Wow, I am really impressed with these two stories. I liked them so, so much; if I could read a book of six or seven of them, I would love it.
These are...moreWow, I am really impressed with these two stories. I liked them so, so much; if I could read a book of six or seven of them, I would love it.
These are some of the best New-Yorky stories I can remember reading. It's a pretty full genre, but these totally did the trick for me. Each of them encapsulates the deep world of one of the many subcultures, lifestyles, neighborhoods, other divisions by which we all live such very different lives in New York City.
The first one: indie music. "The Missing Clip-On." The Lower East Side/Alphabet City/eventual-Williamsburg-migrants hanging on to the punk rock dream and way of life that thrived/thrives there. The author's details are so deeply recognizable. I recognized types of people I knew, I know what all those venues are like (and also, Two Boots!), I've seen some pretty shitty apartments. The realness really clicked.
None of that would really matter if the story wasn't any good, but I loved it. We get a dual narrative of a kind: first, a first-person girl bassist trying to make it/waiting tables, and second, a story she learns. She buddies with another waitress-musician, and moves into a terrible apartment building, and works on her own shit, searching through her angst in the ways you do. (Also, something crazy happens.) She's a great narrator for the story.
She presents Damon's story to us almost like a folk history of one band's career, but it's far more than that. A sometime musician, he ends up finding his real calling as (I once knew someone who liked to term herself) a "scene-maker": getting his finger on the pulse of the trends, on the teetering precipice of the irony, and then making a bunch of money selling the best t-shirts in Brooklyn. (Ultimately, he styles a band that doesn't really exist yet gets booked anyway. It's not actually as satirical as it sounds.) But what really happens is in his personal story, and what occurs after he falls in love, and what a terrible sad end it all has. His moments of love and openness are monumentally great, so breathtaking and delicately written, and they just legitimize everything in the story that might seem silly. Both narratives are brooding, but full of a journey.
The second story, "Almost Tall," is the reason I got this book. I'd heard about it when it was released separately last year, but I couldn't get a copy. I knew I wanted to, though. The description was so good it drove me mad: a 14-year-old, shipped out to summer ballet program, staying with her rich uncle and his boyfriend, inevitable overwhelmingness! Oh. It's fabulous. I'll take a hundred, sight unseen.
There is a little bit of ballet, but the real cultural immersion comes at the hands of the boyfriend, Eddie, an aging gay man with an overabundance of drama, ridicule, and fashion sense. He lives the penthouse life but never seems to work; he knows the highest of the high but they break his dinner dates. He designs pillows? And he isn't all that nice. Eddie's feelings are probably hurt that he has never been offered a Bravo show.
But despite all this, there is so much realness to him. Dinah, our girl, ends up having to spend most of her time with him, and eventually they strike a strange and precarious kind of workable social partnership. He pretends to be annoyed, yet parades her around and trumpets their "triumphs" at cocktail hours; he doesn't really know her, but makes sure she has some fun. (Until he doesn't.) But all throughout it, we're in Dinah's head, seeing how damn much she can take when somebody rich says something cruel about her (ballerinas, man!), and watching her watch Eddie. And we're with her when she cracks, and is finally given some pieces of true generosity.
The only thing wrong with this book is how much more I want. I want more of Vestal McIntyre's New York City. I hope he might be working on some.
Because this writing is so new, and there's so little info on it available, I'm including some of my absolute favorite quotes. (In spoilers, for space.)
Betsy, a product of a big Jewish family on Long Island, threw this type of abuse around playfully, and I tried my best not to take it to heart – my fragile, only-child-from-Illinois, heart. My Christmas-ornament heart. . “Maybe someday,” her mother said, “they’ll invent a soap that will wash away old tattoos you don’t want anymore.” This sentiment, which, an hour ago, would have struck Damon as mawkish and provincial, nearly made him cry. . At this, Rebecca passed Dinah a smile like a folded note. . But Dinah witnessed moments when Eddie forgot to be himself, when his shoulders melted into his form, his head bowed, and he seemed old and round. This was usually when he was gazing out of cab windows at the passing city. His little fingertips picked at each other, and a crease of worry divided his brow. What do we live for? The question startled Dinah from within. Then the cab reached its destination, and with one inhale Eddie’s angles returned.
