One-Minute Book Reviews

September 12, 2007

Is Dalkey Archive Press America’s Most ‘Subversive’ Publisher?

A French secretary fantasizes about countering a “No Smoking” sign with one that says, “LET’S OUTLAW THE SALE OF CIGARETTES: PEOPLE SHOULD DIE OF POVERTY, NOT CANCER.”

Everyday Life. By Lydie Salvayre. Translated from the French by Jane Kuntz. Dalkey Archive, 117 pp., $12.50, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

If somebody offered you a million dollars to describe the difference between “a Random House book” and “a Simon and Schuster book,” could you do it? Or would you weep silently into your chai tea and think, “There goes the Lamborghini, the second home and my child’s education”?

If you have no idea how one publishing conglomerate differs from another, you’re not alone. These days the largest houses have little or no brand identity – at least not one that anybody but critics and scholars can define. Many of the smaller firms, don’t either. That makes Dalkey Archive Press a rarity: a publisher with a clear brand identity – although part of that brand identity is that you can’t imagine the staff saying “brand identity” instead of, say, “aesthetic” or “sensibility.” Critics often describe Dalkey Archive as a specialist in “experimental” or “avant-garde” books. Director John O’Brien prefers the term “subversive” because its titles to go against the grain. Many come from other countries, about half of them translation.

An example is Everyday Life by Lydie Salvayre, who grew up in southern France. Peter Mayle was never like this. This brief novel is about the psychological unraveling of a widowed secretary in her 50s who works for a Paris advertising agency and sinks into a paranoid fury when a new co-worker arrives with the same title. One critic has said that you could read it as “a commentary on today’s cubicle culture, where employees are warehoused in such tight quarters that any hiring or firing throws the entire office ecosystem out of whack.” That’s true in the sense that you could read Moby-Dick as a commentary on what happens when you pack a lot of people together on a Nantucket whaler.

Everyday Life, as I read it, is about something larger. It’s a study in the alienation that results not from office conditions but from the isolation that leads people to overinvest emotionally in work. Suzanne is the sort of woman Americans used to call an “office wife.” Faced with a rival, she reacts as many women do to a threat of infidelity, except that her behavior is much more sinister than sifting through pockets and credit-card receipts. She is a hard – maybe impossible – character to like. But Salvayre, writing with a Cartesian spareness, makes you see that part of the problem is that she’s smarter and funnier than others. Suzanne is so enraged when the new secretary posts a “No Smoking” sign that, alone in her apartment, she can’t sleep and composes darkly comic counter-signs. One reads: “LETS OUTLAW THE SALE OF CIGARETTES: PEOPLE SHOULD DIE OF POVERTY, NOT CANCER.” Such humor wouldn’t have raised eyebrows a generation or two ago. By today’s standards, it’s subversive, and just what you would expect from Dalkey Archive.

Best line (tie): No. 1 “Discretion is, in my eyes, the cardinal virtue. I’ll go so far as to say that one ought to be discreet in one’s discretion …” No. 2 “I can’t stand parties, and don’t want to be ridiculed. The energy expended in trying to be frivolous is finally too exhausting.”

Worst line: One page contains only one sentence: “I loathe her, I loathe her, I loathe her.”

Published: November 2006

Caveat lector: This review does not evaluate Jane Kuntz’s translation. It was also based on an advance reading copy. Some material in the on-sale edition may differ.

Furthermore: Everyday Life is not listed on Amazon and possibly other online sites. It available from the publisher www.dalkeyarchive.com. Click on this link www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/11/01/ to read a review of Gail Scott’s My Paris, also from Dalkey Archive. Visit the sites for Random House www.randomhouse.com and Simon and Schuster www.simonsays.com if you want to try to figure out the difference between the two firms.

One-Minute Book Reviews was the seventh-ranked book review site on Google www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/as of Sept. 6, 2007.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

July 26, 2007

Emmanuel Carrère’s ‘The Adversary’: The Best True Crime Book of the Decade?

What makes a man capable of feeding his children cocoa puffs and milk before murdering them?

The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception. By Emmanuel Carrère. Translated by Linda Coverdale. Picador, 191 pp., $13, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Does reading the New York Times Book Review on Sundays feel like a penance to you? Consider switching to the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal. It has a small but superb book review section, distinguished especially by a feature called “Five Best” in which a different expert each week picks and describes the five best books on a subject.

The “experts” aren’t usually the people you might expect, literary critics and English professors. But they do hit the mark week after week. A case in point: On Memorial Day weekend Sen. John McCain chose his five favorite books about “soldiers in wartime.” And who could disagree with his choice of, for example, Erich Maria Remarque’s great anti-war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front?

Last month the Journal listed the five best books about “the criminal mind,” selected by Theodore Dalrymple, the pen name for the astringent British psychiatrist and former prison doctor Anthony Daniels. Again, bingo.

Dalrymple’s choices included perhaps the best true crime book of the decade: Emmanuel Carrère’s The Adversary, the story of a middle-class Frenchman and the “pride of his village” who led a double life. After failing to complete medical school, Jean-Claude Romand married, had two children, and stayed close to his parents, all the while passing himself off as a respected doctor with the World Health Organization, just across the border in Geneva. Romand kept up the pose for more than 17 years, supporting his family by embezzling money from relatives and others. When exposure became certain, he could see no way out except to murder his wife, children, and parents.

Yet this remarkable – and remarkably elegant story – has a depth absent from similar accounts on American news shows. Carrère does not focus on the minutiae of evidence or the grandstanding of lawyers. One question above all interests him: How could a man keep up such a monstrous fiction, including feeding his children cocoa puffs with milk before murdering them in their beds? The answer has social, financial, psychological and religious dimensions, all artfully woven into fewer than 200 pages. And the implications extend far beyond Roman’s village – you could say, all the way to Virginia Tech.

Best line: “The father had been shot in the back, the mother full in the chest. Certainly she – perhaps both of them – had known that they were dying at the hands of their son … The priest promised [at their funeral] that now they saw God. For believers, the moment of death is the moment when one sees God no longer through a glass darkly but face-to-face. Even nonbelievers believe in something of the sort, that in the instant of passing to the other side, the dying see the movie of their whole lives flash by, its meaning clear at last. And this vision that should have brought the elderly Romands the joy of accomplishment had been the triumph of deception and evil. They should have seen God and in his place they had seen, taking on the features of their beloved son, the one the Bible calls Satan, ‘the adversary.'”

Worst line: None

Recommendation? A great book-club book. And Holt has given it an exemplary reading group guide. It’s the only reading group guide I’ve seen that actually suggests other books you might want to read as well … even if they weren’t published by Holt. This is shocking by the standards of the self-absorbed guides of most publishers, who rarely suggest that you buy a book by another firm.

Reading group guide: www.henryholt.com/readingguides/

Published: 2000 (First American edition), January 2002 (Picador paperback).

Furthermore: Dalrymple’s “Five Best” column appeared in the Wall Street Journal (Eastern edition), June 9, 2007, page P8.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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