Jul/Aug 2004 Book Reviews

Briefly Noted

reviews by Kevin McGowin

Julia Cameron. The Sound of Paper: Starting from Scratch.
Tarcher/Penguin; 2004. 315 pp.


I could doubtless think up several rather obvious wordplays on the title and subtitle of this book to lead off a dis of it, but that would be as sophomoric as the "book" itself, so I'll resist and leave it to your creative imagination. But I'm proud to report that I neither bought this book or sent off for a review copy; I checked it out from the public library, for one night, and no matter who you are or how insecure and/or creatively challenged, even that isn't worth your time and is, in fact, something of an insult to your inner facilities.

There's a sense in which I liked The Artist's Way, and it certainly helped many people, some of then accomplished professional writers and artists personally known to me. If what you need is a creative jump-start, or more discipline in your writing life, or a way to include your creative side into your hectic multi-tasking life, look into it. But after Cameron (or her publisher) released The Morning Pages Journal, a blank book with Celestial Seasonings tea-box feel-good aphorisms on each page which cost as much as the original book itself, and then the rehash called The Vein of Gold, what gives? Unabashed commercialism had been taken so far it crossed even its own "boundaries"—it compromised and diminished the very Creative Principle Cameron espoused to promote.

Now, we have it all again, a feel-good book/workbook, with nothing at all new, for something like the seventh or eighth time in ten years. I find it insufferable and somehow inexcusable—like Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life workbook/sequels in their field (whatever that is), this just gets worse and worse, more and more diluted—and Cameron is a horrible writer, self-satisfied in her own privileged mediocrity. I see no reason for anybody to read any of it, much less purchase it, and I don't care what anybody says—Cameron and her ilk have already "sold out", have no integrity left, and are proceeding to sell all that's left—their souls.

I'll hold on to mine.


Peter Carey. My Life as a Fake.
Knopf; 2003. 266 pp.

* * * *

Worthy of the Booker Prize or some other such major award, My Life as a Fake is perhaps the finest contemporary novel I've read in the past three or four years.

I'm giving it the short treatment here because it's already been reviewed extensively elsewhere, many times over, and it's an especially difficult book to deal with in a full-length review without giving away essential plot information, which my readers know I take pride in almost never doing.

The novel is brilliant—complex but smooth and concise, which of course is a rarity. The story concerns the entertaining and suspenseful quest of an English editor in Malaysia—echoes of Conrad, Graham Greene and Paul Theroux—to uncover a poetry manuscript of true genius for her ailing literary journal from an odd character suspected of having somehow "faked" it. However, the story uncovers a wide variety of "fakes"—and is ultimately concerned with the odd and often incompatible relationship between personality and (sometimes literary) persona (quotes from Ezra Pound included), as well as the lengths people will go to in order to attain what is important to them. Along the way, various related subplots take us even deeper into this jungle of the nebulous unknowns of human passion, desire, and genius for deception—including the book's most engaging character, a British poet who may somehow be the key to it all.

In other words, what if The Dark Half and The Secret Window had been truly multi-dimensional novels of genius, or if Hitchcock circa 1950 had been a great novelist? You'd have something like this, a truly unique book that comes along once in a purple moon, is a joy to read and a challenge as well, but one you can't put down.

As always, Knopf does a splendid job of design with the cover and the book's tall & slender dimensions—the classy Borzoi treatment for a book that well deserves it. What else can I say? This book is set in the recent past, but is also extraordinarily timely, and I'm glad to have read it. Thanks to Judith Ferster of Chapel Hill, NC for sending it my way.


Paul Theroux. The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro and Other Stories.
Houghton Mifflin; 2004. 296 pp.

* * *

Paul Theroux (the second syllable is pronounced "rue", for the uninitiated) has just published something like his fiftieth book, and this one, too, is about himself. It's selling quite well, too, like most of the others.

Okay, who am I, alright? But don't we ever get tired of this guy and his smug first-person narrators, his pretentious Bostonian world travelers whose mother paid for them to get into the Peace Corps to stay out of 'Nam and he constantly complains about what a struggle it all was? Who has homes on Cope Cod and Hawaii, and he's over sixty and still bitching?

Hey, Theroux is a pretty good writer—industrious and solid, and what he lacks in imagination, he covers by intimations of Culture. And this Installment's a solid three stars. But it's been the same book, more or less, since he got started—whether he calls it travel, fiction, essays, whatever. And such is perhaps the case with every writer, especially one so prolific—myself, of course, included. Maybe especially me. But at the heart of every book by Paul Theroux (even the truly good one, My Secret History) lies the dull and wasted soul of some pompous Ass sitting in an armchair smoking a pipe and reading Graham Greene.

