Thursday, July 31, 2014

"A Whole New Ballgame" blog tour



A Whole New Ballgame is the story of a 20-something woman who finds comfort and solace in baseball as her carefully ordered world starts to unravel. 26-year-old Laurie Nicholson thinks she’s beginning to sort things out when it comes to life, work, and love. When a sudden declaration from an on-again, off-again boyfriend inspires her to take a risk, only to meet with crushing heartbreak instead, Laurie finds herself searching for refuge.

A chance encounter with Eric Morris and Peter Ellis, two friends spending their summer visiting every ballpark in America, offers Laurie an unexpected way to salve her wounds. Despite growing up in Boston surrounded by Red Sox fans, she wasn’t a fan of the game–until Eric and Peter’s enthusiasm turn that around and she falls in love...with baseball.

Caryn Rose Talks Baseball Food and What to Look for at Different Stadiums


While many diehard baseball fans dislike the recent trend away of stadium food moving away from the standard hot dogs, peanuts, and Cracker Jack, I’m a huge fan of the unique items that many of the parks are becoming known for, and it’s definitely added to the attraction of attending road games.

I dreamed of the garlic fries at AT&T Park in San Francisco for years before I got there, but actually enjoyed the Cha-Cha Bowl (a kind of Caribbean version of bibimbop) a lot more. Dodger Dogs were a huge let-down, while the barbeque baked potato at Minute Maid Park in Houston remains my #1 most underrated, unknown ballpark food.

It’s become a point of pride for both the fans and the teams to show off their food specialties as they expand, feature more local vendors, and add options to the usual hot dogs. It definitely adds to the experience and localizes the ballpark further.

FOOD HOME RUNS

The Victory Knot at Nationals Park: It’s a two pound pretzel, served in a pizza box, accompanied by three dipping sauces (beer cheese, sweet cream, and spicy mustard).

The Wild Rice Soup at Target Field: I know, soup at a ballpark? But it is the perfect thing to take the chill off the air, and has wild rice indigenous to the region. Plus, it’s a nice change when you’ve been eating brats and food-on-a-stick and other cheese-covered Minnesota specialties.

The Lobel’s Steak Sandwich at Yankee Stadium: I am loathe to write anything positive that involves the Yankees, but the steak sandwich is pretty amazing. The line will be long, but all that stand serves is the steak sandwich and drinks, so it moves quickly. Buy one, find a plastic knife (or sneak in a spork, like we do) and split it in half, because it is entirely too much food for one person.

Honorable Mention: The Giants have in-seat service for Ghirardelli hot fudge sundaes as well as hot chocolate on a seasonal basis.

MY HOME TEAM

At Citi Field, my home park, the line for Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack stretches like that of a Disneyland ride, while right across the concourse El Verano Taqueria has zero line. Get the triple taco combo. Or, if you want to stay old-school, go for the Mama’s Special from Mama’s of Corona, a long-standing fan favorite and holdover from the Mets’ Shea Stadium days. These are the two recommendations I make to every out-of-town fan coming to the park, or any beat writer coming in on assignment.

A WHOLE NEW BALLGAME

Eric and Peter would, of course, know every food they should eat at every
ballpark they visited. It would be (and was) part of the intel Eric compiled for every ballpark (as he, quite rightly, warns Laurie away from trying to eat anything at Wrigley Field). All of the ballparks have food maps and the teams now have food preview days at the start of each season to showcase the new dishes and new vendors in the park that season. Plus, with the advent of the baseball blog community in the mid-’00s, any intelligent baseball fan had a very easy direct connection to what was going on in just about any ballpark.



Caryn Rose is a Brooklyn-based writer and photographer who documents rock and roll, baseball and urban life. From 2006-2011, she authored the groundbreaking blog metsgrrl.com, covering baseball and the New York Mets. A Whole New Ballgame is her second novel. You can find her at jukeboxgraduate.com and on Twitter at @carynrose and at @metsgrrl during the season. Purchase A Whole New Ballgame here.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Sad Robot Tour




What Robots Think Of The Damn Food You're Eating

Robots! They like food too. I guess. I mean why not?

I always liked the idea of sentient robots obsessed with food. They wouldn’t necessarily crave cupcakes in the middle of their workday or salami and BBQ chips (a personal favorite of mine) before going to bed, but they’d crave the casual rituals people have developed for consuming food. They'd wonder about the experience of taste!

So I spend a lot of time wondering what robots think food tastes like -- even though they can’t taste -- just by the names of foods alone.

In Sad Robot Stories, I riff on this thought a little in the following paragraph:

Casserole! What a word! Robot thought it sounded absolutely beautiful. The word casserole made him yearn for lips, made him yearn to feel how words, how this word specifically, rolled off the tongue he didn’t have. He’d never wanted a tongue or lips until he heard the word casserole. And he had no idea what casserole was, but the construction of the word! The sound of it all! It was something Robot never really knew: wholesome. It sounded amazing.

Here are a few more meals and how a robot might interpret them. I wrote the interpretations in the same third person my book is written in. So it's not so much in the point-of-view of a robot, as it's in the point-of-view of some esteral being interpreting a robots thoughts.

Hamsteak (my favorite meal as a kid): Hamsteak! What a word!

What a miserable, miserable word.

To Robot, hamsteak sounds like the kind of meal that might make a human give up on all food. Robot was surprised that the fear of a food named hamsteak, which sounded to his mechanical listening devices like suffocating to death under a mound of dirt, didn't make humans slowly starve themselves to death.

Quiche: Quiche! What a word!

You can't trust quiche, is what Robot thinks he'd think, were he human.

Quiche sounds like a comfortable chair that, upon being sat in, sinks too much. And while that experience, like quiche, is something robot has never experienced, he's certain he wouldn't like it.

Quiche...

Peas: Peas! What a word!

Peas sound like they'll do. They'll just do. To Robot, peas are nearly sad, because they sound under appreciated. Like a day that's not too hot or too cold, yet it's optimal temperature never crosses your mind.

Peas are "you don't know what you got till its gone" (and you're hungry).

When robot hears the word "peas," he becomes suddenly aware of the screws and bolts holding him together. Suddenly aware of how perfectly they fit his frame, how perfectly they keep him together.

Whenever Robot hears the word "peas," he feels bad he doesn't appreciate the screws and bolts holding him together more.

Pizza: Pizza! What a word!

What a weird word.

Foods cut down in their prime, that's what pizza sounds like to Robot. Yet the sum of the individual pieces of pizza, the fragments of separate wholes, becomes a fuller whole in their combination.

Pizza isn't the ocean. Robot imagines that pizza is like a nice, private pool. Maybe it's in someone's back yard. All your friends are there and they're smiling. It can get better than this, but not by much.

Pizza...


