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Review of Both Members of the Club in The Daily News

Review of Both Members of the Club in The Daily News

‘The Valley of Amazement’: book review

Amy Tan’s new novel, “The Valley of Amazement,” is rather odd.It’s no surprise that the “Joy Luck Club” author again offers a literary exploration of complex mother-daughter relationships, but her tale of a Shanghai courtesan is overwrought with dramatic developments worthy of a telenovela. Really, how much can happen to one woman in a lifetime?

Tan’s novel of course brings to mind Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha,” as we once again delve into the intimate world of courtesans and concubines. Taking us there is 7-year-old Violet Minturn, the daughter of the proprietor of what is, in 1905, the classiest courtesan house in Shanghai. It’s also the only one run by a white woman, Lulu Minturn.

Amy Tan’s new novel, “The Valley of Amazement,” explores a difficult mother-daughter relationship.

The Hidden Jade Path, as it is known to Westerners, is Violet’s erotically infused playground as a child. Given to peeking into the courtesans’ private chambers, her sex ed comes early and is explicit. What remains a mystery is her mother’s past growing up in San Francisco. Who her father is and what happened to him is another provocative, unanswered question.

Through a wicked turn of events, Violet is sold to another high-class brothel as a 15-year-old virgin courtesan to be deflowered by the highest bidder. Tan delivers a delicately phrased but quite thorough exposition on the sexual skills a courtesan must cultivate. She also immerses a reader in the exotic world they occupied as the celebrities of the time, gossiped about incessantly in the “mosquito press,” but doomed to short-lived careers and brutal penury afterward.

In “The Bully Pulpit,” historian Doris Kearns Goodwin recounts the first decade of the Progressive era.

My, how Violet’s fortunes change over the course of a lifetime. At one turn she’s a celebrated beauty, the next a concubine sexual slave in the provinces. A brief interlude of happiness in between ends when her Western lover dies and their daughter is forcibly taken from her to be raised in Croton-on-Hudson by his widow. And, there’s even more …

The plot does verge on the silly at times, but Tan is such an accomplished storyteller that she almost pulls it off. And the underlying appeal of this book is the weave she makes of the three generations of Minturn women — Violet’s daughter returns to take her place in the story — struggling to accept their fate and each other.

Adam Berlin tells the story of three friends pursuing different dreams in “Both Members of the Club.”


“The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The popular historian, and author of “Team of Rivals,” tells the tale of the muckraking press amid the larger story of the tumultuous first decade of the Progressive era when some feared the center could not hold.

“Both Members of the Club” by Adam Berlin. The author of “The Number of Missing” now tells another Manhattan-based story about a trio of friends that includes a professional fighter, an aspiring actor and an artist. The last is about to stage her first gallery show just as the fighter’s world is coming unseamed. He can’t take the punches anymore. Tough stuff.

“Tatiana: An Arkady Renko Novel” by Martin Cruz Smith. Renko, an investigator first introduced in the old-school best seller “Gorky Park,” has made the transition to New Russia, where the crimes are as dirty and nasty as ever. A reporter is murdered, and following the trail, Renko is led to Kaliningrad, a Cold War “secret” city where only bad things happen.

Review of Both Members of the Club in The Daily News

Review of Both Members of the Club on

Both Members of the Club

By Robert Ecksel on November 7, 2013

Both Members of the Club

 “Both Members of the Club,” Adam Berlin’s long awaited boxing novel, has just been released by Texas Review Press…


Both Members of the Club, Adam Berlin’s third novel, has just been released. Published by Texas Review Press and winner of the 2012 Clay Reynolds Novella Prize, Both Members of the Club, which shares a title with the iconic George Bellows’ painting of the same name, is his long awaited boxing novel.

Berlin is the most writerly of boxing journalists. In an age when anyone with an iPhone and a thought rattling around their head believes they are a writer, Berlin reminds us that writing is an art. It’s a serious endeavor meant to be taken seriously, and no place for ramblings disguised as prose, however facile but formless those ramblings may be.