I'd love for this little book to get out there more, but it's kind of a weird arrangement. I downloaded this using a trial subscription for the book service Rooster, run by the DailyLit people. During July 2014 you can get this book when you sign up and use the app, but I'm not sure if you can ever get it after that? It's a little complex and annoying, and I don't think the actual service is really for me (I'm not that into curated reading; I only just joined a book club for heaven's sake), but I am so glad I took the opportunity to read these.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Jo Ann Beard was one of my favorite discoveries of 2013 (though I entirely owe the "discovering" to Sara), so I of course had to snatch up the first o...moreJo Ann Beard was one of my favorite discoveries of 2013 (though I entirely owe the "discovering" to Sara), so I of course had to snatch up the first of her two published books, as well. It is eating me up that there are only two!
This one is straightforward memoir, in short essay pieces. Her form really is creative nonfiction, memory-plumbing and storytelling. Although she published her more recent book In Zanesville as a novel, a large portion of that material is not-at-all veiled borrowings from her self. Which is fine. I think that's interesting. The writing's so good, call it whatever you want. Let it spring from wherever you get it from.
Anyway, what I mean is that it didn't surprise me to encounter the atmosphere of her life (especially her childhood) in this book; it felt familiar and I was glad to be closer to it with this writing, even though so much of the storytelling is so very uncomfortable. I definitely have a threshold for uncomfortable, and a few of these toed that line (mostly her bleak dating years) when there wasn't enough counterweight of something else, irony or affection.
But she is one of those writers with one hell of a gift for writing childhood, nailing the really mean and really funny details. She remembers (or at least extrapolates) enough to bring us back there to what children do and don't get about what goes on, and meanwhile keeps her adult eye always on her parents. Being able to contextualize your parents will always be one of the most fascinating things about adulthood to me. I think one's parents are a mystery you will never truly crack even though you have every clue. I collect so many clues. Does everyone feel that way, or is it just me? When a really good writer writes about their parents, I believe everyone does.
About half of the stories here are about being young (sometimes very, very young); feelings about big sisters, cousins, toys. The other half are about her adulthood, particularly her marriage and divorce, the story of which is sprinkled all throughout.
By the end, I was invested enough that I wished there was something more of a through-narrative to tell me all the missing details of her personal history. But that's impossible, in a collection of short pieces, and I'm a nosy person who likes details even if the teller doesn't want to show them to me. So that's not the author's fault. I never really consider it a criticism when I love something in a book so much that I just want a lot more than it has to give me.
About some particular pieces:
"The Fourth State of Matter" is such a good piece it would be worth buying a book for by itself, but as good luck has it you can already read that one for free. (I already wrote about it a couple of months ago.)
"The Family Hour" was the other jaw-drop standout for me, a stunner from her childhood that reads very close to the novelized family elements from In Zanesville, with the added horror-twinge of it being definitely from real memories. The sewer grate, the beer bottle, the back door. This story was amazing.
"Out There" was a brilliant and brief one about powering through a terrifying experience on a long trip. It reminded me of a segment out of Wild. The facts of it made a good story all on its own, but it's her way of showing the background that gives it weight. Us knowing where her head was reminds us that we never really know where anyone else's head is while they do anything. Which is cool, but isolating, and also sometimes people are terrifying.
The title piece is really long, bringing up the last fifty pages. It's about her friendship with her best friend, weaving stories from middle school up to their current relationship. Something about the way that their adult friendship is written made me laugh so, so hard a bunch of times. It's like the way she writes the blunt blindness of kids, only they're grownups so it's even funnier and sadder at the same time. I loved it. Also, for some reason lately there's nothing I like better than stories about sneaking around at night (I don't know) and this has a great one.
And definitely can't let this go without mentioning my other favorite character Hal, which was Jo's favorite doll when she was three, who figures significantly into a short Preface to the book as well as the longer story "Bulldozing the Baby." (Jo Ann Beard, I love you, but your titles.)
So what now? I don't know. These days, the author appears to have (what is hopefully) a nice teaching job at Sarah Lawrence, but her faculty page isn't up to date with publications, and she has no proper website. So she's just a person! What. That's fine. I would just be excited if there were more to go around. I'm so into this writer, you guys, and I can't quite handle the fact that she hasn't had a wide and prolific publishing career.
