Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Just three days into NaNoWriMo — and, as my stats show, I’ve kept up so far — and the very act of amateur novel writing is under attack from Salon’s Laura Miller. In a column yesterday she argued that National Novel Writing Month amounts to “a lot of crap.” It’s not apt to produce many highly literary works, she says, noting that publishers cringe upon seeing the term “NaNoWriMo” dotting hastily written cover letters each December.

That’s fair — most of the novels, mine surely to be included, probably aren’t stellar. “The last thing the world needs is more bad books,” Miller writes. Frankly, more bad books are hardly the last thing the world needs, and such blatant hyperbole indicates perhaps she suffers from a narrow worldview. Miller’s unspoken assumption here is that bad literature is inherently worthless both to society at large and to the writer or artist. To presume the production of bad art (and here, of course, we ignore the much stickier argument of what “good” and “bad” art are) has no purpose is both outrageous and short-sited. It’s a cliché, to be sure, but practice makes perfect has a great deal of truth to it.

To prove Miller’s folly, let’s explore an analogy. Food and culinary concerns apply to all people, just as reading and writing do. In this metaphor, fine literature is fine cuisine, junk novels are junk food and the rest falls somewhere in between. There are increasingly more people who never cook — and by cook I mean actually combining ingredients and following instructions to produce a balanced yet satisfying meal, not heating a frozen pizza or slapping together a quick sandwich. There are also some people who generally eat dinner out, consuming the word of a professional. The rest of us enjoy some combination of eating out and cooking ourselves. My chicken cacciatore may not be as decadent as Mrs. Robino’s or even Olive Garden, but by Miller’s argument rather than preheat my oven I should simply eat out all the time where I can enjoy a well-prepared meal.

In the same vein, there’s no point running a marathon because tens of thousands of other people run marathons all the time; quilting hobbyists might as well just buy a professionally manufactured quilt; cellists should retire their bows because they likely will never be as talented as Yo-Yo Ma; and philatelists should just visit the National Postal Museum every once in a while because that’s how the professionals do it.

Fortunately, poor quality isn’t Miller’s primary gripe with NaNoWriMo. “But even if every one of these 30-day novelists prudently slipped his or her manuscript into a drawer, all the time, energy and resources that go into the enterprise strike me as misplaced.” NaNoWriMo targets writers, she says, forgetting to clarify that the real targets are non-writers seeking a challenge.

Miller is also extremely worried that some NaNoWriMo participants don’t consider themselves great readers.

Yet while there’s no shortage of good novels out there, there is a shortage of readers for these books. Even authors who achieve what probably seems like Nirvana to the average NaNoWriMo participant — publication by a major house — will, for the most part, soon learn this dispiriting truth: Hardly anyone will read their books and next to no one will buy them. …

Rather than squandering our applause on writers — who, let’s face, will keep on pounding the keyboards whether we support them or not — why not direct more attention, more pep talks, more nonprofit booster groups, more benefit galas and more huzzahs to readers? Why not celebrate them more heartily? They are the bedrock on which any literary culture must be built. After all, there’s not much glory in finally writing that novel if it turns out there’s no one left to read it.

What Miller fails to recognize is that the drive to read and the drive to write originate from different sources; writing is creative while reading is consumptive, and the two energies are not necessarily transferable. Some people, like Miller says, write but never read, and their work probably reflects that lack of broad experience. But conversely, there are probably far more people who read but never write, and most likely their reading experiences would be enhanced by a greater, more personal understanding of the writing process. As usual, the most beneficial mix seems to lie somewhere in the middle, wherein one both reads and writes.

The personal enrichment that can come from writing — and quilting and stamp collecting and marathon running and cello playing — transforms a world of consumers into a world of creators, where the simple act of trying is laudable in and of itself. It’s a world more open to new ideas and contributions from outside the establishment. I’ll take 21,683 crappy novels over one arrogant column any day.


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Dear ACG Blog readers,

Today is November 1, and this year I’ve pledged to complete NaNoWriMo. If you haven’t heard of it, NaNoWriMo — short for National Novel Writing Month, aka November — is a massive worldwide creative writing project sponsored and promoted by a non-profit organization, the Office of Letters and Lights. 2010 is the twelfth NaNoWriMo. In 2009 about 170,000 people wrote 2.4 billion words.

