Archive for the ‘Book review’ Category

It’s been ages since I read an entire book in one day—until After the workshop came to my attention. That’s John McNally’s new novel about life after an MFA (in creative writing).

Some folks have the World Cup. Glued to their TV screens, they pump their fists in the air every time their team scores. For 24 hours, I had After the workshop. Immersed in its pages, I chortled every time McNally took down another deserving target—from clueless publicists to trendy but talentless novelists to literary groupies.

Great literature? No. (But I doubt it was intended to be.)

An engrossing read? Yes, with a fully imagined (and rendered) main character, who endears himself even as you suppress the desire to whomp him over the head.

Great fun? Absolutely!

The novel is a first-person account of media escort Jack Hercules Sheahan, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Jack, it’s safe to say, is a major fuck-up who lives hand-to-mouth in Iowa City, earning his keep (barely) by escorting visiting authors around town. After a few early successes, including publication in The New Yorker, he’s lost his way, with a half-finished novel tucked away under his bed (but not forgotten). Twelve years have passed since he graduated from the Workshop, but he still lives in the same apartment and drives the same old Toyota, which drops a muffler in the opening pages of the novel. And because Jack has just spent his last $200 on a breast pump for one of the authors he must escort—who skips town soon after—he has to spend the next few days at the mercy of the locals and the visiting literati, most of whom aren’t so friendly. The cast of characters includes that runaway author (creator of a hit novel entitled The outhouse); a big-city publicist; a romance writer; a reclusive author (think Salinger); a steroid-injecting weight lifter with a real poet’s soul; bloggers; pompous Workshop students; and so on.

At one point, I must admit, the cynical capitalist inside me stopped to calculate the potential market for such a book. I mean, MFA programs are a dime a dozen these days. By now, there must be thousands of people like me, graduate of one such program, who have failed to live up to expectations, however grandiose those hopes may have been. What the novel succeeds in demonstrating is that this “failure” may not be entirely their fault. And “success” takes many forms. It may be better, in the long run, to retain your humanity than to star on the New York Times bestseller list.

If you’ve ever marveled at the adulation heaped on writers of little literary heft, or rejoiced when one of them finally gets their comeuppance in a Michiko Kakutani review, this book is for you. Just make sure you have an extended interval in which to enjoy it. Once you start reading, you won’t want to put it down.


What can I say about a book that has already been widely acclaimed—that, in fact, has already won the 2009 National Book Award in fiction—that hasn’t already been proclaimed from the rooftops?

The book I’m talking about is Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann. I picked it up based on its title and cover design (yes, you sometimes can judge a book by its cover)—oh, and the fact that it was included in the top-10 lists of quite a few reviewers.

In case you haven’t read it, the novel centers on an actual event: the August 7, 1974 tightrope walk by Philippe Petit, who strung a cable between the two towers of the World Trade Center and captivated New York City with his aerial skills that summer morning. That tightrope walk is the veritable pivot point of the novel (as is the World Trade Center, and the reader’s knowledge of its fate colors the story), around which revolve the lives of the 7 million or so people who inhabited the city at the time. McCann zooms in on a dozen of those lives. In what Frank McCourt rightly called “a heartbreaking symphony of a novel,” McCann renders the salient details of each life so tenderly and vividly that you end up convinced they originated with you—that there is no middleman (McCann) between you and the characters.

Like several of the characters, I am a transplant to the city, having lived here almost three decades now. And by the time I picked up the book, I must confess, I had already decided to move away to a quieter life someplace else. I was—what’s the word?—jaded. But the novel reminded me why I came to the Big Apple and why I have stayed as long as I have. In McCann’s own words: “It had never occurred to me before but everything in New York is built upon another thing, nothing is entirely by itself, each thing as strange as the last, and connected.”