So I had Google do some homework and did my best to come up with a little Internet Bibliography for Jo Ann Beard.
Firstly, there are some pieces out there that are from this book:
* "Maybe It Happened." Memoir. (O Magazine, 2008.) You can read this for free! But it's very slight, almost like a teaser for another story. * "All the Many Beasts." Reporting. (Byliner, 1998.) Paywalled, with a free trial. Also with a little use of caching… * "Undertaker, Please Drive Slow." Reporting. (Tin House, 2002.) Only available by hard copy back issue. Looks unbearably depressing, anyway. * "Werner." Reporting. (Tin House, 2006.) Only available by hard copy back issue. I really want to read this one! It's also anthologized in The Best American Essays 2007, in case for some reason one ever runs into a copy of that.(less)
The completist in me is glad I read this, but if I wasn't still coasting on the interest built up from reading Every Day recently, this wouldn't hold...moreThe completist in me is glad I read this, but if I wasn't still coasting on the interest built up from reading Every Day recently, this wouldn't hold much interest. The stories are real short and simple, and although the purpose is meant to be to show another varied handful of days out of A's life, the ones here feel a lot like the ones in the book, and they even repeat each other a little.
I was curious what they would be like, before I read this, so I'll explain for the sake of those who feel that way. Just in case anyone cares, I'll put the premises behind spoilers.
(view spoiler)[1. A's best 10th birthday, with some good big-sister bonding. 2. A at 7, a neglected child with a sullen, strict parent. 3. A is about 15 (extrapolating from the "day" number) and spends the day chatting with the girl's best friend over the internet. It's unclear if there is something more to their relationship. 4. A is 16 and an athlete. 5. A is 16 and a boy who spends all day with his best friend, who asks for something more from their relationship. 6. A is 16 and a boy who spends all day with his best friend, who asks for something more from their relationship. (hide spoiler)]
Nope, that's right -- two of these stories sound exactly the same! And they're not, you know, the same, but no denying they are out of the same aisle of the grocery store. But both of them are good, and #6 especially brings a lot of depth to the collection and makes it worth reading.
The others are far less substantial: A pontificates on being an athlete and having a strong body; A pontificates on having long-distance friends (and disappoints me yet again by dismissing internet friends as an impossible option).
#2 was the most interesting premise by far, but it was short and not a lot happened in the story. In general I'd have welcomed reading a lot more about A's childhood. The questions and pathos of it interests me a lot. They stand out sort of oddly here -- they are written in A's current voice, almost like a journal entry about the memory, in retrospect for our benefit, rather than the voice or perspective of an actual child. It reads okay, but it makes me think that Levithan is not very interested in A's experience as a kid, which is too bad because I am.
I want to believe that Levithan is an author who knows more than he writes into the story, but I don't exactly believe that's true here. I suspect there's a lot he isn't sure of, and that it's one reason the scope of the stories is so narrow. Maybe in time he will explore a bit more.
Anyway, I'm really glad I could check this out from the library! Hurray.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I read this book as an insertion into my project of reading through the Gormenghast series. It is actually a brief collection of miscellaneous short p...moreI read this book as an insertion into my project of reading through the Gormenghast series. It is actually a brief collection of miscellaneous short pieces and artwork, collected after the author's death, and they can and should be read independently of his other work. But the title story is a 90-page novella that also operates as an interlude in the life of Titus, the hero of the novels for which Peake was famous.
The story occupies an unusual spot in the canon: it is considered to have been undoubtedly written in it, with Titus as the hero, but the events stand apart from the novels, and the Boy of the story is never explicitly named. He is recognizable, and it is pretty clear (to readers of Gormenghast anyway) where he comes from. Timeline-wise, the story takes place partway through the second novel; the Boy is fourteen, and Gormenghast contains Titus at age twelve and age seventeen, so presumably somewhere in between, this story happened. It was also published in between Books Two and Three of the trilogy. So, before I started the final book, I read this.
