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Novelist Explores Book Groups, Hollywood-Style

Jun 4, 2009 (Fresh Air)

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Chandler Burr's debut novel, You or Someone Like You, is a must-read for any book group serious enough to spend more time discussing the book at hand instead of what wine to serve during the meeting. Burr's novel is about such a serious book group — one that tackles "off-road" authors like William Golding, Anthony Trollope, William Blake and Christina Rossetti. The group is formed in Hollywood of all places, where, as our main character observes, people talk on the phone all day long and, thus, put an "immense value ... on language"; yet, have an "utter disdain for the written word."

But the book-group plot constitutes only one of the unfolding stories in this smart novel, which is, primarily, a very tough reflection on the idea of "group-ness" itself — who's in and who's out; who's considered a full person and who's not.

You or Someone Like You is sure to stir up controversy because it doesn't just stick to the safe pieties of descrying discrimination in terms of race or gender; instead, it confronts what it sees as a more socially acceptable form of discrimination practiced by organized religion — specifically here, Judaism. Even raising the issue of whether Jewish solidarity is a form of self-preservation or exclusivity probably will invite accusations of anti-Semitism to be tossed at this novel. But Burr, like his main character, Anne Rosenbaum, clearly subscribes to the view that one distinguishing mark of a good piece of literature is that it doesn't set out to please everybody.

The gist of the story is this: Anne and her husband, Howard, met decades ago at Columbia University. Both were word-drunk English majors: Anne was a transplanted English Protestant girl; Howard hailed from an Orthodox family in Brooklyn. Against his parent's protests, they married.

When the novel opens, they've been living in Hollywood for decades, where Howard is a movie studio wheeler-dealer with ties to the New York literary world, and the more retiring Anne takes pleasure in books and her garden. During a business dinner, a studio exec turns to Anne, who's renowned for always carrying a book with her, and proposes that she make up a recommended reading list. The list circulates, and soon Anne finds herself leading book groups where the likes of producers and script doctors are going mano-a-mano about Mansfield Park.

Naturally, Burr can't resist cracking jokes about book group eating rituals. Anne tells us that:

The unwritten rule was that [the participants] brought dessert. In typical industry fashion, like emerging nuclear powers, they rapidly escalated the desserts in intricacy and number and size and exoticism and, quite predictably, cost. ...

The [Virginia] Woolf dessert was appropriate in size (small), but it cost eight hundred dollars and came in four cream-colored bamboo boxes lined in silver paper and tied with raw Andalusian hemp.

While Anne has her head in books, Howard, reacting to a deep family insult, finds himself drawn back more and more into the world of Orthodox Judaism that he left when he married Anne. She fiercely tries to hold onto him, and when he shuts her out, she communicates to him through the literature of her book clubs.

Anne sees herself as a universalist, like her beloved W.H. Auden who left England to settle in "a chaotic New York." Even as Howard engages in a search for origins, Anne defiantly counters with Auden's view that home is the place you choose. Literary as she may be, Anne also flings "unpoetic" words like "tribalism," "racism" and "bigotry" at the increasingly reclusive Howard.

When does cultural pride transform into cultural arrogance? It's an uneasy question we consider daily in this mixed-up democracy of ours, most recently with the controversy over whether Sonia Sotomayor's Hispanic pride remarks are or are not "racist." Burr's provocative new novel weighs in on the issue of identity politics and also makes a powerful case for why great books are a great danger to small minds.

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You or Someone Like You
By Chandler Burr
Hardcover, 336 pages
Ecco
List Price: $25.99
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