“Play It As It Lays” by Joan Didion

 (This is a guest post by Christie C.)

“She’s less than sure if her heart has come to stay in San Jose
 and her neverborn child haunts her now as she speeds down the freeway
 she tries her luck with the traffic police out of boredom more than spite
 . . .
 she says a girl needs a gun these days on account of the rattlesnakes.”
 -Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, “Rattlesnakes”

The first few chapters of “Play It As It Lays,” an unrelentingly bleak novel by Joan Didion set among jaded Hollywood insiders in the late 1960s, had me worried the book would be a bad influence on me. For whatever reason (or no reason), I’ve always been susceptible to nihilism’s undertow. During my morning walks around the time I started the book, I found myself thinking things along the lines of: “There are no universal rules when it comes to relationships. There is only what people like and don’t like; what they’ll put up with and what they won’t.” Night after night, reading a few of the short, sparely written chapters before going to sleep, I would think that surely the book was going to start going easy on the protagonist, Maria (Mar-EYE-ah) Wyeth, a young has-been actress trapped in a dead relationship with her mildly sadistic director husband.

When I say the book is bleak, here’s what I mean. Maria is riding in a taxi cab in New York City and receives a letter from her father in rural Nevada, telling Maria that her mother has driven off the highway and been killed and coyotes have eaten her face. There’s a glib abortionist who, as he’s operating on Maria illegally in a motel room in Encino, says, “You hear that scraping sound? That should be music to your ears.” Nearly every snippet of dialogue is mean; nearly every character talks to Maria as if she’s stupid.

I didn’t get what the book was getting at until somewhere toward the middle, after the  pivotal event of Maria’s abortion, in which she longs to talk to her mother, who has been dead for years now. There’s a thread of motherhood running through the book – Maria and her husband have a toddler child, Kate, who has some sort of severe cognitive and behavioral disorder and is institutionalized (the nurses and Maria’s husband scold Maria for visiting there too often), and Kate seems to be the one thing in life Maria is sticking around for. There’s the connection Maria still feels to her mother, and to Silver Wells, Nevada, the town she grew up in that is – tellingly – now just a barren place where the U.S. military tests rockets. There’s the leaden sense of regret Maria dwells in after the abortion, every day, with every heartbeat  – or to put it Maria’s way, “the point” of doing anything ended “in a motel room in Encino.” For Maria, motherhood is connection – to one’s roots, to something real, to “the point” of living.

I usually try to skip the Introduction to novels and avoid reading reviews when I’m pretty sure I’m going to write my own, to keep me from thinking about a book what I’m “supposed” to think. But I happened to read on Wikipedia that snakes are a metaphor that slink up again and again here, in that way that spurs English teachers to tell their students to get out their hi-liter pens. So I was conscious of this as I read, although the motif makes itself obvious and I’m sure I would’ve picked up on it anyway. When it comes to all the bad things that can happen in life, the “rattlesnake in the playpen” is what causes Maria anxiety – not apocalypse, not “general devastation” – because death by snake bite is “particular,” and “punitive,” she says.

In her empty days, Maria drives on the freeway, never going anywhere. At one point, she goes to Vegas – not for any particular reason, just because she does. Her hours, days, and weeks are filled with moments that amount to nothing, that are not the sum of their parts: “When she finally lay down nights in the purple room she would play back the day’s tape, a girl singing into a microphone and a fat man dropping a glass, cards fanned on a table and a dealer’s rake in closeup and a woman in slacks crying and the opaque blue eyes of the guard at some baccarat table. A child in the harsh light of a crosswalk on the Strip. A sign on Fremont Street. A light blinking. In her half sleep the point was ten, the jackpot was on eighteen, the only man that could ever reach her was the son of a preacher man, someone was down sixty, someone was up. Daddy wants a popper and she rode a painted pony let the spinning wheel spin.”

And this fragment is typical of Maria’s thought patterns; here she is remembering her parents and life in rural Nevada before leaving for New York City to become an actress (at her gambler dad’s behest, it seems, because in one scene he asks how can she win if she’s not at the table?) : “…the three of us driving down to Vegas in the pickup and then driving home again in the clear night, a hundred miles down and a hundred miles back and nobody on the highway either way, just the snakes stretched on the warm asphalt and my mother with a wilted gardenia in her dark hair and my father keeping a fifth of Jim Beam on the floorboard and talking about his plans, he always had a lot of plans, I never in my life had any plans, none of it makes any sense, none of it adds up.”

The genius of creating this emotionally desolate landscape is that when there’s a moment with heart, it’s all the more powerful for being something rare. Acts of kindness in the book feel like nothing less than miracles; as a reader, you feel grateful for the reprieve from so much callousness among the characters in Maria’s world. And when the book’s story picks up the pace near the end – it’s breathtaking, and I simply could not put the book down until I had read the astonishing and perfect final words.

The Sum Up: This book might have cured me of my nihilism. If you drive for long enough through the desert, you’ll make it to where there’s life. I recommend this novel for fans of sparely written, minimalist fiction.

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“Just Kids” by Patti Smith

Photo of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, taken on Coney Island.

(This is a guest review by Christie C.)

