Book World
Comprehensive literary coverage, including reviews, news briefs and guest essays from authors. Two transmissions a week -- the Sunday tab and weekday reviews.
Recent Articles

THE MEN IN MY LIFE: A Memoir of Love and Art in 1950s Manhattan

By Patricia Bosworth. Harper. 377 pp. $27.99. ISBN 978-0062287908

Reviewed by Ellen McCarthy

C .S. Lewis famously said that writers “don’t write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand.”

And Patricia Bosworth confesses in the very first pages of her new memoir, “The Men in My Life: A Memoir of Love and Art in 1950s Manhattan,” that comprehension — and healing — were the dual forces driving her latest project. “Writing this book has been cathartic,” she says in the author’s note. “It’s finally caused me to (BEGIN ITAL)feel(END ITAL). I’ve cried and cried as I’ve written it, but that’s good.”

Bosworth is best known as the author of intimate biographies of Diane Arbus, Jane Fonda and Marlon Brando. But Bosworth’s own life — which includes a charmed and troubled childhood, an acting career, and the suicides of two family members — is as intriguing as any of her subjects.

In her 1997 memoir, “Anything Your Little Heart Desires,” Bosworth chronicles the travails of her father, an activist lawyer who defended the Hollywood Ten, a group of writers and directors targeted during the communist paranoia of the mid-20th century; he then fell under FBI scrutiny.

If that book was designed to unravel the mysteries of her father’s life, this one is an attempt to comprehend the misfortunes, advantages, choices and motivations that shaped her own frenetic existence.

Bosworth spent the early part of her childhood in California, where her father’s legal career was ascending as her mother’s writerly ambitions stalled. But the bulk of Bosworth’s time was spent in the company of her younger brother, Bart Jr., whom she adored, despite their wildly different personalities. “Eventually,” she writes, “he would barricade himself within his eccentric mind while I lived out every reckless desire.”

Bosworth’s new memoir recalls an early marriage and other love affairs, but the men in her life — at least the ones at the heart of this book — are her father and brother. Bart Jr. killed himself with a shotgun while attending college in Portland, Ore. Her father overdosed on pills and booze six years later.

As a young woman, Bosworth was haunted by questions about her brother’s suicide. Later she would learn that in adolescence, he was spied in a naked embrace with another boy at an elite boarding school. And that the day after they were seen together, her brother’s amour hung himself from a tree near the schoolyard.

Bosworth remembers depression blanketing her brother in the months and years that followed. At times, he would barely speak to her or anyone else. Still, Bart Jr. tried to warn her off marrying a man who would become her abuser, and picked her up on a corner when she finally fled the violence.

And long after his suicide, Bosworth’s brother would be the voice of reason and constancy in her life. “Over the next decade my brother and I would go on talking to each other, and each time I heard him, it would be a comfort,” she recalls of the period after his death. “His visitations were as real to me as the traffic outside my window, the rain pelting against my cheeks.”

Bosworth would hear her brother implore her to take herself — her talents and her life — more seriously. And a great deal of the book is devoted to that endeavor. Bosworth takes readers inside the audition process at the renowned Actors Studio, where she studied under Lee Strasberg and encountered bright lights of the day, including Marilyn Monroe and Steve McQueen. Occasionally “The Men in My Life” gets slowed down by Bosworth’s recollections of luminaries who appeared in her orbit. (Though her description of a particularly raucous night of drinking with Elaine Stritch earns its space on the page. “Keep goin’, Patti baby, it’ll put hair on your chest!” Stritch commanded.)

As readers, we know early on about the deep losses in Bosworth’s life, and we know she survived and went on to have an illustrious career on the stage and in publishing. That deprives the book of any natural tension. The only question that remains is how long it will take Boswell to follow her brother’s advice — to live up to her potential.

Along the way she meets mentor after mentor who prod her on. Gore Vidal, who became a friend, told her years ago that she would one day have to write about her brother. “You will have to go to a place inside yourself you cannot bear to go,” he instructed. “You have to swim in the pain, absorb it, understand it, and then when you do, you detach, because you must be detached to write something like this.”