In the present book, Theroux continues to display a misogynistic adolescent fixation on sexual sadism—nothing new to readers of almost all his fiction. This is disenchanting in a writer otherwise so solid who can create images of such memorable landscapes.

And how do I know so much about his other books? I've read 'em. I read everything. Maybe I need to stop. And not just me—Women really love Paul Theroux, maybe more than men do—they think he's an intellectual Harrison Ford from fifteen years back. Of course, men think it too—and he makes us think it, because he knows that the public he really rather seems to despise loves adventurers! Especially ones that go to Africa. Like the British loved Captain Sir Richard Burton (no, not the drunken actor, the drunken explorer).

—I find myself dangerously close to eking this out into a full-length review, but neither the subject nor my tone towards it merit that. But oh! The book!

—Which one?

Just go cut your losses and read My Life as a Fake, also noted in this section. And Paul, I can afford to say whatever the hell I want to, to express how I really feel about this issue—I'm doing it for free.

—And I'm sure the implication there is far from lost on the reader.


Cheryl L. Reed. Unveiled: The Hidden Life of Nuns.
Berkley/Penguin; 2004. 331 pp.

* * ½

I tend to like first person investigative and "participatory" journalism, like that of Tony Horwitz, for example, and I like the style here. And this is the kind of book you see on the shelf and think, "I'd never actually thought about it, but this book was just begging to be written." Now this one has, and well—Reed's approach is enlightening and informative while even-handed and fair.

Even so, I found the book to be rather slight and repetitive, though the author tries her best to keep the reader's interest and break up the fifteen sections with colorful interludes. In fact, the large number of sections might be a "stretch" of the various nuns' roles into oversimplifications of their individual missions—perhaps, for some, in attempting to dispel old stereotyped Reed creates new ones. The "Sisters in the 'Hood," "The Mystic Mother Superior," etc. Yet even in padding a long essay into a full-length book, Reed always writes with clarity and treats her subjects with respect.

There's not a very great deal in this book you probably don't know already—but it may give you a greater understanding for and appreciation of nuns and the lives they lead. I don't think it matters if you're Catholic or if you're not—the book's target audience is the general public, Catholics included.

I am not a Catholic, but I have read the late Trappist monk Thomas Merton's works repeatedly and with something like awe. For me, nothing about his monastic and solitary existence was boring. But finally, probably because of its repetition and unintentional stereotyping, Reed's book on nuns is something short of breathtaking.


William Shakespeare. As You Like It.

* * * * *

And I like it. Y'know, Shakespeare is so much a part of our culture, literary and otherwise, that like certain other major writers and creative artists (Yeats comes to mind, John Donne, Bach), sometimes it takes a for-no-particular-reason re-exposure (or even first full exposure) to remember (or realize) just how great he really is. Here, the play most scholars agree was written just before Hamlet (circa 1600) and which these days is most familiar for its "All the world's a stage" speech (Jaques, 2.7.139) and from certain feminist or other readings focusing on the play's gender reversals, it's almost odd to consider that just over 100 years ago, in the time of Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, this was the comedy/romance. Indeed, in the second volume of his autobiography, Loitering with Intent: The Apprentice (1996), Peter O'Toole devotes several spirited pages to recounting how in his formative years at the Old Vic in England in the late '50s, As You Like It was the first Shakespeare play the instructors broke out, as a sort of representative litmus test for a given actor's capacity to act the rest of the roles. Apparently O'Toole, Albert Finney, and Vanessa Redgrave passed the test.

If there is one greatest play by Shakespeare, I take it to be the uncut version of Hamlet, which, BTW, is not at all without its comic moments. But otherwise, Shakespearean comedy? Romance (in our contemporary understanding of that term)? This is the play—and save for Hamlet, I tend to think the play as a whole contains the finest lines and dialogue in all of Shakespeare.

The story is simple and more than a little silly—and it's meant to be. In fact, it's something of a "feel-good" play, an antidote in Great Art to all the silly would-be feelgood vapid pabulum I've been trashing in this forum for months.

Its success in production hinges on good direction and a capable Rosalind, which is a hard role, lest that character upstage everyone else. But Shakespeare goes in fads and waves, and something tells me that the time for As You Like It as a major staple of the Shakespearean canon, with perhaps a well-done and successful film adaptation, is close upon us.

The Editor prefers the Oxford World's Classics single editions of Shakespeare for reading and study, and the Pelican/Penguin editions for performance.


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