One-Minute Book Reviews

May 2, 2010

Meghan Daum Looks Back on Her Real-Estate Binges and Purges in ‘Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House’

Filed under: Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:40 pm
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A novelist recalls her self-diagnosed “addiction” to changes of address

Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House. By Meghan Daum. Knopf, 256 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

Meghan Daum looks back on years of binging and purging on housing in this memoir of a condition that sounds like the real-estate equivalent of bulimia. Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House follows the standard format of addiction-and-recovery narratives:

Describe the problem. Daum switched dorms every semester after her first year of college and lived in 18 temporary residences in 15 years before buying a small house in Los Angeles. When you’re as restless as she is, she says, “the real estate section of the newspaper is a form of pornography.”

Acknowledge your shame. “I’m not proud of any of this,” Daum says, after describing how she reneged on an impulsive offer to buy a Nebraska farm. About kicking out a New York roommate, she writes, “That story is shameful.”

Link your behavior to childhood experiences. Daum says that if her family had “anything close to a regular weekend activity” when she was growing up in New Jersey, it was attending open houses, a pursuit rooted in her mother’s frustrated wish to live in the kind of place “a person who read The New Yorker” would inhabit.

Put your story in a social context, so people will see its wider relevance. “At the risk of making a perverse and offensive comparison, I don’t think I’d observed so much absorption with one topic since the attacks of September 11, 2001,” Daum writes of the interest in real-estate in California in 2004.

Add a happy ending. In this case, it wears pants.

At times Daum shows the vanity-masquerading-as-humility often found in recovery narratives. She can be a snob. In Venice, California, she sublet a cottage full of “awful furniture” from a single woman in her 20s and congratulates herself on her superior taste. Her own furnishings might reside in storage units: “But at least I did not own a media cabinet the size of a truck.”

This snobbism appears to stem not from strong political or other principles such as environmentalism or anti-consumerism — on the evidence of this book, she’s a raging consumerist — but from insecurity, the sense that her self-worth depended on presenting a certain appearance, that she never fully explains. It is certainly true that in our culture, people often judge by appearances. But Daum never comes to grips with the forces behind that impulse that may have motivated her chronic dissatisfaction with here she lived. If her mother yearned for a certain kind of home, the same cultural traits may explain both her behavior and her mother’s. In some ways Daniel McGinn does a much better job of explaining the compulsion to seek new property in his House Lust.

Daum has called Joan Didion a literary influence, and her distaste for the media cabinet in her Venice sublet echoes faintly an essay in which Didion wrote of the Reagan-built governor’s mansion in Sacramento: “it is the kind of house that has a wet bar in the living room.” The difference is that Didion’s comment served a larger theme and carried far more symbolic weight: Didion was eviscerating the shallow values of rich and influential people whose decisions affect many others. Daum faults the tastes of an anonymous woman who was caring for a mother with cancer during her sublet. She suggests that “self-loathing” explains why single women buy inexpensive furniture such as wicker chairs and collapsible bookcases when these purchases often amount instead to a modern example of Jane Austen’s “single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor.” And the media cabinet may have may have reflected the opposite of  “self-loathing”: It may have sprung from a healthy recognition by the owner that she didn’t have to wait for a man to buy her an item she would enjoy.

Daum writes with flair and sometimes wit, and in her title and elsewhere, she describes an undeniable reality: Many people do fantasize that their lives “would be perfect” if they had a certain kind of house, and this may cause them to live in suspended animation. But in a book that is longer on style than substance, she doesn’t begin to come to grips with the moral, spiritual or other emptiness the pattern can betoken. Nor does her memoir reflect the coherent worldview of the best work of stylists like Didion and Nora Ephron, a counterpart to Didion’s ironic detachment and sense of dread or Ephron’s brash feminism. At times, Daum seems to lack a sense of who she is apart from her sleek, nickel-plated ceiling fans. If her book were a house, it would be a pretty vacation cottage, built on stilts.

Best lines: No 1: The first: “Yesterday, a piece of my house came off in my hands.” No. 2: “What I didn’t know back then … was that it wasn’t the prewar apartment I craved but, rather, an ineffable state of being I can only describe as domestic integrity.” No. 3: “I have never been able to say I’m from New Jersey without feeling as if I were wearing someone else’s name tag at a party.”

Worst lines:No. 1: “I’d be lying if I said that these weren’t arguably the most important professional years of my life.” No. 2: “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that …” No. 3: “And if you’ll pardon the expression … ” Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House has a lot of flab like this.

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reading copy. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Furthermore: Daum wrote the novel The Quality of Life Report and an essay collection, My Misspent Youth. She is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter. She satirizes American literary culture on her FakeBookNews page on Twitter (@FakeBookNews).

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 24, 2008

Tom Farley, Jr., on His Brother Chris Farley – Quote of the Day

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:18 pm
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Tom Farley, Jr., remembers his younger brother Chris Farley, who appeared on Saturday Night Live and in movies such as Beverly Hills Ninja, in his new The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts (Viking, $26.95) www.thechrisfarleyshow.com, written with Tanner Colby. Tom writes of Chris, who died at the age of 33 from overdose of crack and heroin in 1997:

“Soon after Chris died, I told my wife that my greatest fear was being sixty years old and trying hard to remember this kid who was my brother.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 9, 2008

Out, Damn’d Ferrari! Father Doesn’t Know Best in Liza Campbell’s ‘A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth’s Castle’

Filed under: Biography,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:16 am
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Hail falls on the family of a modern Thane of Cawdor

A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth’s Castle. By Liza Campbell. St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne, 323 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

A Charmed Life is a high-class version of that deathless series in the Star, “Stars Without Make-up.” Instead of mascara-free actresses, this memoir gives us sobriety-free Scottish aristocrats.