By the time the book ends, we learn that Bosworth has married a nice man and found success and satisfaction in writing nonfiction books. It seems unlikely that “The Men in My Life” will go down as the most important book in Bosworth’s career. But perhaps, privately, it will be the most important one in her life. “I’ve been carrying around a huge burden of grief and guilt for much too long,” she writes. “Now it’s almost gone.”

So in the end, every tear Bosworth shed while writing this book was worthwhile.

Ellen McCarthy is a feature writer in the Style section of The Washington Post.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Book World Service/

Washington Post Writers Group

John Darnielle, founder of the Mountain Goats√, writes lyrics so meticulously crafted, so arcing and literary, that they can feel like novellas set to music. His indie rock and folk songs take on subjects dangerously prone to caricature — aspiring death-metal rockers, masked wrestlers, spiritual seekers — yet he renders them in nuanced and empathetic ways. You’re going to feel something when you listen to his performances even if you struggle to understand the meaning of his sophisticated tales.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The raw, sometimes unsettling nature of Darnielle’s observations of the world lose none of their power on the printed page. He demonstrates this in his new novel, “Universal Harvester,” a captivating exploration of the vagaries of memory and inertia in middle America. The book, which should further establish Darnielle as a writer of note, serves as a stellar encore after the success of his debut√ novel, “Wolf in White Van,”√ which was longlisted√ for a√ National Book Award in 2014√.

Darnielle places “Universal Harvester” in Nevada, Iowa, where a sign out on the highway boasts of its designation as “the 26th best small town in America.”p. 133 Something spooky is happening in Nevada (pronounced Ne-vay-da): Disturbing scenes are mysteriously being spliced into the films that customers rent at the local Video Hut√. Jeremy√, a clerk at the video store, is reluctantly tugged into the search for the provenance of these altered films, a quest that becomes an unhealthy obsession for the store owner√.

Jeremy is 22 and lives with his father. He knows there’s no future in working as a video store clerk, especially with the big chains cutting into the business, but he’s stalled in life, unsure of his next move. Under stress, he assumes a kind of “disguise, the one he was born with, that made him look and sound like a man on the other side of middle age who didn’t have any use for conversation.”p. 214

As the novel progresses, Darnielle reveals glimpses of the troubling images appearing on films as varied in style and tone as “Targets,”√ a 1968√ Peter Bogdanovich√ thriller starring Boris Karloff√, and “She’s All That,”√ a silly teen romantic comedy from 1999√. The odd scenes spliced into those films include a shot that appears to show a trembling woman inside a shed with a canvas bag over her head. Those fragmented snippets call to mind the way Darnielle later describes how a car passenger sees cornfields as they “flicker against the window like stock footage” and cast “shadows in between the rows.”p. 100

“A few rows of corn will muffle the human voice so effectively that, even a few insignificant rows away, all is silence,” Darnielle writes. “To make yourself heard, you’d need something substantial: the roar of the combine harvester in autumn, mowing all of this to the ground.”p. 102

Brandon Eggleston John Darnielle

Darnielle lived for a time in Iowa√. In his book, the state is less a backdrop than a vital character, a place where “the wind comes across the plains not howling but singing. It’s the difference between this wind and its big-city cousins: the full-throated wind of the plains has leeway to seek out the hidden registers of its voice.”p. 113

If Darnielle had confined “Universal Harvester” to untangling the story of the altered films, he would have written a perfectly acceptable creepy mystery. Instead, he produces a much richer work that — without giving away too much — takes a long pause from the video mystery to delve into a poignant, multigenerational saga of religious obsession and its shattering consequences.