To call Both Members of the Club a boxing novel is, however, something of a misnomer. Although one of the three main characters, Billy Carlyle, is a boxer on the downside of his career, the novel isn’t so much Billy’s story as the story of Billy and his two closest friends. One is an aspiring actor named Gabriel, our narrator. The other is a female artist named Sam. The three of them are in New York City, by circumstance rather than by design, but it’s where they’ve elected to pursue their fate; it’s also where fate has elected to pursue them.

New York is less a backdrop than a character in the book. Berlin, a longtime resident of the Big Apple, captures the pizzazz and paucity, the marvel and malfunction as only a gifted writer can. A third of the book takes place in Paris, which Berlin brings to life with his eloquent, Spartan style. But Both Members of the Club, while anchored by boxing, is less about Manhattan and Paris than about friendship and loyalty, hopes and aspirations, dreams and nightmares, with a sprinkling of delusion thrown in for good measure.

Berlin’s connection to boxing is profound. The fight scenes in Both Members of the Club, in particular, are rendered with such deftness that it feels less like reading a book than visiting the cinema. He understands that boxing is the ultimate proving ground for masculinity, with all that that means and does not. He also understands that outside the arena, with its screaming fans and testosterone fueled feats of derring-do, awaits the boulevard of broken dreams. But Berlin doesn’t overdo it. He is a master of restraint. His writing is more elegant than muscular; but however polished, it has an edge that suits both the material and the author himself.

Novels, like novelists, are a dying breed. The number of people who read books instead of tweets has never been smaller. While we may be experiencing the twilight of literacy, there will always be an audience for fine writing, an audience appreciative of the work that goes into creating something meaningful. They may be a minority. They may be dinosaurs in a world of butterflies. But storytelling, a seemingly lost art, remains central to the human condition, and can be found if one searches, can be found if one not only looks, but sees.

Teddy Atlas observed that Both Members of the Club asks, “What do we fight for?” That is true. But Both Members of the Club asks another question, and one with no easy answers: Which fight is next?

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion
Review of Both Members of the Club in The Daily News

Review of Both Members of the Club on 15 Rounds

Adam Berlin: The struggle of the art

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My introduction to Adam Berlin’s writing came 4 1/2 years ago when he wrote for this site an account of Joshua Clottey’s preparations for a match with Miguel Cotto. I did not complete half Berlin’s piece before emailing our editor and asking him to throw whatever courtship we might at Berlin – a bio, an archive, a picture, whatever – beginning my plea with: “Adam’s a hell of a talented writer.”

After reading the final 18 pages of Berlin’s third novel, “Both Members of the Club” (Texas Review Press; $12.95), I set the book down, smiled and nodded: Told you so.

There’s a tendency in readers’ minds, even the minds of experienced readers, even what minds do the double duty of belonging to a reader and a writer, to treat first-person narrators as autobiographers; one takes the pronoun I, marries it to the author’s back-cover photo and swims along. Adam Berlin’s third novel feels more deeply autobiographical, though, than what tendencies a first-person narrator already encourages, especially when one reads its two predecessors – “Headlock” and “Belmondo Style” – before approaching “Both Members of the Club.”

All three of Berlin’s novels employ the first-person, more immediate than the third-, causing a reader to see Berlin, ageing with remarkable grace through his 14 years since “Headlock,” first as a bar-bouncing former collegiate wrestler named Odessa Rose, body-beautiful and heterosexual as he wishes to be, then as a late-adolescent track runner, nascently gay, named Ben Chiziver. Berlin’s narrator in his third novel, Gabriel, is, like so much in the book, a creation spun from the best elements of his first two works.

Gabriel is an aspiring actor who alludes several times to paid sexual acts performed on men, a model vain and attractive enough to pose nude for aspiring draftsmen in art classes while straight enough to allow jealousy over an evening’s tryst between his best friends, a female artist named Sam and a prospect-cum-journeyman prizefighter named Billy Carlyle, to undo an early lifelong loyalty oath formed by the three in a troublesome placed called Smythe House, a foster home of troubled youth – the reader is left to infer.