I think my favorite thing about Patti Smith is that she’s a believer. I don’t just mean that she prays to Jesus even though old-school, earnest religious belief has long been unfashionable in the punk and art circles she’s spent time in ever since dropping out of teachers’ college and moving to New York City to become a poet. And I don’t just mean that after giving up her first child for adoption as a too-young mother, she swore on Joan of Arc’s birthday – to both the baby and to Joan – that she would make something of her life.

She believes in the magic of destiny. “Just Kids,” a memoir of her friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, is filled with enough breathtaking coincidences to make you believe in it, too. Self-described “country mouse” Patricia Lee Smith first met “Bob” Mapplethorpe ( she would later tell him,“Somehow you don’t seem like a Bob to me. Is it okay if I call you Robert?”) when she arrived from South Jersey, hungry and penniless and looking for work, at what she thought was the apartment of friends from high school now attending art school in the city. Instead, asleep in a back room and haloed in sun, she found Robert. Their meeting was poetic and auspicious, and although on that day he led her to the correct address and said good-bye, they would have two more chance meetings before becoming inseparable and psychic as twins. It’s easy to see why the two of them would feel that their union was meant to be.  

The second meeting occurred at the bookstore where Patti had gotten work. In the long dull hours, she dreamed up backstories about a mysterious necklace the store had for sale at her counter – a silver plate etched with Persian script, on a violet cord. One slow day, Robert entered the store. They recognized each other from their previous encounter, and the aesthetically discerning Robert took his time examining the jewelry. Of all the pieces, he selected the necklace that had secretly been Patti’s favorite – to her delight but also her dismay, because she could no longer gaze at it and fantasize during lulls. After ringing up his purchase, Patti said, “Don’t give it to any girl but me,” a moment of uncharacteristic boldness that she immediately felt embarrassed about. Robert promised he wouldn’t – a promise he kept when he later gave the necklace to Patti as a gift, immaculately wrapped in matching tissue paper.

Keeping promises is a theme that beats strong throughout the book, and in the lives of the two main characters who meet as (literally) starving artists, whose paths intersect and part and intersect again, until Robert’s death of AIDs in 1989. In fact, the book itself is a kept promise. All through their friendship, as they hunger and move into the Chelsea Hotel where running into William S. Burroughs and Janis Joplin were everyday occurrences, as they draw together on the apartment floor for hours of sustained concentration late into the night and Patti charms Robert with her regret-soaked childhood story of stealing an ice-skater charm from a sick girl who died the following day, as Robert discovers and struggles with his homosexuality and lovers come and go in both of their lives – Robert begs Patti to someday tell their story, and Patti promises that she will.

Robert would later become infamous for his aggressively graphic, S&M-tinged photographs. Patti writes that she sometimes had trouble reconciling this brash work with the artist she thought of as a sweet – albeit mischievous – and sensitive boy: “I admired him for it, but I could not comprehend the brutality.” Yet there’s a yin-yang, symbiotic quality to the relationship between the romantic Patti and the experimental Robert who was always pushing his art further and further away from what was socially accepted. You get the feeling that their differences drew them together just as much as their similarities.

To share an example of just one emblem of Patti’s endearing and unwavering belief in fate is to tell the story of how she selected her first guitar, a gift from Sam Shepard, who was her lover at the time and had found success with his off-Broadway plays (meanwhile, Patti and Robert had remained roommates, vowing never to be apart, and Robert had begun to date men). Sam took Patti guitar-shopping: “We looked at a lot of Martins, but what caught my eye was a battered black Gibson, a 1931 Depression model. The back had been cracked and repaired, and the gears of the tuning pegs were rusted. But something about it captured my heart. I thought by the looks of it that nobody would want it but me.
‘Are you sure this is the one, Patti Lee?’ Sam asked me.
‘It’s the only one,’ I said.” (page 184)
It’s as if she saw something of herself in the scruffy, dogged guitar. She imbues chance meetings and objects and the birthdays of saints with meaning, and it makes for a meaningful life that takes the shape of a myth, complete with symbols.

I think readers will find Patti’s lack of cynicism refreshing. In her 1960s and ’70s milieu, as many around her grew weary and wryly embraced the falling plaster of the simultaneously liberating and deteriorating society around them, she doesn’t give up hope in the power of art to make people and culture better. When writing about Robert’s starstruck worship of Andy Warhol – at one point, at Robert’s behest, the two hang out at legendary nightspot Max’s Kansas City night after night so they can penetrate Andy’s inner circle and sit at his cool-kids table in the back room – she says, “I didn’t feel for Warhol the way Robert did. His work reflected a culture I wanted to avoid. I hated the soup and felt little for the can. I preferred an artist who transformed his time, not mirrored it.” (page 69)

Also admirable and a little at odds in Patti’s bohemian world is her suck-it-up, blue-collar work ethic. At many points in their friendship, it was Patti who awoke before dawn to ride the subway to jobs in faraway parts of the city and work long hours to pay for rent and food and art supplies, romanticizing her role as the self-sacrificing lover supporting her artist. It’s also usually up to the sensible Patti to get the duo out of tough spots, whether it’s negotiating an art-in-exchange-for-rent deal with the manager of the Chelsea Hotel, or telling their former landlord he can keep some of their possessions in lieu of paying back rent. “As I was leaving, I noticed one of my drawings hanging on the wall. If [Chelsea Hotel manager] Bard didn’t get it, at least [former landlord] Jimmy Washington did. I said good-bye to my stuff. It suited him and Brooklyn better. There’s always new stuff, that’s for sure.” (page 98)