Here’s a larger piece of the portrait McCann paints of the great city:

The theater began shortly after lunch. His fellow judges and court officers and reporters and even the stenographers were already talking about it as if it were another of those things that just happened in the city. One of those out-of-the-ordinary days that made sense of the slew of ordinary days. New York had a way of doing that. Every now and then the city shook its soul out. It assailed you with an image, or a day, or a crime, or a terror, or a beauty so difficult to wrap your mind around that you had to shake your head in disbelief.

He had a theory about it. It happened, and re-happened, because it was a city uninterested in history. Strange things occurred precisely because there was no necessary regard for the past. The city lived in a sort of everyday present. It had no need to believe in itself as a London, or an Athens, or even a signifier of the New World, like a Sydney, or a Los Angeles. No, the city couldn’t care less about where it stood. He had seen a T-shirt once that said: NEW YORK FUCKIN’ CITY. As if it were the only place that ever existed and the only one that ever would.

New York kept going forward precisely because it didn’t give a good goddamn about what it had left behind. It was like the city that Lot left, and it would dissolve if it ever began looking backward over its own shoulder.

Yesterday, as I shoveled my car out from under two feet of heavy snow, having just finished the novel, I experienced residual effects. Every person who drove or walked past seemed larger than life. I found myself looking directly into their gaze, as though I suddenly recognized them after a long period of amnesia, and realized I was connected to them, and they to me. Six degrees of separation, if you will. Or two or one. Even the snow seemed to shine with a special intensity. In short, I found that I was inhabiting my life again—the present, city life—rather than the future.

McCann is not just a fiction writer—he’s a poet, too. So much of the language transcends the prosaic. Some paragraphs are masterpieces in and of themselves:

Little else to distract attention from the evening, just a clock, in a time not too distant from the present time, yet a time not too distant from the past, the unaccountable unfolding of consequence into tomorrow’s time, the simple things, the grain of bedwood alive in light, the slight argument of dark still left in the old woman’s hair….

Possibly the greatest compliment I could pay this book is that it reminded me of the necessity and transformative power of literature, and made me want to work at it myself. Not that I could come close to rivaling this beautiful cacophony. Only that my life will be fuller if I try.


When I was 12, my mother took me to the pediatrician and asked if he could do anything about my height. I must have been 5-foot 6 or 7, and she was worried about how much taller I might become. This was in the days before supermodels. When I was a kid, there was nothing good about being tall if you also happened to be female—or so it seemed to my mother. And once she articulated her worries in my presence, it began to seem so to me, too.

I am fortunate that the pediatrician did nothing. Perhaps he was unaware of any remedy—or maybe he was accustomed to this sort of thing and just wanted to leave me in peace. As it turns out, in the 1960s and 70s, there was a so-called therapy for too much height: hormones. A few doctors in the new specialty of pediatric endocrinology had begun treating “excessively tall” girls with diethylstilbestrol, or DES. These doctors believed that large dosages of DES—a synthetic estrogen—would hasten puberty and accelerate closure of a girl’s growth plates. Once these plates fuse, a person does not get any taller.

Maybe you’ve heard of DES. It was also prescribed for millions of pregnant women in the mistaken belief that it prevented miscarriage. Years later, many of the daughters of these women started developing a rare vaginal cancer—and the malignancy was traced back to DES.

In the tall girls, the drug caused weight gain, nausea,  depression and other ills. It also failed to inhibit growth in many girls, many of whom struggled for years to overcome the negative self-image that treatment caused. Some of these girls may have felt self-conscious about their height before taking DES. But the unspoken message of all the probing exams, questions and pills was clear: There was something fundamentally wrong with their bodies.


Nobody knew anything about hormones until about 1900. Before that, as Susan Cohen and Christine Cosgrove point out in Normal at Any Cost, scientists were pretty much mystified by the “internal secretions” that influenced so many aspects of female life, from menstruation and pregnancy to menopause. Now, of course, we know all about hormones, and hormone supplements are ubiquitous—touted as the remedy for just about everything. Think of Suzanne Somers hawking bioidentical hormones, or A-Rod injecting growth hormone. We know all about hormones—and yet we never learn our lessons.

