By Matthew Collin
Thunder’s Mouth (2002), $14.95
Just when the media and its all-too-fickle consumers are essentially ignoring the historic trial of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, Guerrilla Radio pops up to remind us of how this bush-league Hitler bewildered the world with a reign of terror that introduced the phrase “ethnic cleansing” into everyday parlance. Formerly titled This Is Serbia Calling, this accessible, anecdotal book chronicles the rise of Belgrade’s student-run radio station, B92. Originally — and ironically — established by the local version of Hitler Youth, the station defied the authorities and survived repeated shutdowns for the crime of sandwiching objective news reports, frank commentary, and blistering satire between programs that mixed Western protest music — punk, rap, and noise — with tamer pop hits. When government thugs closed B92 down temporarily, for example, its staff turned to the Internet to get the word out, and when they were later purged and replaced by loyalist lackeys, the station started up again under a new guise. Best-selling British author Collin, who began reporting on B92 in 1996, quotes key personalities and members of Belgrade’s politically active artistic community reacting to Milosevic’s frothings, rigged elections, hyperinflation (300 million percent at one point), and the mass exodus of the nation’s best and brightest. As the story unfolds, B92 and its staff increasingly take a backseat to the surreal disintegration of a nation and its subsequent revival, but this story of a radio station succeeds as an outline of how a country (barely) survived its darkest years.
— Mark Nichol
Letters to a Young Novelist
By Mario Vargas Llosa
Farrar, Straus & Giroux (2002), $17
Dear Mr. Llosa: Your new essay collection — a dozen or so ten-page examinations of the moving parts of quality fiction — ultimately and after much internal debate leaves a reader wondering, “Is there room for those of us who are not young novelists but rather, simply their audience?” The answer, sadly, seems to be no. You are in top form as both instructor and whispering confidant in the first and last letters, lighting up a metaphor to warmly study its refractions. Particularly illuminating is your opening letter, “Parable of the Tapeworm,” which equates writing to feeding a bottomless urge. Your final note nearly matches it, with criticism explained as the voice of reason and fiction production that of magic and chance. Yet these two letters are as inviting as your collection gets. The rest offers both the wisdom and torpor of an academic journal and your reliance on the Western Literature Hall of Fame as a source of examples is lamentable. While mentions of contemporary Latin-American novelists are welcome, they’re quickly hushed by reminders that all young novelists should have read their Proust and enjoyed it. It’s a rather crusty approach, especially as it immediately follows your latest novel The Feast of the Goat, which rippled with courage. Still, your book is a joy, Mr. Llosa, if you anticipate a reader who loves fondling the rivets and seams of a great novel. The remainder, however, might feel as though your letters are simply not addressed to them. Fondly,
— Kevin Smokler
Seduction: A Portrait of Anaís Nin
By Margot Beth Duxler
Edgework (2002), $24.95
With her distinctive styles of both living and writing, Anaïs Nin might have been the 20th century’s most complicated woman. But the publication of her uncensored diaries after her death in 1977 overshadowed and tarnished the reputation of Nin’s previous work. Exposing a fragile, amoral, codependent spiderwoman spun over by secrets and lies, the diaries shocked readers and even those who had known and loved her. Duxler was twenty when she met the Spanish-Danish writer and became Nin’s protégée, then later felt betrayed by the diaries’ revelations. With Seduction, she strives to reach a clearer understanding of this brilliant but troubled woman. The book is an act of love and healing, serving a greater purpose than the standard academic biography. Using a personal yet authoritative tone, Duxler presents a psychological exploration that blends biography with an analysis of diary-writing while illuminating her own complex relationship with the author. Because of Nin’s feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness and her intense need for love and acceptance, her entire life became an act of seduction — this narrative does not shy away from discussing Nin’s consensual incestuous affair with her own father. Compellingly, Duxler fills a void by analyzing the artist as a whole person, addressing the intricate emotions evoked by a life and work at odds.
— Amrah Fatale
Alan Ayckbourn: Grinning at the Edge
By Paul Allen
Continuum (2002), $35
Since 1959, British playwright Alan Ayckbourn has written sixty comedies — at one point, five of them ran concurrently in London’s West End — and was knighted “for services to the theater” in 1997. Yet in the States, he’s hardly a household name, and those who do know of him usually fall back on calling him “the British Neil Simon.” This does great disservice to a writer whose output is almost twice that of Simon’s and far more inventive. So it’s sad that this first official biography of Ayckbourn doesn’t allow Americans a better glimpse into that creative genius who is indeed “grinning at the edge.” The main problem with Allen’s opus is a muddy writing style that makes many chapters feel like a long slog through a flooded meadow while wearing waders. It also provides few frames of reference for readers not overly familiar with the British theater scene, nor with England for that matter. And unless a reader is intimately familiar with Ayckbourn’s plays, the absence here of a chronological list creates confusion as Allen scatters their names willy-nilly throughout the text. Still, some amusing anecdotes surface, particularly about Ayckbourn’s wacky novelist mother — sort of an Auntie Mame without the wealth or sophistication — and a young Diana Rigg, down whose cleavage the playwright poured a whole bottle of wine after she refused to have a drink with him. But these are few and far between, and will make Ayckbourn fans wish for more.
— Vicki Cameron