It’s fun to read the book for the glimpses of stars who pass through it, often leaving lasting impressions on the unassuming young wannabe poet once teased for her Joan Baez-like, folk-singer hair (before taking scissors to it to give herself an androgynous Keith Richards ‘do, a daring move that finally earned her some cool cred). She soothingly sings a song she wrote for a drunk Janis Joplin, after which Janis says, “That’s me, man. That’s my song.” She takes bits of wisdom from the talented artists around her and keeps them like stones in her pocket, such as this life-saving advice from Sam Shepard: “I was both scattered and stymied, surrounded by unfinished songs and abandoned poems. I would go as far as I could and hit a wall, my own imagined limitations. And then I met a fellow [Shepard] who gave me his secret, and it was pretty simple. When you hit a wall, just kick it in.” (page 170)

She believes in decency. After a well-received poetry reading accompanied by electric guitar at literati haunt St. Mark’s Place, offers poured in, inviting her to record albums and publish books – but she turned many of these down, feeling she still needed to pay her dues and mature as an artist. “I thought of something I learned from reading Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas by Mari Sandoz. Crazy Horse believes that he will be victorious in battle, but if he stops to take spoils from the battlefield, he will be defeated. He tattoos lightning bolts on the ears of his horses so the sight of them will remind him of this as he rides. I tried to apply this lesson to the things at hand, careful not to take spoils that were not rightfully mine.” (page 183)

Speaking of the lightning-bolt tattoo, Patti later gets one on her knee to remind herself to be gracious and not seize what isn’t hers. The way the tattoo comes to be part of her is just one example of the beautiful coincidences she recognizes in her life: “I decided I wanted a similar tattoo. I was sitting in the lobby drawing versions of lightning bolts in my notebook when a singular woman entered. She had wild red hair, a live fox on her shoulder, and her face was covered with delicate tattoos. I realized that if one erased the tattoos, they would reveal the face of Vali, the girl on the cover of Love on the Left Bank [a book of photographs of 1950s Paris]. Her picture had long ago found a place on my wall.” And so, of course, Patti asks Vali to do the honor of tattooing a lightning bolt on her knee, and Vali wordlessly nods yes.

Fans of Patti’s music will enjoy reading the story behind the iconic cover image (photographed, of course, by Robert) of her seminal “Horses” album, which musicians including Morrissey, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Courtney Love, and R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe have cited as a major influence, not just on their own music but as guiding their decisions to make music in the first place. (Stipe told The Guardian that he bought the album in high school and it “tore off my limbs and put them back on in a whole different order.”) Toward the end of the book – which resolutely focuses on her friendship with Robert and is not meant to contain Patti’s life story – readers will find enchanting trivia that adds depth to the album and each of its songs. But my favorite bit of background about “Horses” describes how un-premeditated the look for the cover was: “The only thing I promised Robert was that I would wear a clean shirt with no stains on it.” (page 249) Astonishingly, Robert took only 12 photos that day, and the now-famous cover image was one of them. But then, it was like him to take very few photos, she writes, because he always knew the shot he was going for and went about getting it very deliberately. Still, that they got the shot right away fits right into their view – one that Patti and Robert shared, and part of what made them soul mates – that life is guided by magical destiny. Some things are just meant to be.  

It’s interesting for readers who know Patti as a rock legend to read so many pages in which she struggles to succeed as a poet, with no real musical ambitions until much later in the book. There are tantalizing glimpses of the path she’ll take one day – for example, at a Doors concert she has the strange experience of objectively analyzing Jim Morrison’s performance and thinking it’s something she could do; the audacity of this reaction surprises her, as she has no experience performing or even writing music. Her heroes include Rimbaud and Bob Dylan, and later in the book Dylan attends a show that Patti puts on with her band. The moment is moving because Patti feels her idol and unwitting mentor has come to her musical and artistic graduation – the point at which she is no longer trying to emulate her heroes, but to go her own way.

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Runemarks, by Joanne Harris

It is in an interesting book that is bookended by Ragnarok and Apocalypse. Runemarks is set 500 years after the Twilight of the Gods, and the Norse pantheon is scattered or dead. Or both.

Maddy Smith is an outsider to the small town she was born in, ignored or feared because of the rune branded on her palm. Her society punishes the strange and unusual, striving to keep the demons and Gods from returning to their world. Their efforts are in vain, as Maddy sweeps their prejudices aside to study under a one-eyed wanderer who visits her town.

The theme of the book is of the balance between Order and Chaos, and the endless circle of renewal. It should come as no surprise to anyone that the Gods, though dead or imprisoned, do not stay that way for long. The conflict is between Odin and Loki, remnants of the old ways against the “Order”, who are attempting to end this cycle. Maddy is a pivotal figure in this conflict, as she seeks to understand who she really is, and her role in the changing world.

The narrative is a bit fragmented, following the point of view of most of the main characters, as well as a few minor bit characters. The conclusion is especially fragmented, as scenes and characters are quickly cut between, in a style reminiscent of a movie montage. It is a bit overwhelming.

The antagonists are a thinly veiled version of Christianity, which makes the story an interesting tale of a culture clash between the old ways and the new. Unfortunately, this not really dealt with in the story, and the opponents become classic cackling villains in short order. This is a shame.

