Books March 2011

Cover to Cover

A Guide to Additional Releases
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When the Killing’s Done
T. C. Boyle
Viking

Just off Santa Barbara, the wind-racked, sun-cooked, fogged-in, rain-drenched, mostly-but-not-quite-altogether-wild Channel Islands—this novel’s primary setting—are made for Boyle’s robust language and relentless rhythms, his vigorous and eternally fresh style. As in The Tortilla Curtain and Talk Talk, the story here erupts from the clashing interests of two couples: one, in this case, a pair of naturalists, whose drive to protect the islands’ native species necessitates killing the invading ones; the other, animal-rights activists who oppose killing any creatures. The rage, obsessions, and tragic self-righteousness that drive many of Boyle’s characters in his other novels are in full swing here, but they’re somewhat tempered by sincerity and epiphany. Both sides can claim justice and sympathy; both, at times, appear ridiculous or worse. The speed with which this novel has followed Boyle’s last is evident in structural missteps—backstories aren’t always well integrated with front stories; the timing of scenes is occasionally jarring—but two entirely believable set pieces of action, at once lush and taut, redeem the flaws.

Toilet
Edited by Harvey Molotch and Laura Norén
NYU

Also see:



Public Restrooms: A Slideshow

An intriguing look at the varieties of public-bathroom experience, with selected images from Molotch and Norén's Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing.

Public restrooms (now there’s a euphemism) are complex and ambiguous, because they offer a communal setting for performing deeply private deeds. This collection of essays by academics from a variety of disciplines probes the legal, sociological, public-health, and architectural dimensions of these places. Without them, our business, commercial, educational, and transportation systems could not function. Indeed, the historian Erika Rappaport has inventively argued that the provision of ladies’ toilets in 19th-century London department stores, by finally giving fashionable women a place to relieve themselves, made it possible for them to enter the public sphere—and hence helped catalyze the suffragist movement. But the essential role of public restrooms has gone largely unexamined (with the important exceptions of Rappaport’s pioneering Shopping for Pleasure; the architect Alexander Kira’s clinically detailed, uncomfortably explicit 1966 study The Bathroom; and George Costanza’s colloquies on Seinfeld). Although some of the essays assembled here are infected with predictable academic jargon, this book offers precise insights—want to keep a public bathroom clean? Stick some flowers there. And it often cleverly illuminates what’s in plain sight—say, the reasons why New York has so few female cabbies—but is usually ignored or assiduously avoided.

Emily, Alone
Stewart O’Nan
Viking

This elegant novel revisits the Emily Maxwell of Wish You Were Here as a widow and traces the course of three-quarters of a year near the end—but decidedly not at the end—of her long life. Born in small-town Appalachia to a building inspector and a teacher, Emily achieved the cultured and refined life for which she yearned by marrying into a gracious Pittsburgh family. She appreciates classical music, visits the library regularly, reserves a table at “the club” for special occasions, pines for the heyday of Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! (although not the gritty, Helen Mirren era, much as she admires the actress herself). O’Nan cannot write without nuance, and Emily contains the contradictions and failings of a real person. Her second-guessing of, frustration with, and love for her adult children and grandchildren; her observations concerning her comparatively young neighbors; her dependence on and resentment toward her sister-in-law are all a voyeuristic pleasure. Labeling his chapters with caption-like titles—“Kleenex,” “The Grown-up Table,” “Drive-by”—O’Nan seems to be inviting comparison of this book to Evan Connell’s Mrs. Bridge—and that is unfortunate because Emily, Alone is neither so exquisitely written nor so poignant a life. This is, however, partly because Emily Maxwell is self-aware, itself a charming characteristic.

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