Jennifer Spiegel is the author of 3 books: THE FREAK CHRONICLES, LOVE SLAVE, and AND SO WE DIE, HAVING FIRST SLEPT. CANCER, I'LL GIVE YOU ONE YEAR: A NON-INFORMATIVE GUIDE TO BREAST CANCER, A WRITER'S MEMOIR IN ALMOST REAL-TIME will be published by Wipf and Stock Publishers in 2020. It's not about eating kale. She is also half of Snotty Literati, a book-reviewing team with Lara Howard Smith. Please visit www.jenniferspiegel.com for additional information.
As it should happen on the wily worldwide web, some of my previously published book reviews disappeared forever and ever. I thought I'd post a few, not in order, in case you're looking for a good book. Below, you will find reviews for the following:
Bethlehem by Joan Didion
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels: All Four of Them
Lincoln in the Bardo
by George Saunders Just Kids by Patti
Born to Run by
Bethlehem by Joan Didion
I can't believe it took me so long to read (or listen to)
this! I’ve had this latent, mildly unkind disinterest in Didion’s work for a
dumb reason. I had to read one of her books in an undergrad class called
“Politics and the Novel” (I won’t tell you which one), and I guess I didn’t
like it. The class was taught by a Poli Sci prof who liked to read, rather than
a stuffy old English prof or a chic/smarmy writer-type: the course was a noble
endeavor, but somehow I missed out on the heart of the Didion conversation.
I listened to the audiobook of Slouching Towards Bethlehem with Diane Keaton narrating, and you
pretty much can't get any better than Keaton doing Didion.
This is an old book (published in 1968), and its episodic,
short, perceptive essays by a then-thirtysomething smart writer create, really,
this stunning portrait of California and the Sixties. The portrait is along the
lines of other literary portraits that capture cultural landscapes (The Great Gatsby?) or the
significance—this is so totally one of my favorite thematic preoccupations—of
place/geography (The Grapes of Wrath?).
It may feel dated to some readers, and it may seem historic to others. I think,
in truth, it’s both; this era is over. But Didion captured it!
You should watch Mad
Men around the same time that you're reading this to get its power in
Really, I just found myself wanting so very much to do what
Didion does here. She’d hang out on Haight-Ashbury; she’d talk to hippies on
drugs; she’d look into the life of Joan Baez. She’d talk to people involved in
love-turned-murder scandals. She’d contemplate the idolization of John Wayne.
Writers, this is why you have to get your hands on this old book.
It makes one want to write that kind of narrative nonfiction, simultaneously
invasive and private, poignant but kind, highly
articulate and observant. She is like some kind of undercover spy here, EXCEPT
SHE'S A WRITER!
The book’s title comes from the W. B. Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming (Slouching Towards
Bethlehem).” It might be worth reading it, as Didion does successfully capture
its sentiment in prose:
Turning and turning in the
The falcon cannot hear the
Things fall apart; the centre
Mere anarchy is loosed upon
The blood-dimmed tide is
loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is
The best lack all conviction,
while the worst
Are full of passionate
Surely some revelation is at
Surely the Second Coming is
The Second Coming! Hardly are
those words out
When a vast image out of
Troubles my sight: somewhere
in the sands of the desert.
A shape with lion body and
the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as
Is moving its slow thighs,
while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant
The darkness drops again; but
now I know
That twenty centuries of
were vexed to nightmare by a
And what rough beast, its
hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to
Some essays were more interesting than others. I’ll
highlight a few.
"Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream" is the opening
chapter. With a murder mystery at its center, it’s a kind of Stepford-Wives glimpse
into the secrets behind marriage and pretty lives and religion-gone-astray.
Didion writes, “This is the California where it is easy to Dial-A-Devotion, but
hard to buy a book.”
