This Week’s Hot Reads: June 5, 2012

From ‘Jarhead’ author Anthony Swofford, a memoir of the worst trauma of all—literary fame—to a novel about 15-year-old Louise Brooks.

Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails: A Memoirby Anthony Swofford

The celebrated author of Jarhead details the experience of coming home from a war, living in the shadow of a Vietnam-vet father, and dealing with the worst thing of all: literary fame.

Former Marine Anthony Swofford may not have been very well equipped for the success of his Gulf War recollection Jarhead, what with his addictive personality, overactive libido, and newfound expensive tastes. But his spectacular flameout makes excellent material for his new focused memoir. In it, Swofford details the years after his sudden literary fame and influx of cash, which he spent womanizing, jet-setting, and altering his state with cocaine and the crates of Burgundy that he stored in his pricey midtown apartment. Swofford shows us just how much of his life’s problems sprang from his poisonous relationship with his gruff and emotionally distant Vietnam-vet father, which partly led him to try to prove his worth as a man in the Marine Corps. The book hinges around three long RV trips that the two men embarked on in an attempt to exorcise the demons of their relationship, before the old man succumbed to his ailing lungs.

Don’t tire yourself with concerns about strict authenticity that James Frey’s fabrications have cast upon the memoir form. If perhaps some conversations are recollected here with incredible level of accuracy, the narrative is better off for it. Swofford has put in some hard years, and he writes of his past with a grit and flair for noir that can only be honed with experience. Do fictional hard-asses ever utter lines this good? “I cheated and lied. She cheated and lied. We turned each other into animals.”

—Nicholas Mancusi

Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolutionby Lindsey Hilsum

A foreign correspondent chronicles the 2011 Libyan revolution from ground level, writing a history of an oppressed but resilient people.

It’s no wonder that Sacha Baron Cohen’s new dictatorial character draws so heavily from Muammar Gaddafi. After all, the Orwellian absurdities required to maintain an authoritarian state are just that—absurd. They would be funny if they weren’t so real and horrible. For instance, the following scene from Libya could just as easily have been played for laughs in a parody: bulldozers destroy the clubhouse of a soccer team whose fans had disrespected the dictator’s son (who fancied himself a star midfielder) while the fans are reportedly made to watch and cheer. In her new account of the 2011 Libyan revolution, Emmy award-winning reporter Lindsey Hilsum asks the question “What triggers the moment when people lose their fear?” Although history is a muddled thing even in age of cellphone cameras, she makes a strong case that the fuse may have been lit back in 1996 at the Abu Salim prison in Tripoli, where 1,270 were gunned down en masse in the prison yard.

Hilsum intersperses her well-researched and readable regional history with on-the-ground portrayals and accounts that were gained by a reporter in a bulletproof vest getting her hands dirty. The effect is that the book is more than the definitive document on the fate and future of a nation—it is a history and a snapshot of a people.

—Nicholas Mancusi

All Men Are Liarsby Alberto Manguel

A great man of letters writes a novel about the impossibility of capturing a man—also a great man of letters—in a biography.

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The Argentina-born polyglot Manguel excels at all things literary, whether it be collecting, translating, analyzing, or memorializing. His recollections of writers like his mentor Jorge Luis Borges (Into the Looking-Glass Wood) and his excellent literary criticism (A History of Reading) inform this novel, which is all about the “meta” issues of literature and the problems of writing biographies and journalism. The “unreliable narrator” shtick is tired by now, and Rashomon adaptations in literature are out of fashion. All Men Are Liars is in danger of it, too: the premise is that a journalist named Terradillos is writing a profile of the magnificent author Alejandro Bevilacqua, who died under mysterious circumstances, and whose posthumous In Praise of Lying has become a modern classic. Four people who knew Bevilacqua give their account, including a character named Alberto Manguel (come on!) and Bevilacqua’s lover, Andrea. Only the woman’s story is believable (hence the title?) and in the end Terradillos decides not to write the profile.

This all could be a disaster. To be fair, the novel was written in 2008, translated from Spanish (although Manguel has primarily written in English for much of his career) in 2010, and published in the U.S. only now. Perhaps the transfer and the passage of time affect our perception that some of the prose sound positively shallow and outdated (or is that the desired effect via narration?). “Any good student (at least, any student from the Victor Hugo School) knows that the general theory of relativity explains all the major questions of the universe, out there where matter bends space and time. Quantum theory explains the small stuff, where matter and energy divide into infinitesimal particles. In their different areas, both theories are immensely useful. But if we attempt to use them together, they are shown to be absolutely incompatible. We lack one solid theory capable of explaining the world in its totality. So, how could I propose one that could completely account for that little piece of the world that was Alejandro Bevilacqua?” Um, I don’t know. Suppose the answer is the book in your hands?

Yet, to be honest, All Men Are Liars draws you in. Immediately. Stripped of all the meta-fiction nonsense, the novel at its core is five handsomely paced short stories. There are passages that transcend the tired focus on “truth and writing,” and they merit another lengthy quotation: “This quality I’m talking about is the same one which, on hot afternoons, makes the asphalt shimmer like water, or which prompts us to put a hand on the shoulder of a woman whose back reminds us of a long-lost friend, or which leads us up to a flat we believe is ours, to knock on a door behind which an unknown person is about to take some irreparable step.”