Religion has been a recurrent theme in Darnielle’s work. In 2009√, he released the album “The Life of the World to Come”√ with 12√ songs based on “hard lessons” he said he’d learned from Bible verses. In “Universal Harvester,” Darnielle pushes the reader to challenge notions about the practice of religion, its role in our lives and the space in which we seek to commune with a higher power. “What do you see in your head?” the narrator asks as the narrative veers into the church where Irene Sample, a mother searching for a new connection with her faith, goes to pray. “Are there candles? Stations of the cross?”p. 157

None of these exist in the storefront church next to an Army surplus shop where Irene challenges her own notions of religious practices and where she will make a fateful decision that changes her family’s life forever. The man at the lectern has a untrimmed beard, dirt beneath his fingernails and filthy tan pants. But he touches something deep inside her.

Beneath the eerie gauze of this book, I felt an undercurrent of humanity and hope. Fans of Darnielle’s prolific musical portfolio have a habit of trying to unpack his lyrics, searching for the message in the words he sings in that cracked and imperfect and jarringly honest voice. Look closely enough at “Universal Harvester,” and you’ll find the same layers of meaning. At their core, his characters are seekers. What moves them forward is that they believe they’ll find something. Something worthwhile. Something they need.

HELL NO: The Forgotten Power of the Vietnam Peace Movement

By Tom Hayden. Yale. 159 pp. $25. ISBN 978-0300218671

Reviewed by Sarah Jaffe

The United States has long had a problem with historical memory.

The protesters who recently flooded the country’s airports, in response to President Trump’s ban on refugees and travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries, carried handmade signs declaring the United States a nation of immigrants, and some of those signs took a longer view of the latest immigrant backlash. Some, for example, noted that the current wave of Islamophobia was ginned up after Sept. 11, 2001; others reminded viewers that there is already a border fence, begun in 1994 under President Bill Clinton. The urgency of the protests and the sense of violation engendered by Trump seem so immediate that we can feel disconnected even from the recent past, missing the threads of how we got here in the first place.

On the campaign trail last year, as Americans weighed who would be the next president, Bernie Sanders breached what often appears to be a silent understanding that politicians should not bring up history more distant than a year or two. His target: Hillary Clinton’s chummy relationship with Henry Kissinger, the architect of much of the Vietnam War. “I happen to believe that Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country,” Sanders declared.

The reaction to his comment was a stark reminder of our tendency toward historical amnesia. It was seen as almost rude to point out that past actions — actions that cost thousands of lives — have relevance today. Kissinger was just another elder statesman to be courted, while any discussion of his deeds was off-limits. For Sanders to disobey the dictum, made famous by Barack Obama but that certainly predates him — look forward, not backward — felt radical.

Tom Hayden’s final book, “Hell No: The Forgotten Power of the Vietnam Peace Movement,” is a strike against such forgetting. To remember the power of the movement, Hayden argues, is to remember that there were those who at the time accurately saw the Vietnam War for what it was. It is to remember that our actions have echoes, that our present is shaped by the choices of the past.

Hayden, who died Oct. 23, 2016, may have considered that this book would be landing in a United States that had just elected Donald Trump president. He certainly felt the urgency of his advancing age; it is palpable when he writes: “Who will tell our story when we are gone? So much has already escaped memory, and now the time to capture remembrance is rapidly passing.” After his death, with Trump in office, Hayden’s call to remember the value of resistance is even more poignant.

“Hell No” is brief yet rambling; reading it feels as if one is listening to Hayden reminisce, wandering backward and forward in time, recalling some events in great detail and others with the barest mention. For a book concerned with memory, perhaps its biggest flaw is that it tends to assume that Americans have a knowledge of their own history — that they know, for example, about the moratoriums, as those massive marches against the Vietnam War were called.

It’s understandable: U.S. politics continues to exist in the shadow of the 1960s. Figures like Hayden continue to play a strong role in discussions and debates, and for a while have been the generation with the money and the power. But the call to remember — taken up ably by many recently, including Greg Grandin with “Kissinger’s Shadow” and Penny Lewis with “Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks” — obscures the fact that these days, many of us never knew.