Back in the 1960s and 70s, when DES was achieving widespread use, another steroid—human growth hormone—was used to accelerate the growth of very short boys—not always effectively. Beginning to see a pattern? Making girls shorter, and boys taller? Both strategies were part of a quest to render everybody a little more normal—which is to say, a little more homogenous.

When I say “population” here, I am talking mostly about upper middle class white people, as they were the ones who could afford these experimental treatments. This trend began in the 20th century, but it’s still going strong. Celebrities and the affluent are the ones who most frequently dabble in hormone therapy and other tactics (plastic surgery, for example) to achieve normalcy, while the other social classes struggle with more mundane matters like survival.

Hormones weren’t the only means used to enforce normalcy in the glorious 1960s, as this anecdote from Normal at Any Cost reveals:

…in 1965, when seventeen-year-old Carol Walters had finished growing, she was 6’6″, a height that her family found unacceptable. Carol’s younger sister and a younger cousin were given estrogen to stunt their growth, but the new hormone therapy came along too late for Carol. Instead, surgeons in northern California removed six inches of bone from both legs. She was hospitalized for six weeks while surgeons performed the two shortening procedures. A year-long recuperation at home followed, which included eight months in a wheelchair before learning how to walk again. Two years later, doctors determined she needed more surgery to shorten her quadriceps muscles. She spent the following summer in bilateral leg casts. Despite years of physical therapy, however, she was never again able to run, skate, squat, stand on tiptoe, or dance.

It sounds eerily predictive of the extreme plastic surgery makeovers people put themselves through today. Mutilation in the name of normalcy.


When I first began writing about health, it was for a journal intended for obstetrician-gynecologists. This was in the late 1990s, and hormone replacement therapy was the cure-all of the day. Not only could it alleviate menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats, but it could prevent dementia, heart disease, osteoporosis, and other ills—or so the experts said. Implied in all the hype was this alluring premise: Hormones could extend a woman’s youth.

Along came the Women’s Health Initiative, the first large-scale randomized, controlled trial of hormone therapy in menopausal women. In 2002, it found that estrogen-progestin hormone therapy not only didn’t lower the risk of heart disease—it increased that risk in some subpopulations. It also raised a woman’s risk of breast cancer and stroke. Women everywhere abandoned their hormones, and the market for these drugs still hasn’t recovered.

One of the themes running through Normal at Any Cost is the way certain products appear to be miracle drugs when they debut. Doctors go into a frenzy recommending them. Observational studies frequently “demonstrate” some vague effectiveness, and consumers jump on the bandwagon. Time passes, studies are conducted, and next thing you know, the drug turns out to have numerous risks. DES is just one example.

I eventually stopped getting taller (I’m 5-foot 10). My mother eventually stopped worrying so much about my height and began telling me how lucky I was. I only half believed her. When I began my career as a health writer, and began writing about the many benefits of menopausal hormone therapy, I started taking the birth control pill myself, even though I was near 40. I was simply convinced the hormones were good for me.

Now I know better, thanks to the Women’s Health Initiative, physicians such as Susan Love, MD, books like Normal at Any Cost, and other compendiums of the hazards of hormones. But the furor over wonder drugs isn’t over. The new buzzword in the world of hormones is “bioidentical.” I won’t be surprised to find out, in years to come, that the “identical” refers to all the health risks.


The title of this novel is what initially caught my attention—specifically, the incongruity between elegance and hedgehogs. But such is the talent of Muriel Barbery that, when I came upon the phrase within the novel itself, I was convinced of its absolute perfection.

The novel—set in a luxury apartment building in 21st century Paris—describes the blossoming of two main characters and unfolds in their distinctive voices:

  • Renee, the 54-year-old concierge of the building, an autodidact who hides her intelligence from the residents and the world at large, for reasons that become apparent over the course of the novel
  • 12-year-old Paloma, wise well beyond her years, member of a wealthy family that resides in the building, and so alienated from the broader world that she plans to commit suicide when she turns 13.