Mason Johnson is a writer from Chicago who currently works full time writing and editing articles for CBS. You can find his fiction at themasonjohnson.com. Also, he pets all the cats.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The state that I'm in

So I'm not sure who's been paying attention as of late (I say this honestly, not in a desperate bid for assurance) but I haven't been doing a terribly good job of maintaining this blog for the past few weeks. In an attempt to break my radio silence, I feel somewhat obligated to offer up an explanation, even if I've tried to keep most personal things out of this blog to strictly focus on my bookish and foodly interests. 

I have not been myself lately. To elaborate, I have little interest in things that are neither wine nor fueling my recent but enthusiastically nurtured fondness for Bloody Marys (I mean, aside from cuddling with my adorable dog and gearing up for this year's very celebratory wedding season). Reading has been an absolute chore: While I've faced down reading slumps before, none have been as persistent and long-running as this current bout of readerly apathy. As a result, I've dialed way back on my book reviews because I do not feel it is fair to whatever thing I'm reading to sludge through it just for the sake of pooping out a half-hearted review.

This all stems from how vehemently and bitterly I hate my job. I've been at my current place of employment for a skosh more than five years and have wanted out for a staggering majority of that time. It took me a long time to realize that I am burned out in ways I've never before experienced, as I was loathe to confess I'd let myself get this badly beaten down and disenchanted with the things I usually love because of what comes down to a miserably acquired paycheck.

So it is with great pleasure that I can say, as of last night, my days at this job are numbered. I'll be embarking upon a new occupational adventure two days after I get the unique honor of standing up as matron of honor for my best friend, with the day of her wedding rehearsal being my last-ever day at a place that has both warped my personality and left me stewing in a small pond of previously unexplored emotionally toxic levels. While I am not allowed to go into greater detail about what my new job is 'til July 3, I am too filled with relief, unbridled joy and a return to the person I know I really am to keep this all to myself. I may explode from happiness, which is a sensation that has grown far too alien these past few months (or years, if I'm being brutally honest).

I look forward to whatever the future holds, especially in terms of getting back to the things and people from which I derive the greatest delights. Be well, and expect a return to form as soon as this most unfamiliar state of welcome chaos abates.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Aaron's Leap

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. The publisher very generously provided me with a copy of this novel.)

Aaron's Leap, Magdaléna Platzová
Read: 11 to 18 May 2014
5 / 5 stars

Magdaléna Platzová's Aaron's Leap is a powerful, sobering meditation on both the human condition and the nurturing of the artistic soul that closes the distance between far-flung eras, absent friends, and seemingly unrelated histories of people and places alike--all of which demonstrate a unifying power akin to a ripple effect in time.

The narrative bounds across decades to explore a modern-day Israeli film crew's efforts to produce a documentary about the early- to mid-1900s life and art of Berta Altmann. Berta gets her own voice and story throughout the book, revealing intimate details about her that no retrospective examination of the conflicted woman could ever hope to replicate--a limitation that Berta's friend and fellow artist, Krystýna Hládková, is keenly aware of, coaxing her toward filmed interviews in the hopes of adding crucial dimension to what she sees as a detachedly historical film. Krystýna's granddaughter Milena tags along as a translator and soon finds herself romantically though confusingly entangled with the crew's cameraman, the titular Aaron, and the two add their own interconnected threads to the book's tapestry of inevitable connections.

Aaron's Leap is not just one character's story but it is bound by one idea: the necessity of art. The crucial role art plays in society and the artists' need to create form the backbone of the novel, with the characters' stories serving the central thesis to varying degrees. Aaron throws himself into his work, almost talking himself out of his feelings for Milena by convincing himself that she would be a distraction from the career to which he's devoted himself; Berta practically tortures herself to produce art that satisfies her, railing against her own impulses to fit a mold that isn't true to her own avenue of expression; Krystýna, primarily appearing as an elderly woman whose final days are upon her, destroys some of the uglier vestiges of her past and throws most of her efforts into detailing the Berta she knew in the hopes of leaving behind images both of herself that her son can peacefully live with after she's gone and of the Berta she knew and loved that would otherwise die with her.

The conflict between artists' utterly devoted, almost childlike tunnel-visioned regard for the work driving them and the cold imperatives of adult responsibility emerges as a recurring theme, emphasizing the frustrations that arise from trying to strike a realistic balance between the two. Berta is the best encapsulation of this, from witnessing a professor's descent into seeming madness in order to live in unbridled servitude to his art to trying to find her own harmonious allocations of energy. She responds to an interrogation regarding the openly communist ideals she has cultivated by explaining "We don't want to destroy... We want everyone to have enough food and heat, so they don't have to choose between working for money and working for the soul" and crying out in her diary entries with existential crises like "Must one really work and scrape by only for oneself to be able to create something? Must one be self-centered?"

The seemingly self-serving nature of the artist is a frequent concern for Berta, who is routinely described as a warm, magnetic and wholly selfless woman. A therapist suggests that growing up without a mother and with a father who couldn't give her the attention she needs left the adult Berta craving love and unwilling to impose upon others, which ultimately reconciles her artistic confidence with the ostensibly incompatible self-doubt plaguing her personal life. Berta is so worried that she doesn't give enough of herself to others and saves her best parts for her art that it's not until two days before she and her husband are sent to the Terezín concentration camp that she finally realizes she has sabotaged herself, confessing that "the balance of almost forty-two years" is that she has "accomplished nothing as an artist." Neither Berta nor anyone else directly pose the question, but it is this slap of clarity that asks whether it is more selfish to live for one's art or to be so devoted to others in the finite present that it compromises one's intended legacy as a canonical powerhouse, inadvertently diminishing the enjoyment of others in the far more expansive future. When Krystýna correctly observes that Berta was only able to give herself to others through her talents in Terezín by offering art lessons to the children imprisoned with her--and, therefore, giving them some shred of normalcy during a hellish obliteration of the childlike innocence she understood so well--it is one of the book's most piercing, tragic revelations about an otherwise strong woman whose unearned sense of guilty obligation to others was her undoing.

Platzová expertly illustrates the connectivity of the past, present and future, as well as the influences such chains of events impose on the widening spiral of time. It is not only Berta's living past and current memory that unite strangers and places but also the shifting times that she witnessed that drive this point home with a poignancy. The artists comprising the company she kept as a young woman regard themselves as midwives ushering in a new era on the ashes of the old in an "attempt to remold human life and its industrially produced elements into an artistic work." There can be no new worlds created without nurturing a dissatisfaction with the old, and a willingness to sit by dispassionately in uncertain times of flux between the two is to suffer a living death.

