What Was She Thinking?
by Zoë Heller
At first glance the narrator of What Was She Thinking? might easily pass for one of Anita Brookner's sexless and sardonic spinsters. Barbara Covett is a sixtyish schoolteacher with no friends, a beloved cat, and a pronounced distaste for contemporary British life. Her students are thugs, her colleagues are prattling nitwits. The local supermarket strikes her as a preserve of freakish loners. Even a display of fireworks on Guy Fawkes Day manages to rub this devoted anti-sensualist the wrong way: "I suspect that only the tiniest fraction of the crowd gathered on the top of Primrose Hill was genuinely invested in the spectacle, but we all stayed there for a full, frigid hour, dutifully manufacturing sharp intakes of breath and other symptoms of ingenuous wonderment."
What brings Barbara out of her shell is an entirely different sort of fireworks. First she is drawn to a new arrival, Sheba Hart, a pottery teacher with deliciously upper-class diction and a diaphanous wardrobe. Then she learns that Sheba, married with two children, is carrying on a high-octane sexual relationship with one of her fifteen-year-old pupils—a fact that promptly ignites a tabloid firestorm. The scandal has a tonic effect on the narrator, transforming her into (as one of the tabloids puts it) "the saucy schoolteacher's spin doctor." Indeed, the book we're reading turns out to be Barbara's own account of Sheba's liaison, including the dirty bits that she couldn't possibly have witnessed. Her mixed motives for concocting such a voyeuristic tall tale are ultimately what give Heller's novel its queasy, heartbreaking kick. "For most people," Barbara says, "honesty is such an unusual departure from their standard modus operandi—such an aberration in their workaday mendacity." Her own mendacity is more refined, wonderfully entertaining, and deeply (which is to say tragically) unconscious. —James Marcus
All Shook Up: How Rock 'N' Roll Changed America
by Glenn C. Altschuler
You know the jokes. Writing about music—in a line that is variously attributed to Laurie Anderson or Steve Martin, among others—is like "dancing about architecture." And writing about rock music, as Frank Zappa famously observed, involves "people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for people who can't read." Well, we've come a long way. The vandals have not merely taken the handles; they've been invited inside the mansion and are helping themselves to brandy and cigars. Oxford University Press's Pivotal Moments in American History series, edited by the eminent historians David Hackett Fischer and James M. McPherson, brings us All Shook Up with no apologies and no reason for any.
Rock writing, no less than the music itself, has developed well beyond its easily mockable roots. But although we have any number of significant and scholarly biographies, including the two-volume work on Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick, and first-rate collections of criticism by such luminaries as Greil Marcus, Simon Frith, and Robert Christgau, All Shook Up, by Glenn C. Altschuler, is one of the first to do rock-and-roll the significant service of locating it within the cultural and political maelstrom it helped to create. Altschuler does so with a good ear for the music and a deft hand, making this account a pleasure to read and ponder. He is not a flashy writer, but so much the better for his storytelling, which shows intelligence and narrative discipline. All Shook Up is not a history of rock-and-roll per se—it barely reaches the Beatles, only to skip all the way to Bruce Springsteen and end there. The story is really about the emergence and impact of rock-and-roll as a force in American society.
It isn't easy today to conjure up the sense of panic that 1950s America experienced at what was being done to its children. Overnight they seemed to want nothing more than to cavort with Negroes and simulate copulation on the dance floor. Time compared rock concerts to "Hitler's mass meetings." The New York Times provided expert opinion from a psychiatrist who branded the music "a cannibalistic and tribalistic" form of expression that might be likened to a "communicable disease." A Times reviewer found that the young Elvis had "injected movements of the tongue and indulged in wordless singing that were singularly distasteful." All shook up indeed. But of course the music never stopped. There was simply too much money to be made, and too many teenagers around claiming rock as a birthright.
Altschuler's capsule histories of rock's early pioneers won't seem particularly earth-shattering (unless you happen to be one of the few people on the planet who didn't know that Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Lee Swaggart are cousins). But Altschuler surpasses the admittedly sparsely populated field in the nuanced way he places the music within the conflicts—racial, sexual, commercial, and political—that it variously helped to encourage, exacerbate, and (occasionally) ameliorate. Altschuler tells a story of liberation and fear, of inspiration and exploitation, of repeated attempts to homogenize a form of cultural expression that sprang from somewhere so authentic in Western youth culture that it proved bigger and more powerful than any combination of its myriad opponents. Indeed, it's hard to imagine how anyone ever managed to grow up without rock-and-roll, bless its bastardized soul. —Eric Alterman
by Penelope Lively
Penelope Lively is the bard of briskness, a novelist whose heroes think, act, even suffer, with no-nonsense, consummately British dispatch. When the successful landscape historian Glyn Peters, "facts man, par excellence," discovers the infidelity of his deceased wife, Kath, he plunges into an obsessive quest for answers, interviewing her former friends and acquaintances in a belated attempt to understand her. Kath's lover turns out to be the husband of her older sister, Elaine, who responds to the posthumous revelation with alacrity by dumping her philandering spouse, no questions asked. If one can get past The Photograph's soap-operatic, faintly ludicrous premise, there's fun to be had watching Glyn and Elaine's tidy assumptions be undermined by Kath—"a mute subversive presence" they can't explain away. Like Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, Kath has become "like some mythical figure, trawled up at will to fit other people's narratives." Lively continues, "Everyone has their way with her, everyone decides what she was, how things were."