The goal is for each participant to write at least 50,000 words in the 30 days of November, averaging 1,667 words per day. That’s around 7 double-spaced pages in Microsoft Word. You can’t start earlier, and in order to “win” you must finish by 11:59 p.m. November 30. There is no real prize for winners other than the pride that comes with completing so Herculean a task. The 50,000 threshold isn’t necessarily the end of the novel — participants are free to go on writing, either before or after November 30. 50,000 words makes for a fairly short novel, but is well above the 40,000 limit for novellas; furthermore, “The Great Gatsby” and “Brave New World,” among others, are approximately 50,000 words long, proving a good novel can be that length.

Participants can write in any genre: science fiction, romance, historical, etc. I plan on writing literary fiction, but that, of course, can change. It’s also true that many most of the novels written for NaNoWriMo are bad. The quantity-over-quality approach at first seems antithetical to promoting creativity, but the organizers say it forces an abstract plan into real action, helps promote amateur novel-writing and in any event is “art for art’s sake.”

I’m telling you all this, readers, for two reasons. First, NaNoWriMo is a significant investment not only of time but also of creative energy. For that reason, you will almost certainly see a drop in output from this blog. I pledge to continue the daily Morning Briefing and of course will post new recipes every Sunday. The regular posts of this blog, however, will likely cut back a bit. I do plan to continue writing, but the posts will be briefer or farther apart than usual.

Second, putting this plan out there, on the internet, creates some accountability. I tried NaNoWriMo once, in high school, and for a number of reasons I stopped after about three days. I also took a creative writing seminar in college and found it to be one of the most challenging courses I ever took. Looking ahead for this month, there’s a significant portion near the end, a perfect storm of Thanksgiving and a wedding, that I anticipate may limit my writing time, and I am hoping to work ahead through the first few weeks to create a respectable word buffer in case I’m unable to write in those critical final days.

Therefore, I’m telling you about my plans and, at the end of the month, will tell you whether I succeeded or failed, and why. In the meantime, you can track my progress here on this blog, in widgets at the top of the right-hand navigation bar. The calendar, I believe, will be varying shades of green or red depending on how close I am to my daily 1,667-word goal. You can also check out my NaNoWriMo profile, which includes my most recent word count and information about myself and my novel (which as of this writing, 11:30 p.m. Sunday, is completely unplanned). If you too are participating in NaNoWriMo, let’s be writing buddies and help each other through this challenging but rewarding month.

Thank you for your understanding and support.

Alex Guillén
The ACG Blog

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Writing a good addiction memoir is difficult — or maybe it’s reading an addiction memoir that’s difficult, at least for non-addicts. The line between drug-induced hallucination and psychotic episode is blurry, and sympathizing with the addict in question, while of course eschewed in public, is surprisingly difficult in private, where one is certain that could never happen.

“Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man” (ignore the pompous title; a Künstlerroman this is not) is Bill Clegg’s attempt at an addiction memoir. At points engaging, even engrossing, something nevertheless seems off about the entire venture. Could it be because Clegg is a successful literary agent rather than a life-long writer? ‘Portrait’ isn’t without merit, but despite its occasional literary flair remains unsatisfactory and ultimately unconvincing.

Clegg was a young, handsome, successful literary agent in New York; he had his own agency, a dedicated boyfriend and $70,000 in his checking account. Oh, and a healthy crack habit. It had apparently been manageable for a time, but ‘Portrait’ recounts his two-month binge in which he blows his bank account on an unholy amount of crack, cirrhotic gallons of vodka, various hookers and rooms at all of Manhattan’s upscale hotels. Actually, it’s the hotels — the W, the Gansevoort, a place called the Giraffe — that set ‘Portrait’ apart from grittier addict memoirs like James Salant’s “Leaving Dirty Jersey” or James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” (quasi-fictional as it is). Clegg’s binge in no way can be called gritty; in fact, short the burn scars on his hands from hot stems and the rapid weight loss that required half a dozen new holes punched in his belt, Clegg’s adventure could almost be mistaken an expensive mental breakdown. His drugs are brought to his rooms by dealers; he can pick up men on the street simply by asking if they “party,” lingo for users; when he becomes too gaunt for his old sweater he buys one from Saks so as not to look so obviously like a crackhead.