Hayden argues that the generalized disruption that the anti-war movement caused was akin to a general strike, a widespread refusal to take part in “the regnant political culture.” In particular, he draws on W.E.B. Du Bois’ argument that the refusal of enslaved people to work any longer under the Confederacy brought about victory for the Union in the Civil War. It’s a rather strained analogy, but it contains the seeds of an important lesson: Protest derives its power from its ability to halt business as usual. To shut down the war, the anti-war movement and the country as a whole had to become ungovernable.

In acknowledging this fact, Hayden does not shy away from the controversial and even violent tactics used to resist the war. He discusses the firebombing of ROTC offices; the attacking, known as “fragging,” of officers by troops serving in combat; and the urban rebellions of the period as part of the broader resistance to the war. The anti-war movement, in Hayden’s telling, is the overarching narrative that makes the ’60s make sense. “The tragedy of the anti-war movement was that the whole never grew to become greater than its parts,” he writes, acknowledging the splits within the movement along lines of class, race, gender and political ideology.

But in order to sweep up all of the threads of the 1960s and ’70s movements, he gives short shrift to the work by organizers around civil rights, Black Power, feminism and economic equality. However important the anti-war movement was, however much it served as an umbrella for the analysis of the New Left, it is as critical to remember the distinct movements against racism, poverty and exploitation as it is to remember the resistance to the Cold War consensus that a massive amount of blood was worth shedding to contain communism.

Some of that blood was shed at home, Hayden reminds us, as massive state power was expended to silence the movement. He details the trials of activists and whistleblowers, and does not let us forget the student protesters killed on their campuses, the police assaults, the growth of a massive surveillance apparatus that sees the general public as suspects to be spied upon.

It is not just the security state that is still with us, nor even just the specter of Kissinger looming over our foreign policy debates. Our past two secretaries of state and unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidates both appear in “Hell No”: John Kerry as a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and Clinton as a young protester finding her way. Their appearances feel elegiac in the wake of the election, serving not to remind the reader of a lost radical past but to underscore just how far from radicalism so many former peaceniks have come.

But honor is best given to the anti-war movement by those who take up its torch of resistance, and that is everywhere. Tactics such as student strikes and teach-ins have been revived in the days since Trump’s election, and millions took to the streets after his inauguration. We have seen once again the power of veterans’ protests as veterans traveled to Standing Rock to stand with the Native water protectors against the Dakota Access pipeline. Looking at this, it is a shame that in his meditative final chapter, Hayden does not spend more time connecting the dots between our recent age of protest and the one that formed him. Surely there are lessons from the Vietnam era for our own time of armored vehicles and tear gas on American streets.

Still, Hayden’s most important takeaway resonates powerfully today: “Of one lesson I have no doubt: peace and justice movements can make a difference.”

Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at the Nation Institute and the author of “Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt.”

(c) 2017, Washington Post Book World Service/

Washington Post Writers Group

About
The Washington Post Book World offers lively opinions of fiction and nonfiction, maintaining a balance between literary and commercial works, scholarship and journalism, seriousness and fun. Known for its wide-ranging tastes, which appeal to a broad spectrum of readers, BookWorld is one of the few stand-alone book review sections in the country.
The section is renowned for the quality of its reviewers and boasts two regular Pulitzer Prize-winning critics, Jonathan Yardley and Michael Dirda, as well as former editor Marie Arana. The list of distinguished writers who have appeared on its pages is long and diverse. Among past contributors: Margaret Atwood, David McCullough, A.S. Byatt, Michael Chabon, Umberto Eco, Edmund Morris, Alice McDermott, Joyce Carol Oates, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Lethem, Chimamanda Adichie, Stephen King, Geraldine Brooks, and many, many others.
Children's books are covered on a biweekly basis, and BookWorld also boasts monthly roundups of mysteries, science fiction, science, politics, and numerous other themes, as well as The Writing Life, a popular series by famous authors, writing about how they work. The BookWorld service also delivers forecasts of the spring and fall seasons, and special sections on holiday books and the Best Books of the Year.