Likewise, stagnation arises from sidestepping opportunity one too many times, as the chances to become the person that one's talent mandate they should be are not a limitless resource. While it took Berta nearly her entire life to keep her short-term needs from obscuring her long-term goals, there is a chance that Aaron will not make the same mistake and, in fact, take the leap that will lead him to the sublime fulfillment that life is waiting for him to embrace.

Monday, May 19, 2014

"Elegantly Naked in My Sexy Mental Illness" virtual book tour


Heather Fowler’s fourth collection of fiction speaks the language of need. Desperate, obsessive, even demented need—both emotional and erotic—is voiced by characters ill or ill-advised. From cyber to stalker, illicit, explicit, tender and tedious, the relationships in Elegantly Naked in My Sexy Mental Illness translate love and lust into disorder. How we hear our own need and the way it sounds to others proves in these enthralling stories an imperfect but utterly captivating conversation, a destructive yet dynamic discourse between well-being and disease, images and words.

You can purchase Heather’s book here.
 

Top Ten List!

Interesting Things the Characters Do in Elegantly Naked in My Sexy Mental Illness


1. Star, socialite. Has casual sex then commits randomly destructive acts.

2. Lisa, beleaguered office worker. Fantasizes about being brutalized and murdered by office love interest Howard Sun, and then is mildly pissed off when he shows up in person and interrupts her morbid daydream.

3. Myles, university professor. Designs a "pool-stay" he straps himself into to swim in place, too lazy for monitoring head-bonking into walls. Fetishizes burlap dolls.

4. Tatiana. Makes up alternate histories for her mother in the final stages of delusional bubonic plague.

5. Treble Ann, rural pugilist. Beats a man to death and then boxes is ears with a prosthetic leg he stole from a girl in a barn.

6. Susan, young sister of a bi-polar depressive. Pre-plans remarks about her older sister's eventual suicide, years in advance.

7. Brianne, career woman. Flings every kitchen knife she owns out her Manhattan window—then  goes down to retrieve these to throw them again.

8. Terry, fired businessman. Walks down the street in a black Speedo and his wife's make-up, a tiger, just before biting a cop.

9. Neighborhood child. Defecates in the front yard of the main family because the little girls who live there told him to do so. His parents must come to retrieve it.

10. Michelle, caretaker for the elderly. Burns down the house of a dead woman who tormented her for months—feels no remorse and freaks out her own therapist.


Heather Fowler is the author of the story collections Elegantly Naked in My Sexy Mental Illness; This Time, While We're Awake; People with Holes; and Suspended Heart. Fowler’s work was named a 2012 finalist for Foreword Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction. She received her M.A. in English and Creative Writing from Hollins University. Her stories and poems have appeared in: PANK, Night Train, storyglossia, Surreal South, Feminist Studies, The Nervous Breakdown, and others. Please visit her website: www.heatherfowlerwrites.com.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Cosmicomics

Cosmicomics, Italo Calvino
Read: 25 to 28 February 2013
5 / 5 stars

Calvino opened this beautiful little collection with "The Distance of the Moon," a tale from the days when the lunar landscape could be reached with nothing more than a ladder and some well-timed gymnastics, so it struck me as appropriate that I began reading Cosmicomics on the night of a full moon.

I had its richly resonant first two stories running through my head while driving home from work that evening. The first half of my commute is a journey illuminated by the artificial lights of both commerce and my fellow impatient motorists before giving way to a monotonous stretch of interstate road, offering precious few spots of gap-toothed skyline that allow the evening sky to break through; one of these infrequent openings offered a glimpse of the looming, swollen moon. The distortion of a full lunar sphere just beginning its ascent, an engorged orb hanging so low and heavy that she could pass for the grandest part of the man-made horizon, is one of my favorite displays offered by my favorite celestial phenomenon: I’ve had a particular affinity for the full moon ever since I discovered that unusually well-lit nighttime walks were the most reliable antidote for my teenage moodiness. The optical illusion that makes a low moon loom gigantically renders a familiar sight unusual, and stealing a few glances of it during my daily trek home lent a tangibility to Calvino's story I wasn't expecting but didn't really surprise me. This would not be the first (and I sincerely doubt the last) time I couldn't help but apply Calvino's vision to a real-world occurrence.

These stories make the kind of sense that dreams do, in a way. While clearly mismatched words don’t rhyme upon waking as they do in nocturnal narratives and the person who represents a singular entity in sleep becomes an obviously symbolic amalgamation of strangers and forgotten friends once the dreamer is jarred into consciousness, the creation myths Calvino weaves into dazzling truths actually do hold up upon further examination, even if they do require the occasional suspension of disbelief; still, who’s to say the cosmos and the population that arose with it adhere to the same stringent reality we’ve come to accept?

While the formative years of the cosmic terrain -- the Earth and its lunar satellite included -- are decidedly alien in their lack of familiar concepts (just as our commonalities were novel then: "You understand? It was the first time. There had never been things to play with before. And how could we have played? With that pap of gaseous matter?"), the inhabitants' stumbling confusion about what's going on but solid certainty that whatever's happening is important didn't require a leap of imagination to understand. Calvino imbued his cast of nonhuman characters with decidedly human curiosity and incredibly human failings, which helps to ground an otherwise ethereal collection of interweaving tales in achingly relatable terms.

What struck me most about this book is how actively shameful impulses have shaped and driven self-aware creatures since, quite literally, there have been self-aware beings in a position to affect their environment. Those jealousies, those prejudices, and most of all those proud insecurities were allowed to reach a boiling point and bubbled into the external world. The effects weren't always catastrophic but they did leave lasting marks on the nascent universe. To consider that the universe as we know it (what we know of it, anyway) was crafted neither by a happy, scientifically explained accident nor the whim of just but avuncular deities, but rather some ordinary guy's selfish motives and a need to leave a cosmic "I wuz here" smear of existential proof is a perspective shift worth mulling over.

I still maintain that this is perfection in 153 pages. My second encounter with Calvino was just as fortuitous and spilled off the page into real life just as much as my first -- so much, in fact, that I bought another one of this books almost immediately upon finishing this one because I just want to glut myself on Calvino's unequaled prose. Simply, the man reminds me of what a magical experience a good book is and why reading has been one of my favorite pastimes for as long as it has. This is a quick read that demands the reader to pace him/herself to properly dwell on the densely packed splendor within.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Books + food = A downright enjoyable introduction to 30

(The Old Book Shop of Bordentown, Bordentown, NJ)

My husband asked how I wanted to spend my 30th birthday. I said that I wanted to browse a used-book store and nosh on tasty foodstuffs. The spoils of the former demand are above (that's some Camus second from the bottom, or my excuse for using the phrase "Camusement park" as often as I could shoehorn it however irrelevantly into conversation); the feast we enjoyed is below. All in all, it was a damn fine way to usher in a decade I wasn't entirely crazy about welcoming into my life.