In a November interview with fellow boxing writer Lyle Fitzsimmons, Berlin states: “There was a call for short novels for a university-sponsored competition, so I took my 400-page manuscript and . . . I stripped the book down to the required page limit, 120 pages, and sent in the manuscript.” Berlin likens this effort to what stropping a prizefighter does to his body, but it is an analogy perhaps too facile; to remove 70-percent of his bodyweight, the way Berlin had to remove 70-percent of his manuscript, a middleweight would have to begin camp above 500 pounds and cleave entire chunks of flesh from his skeleton.

That is a workable analogy for what Berlin did – “Both Members of the Club” has entire chunks of plot cleaved from its pages – and its author’s cleaving makes Berlin’s third book his best by an appreciable margin. “Headlock” tells its reader too much, in the style of every first novel. “Belmondo Style” allows its reader to infer more and become a co-conspirator with its author. “Both Members of the Club” neither tells its reader more than a 1/3 what its narrator knows nor tells its reader it’s not telling him more.

If a writer can appraise another writer’s work by counting the number of passages he notes, and then setting that passage-count against its page-count, Berlin’s third novel is several times better than his first. There was a gratuitousness to the violence described in “Headlock” and to a lesser extent “Belmondo Style” that Berlin forgoes in “Both Members of the Club,” leading to, among other accomplishments, as good a first-person treatment of what it is like to be in a prizefight, a chopped salad of body parts and euphoria and familiarity and concussion, a reader can encounter.

Berlin showed a talent for excavating horror in his first novel and honed it in his second, with passages like: “I couldn’t move and I knew his hand was under my balls, holding the lighter, the flame going up and up and in. It felt like it was going in. The last thing I remembered was the cold pain. Then I drifted off, numb and spiraling, like I was leaving me behind, running away, but I wasn’t running.”

In Berlin’s third novel, the horror that often precedes a profession of hurting other men is explored, too, but subtly, deftly: “It’s his memory but mine too, mine from his telling, and I see it, see the men finally paying, not like money for me, not like money for Sam, but paying, his father first, the man from the foster home second, Billy giving, Billy beating, adult legs skidding against floor, trying to slide away, crawl away and Billy hitting, hitting, blood so dark, so slippery, so much of it.”

That’s writing, inviting empathy with a clarity achieved through grammatical roughness, which is different from “writing” – the sort of thing “writers” do when they use special effects to obfuscate, to keep secret the limited range of their mastery. Some of Berlin’s best prose in his third novel treats Billy Carlyle’s scars – “Sun through the window polishes the scar tissue above his eye” / “There’s no scar tissue above his eye, his face smooth as potential” – and it’s no wonder, as Billy Carlyle’s story feels more like Berlin’s, even, than his first-person narrator’s does.

The triumphant MFA golden boy of “Headlock” is gone – lost maybe to critical reviews, maybe to a dying industry, maybe to other experiences – and replaced by a guy who attracts you by not-caring if you’re interested, one who doesn’t have to tell you there are things he’s not telling you. Such are the layers and textures time and practice alone provide. Adam Berlin’s “Both Members of the Club” is an achievement.

Bart Barry can be reached at (at)