The Sum up: Not a bad book, and I will check the library for the (inevitable?) sequel. The mythology is interesting, and the pacing is brisk. The downsides are a lack of depth to the antagonists and too many characters trying to carry the action.

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Alice in Zombieland, by Lewis Carroll and Nickolas Cook

The first thing you should notice about Alice in Zombieland is the order of the authors- Lewis Carroll is first, and Nickolas Cook is (a distant) second. That is because everything that is interesting, witty, and original is the work of Lewis Carroll, and Cook’s additions add nothing, and only detract from the work.

It is clear that this work is a naked attempt to capitalize on the trend of reworking old works with popular modern themes. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Android Karenina… these are all superior choices to Alice in Zombieland. They attempt (with varying degrees of success) to transplant themes from one genre to another, using supernatural or science fictional elements as metaphors for class consciousness or representations that will resonate with the modern reader. Alice in Zombieland exhibits no such effort.

It is evident that Cook simply replaced words, or at most sentences and some small paragraphs, into order to create a zombie story. Instead of a white rabbit, she follows a black rat. The pack of cards are a pack of zombies. The unfortunate Bill is still a lizard, but a dead one. It would be uncharitable to suggest that this was merely 15 minutes work with find-and-replace, but the thought does spring to mind.

It is a shame that the one area that would have been ideal for reworking was left entirely untouched. Lewis Carroll’s amusing and memorable poems and songs are parodies of popular works during his time. Divorced from their context, they lose the punch they would have had for his original readers. Cook could have created his own nonsense parodies that explored his themes of undeath, which would have been appropriate and fitting, but he did not. Instead, the poems are left unchanged. Items such as “The Mouse’s Tale” don’t really fit the tone of the story, and so it is a pity that they were not edited as well.

The Sum-up: This book’s most enjoyable portions are those that are the original Wonderland, which are still present in liberal and generous measure. Even the most devoted fans of the Zombie story are going to be disappointed with this version, which gives only the most cursory and superficial treatment possible. Read the original again instead of this.

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Literary therapy: “La Vita Nuova,” short fiction by Allegra Goodman

This is a guest post by Christie C.

I was having one of those evenings. For the knots in my shoulders and back, I contemplated getting a massage from the Chinese folks who used to be next to the Dollar Store in Springfield Mall. (Because… well, they’re within my budget.) I quickly nixed the idea of goin’ boozin’, although that one was darkly alluring. I thought I’d maybe eat a cupcake. Or just sleep until morning, my ears plugged with conical wads of foam and the white noise of a fan drowning out the world. You know, one of those evenings.

But instead, I went out and picked up the latest issue of the New Yorker. It was more just something to look at while I, okay, ate a freakin’ cupcake. I idly skimmed the table of contents to see what this week’s short fiction was. It was a piece by someone named Allegra Goodman [she has a new novel, "The Cookbook Collector," coming out in July 2010]. Somewhere in my brain there was a flicker of recognition, but I’d never read anything by her. I gave her story a chance. I’m so glad I did.

Her story, “La Vita Nuova,” was exactly what I needed. Here was a beautiful story about someone who was sad but who lived her dismal little life with perceptiveness, occasional bursts of imaginative magic, and her own private brand of black humor. Here was a story that was spare, uncluttered, cleaned to the bone, with only what’s necessary remaining. Every sentence seemed to shimmer with poignancy.

It’s just this small-scale, short, slice-of-life, almost mundane piece, but it reminded me why I get so evangelical about short fiction. In the space of an hour, in one evening, in just a few pages–just the right words took me away from my life and into someone else’s. After I read it, it left a sort of emotional echo, melancholy but lovely.

Insomnia and stress have lately scattered my concentration; it sometimes feels as if I can only give something my rapt attention for a moment, then I’m gone. I blink, and I’m off to something else. A heartbeat, and I’m off to something else. It feels as if there’s little coherence. Reading a novel feels out of the question. That’s only one reason I’m grateful for writers who create worlds in these brilliant flashes. I could go on about short stories, but I’m off to something else–I want to share the beginning of “La Vita Nuova,” and a part from the middle:

“The day her fiance left, Amanda went walking in the Colonial cemetery off Garden Street. The gravestones were so worn that she could hardly read them. They were melting away into the weedy grass. You are a very dark person, her fiance had said.

She walked home and sat in her half-empty closet. Her vintage nineteen-fifties wedding dress hung in clear asphyxiating plastic printed ‘NOT A TOY.’

She took the dress to work. She hooked the hanger onto a grab bar on the T and the dress rustled and swayed. When she got out at Harvard Square, the guy who played guitar near the turnstiles called, ‘Congratulations.’

Work was at the Garden School, where Amanda taught art, including theatre, puppets, storytelling, drumming, dance, and now fabric painting. She spread the white satin gown on the art-room floor. Two girls glued pink feathers all along the hem. Others brushed the skirt with green and purple. A boy named Nathaniel dipped his hand in red paint and left his little handprint on the bodice as though the dress were an Indian pony. At lunchtime, the principal asked Amanda to step into her office.”

(I could pretty much go on quoting the whole story, but here’s another part I liked, from the middle.)

