Books

in brief | kate tuttle

Capsule reviews of ‘Wilde in America’ and more

"Wilde in America" by David M. Friedman.

John Ioven

"Wilde in America" by David M. Friedman.

WILDE IN AMERICA: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity

By David M. Friedman

Norton, 320 pp., $26.95

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When he arrived in America for his 1882 lecture tour, the Irish writer Oscar Wilde had published only one small volume of poetry (most critics thought it derivative). Only 27, Wilde had been promoting the idea of himself since university (where he had the thrilling good luck, author David M. Friedman writes, to be “condemned in a sermon at a nearby church”). A minor London celebrity for his outlandish wardrobe and affected languor (“he would hail a cab to cross a street”), Wilde was the model for the aesthete fop Bunthorne in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Patience” (his tour was conceived as advertisement for the play). American papers mocked him as an “assthete,” but he made for great copy: He pronounced his disappointment in the Atlantic Ocean and Niagara Falls, but was genuinely charmed by the hospitality he encountered in places like Leadville, Colo. (where he admired a saloon sign reading, “PLEASE DO NOT SHOOT THE PIANIST. HE IS DOING HIS BEST,” calling it “the only rational method of art criticism I have ever come across”).

By the time Wilde left nearly a year later, he was a celebrity. Friedman argues in this smart, entertaining new book that Wilde in fact created “a worldview where fame isn’t the end product of a career but the beginning of one,” thereby providing a blueprint for the modern American idea of celebrity. When the writer Henry James met Wilde, he hated what he saw. As Friedman puts it, for James, Wilde’s self-authored fame heralded “a repugnant and alien future: an age when the talent that mattered most wasn’t artistic but narcissistic — a genius for self-puffery and public preening.” He had no idea.

CINDERLAND: A Memoir

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By Amy Jo Burns

Beacon, 216 pages, $24.95

“Mercury was a town where repetition masked itself as tradition,” writes Amy Jo Burns of her home, a small town rusting away in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania. Like all the other girls she knew, Burns took piano lessons every week from one of her school’s sixth-grade teachers, Mr. Lotte. One girl told her father that Mr. Lotte had touched her while they sat together on the piano bench; in all, seven girls were willing to testify that he had. Burns and the others lied; it was the smart move, she implies in this raw, painful memoir: “For their honesty, the other girls’ reputations will be stained,” she writes. “They’ll be called liars, even though they told the truth.”

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Although Burns’s book, her first, centers on the allegations and the town’s chilling refusal to take them seriously, “Cinderland” is about more than Mr. Lotte’s abuse. It’s at its most compelling when Burns sketches the contours of her girlhood — summers at the pool, autumn evenings at football games, the way “homecoming was the small-town girl’s cotillion” — rendering them not quaint but stifling and ominous. Parents in such a place are useless, as are teachers; all they can teach their children is “how to live in a dying place.”

BOY ON ICE: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard

By John Branch

Norton, 384 pp., $26.95

John Branch begins his devastating portrait of Derek Boogaard with a sketch of one of the hockey player’s best moments, chalking up an assist while playing for the Minnesota Wild, his first and only NHL post-season point. Scoring wasn’t typically a part of Boogaard’s hockey life; even as a little kid, his size was what coaches liked best about his game. Standing 6’4” and weighing 210 pounds at just 15, Boogaard caught the eye of Western Hockey League scouts; sure, he’d never be a flashy player, Branch explains, “but there was a role for him and his fists, if he was willing to dutifully distribute punishment and quietly absorb pain.”

The role of the goon — more politely, the enforcer — lives in hockey’s DNA, part of the fighting culture that some fans adore, others bemoan. “[N]obody dreams of playing hockey so that they can hurt other people,” Branch points out, but a treasured goon can become a team’s most beloved member. As intimidating he was on the ice, Boogaard was sensitive, gentle, fragile even — and totally unable to protect himself from the physical damage he’d endured, “one subconcussive blow at a time.” Branch’s book began as a series of articles in The New York Times following Boogaard’s death at 28 from an accidental overdose of alcohol and pain medication. In expanding, the story veers close to travelogue, bouncing around small Canadian hockey towns, but loses none of its power in exposing the violent tradition that pushed this young man to the brink.

THE GREAT GRISBY: Two Thousand Years of Literary, Royal, Philosophical, and Artistic Dog Lovers and Their Exceptional Animals

By Mikita Brottman

Harper, 288 pages, $25.99

Books about dogs “are invariably dismissed as sentimental and lighthearted, lucrative but simplistic, the lowest form of literature,”writes Mikita Brottman, in what could be read as an attempt to preempt criticism of her own volume. “Grisby the Great,” though it is lighthearted at times, isn’t simplistic in the least. Brottman writes amusingly and often movingly of the relationships between dozens of writers and artists and their canine friends, along the way exploring her own devotion to Grisby, a charismatic if at times bumptious French bulldog.

Among the book’s pleasures are its odd details: Schopenhauer had a long series of poodles, all with the same name; Freud received birthday poems every year from his dogs (actually penned by Anna Freud); and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel Flush was kidnapped (and ransomed) three separate times by Victorian dog-nappers. Brottman’s research is deep and her storytelling so compelling that most readers will understand if she occasionally seems to exemplify the stereotype that “women who devote themselves to their dogs are slightly unhinged.”

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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