"On Keeping a Notebook" is my favorite. I. Can’t. Even. Required reading for all
writers. I really think she gets to the heart of the compulsion to write, or at
least a dimension of it, by acknowledging that she does it to know “how it felt
to be me.” This is a fairly profound admission: a lurid confession. Our claims
at documentation or reportage are shrouds, masks, shiny veneers we use to hide
"On Going Home" speaks, maybe, in a more universal
way to readers. While many of us are not writers, most of us have homes (for
better or for worse). In this, Didion writes about a visit with her husband and
daughter to her parents’ home in the Central Valley of California. What I
really loved about this piece was how she wrote of her husband’s sudden
displacement: “My brother does not understand my husband’s inability to
perceive the advantage in the rather common real-estate transaction . . . and
my husband in turn does not understand why so many of the people he hears about
in my father’s house have been committed to mental hospitals or booked on
"Rock of Ages" is a peek into Alcatraz in San
Francisco. It closed in March 1963, which has always seemed like ancient
history me. To Didion, writing in 1967, the mystery may not be so mythical—like
it is now. I found myself wanting to know what became of people she mentioned.
I thought about googling them; I didn’t. That happened at several points in the
book, though. She’d slip into a life with its occupant, and I’d be engaged—in
the ordinary. When she stopped writing, I’d be asking, “But what happened
"Goodbye to All That” is a love-hate song to New York. Damn, it’s a true essay! She writes, "I
was always there for just another few minutes." Tell me about it.
I'll carry parts of these essays with me forever.
"Writers are always selling somebody out," she writes, in the
Oh, and the Hughes essay made me think of Trump. So that
whole issue of this book being dated may be obsolete. History is repeating
itself? What goes around comes around?
The White Album: Essays calls to me.
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels: All Four of Them
My Brilliant Friend
(2012), The Story of a New Name (2013),
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014),
and The Story of the Lost Child (2015):
doesn’t this four-book-in-a-row thing blow you away?
My introduction to Ferrante came on the operating table,
minutes before I had both breasts cut off. Probably my most-trusted literary
confidante had told me to read Ferrante’s The
Days of Abandonment (2005), and—for some no-doubt predestined reason—that
was the book I took to the hospital to get a double mastectomy in the summer of
2015. I read parts of it, in a hospital gown with only socks on—no underwear.
The protagonist’s marriage was over. Reality, contorted. I woke up and read
again. My body, compromised.
At the time, I found her writing visceral, claustrophobic, beyond
definition. Cramped, as if I might hyperventilate.
I recovered—from surgery and Abandonment—and read the four Neapolitan novels, all translated by Ann
Goldstein. It wasn’t that I loved Abandonment
so much; rather, I kept hearing about “Ferrante Fever.” Apparently, “someone”
(a woman? a man? a consortium of Italians?), writing under the pseudonym of “Elena
Ferrante” was making the literary world reel. So I took the plunge. I read all
Guys, I caught the
The novels became both tiresome (all those character names,
like a crazy Russian novel!) and addictive (I couldn’t stop). Now, having
finished, what might I tell you about this author, and the ultimate meaning of
Ironically, I decided on a whim to ask “Elena Ferrante” to
write a blurb on the back of my unpublished novel. You know those blurbs,
right? Famous authors say something nice about your book: “Heartbreaking,
gut-wrenching, head-spinning . . .” – Jennifer Spiegel, author of The Great American Novel.
Why not ask Ferrante?
Because, really, wouldn’t Elena totally get my book?
I emailed her publisher. Literally, the next day, Elena’s
real identity was revealed. This was the biggest literary scandal since James
Frey made up parts of his 2003 memoir, A Million Little Pieces. My
timing was really, really bad. Some reporter-dude chose this week to unmask
her. Elena Ferrante never emailed me back.
But what of her books?
I wish I could put my finger on it. There was something
distinctly un-American about it. (The way translation affects a narrative and
the particular influence of Ann Goldstein is perpetually fascinating to me.) Sweeping? That sounds so Gone with the Wind, as does epic. Though it is, in fact, sweeping
and epic—covering the lives of two Italian girls (Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo)
from a poor neighborhood in Naples as they leave behind their 1950’s childhood:
sometimes they go to school; sometimes they fall in love with the same boy; sometimes
they leave everything and everyone for Rome or for Florence or even for Switzerland;
sometimes they dip into post-war politics and 1960’s social movements, flirting
with violent rebellion, risking jail; sometimes they marry brilliant academics
or neighborhood thugs, or they have illegitimate and legitimate children, or
they see their own mothers and fathers die. The major consistency in their
lives is their friendship, which plummets at times and soars at others. This is
the story about two women. (There was no way on earth, incidentally, that the
real Ferrante could’ve been a man.)