” ‘La Vita Nuova’ explained how to become a great poet. The secret was to fall in love with the perfect girl but never speak to her. You should weep instead. You should pretend that you love someone else. You should write sonnets in three parts. Your perfect girl should die.”

(And another… mostly because I don’t want to end on that note!)

“They went to a store called Little Russia and looked at the lacquered dolls there. ‘See, they come apart,’ Amanda told Nathaniel. ‘You pop open this lady, and inside there’s another, and another, and another.’

‘Do not touch, please,’ the saleslady told them.”

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“Mermaid Fever,” a story from Steven Millhauser’s new collection, “Dangerous Laughter”

[This is a guest post by Christie C.]
The writer Steven Millhauser illuminates the shadowy nether-realms of human consciousness. Not the sinister, sordid stuff–but the stuff that we might not give a second thought to, the stuff that many writers don’t think to focus on as the main subject of a story. His terrain is often abstract or esoteric, tempered with prose that’s practically documentary in its sobriety.
 
For instance, in his short story “History of a Disturbance,” a man literally becomes apoplectic and finally goes mute when the absurdity of words, spoken and printed, aggravates then despairs him, ultimately propelling him into a vow of silence. (The story is written as an explanation and an apology to his enraged and uncomprehending wife.)
 
My favorite Steven Millhauser stories are the ones in which he hyper-focuses on a hypothetical shift in an otherwise realistic world. In these stories, readers don’t get a traditional plot, in which fleshed-out characters think and act and make events happen. The story “In the Reign of Harad IV” features a maker of miniatures who delights a king with tiny creations. The king becomes greedy for tinier and tinier things, until the objects become subatomic and, finally, imaginary. Although you get characters and events, the emphasis is on the themes of greed and obsession; the people and events are almost incidental. “A Change in Fashion” left me reeling with its inventiveness. In a sort of backlash against a world of low-rise jeans and exhibitionism, “concealment” becomes en vogue–and once again, Millhauser takes this idea to its extreme, writing of garments that cover all the skin, obscure the wearer’s shape, and finally become architecture that contains the wearer and renders her almost nonexistent. “The Invasion from Outer Space” is a convincing account of something (a substance, not sentient beings) coming to Earth. Instead of reading like an action movie, the story is tinged with the disillusionment of the people who feared and then found themselves desiring something more catastrophic, and climactic.
 
Many of these stories are narrated in the voice of a collective consciousness (of a town, for example). There’s a refreshing humility inherent in telling a story from this point of view, a reprieve from the self-consciousness and neuroticism that can come along with first-person narration. The focus stays on the playful philosophical ideas, without the complication of distinct, idiosyncratic characters.
 
I was thrilled to find all of these Millhauserisms in “Mermaid Fever,” a story from Millhauser’s new collection, “Dangerous Laughter.” (The story is also featured in the Decemeber 2009 issue of Harper’s magazine.) The story is simple: A dead and beautiful mermaid washes ashore in a small town, a bunch of scientists and doctors from nearby universities verify that she is in fact a mermaid, the town puts her on display in a glass box filled with preservative. Townspeople drift over to the historical society to gaze upon the mermaid, and her presence ignites the titular “mermaid fever”–first fashion fads, then changes in behavior and even sexual proclivities among the townsfolk. Finally, she disappears; the historical society claims that it could no longer properly preserve her so the mermaid was shipped off to the Smithsonian. Rumors and conspiracy theories follow, then relief that the object of the town’s collective obsession is gone. In her absence, the mermaid returns to her rightful place: the fantasies of the people she’d briefly dwelled among (in her vat full of preservative fluid).
 
From the very beginning–and before, as soon as I saw the title and an accompanying image of a mermaid painting printed on the first page of the story in Harper’s–I prepared to revel in Millhauser doin’ his thing: landing a fantastical premise smack-dab in an otherwise recognizably realistic world, details precise as documentation in some official log, the “our” narration, the moments of poetic transcendence.
 
But at a certain point, I hit a wall. It was when the collective-consciousness narrator began to describe outfits such as the “Mermaidini” and “Mermette” swimsuits. At first I thought, “Aha, he’s doing the thing he did in ‘A Change in Fashion,’ but… mermaid-style.” I decided to let this slide. But when the behavior and obsessions of the town’s denizens grew outlandish to the point of implausibility–a woman asking to have her legs sewn up so that she would be more sexually attractive to her husband, because he, like the other men in town, had developed a mermaid fetish–I found myself staring at the words printed on the page and wondering what they were doing in this magazine. It’d have been one thing if the story had a comic undercurrent (no pun intended) flowing through it–maybe then I could stomach notions such as the woman wanting the surgery, or the teenage girls getting scales tattooed over every inch of their skin below the waist, or the loner high-school girl who dressed as a mermaid then (very predictably) drowned herself in the nearby sea. The problem for me was that the story is told in such a grave tone. It doesn’t really allow even subtle humor to creep in. You read about these behaviors, and you’re supposed to accept them in utter seriousness, not as satire. (Although perhaps I’m missing something, and should have been assuming Millhauser has been writing tongue-in-cheek all along.)
 
