This Week's Reads

Curtis Sittenfeld, Michael Cunningham, Jon Winokur, and Rudolph Chelminski.

Prep

By Curtis Sittenfeld (Random House, $21.95) Vigilance, secrecy, alienation, angst: Adolescence isn't pretty wherever you find it, but the aesthetics definitely benefit from a dose of New England foliage and ivy-covered brick. In this debut novel, Lee Fiora sets her heart on the Ault boarding school based mostly on idyllic catalog pictures and an aversion to her Indiana public school's "pale green linoleum and grimy lockers and stringy-haired boys who wrote the names of heavy metal bands across the backs of their denim jackets in black marker." Ault poses problems of a different order entirely. The daughter of a mattress salesman, Lee feels lost among the lacrosse-stick-swinging sons and daughters of the elite. Her old glow of specialness disappears, and she struggles just to make average grades. Socially, Lee wants nothing more than to notice without being noticed—to fly under her classmates' radar, even when the result is excruciating loneliness. Prep's episodic plot follows Lee through all four years at Ault, outlining in painful detail her social gaffes, growing distance from her family, and anonymous (but in their own way sexy) hookups with her crush. It's an uneven journey: The protagonist can be infuriatingly passive, and the characters surrounding her aren't much more than types—which is appropriate given Lee's level of self-involvement, but it makes the book feel thin. Throughout, however, Curtis Sittenfeld's prose is so lovely and lucid that it's hard to care. Lee's introspection reminds us just what keen observers adolescents can be, how they pay attention to nuance as if their life depended on it—which, of course, it does. Lee recalls, "I remember myself as often unhappy at Ault, and yet my unhappiness was so alert and expectant; really, it was, in its own way, not that different from happiness." Without the hockey kilts, Gothic cathedral, and seductive scent of old money, of course, this might simply be a well-written book about teenage popularity or the lack thereof. (As a prep-school product, now a prep-school teacher, Sittenfeld has had plenty of time to take notes.) That it has struck such a chord with readers and critics suggests how rare it is to find a frank discussion of class in contemporary fiction. To its credit, Prep never pretends to be more than a novel of manners. In a world where social codes of any kind have lost much of their prescriptive power, it's satisfying in a particularly old-fashioned way. MARY PARK Curtis Sittenfeld will appear at University Book Store, 7 p.m. Tues., June 21. Specimen Days

By Michael Cunningham (Farrar Straus & Giroux, $25) Michael Cunningham has a knack for making himself the vessel for other writers. He did it with his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Hours, and does it again brilliantly in his latest, Specimen Days, which grows out of Walt Whitman's unsung masterpiece like a beautiful orchid. Whitman's Specimen Days, an autobiography published in 1882, describes soldiers dead, dying, or maimed in the Civil War and memorializes Lincoln. It also includes journal entries of the most staggering beauty. Looking to this source, Cunningham has created a cast of characters seeking a mystical connection with the world. But in a very 21st-century kind of way—in a world where suicide bombers believe they ensure everlasting life by taking their earthly souls (and those of many others)—they do this through destruction in a triptych of stories. Set in New York City during the Industrial Revolution, "In the Machine" features a deformed 12-year-old named Lucas whose brother was recently killed at a factory. In the wake of this tragedy, Lucas' parents are haunted shells, convinced their dead son speaks to them from machines. When Lucas decides the machines are what cause harm, he prepares to sacrifice himself to save his family's dignity. Next follows "The Children's Crusade," a taut, thrillerlike tale set in present-day New York City involving a group of child terrorists named "the family," who are schooled in Whitman and who have taken to blowing themselves up on the city streets. Halfway through, Whitman makes an appearance as a crazy old woman who has raised these future killers in an apartment that's papered floor to ceiling with Leaves of Grass. It becomes apparent that if Whitman is this book's guardian angel (and sometimes its demon), then New York City itself is its primary character. Days' first section describes a ghoulish, rattle-trap city heaving with factories, the second a noirish urban nightmare. In that vein, the final section, "Like Beauty," catapults us far into the city's future, when lizardlike aliens wander the streets and a nuclear meltdown has made it unsafe to go beyond New Jersey. In shaping his three narratives, Cunningham has penned the tale of a city and a country engorged with death but still looking for transcendence. Days is a parable about a society mechanized beyond our wildest dreams, yet still possessed of the procreative urge. Though it's not easy to shift one story to the next, the whole thing unfolds with a whiff of inevitability. That is what prophecy does: It brings the world full circle, creating and containing at the same time. Cunningham knows that beauty and sadness always come hand in hand; but, he asks, do they have to be united by destruction? JOHN FREEMAN Michael Cunningham will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Wed., June 22. Encyclopedia Neurotica

