With a title like The Year of Endless Sorrows, one would expect the new novel by Adam Rapp to be anything but a pick-me-up. Thankfully, the "Midwesterner in Manhattan" chronicle is more humorous than heavy, offering plenty of colorful characters and crazy situations. Rapp excels at detailing the 1990s East Village setting and doesn't use the bohemian backdrop to obsess over drug addiction, alt-sexuality and AIDS. Instead, he focuses on the protagonist's attempt to shed an Iowan identity and adapt to Alphabet City. The never-named narrator (a composite of Midwestern qualities) quickly finds financial woes, as well as an unwanted roommate. "The Loach," more of a couch fungus than a companion, summons some disgusting imagery. Longwinded litanies about "continent-shaped pit stains" grow tiresome. But even if Rapp overdoes description at times, he succeeds with nostalgia, citing "forest rain" and "gerbil-terrarium mulch" to recall the scent of a childhood sofa. He also succeeds with office satire. The quirky coworkers planted in our narrator's path are hysterical -- especially when they're drunkenly dancing at the annual Christmas party. Substantial storylines eventually emerge when our protagonist strives to pen his first novel and to pin down his first love -- a Polish actress with perfect hands. Somewhere between climax and conclusion, however, the novel loses comic relief and its title starts to make sense. Despite this sudden shift, Rapp remains focused on a few good themes: sanity vs. insanity, creative expression vs. the cubicle, lust vs. love and the big question: "cornfield complacency or bohemian Big Apple?" That answer differs for every Midwesterner, but most -- especially Cincinnatians with stars in their eyes -- will find familiarity somewhere in these 400 pages. (Sarah Laubacher) Grade: B
JAMES SCHIFF -- UPDIKE IN CINCINNATI: A LITERARY PERFORMANCE (OHIO UNIVERSITY PRESS)
This is a curious book.
It will be read word for word by the legion of John Updike fans and ignored by everyone else. James Schiff, University of Cincinnati professor of English and host to Updike for two crammed-full days here in the spring of 2001, has gathered into a book the record of these spoken sessions with a master of the written word. The written-word master also turns out to be quick on his feet. Although today's authors, like their 19th-century predecessors, are speaking-circuit regulars, their press coverage has shrunk. Schiff's decision to publish Updike in Cincinnati is to fill that gap. Aside from prepared segments from the four sessions (three on the UC campus and one at the Mercantile Library), Schiff's material on hand included "approximately 80 pages of impromptu remarks from one of the most distinguished American writers of the latter half of the 20th century." I had the good fortune to attend all four sessions and can report that Updike impromptu is remarkable. Here, in print, is that clever man dancing around an audience question couched in a baseball analogy that references Pete Rose and the Baseball Hall of Fame which concerns Updike never having received the Nobel Prize. Updike responds with an extemporaneous, philosophical and very knowing take on baseball history, including the Black Sox scandal, only to be interrupted by the questioner: "But what about the Nobel Prize?" Updike replies, "I would not mind seeing Shoeless Joe Jackson get the Nobel Prize" and moves smoothly on. He tells us about titles ("shorter is better") and that his writing is "composed really in a rather desperate fashion." You'd never know that by reading his work. (Jane Durrell) Grade B+
SUSIE BRIGHT -- THE BEST AMERICAN EROTICA 2007 (TOUCHSTONE)
What turns people on is highly subjective, but we're in pretty good hands with longtime erotic short story editor Susie "Sexpert" Bright: She has harvested a collection all-embracing in content, theme and style while (mostly) sidestepping cliché. This series' 13th volume collection succeeds best as a literary testament to the wild diversity of sexuality. Diving into each author's adventure, you have no idea what you're into until you're knee-deep in it, for better or for worse. The book's apparent aim of striving to contain a flavor to satisfy everyone ultimately becomes its weakness -- it's rather jarring reading one right after the next. Readers are flung from a married couple's living out the husband's cuckold fantasy to a lurid batch of Internet reviews of a disturbed young street hustler's tricks. A seemingly lost, barely pubescent girl turns out to be a vampire, sinking her teeth into the neck of a would-be adult rescuer in his car. During an innocuous family camping trip, a mother's sexuality is rekindled via witnessing her adult daughter and girlfriend's canoodling. Then it's off to a Washington, D.C., nightclub and coke-driven after-party, and so on. Still, most are well written and compelling, with some more explicit than others. "The Rock Wall" stands out with darkly poetic musings rich in grippingly visceral metaphors: "I'm tired of being a wide-eyed waif always scrambling over walls where there are more walls and more slippery rocks and more places to bruise and nowhere good to land." And the story's overtones of S&M role-playing come out, "I hate how Daddy makes me sputter inarticulate phrases so that I choke out sounds that have nothing to do with theory." "Blue Star" recounts a touching, memorable encounter between an underage beachside tattoo artist and his woman patron with realistic detail, including relatable awkward moments -- along with a little blood. I was disappointed that few raised my pulse, yet most were entertaining, some fascinating and a couple even troubling. Keep it bedside for a nightly dose of diversity -- or curiosity, one tale at a time. (Julie Mullins) Grade: B
VICTORIA GLENDINNING -- LEONARD WOOLF: A BIOGRAPHY (FREE PRESS)
Leonard Woolf is best known as the long-suffering husband of Virginia Stephen Woolf, a member of the Bloomsbury group and co-founder of the Hogarth Press -- which published many of Virginia's early works -- a staunch socialist and an elder of the British Labour party. In Glendinning's thoroughly researched and accessible biography, Leonard emerges as no less a complex personality than his more famous wife, and even more devoted to her and her work. After graduating from Cambridge University, Woolf spent seven years as an administrator in colonial Ceylon becoming thoroughly disillusioned with British imperialist policy. When he married Virginia shortly after his return, her alarming incidents of mental collapse were no secret. His care of her and appreciation for her work are remarkable: Hogarth Press was as much occupational therapy as an outlet for her writing. An ardent feminist and socialist, Woolf was an important figure in politics as well as literature and art, forging deep friendships with John Maynard Keynes, T. S. Eliot and E. M. Forster. Glendinning presents fascinating accounts of Woolf's childhood and adolescence, the Bloomsbury group's relationships and the social disruptions of World War I and World War II. (Anne Arenstein) Grade: A