This Week's Reads

Sean Wilsey, Melissa Bank, and Nick Hornby.

Oh the Glory of It All

By Sean Wilsey (Penguin, $25.95) Even before The New Yorker published a juicy excerpt of this massive memoir in its April 11 issue, it was already eliciting shouts and murmurs from San Francisco society types. Perhaps the loudest objector thus far has been Dede Wilsey, the author's stepmother—and the only figure in the book whom he seems unable to forgive. The prominent socialite and philanthropist is contemplating a libel suit, according to The San Francisco Chronicle. So what does Sean Wilsey say about her that's so damning? In point of fact, she doesn't seem crazier than the rest of the author's fractured family—just meaner. Wilsey's mother, Pat Montandon, has beauty-queen looks and a personality that veers between Mother Teresa and Mommy Dearest. (In the book's most harrowing sequence, she invites young Sean to join her in a double suicide.) His father, Alfred Wilsey, is a self-made butter mogul; after a messy 1979 divorce that turns Montandon into the butt of tabloid jokes, Alfred marries her best friend, Diane "Dede" Traina, and gives up on his gawky son, shipping him from boarding school to boarding school during the '80s. The teenaged Wilsey reacts like Holden Caulfield, and Glory takes us on an entertaining tour of blue-blood reform schools—some morally bankrupt, others merely incompetent. (Originally, Wilsey planned to make the book a journalistic work about such institutions.) While his father appears merely neglectful and self-centered, Dede receives the brunt of the author's anger. When Wilsey invents a post-curfew escapade to impress his father, Dede excoriates him, then exploits his worst fear: "With this you have really blown it. And I'll tell you why. Because your father will never trust or respect you again." Wilsey interviewed an impressive number of relatives, family friends, and school chums in order to re-create his adolescence, and this thoroughness pays off. He's got an eye for detail—and for the absurd, as when he describes a boarding-school boy who captures houseflies, refrigerates them into a state of torpor, and ties them to his fingertips. On the other hand, perhaps to compensate for his mere 35 years of life material, Wilsey tosses in the saga of his maternal grandparents, evangelicals who roamed the Dust Bowl; and that of his paternal grandmother, who lived through the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. On the whole, though, Glory is a sprint, not a slog. That's mostly because Wilsey is so good at channeling childhood innocence, in all its awkward glory, which distinguishes the book from other silver-spoon memoirs. Describing his father's attempt to give him the Sex Talk via a Playboy centerfold, Wilsey spins the frantic free association of his confused 9-year-old mind into dorky comedy: "I felt like doing her bidding. I wasn't sure what she was bidding me to do. Grab the magazine to my chest? Crinkle the pages as hard as I could? Eat them? Roll around in the backseat with them? Beat someone in wrestling?" Though it's an old trick, the author's willingness to embarrass himself is endearing, whether he's confessing his contradictory lust for demonic Dede, walking us through his sexual awakening, or just beating critics to the punch ("I fear the first reviewer who tells me I feel too sorry for myself, I'm too messy . . . I've taken up too much of your time"). You'd think a nearly 500-page book deeply colored by the author's obsessions would grow tiresome, but Wilsey keeps it fresh. This is a lively account of a life we're not supposed to feel sorry for so much as marvel at. NEAL SCHINDLER Sean Wilsey will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Fri., June 3. The Wonder Spot