The Sum Up: The beginning of this story delivers what Millhauser excels at, right up until this lovely paragraph:
“What no one had foreseen was the way she stayed in our minds long afterward. Day after day we returned to stand before the glass case and stare at our mermaid. She looked just to the right or left of us, or a little above, as if she were gazing off at a place we could never see.”
I was intrigued, excited to see how Millhauser would treat objects of fantasy or lust once they become too accessible or mundane, like dead butterflies in a collector’s case. But what followed after this point felt just a bit too expected, and I had this sense that Millhauser was rehashing approaches that have earned him praise in other works.
 
I understand that fantastical and satirical elements have their places in stories, that not everything has to be strictly realistic, even in “realistic fiction.” But I didn’t feel that the townspeople’s reactions made sense psychologically; as a reader, I never bought into them at all. However, for me this story was worth reading if only for its originality and Millhauser’s unique style. (Also, I liked touches such as the name of the town newspaper–the Listener, evocative of sirens’ songs.)

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A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore

[This is a review by Christie C, who will contribute more articles in the future.]

Yesterday evening I attended writer Lorrie Moore’s book reading at the Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C., a stop on her whirlwind tour to promote her new novel, “A Gate at the Stairs.” The room was full of mostly middle-aged women, and I quickly formulated my own personal (and undoubtedly flawed) stereotype of the Lorrie Moore fan: wry, sly, gaunt, clad in muted dark colors, steely hair, steely reserve; observant to an almost unnerving degree; a woman who was or at least looked like a librarian or university professor; with a wicked sense of humor and her share of romantic disappointments, perhaps a divorce or two (most of the women were sans date… including me). I felt an eerie mixture of empathy and camaraderie with some of these women who seemed in a state of romantic and jolly decay, like pre-flood New Orleans. I saw myself in 20 years.

A woman sitting next to me, with chin-length dark hair and a striking aquiline nose, broke the mold just a bit; seated next to a man I assumed was her husband, she was sweetly enthusiastic, following along in her personal copy of the new book as Moore spoke the words aloud, girlishly unabashed in her admiration. In the jittery minutes before Moore made her appearance at the dais up front, the woman next to me flipped a couple of pages and gestured at a dense block of text, and I listened as she gave her husband what I thought was a pretty good 30-second review: “… Like this part here. It’s good; it’s compelling and well-written and the end is funny, but… it could have been cut out. It doesn’t really add to the plot. There were a lot of parts like that.”

The plot of “A Gate at the Stairs” is fairly simple: Tassie Keltjin is a precociously perceptive 20-year-old college student, raised on a farm in Wisconsin, now going to a university in a fictional city called Troy that is meant to be a sort of doppelganger for the real-life (and never mentioned) city of Madison. In need of a job, Tassie answers ads from people seeking a “childcare provider.” (“Childcare, like healthcare, had become one word. I would be a dispenser of it.”) She gets hired by Sarah Brink, the scrappy and screwball-likeable owner of a fancy restaurant who is married to the caddish Edward; unable to conceive, Sarah and Edward have decided to adopt. Tassie is invited to tag along on meetings with birth mothers, and always in tow are the adoption-agency representatives who place a premium on (because prospective adoptive parents place a premium on) the babies’ “whiteness”–to an extent that high-minded liberal Sarah self-righteously adopts a bi-racial toddler, Mary, almost as if to spite them. The story follows Tassie (the first-person protagonist), Sarah, and Edward after Mary is brought into the family, and the 300-plus pages are buoyed by Tassie’s often humorous musings on motherhood, class, race, city versus country, university life, and love in its myriad forms. Oh, and also, American patriotic fervor and existential apprehension post-9/11 is in there. And some plot contortions at the end.

I admit that when I–a longtime and ardent fan of Moore’s short-fiction collections and even of her experimental novel “Anagrams” that received a withering review from the highly influential critic Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times–first read the plot synopsis in early reviews and interviews with Moore in magazines from Harper’s to Elle… I wasn’t too excited. The themes seemed perfunctory to me, a dutiful mishmash, and I wondered if Moore had lately felt the need to do penance for not addressing the social issues of the day in much of her previous work (an exception being the acclaimed story “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” a semi-autobiographical account of her son’s cancer scare as an infant; today Moore’s son’s health has remarkably improved and he is even competing in soccer at the national level). The title, I learned from reviews, did not refer to some mental Mobius strip, some esoteric or philosophical notion but to something prosaic: the baby gates placed atop stairways for safety (although, knowing Moore, the title probably refers to both). And while I always applaud an artist for trying something new–well, I really really liked Moore’s previous work and was hoping for more of the same.

I’d grown accustomed to the Moore-like protagonists: urbane, world-weary yet unsinkable in a non-corny way, with their witty observations and revelatory wordplay. (From “How to Be an Other Woman,” a short story in the outstanding collection “Self-Help”: “Shave your legs in the bathroom sink. Philosophize: you are a mistress, part of a great hysterical you mean historical tradition.”) A 20-year-old farm girl, wide-eyed in the big city, babysitting for a couple of middle-aged liberal yuppies? I dreaded a novel narrated by an “Aw, shucks” kind of ingenue who starts off innocent and ends up predictably cynical, world-weary, wry, with a wicked sense of humor and a romantic disappointment or two… and attending a Lorrie Moore reading.

