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Old 13th Aug 2007, 14:31   #1
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Default How To Be Alone - Jonathan Franzen

This is a version of the review I posted on my blog this morning. My first posting of a review on here so, be gentle...

Today is exactly a year since I stopped smoking. I don't really miss it, other than when I'm worse the wear for drink, and now that the smoking ban has come into force down here, I miss it even less. I feel pretty good about it.

So I was interested to read the essay 'Sifting the Ashes' in Jonathan Franzen's book How To Be Alone. Written in the nineties, it is a very interesting journalistic essay on the tobacco industry in the US that goes beyond the usual "tobacco companies = evil badness" line. He is inspired by an American book on the industry by the name of Ashes to Ashes by a guy called Richard Kluger, which interviews nameless executives who admit that "...when critics of the industry speak of a "conspiracy," they give the companies far too much credit". Franzen's essay is a portrait of an industry ruled by lawyers, who aren't allowed to market (when you could market such things) lower-tar cigarettes because the lawyers say that it would be effectively be an admission of liability over the regular cigarettes.

This shouldn't be mistaken as sympathy for the industry - of course not - but it's an interesting take on the matter none the less.

There is also a wealth of now-staggering factoids about the tobacco industry in the years before the health risks associated with smoking were widely known. For instance, that the American women's magazine Atlantic Monthly said in 1916 that the cigarette was a "symbol of emancipation, the temporary substitute for the ballot". Around the same time, the company that made US brand Lucky Strikes wrote to thousands of doctors, offering free cartons of cigarettes if they would endorse the product. It seems that over 20,000 doctors obliged as an advertising tagline ran soon afterwards saying that "20,679 Physicians Say That Luckies Are Less Irritating". Quite.

It is the journalistic essays that are one of the two saving graces of How To Be Alone. Another essay, 'Lost in the Mail' is an account of the catastrophic state of the Chicago Mail Service that had me utterly hooked, despite the subject matter being utterly irrelevant to my daily life. Actually, perhaps not, given the spate of postal strikes Oxfordshire (rest of UK?) have been hit by recently. Hmmph.

The other saving grace is the handful of essays that hark back to Franzen's own life; most notably the first essay in the collection about his father's Alzheimer's Disease, and the penultimate essay on his brush with the Oprah Book Club, which takes him back to his old neighbourhood to do some filming for the show (before he was disinvited). He has the knack of framing small moments in such a way that they are emotionally devastating: opening his yearly quaint Valentines package from his mother to find amongst the usual chocolates and throwaway ornaments his father's brain autopsy report, sent in the one package because of his mother's frugality and unwillingness to pay extra postage to send it separately; his doing a book signing in his native St Louis and meeting the new owners of what was his parent's house, and being presented with the brass door knocker that bore his family's name.

It is his skill at writing with such humanity without falling into schmaltz that I loved so much about his third (and most famous) novel The Corrections. However, there were several essays that threw me, mostly about the relationship between readers and writers and TV and the internet. I can put it no more succinctly than Boyfriend did when I read a passage out to him (to quote the same passage here would take too long and probably be some kind of copyright infringement): "Sounds like pseudo-intellectual wank to me". Well... yes, actually, it sounds like that to me too. I can't really say it better than that to be honest.

So, How To Be Alone. A book that veers wildly from the "I love this," to "I'm going to throw this across the room," to "I think I might cry that's so touching," to "oh, will you just shut up". And then back again.

Villette by Charlotte Bronte
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