The binge is entertaining enough, and at times Clegg’s prose even displays some literary intelligence — his line about the first time he tried crack, for instance: “It is the warmest, most tender caress he has ever felt and then, as it recedes, the coldest hand.” Most of the time, however, his writing is merely competent exposition or, even worse, forced prosaic device, as if he had read about cut-up technique and just had to try it. Perhaps even more strangely, for a book about heightened sensory detail through illegal drugs, Clegg generally steers clear of description and sensation. Expensive lunches with high-powered authors go unrecounted; physical sensation, including sex, remains vague and indiscriminate; architectural sketches remain sterile. If this was Clegg’s intention, an attempt to put focus on the crack itself, he fails; so much time is spent describing the minute hand movements of cab drivers ‘Portrait’ begins to read more like an absurdly extensive screenplay rather than a poignant memoir.

Clegg’s crack-induced paranoia is probably the most engaging part of ‘Portrait.’ Almost unfailingly Clegg mistakes passersby for undercover DEA agents, cab drivers as part of an elaborate plot to capture him, flashing lights as spy cameras gathering evidence. Waiting for a plane to take off, for instance, Clegg suddenly suspects the entire aircraft is a set-up, and asks the flight attendant if the scheme isn’t a little overboard to nab one user. Post-9/11, she is concerned, and the captain removes Clegg from the plane. “I notice his jacket, its hokey military mimicry — epaulets, stripes. Like everything else on the plane, his uniform — shabby compared to the memory of my father’s — looks like a flimsy, slapped-together costume.” Notably, he never realizes, at the time, at least, that his paranoia is a symptom; instead, he merely flees the situation and momentarily regains some mental composure.

Adding to the confusion are Clegg’s haphazard and inconclusive flashbacks to childhood. He seems to be grasping at straws when it comes to identifying the root causes of his addiction, binge and downfall. Is it his brusque, gruff father (a TWA pilot, as previously noted), who never showed Clegg real affection? Maybe his distant mother? His college-age coming out, which doesn’t come across as overly distressing? Clegg seems to most blame his addiction on a weird and poorly described bout of urinary problems that required him to dance and shout and which left blood stains on his underwear and which typically went unremarked upon by his mother. Clegg succeeds in portraying the urination trouble painfully, but blanches from anything close to a diagnosis or explanation. Despite these childhood traumas, Clegg seems unaware of his greatest problem, the insecurity that seems to trigger his addiction; in multiple offhanded comments, Clegg notes that he never felt adequate professionally, that despite his wild success he lived every day fearing that someone would discover he knows less about literature than he lets on. “I am not nearly as bright or well read or business savvy or connected as I think people imagine me to be.” This fear seems to be the culmination of some kind of inferiority complex, and Clegg plays right into it throughout the entire book, even at the end, never seeing or admitting the true roots of his addiction problems.

Of course, Clegg’s blindness is understandable, empathetic even. Whether an addict recognizing the former terrors of their crashing lives or the sober vowing never to end up blowing $70,000 on crack, few, if any, ever truly understand our own difficulties and obsessions. Clegg’s portrait may be incomplete, but a good deal about him and about the psychology of addiction can be gleaned from those brushstrokes he has managed to put down.

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The Forbidden Experiment has long tantalized linguists, anthropologists and psychologists for the possible insights into the human mind and sociality it could uncover. The experiment involves raising a child in isolation to study how his or her mind develops in the absence of other people; it is forbidden, of course, because of the moral and ethical concerns of depriving a child in such a way.

The plot of Emma Donoghue’s “Room” isn’t quite the Forbidden Experiment, but it comes close, and she executes the fiction as well as any hypothetical or thought experiment could be expected. The narrator is Jack, who turns five years old in the first pages. It quickly becomes apparent that something is not quite right in his world; inanimate objects are referred to as proper nouns: Wardrobe, Bed, Plant, Meltedy Spoon. When Ma, Jack’s mother, points out snow on Skylight that’s blocking “God’s yellow face,” Jack says, “There’s a little bit of light at Skylight’s top, the rest of her is all dark. TV snow’s white but the real isn’t, that’s weird.”