By Jon Winokur (St. Martin's, $23.95) There's just not enough neurosis in Jon Winokur's Encyclopedia Neurotica, though the book does suffer from an anxiety-provoking lack of focus. Is it a book of quotes? A collection of neat and newish words? A lethargic rant against psychology? A hall of fame for the greatest neurotics who ever fretted? I have no idea. Winokur claims his dictionary-style book is "an irreverent guide to the wacky world of neurosis, that safety-valve craziness that shields us from the Abyss, those sundry tics and twitches that stave off insanity." Like much that is "irreverent" and "wacky," however, this book isn't very funny. It actually succeeds best when presenting straight information, as in its thumbnail bios of Woody Allen, Larry David, Howard Hughes, Tony Soprano, and other patron squirrels of neurosis. I was fascinated by tidbits like actor-composer Oscar Levant's aversion to lemons and baseball player Nomar Garciaparra's twisted OCD rituals at the plate. I wish there were more of this sort of detailed, kooky stuff. I also wish more worry and anguish had gone into the selection of terms. The "B" chapter alone is full of many puzzling inclusions, like "bestiality" and "Bobbit, Lorena," both of which can certainly cause jitters (not to mention the willies) but seem out of place in this would-be neurotic's bible—a book that Winokur explicitly states is not about the more extreme forms of batshit lunacy. "Bubba eruptions" and "body-piercing" have nothing to do with each other (thank Zeus), and they've got diddly-squat to do with neurosis, but yet, here they are. Every one of Winokur's 26 chapters has inexplicable entries like these. Say it with me: why? If only he'd given more space to the neat, not-so-well-known, neurosis- centered terms he occasionally includes, such as "niche worrying," "mouse terror," and "psychological phlegm," which refers to I-have-issues-related psychobarf that simply must be spewed. With a little more thought and a metric butt-load more neurosis, this could've been a classic bathroom book. MARK PETERS The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine

By Rudolph Chelminski (Gotham, $27.50) By the age of 52, Bernard Loiseau had climbed to the summit of the culinary universe. Of the thousands of chefs in France, he was one of only 25 to wear the coveted three stars of Le Guide Michelin. His celebrity was so pervasive that when Loiseau took his own life in 2003 (with a shotgun given to him by his wife), the news even bumped the Iraq war buildup off the front pages in France. Rudolph Chelminski's new biography follows the boisterous Loiseau from his days shoveling coal as a kitchen apprentice to his superstardom, mental collapse, and eventual suicide. Surprisingly, for a man of such accomplishment and tragedy, his life had few other moments of drama. There simply wasn't any time. With a single-minded ambition, he worked 16-hour days at the Côte d'Or, his restaurant in the Burgundy town of Saulieu, until it finally reached three-star perfection in 1991. If some engagement forced him to travel to Paris or Tokyo, he would rush home like a new mother returning to a coddled child. In fact, the reader will find Loiseau's legacy far more compelling than his life. Chelminski is at his best when placing him within the philosophy of nouvelle cuisine, which modernized classical French cooking. The Perfectionist recounts the story of 20th-century high cuisine almost as much as it does its subject's life. Why Loiseau killed himself is a matter of much gossip and speculation, but Chelminski argues there were "only two real culprits to be blamed for [his] death: the twentieth century and his own tortured psyche." Loiseau's culinary ascendancy depended equally upon his gastronomic imagination and his prolonged courtship of the media. Having once been idolized in the media, he couldn't tolerate rumors that the Michelin guide judges might deduct his third star. Many of Loiseau's friends accused the press of killing him, but it was an entire culture of celebrity—combined with an untreated bipolar disorder and a lifetime of overwork—that finally put his finger on the trigger. DANIEL LEVISOHN

 
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