Is This Book Worth Getting?

A Day at the Beach
By Helen Schulman, Houghton Mifflin
The first thing they tell you in creative-writing class is “show, don’t tell.” Yet Schulman—who, amazingly enough, runs a fiction-writing program—tells and tells, and then tells some more. In A Day at the Beach, a scrim of dialogue overlays 24 hours in the life of Gerhard and Suzannah Falktopf (a sneering, overintellectual Manhattan choreographer and his dopey, needy dancer-muse-wife) beginning on the morning of September 11, 2001. Nearly the entire book is made up of their internal monologues, studded with name-droppy signifiers of the Tribeca-and-Hamptons variety. (After picking up some Ty Nant bottled water, “Gerhard would go to the A&P next, where the water would inarguably be cheaper … but he liked the blue glass bottles at the Barefoot Contessa and so he would have them.”) The morning after the attacks, he and Suzannah “looked at one another with the awkward intimacy of lovers that have been fighting, Gerhard thought. As if they knew each other all too well and suddenly not at all.” This is Barbara Cartland, sans plot, for the midlist urbanite.

I Love You, Beth Cooper
By Larry Doyle, Ecco
Doyle was an editor here who went on to write for The Simpsons, so it would be tempting to indulge in a little playa-hating and say that his first novel is a laugh-free clunker. But we’re not losers! Not anymore. And the book is great. Those among us who will forever self-identify as recovering high- school outcasts, and for whom The Breakfast Club is a more meaningful experience than anything that actually happened to us as teenagers, will delight in this dark, absurdist, insanely funny send-up of a John Hughes movie. The rest of you bullies and cheerleaders can go read something else.

Das Kapital
By Viken Berberian, Simon & Schuster
Berberian’s first novel, The Cyclist, about a Druze bomber’s suicide ride in Beirut, was as blank and cerebral as this one, which is subtitled “A Novel of Love and Money Markets” but could just as accurately be called “A Mind-Bending Journey Into a Hedge-Fund Overlord’s Collusion With Ecoterrorists.” However, The Cyclist worked, thanks in large part, oddly enough, to some nice culinary interludes. Here, though, we have implausible love affairs, Corsican guerrillas, and closet-Marxist hedge-funders with theories of “deterministic disaster.” Tack on an ending out of Fight Club, cue the Pixies soundtrack, and you’ve got yourself a bang-up techno-thriller. As for the book, Berberian writes with a wry wit, but he’s far better at sentences than plots.

On Chesil Beach
By Ian McEwan, Nan A. Talese
Even after the omniscient narrator of this very brief novel chimes in with some historical context—explaining that his two virgin newlyweds are honeymooning in Britain just before the sixties social revolution—it’s hard to shake the impression that Edward and Florence live in Victorian times. Maybe it’s the Whartonian anguish that accompanies their every romantic foray, or the delicate, almost coded description of the premature ejaculation that threatens to doom their marriage. As a tale of wistful regret, it’s nicely done, with complex and believable characters and emotions. But there’s something missing, a new revelation or dramatic twist, that another 50 pages might have provided. “This is how the entire course of a life can be changed,” Edward muses at the end, “by doing nothing.” He’s thinking about paths not taken, and McEwan’s readers might too.

Varieties of Disturbance
By Lydia Davis, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Lydia Davis (Proust translator and Paul Auster’s ex) writes short stories very, very well. Some are very, very short. Others a little longer. A few are normal-size. Many don’t seem like stories at all. At their best, they have a kind of levelheaded obsessiveness about them, coolly parsing feelings (and grammar) to the point where everything is dizzying—and yet freshly, disconcertingly clear. Even better, Davis’s work is not nearly as pretentious as that last sentence is, or might suggest. One story takes a wonderful walk through Oxford, with an important stop in Combray. Another, a brisk two-pager, is all about an inconclusively sourced fart.

A Thousand Splendid Suns
By Khaled Hosseini, Riverhead
Kite Runner author Hosseini is the anti–Jane Austen. Where Austen sets in motion a whirl of suitors and family before ending happily ever after, Hosseini gets his heroines pregnant, or marries them off at 15 to, say, a cruel shoemaker who stinks of tobacco and inflicts years of hard labor and mental cruelty, not to mention actual beatings. This is Afghanistan we’re talking about, of course, so in the background is a 25-year war starring a familiar cast (communists, Taliban, the CIA, Hekmatyar, Massoud, bin Laden, etc.). It’s a docudrama, but a compelling one. One keeps reading hoping for something good to happen to these poor girls.

Is This Book Worth Getting?