Filtered through the innocent Jack’s perception, subtle clues and hints begin to add up to a sinister image. There’s no way to discuss the novel without revealing the basic premise, but the novel’s conceit is quickly expunged and so little is lost by a brief description. Jack casually illustrates details and daily routines with Ma that don’t quite add up: he clearly believes all reality exists within the 11-by-11-foot room they occupy; Scream, when they both yell at the top of their lungs and then listen closely (“You never know,” Ma says, the explanation slipping off Jack like he’s made of Teflon); Jack occasionally wakes at night to Ma flicking Lamp on-off-on-off-on-off, clearly signaling for help through Skylight.

Over many pages what is cleverly revealed is that Ma (real name unknown) was kidnapped seven years ago at the age of 19 and locked by her captor, known only as Old Nick, in a soundproof, escape-proof shed in his backyard. The skylight includes a shatter-proof mesh. The floors cover a chain link fence that makes digging out impossible. The door is operated by an electronic keypad, and Old Nick isn’t sharing the code. Descriptions of their captor coming to rape Ma almost every night — an act, thankfully, not at all understood by Jack, who hides in Wardrobe — are disturbing enough until one does the math and realizes that Old Nick must be Jack’s biological father.

Soon enough Ma makes it clear that they aren’t safe any longer because their captor lost his job and has been unable to find new work. Keeping up a backyard prison while feeding two mouths, even when you undernourish them, is costly, and Ma fears the bank foreclosing his house because Nick would then be forced to kill them. Despite the obvious horrors they face, Donoghue makes identifying with the child narrator not only easy but compulsory. Jack is impressively optimistic, obviously a byproduct of his youthful innocence and yet a trait that makes him honestly endearing. In fact, Jack’s comfort in Room is so sympathetic Ma’s talk of escape begins to sound both nutty and frightening. Leaving Room means leaving behind literally the only place he has lived in his entire life, as well as the cast of objects for which he has created supplementary personalities. Room (and “Room”) are claustrophobic and claustrophilic simultaneously.

“Room” is deceptively simple. Even throwaway details inform the deeply empathic story. In one sense “Room” is about the choices an imprisoned mother must make; as she notes when defending raising Jack to believe the universe consists solely of Room, what was she supposed to tell him, a whole fun world existed but that he could have no part in it? That lie, as much as it was meant to protect Jack, also served to protect Ma. Making Jack believe the images on TV are not real (including Dora the Explorer, Jack’s favorite cartoon, as apparently Dora is the favorite even of unsocialized, imprisoned children) limits their worldview to Room, and thus limits the anxiety and despair that would come with a full realization of their situation.

Donoghue’s prose seems crude and reductionist at times, but it is a true challenge to write earnestly and authentically in a child’s voice — especially one in so psychologically unusual a condition. The language Jack develops is also insufficient to properly describe the world at large and his experiences in it, but again this only serves to reflect Jack’s alien feelings toward the world. “Room” presents an allegory — personal, political, societal — wherein the past seems idyllic but in truth was dangerous and disturbing. Nevertheless, we, like Jack and Ma, have to move forward into a world that’s larger than we can imagine, one frightening in its diversity and seeming infinity but a world ultimately safer and healthier than our limited origins.

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After all the speculation and betting, the Nobel Committee once again did not choose from the top of the popular pack, instead announcing this morning that Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, teaching at Princeton this semester, has won 2010’s Nobel Prize for Literature.

The 74-year-old author of more than 30 novels, plays and essays said, “It was a big, big surprise,” Vargas Llosa told NPR. “For a moment, I thought this could be a joke.” He is the first Spanish-language writer to win the prize since Mexican Octavio Paz in 1990.  

Vargas Llosa has long been active politically, like many other literature Nobel laureates, finding fame in “The Time of the Hero,” a novel based on his experiences at a controversial military academy his father sent him to after catching Vargas Llosa writing poetry. In 1990, Vargas Llosa ran for Peru’s presidency, starting off strong in the polls but ultimately losing to Alberto Fujimori. Some factors working against him, the Times noted, included “his aristocratic bearing in impoverished Peru and his acknowledgment at one point in the race that in the largely Roman Catholic country, he was an agnostic.”

His public image doesn’t end there, however. As the Wall Street Journal reports, Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a fellow Latin American writer and Nobel laureate, came to blows in 1976.

At a movie premiere in Mexico City in 1976, Vargas Llosa greeted García Márquez, who would win the Nobel Prize six years later, with a right hook that knocked the Colombian author in what became a scandal in Latin American literary circles.