Okay, so anyway, what is this? Well, it's a really awesome story, and I recommend it independently of anything else. It reads like a weird, eerie blend of fable and horror story. The Boy, having run away from home, is escorted across a river by a pack of spooky dogs. Exhausted, he falls into the hands of Goat and Hyena, hideous men who have been changed into animals, longer ago than they can remember, by their lord the Lamb.
The Lamb, too, seems to have been human once (he has human hands with the head and wool of a sheep, though his body has a mysteriously incorporeal quality) but now rules this land — whatever it is — as some sort of quasi-religious Dr. Moreau. When a human gets lost there, the Lamb decides what creature he is by nature, and performs some sort of procedure to turn the people into semi-human animals. Mostly, they die. Goat and Hyena are the only ones still hanging out with him, in a petty rivalry and great fearful love of their master.
The story is a lot closer to the horror genre than I expected. It's pretty goddamn freaky, and though inevitably the Boy overcomes and makes a heroic escape, the tension is pretty high and the creepy factor is through the roof, in a great way, and the ending is quick and clever. When the story was originally published, it was subtitled "The Dream," and the ending is also nicely ambiguous in that way — the Boy returns home and wakes up on the shore, but what really happened to him?
It does also reward a bit of closer literary inspection for parallels to the novels of the Gormenghast world. It is a familiar moment early in the story when the Boy, fed up to an utterly existential degree with the dusty and painstaking rituals of his birthday, decides to run away from home. This type of thing happens several times during Book Two. Book Three (I've since found) also opens with these wanderings — and even a hyena laughing.
My favorite parallel, though, relates back to the chapter of Gormenghast containing Titus's tenth birthday, for which he is entertained by an animal fable starring a Lion, a Wolf, a Horse, and a Lamb, performed as a mesmerizing panto play with gigantic puppets. After finishing the story, I went back to read this section, which is incredibly lovely although its plot isn't explained.
Peake, however, apparently is deeply fascinated by the animalistic natures of humans, and this type of transformation as carried out by the Lamb is not completely foreign. Book One's single fantastical element, the disease by which Titus's father dies, is connected to a terrible animal transformation that is full of deep horror.
It would be cool to have found out what animal it was that the Lamb had chosen to turn the Boy into, had he not been stopped. What could it have been — an owl? (YEAH I WENT THERE!!!)
Anyway, the book's other inclusions are all extremely short and varied. The first few were kind of a drag. But I loved the last two, ghostly and Gaiman-y: "Danse Macabre," about an enchantment taking over a separated couple in a most terrible way, and "Same Time, Same Place," about a bewitching engagement. Both incredibly spooky, spookier than I expected Peake's natural style to be. It was impressive, and I am curious if there is anything left like this of his to read.
There's also a lot of art in this edition, and though most of Peake's art isn't really my style, it's cool to have published, and sometimes the artworks are used to complement the stories really excellently. (FWIW, Peake is often cited as having the only self-portrait in the UK National Portrait Gallery.)
He's an interesting writer, for sure. Maddeningly inconsistent, perhaps, but it's been so wonderful to discover him for myself.(less)
Pretty certain that I read this in high school English class. I can recall the comic tone, antics, etc. I'm not sure I'd be that compelled to reread i...morePretty certain that I read this in high school English class. I can recall the comic tone, antics, etc. I'm not sure I'd be that compelled to reread it, but if you stuck it in front of my eyeballs I'm sure it'd be okay.(less)
My high school Latin teacher gave me a copy of this edition that he found at a flea market some weekend, because he knew I loved J.D. Salinger and he...moreMy high school Latin teacher gave me a copy of this edition that he found at a flea market some weekend, because he knew I loved J.D. Salinger and he wanted to be super nice. It was just great of him.
Then I gave it away, somewhere, because I already had a newer edition, and because I am AN IDIOT.
I know at least one of my friends growing up also had this storybook, which is probably technically a picture book, but a hefty hardcover one with 140...moreI know at least one of my friends growing up also had this storybook, which is probably technically a picture book, but a hefty hardcover one with 140 pages. I pored over it as a kid, long past picture-book age.
This was a favorite book for two reasons: first, it provides "original" versions of familiar fairy tales (e.g. The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White and Rose Red) that are edited for kids/short story form, but retain the far odder, darker story elements they began with, and that Disney of course famously elided into happily-ever-afters.
