Short Takes

By Amanda Heller
November 2, 2008
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Peaches and Daddy
By Michael M. Greenburg
Overlook, 352 pp., illustrated, $25.95

The tabloid presses must have been kept running around the clock in the mid-1920s to churn out the latest buzz: Leopold and Loeb. Lucky Lindy. And the prurient sensation of the day, the marriage of 51-year-old New York real estate mogul and philanthropist Edward Browning to Frances "Peaches" Heenan, age 15, soon followed by a gratifyingly sleazy divorce trial. Photographs of Browning's Lolita reveal a dumpy teenager sporting the cloche hats and skimpy frocks of flapper fashion. From the moment he first laid eyes on her at a sorority dance (Browning was attending as the group's benefactor), his epitaph was written. He would forever be "Daddy" to Heenan's "Peaches."

Browning was no stranger to the gossip sheets. A real-life Daddy Warbucks, he was known both during and, less reassuringly, after a previous marriage for his well-publicized efforts to adopt young girls. Once the scandal ran its course, a wised-up public would demand reforms preventing old wolves from indulging a taste for lamb - the most enduring, if least intentional, of Browning's good works.

Despite a penchant for malapropisms, the author tells an engrossing tale about the convergence of matrimony, journalism, and law in what has been called the "Era of Wonderful Nonsense."

To Siberia
By Per Petterson
Translated, from the Norwegian, by Anne Born
Graywolf, 245 pp., $22

This striking novel by the author of "Out Stealing Horses" opens in a spirit of Nordic magic realism and closes in an even more Nordic spirit of realism utterly bereft of any sustaining hint of magic.

In a harbor town in northern Denmark where a depressive chill freezes the soul, a brother and sister, virtually inseparable, are growing up defiantly wild and free. Their mother, pious and cold, and their father, simply cold, leave them to their own devices, and they happily play at fantasy adventures, a nation of two. Our narrator, the girl, is so in thrall to her beloved brother, Jesper, that "Sistermine," his pet name for her, is the only name we are to know her by. For her, Jesper, grown exuberant and daring, is the light in the leaden Danish sky. When war erupts and the Nazis march into town, Jesper slips off to join the resistance, and "Sistermine," fated to become a restless and dissatisfied wanderer, wonders if the sun will ever shine on her again.

Working from a gray-on-gray palette of Scandinavian gloom, Per Petterson creates a surprising range of effects, from the silvery surfaces of childhood memories to the twilight depths of shadows falling.

By Susan Cheever
Simon & Schuster, 172 pp., $23

"Desire." The very word reaches for grandeur, evoking "the soaring and sinking feelings, the cravings, the longings, the obsession, the power of losing control" that Susan Cheever describes so eloquently from personal experience. Alas, erotic desire comes tumbling to earth, demoted to pop-psych "sex addiction" in this investigative journey.

A veteran of three marriages, countless adulteries, and the alcoholism that lubricated them, in her role as a self-help seeker Cheever has strong motives to interpret generously the somatic and psychological readings of reckless behavior that she transmits here: She isn't immoral; she's addicted. But in her role as journalist, those motives amount to a conflict of interest. The case, minus any dissenting opinions, is overdetermined, leaving the reader to object skeptically that if every gratified craving from heroin to designer handbags is a symptom of "addiction," then the term explains everything and nothing.

The author, troubled daughter of a troubled father (John Cheever, whose magisterial oeuvre is hereby reduced to addiction fiction), has confused frankness with intellectual honesty. This is a self-revealing book, performing a subjective striptease behind a scrim of objective information, but not a sufficiently convincing one.

Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.

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