Before the punch the two writers were dear friends, with García Márquez serving as godfather for Vargas Llosa’s second son who was also named Gabriel after the Colombian author of “One Hundred Years Of Solitude.”

The blow sparked one of the most famous feuds in modern literature. Both authors have towered over the Latin American literary world for decades yet they seat at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, with Vargas Llosa fighting for free-market economic policies and espousing a conservative agenda while García Márquez continues to defend the Cuban revolution.

The two authors have never discussed the scuffle publicly, sparking endless speculation about the motives behind Vargas Llosa’s attack. By most accounts, however, it was not politics that ended their friendship, but matters of the heart involving a woman.

However, as he told NPR, Vargas Llosa is not comfortable using literature as a political soapbox.

Let me say first that, although it is true that I have been participated in the political debate since I was young, I think it is very dangerous to use literature as a vehicle to promote political ideals. I think it is very risky because literature can become propaganda, and literature and propaganda are totally incompatible. I think literature can use politics, but that politics shouldn’t use literature, because if it does, it destroys literature. So, when I want to make a political statement, I write an essay, I write an article, or I give a lecture. I think that literature is something that embraces a much larger experience than politics. It’s an expression of what is life, of what are all the dimensions of life. But politics is one among others.

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The Nobel Prize in Literature is set to be announced tomorrow (medicine, physics and chemistry having been announced already this week) and speculation is running rampant about who will take the medal this year.

As of this writing, betting website Ladbrokes has American Cormac McCarthy (“No Country For Old Men,” “The Road”) leading the pack at 5/2 odds. This is fairly remarkable as the last American to win a literature Nobel was Toni Morrison in 1993, and it may be due to an anti-American bias. In 2008, Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Nobel prize jury, dropped an “extraordinary tirade” against contemporary American literature.

Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can’t get away from the fact that Europe still is the centre of the literary world … not the United States. … The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.

In the last decade the United Kingdom has lead the pack, with three laureates, V.S. Naipaul, Harold Pinter and Doris Lessing. France sort of garnered two, with J.M.G. Le Clezio and the Chinese-born immigrant Gao Xingjian. One each went to Hungary (Imre Kertesz), South Africa (J.M. Coetzee), Austria (Elfriede Jelinek), Turkey (Orhan Pamuk) and Germany (Huerta Muller).

Who are the other major contenders this year? The Guardian is betting on Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who was imprisoned in 1977 for performing his play “I Will Marry When I Want.” The L Magazine largely agrees, noting that Cormac McCarthy has shot up in the odds because “he’s the one author anybody’s heard of.” According to NPR, the Ladbrokes people originally decided this was the year of the poet, and ranked Sweden’s Thomas Transtromer, Syria’s Adonis and Korea’s Ko Un at the top and Ngugi wa Thiong’o at 75 to 1 odds. The poets now go for 17 to 1, 13 to 1 and 12 to 1, respectively.

Others to keep an eye on include:

  • Japanese writer Haruki Murakami (“Kafka on the Shore,” “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”), who would be the first Japanese winner since Oe Kenzaburo in 1994, currently at 6 to 1 odds
  • Hungarian Peter Nadas (“The End of a Family Story,” “Own Death”), 9 to 1
  • Australian Gerald Murnane (“Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs,” “Velvet Waters”), who would be the first Australian winner since Patrick White in 1973, 12 to 1
  • American Joyce Carol Oates (“We Were the Mulvaneys,” “them”), a perennial shortlister, 18-1

Finally, some of the long shots:

  • Irishman John Banville (“The Book of Evidence,” “The Sea”), 125 to 1
  • Norwegian Kjell Askildsen (“Mister Leonard Leonard,” “Everyday”), 125 to 1
  • Australian Peter Carey (“Oscar and Lucinda,” “True History of the Kelly Gang”), 125 to 1
  • Grecian-Frenchman Vassilis Alexakis (“Les mots étrangers,” “Le fils de King Kong”), 125 to 1
  • American William H. Gass (“Omensetter’s Luck,” “The Tunnel”) 125 to 1
  • Russian Yevgeny Yevtushenko (“Walk on the Ledge,” “Don’t Die Before You’re Dead”), 200 to 1

You can keep up with the odds until the prize is announced tomorrow morning at Ladbrokes.