Review of The Number of Missing on Word Riot

Review of The Number of Missing on Word Riot


December 15, 2013

The Number of Missing by Adam Berlin

Review by Alison Ruth

Balancing on the water-tension stillness between guilt and grief is a man who punches walls just to watch his blood as it falls, and the light-eyed widow with whom he drinks until time skips. Adam Berlin’s The Number of Missing is a testament to how words sharpen memory even when a soul has been vaporized. The World Trade Center terror has tolled for David’s best friend and Mel’s husband. His death was on the 103rd floor.
There comes a point when you can’t get out of the way, when mathematical equations that calculate speed and distance make it physically impossible to escape, when the line is fixed, the course inevitable, and only the hand of God can snatch the moment, make it not happen.
We do not know when or how our fall will come, and our conscious mind refuses to dwell on it. But after David and Mel endure a wartime strike that kills a man they love, they dread this impending instant of understanding. Their allegiance has been pledged to him and those who died with him. Though their consciousness can still be seduced by fine liquor, fine bodies, as they circle their exploded downtown perimeter in pursuit of oblivion, their consciousness remains in a state of flux. Is it possible to stand still enough to not disturb the universe?
David’s bitter recollection of his best friend mixes with the sweetness of a widow’s sorrow. Bourbon seeks its own equilibrium during their barside conversations, icy as Hemingway’s. Falling is perpetual; the tragedy is that none of the characters can run fast enough, damn each other hard enough, nor drink enough, to will their broken-glass destinies away. “I picture the fall and it’s not unlike the fall of all those bodies that day. It starts horribly, those first moments through air unattached to anything, but then the speed must slow, not the real speed but the feeling of speed, seconds and seconds of falling and not hitting anything, and the hands and feet, the arms and legs, even the heart must move from clenched fear to something else, to letting go, to acceptance.”
Alcohol, lighter than water, allows those left alive to float upon their subconscious. David lingers to catch Mel as she falls further into her own numbing Old Fashioned dream. But David has been too long powerless; a perfect artists’ model, he has stood too long still. “. . . I lie down on this debris, lie down on this grave, lie and watch, hidden behind a steel beam, maybe part of the steel I watched that morning and thought it was melting, and I watch them dig in the light.” 
It is in these passages the reader will linger to recall her own regret, that time is both too short and too long, anywhere near Ground Zero, anywhere near a cemetery.

About the author:

Alison Ruth was a feature writer for the popular music magazines Creem, Rock, Rock Fever, and Wavelength. Her short stories have been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize and have been published in Kestrel, J Journal, Southern Indiana Review, G.W. Review, and Tulane Literary Magazine. Her first novel, Near-Mint Cinderella, is forthcoming from Aqueous Books in 2014.

Review of The Number of Missing in Publishers Weekly

Review of The Number of Missing in Publishers Weekly

The Number of Missing

Adam Berlin. Spuyten Duyvil (SPD, dist.) $18 trade paper (294p) ISBN 978-0-923389-50-5

The September 11th attacks were undoubtedly traumatizing for those who lived close enough to witness it, and even more so by those who lost a friend or loved one. Berlin’s (Both Members of the Club) novel follows one such survivor, an artist’s model and Manhattan resident named David, as he navigates the nightlife of the city in the weeks and months following the attacks. Told through a somber inner monologue, we experience David’s recollection of the event itself along, with memories of his deceased friend, juxtaposed with episodes from his current rudderless existence. He goes from modeling job to modeling job, while fighting his feelings for his friend’s widow and the anti-Arab resentment brewing within him. More than anything else though, we witness David drink his pain away with the sorrow of loss soaking into even the most mundane descriptions. The relentless episodes of nightly drinking—most often in the same bar—make for a repetitive, slow-moving plot. Though David’s dwindling demise is hard to sit through, this sameness seems part of the point and feels truthful to the experience of someone so traumatized. (Nov.)

Review of The Number of Missing in The Millions

Review of The Number of Missing in The Millions



On The Pleasures and Solitudes of Quiet Books

By  posted at 12:00 pm on August 27, 2013

Some years ago, before my first novel found its eventual home, several editors in a row said the book was “too quiet.” I was told at the time that this was just a euphemism for “no obvious marketing angle,” but I found it interesting to consider the idea that some novels are quiet, whereas others are loud.

coverIn her exquisite memoir, The Faraway NearbyRebecca Solnit writes movingly of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. Shelley gave birth to four children, but only the fourth survived. “In the years she gave birth to all those too-mortal children,” Solnit writes:

…she also created a work of art that yet lives, a monster of sorts in its depth of horror, and a beauty in the strength of its vision and its acuity in describing the modern world that in 1816 was just emerging. This is the strange life of books that you enter alone as a writer, mapping an unknown territory that arises as you travel. If you succeed in the voyage, others enter after, one at a time, also alone, but in communion with your imagination, traversing your route. Books are solitudes in which we meet.

