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Short takes

By Kate Tuttle
October 9, 2011

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DRAMA:

An Actor”s Education

By John Lithgow

Harper, 336 pp., illustrated, $26.99

THE VISIBLE MAN

By Chuck Klosterman

Scribner, 240 pp., $25

DO CHOCOLATE LOVERS HAVE SWEETER BABIES?:

The Surprising Science of Pregnancy

By Jena Pincott

Free Press, 288 pp., paperback, $15

The son of an admired but itinerant theater director and producer, John Lithgow grew up in a world full of stories and plays but perhaps his best preparation for an actor’s life was in the family’s frequent relocations, after which he was inevitably “cast as ‘the new kid in town.’ ’’ He honed the skills of fitting in, an adaptability that, in retrospect, he describes as “Zelig-like.’’ Wit and charm make frequent appearances in Lithgow’s new memoir, as do, perhaps more unexpectedly, stern, even ruthless self-assessments. Self-deprecating about his academic career (despite making Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard, he writes that he “secretly felt as if I had gotten away with murder’’ ) and early acting failures, he’s also painfully open about his moral shortcomings. “A good boy can be capable of appalling secret cruelties,’’ he writes of one youthful unkindness.

More confessions follow. Who knew that, during his busy Broadway career in the 1970s, he “staged a one-man sexual revolution,’’ and though married, had affairs with no fewer than eight co-stars? His account of what he calls a long-delayed adolescence, culminating in a marriage-busting affair with Liv Ullmann, bounces between the genuinely wrenching realization of his young son’s sadness and the inevitably comic fact that at one point he, his wife, and Ullmann were all sharing one (ethically challenged) psychotherapist. Readers will be relieved when Lithgow settles into a happy second marriage and deeply fulfilling, rich career. The book begins with Lithgow telling stories with his aging parents, and in the end it reads as a kind of love letter to them both, particularly his father, who had delighted in his son’s triumph in “a profession that had treated him shabbily and without mercy.’’

In cultural critic Chuck Klosterman’s second novel, an insecure therapist named Victoria Vick meets a new patient who claims he can observe people when they believe they are alone by means of a technology that renders him nearly invisible. During their sessions (many of them conducted over the phone) the man, whom Vick calls Y____, speaks of his lifelong desire to see how people act when they think no one is watching. He’s come to her to manage the guilt he thinks he should be feeling about this (it’s never clear how much guilt he actually does feel). Despite her nagging instinct to terminate their therapeutic relationship, Vick sticks with Y____. “Would I ever have a patient this interesting again? Never,’’ she concludes. “This was like being Hitler’s therapist, or Springsteen’s, or Superman’s.’’

What Y____ describes seeing after sneaking home with an unsuspecting drunk or slipping into a jogger’s unlocked apartment is a blend of the mundane and the grotesque. Yet his possible insanity doesn’t keep him from making brilliant (if transparently Klosterman-like) observations. People in our meta-reflexive world, far from valuing time alone, “need their actions to be scrutinized and interpreted in order to feel like what they’re doing matters,’’ Y____ tells Vick. “Singular, solitary moments are like television pilots that never get aired.’’ Klosterman’s sharp scrutiny is no surprise, but his talent for pace and drama is; Vick and Y____’s increasing intimacy generates real tension, and even poignancy. Framed as both a psychological case study (with its inevitable shades of Freud and Poe) and a cringe-worthy manuscript (introduced by Vick’s cover letter to her editor), “The Visible Man’’ is itself a rare specimen: a very funny, surprisingly humane novel about serious ideas.

Pregnancy is full of paradoxes. As Jena Pincott points out in this entertaining look at some of the big questions about babies and birth, our stomachs are weakest when we need to nurture new life; our brains become foggy and unreliable even as we prepare for our most challenging new job. And why does a pregnant woman’s husband, whose personal odor was likely one of the reasons she was first attracted to him, now smell so awful? Pincott, a science producer whose own pregnancy features prominently in her book, digs through recent research to illuminate these and other gestational dilemmas. One of the most interesting concerns smell: When seeking a mate, we tend to go for people whose major histocompatibility complex genes (MHC, to scientists) are different from our own, because this is beneficial for our offspring. But once pregnant, many women subconsciously prefer to be around those whose MHC genes match their own - in other words, their own relatives. Not shocking, Pincott points out, since kin “may have been more helpful than mates when it came to supporting a woman during pregnancy, giving birth, and raising a baby.’’ A very interesting theory, and one that holds true in mice, but it’s still speculation as far as human beings go.

One of the shortcomings in science writing about pregnancy and babies is that, of course, there are no double-blind experiments to answer such questions. Speculation provides its own pleasures, and some of the scientists Pincott quotes spin awesome theories, but hard science this isn’t. That said, this is a great read on a fascinating topic, and Pincott’s repeated answer to all kinds of pregnancy weirdness - “blame the baby’’ - will feel particularly apt to anyone who’s ever lived with one.

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

DRAMA:

An Actor”s Education

By John Lithgow

Harper, 336 pp., illustrated, $26.99

THE VISIBLE MAN

By Chuck Klosterman

Scribner, 240 pp., $25

DO CHOCOLATE LOVERS HAVE SWEETER BABIES?:

The Surprising Science of Pregnancy

By Jena Pincott

Free Press, 288 pp., paperback, $15