to razor-sharp precision. Pinckney, her onetime student, has chosen certain essays, notably reflections on the civil rights era, to illustrate her work as a journalist; other pieces are meditations on place, both close to home (Maine) and far away (Brazil). But the bulk and best of the selections are considerations of literary greats, including Elizabeth Bishop, Henry James, Vladimir Nabokov, and Edith Wharton. Reading straight through the chronologically ordered collection demonstrates Hardwick’s development as an essayist. The early essays are witty, arch, and detached, attempts by an urban sophisticate at remaining unseduced by cultural trends such as new journalism. As Hardwick matures, her confident declarations begin to ring truer, her impressive grasp of the literary canon seems more thoughtful and less ornamental, and her insights grow in accuracy, humor, and heart. Curiously, while carefully and beautifully crafted, Hardwick’s essays read more like accumulations of beautiful sentences than cohesive wholes, and rarely add up to a lasting impression. Nevertheless, this book contains ample examples of literary criticism that might be imitated or even matched but not surpassed in its style, insight, and genuine love for literature. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Chip Kidd: Book Two

Chip Kidd. Rizzoli, $60 (320p) ISBN 978-0-8478-6008-1

One of the publishing industry’s most revered graphic designers follows his 2005 monograph, Book One, with another equally satisfying art book, this time showcasing his work from the years 2006–2017. Kidd, an art director at Knopf and editor at large of graphic novels at Pantheon, shares the stories behind his high-profile cover designs for big-name authors in genres across the board: the cover stories of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, Mark Strand’s Collected Poems, and a paperback reissue of James Ellroy’s short story collection Hollywood Nocturnes, as well as of nonfiction works by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Mary Roach, and Oliver Sacks are all featured here. Kidd’s love of the written word and the publishing industry shines through as he details his meticulous and considered approach to book design. Some design concepts came to him in a flash, while others were developed in more iterative processes. Readers will find the scrapped ideas are often more interesting than the final designs themselves, for they provide insight into the hard work of conceptualization that goes into each book’s jacket design (not to mention the corporate machinations). Kidd is quick to share credit with his collaborators and, of course, the writers, relaying the discussions and debates he has had with authors such as Augusten Burroughs, Jay McInernay, and David Sedaris as each concept evolves. The result is a richly illustrated keepsake for book lovers and designers. Color illus. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Supernormal: The Untold Story of Resilience

Meg Jay. Twelve, $28 (400p) ISBN 978-1-4555-5915-2

Clinical psychologist Jay (The Defining Decade) makes an “empathic choice” on behalf of resilient people, defined here as those who exhibit “unexpected competence” despite traumatic experiences. She challenges the idea that such people are damaged and abnormal by redefining them as “supernormal” heroes. Jay shares stories collected from celebrity memoirs alongside the stories of her own clients. Though Jay provides a strong enough overview of the current scholarship on responses to adversity to make this a solid pop-psychology text, her real target readers are not fans of the genre but the resilient themselves. Her messages to them include the following: therapy is good and not shameful, rewriting our own stories is powerful, and being at risk is not the same as being destined to fail. Jay keeps up the superhero conceit throughout the book, giving her subjects “origin stories,” framing their responses to stress as “fighting the good fight,” and calling traumatic surprises from the past “kryptonite,” but she never lets her framework get in the way of her message. Instead, she uses her theme to help make the people whose stories she shares more relatable, in the way that children, especially children in difficult situations, look to their fictional heroes for affinity and affirmation. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 07/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Memoirs from Beyond the Grave

François-René de Chateaubriand, trans. from the French by Alex Andriesse. New York Review Books, $18.95 trade paper (576p) ISBN 978-168137-129-0

Statesman de Chateaubriand (1768–1848) was the undisputed father of French literary romanticism and one of the 19th century’s great autobiographers. In these early memoirs, he recalls his youthful adventures—coming of age as a young aristocrat in rustic Normandy and, during the French Revolution, traveling in Canada and the United States. He also recalls, after a disastrous return to France that saw him wounded after joining the antirevolutionary royalist forces, enduring eight years of forced exile in England. In the America-set passages, he describes the country’s untamed wilderness with relish yet wonders if the new nation can survive being composed of a people with no common past or interests. He also records the customs of native tribes, including the Iroquois and the Seminoles, with an anthropologist’s eye, gathering information indispensable to his later novels. Writing decades after the actual events, Chateaubriand displays the sense of destiny, swirling ambition, and ego that marked his long, distinguished career. This memoir, ably translated by Andriesse with an introduction from historian Anka Muhlstein, reveals to English-speaking readers the famously aphoristic and flamboyant style that other French writers, including Baudelaire and Proust, admired and sought to emulate. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 07/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Cartoon County: My Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe

Cullen Murphy. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (272p) ISBN 978-0-374-29855-5