But before the meeting comes the solitude, the book as a private space that a reader steps into, and nowhere is this clearer to me than on the subway. On any given morning, a majority of my fellow passengers are reading. It’s a way to pass the time, of course, but it seems to me that escaping into a book in these moments is also a bid for some measure of seclusion.

In the places where everyone drives, the roads fill with single-occupancy vehicles in the mornings and the late afternoons, thousands or millions of drivers in their solitudes. On a subway commute, packed in with strangers in an underground train, solitude is more elusive. We resort to small tricks to find some space for ourselves: the noise-blocking headphones, the iPad, the book. I wear earbuds on my commute, but unless I’m too tired to read or the person next to me is loud, the iPod in my pocket is dark. I just want things to be a little quieter, so that I can disappear into my book more fully. In those moments I just want to be a little more alone.

coverIt probably goes without saying that you’ll crave different solitudes at different moments in your life, both in books and in physical places. I have an immense love for loud books. Novels like, say, Nick Harkaway’s, about which I’ve rhapsodized at length, books that come galloping into your life with their doomsday machines and schoolgirl spies and ninjas and leave you daydreaming for days afterward about clouds of mechanized bees. But on the other end of the spectrum, there’s the immense pleasure of novels like Teju Cole’s Open City, which I finally got around to reading a few weeks back. Very little happens in Open City, plotwise. It’s a very intelligent meditation on memory, dislocation, family, music, national identity, and other interesting topics, but the action is mostly a man wandering the streets of New York. I found it mesmerizing.

Lately, possibly because it’s been a long summer of continuous hard work on a new novel and I don’t want to think about plot just now, or perhaps because my annual allotment of vacation days at my day job resets every September 1st, I’ve been out of vacation time since February, and reading quiet books is the closest I can get to a vacation at the moment, I’ve discovered a new appreciation for books that fall on the quieter end of the spectrum.

Any definition of what constitutes a quiet book will naturally be subjective, but I think the important point here is that quiet isn’t the same thing as inert. I’m not talking about the tediously self-conscious novels written by authors who use “literary fiction” as a sort of alibi, as in “my book doesn’t have a plot, because it’s literary fiction.” I rarely get more than fifty pages into these books before they join the books-that-need-to-get-out-of-my-apartment-immediately pile by the front door. Nor is quiet necessarily the same thing as minimalist. Raymond Chandler’s prose is minimalistic, but his stories aren’t quiet.

The books I think of as being quiet, the ones I’ve been enjoying lately, have a distilled quality about them, an unshowy thoughtfulness and a sense of grace, of having been boiled down to the bare essentials. If the solitude you crave at the moment is a quiet one, here’s a short reading list of quiet books that I’ve recently read and admired:

cover1. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
The book takes the form of a letter written by an aging Congregationalist minister, John Ames, to his young son. I found the language extraordinary.

2. Open City by Teju Cole
A young psychiatrist, Nigerian-born, walks the streets of New York City. The walks open the city to him and serve as a respite from the stress of his working life.

3. Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon
A North Korean man defects and immigrates to a coastal town in Brazil following the Korean War, where he becomes a tailor’s apprentice. An elegant account of a quiet and solitary life.

4. The Number of Missing by Adam Berlin
A deeply moving chronicle of drinking, friendship, and grief. Paul was among the scores of Cantor Fitzgerald employees who died in the World Trade Center. In the months following the 9/11 attacks, his best friend, David, moves like a ghost between the bars of Manhattan, sometimes with and sometimes without Paul’s widow, Mel. Both are falling, but David is waiting for Mel to fall first, so that he can catch her.

cover5. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
Sophia, age six, and her grandmother, who’s nearing the end of her life, while away the days of a summer on a remote island in the Bay of Finland. Jansson’s depiction of both characters and of their relationship is delightful.

6. The Harp in the South by Ruth Park
A classic in Australia. A couple raise their children in the slums of 1940s Sydney, “in an unlucky house which the landlord had renumbered from Thirteen to Twelve-and-a-Half.”