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Live Nude Girl

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In this memoir of her years as an art model, Rooney strips herself nude, if not naked. To support herself through school, the Chicago poet got hooked on professional posing. In precise, brainy prose, she reveals the mechanics and mind-set of the job and elevates public nudity in general through her parsing of source material ranging from Pliny the Elder to TV.com.

Nude modeling is hardly subversive now, so her endless justification boils down to this: It pays, it’s convenient and, yes, there’s an emotional, even erotic payoff of transmuting the self into art, baring yourself to admiration (or censure) and engaging in a long and storied artistic tradition. More interesting is her keen dissection of the power plays between model and painter, and model and photographer. Considering the constant co-opting of her face and figure for any number of mythical people, Rooney’s take on the job is fittingly schizophrenic: On one page, it’s an excuse for meditation and internal study; on the next, we’re reminded of its physical thrill.

In the first of the book’s two best essays, Rooney moves in her mind through a memory palace, a visualizing trick used by Renaissance orators, that’s populated by figures from her life and, more compellingly, from the history of art modeling. The second essay, on modeling for nude photography, finds Rooney’s services bought and paid for by a creepy dilettante; it displays the vanity, the thrill and the can’t-turn-back-now inertia that draw her to work she dislikes.

Rooney benefits from the tendency of a silent someone to become furniture, making her a great source of voyeuristic wisdom. When you look long enough at the model, the model begins to look back through you.

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