Vanity Fair editor at large Murphy (God’s Jury) captures a slice of American pop culture from the mid-20th century, when a prominent group of comic-strip and gag cartoonists, known as the Connecticut School, resided in the town of Greenwich, Conn. Murphy draws from his own life—his father was John Cullen Murphy, known as the illustrator of such strips as Big Ben Bolt and Prince Valiant—to paint a sprawling portrait of many of the scene’s luminaries, including Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey), Dik Browne (Hägar the Horrible), and dozens of others who were members of this group, examining their family and social lives, their work habits, their art techniques, and more. Having spent a good portion of his life among these people, even taking the writing reins of Prince Valiant after writer Hal Foster retired while his father still drew it, Cullen crafts an immensely evocative look at an art colony many don’t know existed. He writes with a personable mix of affection and realism that offers a vivid sense of what it was like to be in that crowd, and to be a working cartoonist in the decades following WWII. Particularly fascinating are the parts of the book on Cullen’s father’s experiences in the Army and on his father’s relationship with his mentor, Norman Rockwell. Color illus. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 07/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Around the World in Eighty Wines

Mike Veseth. Rowman & Littlefield, $24.95 (224p) ISBN 978-1-4422-5736-8

Inspired by Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, Veseth’s personal journey through the complex and compelling world of wine starts and ends on London’s St. James’s Street, home to fine-wine merchants Berry Bros. & Rudd since 1698. Along the way, Veseth tours Bordeaux and Burgundy, where some of the world’s best wines are made, and visits the more uncharted wine-growing territories of Bali, Thailand, and Tasmania. Veseth chooses the wines he profiles based on the ability of each to excite the palate, and the imagination: “Each of [the] eighty wines must tell a story, [but they] must not just each tell their own story.... They must collectively form a picture and tell a story that reveals a greater truth,” he writes. As a result, reading his book is rather like attending a swanky cocktail party: it contains a vast and varied buffet, with loads of interesting conversational tidbits. The book makes for an entertaining introduction to the world of wines. As an added bonus, the author also provides a bibliography for those wishing to delve deeper into the topic. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 07/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression—and the Unexpected Solutions

Johann Hari. Bloomsbury, $28 (400p) ISBN 978-1-63286-830-5

Journalist Hari (Chasing the Scream) explores common causes of anxiety and depression in contemporary society, proposing that antidepressants do not address the true nature of the problem. Critiquing the chemical-imbalance theory of depression as an idea sponsored by the self-interested pharmaceutical industry, he quotes one psychologist as saying, “The symptoms [of depression] are a messenger of a deeper problem.” Hari interviews numerous psychologists who explain how factors such as loneliness, work-based dissatisfaction, and consumer culture can fuel mental-health issues. Chasing possible solutions to these problems, Hari’s research takes him throughout the world. He stops in a Berlin housing project where tenants waged a yearlong protest against rising rents, fostering a sense of empowerment and unity among themselves. He also visits a London mental-health clinic where doctors prescribe community volunteer projects instead of pills and a Baltimore bicycle shop that uses a nonhierarchical workplace to give employees a sense of having a voice in the business. Hari aims to demonstrate that the feelings of depression and anxiety experienced by individuals are symptomatic of a larger societal ailment that must be addressed. He makes a good case for this theory, supplying the reader with overwhelming (and engrossing) evidence, though his preferred solutions are somewhat grandiose and utopian. Agent: Peter Robinson, Rogers, Coleridge & White (U.K.) (Jan. 2018)

Reviewed on 07/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson. Oxford Univ., $34.95 (416p) ISBN 978-0-19-049599-2

Coauthors Simler, a software engineer, and Hanson (The Age of Em), an economics professor, bring a light touch in this thought-provoking exploration of how little understanding people have of their own motivations. The thesis is serious: we get into trouble because, while we “don’t always know what our brains are up to,” “we often pretend to know.” The authors do not claim that this notion is original, but do effectively synthesize a wide range of scholarship to demonstrate that self-deception is rampant and strategic, “a ploy our brains use to look good while behaving badly.” Not all of the self-deception discussed is malign; the authors suggest, counterintuitively, that something as seemingly straightforward as seeking medical care can come from the desire for “social support” as well as for good health. Given the book’s unsettling implications for human nature, the authors are wise not to distance themselves from their findings but to apply the same treatment to their own motivations. For instance, Simler reveals that in part the book was a “vanity project” for him, one aimed at getting his name onto a book cover. This is a fascinating and accessible introduction to an important subject. Agent: Teresa Hartnett, Hartnett Inc. (Jan. 2018)

Reviewed on 07/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Incest Diary

Anonymous. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $18 (144p) ISBN 978-0-374-17555-9

An anonymous author reveals a lifetime of secrets in this unforgettable memoir as she tells the story of her relationship with her father, who raped her over the course of her childhood, until the author was 21. The result is one of the most frank and cathartic depictions of child abuse ever written. The author recalls abusing her Barbie dolls, her sense of being the “other woman” to her own mother, and the mingling of violence with desire, a tendency so crucial to the author’s development that it continues to govern her adult relationships. This is not a story of things getting better, but an unflinching and staggeringly artful portrait of a shattered life. “Sex with my father made me an orphan,” she writes, and the feeling is underscored, pages later, with a fact: “He threatened to kill himself if I told anyone.” Works of art by Fernando Botero and Frida Kahlo are invoked throughout, as are the fairy tales in which the author searches for analogues to explain her condition. But by the end of the book, she has articulated an experience that for many victims remains unspeakable. (July)

Reviewed on 07/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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