These never-ending books (too long?), with the careening prose (Rusty Reno, editor of First Things, described her prose as careening—and I thought that was
particularly descriptive) are about identity. The mysterious author, who seems
to be invariably obsessed with anonymity, wrote four tightly sequential novels
It’s also the story of a writer (Elena is the first-person
narrator and a successful author). Aren’t all writers obsessed with identity? While
one might read this for the portrayal of women, one might also read for the
landscape of the writer’s mind. Rule Number One when writing a book is this: Don’t make your character a writer. So
what does Elena Ferrante do? Of course she names her protagonist Elena and makes her a writer.
This book, for all its plotting (the girls grow up and get
old), is truly a questioning of self-identity. The protagonist asks, Who am I? Who is Lila? Who are we in
relationship to each other?
Towards the end of the Neapolitan novels, Elena suspects
that Lila has been secretly writing a book. Elena wonders: “To write you have
to want something to survive you. . .” Then, she ponders the possibility of
anonymity: “To carry out any project to which you attach your own name you have
to love yourself, and she had told me, she didn’t love herself . . .” What kind
of person writes a book? Why does someone write a book? For what end?
Throughout the novels, we are aware of the uniqueness of
Lila. She is implicitly superior to all. But we are also aware of her fear:
“That people, even more than things, lost their boundaries and overflowed into
shapelessness is what frightened Lila in the course of her life.” The loss of
boundaries. Fuzzy edges.
Lila wanted to disappear.
Is this fear resolved? I’ll whisper the answer to you: not so much.
But I was reading for other reasons.
I was reading for the study in identity, the attempts or
even failures in trying to know oneself or to know others. At times, the
scrutiny of personal motive was staggering. Truths about oneself can be
humiliating, and Elena Ferrante allowed her protagonist to be terribly—awfully—human.
Sometimes, the protagonist was a bad mother. Sometimes, she sought fame at the
expense of her children. Sometimes, she allowed a guy to walk all over her. I
found Ferrante honest.
Over and over, Elena circles around the same questions: Who am I? Who is Lila? Who are we in
relationship to each other? As I read the first novel, I wondered who was
the “Brilliant Friend”? Was it Elena, or was it Lila? And at the end, I was
still questioning: Who is the lost child?
For me, these explorations were enough to declare the Neapolitan
novels a success. A study of the self.
Lincoln in the Bardo
by George Saunders
I love George Saunders, and I’ll read anything he writes.
My review, in summary: he's brilliant, a genius even—but Lincoln in the Bardo, his first novel which
follows a stellar short story career, is more like an amazing exercise to be
appreciated and discussed, from somewhere below;
however, it failed to do what I personally like in a novel, which is for
someone else's story--besides mine!—to absorb me. That's a lot to ask, but I
often ask it. This explains my love of big, bulky stories like The Nix or The Goldfinch. Saunders offers fascinating ideas, brilliant
collaging, and great sentences—but I wasn’t overcome, and I wanted to be. Did I
step outside of myself and into the life of another, much like the Bardo
“ghosts” step into the lives of the living? Am I closer to the human
Let me quote my book-reviewing cohort at Snotty Literati,
Lara Howard Smith. We’ve tangled before on Saunders. I loved Tenth of December; she did not. When our bookish friends began
making a racket over the new novel, Lara grew strangely silent. I picked it up,
and found myself unpleasantly up against that, um, “Fourth Wall” (see below).
I talked to Lara. She said, “I think he's the Wes Anderson
of books. Super high-brow. Only accessible to literary elites.”
Then, I started to like it.