By Melissa Bank (Viking, $24.95) I really want to believe that Melissa Bank isn't like the other girls, and there's more than one reason to think it's true. Her heroines—Jane, of the wildly popular The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, and now Sophie Applebaum in The Wonder Spot—aren't just looking for men, they're looking for themselves. More often than not, they don't confuse the two. Helen Fielding can keep her Bridget Jones journaling, flubbing, and buggering for eons, but it isn't likely that her heroine will soon get over the need for a warm body—any warm body—in her bed. With Sophie, on the other hand, Bank has created a woman who almost seems too discerning about who's in her bed. Nearly every time you think she's with someone who might work out, Sophie ducks out of the relationship. Bank takes her borderline neurotic heroine up to her grandmother's house in the Bronx, or over to her brother and sister-in-law's crowded apartment, or back in time to reflect on some critical girlhood friendship. Anywhere, so long as she's not in a relationship that merely suffices. In other words, Bank gives Sophie a life independent of the men she's dating or not dating. It's so goddamn refreshing— except that she really peters out at the end, just as I was almost sure that I had found the real thing. Like Girls' Guide, Wonder Spot spans almost all of Sophie's growing-up years. We meet her as a cynical and awkward teen at a barely related relative's bat mitzvah. By the time the book is over, she's developed into an extremely likable and streetwise (if not sophisticated) urbanite whose pessimism grounds her and whose blunders are endearing but not gratuitous. Throughout the story, which takes place in the same Girls' Guide terrain of Philadelphia and New York City, Sophie's cagey side battles her heart. She's smart enough to know not to do anything stupid just to win the affection of the popular girls, but she's too preoccupied to realize, until it's too late, that little things like high-school test scores—when they are indeed "little" enough—really do add up and count against you. Beyond Sophie's first-person narration, her most sly, sarcastic, and honest inner thoughts show up in italicized little parentheticals. Through these, you learn—as does she—that what she lacks in book smarts, SAT scores, and typing skills, she makes up for in emotional intelligence. "I am a solid, trying to do a liquid's job," she says. Such oblique truisms make it harder to reconcile with Bank's ending. After half a dozen Mr. Almost-Rights and some halfhearted ladder climbing in the publishing, advertising, and copywriting sectors, Sophie's at a party in Brooklyn with Seth, a younger man. Being the older woman at a hip Williamsburg party, she's insecure to begin with, and it gets worse when an ex shows up with someone who Sophie "can tell right away is a model." Storing up her confidence, she repeats, "I am his girlfriend, Sophie; I am girlfriend; I am Sophie, girlfriend of Seth." It works, and the ex turns out to be a bore, and his model is even worse. Still, you feel cheated that both you and Sophie have come this far just to feel this insecure, this unsure, this old, unworthy, and unconfident. Maybe Bank doesn't want you to bank on Seth being the one, but she doesn't give you any reason to believe the story is open-ended. Although Sophie thinks to herself on the book's final page, "Right now I am having the life I want," it's not clear why this moment should be so special, privileged from the ones that came before—moments that were every bit as worthwhile as Sophie's last-minute "wonder spot." In the end, you're disappointed in her, and in Bank, for having rushed to get there. LAURA CASSIDY Melissa Bank will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Wed., June 8. The Polysyllabic Spree

By Nick Hornby (Believer Books, $14) For those waiting for Nick Hornby to read from his new novel, A Long Way Down, on Tues., June 14, his recent Spree is a pretty good appetizer. It's basically a book of book reviews, culled from his monthly column ("Stuff I've Been Reading") in The Believer, a McSweeney's spin-off. (In case you haven't heard of The Believer, its editorial philosophy is to not say anything at all if you can't say something nice—or so Hornby claims, with mock annoyance, throughout the book.) The author's wit isn't jaw-dropping, but its cumulative force is strong. For one thing, he moves with enviable ease from the lit-crit equivalent of slapstick ("The young Flaubert wasn't very rock and roll. He was, on this evidence, kind of a prissy, nerdy kid") to a genuinely impressive dissection of David Copperfield (he sees its excesses as a robust retort to literary minimalism). Accessibility is one of the chief virtues of Hornby's writing, so when he fishes a truly affecting passage out of Chekhov's letters, or passionately explains his love of the overlooked British novelist Patrick Hamilton (author of such realist near classics as Hangover Square), his sudden seriousness of thought and depth of knowledge are startling. At one point, Hornby argues unconvincingly that literature beats all other art forms. Soon after, he wisely revises this opinion, but the very fact that he can spend some of his monthly word count floating silly generalizations, only to retract them sheepishly, is kind of wonderful. It also keeps the essays light, even when the subjects aren't. Like a good mix tape—which High Fidelity's narrator, Rob Gordon, classifies as an emerging art form—Hornby's Spree is a well-sequenced sampler that whets your appetite for both the books he praises and reading in general. NEAL SCHINDLER Nick Hornby will read from his new novel, A Long Way Down, at the Neptune theater (1303 N.E. 45th St., 206-634-3400; $5 or free with book purchase), 7 p.m. Tues., June 14.

 
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