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Is This Book Worth Getting?

A no-frills guide to the new biographies-and-letters shelf.

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Elizabeth Bishop and ‘The New Yorker’
Ed. by Joelle Biele

Prose
By Elizabeth Bishop, Ed. by Lloyd Schwartz

Poems
By Elizabeth Bishop

All February 1; Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Three decades after her death, Elizabeth Bishop’s limpid but reticent verse threatens to outlast that of confessional macho contemporaries like Robert Lowell. She’s been helped along by avid publishing: FSG has been churning out Bishopiana for years, including a 2006 collection of drafts that some critics thought Bishop wouldn’t have wanted published. Now they mark her centenary with three hefty volumes (two of them, Poems and Prose, coming out both in paperback and in a pricey hardcover boxed set). There’s never a bad time to reissue her brilliant poems and striking stories in simple, readable new volumes, and some previously uncollected material in Prose yields small revelations. You’ll want to skim the industrial statistics that pockmark Bishop’s survey of Brazil, where she lived for fifteen years—a Life book she wrote for the money, with her own edits restored here—but linger over its odd and perfect lead, the tabloid tale of a kidnapped baby. The question is, how much do you love Elizabeth Bishop? Diehards will appreciate the details of life and publishing that emerge from her New Yorker correspondence—letters with Katherine White and Howard Moss that reveal as much about that institution’s for-better-and-worse quirks as they do about Bishop’s writing life. The rest should seek out the meatier, wittier Words in Air, her letters to and from Lowell, published only three years ago. —B.K.
Buy the Paperbacks


Ugly Beauty: Helena Rubenstein, L’Oréal, and the Blemished History of Looking Good
By Ruth Brandon
Harper, 304 pages, $26.99

Helena Rubenstein was a “tiny, plump, spike-heeled” Polish Jew who became a multimillionaire in the early half of the twentieth century by selling an ideal of European beauty with her eponymous cosmetics line. French chemist Eugène Schueller, a contemporary, made his fortune in hair dyes at L’Oréal. The two companies and their leaders were total opposites: Rubenstein employed her many sisters; Schueller believed women should stay at home. She was the trailblazer, but by 1988, his company had absorbed hers. The book is loaded with juicy details about Schueller and Rubenstein (he dabbled in utopian societies and was a Nazi sympathizer; she bought a Park Avenue building after being denied a co-op), as well as a succession of corporate scandals. But Brandon’s bigger argument is that the modern beauty industry can be explained by the politics and practices of these two originally divergent companies. And she’s convincing. — M.M.
Buy It.


Chinaberry Sidewalks— A Memoir
By Rodney Crowell
Knopf, 272 pages, $24.95

Like Sting before him, country star turned Americana poster boy Crowell takes a “love me, love my childhood” approach to memoir writing, cutting off the chronology just as stardom and potential celebrity anecdotes are about to kick in. It turns out to be not such a terrible trade-off, losing out on stories about, say, former father-in-law Johnny Cash in favor of the equally colorful characters Crowell grew up with in the urban-hillbilly Houston of the fifties and sixties. Between the school pranks and casual domestic violence, think Huck Finn with an alcoholic dad and Pentecostal mom prone to beating the Hank Williams–worshipping tar out of one another. He’s as crafty with anecdotal prose as with lyrics, so you almost don’t mind if Crowell never really tries to explain how the white-trashiest of upbringings produced the quintessential country gentleman before us. —C.W.
Buy It


Bird Cloud
By Annie Proulx
Scribner, 234 Pages, $26

Annie Proulx, the author of the short story “Brokeback Mountain,” among many other fine pieces of fiction, favors tough terrain. That started during her itinerant, hardscrabble childhood, and the first few chapters of this memoir offer rare, wonderful glimpses of Proulx’s early life; her love of flinty eccentrics clearly starts there. Since then, she’s settled in Vermont and Newfoundland (the setting for The Shipping News) and finally Wyoming, a state harsh by even her standards. (“Why would anybody live here. I live here, I think,” she writes drily.) She falls hard for a spectacularly wild piece of property along the North Platte River, names it Bird Cloud, and starts building what she hopes will be her perfect and final home. That’s when trouble starts, both for the author and the reader. Proulx is admittedly impatient and cantankerous, and the process was a colossal pain in the ass. But pages and pages of rambling, mind-numbing construction details, setbacks, and her resulting bitterness make for an alienating slog. Missing are the humor, empathy, and lucidity of her beautifully spare stories. Bird Cloud ends up defeating Proulx, at least as a permanent home. It doesn’t do much better as the subject of a memoir. —M.K.S.
Skip It


J. D. Salinger: A Life
By Kenneth Slawenski
Random House, 464 pages, $27

Kenneth Slawenski’s biography of J. D. Salinger contains hundreds of previously unseen photographs, half a manuscript of the novel Salinger was working on before his death, and the tantalizing revelation that the author of TheCatcher in the Rye had a crush on Blake Lively. And if you believe all that, there’s a carousel in Central Park we’d like to sell you. What the book—by the man behind the website deadcaufields.com—does offer is a deeply sympathetic look at its highly elusive subject. The section on Salinger’s horrifying World War II years is particularly good, and there’s just enough on The New Yorker to make one wish for a whole book on Salinger’s relationship with that complicated “family.” The analytic summaries of Salinger’s work can sometimes drag, but Slawenski’s affection is mostly contagious, and by the end of the book the reader may feel closer to Holden’s father than he or she has any right to. — J.H.
Read Catcher again. Then buy this book in paperback.


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