(The Chicken or the Egg, Beach Haven, NJ)

Thursday, May 8, 2014

"We, Monsters" virtual book tour


Zarina Zabrisky, author of the novel We, Monsters (2014, Numina Press), shares a bit about the importance of food—what’s being eaten and why—during her visit at “Books, With Occasional Food.” Check out other aspects of the novel—including psychology, sex, her perspective on women writing, and a read sample of the novel at the first stop—on the rest of her virtual book tour.

Synopsis of Novel: A wife and mother searches the internet for a job as a dominatrix. She needs the experience; it’s research for a book she’s writing about her dead sister. Taking the name Mistress Rose, she learns the darkest desires of the human psyche while slowly doubting her own perception of reality. Rose’s manuscript ends up in the hands of clinical psychologist Dr. Michael H. Strong, who adds footnotes in which he analyzes Mistress Rose’s behaviors and undoing.  

Food and We, Monsters with Zarina: Rose may be living in California now, but she is from Ukraine. As a result, the food that appears in the book is an indicator of Rose’s state-of-mind. When she is more peaceful, she creates dishes from her native country for her family. When she is frantic, she resorts to frozen pizzas haphazardly thrown in the oven.

The first love we receive is food. To quote Dr. Michael H. Strong of We, Monsters (who is quoting Freud): "Love and hunger meet at mother's breast." Or at mother's kitchen table. By feeding her kids borscht and vareniki—purse-shaped Ukrainian dumplings—Rose connects to her mother/grandmother and to her children. Like Proust's madeleine, her borscht is not just food, a scarlet-hued soup of beet roots and green onions. It is magic infused with memories of her grandmother's kitchen, sultry summers in Odessa, life still full of colors, tastes, textures and hopes. She loves her kids through food. When she is detached, food speaks nothing of her or to her.

Rose grew up on Ukrainian, Russian and Jewish cuisine fusion. Since she is suffering from disassociating and identity issues, being grounded is the matter of survival to her. Cooking (with its aromas, rich sensations, and memory triggers) and eating (with the physical, and, often, sensual and erotic acts of biting, licking, chewing and swallowing) provide the way to connect to her body. The heavy bliss of hot borscht and creamy Fantasy cake cut deep into the bone marrow, dig out the memory of the flesh and bring Rose back to her core. Food becomes self-medication, a substitute for all things lost: mother, motherland, and the sense of belonging.

I once had a heated dispute with a Russian-speaking taxi driver: he said there was no pistachio ice cream in the Soviet Union. I remembered eating it. He almost threw me out of his cab, he got so angry. Later, I spoke to a few friends, and everyone had a different opinion and stood by their guns with the vehemence and ardor of religious fanatics. I then recognized that the ice-cream itself didn't matter. It was a phantom of our lost country. And a symbol. We all lost a lot, left our memories behind in search of a new foreign future. Memories are like dreams: elusive, bittersweet, unreliable, and full of meaning. People fight for their dreams and their memories. Nostalgia hides behind the rows of canned anchovies, rolls of blood kielbasa, and jars of raspberry jam.

In her fabulous essay about "Babbette's Feast," Esther Rashkin gives a thought-provoking and illuminating analysis of mourning through cooking. I really recommend this essay to all readers interested in the psychology and food. The essay is a part of one of the best modern books on psychology and culture book I have read, Unspeakable Secrets of Psychoanalysis of Culture. I lived in the Soviet Union and I am not proud of it. My favorite dishes are international: I prefer Georgian cuisine to Russian, and Ukrainian and Armenian dishes are amazing, too. My absolute winner is khachapuri, a Georgian cheese pie—divine, flaky, golden pies oozing with melted cheese. I can't cook it. It is magic. Look it up, maybe. My family dishes come without recipes. I am convinced that real Russian blinis or kasha cannot be cooked following traditional recipes and rules. I did write a poem that starts "Do not measure your love," after all.

Listen to Zarina talk more about her relationship with food and place in this very short clip.

Purchase We, Monsters here.











Zarina Zabrisky is the author of short story collections IRON (2012, Epic Rites Press), A CUTE TOMBSTONE (2013, Epic Rites Press), a novel We, Monsters (2014, Numina Press), and a book of poetry co-authored with Simon Rogghe (forthcoming in 2014 from Numina Press). Zabrisky started to write at six. She earned her MFA from St. Petersburg University, Russia, and wrote while traveling around the world as a street artist, translator, and a kickboxing instructor. Her work appeared in over thirty literary magazines and anthologies in the US, UK, Canada, Ireland, Hong Kong, and Nepal. A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a recipient of 2013 Acker Award for Achievement in The Avant Garde, Zabrisky is also known for her experimental Word and Music Fusion performances.



Thursday, May 1, 2014

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Anne Fadiman
Read: 1 June to 2 June 2013
4.5 / 5 stars

If you'll excuse what I know has to sound like a weak attempt at an obvious pun, I find that books are easier to read than people. I summon far less effort to read a page than a face, a chapter than mixed body language: Even the subtext and allusions and metaphors are all naught but new takes on old tricks, and the most elusive hidden messages are often buried no deeper than a careful reexamination of text laid bare with a willingness most people eschew in the name of self-preservation and tactful modesty. Besides, I'm far (far, far, faaaar) more apt to dislike a person than a book, so why not be better acquainted with the entity that's more likely to strike me as pleasing?

Having encountered hundreds of agreeable books by now, I can tell when one is poised to bound across the threshold between casual acquaintance and trusted friend. Because no two books, in a rare display of commonality with us moodier mortals, share the same personality, the one variable is when the deepening of our relationship will become apparent -- will we know by the time the last word hits us like a too-soon au revoir or will we realize that our meeting was fated for roaring success before I've even turned the first page?

Ex Libris and I were destined for each other. I knew this to be an undeniable truth simply from a mutual friend's appropriately glowing review that gave rise to the heartening pang reserved for the flash of recognition in spotting a kindred spirit from a distance that may be easily conquered but lengthened intolerably by the inconvenient fact that we'd not been properly introduced yet. Like a friend insisting that I ought to meet this person they just know with whom I'll enjoy an easy rapport, I sought the aforementioned book's companionship immediately, knowing it would be one of those rare times reality and fantasy sung in pitch-perfect harmony. Anne Fadiman's collection of essays culled from a lifetime of bibliomania and I, in truth, needed no introduction once our eyes locked in a Barnes & Noble: We knew that we were about the enjoy the rare bliss of a fast friendship and flowing conversation buoyed by quiet but doggedly personality-defining quirks.

Forgoing the polite formalities of aimless small talk that I've never had any use for, we quickly discovered our kinship by way of unabashed conversation girded with the intimate admissions that are usually divulged to the friends whose loyalty was built on years of shared experiences: Ours was a love at first sight that is usually only relegated to the fictions we both treasure as though they are the pillars upon which our own personal histories rest (and, really, they decidedly do).

