Friday, December 30, 2011

#4 of Best of 2011: A Half-Dozen Books That Blew Me Away


Damn Sure Right: Flash Fiction by Meg Pokrass

“There is always a story inside a story inside a dog.”--Meg Pokrass

Full Disclosure: The author of this book is a friend of mine. But it was this book that made me befriend her; I made friends with her after I read her book and precisely because it blew me away. Therefore, I feel one hundred percent comfortable—in the ethics department as well as quality control—including Damn Sure Right by Meg Pokrass in my half-dozen favorite new books of the year. If you thought there was nothing innovative happening in the art of storytelling, I urge you to open this collection of very short stories, from one to three pages long, and some consisting of a single slender but satisfying paragraph. Also known as micro fiction and short-shorts, flash fiction is not new, but it is on the rise, with a growing presence in print and online—where its size makes it a perfect fit for webzines.

The flashes in Damn Sure Right center on relationships—between mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, lovers, ex-lovers, best friends, neighbors, strangers, and passersby—and they pack the whole intricate history of these intertwined lives into just a couple hundred words. How does Pokrass fit so much nuance and charge into such a thin slice of life? Partly it's her startling choice of words and the way she puts them together into compact, slightly twisted sentences that do double and triple duty delivering plot, character, setting, attitude, insight. And partly it's her sensate writing hand, which seems to plug itself directly into the gut-level wisdom airing on the all-visceral all-the-time channel. As Frederick Barthelme, editor of the renowned Mississippi Review (now Blip online) says (in what may be the best blurb ever) “Meg Pokrass writes like a brain looking for a body.” This is what we're talking about: “The city smells salty, orange light sneaks around his shower-curtained window, cabs call like geese or mothers of missing children.” Also this: “There's a hum of electricity before the ring—mimics birds, cheap clocks, Buddhist meetings. It's summer. I'm sleepwalking, holding his phone number like a straight or flush.”

Often dark and unsettling, sometimes sly with humor, her stories are about running away and starting over, dangerous attractions and repulsions, surviving and barely surviving, and finding salvation in dogs, rats, and strange men. One of the funny ones, “Scotts,” follows a woman who has a crush on a guy she works with. She declares her affection on the relative safety of Craig's List, in a posting that reads “Do you feel the same way, Scott F.?” When she receives a positive reply, she's elated. Then comes the inundation of replies from Scott F's all over the region thinking their undeclared love has just been declared. The story ends on the woman, who now avoids her crush, eats “outside alone facing the mountains.” But one can't help but wonder what kind of mayhem is ensuing in the working lives of all those other misled Scotts. Danger lurks and lingers, even when the surface is glassy.

Another slice of life according to Meg Pokrass in Damn Sure Right:
Not until my fourteenth birthday did an electric switch turn on. Out came the family neck, the swan neck—as though it rose from my birthday cake where it had been sleeping. My eyes became purple, and boys called them “picture windows.” Well, not boys exactly, but one girl did. Junie. It was still a compliment, since Junie was a ballerina and valued physical beauty, especially the neck above all else—she knew what to look for, called herself a slut. She had an unnaturally gravelly voice, as though she'd been smoking for forty years, as though she were half man, and when she laughed got worse.”

Next up, a reckless librarian goes on a road trip—or is it a kidnapping?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Best of 2011 Cont'd: A Half-Dozen Books That Blew Me Away


Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta

From NYC in the Jazz Age (in Amor Towles' Rules of Civility), we jump to the alt-rock scene of L.A. in the '80s, '90s, and '00s, delivered in gritty detail in Dana Spiotta's Stone Arabia. Brother and sister Nik and Denise Kranis grow up in a rickety family with a single mom just barely keeping it together. But they have each other, and then they discover rock and roll and they have that, too. Nik ends up a musician—a brilliant failure—with uber fan Denise always there to bail him out and prop him up, to pay the rent and break bad news to bosses and girlfriends. The story-within-the-story is an elaborate alter-ego, alter-band, and alter-career that Nik creates for an audience of two: himself and his sister. Told in Denise's warm but weary, slightly frenetic voice, this is a story about:
           The (mostly antagonistic) relationship between art and commerce;
           What happens when we've always lived in the moment and now we're almost old;
           Those human urges that can only be satisfied—and only for a time—by electric guitars and garbled vocals and vivifying drum beats;
           Drugs, escape, and creativity;
           Rusting vs burning out vs fading away.

