"The human race is a let down. It thinks it's progressed but it hasn't. It thinks it's risen above the primeval slime but it hasn't -- it's still wallowing in it!," says Gilda in Noel Coward's 1930s play "Design for Living." Coward -- glittering, bitchy, charming -- is a writer who didn't seem like he would last but, triumphantly, has. That's because his mind was so sharp and his writing so bright and crisp, qualities amply reflected in this superb collection that weaves Coward's letters into a text that reads more like a life portrait. "I've got a bit of news," he wrote from the Waldorf-Astoria on Dec. 3, 1934. "I am going at last to do a picture here at Paramount Studios. Ben Hecht and Charlie MacArthur are writing a special story for me and I must say it sounds pretty thrilling!" Some life. Let's wallow away.
Between 1967 and 1997, George Steiner wrote more than 130 pieces for the New Yorker. From these, 53 have been selected for this classy paperback original. Steiner writes about chess, Noam Chomsky, Graham Greene, Walter Benjamin, Albert Speer, Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht and, elegantly and tellingly, about the British traitor Anthony Blunt. "It is Blunt's condescension, the intact carapace of his self-esteem which have struck those who have sought him out since his public exposure. Hardened souls in journalism have recoiled from the man's cold sophistries, from the edge of self-satisfaction with which he savored the smoked-trout sandwiches thoughtfully put before him by a team of interviewers in the editorial sanctum of the London Times," notes Steiner, describing a scene with novelistic disdain. He's a wide-ranging polymath with a fierce moral view and a peerlessly precise style.
Denis Johnson: "Jesus' Son" (Picador)
This, to my mind, is Johnson's fiercest and most unforgettable book, a collection of dark and beautiful short stories that deal with characters in the throes of addiction, loss, violence, abortion. "His blood bubbled out of his mouth with every breath. He wouldn't be taking many more. I looked down into the great pity of a person's life on this earth. I don't mean that we all end up dead. I mean that he couldn't tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn't tell him what was real," writes the narrator of "Car Crash While Hitch-Hiking." Each of these narratives is like a cruel bulb that burns itself onto the reader's retina.
L.J. Davis: "A Meaningful Life" (NYRB Classic)
Here's a real rediscovery. First published in 1991, "A Meaningful Life" has as its main character Lowell Lake, stuck in a crummy job as managing editor of a trade journal for plumbers. A failed novelist, Lake pours his thwarted energies into another project, the purchase of a grand, and derelict, mansion in the wrong part of Brooklyn. "It was a bad month in a poor season in a poor part of town. A cold wind was getting up and naked light bulbs had begun to shine behind curtainless windows. Lowell wanted to go home," writes Davis, shortly before his hero first sees the property that will be his doom. This strange comic masterwork is compared to the work of Kingsley Amis in Jonathan Lethem's new introduction. That's almost right, but the feel is darker, and there's a touch of Patricia Highsmith too; it's all about gentrification, and, ultimately, madness.
Richard Yates: "Young Hearts Crying" (Vintage)
The Yates resurgence continues, with this new edition of a 1984 novel that in some ways goes back to the terrain of "Revolutionary Road." The theme, once again, is the decay of a marriage, but this time the characters are Michael and Lucy Davenport, and the story plays out over a much longer period of time. "'You're looking very well, Lucy,' he said, and she told him that he looked very well too. Was this the way long-divorced couples would always try to ward off silence when they began their hesitant little talks?" writes Yates with his usual ruthless honesty toward the end of the novel, when even the pain has bled away and only embarrassment remains. Vintage has also reissued "A Special Providence," which hinges around a son's relationship with his sculptor mother. The book is autobiographical and tells us a lot about Yates' obsession with the dangers, and comedy, of artistic aspiration.
John Baxter: "Carnal Knowledge" (Harper Perennial)
Subtitled 'Baxter's Concise Encyclopedia of Modern Sex', this proves to be a profusely illustrated and erudite guide. Baxter, a memoirist and film-biographer, knows how to wear his learning lightly. 'Dietrich made no secret of the fact that she preferred oral to penetrative sex,' he notes in his entry on the great German star with the long, long legs. 'During Blonde Venus, she had Max Factor dust her wigs with gold dust, at sixty dollars an ounce, to give them greater shimmer'. Betty Page is here, in black-stockinged plenty, and Andy Warhol and water sports. High and low brow rub shoulders as they should, and the entry on the German 1920s dancer Anita Berber is enough to inspire a film or a biography. Fun stuff, and not without an erotic thrill.
Alberto Manguel: "Homer's 'The Iliad' and 'The Odyssey'" (Grove)
"Every great work is either 'The Iliad' or 'The Odyssey,' " noted the French writer Raymond Queneau, meaning that the poet named Homer -- who might not even have existed -- staked out two of the great narrative metaphors: the battle and the journey. In this book, Alberto Manguel tells the story of the works that have fed mankind's imagination for two and a half millennia. Homer lived in a society of whose customs and belief we have only a remote idea, wrote in a language we no longer know precisely how to pronounce and yet described for us, "our own lives today, with every secret happiness, and every hidden sin." A recent addition to Grove's "Books That Changed the World" series.
Paul Mandelbaum (ed): "12 Short Stories and Their Making" (Persea)
Twelve writers discuss the writing and crafting of a particular story, making this anthology a tool for tyros and the experienced alike. "I take great pleasure in those sorts of moves in other people's stories, where, with a single line one feels the ground move a little beneath you. You're looking at the world from a different angle after that line," says Tobias Wolff, discussing his story "Smorgasbord" in which the narrator says, casually, "I bought perfume for women," and our perception of him shifts entirely. Gail Godwin is featured, likewise Ursula K. Le Guin, Jhumpa Lahiri, Charles Johnson, Allan Gurganus and Ellen Gilchrist. Lahiri tells us that she keeps a journal not to hoard material, but to as a warm-up exercise. Why should that feel useful? It does.
Sandra Cisneros: "The House on Mango Street" (Vintage)
"Every few weeks she has a messy crying jag like this that leaves her feeling shipwrecked and sad. It's such a regular occurrence she thinks these storms of depression are as normal as rain," writes Sandra Cisneros in a long and wonderful new introduction to this, the 25th-anniversary edition of her classic first book. She's describing how it felt to be a brave and lonely young woman, stuck with the dream of trying to write something as lovely as Marilyn Monroe singing in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." In the end, as this joyous and heartbreaking series of vignettes reminds us, she did. "I like to tell stories. I am going to tell you a story about a girl who didn't want to belong," Cisneros wrote all those years ago, not yet knowing that she was speaking to a generation, and future generations, who felt just the same.
Sidney Wade: "Stroke" (Persea)