We found instantaneous common ground by confiding early on that we both regarded it as a monumental moment, indeed -- with an eye cast far more optimistically toward the future than a mere marriage proposal, infinitely more demonstrative of a trust we'd only felt for one person that we proclaimed it before a roomful of witnesses, embracing a humbling but welcome vulnerability light years beyond that first appearance of the two-backed beast -- when we allowed the person we've vowed to love and support until both of our bodies have expired to combine their personal libraries with our own lovingly tended but fiercely guarded treasure trove of tomes, that to allow such a commingling of the closest we'll ever come to an outward manifestation of our personalities' truest forms with another's is the very definition of the hard-won but popularly cliched and carelessly bandied-about designation of "soulmate."

As we freely offered each other the pieces of ourselves we usually sheltered beneath layers of protective trivia and adopted personae, sitting forehead-to-forehead as hours melted away like minutes during our sometimes tittering, sometimes somber but always generously peppered with earnest, animated outbursts of "I know exactly what you mean! I thought I was the only one!" conversation, we unearthed more and more gold nuggets of shared insights and experiences: rampant logophilia; an incorrigible but well-intentioned need to proofread everything made of words; the ongoing struggle against but secret thrill of one's living space looking less like a home and more like a used bookstore (which, really, is the only other place we're truly ourselves, anyway); the pleasure of carnally loving a book to the extent that its spine is permanently bent and its marginalia is such an imprint of the self that the very idea of letting someone else borrow it requires tapping into some inner peace to get over the anxiety akin to letting someone rifle through your diary with dirty fingers and malicious intent; the unavoidable comparison between a decadent meal and a five-course book and the primitive, multi-sensory satiation that accompany both.

Alas, all good things must come to an end and, as we blinked with disbelief into the light of a new day, we realized that our electrifying and animated first meeting was rushing toward its inevitable denouement. And I realized that the jealousies I'd brushed aside in the eager pursuit of getting to know this marvelous new ally with whom I shared multitudinous proclivities and compulsions were now a spreading stain that unfairly marred our enchanted first encounter, which is a personal failing that should say terrible things about me and should not, at all, be held against this exuberant and eloquent little book (but is what keeps it from being a five-star read for purely selfish reasons -- I assume, with the heavy-handed clarity of hindsight, that Ex Libris is dressed in green to warn me how deeply I'd envy anyone whose childhood was a warmly nurturing word nerd's dream and a booklover's haven). I know we'll meet again and, that when we do, my pettiness will have long ago been overshadowed by fond memories of a soul-baring heart-to-heart that is worth the dozens of instances of painfully insipid chatter I suffered through to find it.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

As if spring weren't already the best season


With the arrival of spring comes the return of Stewart's, the absolute greatest drive-up restaurant in the universe and the reason I learned to love root beer.
(Stewart's Drive-In, Burlington, NJ)

Monday, April 28, 2014

A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle
Read: 19 May to 21 May 2013
5 / 5 stars

I have one general, self-imposed rule about reviewing on Goodreads: I write about the books I've read in the order I've finished them. By that logic, I should be cobbling together my reaction to Hunger right now but I am so taken by this childhood staple that there's no room in my brain for anything other than uncontrollable glee over this book that another Madeleine has given to the world.

I never read this book as a kid. I didn't read it as a teenager or a college student. I read it for the first time with 30 coming at me like a crazed stalker who won't let a pesky thing like a restraining order stand in the way. And that did concern me, especially after half-heartedly slogging through the first four books comprising the Narnia Chronicles a few years ago before taking an indefinite break from tackling what should have been another enthusiastically remembered staple of a young reader's diet. I was afraid that I'd completely missed out on enjoying A Wrinkle in Time, a novel that I have heard praised up and down by so many people as the prime example of how good children's literature can be.

So I read it like I read as a wee lass who didn't realize that she was poised at the very beginning of what would become a lifelong pursuit of books fueled by an insatiable need to keep reading. I read well past my bedtime with one tiny light illuminating the path to somewhere magically transportive, knowing full well that the bookworm gratification far outweighed the inevitability of being a zombie all morning. I read it when I should have been doing something else as dictated by responsibility. I read to be told a story and to consider ideas I'd never come across in the world beyond two covers, sure, but mostly I read to give myself up to a writer's lush landscape, to lose myself in someone else's words. I read it to let my imagination run free through a universe I fervently and fruitlessly wished to be a part of.

And my adult self was just as enchanted as my inner child was. Sure, A Wrinkle in Time has its faults but I honestly couldn't tell you what they are because I was so thoroughly entertained, so taken with these characters I couldn't believe I could relate to in a way that was far less remote and removed than I expected (which is to say, at all) that all the things my nitpicky, pretentious post-English-major self would usually hone in on paled in comparison to the sheer enjoyment of the rush of letting a book completely suck me into its world to the point where the real world could have collapsed around me and I wouldn't've either cared or noticed because I was so wrapped up in this story.

On one hand, yeah, I do feel a little cheated that so much of what I needed to hear as a kid has lived within these pages all this time and I could have had such imperatives by my side to ease the pains of childhood's harsh but necessary learning experiences had I just shown even a fraction of some interest in this book. Among them: One's parents are not infallible. Weaknesses can become strengths -- nay, tools integral to besting some truly harrowing obstacles -- in the right circumstances. That sometimes you have to face down scary or unpleasant truths, and you're not excused from looking away or backing down just because the task ahead is either scary or unpleasant. It's better to embrace your individuality and not compromise yourself, no matter how uncomfortable you are in your own skin, than to mindlessly submit to the herd mentality and easy conformity. Just because something appears strange doesn't make it bad -- or all that strange at its core, after all. What things are is infinitely more important than what they look like.

But conversely? This book drenched my ordinary existence with fantasy's magic for a few days, and I'm sure it'll stick with me in the days to come. My first encounter with this book wasn't a foggily but fondly recalled childhood memory that's destined to be tarnished by the darkening cynicism of the years upon revisits from my older self. I got to experience the breathless wonder of a kid discovering an instant favorite for that very first time as an oasis of sheer escapist rapture in the face of a few intense work days and the humdrum nature of routine adulthood. And it proved to me that I don't always have to be such a goddamn snob about kid lit because when it's good, it is extraordinary. (And, really, let's be honest: Younger Me wasn't exactly the sharpest crayon in the tool shed, so who's to say I would have picked up on the more subtle elements that made this such a delightful read, anyway?)

Despite my natural inclination toward hyperbole, I am not exaggerating when I say I'm a little better for having read this book, one that I initially arrived at out of dubious curiosity and left in a state of giddy, childlike awe. And maybe a few tears.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Wasteland Blues

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. The publisher generously provided me with a copy of this novel.)