But at its heart Stone Arabia is a love story, about the ties that bind siblings, especially when they share a tough childhood and favor the same tonic. It is also a testament to the pursuit of artistry despite—and to spite—the star-making machinery behind the popular song. Given the topic and the setting, I was expecting an overdose of snark, grunge, and cynic hipness. What I found was passion, compassion, and hard-earned insights about how to endure.

In Dana Spiotta's own words, via Denise Kranis:
“After [my sort-of boyfriend] gave me my birthday present, we watched Odd Man Out. I didn't tell Jay any of my birthday anxieties. Not because I wanted to withhold something. I just didn't feel them when I was with him. I didn't want to talk about myself; I wanted to talk about movies. Somehow, in the time between being young and where I was, the life-story recital grew too long, both dull and complicated. When I was eighteen, I wanted to tell my lovers every inch of every moment that led to this miraculous moment. I thought that would make them understand me, and then they would have to love me. But now that I was older, and actually had a life story, I didn't feel like telling it or hearing it. I just wanted him to press against me as we slowly figured our bodies out. I understood our real stories lived there anyway.”

Next up: Fresh Flash—short-short stories that pack a twisted punch...

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Half Dozen Books That Blew Me Away in 2011, continued


Really. Is there anything nice to be said about other people's vacations?” --Amor Towles

If my first pick, Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife, scratched my magical realism itch, my second, Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, skips the magic and goes straight for the real. But it does so with restrained prose, amiable wit, and a setting—New York's Café Society of the 1930s—with a built-in sense of the unreal and over-the-top. Narrator Katey Kontent is a smart young secretary living in a boarding house in lower Manhattan. Equipped with the mouth of Dorothy Parker (though not as caustic) and the eye of F. Scott Fitzgerald (so observant of the telling detail, especially in matters of class), she tells a story of ambition, of what people are willing to do for love and money and status. At a Greenwich Village jazz bar, Katey and her roommate Eve meet, charm, and fall for a handsome youthful bachelor well out of their league. On their third drunken outing together, the bachelor drives the three of them into a milk truck, and Eve, the only one requiring surgery, emerges with permanent cosmetic damage, a maiming she uses to her every advantage in the love triangle. The rest of the book follows an eventful year in the life of the threesome—and numerous other engaging characters from both the secretarial pool and the upper echelons—as they navigate the new “rules of civility” being invented by a mixing of the classes in a time of financial extremes (sound familiar?).

The time and place— the lingering Depression, the aftermath of Prohibition, the impending war—give rise to rollicking scenes of carousing and lamenting, of working girls and millionaires and the desperate charades both sets play. I especially loved reading the vivid details of women's work—the offices, the steno pools, the backstabbing, the care-taking, and how hard it was for a woman to rise out of the secretarial ranks no matter how intelligent, talented, and educated she was. But it's the voice of the narrator—clever but kind; sensitive but sensible, with a pinch of audacity—that makes the novel so delightful. I shouldn't be impressed by this, but I am: author Amor Towles, a middle-aged man who works as a principal in an investment firm, has created one of the juiciest, most nuanced and believable female heroines I've read in a while. Both Katey and Rules of Civility are brisk, sharp, and engaging—smart with heart.