To my surprise, Tassie turns out to be a riveting guide into and through the story, with a depth and scope beyond her years. (Moore explained at last night’s reading that the story is actually narrated by a 28-year-old or so Tassie, looking back a bit). What’s striking to me is that Tassie is so unexpectedly urbane for a 20-year-old farm girl. The upside of this is that the book, in typical Moore style, is engrossing and sprinkled with insights both profound and truly humorous. The downside, for me at least, is that I never fully bought into the Tassie character, could never quite reconcile her urbanity and nonstop, piercing observations–with the fact that she is supposed to be a 20-year-old farm girl (with all due respect to 20-year-old farm girls). While it’s true that Tassie, unlike many of Moore’s female protagonists, has a purity and lack of duplicitousness that’s refreshing–I couldn’t shake the feeling that Moore was peppering the book with many of her own brilliant insights and musings, using Tassie as a sort of arbitrary conduit.

And yet–that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Because I agree with the woman seated next to me at the reading: vast swaths of text could probably have been expunged without altering the “story,” but you read those swaths anyway, and you enjoy them, because Moore wrote them, and she is just a damn good writer. One of the reviews that I read pointed out that Moore has a gift for elevating the everyday through language. Occasionally Moore’s wonderful imagination–well-suited for describing a young person’s awe at the world around her–can get a bit carried away: “Mosquitoes with tiger-striped bodies and the feathery beards of an iris, their wings and legs the dun wisps of an unbarbered boy, their spindly legs the tendrils of an orchid, the blades of a gnome’s sleigh.” Much of the book is filled with similar dense, imagistic, footnote-worthy observations of Tassie’s. It does create a vivid set for the reader, and is in fact probably how a bookish 20-year-old like Tassie would see and describe her world.

At the reading, Moore talked of Tassie’s role as insider among several worlds (country, city, university… yuppie couple with shady past and their adopted baby), and of how Tassie is an optimally positioned social observer, “like Jane Eyre, whom I believe was also 20.” Looking back on the novel in the light of this remark, I thought that a book can be a perfectly worthy read even if the only takeaway is a steady stream of spot-on social observation.

But I think that what the woman seated next to me was lamenting, in a way, was the lack of chiseled, diamond-sharp perfection that often characterizes Moore’s short fiction–the sense that every word in a story counts, every word is fighting to be there; every sentence sings with resonance. For me–so used to breathlessly analyzing Moore’s every keystroke–reading a 300-plus-page novel by that same author felt overwhelming, and even as I tried to forgive seemingly hasty and (to me) unnecessary constructions such as “she smiled happily,” I came away with the conclusion that Moore’s gifts are best displayed in her shorter work.

Which brings me to another nagging sense I had when reading the novel–that the big picture wasn’t that well-thought-out, or even that important. I found myself wondering, What is the point of all of this, other than to showcase Moore’s powers of description and sporadic, isolated insights and the “punning” that many have pointed out are a staple in her books? Does the book seek to make some statement about adoption, parenting, class- and race-based hypocrisies in America? What was her burning impulse when writing this–what drove her on, during the 11 years it took her since her last book, writing in stolen moments when not teaching at the University of Wisconsin or raising her son as a single working parent?

At last night’s reading, someone asked some similar “What’s the big picture?” kind of question, about what Moore had set out to do, in the very beginning when she got the idea for this novel. And her answer surprised me: She talked of geography, about how she’d “always wanted to do a Midwestern novel, a novel set entirely there,” being a New York-born transplant to Madison 25 years ago. I thought, Huh? There are all these themes–the adoption, the 9/11 stuff–and at the end of the day all she’d wanted to do was “write a Midwestern novel”?

But what might seem like a lack of ambition makes sense if you–like me–most love Moore for the nuggets, the little gems found in her stories and novels, including “A Gate at the Stairs.” I often come away from reading one of Moore’s books with the feeling that she thinks about and perceives the world on some higher plane, that her brain is constantly twisting words and scrambling letters (again, nearly all of Moore’s characters seem to engage in witty wordplay at some point or other, even the men, even the children, even the characters who otherwise aren’t so smart) to reveal the universe’s secret codes. Ultimately, I think, that is why you read a Lorrie Moore book–not for textbook-perfect plot structure, or hypothesis-data-conclusion following through of themes, or realistic dialogue (even peripheral characters tend to sound far wittier than folks do in real life).

You can think of these nuggets like the fortune-cookie messages that Tassie collects and sticks in her books as bookmarks. (“All my books had fortunes protruding like tiny tails from their pages.”)

“At the cash register small boxes of broken fortune cookies were sold at discount. ‘Only cookie broken,’ promised the sign, ‘not fortune.’ I vowed to buy a box one day to see what guidance–obscure or mystical or mercenary, but Confucian!–might be had in bulk. Meanwhile, I collected them singly, one per every cookie that came at the end atop my check, briskly, efficiently, before I’d even finished eating.”

The Sum Up: Not the Lorrie Moore book I’d recommend–instead, read Moore’s renowned story collection, “Birds of America” (or her collections “Self-Help” or “Like Life”); her critically acclaimed novel “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?”; for something less traditional in storytelling style, try her novel “Anagrams.”

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The Translated Man, by Chris Braak

In the Sepulchral city of Trowth an aged, ill junkie by the name of Beckett and his trusty sidekicks, the callow Valentine and the blind yet clairaudient Skinner, attempt to solve a Mysterious Murder- which due to explosive Racial Tensions threaten to bring ruination to this Grand City. With influences from Mieville, VanderMeer, and Lovecraft, Chris Braak brings a fast paced story with all the eldritch steampunk trappings you could wish for.

