EW review: Bombastic 'Self-Made Man'
Also: Suprisingly original 'Office,' brightly shining 'Daughter'
By Jennifer Reese
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(Entertainment Weekly) -- Seven years ago, on a dare from a friend, journalist Norah Vincent glued on a fake goatee, donned a baggy flannel shirt, and set out in New York City for her drag debut. She returned home a few hours later with this blazing insight: Men no longer checked her out.
As Vincent writes in her amusing, bombastic, and highly unpersuasive book, "Self-Made Man": "Seeing those guys looking away deferentially when they thought I was male, I could validate in retrospect the true hostility of their former stares."
So that's why men eyeball women! Maybe only a philosophy major with a "Schopenhauerian outlook on life" could leap to such a fraught conclusion about rubbernecking, one of the many improbable inferences -- interspersed with blindingly obvious "discoveries" and a few thought-provoking slivers of truth -- that Vincent harvested in her 18-month undercover investigation.
Watching Vincent earnestly prepare for her project is half the fun. A lesbian and self-described "masculine woman," she sought out the most comfortable prosthetic penis and confining sports bra, visited a voice coach, and settled on a name -- Ned -- before she hit skanky strip clubs.
Ned visited a monastery ("I wanted to know what celibacy does to a man"), took a sleazy door-to-door sales job with a male-dominated firm, and joined a blue-collar men's bowling team. Here, over 7-Eleven hot dogs and dirty jokes, Ned bonded with Jim, an appliance repairman whose sturdy handshake inspires four feverish paragraphs.
"There was something so warm and bonded in this handshake. Receiving it was a rush, an instant inclusion in a camaraderie that felt very old and practiced," Vincent purrs.
Vincent reads a lot into a handshake, but what she gleans from Jim and his pals is stunningly banal: Appearances to the contrary, men have feelings.
"So much of what happens emotionally between men isn't spoken aloud," she observes. "So the outsider, especially the female outsider who is used to emotional life being overt and spoken (often overspoken), tends to assume that what isn't said isn't there. But it is there." It took her months to dope out what any soccer mom could have told her over a latte.
In fact, Vincent's overwrought commentary -- whoppers like "Manhood is a leaden mythology riding on the shoulders of every man" -- pales compared with her tart and fleeting glimpses of women. Her depiction of vapid, stretch-marked strippers lording over the chumps who frequent the Lizard Lounge will eclipse forever the image of Natalie Portman in "Closer." And when she steps into the loafers of "the sad sack pick-up artist, the wooing barnacle that every woman is forever flicking off her sleeve," Vincent finds that single American women can be bitter, angry, boring, and maddeningly smug about their emotional superiority.
"Dating women as a man ... made me, of all things, into a momentary misogynist," she writes. "I saw my own sex from the other side, and I disliked women irrationally." Unlike that heart-warming handshake, this gets your attention.
EW Grade: B-
'Company,' Max Barry
Reviewed by Henry Goldblatt
If Max Barry's "Company" were an actual company (say Hewlett-Packard, which gets the only shout-out in the book's dedication), it would be massively in debt -- to "The Office," "Lost," "The Truman Show," "The Island of Dr. Moreau," "Animal Farm," "The Wizard of Oz," "The Fountainhead," the Declaration of Independence, and, for a paragraph or two, even "Pretty Woman."
The novel's main cog, Stephen Jones, is Dilberting his way through the strange world of Zephyr Holdings. "You could argue that [the building] has a certain neutral understated charm, but only if you are willing to apply the same logic to prisons and 1970s Volvos."
Among its oddities: Floor No. 1 is the top of the building, a stolen doughnut is cause for termination, employees sell training sessions to each other instead of to outside clients, and the receptionist, Eve (oh, yeah, I forgot: Barry finds inspiration from the Bible, too), drives a flashy Audi. The whole premise is amusing enough, but it's nothing that'd compel you to turn off Steve Carell.
Then, like this review is about to do, Barry ("Jennifer Government") throws a mother of a twist. To disclose what occurs after page 80 would rob any enjoyment from the book. (Okay, here's one clue: Check out American Heritage's fourth definition of zephyr.) It's that twist that saves Barry's third novel from becoming as drab as the office he describes and establishes him as one of the keenest and shrewdest minds in corporate satire. Rarely has a novelist borrowed from so many sources yet come up with something so utterly original.
EW Grade: A-
'Her Mother's Daughter,' Linda Carroll
Reviewed by Whitney Pastorek
You can pick up "Her Mother's Daughter" because it's written by Courtney Love's mom and you want to know where the train wreck began. Or you can read it to find out what kind of daughter the fabulously urbane novelist and children's-book author Paula Fox would give birth to, then give up for adoption, then welcome back with open arms some 50 years later.
But from her frustrated Bay Area childhood to years of communal hippie life in New Zealand, Linda Carroll survived more parents, boyfriends, nuns, husbands, children, and wrenching changes than 14 lives put together, and anyone who comes to her life story will turn the pages hungrily as they realize that a woman born between two stars can, perhaps even unintentionally, shine just as brightly.
EW Grade: A-
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