Deprived of satisfying human companionship, both characters confide their thoughts—Renee in eloquent soliloquies directed to no one in particular—or perhaps to posterity—and Paloma in the pages of her journals.

Their subjects can be abstract—the meaning of Art, the meaninglessness of life. Their musings can also be entertaining, particularly when they skewer the residents of the building, a set of self-satisfied folks who don’t bother to look beyond the facades constructed to divert them. Both characters are lovers of Japanese culture, which is dissected lovingly, even movingly. There is, of course, a unifying storyline, or else none of this would be nearly as interesting. In isolation, in fact, the individual musings of the concierge or the girl might not be able to sustain the force of the novel. By overlapping as they do, however, they add appealing movement, intrigue and depth to the overarching story.

Here are brief samples of the main characters’ musings, beginning with Renee’s:

It is a pity to see such a worthy wordsmith blindly wasting his talent. To write entire pages of dazzling prose about a tomato—for Pierre Arthens reviews food as if he were telling a story, and that alone is enough to make him a genius—without ever seeing or holding the tomato is a troubling display of virtuosity. I have often wondered, as I watch him go by with his huge arrogant nose: Can one be so gifted and yet so impervious to the presence of things? It seems one can. Some people are incapable of perceiving in the object of their contemplation the very thing that gives it its intrinsic life and breath, and they spend their entire lives conversing about mankind as if they were robots, and about things as though they have no soul and must be reduced to what can be said about them—all at the whim of their own subjective inspiration.

And Paloma’s:

When the New Zealand players began their haka, I got it. In their midst was this very tall Maori player, really young. I’d had my eye on him right from the start, probably because of his height to begin with but then because of the way he was moving. A really odd sort of movement, very fluid but above all very focused, I mean very focused within himself. Most people, when they move, well they just move depending on whatever’s around them….I don’t really know how to explain it, but when we move, we are in a way de-structured by our movement toward something: we are both here and at the same time not here because we’re already in the process of going elsewhere, if you see what I mean. To stop de-structuring yourself, you have to stop moving altogether. Either you move and you’re no longer whole, or you’re whole and you can’t move. But that player, when I saw him go out onto the field, I could tell there was something different about him. I got the impression that he was moving, yes, but by staying in one place….he was moving and making the same gestures as the other players…but while the others’ gestures went toward their adversaries and the entire stadium who were watching, this player’s gestures stayed inside him, stayed focused upon him, and that gave him an unbelievable presence and intensity. And so the haka, which is a warrior chant, gained all its strength from him.

It seems inevitable from the beginning of the novel that the paths of these two characters will intersect, but when and how they do still manages to surprise. Although I had the misfortune of knowing how the novel ends before I read it, it still seemed original and fresh to the last sentence. That is quite an accomplishment.

Before reading this book—or even laying hands on a copy—I went to hear Barbery speak in New York. Her intelligence was so humane and unpretentious that I went home and ordered the book that night. When it arrived a few days later, I was somewhat dismayed by the image on the cover—a young girl in heavy boots walking across a bright yellow floor. There was something about the depiction that suggested that the novel was intended for teenage readers, and that put me off. Rest assured that it is not a young adult book—not that it is inappropriate for adolescents, only that its subject matter is decidedly sophisticated. The book challenges readers to reconsider their assumptions about life, art, privilege, and human and inter-species relationships. At the same time, it maintains a refreshing degree of innocence, refusing to be diverted by the superficial sexual and personality-based turbulence that characterize many contemporary novels. In that respect, it does resemble a young adult novel—but it represents the best of that genre, daring to dive beneath the surface to explore territory that adults learn all-too-soon to avoid.

I would have liked to have read the book in its original French. There are times when the translation is a little too opaque—at least I attribute that opaqueness to the translation. But I haven’t enjoyed a novel this much in a while. In a word, it is both endearing and elegant. And so is a hedgehog.