Wasteland Blues, Scott Christian Carr and Andrew Conry-Murray
Read: 14 to 21 April 2014
4 / 5 stars    

For me to find a post-apocalyptic yarn to be a successfully executed one, there are just a few requirements that I need to be satisfied, namely a uniquely fabricated world of end-times horrors; conversely, there are numerous mainstays of the genre that I take great delight in seeing turned on their heads, disregarded altogether or swapped for new takes on a literary genus of seemingly infinite permutations.

Wasteland Blues is another answer lobbed at the question of how exactly society would fall apart in the wake of mass devastation and how its survivors would forge ahead with limited assets and mounting adversity. It begins with a band of four men--Derek, the hotheaded, self-proclaimed leader; his mostly genial brick wall of a brother, Teddy; John, their pious friend; and Derek's captive, a grizzled old man, Leggy, whose moniker mocks his halved gams and whose town-drunk persona hides lifetimes of experience in battling the elements in this wasted world that keeps trudging on decades after the ruinous, toxic final war that dismantled civilization as we know it--who set out for whatever remains of New York City from San Muyamo, their blasted West Coast refuge cobbled together from the broken relics of a time none of them ever knew.

The basic need to carve out a habitable place in a poisoned world is no longer an immediate struggle. The story begins in the refugee village where the four men have been living for years, and it's clear that there are outposts dotting an otherwise ravaged country where nascent societies offer glimmers of hope about rebuilding the world and establishing cohesive communities. It is, however, that fledgling sense of safety in numbers that force Derek and Teddy to flee their home in the first place: One of Teddy's lapses into a blind, destructive rage resulted in the accidental death of their father, and Derek knows all too well that their fellow residents would never tolerate a murderer living among them. The cross-country trek that ensues allows for the true point of this story--self-realization in times that test an individual's breaking point and determination--to slowly emerge against a landscape comprising the very stuff of which nightmares are made.

There's the standard menu of life-after-the-end-of-life-as-we-know-it fare, like the ongoing struggles against both an unforgiving environment and all the other living things that could prove inimical for any number of reasons, never knowing who can be trusted, and conjuring up and clinging to a vision of the future that's worth fighting for. To prove that it's something looking to enrich the genre rather than listlessly regurgitate its hallmarks, Wasteland Blues has to serve as more than just another story told from the other side of a world-changing catastrophe, which, gratefully, it does with aplomb. The novel focuses not on what greets this growing band of misfits when it reaches the city Derek sees in his dreams (and conflates into a heavenly vision to coax the reluctant John along) by following the group as it makes its way across the Wasteland of post-nuclear fallout America. This is a story about a journey and the lessons it imparts about not just surviving but thriving to those who are receptive to a perspective-widening education.

What begins as a ragtag quartet with little chance of survival given three of its members' nearly lifelong isolation in San Muyamo slowly grows to include both human and animal allies, some of whom stick around for the long haul and others who tag along 'til they get to their intended destinations. As the story progresses, the caricatures that Derek, Teddy, John and Leggy began as blossom into more realized characters who possess something integral to not only their own survival but also that of their roving companions. It is that flourishing humanism that sets Wasteland Blues apart from its end-times-lit brethren, as it shows how the same set of circumstances impacts different personalities, and how each character both serves and is the product of the story and its world in their own ways.

Perhaps the most effective element within this book's 200-some pages is the present state of the world itself. While there isn't a definitely given time in which Wasteland Blues takes place, there are casual references to the last World War taking place during 2085, or nearly a century ago. In that time, any recognizable traces of the world the reader knows are lost, ruined or misremembered, and that sense of chronological discombobulation is a difficult reality to face. What we know to be astronauts have become almost mythological moon men dwelling on the lunar surface, and our satellites are now likened to angels and "tin houses floating around in the sky." Having to face not only a mass extinction by way of radioactive fire but also a dissolution of the world in which the reader is safely encountering this post-apocalyptic world makes for uncomfortable reminders of one's mortality every time those sensitive spots are cruelly but effectively poked throughout the unfolding of this story.

The lack of a neatly wrapped ending would feel like a frustrating cop-out if weren't such a fitting continuation of the harrowing disorientation permeating through these pages. As Leggy ruminates toward the end of the novel, "(w)e're all heroes of our own stories... and heroes are supposed to live happily ever after, at least in the story books. But the Wasteland keeps its own book, and writes its own ending." This story, in keeping with the uncertainty of a world ambling toward some hopeful rebirth, deserves more than a forced conclusion tacked on for the sake of a "real" ending, as if there's anything the Wasteland teaches those who dare to traverse it, it's that endings are sudden, messy things that come of their own accord and that closure is a promise no man has a right to demand.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Leningrad

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. I purchased this book with the intention of reviewing it.)

Leningrad, Igor Vishnevetsky
Read: 13 to 14 April 2014
4.5 / 5 stars   

Igor Vishnevetsky's Leningrad combines poetry and prose, newspaper articles and personal journals, publicized tallies and top-secret communiques to paint a complete (and completely bleak) image of Leningrad Blockage-era Russia and the full scope of horrors that can rain down on a war-pummeled city while its residents try to hold their lives together throughout an increasingly turbulent period.

As history is reduced to numbers and outcomes and notable skirmishes with the ever-widening distance separating then from now, it's easy to forget that people did their best to live through times of far-reaching upheaval and misery that encroached most disastrously on their smaller worlds. Here, Vishnevetsky presents us with Gleb Alfani, a composer, and his lover, Vera, as the intimate connection between a ravaged city and its residents' desperate attempts to preserve the humanity that they need to survive in a brutal environment. Gleb distracts himself from both a hopeless world and the barrage of ammunition disfiguring his home by drowning out the cacophony of ceaseless fire with the opera he superstitiously believes will keep him and his beloved safe as long as he's composing it. Vera's safety becomes a paramount concern when she divulges her pregnancy, already a complication in turbulent times where death far outpaces births but an even more daunting hurdle since Vera's husband is both a naval officer in the war effort and very obviously not the child's father. She flees Leningrad in the hopes of finding refuge, instructing Gleb to follow her once he receives her next letter, but his emaciated body and weakened spirit soon fall victim to a flu that leaves him delirious and split from reality. Spring eventually returns to Leningrad and health finally returns to Gleb, but the world he is reborn to is nothing like the one he once knew.

