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Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Barbara Ehrenreich, John Burnside and Joyce Carol Oates

The straight story

For Jenni Murray in the Guardian, Barbara Ehrenreich's Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World "chimes with your own thinking, yet flies so spectacularly in the face of fashionable philosophy, that it comes as a profoundly reassuring relief". Christopher Hart, in the Sunday Times, describes it as "a portrait of America's desperate insistence on facile optimism", although he notes that "some historical comparisons would have added depth". However, the book benefits from her "sharper personal experience when diagnosed with breast cancer" and is "a highly entertaining, alarming read, and a ringing clarion call to America to brace up and remember sod's law". Janet Maslin in the Scotsman was not so keen, however, finding the book "padded with cheap shots, easy examples, [and] research recycled from her earlier books". Her conclusion: "This encounter offers more caustic humour than enlightenment."

Ghost town

Waking Up in Toytown, the second part of the poet John Burnside's autobiography, "is about as far from the conventional idea of a misery memoir as it's possible to get", writes Doug Johnstone in the Independent on Sunday. "[Burnside] brings his poet's eye for detail and his novelist's sense of the dramatic to the pages . . . always probing for meaning, for reason, for resonance in the rather tumultuous events of his life." The subject matter "is treated with admirable candour, which doesn't necessarily paint the author in a great light, but there is something underlying it all, a quest for some kind of honesty, that makes the reader retain some sympathy". Bee Wilson, writing in the Sunday Times, finds that this second instalment of Burnside's memoirs is "just as hauntingly written and, if anything, even more disturbing [than the first]".

Maiden voyage

Michael Arditti, in the Daily Telegraph, finds that Joyce Carol Oates's A Fair Maiden ("a spare, controlled work set on the affluent New Jersey coast") explores "such familiar Oates themes as illicit sexuality, male violence and damaging social divisions . . . it might well stand as a heterosexual counterpart to Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, albeit with its focus less on the artist than on his object of desire". Elizabeth Day, in the Observer, also finds parallels with another classic, Nabokov's Lolita, but fails to understand why anyone would imitate "arguably one of the greatest prose stylists of the last century . . . Unsurprisingly, Oates suffers by comparison. Although there is the occasional lyrical phrase . . . much of the writing is wilfully slow and ponderous . . . All this is a shame, because Oates is a far better writer than this book allows her to be."

You can read the New Statesman review of A Fair Maiden here. And keep your eyes peeled for an interview with Barbara Ehrenreich, coming this way soon.

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