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Jonathan ​Franzen is smart and brash, the kind of person you want as your social critic but not as a brother-in-law. Many of the 14 essays in How to Be Alone, by the author of the critically acclaimed novel The Corrections, first appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and elsewhere. A long, much-discussed rumination on the American novel, (newly) titled “Why Bother?,” is included, as well as essays on privacy obsession, the U.S. post office, New York City, big tobacco, and new prisons. At his best, as in “My Father’s Brain,” a piece on his father’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, Franzen can make the ordinary world utterly riveting. But at times, it can be difficult to discern where Franzen stands on any particular subject, as he often takes both sides of an argument. Valid attempts to reflect ambiguity s! ometimes lead to obfuscation, especially in his essays on privacy and tobacco, although his belief that small-town America of years gone by offered the individual little privacy certainly rings true. Franzen can write with panache, as in this comment after he watched, without headphones, a TV show during a flight: “(It) became an exposé of the hydraulics of insincere smiles.” A few of the shorter pieces appear to be filler. Franzen shines brightest when he gets edgy and a little angry, as in “The Reader in Exile”: “Instead of Manassas battlefield, a historical theme park. Instead of organizing narratives, a map of the world as complex as the world itself. Instead of a soul, membership in a crowd. Instead of wisdom, data.”

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