Aside from their roles as the beating heart in the political history of war, Gleb and Vera, as well as their friends and family orbiting the periphery of the plot, are witnesses who provide their own personal narratives about struggling through another day, clinging to the things that gave their life meaning before, and how those things become frivolous necessities as the life rafts keeping their rapidly deflating morale afloat. The continuation and preservation of art is a recurring theme throughout this short book: A minor character retrieves rare books from bombed-out buildings; Vera's husband writes of how he feels that the time he once spent painting now seems "absolutely ludicrous in comparison with the immense, unifying cause propelling us all forward," though the painting to which he refers is the lone item in Vera's apartment that glimmers with hope when Gleb goes looking for her and finds only a long-empty residence; Gleb slips into poesy in some of his journal entries, finding dark beauty in a devastated world and imposing metered order on a time when chaos ruled, and later mourns the books he sacrificed to the fire that kept him warm throughout the unforgiving winter. The aesthetic value of artistic pursuits aside, holding tight to one's appreciation of art is how these characters preserved elements of pre-war life, fighting impending death and coping with persistent uncertainty by remembering the things that gave beauty to the world and brought them happiness.

The importance of bearing witness to the unenviable epoch in which they lived and to which they had front-row seats is among the primary functions Vishnevetsky's characters serve. One of Gleb's first journal entries talks of how a friend confessed that being confronted with death leaves him in a state of arousal; rather than being a deviant's admission, it highlights how the triumph of living when thousands die each month is an understandably muddled, confused thing. Some characters find themselves almost gloating to the corpses they've stepped over in the streets, so giddy they are with life--hard as it is--while others try not to take in too much (if any) of their squalid environment. But no judgement is imparted to make one reaction seem more honorable than the other: Vishnevetsky merely uses each character's response to meteoric body counts to color their personalities, demonstrating how the coping mechanisms of the living are as varied as their methods of survival. While some characters need to record the loss and desolation of the times, especially once discrepancies arise between what they've seen and what official documents claim, others merely want to survive, and looking too closely at the carnage surrounding them would only deliver the final blow of emotional defeat. Self-denial looks an awful lot like self-preservation in the right circumstances and, as accounts of cannibalism rise and Gleb's instructions to himself about what does and doesn't prove to be edible betray the desperate edges of madness, it is increasingly clear that each individual must decide for themselves what desperation looks like and how they must harness it to see another day.

Since the world has a cruel way of moving on despite the sufferings of its inhabitants, the first spring of the siege finally comes and is wholly incongruent with the winter that still clutches at the hearts of those who have lost and suffered through so much. But it is proof that all things will pass and that time always shuffles onward, and the most we can do is learn from the past and remember its harsh imperatives. While time does not heal all wounds, hindsight is a stern teacher that is keen to remind its students that life goes on for those who are strong enough to forge ahead with it. It is in this truth that the crux of Leningrad's lesson dwells, the affirmation of life's ability to take root in the most hard-scrabble, inconceivably hostile elements as long as there is something to live for.

Monday, April 14, 2014

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments, David Foster Wallace
Read: 14 September to 6 October 2012
5 / 5 stars

My woefully late introduction to David Foster Wallace came earlier this year when I noshed greedily on The Broom of the System, which humbled and fascinated and tickled and impressed the ever-loving shit out of me to the point where I only gave it four stars because the guy wrote it when he was younger than I am now and I have it on good faith that his later works are even better.

Reading this made me feel a lot of things -- the way it eased my unshakable sense of being lonely in a totally cliched existential sort of way that I feel like I maybe should have grown out of by now being one of the biggies; most of said feelings were staggeringly positive -- but the most persistent and lingering one was this quiet sadness. The dates imprinted on a lot of these pieces (the early to mid-‘90s, not one predating my exit from elementary school) are just long ago enough to start taking on the sheen of gauzy quaintness that I'm beginning to understand and is plain fucking weird while also being an unpleasantly vague reminder that since time stops for no man, death comes for everyone. (Interestingly, the offerings herein don't come off as dated -- cell phones as shiny new things that only the elite few possess! the rise of irony in popular culture! the advent of the internet! Rather, they serve as one big time capsule for a great mind reacting to really strange times. It was so weird (and rad as hell, too) to read about a very smart and very aware adult reflecting about a present I can only recall from a child's long-ago vantage point.)

And it was thinking like that, in the moments I stopped reading this collection to process the range of thoughts it reflected, the ideas it proposed and feelings it gave rise to because I was so dazzled by how DFW made me care about things I’d never had two shits to rub together in regard to before, how he had a wicked knack for turning a simple observation into an unobtrusively significant moment, how he didn’t so much observe as understand the intangibles that were the driving forces of these pieces, that just made me sad that someone with a unique grasp on the human condition and inner workings of everything isn’t around to keep pointing out the unassuming but ever-present imperatives of absolutely all the things, including the pants-shittingly terrible experience that is putting oneself at the mercy of (or simply considering) a Midwestern state fair's death-trap carnival rides. And that I didn’t know to mourn DFW's passing until much later, leaving me to feel like my newly hatched enthusiasm for his brilliance is somehow insincere in its belatedness, however genuine I know it to be.

It also forced me to (very unwillingly, because my brain stops at this station a lot and I kind of hate it, even if it is something made of pure conjecture) think about what terms would drive me to check out early, too. Such things are worth mentioning because someone as willing as DFW was to look deep inside everything's inner workings to find their true meaning, to me, deserves the same kind of respectful concern. Rather than turning me off entirely, though, that train of thought made me even more willing to take DFW's careful deliberations to heart and try to see things as he does in the pieces comprising A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.

I know it sounds like a cop-out but each one of these essays and arguments brings something different to the table, which made it hard for me to decide whether or not I have a favorite piece in the collection. But I also don’t think that’s fair because each of the seven pieces has a different intention. (Get ready for the oncoming wall of text!)

It’s terrifying to see the dangers of mindless consumption via television’s manipulation addressed almost two decades ago -- the way advertisers always knew how to create a selling image for a blindly consumer-happy, image-obsessed American audience, the way societal conventions change television archetypes every so often, how all alternative trends eventually become bastardized into some mass-produced dross -- and fascinating to retrace the path of Metafiction's influence on today's entertainment in “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction." The nod to New Journalism in “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All” and the way DFW turns his experiences and observations at the ’93 Illinois State Fair into something bigger and more universal than it appears while capturing what exactly makes it such a unique beast should sound cynical and self-involved but doesn't. “Greatly Exaggerated,” or deconstructing a literary trend that is all about deconstructing previously accepted literary trends, was the headiest of the pieces; if I thought my ever-growing love for postmodernism in all its flavors was the only thing that made me appreciate the piece, then I would have entirely missed the points of both “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley” (DFW’s own forays into high-school tennis, the success of which he owed to a mental rather than athletic prowess that he seems unnecessarily apologetic about, the way someone who’s really good at something but is humbled rather than bolstered by it is) and “Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness,” which does address all those things (and more!) in relation to Joyce’s unflappable straightforwardness and tennis philosophy and has quite a bit to say about the nature and sacrifices of professional athletes and other applicable-to-everyone’s-lives truths. “David Lynch Keeps His Head” may have began as a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the birth of "Lost Highway” but winds up examining Lynch’s catalog and pinpointing all the ways he thoroughly messes with American moviegoers’ expectations and gets labeled as “sick” or “inaccessible” because of it (let me tell you something, Mulholland Drive made a hell of a lot more sense than it had any right to after reading this, which kind of freaked me out). Lastly, the piece that shares its title with this collection, a dissertation on the crises, implications and microcosmic representations of the id’s insatiable demand to get back the fuck into the womb for the relief of helpless indulgence via the luxury of Caribbean cruises, might just be the most thought-provoking and metaphorically successful vacation piece ever wrought. Ever.