At the age of 30, Hugh Campbell inherited the title of Thane of Cawdor and vast wealth that included two stately homes, four ruined castles and a hundred thousand acres of land. He promptly moved his wife and children from their estate in Wales to the family seat, Cawdor Castle, in the Scottish Highlands. The new home became his Dunsinane, or so it appears from A Charmed Life.

Hugh Campbell seems to have had a self-destructive romantic streak long before the move to Cawdor threw it into ionospheric relief. As the idea of free love had spread in the 1960s, he went “haywire with the frontrunners,” his daughter Liza writes:

“He dressed like a Restoration buck, wearing scarlet velvet jackets with black frogging, floppy cuffs and outsize buckles on his belts and shoes, the heels of which were covered in red patent leather to match the jacket.”

At Cawdor, the new thane devolved into an alcoholic, cocaine-addicted, serial adulterer who drove away his sainted first wife and deprived his son his birthright, his daughter says. He also smashed up a fleet of Jaguars and, insisting that the cause of his accidents lay in their faulty design, took to driving a lime-green Ferrari. His widow, his second wife, has disputed some of this in the British media. And Campbell sinks into pop-psychological goop when she tries to explain her father’s pathology: She says that when her paternal grandfather broke his wife’s toe, “he showed his son that physical abuse was an option” – as though there weren’t men who have seen such force without resorting to it or who resort to it without having seen it.

But Campbell is better reporter than analyst of her family’s woes, and she describes an offbeat cast of friends and relatives with a flair that occasionally resembles Nancy Mitford’s in Love in a Cold Climate. A friend of her grandfather’s preferred ferns to toilet paper and, when he traveled south from his Scottish palace, “took along a suitcase packed with bracken fronds, since London hotels were unable to cater for this particular requirement.” An aunt met her husband at Oxford “where he would wander through the quads in a top hat with a pet mouse that ran round the brim.”

Such vivid glimpses of a vanishing world help to make this book more than another memoir of an imploding family. So do Campbell’s wit, sharp observations on life and refusal to tack on the artificially upbeat ending of so many American memoirs of family turbulence. Her chilling comment on a hunting accident that left a farmer’s teenage son with terrible groin injuries sums up a theme of this book:

“It was my first realization that something profound and permanent can happen in an instant and, worse, never be undone. It took a while to realize that life doesn’t deliver a single such instance, but an endless series of them.”

Best line: “Of all the things drummed into us, the only ones with any application to the modern world were the importance of being polite to strangers, and a sketchy knowledge of trees.”

Worst line: “Something that is seldom acknowledged is how incredibly common addiction is – maybe as high as one in three.” Don’t they get Oprah in the U.K.?

Published: October 2007 www.thomasdunnebooks.com

Read an excerpt at www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/03/23/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 10, 2008

National Book Critics Circle Award Reality Check: Mary Jo Bang’s ‘Elegy,’ Poems About Her Son’s Death, an ‘Addiction Catastrophe’

The latest in an occasional series on book-award winners and whether they deserved their honors

Title: Elegy: Poems. By Mary Jo Bang. Graywolf, 92 pp., $20.

What it is: Sixty-four poems about the year after the death of Bang’s 37-year-old son, an event described as an “addiction catastrophe.” Elegy consists mostly of short- or medium-lined free verse and includes the three elements of classical elegy: praise, lament and (in this case, faint) consolation.

Winner of … this year’s National Book Critics Circle award for poetry www.bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com

Was this one of those awards that make you wonder if the judges were all on Class B controlled substances? No. But some of the judges did seem to be enjoying the wine at the reception after the awards ceremony on Thursday night.

Worthy of a major prize? Yes, chiefly for the poem “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” At times Elegy reads less like poetry than therapy, strewn with banal words or phrases: “describable,” “a wince-making barrenness,” “Paxil’s myoclonal kick.” Some of its ideas might have come from a card rack at Shop-Rite or a women’s-magazine article on coping with loss. (“I love you like I love / All beautiful things.” “Grief was complicated.”) But poetry collections can justify their awards with a single poem. And Elegy does it with the exceptional “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” an homage in multi-part harmony to Bang’s son, to the Bruegel masterpiece with the same title and to poems about the painting by William Carlos Williams and W. H. Auden. In this 22-line poem Bang recalls the last time she saw her son, standing on a subway platform after they had admired mosaics at the Met, and reflects that their day should be embedded in amber. Then, in the chilling final lines, she suggests a brutal truth about the isolating effect of death: “ … And how can it be / that this means nothing to anyone but me now.” Bang knows what Auden meant when he wrote in “Musee des Beaux Arts” that “everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster.” And in “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” she deals with this ageless idea in a way that is fresh and memorable.

Best line: The lines quoted above, beginning: “And how can it be.”

Worst line: The jarring pun in the line: “And my I sees.”

Published: October 2007 www.graywolfpress.org

Consider reading instead: Anne Porter’s Living Things, which has both new poems and all of those collected in her An Altogether Different Language, a National Book Award finalist www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/28/. Living Things includes the wonderful poem “For My Son Johnny,” Porter’s elegy for her son, who had what she believes was autism or schizophrenia. Bang tells you so little about her son Michael that Elegy is almost a misnomer and Grief might have been a better title. You don’t feel you know Michael from the book — you how his mother experienced his death. This isn’t a “flaw.” Poets have a right to choose their subjects. But Porter’s son Johnny is so alive on the page in “For My Son Johnny” that you learn more about him from one poem than you do about Bang’s son from her entire book. Poetry groups might want to compare how two admired contemporary poets have portrayed the loss of a mature child.

Furthermore: Bang has written four other collections of poetry. She is a professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Program at Washington University. “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” appeared in The New Yorker. Other poems in the collection have appeared publications that include Poetry and The Paris Review.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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