But I think there’s something to my original assessment: an
amazing exercise to be appreciated and discussed, from somewhere below. The entire time that we’re
engaged in the act of reading (it’s a quick read), we’re well-aware of the
distance between writer and reader, we’re well-aware of authorial finesse (there’s
plenty of it), we’re well-aware of the Fourth Wall (not to be confused with
What is this Fourth
Wall? It’s when the Artist “intrudes” consciously upon the real life of its
audience. Basically, the artificiality of the artistic act is acknowledged; the
artist “winks” at the audience; the suspension of disbelief is abolished. Examples
abound: The characters in The Office
give us a side glance. Lemony Snicket explains something. Ferris Bueller turns
to us. Death, the narrator, addresses the audience in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.
Is that what Saunders is doing? Maybe metafiction is a more useful term? A broken or intrusive fictional
artifice draws attention to the act of storytelling? A story about story? I was
always aware of narrative artifice and authorial control here.
But he’s a genius. One of my students quoted Arthur
Schopenhauer when I lamented my lack of engagement. Alex Ozers(!) suggested
that I wasn’t used to the form. “Talent
hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.”
Maybe I just didn’t see the target?
Consider the virtues, then.
Fascinating ideas. The story surrounds the Bardo, the
Buddhist intermediate state between life and death. Lincoln’s son has died and
his soul lingers in the Bardo with other souls who are not willing to move on
to some kind of Judgment Day—because they don’t want to admit that their dead.
Willie, Lincoln’s son, longs for his father. The main “ghosts” all have ties to
the earth that prevent them from “giving up the ghost,” so to speak. Hans
Vollman, a middle-aged guy who landed a young wife, was on the verge of consummating
his marriage when he died in a freak accident. (Instead of carrying around
shackles and chains, he is encumbered with an outrageous erection.) He doesn’t
want to let go of life! Roger Bevins III, a young gay man in Civil War America,
commits suicide—but changes his mind at the last minute. He wants to live! (He
becomes hyper-aware of life, with heightened senses.) The Reverend Everly
Thomas is afraid of death—and so he holds onto the misery of the Bardo. These
circumstances, of course, lend themselves to philosophical profundities.
Besides the Reverend’s poignant thoughts on religiosity,
there is the usual Saunders Comic Touch—demonstrated by two ghosts, a forgotten
academic and a forgotten pickle manufacturer, who are spending their Bardo eternity
by flattering each other. Professor Edmund Bloomer says, “At any rate, I thank
you, from the heart, for acknowledging that I was the foremost thinker of my
time. I feel some measure of redemption, having been at last recognized as the
finest mind in my generation.” Lawrence T. Decroix, his companion, says, “Thank
you so much, for saying my pickles were excellent. Thanks for saying that, of
all the pickles being made in the nation at that time, mine were, by far, the
best.” This is their hell.
There’s brilliant collaging. The novel is made up of
dialogue, monologues, and real and fictitious historical snippets. Good luck in
navigating what’s real and what’s not. If you’re a truth-monger, this might bug
you! Saunders acknowledges two sources: The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage
by Daniel Mark Epstein and Twenty
Daysby Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr. and Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt. This
mega-postmodern play on truth and history sent my head spinning. At times, Saunders
offers commentary on unreliable narrative (different sources interpret the same
thing differently). At times, the collaging adds layers to a story like never before.
But I’m so confused!
Finally, this is a
book of fine writing. Roger Bevins sees vivid details: “a sleeping dog
dream-kicking . . .”
Showing rather than
telling is the rule. Thomas Havens was a “good” slave. He didn’t seek freedom;
he rejoiced in his free-time (two hours on Wednesday afternoons and every third
Sunday): “ . . . I had my moments. My free, uninterrupted, discretionary
moments. Strange, though: it is the memory of those moments that bothers me the most. The thought, specifically,
that other men enjoyed whole lifetimes comprised of such moments.”
Death, be not proud,
culminating in the mysterious “matterlightblooming,” is wondrous on its most
We sit beneath the
Just Kids by Patti
Who isn’t listening to audiobooks these days? I was late, as
I am to many trends, as I was with Patti Smith. I think I only “discovered” her
in the nineties. Actually, I know exactly when and where I was. The nineties,
the East Village, a used record shop (are they still there?) Me, trying,
failing, to be cool. I bought Patti Smith’s Gone
Again. Hooked, ready for Horses.
