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Critic’s Picks: November
Assistant book editor Jason Kehe reviews his four must-reads of the month—his favorite L.A. release, one pick from the wide-open West, another from our friends back East, and a recommendation for more adventurous readers
IN OUR BACKYARD
The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc.
(Doubleday, 437 pages, $28)
Think of it as a kind of memoir for a postmodern age—disconnected, derivative, self-referential, parenthetical. Lethem, a professor of writing and contemporary fiction at Pomona College and the MacArthur Genius Award-winning author of such books as Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude, has crafted a mesmerizing, breathlessly intellectual foray into his own jumbled but internally consistent mind. The title essay, about the artistic influences that sneak consciously or not into our own thinking and writing, plays a by-now-famous trick on the reader, much like the entire collection. You think, for a time, that Lethem is showing off; but at some point you realize that it’s all genuine brilliance.
BEST OF THE WEST
Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World
(Doubleday, 219 pages, $27)
That wordy title is misleading; this slim book is as much about George Antheil, the avant-garde composer, as it is about early-Hollywood leading lady Hedy Lamarr. Believe it or not, a collaboration between the two amateur inventors in the 1940s resulted in the technology that would make cell phones, GPS, and a number of other breakthrough inventions possible. “The real story will amaze you,” Rhodes writes, rather confidently, in the introduction. Actually, the parts of the book dealing with the invention itself, called “frequency hopping,” are anticlimactic and difficult to follow. What is amazing is the moral of the story—that a simple hobby might one day change the world.
EAST OF THE RIVER
Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark
(Viking, 360 pages, $28)
“I’m frequently asked why I don’t write my memoirs,” said Pauline Kael, at one time America’s most powerful film critic. “I think I have.” In that spirit, Kellow has reconstructed Kael’s “life in the dark” (mad props to whoever is responsible for that subtitle) by close-reading a quarter-century of her writings on film, mostly from her years (1968-1991) at The New Yorker (Kael died in 2001). The result is a joy to read. For such a wildly passionate, deeply invested, everything-on-the-line writer—her style would be forever imitated but never replicated—Kael did not live a particularly eventful life. It wouldn’t make for a very good movie. But magically, it’s a fascinating book.
BEYOND YOUR HORIZONS
(Putnam, 305 pages, $18)
One of the cooler contenders in the publishing world’s quest to find the next Hunger Games or Twilight series is this YA-geared—but, for a change, killer-violent—page-turner about two extraordinary 15-year-olds in a dystopic future Los Angeles. Day is the Republic’s most wanted street criminal. June is the Republic’s most gifted disciple. For once, boy and girl are equally powerful—and equally interesting, even if you know where their “it’s complicated” relationship is going. First-time novelist Lu sustains momentum despite the limitations of the back-and-forth first-person narration. Whether she can keep it going for another two books is questionable. But that concern pales in the bright promise of this debut.