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From guru to celeb
by Lucy Scholes December 29, 2017
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Ross Simonini’s debut novel The Book of Formation is one of the strangest novels I’ve read this year. It begins in 1994 when a journalist accepts an assignment to interview one Mayah Isle, a talk-show host in the style of Oprah who peddles an increasingly popular self-transformation philosophy known as the “personality movement” which revolves around “p,” “which, as best as I could understand,” the journalist explains, “was some kind of energy substance at the root of our identities.”

For some reason, the notoriously private Mayah grants the journalist access to her adopted son Masha, about whom at this stage very little is known. The interview that follows is the first of eight that the journalist conducts with Masha over the course of the next two decades, during which he takes over from his mother as the face of the movement.

The Book of Formation is structured like a long-time-coming confession, the eight interviews transcribed and written up, each with an explanatory introduction briefly setting the scene, filling in what’s happened to Mayah, Masha and the movement in the years that have passed between encounters.

First and foremost, it’s astonishingly well done. I was gripped, which is remarkable given how jargon-heavy much of the conversation is and the piecemeal nature of the narrative.

This is due to Simonini’s impressive handling of his form. The majority of the text is laid out as interview transcripts, and he magnificently recreates the feel of real conversations and genuine interactions.

When it comes to the details under discussion therein, though, I often found myself floundering. But again, this is indicative of just how convincing a scenario Simonini’s created, one in which issues of celebrity culture combine with the attractions of guru, self-help and wellness cultures.

The Independent

AN UNCOMMON READER: A LIFE OF EDWARD GARNETT
by Helen Smith

For your bookish friend this holiday season, especially if that friend’s an Anglophile, I heartily recommend Helen Smith’s new biography An Uncommon Reader. Her biography makes clear that Garnett saw his first loyalty as to literature and its writers, not the publishers who paid him. He didn’t hesitate to recommend a writer take a book to a different house. “Edward took a dim view of the tastes of the British reading public, frequently bemoaning its insularity and the consistent demand that literature should ‘entertain’ and trumpet the attainment of moral growth and worldly success,” Smith writes.

BECOMING KAREEM: GROWING UP ON AND OFF THE COURT
by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld

The day after leading the Milwaukee Bucks to their only NBA championship, a young NBA star surprised sports fandom by announcing his conversion to Islam. On that day in 1971, the former Lew Alcindor became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But his conversion and name change began years earlier, he reveals in Becoming Kareem, a memoir for readers 10 and older, written with his frequent collaborator Raymond Obstfeld. He discusses racism, religion and controversial subjects straightforwardly. Becoming Kareem covers his life from boyhood in New York to his conversion announcement. It does not stint on basketball: Readers learn how Abdul-Jabbar developed his signature shot, the skyhook. It also speaks directly about athletes and social activism, which Colin Kaepernick can tell you is still a contentious subject today.

NO TIME TO SPARE: THINKING ABOUT WHAT MATTERS
by Ursula K. Le Guin

The only thing better than accomplishment, American culture implies, is accomplishment at a young age. Youth — or at least the appearance of it — is a most valuable possession. “In our increasingly unstable, future-oriented, technology-driven society,” observes Ursula K. Le Guin, “the young are often the ones who show the way, who teach their elders what to do.” In No Time to Spare, Le Guin shows that elders have plenty to teach. Though she questions technological advances, the author, 88, is neither a Luddite nor a pessimist. Instead, Le Guin shares her thoughts on aging and issues such as gender inequality and capitalism, that have often framed her vast and varied body of work. The new book is a well-selected record of her electronic musings and a masterful lesson on the importance of the practice of writing.

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