I finally listened to Just
Kids, which is narrated by Smith. It’s extraordinary. Though the book
focuses on her relationship with Artist Robert Mapplethorpe (who, admittedly,
interests me considerably less), it was Smith who lulled me with her prose.
When poets commit to narrative, sometimes amazing things happen.
And since it looks like the Prez-elect has declared War on
the Arts, this book—already poignant to me—became, suddenly, culturally
poignant. How is a life in Art lived? What does it mean to be an Artist?
This book is really, truly the portrait of an artist as a
young woman. It feels like the beginnings to me, like the way it goes for those
with the compulsion to pursue the Crazy of Art. There’s more to it, and you can
bet I’ll be listening to M Train (listening because it’s also narrated by
Mapplethorpe died young. At 1989, he died of AIDS at the age
of forty-two. He got famous, and—this was something I didn’t love, though Smith
only speaks lovingly of him—his ultimate aim in the Arts seemed to be wealth
But Smith. Artist at Large. What happens to a young woman?
Would you believe that she was taking a bus to New York City,
leaving behind her family and factory jobs, having had a child which she gave
up for adoption and an awareness of some kind of artistic compulsion, and she
didn’t have enough money to pay the bus fare, so it was then that she found a
white purse—on top, I think, of the pay phone—with $32.00 in it? She took the
money, left the purse, and got on the bus—the rest is history.
She’s utterly likeable, speaking of her cigarette-smoking
mom standing over her when she said her nighttime prayers, recounting her
discovery of literature and art—seeing Picasso’s work in Philadelphia, telling
us about the time she stole a skating pin. She refers to Jim Morrison as a
“West Coast St. Sebastian,” noting that she looked upon him—when she saw him
live—with an admixture of disdain and admiration. He possessed both a sense of
self-loathing and supreme confidence; she also thought that she, too, could do
this. She prayed to save Robert’s soul; he prayed to sell his soul to the devil
(this is paraphrased). The book name-drops without meaning to name-drop: Andy
Warhol, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan.
And the New York of it! They, like, really lived in the Chelsea hotel (which only has one-hundred
rooms?). She describes it as being like a dollhouse in the Twilight Zone. But
so much of New York is brought to life here: Coney Island, Andy Warhol’s clubs,
diners, donut shops, Brooklyn apartments, flea bag hotels. Parts of Paris too.
Did you know that Smith loved the Rolling Stones? She cut
her hair like Keith Richards, saying goodbye to her folk era-do, and someone
asked her if she were androgynous. She thought it meant ugly and beautiful at
the same time. So she said yes. Soon after, she began writing song lyrics
Someone told her: You don’t shoot up and you’re not a
lesbian, what do you do?
Mapplethorpe said to her, “Patty, you got famous before me.”
The fame was secondary to the Art of it. She’s a wonder.
And if we’re really at war, stand by the poets.
Born to Run by
Bruce likes to write.
Actually, Bruce loves
Over 500 pages, this memoir covers a lot. From his Italian/Irish/Working Class/Catholic/Crazy
Dad/Longsuffering Mom/Freehold, New Jersey childhood to his happily-married/empty
nest/post-Clarence Clemons/horseback-riding sixties. Bruce is headed into old
age, my friends.
The Word on the Street: Springsteen wrote the whole thing
himself, by longhand, over the course of seven years. I believe it. Typically,
I’m mildly cynical about “celebrity memoirs”—but the book is so wonderfully Springsteen-esque,
which is to say it’s rambling, poetic, repetitive, heartbreaking, a little
longish, sometimes profound, and totally engaging. A ghostwriter wouldn’t have
lingered so long over every single album. Every.
Single. Album. (I highly recommend the audiobook because Bruce narrates it;
however, I’d be listening and he’d say, “Chapter Fifty-three . . . Chapter
Sixty-seven . . . Chapter Nine Thousand.”)
