Barry Miles
Grove Press

The Beat Hotel is like a sitcom. The low-rent residence in the Latin Quarter of Paris is its low-budget set. The main characters are Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso. Its "producer," Barry Miles, couldn't afford to sign Jack Kerouac, already a big star by 1957, though Miles does persuade the quintessential beatnik to make a few cameos by letter from Morocco.

Miles seems to have put into chronological order every letter that Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso wrote, every interview they gave, every word they ever said or wrote in any foreword, afterward, preface, or commentary from 1957 to 1963, in order to wring a day by day account of their lives in Paris, centered predominately around their rat-infested slum on the Left Bank.

Miles manages to keep a straight face throughout, applying no discernible judgment upon any of his players, no matter how goofy (the Beats would say "creepy") and downright stupid their madcap antics. He demonstrates very little discernible discrimination, either, using a kitchen-sink approach for most of the book.

While much of the detail is monumentally mundane, Miles manages to communicate a vivid image of his stars' personalities, the times, and the Paris milieu. The Beat Hotel isn't for beginners who want a more complete picture of the movement's artistic contribution, but Beat Hotel, the sitcom, would find its market in a small late-night cable audience of aficionados already familiar with beat work and culture who want to know minutia about the daily lives in Paris of three of its most important adherents.-T.R. Wright

DOOR WIDE OPEN: A Beat Love Affair in Letters, 1957-1958
Jack Kerouacand Joyce Johnson

If you just can't get enough of the Beats, there's still another installment to be found in this collection of letters between Jack Kerouac and Joyce Johnson. While it's not as nakedly exploitative as Joyce Maynard's voyeuristic treatment of Salinger (and has none of the amateur pain to be found in daughter Margaret Salinger's new treatise), it still does precious little to rise above the "I fucked him when..." genre of tell-alls that seems to be the treatment du jour of every celebrity from literary icons to rock stars.

Which is to say, if THIS is what you want to be remembered for - the fact that you had sex, or even a relationship of sorts with someone famous - save it for the locker room at your health club and spare the rest of us.

It doesn't help that Johnson writes a lot like a Cosmo Girl!!after one too many hits of acid. Her prose is breathless, cloying, and precious. Like this exclamation to Barnard classmate Sheila, "Chere, Il me fait très heureuse à recevoir ta lettre 'round robin" et j'espére que tout va bien et que ta française est meilleur que la mienne which has tout à fait flown. At this moment, I am sitting in my new sublet apartment, 65 West 68th Street (my most swanky address to date!) and M. Kerouac is fast asleep in the next room - not even the typewriter disturbs him... He sleeps, broods, eats, stands on his head - I cook, clean, work on my novel - and I like it! Rather - I love him."


Johnson does have three novels and a National Book Critics Circle Award to her credit, but you'd never know it from the adolescent burbling you'll read here (and the narrative reflections she interposes as an adult do nothing to help).

Confessional books like these only reinforce the notion of women as groupies to the REAL talent in the room - men - as opposed to artists in their own right. Because women who ARE artists in their own right wouldn't stoop to this trash.-RR

Norwegian Wood
Vintage International

There are times, when as a fledgling book reviewer, you question your ability. You wonder if you have the skills, or even the right, to recommend a book to others. That said: no human being on the planet should be exempt from purchasing Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood. Were it sold for hundreds of dollars per copy, it would be a steal.

The story, written by Murkami in 1987 (catapulting him to stardom in Japan), concerns Toru Watanabe as he goes of to college, falls in love, turns 20, and basically lives his life. Toru falls for Naoko, a high school friend beset with personal problems... not the least of which is that their mutual friend killed himself years before. Set in Tokyo in the late 60s, the story is of Toru and his relationships - to Naoko, to his friend Nagasawa, and the lively Midori, and all the other seemingly crazy but very familiar characters Murakami always haunts his novels with.

The book follows Toru through all his ups and downs. Many times Toru appears to be doing nothing but drinking and reading, but the words are still among the most riveting ever put down on paper. Murakami has captured youth and love so perfectly, so aptly, that masterpiece is the only word that describes his achievement. The story is funny and sad and simple and amazing and above all, very, very true.

Complete with Murakami's deadpan prose, offbeat characters and a love of Western culture, Norwegian Wood isn't as technically superior as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, but its genius lies partially in its simplicity. It's one of the few books you can randomly open up and start reading (as Toru does with The Great Gatsby, incidentally); not a single page disappoints. If you've ever been 20 and/or been in love, give Norwegian Wood at least two reads; you won't regret it. -RB