Evidently, Lively likes her fictional worlds neat. Without exception, her self-absorbed academics, demanding garden designers, and unregenerate dreamers pull their schematic weight. The characters in The Photograph are either "striving ants" or fiddling grasshoppers, with the ants (predictably) winning in the end. The competing accounts of Kath are also carefully managed to support Lively's grand philosophical architecture; each is internally consistent and separated from the previous one by a few finely calibrated degrees.
In The Photograph, as in her Booker Prize-winning tour de force Moon Tiger, Lively skillfully orchestrates her material to serve an essentially psychedelic truth: no reality exists outside a spectrum of different perspectives, all a bit askew. If Lively's kaleidoscopic technique feels familiar, her style is original—at times manipulative but always bracingly intelligent. Rarely has a subject as elusive as life's irredeemable messiness been pursued with such unflagging rigor. —Elizabeth Judd
The Devil Wears Prada
by Lauren Weisberger
A Judith Krantz for the new millennium! Lauren Weisberger has produced a work of trash fiction of such unimpeachable quality—I enjoyed every page—that the golden girls of the form can hang up their spurs. The Devil Wears Prada, which is apparently based on its author's tenure as the Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour's assistant, takes for its plot the old story handed down through the ages: young lovely from good family moves to Manhattan, takes job in glamorous industry, encounters dissipation and human venality of every stripe, and emerges either tarnished or triumphant (in this case—being chick lit—the latter). Weisberger—a prodigy: Cornell University, class of 1999—understands that this kind of story must be composed of a certain kind of prose. To say that The Devil Wears Prada is cliché-ridden wouldn't be quite right; it's cliché-constructed. By novel's end the head of the heroine, Andrea Sachs, has swum, it has spun, it has felt like it would explode; her heart has flip-flopped, lurched, and stopped beating altogether (she bounced right back); her stomach has churned, her brain has been wracked, her body has been rooted to the floor, and—who can blame her?—she has breathed a sigh of relief.
The burden of Andrea's complaint (one senses very strongly that the opinions and attitudes of author and heroine are as one) is that when she graduated from college and got a job as personal assistant to the editor in chief of a fashion magazine, she ended up with the worst boss in the history of the whole wide world. Miranda Priestly is human evil incarnate: she forgets Andrea's name, forces her to make two trips to Starbucks in a single morning, never once compliments her on her clothes. On one level this is a straightforward revenge novel, but on a (slightly) deeper one it's really about the ice-water shock of leaving college and getting a real job. Like many young people in this new and unpleasant situation, Andrea both aggrandizes her importance to her boss (she believes that Miranda's every slight is carefully orchestrated to demoralize her) and insists that she alone understands the shallowness, the emptiness, the hollow misery that is her employer's life. The whole thing explodes in a big confrontation at a Paris fashion show that is the embodiment of every first-jobber's favorite fantasy ("Fuck you, Miranda, Fuck you"). There are countless entertaining descriptions of clothes and office procedures and fits of pique; Weisberger writes with the passionate intensity of a ninth-grader whose pride has been wounded, and I forgave her much. For some reason the novel, which has no literary pretensions whatsoever and which I read because a friend recently impulse-purchased it for me at Costco, is being taken seriously. It was reviewed in The New York Times by a former editor in chief of Harper's Bazaar who was herself "mentored by Anna Wintour" during eight years at Vogue (was Wintour herself unavailable to write the review?), and who unloads the big guns on Weisberger, which she probably deserves. But nothing can hurt a book like this (my dental hygienist all but pried it from my hands when she saw the title); a career has begun. —Caitlin Flanagan
Recent books by Atlantic authors:
Glory in a Camel's Eye: Trekking Through the Moroccan Sahara, by Jeffrey Tayler. Houghton Mifflin. Tayler is an Atlantic correspondent. His article "The Next Threat to NATO" appeared in the February 2002 issue.
The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice, by Philip Jenkins. Oxford University Press. Jenkins's article "The Next Christianity" was a cover story in the October 2002 Atlantic.
Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution, by Richard Brookhiser. Free Press. Brookhiser's article "The Mind of George W. Bush" was a cover story in the April 2003 Atlantic.