Everyone has a Springsteen story. I have three or four. My
cousin—who morphed, oddly, into a Trump-supporter!—first exposed me to
Springsteen as an antidote to my Rick Springfield passion (why did all of my
musical taste grow out of some kind of opposition to youthful fancies—is it
like that for everyone?). I like to also pretend that we named our daughter
after “Born to Run”:
“Wendy let me in I wanna be your friend/
I want to guard your dreams and visions”
But this isn’t true. I also like to pretend that we named
her after Wendy Darling in Peter Pan.
Also not true. We just liked it. After 9/11, when Bruce went on tour for The Rising with the E. Street Band, my
mom and I saw him on August 25, 2002—about a month after my father died—so it
was a special admixture of tributes and memorials that imprinted on our lives.
Finally, my husband and I ventured out to see Bruce play solo in the Devils and Dust Tour in 2005. We
obviously didn’t have kids yet. Those are my stories.
But the book . . .
If you’re a Bruce Springsteen fan, you’ll love it. Bruce
loves to write, but he can write. In
his music, he takes to heart Bob Dylan’s adage that he quotes: one is “not just
writing about SOMETHING but writing about EVERYTHING.” This explains why
the Springsteen songbook is deep and wide. This already-famous passage is how
he opens his memoir: “I come from a
boardwalk town where almost everything is tinged with a bit of fraud. So am I.
By twenty, no race-car-driving rebel, I was a guitar player on the streets of
Asbury Park and already a member in good standing amongst those who ‘lie’ in
service of the truth ... artists with a small 'a.' But I held four clean aces.
I had youth, almost a decade of hard-core bar band experience, a good group of
homegrown musicians who were attuned to my performance style and a story to
But Bruce becomes
an artist with a big “A,” and that’s the draw of the book. He is well-versed in
his medium, looking to Dylan, Presley, Woody Guthrie, Frank Sinatra and so many
others. Dylan, already mentioned, informs his songwriting: “’Like a Rolling
Stone’ gave me the faith that a true, unaltered, uncompromised vision could be
broadcast to millions, changing minds, enlivening spirits, bringing red blood
to the anemic American pop landscape and delivering a warning, a challenge that
could become an essential part of the American conversation. This was music
that could both stir the heart of your fellow countrymen and awaken the mind of
a shy, lost fifteen-year-old in a small New Jersey town.”
uncompromising part. Bruce Springsteen reveals himself to be . . . wait for it
. . . a control freak. In his approach to music, he is “primally
unmovable”—as he puts it. He really is The Boss, even among musical giants like
Steven Van Zandt and the late Clarence
Clemons. He’s in charge, and you can tell.
There’s also a lot
of ego here.
I’ll tell you what,
though: I’m terribly forgiving of this kind of uncompromising, and this kind of
ego. In other words, I think artistic vision and artistic ego is, well, special.
Springsteen, from early on (he doesn’t even read music!), had a sense of his
own ability and greatness. He talks a lot about it. My response: So what?
He is pretty great.
My favorite parts
--how he talks
about his wife, Patti Scialfa
--how he talks
about Stevie (there’s a great scene in which they’re thrown out of Disneyland
for wearing bandanas) and Clarence (Clemons’ death is particularly poignant)
-- seeing Elvis's
debut on The Ed Sullivan Show
--his discussion of
“Born in the U.S.A.”
--pretending to be mentally ill
to get out of Vietnam draft (really!)
--his admission to lifelong
depression, which—at times—is debilitating.
--his take on
playing the Super Bowl
But there are three
other things to mention.
This is a
father-haunted narrative. Springsteen, like many of us, is forever dealing with
his own parental heritage. I was particularly struck by the part about how his
father “hid” his mother, refusing to show his love for her in public—and how
this hiding impacted Bruce’s own ability to love his wife before others.
This is also well-written
prose: “She was Italian, funny, a beatific tomboy, with just the hint of a lazy
eye, and wore a pair of glasses that made me think of the wonders of the
library.” There are, probably literally, a million examples of linguistic
Finally, this is
sometimes human and humorous. When the Northridge earthquake hits with
its days and days of aftershocks, Patti wants to leave California. He told her,
“We can brave it out.”
She responded, “You
brave it out. I’ve got three kids . . .”
I liked this memoir. As with his hours-long concert, you’re
satisfied when it’s over.