Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Reviews #28 and #29: The Chattering Classes

Book Review #28:
Conversations with Mr. Prain
by Joan Taylor
Melville House (June 2006)

Book Review #29:
The Best of Slate: A 10th Anniversary Anthology
Edited by David Plotz, Introduction by Jacob Weisberg, Foreword by Michael Kinsley
Atlas Books (June 2006)

In typical fashion, I've managed to find a theme in the two totally disparate books I've read most recently: they're both about people who love to talk. In the first, a fictional twosome from opposite sides of the track exemplify talk as battle of wills (and method of foreplay); in the second, members of the digital intelligentsia spout opinions about every issue of the last ten years, making for a lot of conversation for the folks at home. (And for once, both books are actually already available in bookstores.)

CONVERSATIONS WITH MR. PRAIN was actually the first book I received through the auspices of Fresh Eyes Now, Robert Gray's project for linking authors with booksellers. His strength is that he knows what we all read and like, to one degree or another, so I was well-disposed to like this book knowing that he sent it with my tastes in mind.

I gotta admit, however, that for the first half I kept the book at arm's length. The unnamed heroine and narrator, a bohemian New Zealander ex-pat running a small bookshop in London, reminded me a little too much of the aspiring writers I knew from the high school literary magazine or the NYU English department: full of ill-understood, nuance-less ideals of "not selling out," convinced of their own brilliance if only the world could understand them, etc. Maybe to some degree that kind of mindset is necessary for the ego-bruising work of being a writer (and maybe that's why I'm not one), but I found myself rolling my eyes a little bit. Then again, to capture that kind of person could be a writerly triumph (assuming, of course, that it's not mostly autobiographical, and Joan Taylor herself is the voice behind our heroine). I got so annoyed at one point that I folded down the page on a quotation I thought unwittingly described the book itself:

"Like the reader of a bad novel, who laments the time it takes to get to the end and cannot put the book down because the barbed bait of the promise of answers drags the reader on through the plot after one bite, so I, uncomfortable as I was, remained where I was."

Hmm… barbed bait, though, that's a pretty nice alliterative image. There are totally flashes of brilliance throughout this book, and enough suspense that it really is irresistible to keep reading.

Oh yeah, the plot: so our Green heroine starts chatting with a regular customer, a slightly formal older gentleman who is a good conversationalist about art and literature – one of the joys of being a bookseller, as I can vouch, though I've pretty much always kept things firmly on this side of the line which our heroine quickly crosses. Eventually Mr. Prain (the middle-aged interlocutor, of course) reveals that he is in fact a well-known publisher, and asks to see a sample of Greenie's work. Nervously she puts together a portfolio, and in the course of time Mr. Prain suggests that she come out for tea at his country house to discuss her work without the distractions of the bookstall.

Now, it seems obvious what is about to happen: Mr. Prain talks young hot bohemian writer girl into some sort of sexual situation in exchange for publishing her work. As the conversation at the country house, fraught with sexual tension (and misunderstandings about publishers and writers, I feel) drags on, this seems obvious. But wait! There's a sultry French "housekeeper," a house full of unusual postmodern sculpture, a gardener who has his suspicions, and an incriminating photograph of our heroine from years earlier. The plot thickens – and the satisfaction increases. The encounter with Mr. Prain turns out to have much different contours than expected, and Taylor manipulates the reader's expectations skillfully. There is sex, and more than one pronouncement about our heroine's writing skill, and an unusual proposition… but the story kept surprising me right up until the end. Some of it I found a little unbelievable, but what's an English country house mystery without a touch of contrivance to make things fit together like a good puzzle?

The bulk of the novel, of course, is taken up with the conversations between the two warring/wary/fascinated protagonists, and again, I feel there are moments of brilliance and self-awareness among a fair amount of tripe. The dichotomy between the pure and noble writer and the greedy commerce-driven publisher, which the heroine seems to believe in, is belied by Mr. Prain's equivocal but ultimately honest pronouncements; when she says she hasn't done more drafts and corrections of her novel manuscript because "it wastes too much paper," he laughs and we laugh with him. I found that some of her assumptions made me angry enough to start talking about them myself (to the luckless ALP, of course), which is some measure of the novel's success.

Overall, I feel this is a novel that rises above its supposed protagonist, and one that has all the pleasures of a psychological thriller with enough intellectual cachet to get one thinking, if not to make any final pronouncements. Mr. Gray was right after all, of course, and this one made it onto our Staff Picks table, if only because it is both gripping and worth grappling with.


The Slate anthology from Atlas Books had its own set of preconceived notions to overcome. I admit I haven't ever read the online magazine enough to have strong opinions about it (I usually find articles there through blog links, and always think "Oh yeah, I forgot this was here), though of course the article earlier this year about the irrelevance of independent bookstores got my dander up, if you'll recall (see my May 24 post, which I can't seem to link to). But when I told people what I was reading I received equal parts interested noises and groans.

The main objections to Slate seemed to be the same things Slate editor Jacob Weisberg touts as strengths in his introduction: the "clubbiness" of Slate writers and readers, the methods of writing "Slate-y" articles, especially "make the contrarian case that all the common assumptions about a subject are simply and hopelessly wrong." And I admit, there is some snarking and unnecessary contrarianism in this book, as is probably inevitable with a stable of young(ish), overeducated, irony-soaked, hipsters and counter-hipsters.

But I also found this one of the most engaging and enjoyable reads I've had in a long time. I'm a big fan of the essay collection genre myself – I have a short attention span for nonfiction but a regular appetite for it, so the small bites and variety of a collection is perfect for me. I took this book with me on a 4th of July weekend getaway, and a lot of the topics I was reading about found their way into conversation with my fellow smarty-pants vacationers.

Reading this collection is a brilliant way to work through a lot of the topics, serious and banal, that have preoccupied us over the last ten years: the gay Teletubby, Che Guevara, the 2000 election, mood-altering drugs like Paxil, soccer and nationalism, the World Trade Center, low-rise pants, Martha Stewart, Bush's intelligence or lack thereof, Michael Moore, Hurricane Katrina, etc. Whether you agree or disagree with the authors on their chosen subjects, their cases are always engagingly and wittily made, and it’s a pleasure to argue with them.

And maybe the most fun are the articles about subjects that aren't really part of the national debate, but of more small scale and quirky interest: food writer Jeffrey Steingarten's struggle to get over his food aversions, surgeon Atul Gawande's study of whether more accidents happen on Friday the 13th, Mike Steinberger's quest to learn how to spit wine correctly at those tastings, William Saletan on human-animal relations (no, really…), Josh Levin on how gangsta rappers and geeky bloggers really do have a lot in common, Edmund Levin on the recipe for Proust's madeleine, as well as articles on whether men should have to watch their wives give birth and whether you should allow your baby to sleep in your bed.

Obviously, it's a collection like a box of chocolates, with some new flavor to engage in every piece (and since they're all only three to five pages long, it's easy to consume several in one sitting). It is in some ways a clubby, elitist collection as well, and it's one of those books that makes you aware of that; but isn't all reading, all conversation, to some degree a luxury? I feel lucky to have the luxury, and grateful for all the contrarian folks at Slate (and the prescient folks at Atlas) who have sparked the conversations. For cocktail party tidbits or just a way to wake up your brain from its July torpor, this one is highly recommended.

Now get off the computer and start talking.