However, the story is shallow. Elements are thrown in and then glossed over, and characters are frequently more of a cliche than a developed personality. The most disappointing example of this is the end of the revolt by the most despised of the minority species, the Sharpsies. Rather than providing any real resolution to their solution, which he seemed to be building towards, he simply made it go bye-bye- leaving this reader with the feeling that it was created for the sole purpose of showing how noble the characters were rather than as a theme he wished to explore.

To sum up, this is an entertaining book. A quick read, full of adventure, hallucinatory imagery, and some interesting asides that assist in fleshing out the world. But it is lacking in depth and occasionally comes off as a pastiche of the Lovcraftian Dectective Story. This can be a fine thing but I suspect that the author is capable of more than this. Because this is his first novel I’m willing to cut him some slack though and will still check out his next book with the fond hope that he will either develop his themes more deeply or will throw himself completely into the hallucinatory imagery at which he is pretty darn good at.

This was a guest post by AMARE, whom I hope will continue to contribute.

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The Devil’s Delusion, by David Berlinski

From the jacket, D. Berlinski has taught both math and philosophy at the university level. Which makes my head hurt, because the logic errors that accumulate like autumn leaves crackle underfoot as he wades blithely forward.

His brand of wit seems to encompass primarily snippy ad-hominem attacks, designed to irritate rather than debate. 

The part that dumbfounded me was this line, on page 45 of my copy (ISBN 978-0-307-39626-6):

“And the question that I am asking is not whether he [the Deity] exists, but whether science has shown that he does not.” I may not recall much from logic class, but I do dimly remember that one cannot prove a negative.  I hope someone can explain to me such nuance that I may have missed, because it seems like such a glaring error to have made in hopes of rhetorical flourish.

I looked up his background, and it seems he is associated with with an Intelligent Design group, which is consistent with what he advances in the book. Many of the same arguments he makes against monolithic “Science” could be applied to his work for them.

I was unimpressed by the book because of the mean-spirited ambience that pervades it. I should think that if he is this rude in person, as he portrays himself in this book, then I might find him rather unpleasant.

Also, would someone be so kind as to point out how the description on page 55 of the scientific method is flawed? Am I missing something, or is he really taking issue with the method itself? Baffling.

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Scratch Beginnings, by Adam Shepard

I heard about this book when the blog Get Rich Slowly interviewed the author and he said “Don’t buy my book. Email me, and and I’ll send you a digital copy.” (He now has a link to a direct download.) I decided to take him up on his offer.

On “Authenticity”

Many of the comments that have been made about his project have focused on his status a privileged white male, and the concurrent advantages that granted him over others. Most conclude that this “proves nothing.” I believe this is true, but I think they miss the point of the book, and by extension the project. (I also doubt that many have read it, as I don’t see references to the text very often.)

If this young man had taken a backpacking trip through Mongolia, or just down the Appalachian Trail, and wrote of the experiences he’d had, and the people from different backgrounds he’d met; would he be met with such vitriol? I think this book should be taken in the same manner. An adventure story, meant to be inspiring and incidentally educational. 

On the text

I read the book in an evening. It’s a quick read, and not very complex. Shepard is not writing prose for the ages, instead, it seems that the words were spilled out on paper as he told himself his story. It’s a conversational, informal narrative.  I imagine that it would be the same phrasing he would use if he were talking to you. 

This would be a good choice as an alternate selection for a high school reading class. The tone is engaging, the writing is not complex while the theme is, and the author is approachable to a young audience. The fact that Shepard seems to be responding to comments and criticism directly would also make this a good experience for a young reader.

I would have liked to seen more thought put into the ending. Shepard ends the year, having met his goals and even exceeded them to return home to ailing parents. He briefly mentioned how he would put the skills and tips he’d learned into practice in this situation, but it seems like there should be more. Most of the criticism about his “project” has centered on how he didn’t have many of the disadvantages that a “real” poor person would have. If he was / is facing the prospect of caring for two very sick dependents, then that could be a firm rebuttal. But it is not mentioned again.

On the story

I was struck by how closely his experience in the homeless shelter mirrored my own in basic training in the Army. Most of the events he describes have direct counterparts in the military, from meeting people with dramatically different backgrounds, to sleeping in an open room with too many feet and snorers, to “wall-less stalls.”  I wonder how different, if at all, his story would have been had he signed up for the military.

I think he glosses over some of the troubles and tribulations he must have had. I kept waiting for setbacks, for crises, for things to go wrong. But the narrative flows along in a relatively placid style up out of the shelter and into the world of the working poor. I believe this was a stylistic choice, in order to emphasize his message of possibility and hope for a better tomorrow. But I think it would have been a better dramatic choice to highlight some difficulties more. For instance, the medical aspects of his broken toe or scalp wound from his fight would have been good choices for this. I hope that if he chooses to write more on this subject, that he returns and deals with this elephant in the room.

The Sum Up:

A decent story, if a bit naive. His interview comments and website indicate that this is not the work of libertarian fantasy that it has been sometimes described as. A fast read, and a good discussion counterpoint to Nickel and Dimed, which is all it wanted to be.

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