HOW ALIENS THINK by Judith Grossman


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A first collection by English novelist Grossman (Her Own Terms, 1988), whose expatriate view of the US is fresh enough to distract a reader from the drabness of her pedantic prose and academic settings. University life is no one’s idea of glamour—not to mention a good time—and it provides much less in the way of good fiction than one might expect: Most of Grossman’s characters labor in the academic vineyards of America and Britain, but they—re a long way from Lucky Jim. Clara Diamant, the postmodern scholar in “The Two of You,” is the daughter of a rabbi whose traditionalist aversions toward female scholarship help boost Clara’s interest in constructing the critique of patriarchal sexuality that has made her famous. “Great Teacher” is a former student’s rather sad memoir of a brilliant Oxford don who runs his career into the ground through drink, sex, and overwork, while the title story traces the tentative path taken through New England and New York (—Sort of like Manchester but with a river—) taken by two British Fulbright Scholars in the early 1960s. Quirky and lighthearted, it’s the best piece here. Many of the tales are elegies, precious and somewhat heavy-handed, like “From the Old World,” which portrays two pairs of siblings—the “bent” Uncle Raymond, the ’straight” Uncle Frank, the “cruel” Aunt Edith, and the “kind” Aunt Madge—in the language of a fable (—Aunt Edith . . . lived forever after, for as long as her cruel heart could desire, and even longer—). Grossman’s pedantic tone can even be pleasant and light at times, as in “De Maupassant’s Lunch,” a delightful reconstruction of a lunch that Swinburne had with de Maupassant and a monkey in the 19th century. Like the English sky, Grossman’s work is mostly gray, but its sudden bursts of sunlight feel all the brighter for the surrounding gloom.

Pub Date: Oct. 5th, 1999
ISBN: 0-8018-6171-3
Page count: 150pp
Publisher: Johns Hopkins Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 1999