See what I mean:
Since first meeting Dicky at the King Cole bar, I had tagged along with his traveling circus a few nights. For a group freshly spilled from the country's finest schools, they were surprisingly aimless, but that didn't make them bad company. They didn't have much spending money or social status, but they were on the verge of having both. All they had to do was make it through the next five years without drowning at sea or being sentenced to jail and the Mountain would come to Muhammad: dividend-paying shares and membership at the Racquet Club; a box at the opera and time to make use of it. Where for so many, New York was ultimately the sum of what they would never attain, for this crew, New York was a city where the improbable would be made probable, the implausible plausible, and the impossible possible. So if you wanted to keep your head on straight, you had to be willing to establish a little distance now and then.”

Next up: an almost in the L.A. music scene...

Monday, December 26, 2011

Best of 2011: A Half-Dozen Books That Blew Me Away

Everyone's doing it, so why not me? I've been the book review editor at several national magazines (including Body+Soul, now Martha Stewart's Whole Living) and am currently the reviewer for Good Housekeeping (those four Book Picks in every issue: I pick 'em and write 'em up). I have published hundreds of reviews in newspapers, magazines and online journals; receive book catalogs from every major publisher and many small presses; and get some 200 advanced review copies sent to me each year in the mail. But here, and only here, do I share my complete and unedited thoughts on the books that knocked me over and woke me up with their exciting originality and arresting charm.

A few caveats. All but one of these is a debut; clearly I have a bias toward the new and undiscovered. Another bias: I tend to like art—literature, film, theatre, painting—with a ratio of approximately 27 percent surreal or magic or whatever you want to call it to 73 percent realism. Also, language matters as much as story to me. And finally, keep in mind that I did not read every book published this year; there are others out there that I could have, would have, should have.


Let's start with The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht. You might approach the amply praised and prized Téa Obreht with disbelief, envy, even cynicism; she is, after all, the youngest writer on The New Yorker's new “20 Under 40” list and the youngest writer ever to pick up a coveted Orange. But then you open The Tiger's Wife and the eerie confidence of the twenty-six year old's voice melts away any resistance. Soon you have entered a world—an unnamed, war-torn Eastern European country—that seems modern and factual (didn't we read about this strife in the newspaper?) but ancient and fabulist at the same time. A young doctor journeys across the border to discover the circumstances of the mysterious disappearance and death of her grandfather—also a doctor—in an obscure village far from home. Clues come from his beloved copy of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book; a ghostly, ageless character her grandfather once betrayed; the granddaughter's own scant but vivid memories of the recent war that defined her childhood; and the myths, legends and superstitions that have long both guided and hindered the people of this region. Chief among those tales is the story of an outcast deaf woman who makes love to the very tiger menacing a mountain village. Stories within stories, like a Balkan Arabian Nights, but grounded in endless resonant truths and tragic contemporary social upheavals: how can an author so young be so wise about the workings of the world, especially in her complicated corner of the globe (Obrecht is from what used to be called Yugoslavia)? And how can she write about such eternal strife so enchantingly that I had to dole out the pages of her book in my nightly reading, limiting myself to no more than ten or twelve at a time, because I wanted above all to avoid the sadness that would arrive with coming to the end of this book? 
This is what I'm talking about:
“If things had turned out differently, if that winter's disasters had fallen in some alternate order—if the baker had not sat up in bed some night and seen, or thought he had seen, the ghost of his mother-in-law standing in the doorway, and buckled under the weight of his own superstitions; if the pies of the cobbler's aunt had risen properly, putting her in a good mood—the rumors that spread about the tiger's wife might have been different. Conversation might have been more practical, more generous, and the tiger's wife might have immediately been regarded as a vila, as something sacred to the entire village. Even without their admission, she was already a protective entity, sanctified by her position between them and the red devil on the hill. But because that winter was the longest anyone could remember, and filled with a thousand small discomforts, a thousand senseless quarrels, a thousand personal shames, the tiger's wife shouldered the blame for the villager's misfortunes.”

Next up, ambitious secretary in 1930's Manhattan with the mouth of Dorothy Parker and the eye of F. Scott Fitzgerald...