For example, one of the first full-page images in the book is a beautiful, vivid painting of the Little Mermaid hovering in a bedroom doorway, reluctantly clutching a curving dagger over the sleeping couple in the foreground. This image will be imprinted in my mind forever. And I like it there.
Second, it includes an equal number of stories that I never encountered anywhere else (e.g. The Goose Girl, The Stolen Turnips, Jorinda and Joringel), and I really, really liked them! I still sometimes get a song stuck in my head that I made up to part of one of the stories.
Overall it was a wonderful, rich, captivating book that made palpable the reasons that fairy tales exist (and last). I've basically never forgotten that lesson, and that's probably why I'm spending my free time on Goodreads, right now.(less)
I love the concept behind this, and most of all, I love the Katherine Paterson piece in the beginning, which I've reread several times. It is perfect...moreI love the concept behind this, and most of all, I love the Katherine Paterson piece in the beginning, which I've reread several times. It is perfect that this is a thing.
I think I wasn't as invested in every single piece, overall? But that's okay. Maybe someday I will revisit them all.(less)
(I read "Brief Lives in California," anthologized separately from this book. I'm going to mark this read for lack of having another way to add the sto...more(I read "Brief Lives in California," anthologized separately from this book. I'm going to mark this read for lack of having another way to add the story here. This is also a pretty hard book to find!)
Even though this story is about a totally berserk character whom I shouldn't like, I really liked it. It makes sort of a perfect capsule of crazy, as well as an intentional comment about the strand of American culture obsessed with bestness, specialness, selfishness.
It works so well it's better to read yourself than discuss. Leonora's character-building moments are so on-pitch I kind of wanted to scream even as I laughed at what happened. She's loathsome and pitiable at the same time. Why don't you appreciate her? Why are you so determined to hurt her feelings? Her self-centeredness is both epic and believable. That it has such ultimate consequences is almost stupid, but in a way that's believable too. These things come out stupid, they do.
I'm rounding this one up too because it feels like that sort of day.(less)
This is really more a thought experiment than a short story, but there's so much of an authorial voice in it that it's a really great read. It's basic...moreThis is really more a thought experiment than a short story, but there's so much of an authorial voice in it that it's a really great read. It's basically a precis for a world that Le Guin sets up as fantastical, but sort of as a trick, and then explains it away. This world is perfect, she's saying, just like ours except without everything that makes life dark. And then she tells you the trade-off.
It's a crystal clear allegory that applies to all kinds of things, and I think readers could easily find it stunning or trite. I liked the effect most because of the author's approach to the rest of the story, breaking the fourth wall, teasing and guessing aloud what we'll think. And it's funny. "If an orgy would help, don't hesitate."
I'm rounding up out of optimism. Basically it made me curious to finally see how Le Guin handles this idea-making in a novel. She's one I've never opened before, but I will.(less)
(I read "Everyday Use," anthologized separately from this book. I'm going to mark this read for lack of having another way to add the story here.)
"Eve...more(I read "Everyday Use," anthologized separately from this book. I'm going to mark this read for lack of having another way to add the story here.)
"Everyday Use" was interesting though not particularly moving to me. There is a lot to pull apart inside it: the limited narration of the poorly-educated and poorly-equipped mother, and the thematic contrasts between her adult daughters. The narration is good, and I liked it. The contrasts were less exciting.
Her daughter who's stayed home is sheltered and shown to be as unintelligent and unambitious as the mother, but this seems to be a virtue in the author's view. They live plainly and with some limited amount of strength.
The daughter who left produces all kinds of issues. She was given an education to surpass them, and here returns for a prodigal, condescending visit. Aside from disrespect, she's representing the black power movement, having chosen an African name and wanting to collect some "artifacts" from home. There's a debate.
There's also a man she's with. It's kind of odd that he's there. No one knows if she's married him or if he's just running a lot of influence with her. Are we supposed to think that she's becoming like this for him? Is he representing a woman's leaving her family behind for marriage? Is the author saying this is a betrayal?
The thing is I suspect these questions I want to be asking are a lot more interesting than the ones the story is really about. And now I'm tired of talking about it.(less)