Yes, it is that quality that I’m talking about which redeems men and liars.

—Jimmy So

The Chaperoneby Laura Moriarty

A complicated wife and mother escorts 15-year-old Louise Brooks—yes, that Louise Brooks—from Kansas to New York in this crowd-pleasing summer novel.

The opposite problem affects The Chaperone. Whereas Manguel’s idea sounds terrible, Moriarty’s is almost too good. Cora Carlisle, a 36-year-old woman, chaperones a 15-year-old girl named Louise Brooks from Wichita to New York one summer. One of the greatest projects of 20th-century psychobiography is the unraveling of the dark and wonderful creation myths of modern artists, and before there was Judy Garland or James Dean there was Brooks, whose enigmatic self-destructivity was so ahead of its time that she didn’t even get to die young. (She lived to 78.) Her morbid eroticism was perfect for the part of Lulu in G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, one of the most fatal and mesmerizing films ever made.

Cora is not as alluring as Louise, and Moriarty often fails to penetrate the cocoons the pair weave. We know that their times together will transform them—Cora will ultimately shed her guard and Louise will increasingly construct her rebellious persona. There’s even the “revelation” that Louise hates movies. (And, of course, it is Cora who opens her up to silent films: “You have to read with the movies, but that’s the only difference.”) Moriarty overcomes the predictability by insisting on the complexity of Cora, who is both flat and expansive as a character. The novel is captivating, and the last lines about Cora (you might think I’m giving everything away, but I’m not giving anything away—the story rolls through changes in terrain so subtle that it’s like a train from Wichita to New York and back) capsulate it all, revealing the richness of the saga: “She was an orphan on a roof, a lucky girl on a train, a dearly loved daughter by chance. She was a blushing bride of seventeen, a sad and stoic wife, a loving mother, an embittered chaperone, and a daughter pushed away. She was a lover and a lewd cohabitator, a liar and a cherished friend, an aunt and a kindly grandmother, a champion of the fallen, and a late-in-coming fighter for reason over fear. Even in those final hours, quiet and rocking, arriving and departing, she knew who she was.”

—Jimmy So

In a serendipitous move, Elizabeth Govern, who plays Lady Cora in the hit BBC/PBS show Downton Abbey, has signed on to play Cora in the film version of The Chaperone. Here she is reading from the book.

People Who Eat Darknessby Richard Lloyd Parry

A terrible, horrible tale of a young English woman who vanished in Tokyo, and whose killer might have raped hundreds. In this hopeless darkness, her dreams and flaws are brightly brought back to life.

In Tokyo, on July 1, 2000, tall, blonde, 21-year-old Lucie Blackman went on a “paid date” and disappeared. On Oct. 12, a man named Joji Obara was charged with drugging, raping, and killing Blackman and another bar hostess, 21-year-old Australian Carita Ridgway. On Feb. 9, 2001, Blackman’s dismembered body was discovered buried in a shallow grave in a seaside cave about 30 miles south of Tokyo. The details are almost too horrible to repeat. On April 24, 2007, Obara was sentenced to life in prison on multiple acts of rape and one manslaughter charge, and on Dec. 16 of the following year he was found guilty of dismembering and disposing Blackman’s body. But he was never convicted of murder.

One can get obsessed about such a tale of evil. (Obara could have raped as many as 400 women.) Parry clearly was obsessed. Who would care to hide their sense of righteousness—or even vengeance—upon hearing such tragedy? There is considerable wrath hurled at Japanese law enforcement, the court system, and the broader culture, politics, and society of the nation. Perhaps that is warranted in this case, but there is peril in generalizing. Even more complicated is that fact that culture, politics, and society also contributed to creating the monster in Obara, and that can’t be ignored. The morals in this tale are hopelessly complex, but as the famed reporter Jake Adelstein pointed out in a review, justice can come in the most unexpected places. “One of the ironies of the case was that some of the key sources who helped the police track down Obara were yakuza affiliates of a Tokyo-based crime group. … One member of the group contacted me with a message: ‘If Obara doesn't get the death penalty, we could administer it. Prisons are full of accidents. Let Mr. Blackman know. If that's what he wants, we'll see that justice is done.’”

That vigilantism might be justice misplaced, and the yakuza helped create the scum that is Obara. Parry’s frightening work draws all these elements together into a murky, concrete soup. But in this darkness Parry never loses sight of a bright, shining truth: Lucie Blackman was a beautiful woman full of promise and love—and she would have made a great writer. “Tokyo is the extreme land. Only high as a kite or lower than you can imagine over here … never anything between the two,” she once wrote in her diary. What a radiant soul, and I thank Parry for helping her posthumously proclaim her hopes and insecurities, her joys and flaws; for restoring her humanity, never allowed full bloom; for bringing her back to life.

—Jimmy So