Short Takes 

Book briefs for the month of June

The Biographer's Tale
By A.S. Byatt, Knopf (2001), $24

If a story about a man writing a story about a man who wrote stories about other men sounds a little dry, distant, even dull--well, bingo! A.S. Byatt's latest novel takes academic storytelling to new levels of cerebral anesthesia.

She begins with an interesting enough narrative told by Phineas G. Nanson, a graduate student who abruptly abandons his plans to become a postmodern literary theorist in favor of a life "full of facts." His advisor suggests that he write the biography of Scholes Destry-Scholes, who was himself a biographer. Nanson takes on the challenge with great enthusiasm, devouring Destry-Scholes' three-volume biography of Sir Elmer Boles, a noted explorer and scholar, as well as his unfinished pages of research on other subjects. The result is a confusing and painfully dull collectiaon of facts that haunts the narrator and bores the reader to tears.

The kind of scholarly and literary detective story that Byatt handled so well in her Booker Prize-winning novel Possession is painfully absent here. The reader is kept too distant from the characters to care about them in the least, and the narrator doesn't come to life until the last fifty pages of the book. The first hundred pages are mind-numbing excerpts of Destry-Scholes' supposed research on three other notable figures who seem unrelated to anything else. While there are moments in which Byatt's usual deft writing shines through, those small gems are buried beneath layer upon layer of underwhelming and uninteresting details. --Claire Splan

By Lawrence Krauser, McSweeney's (2000), $16.50

In the beginning there was Dave Eggers. And Eggers wrote A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and it was good. And from the mind of Eggers sprang McSweeney's, the semiquarterly literary magazine, as well as the somewhat more regularly published Web site www. And from McSweeney's Volume 2 came an excerpt of playwright Lawrence Krauser's first novel, Lemon. And now, finally, we have Lemon itself. And it is good. And so terribly strange.

Lemon, for which Krauser has individually ink-scribbled the slipcovers of all 10,000 extant copies, follows the slow decline of Wendell, a memoist for a company run by the heirs of Buckminster Fuller. He is dumped by his girlfriend following an epistolary exchange in which he complains, "If our relationship were the history of music, then we have not evolved beyond Mozart." Things go downhill from there. A pinched nerve paralyzes half of Wendell's face. He has to wear an eye patch. His apartment deteriorates. His friends, who serve as the foil to his increasingly disintegrating life, are smug in their normalcy. And then this lemon turns up.

Let us be frank: Wendell transfers his affections from girlfriend to lemon. Let us be more frank: he eventually--and I am not sure how to describe this to you--has sex with it. He loses his job. His parents freak out. His friends do likewise. His boss terms him a "citrussexual." He has many thoughtful moments about what it constitutes to be a "thing," and if to love one is so very strange. Yes, it is. But then again, maybe it isn't.

Lemon is mostly prose, but Krauser occasionally breaks into limerick as well as into one long poem that turns out to be more or less a History of the Lemon Since the Beginning of the Universe. Every now and then, the text veers into digressions on the role of lemons in art, the lemon-shaped dome in architecture, the cultural significance of yellow. On first read, Krauser's narrative style can be oblique, occasionally almost Yoda-like; you have to peer through the words to see the story beneath. But on second read, it's perfectly lucid, and when it is good, it is so very, very good. "Love, or the word love, is like an elusive jungle bird that because it is so durable has thousands of mimics and camouflaged neighbors," Krauser writes. And later, "The heart is not a loony mess of gloopy flaps and percolating snailations, it is a lively gob of joyful leaping-forward/ diving back. More glossy than matte, it is all of a piece, break-dancing master of the house, the liveliest spot in the body." Lemon is a book for sour times, when the hero is a grotesque, and love is a very bitter fruit.--Kara Platoni

THE PRICE OF MOTHERHOOD: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued
By Ann Crittenden, Henry Holt (2001), $25

A few years after she resigned from her reporting job at the New York Times to be with her infant son, Ann Crittenden bumped into an acquaintance. "Didn't you used to be Ann Crittenden?" the person asked.

The encounter sparked more than five years of research in fields such as child development, economics, history, and public policy, and culminated in The Price of Motherhood, a study in which Crittenden argues that the equality women have been fighting for, not to mention the health of our society, will only be realized when mothers' unpaid labor is recognized and counted as productive.

In our country's precapitalist era, a wife was counted as an asset, not as a dependent, and her work was considered as part of the family's overall economic status. But with Alexander Hamilton's 1791 Report on Manufactures, human productivity was linked to monetary reward, thus denigrating home labor and elevating factory, shop, or office work.

Consequences of this paradigm-and-policy shift still plague us today. In the eyes of the US government--and therefore many of its citizens--the unpaid labor of raising children has nothing to do with the economy, a belief that creates its own bizarre logic: A nurse who feeds an infant formula does productive work, while a woman who breast-feeds her child does not; a full-time nanny receives Social Security credits, while a full-time mother does not; a public-school teacher performs valued work, while a home-schooling parent does not.

Crittenden offers a number of ideas for "how to bring children up without putting women down," such as establishing equal Social Security for spouses, a year's paid parental leave, equal pay and benefits for equal part-time work, universal preschool for three- and four-year-olds, free health coverage for children and their primary caregivers, and adding unpaid household labor to the Gross Domestic Product. But she also acknowledges that this kind of change can only happen if women themselves demand it: "And before that can happen," she writes, "women have to understand that the true costs of care include their exclusion from full participation in the economy and society."--Kate Madden Yee

DIVIDED WE STAND: How Al Gore Beat George Bush and Lost the Presidency
By Roger Simon, Crown (2001), $25

The moment has passed, but nevertheless, Roger Simon's hindsight view of the troubled 2000 presidential election still makes for worthwhile reading. Simon has written a fast-paced, entertaining account of the race--cross-cutting across the Gore, Bush, and McCain campaigns--that still reads like old-fashioned investigative reporting. And, following a steady stream of Bob Woodward books that purport to present insider information while reading like press releases, his knowledgeable objectivity is refreshing. We learn how no aspect of the election escaped politics: Sandra Day O'Connor wailed, "This is terrible. This is terrible," when the networks called Florida for Gore; John McCain's true opinion of the McCain-Feingold campaign reform bill was that "It'll change [American politics] until smart guys find a way to corrupt it." And Gore campaign manager Bill Daley's opinion of both candidates was, "To tell you the truth, I think [the American public] never really liked either one of them."

Simon also provides useful insight into Bill Clinton's formidable influence--not only over the 2000 election, but also on American politics in general. Clinton was the first president to be "First Friend" to the nation. In appearances at Town Meetings and television talk shows and 24/7 press coverage, Clinton made the presidency seem more like a job than a symbol. This kind of intimacy with Americans placed a burden of charm and likability on both Gore and Bush--a burden that Bush, the "compassionate conservative," found easier to carry off. Simon portrays Bush as hopelessly callow (the bookshelves of his governor's office in Austin are filled not with books but signed baseballs), yet this shallowness served Bush well with the electorate. Gore's intellectual demeanor, in contrast, appeared arrogant and aggressive.

Simon argues that Gore, the winner of the popular and possibly the electoral vote, was largely ruined by television's premature assignment of Florida to Bush--making Gore appear the challenger and Bush the incumbent. Still, Simon doesn't rule out Gore, who received the largest number of popular votes since Ronald Reagan, as a strong candidate in 2004.


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