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These days more and more people are overweight, but most of us don’t like to talk about it. Former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni, however, is eager recount being “born round,” a favorite saying of his immigrant Italian grandmother, in his delicious memoir “Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater.”

Bruni can hardly be blamed for his childhood huskiness, although he does try, noting that as a baby he would eat two hamburger patties and, denied a third, vomit up the first two in a hissy rage. Okay, so maybe he was a big eater. But he’s Italian, and his mother and grandmother live up to every Olive Garden-fueled stereotype and more. Grandma Bruni would tell Frank he looks fat, then ply him with pastas and meats and sweet desserts and was, of course, personally insulted if he didn’t eat everything eagerly. The dichotomy is especially ironic coming from his perpetually dieting mother, who took great pride in whipping up 50-serving batches of lasagna and kept an entire freezer full of food in the garage. “She was mystified by, and censorious of, families who didn’t. How could they be sure to have enough kinds and cuts of meat on hand, enough varieties of ice cream to choose from? Was that really any way to live?”

Interestingly, for his childhood and much of his adult life Bruni was only 10 to 15 pounds overweight, fairly significant as a 7-year-old but much less so as a tall high school student. Bruni was a swimmer, and a good one to boot, enough to place nationally in several events. Helpfully placed pictures throughout “Born Round” provide a chronological visual of his weight, and as a high school student he appears merely healthily filled out, not overweight at all. In this sense his plight seems less desperate as he pales in comparison to the hoards of fat Americans today. However, he regains credibility in his early thirties when he ballooned to 268 pounds. He notes that he began to avoid cameras in the Capitol building, where he was covering Congress, after one day Bruni in all his rotundity appeared in the background of a politician’s front-page snapshot.

Bruni’s prose is lean but satisfying (come on! I had to say it), forsaking deep literary description in favor of self-deprecating reflection and reconstructed conversations about quiche lorraine. Nevertheless, Bruni manages to deftly portray his lifelong struggle with his weight in a way that is neither pitiable nor disgusting, merely engrossing. He sticks with his hefty narrative loyally, detouring into topics such as his homosexuality, his journalism career or his mother’s early death from cancer sparsely and typically in ways that relate back to his weight.

Recounting his first date in college, for example, Bruni notes that he wore a loose black windbreaker while making out in the guy’s apartment. “As long as I kept it on, he couldn’t get a good sense of my body and possibly discover that I wasn’t as trim as he’d hoped I was and as I meant to be.” Bruni’s weight and its various psychological implications clearly took a serious toll on his emotional growth; his entire adult life is marked by only a handful of serious relationships, and most of those in his late thirties, after he had begun to come to terms with his body.

Furthermore, Bruni’s considerable writing career — marked by a Pulitzer-nominated feature writing stint in Detroit, covering George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign for the New York Times and working as the Times’ Rome bureau chief and ultimately restaurant critic — is largely treated as a side note to his ballooning weight. Bruni rarely mentions his occupation except to describe the copious meals provided Bush’s press detail (apparently a thick slice of RNC money that year went to egg-and-sausage breakfasts, cheese platters and steak dinners with martinis for the press). As well, of course, as his five-year run as the Times’ restaurant critic, a job that by necessity meant eating dinner out around nine times a week — yes, nine, as some nights meant multiple dinners. The final portion of the book recounting his adventures trying to remain disguised as he reviewed entire menus and brought the ire of haughty restaurateurs is largely a departure from his weight-loss narrative. He does describe how he managed to maintain a healthy weight while scarfing down sampling every dessert each restaurant offered, but by that point in his life Bruni seemed to have a handle on his love handles.

By necessity “Born Round” is an intensely personal memoir. There’s a lot to love: his descriptions of Rome’s fresh cheeses; his mother outing him to his family one by one; his elaborately gluttonous family Thanksgivings. There are a few things to hate, perhaps most notably his irritatingly frequent use of the word “epicurean.” Bruni does succeed, however, in portraying his weight obsession not only with comedy but also poignantly. His reflection, with the benefit of hindsight, never crosses the line into trite observations about the obesity epidemic or a self-pitying regret-fest. Instead, he deftly and accurately explores the psychology of the overweight, the ups and downs and sideways, ultimately overcoming a mental block and fully forming emotionally as well as physically.

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