So, yeah, there’s some varied stuff here but commonalities do emerge. One of the other things I'm liking best about DFW's stuff is that I absolutely have to read every single word and perform a few mental gymnastics to accommodate both the accessible-but-high-minded assertions and the asides that layer his writings with brilliance: It creates a kind of focus that has helped me retain more of his works than more simply written fare. Intentional or not, that same kind of keen attention appeared to be what DFW wanted to coax from his readers, imploring the audience to go forth and value the little things for their unique place in the world in order to better understand (or deconstruct, if you like) and appreciate them. Because nothing is just one thing: Everything comprises lots of unnoticed little things, and appreciating that makes it all worth the effort.

DFW infuses all of his topics with the same careful dissection (and flurry of pitch-perfect, lovingly applied ten-dollar words, which deserves mention for being delightful in its own word-nerd right), approaching an understanding devoid of all judgement, which is what appealed to me the most about this collection. It's so hard to approach a topic without bringing any sort of preconceived notions to the table -- like, DFW acknowledges the possibility of being perceived as an East Coast snob throughout his state-fair peregrinations, negating the impression of such a thing (to the reader, at least) with his conscious honesty -- but none of that lives here. There is no depressed acceptance of the way things are in his intellectual explorations; instead, he finds a way to break down the necessary humanity behind everything, bringing them to a wholly sympathetic, neutral at worst/misunderstood necessity at best sort of light. He analyzes social situations with a mathematical precision, offering a rational discourse instead of a detached report. He wants to pick things apart to achieve not reductive meaningless but sincere realization and factual certainty of a thing's nature and composition and intent.

In this way, he's a champion of eliminating the false veneer of fantasy that shrouds so many unattainable-by-normal-people things in seductive mystery -- that also drives the average Joe to the depths of jealousy and deluded despair. Breaking down the misconception that lies between the behind-the-scenes reality and the polished final dream, looking behind the curtain to understand the hard work and sacrifices of those in the public eye (writers to an extent but mostly film-industry professionals and celebrity athletes) makes them less scary, more systematic, and far, far less enviable.

One of the hallmarks of a genius, to me, is the ability to inspire curiosity and critical thinking in others, which is exactly what this collection does. I don't care if I'm betraying my terminally uncool over-eagerness in this review; I do, however, care that DFW made me give an earnest fuck about tennis. Twice.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Palmerino

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. I paid for this book with my own hard-won dollars.)

Palmerino, Melissa Pritchard
Read: 2 to 7 April 2014
5 / 5 stars 

Of all the successes contained within Palmerino's deceptively slim form, chief among them is its sound example of why Melissa Pritchard should be everyone's factually based but fictionally rendered introduction to coarse, easily misunderstood and half-forgotten writers. WIth a sensitive touch, lush descriptions and a richly evocative narrative triptych, Pritchard's exhaustive research into Violet Paget--perhaps better known as her nome de plume and masculine alter ego, Vernon Lee, the grandiloquent feminist and penner of supernatural tales, aesthetic studies and travel essays--flawlessly blends the late-nineteenth century writer's life with that of her fictional modern-day biographer.

Sylvia Casey, also a writer who has fallen on hard times (namely her marriage's demise as signaled by her husband absconding with another man, not to mention the faltering critical and commercial reception of her two most recent books placing her career in precarious uncertainty), has retreated to Palmerino, an Italian villa not far from Florence where Violet had spent much of her life, to slip away and throw herself into writing a novel inspired by Violet's life. Through research and walking the same grounds Violet once did, Sylvia immerses herself in the life of her spirited muse, mostly unaware that her subject has become her possessor in an unintended bit of method biographing.

The triumvirate of narration is an effective collision of past and present: Sylvia's quest to alternately lose herself in and hide from Italian life as she learns about the tempestuous Violet and writes of her discoveries; snapshots of Violet's life ranging from girlhood to brief mentions of her parents' and beloved Clementina's deaths; and ethereal interjections from Violet herself, as not even death could silence such an indomitable spirit, watching (and becoming gradually besotted with) her biographer, guiding the still-corporeal writer to clarify the truths about a life that has grown tarnished by assumptions: Violet is not a figure to be pigeonholed into easy descriptions, and she is irritated by history's posthumous efforts to reduce her to flat absolutes.

Though Violet is the linchpin holding the trio of perspectives together, the commingling of biographer and subject is present in each section to increasing degrees as Violet breathes her own essence into Sylvia by gradual possession. Sylvia's own writings are the most obvious interplay between the two, with Violet's resurrection flowing from her fingers onto pages both typed and intimately scribbled. Violet herself has been observing her biographer since the latter's arrival, a benign watchfulness yielding to a ghostly seduction that becomes ever more apparent in the chapters that follow Sylvia's pursuits. As the present-day writer encounters relics and writings from Violet's life, Sylvia withdraws more into herself and her work, at first wondering almost wryly if Violet is guiding her and eventually shirking her own rigid writing methods to scrawl pages in a hand nearly as illegible as Violet's, certain that a female presence draws ever closer until "hearing her name, she understands who is calling her" and finally flees to Violet's secret garden in the book's final pages.

It is Pritchard's sympathetic but honest rendering of a woman some found tyrannical, some found charming and almost all found terrifyingly learned that urge her ghostly heroine into genial illumination. By preserving Violet's intellectual intensity as well as capturing the softness of her romantic pursuits, the hard-edged scribe becomes a fully realized figure rather than the wanly uneven caricature such a divisive female figure can so easily be written off as. It is this careful balance that lends so much female empowerment to the novel, as Violet publicly shuns all the social niceties that she believes exist "principally to defang" a woman but extends the compassionate sensitivity stereotypically attributed to the so-called fairer to those she feels most deserving of her affections, selectively embracing her femininity when she finds it necessary. It is easy to reduce a strong woman from a repressed era to the limited and scandalously taboo "lesbian" label but Violet was volumes more than her attraction to other women. She recognized the disadvantages of her gender the moment she was pitted for her ugliness and turned an unfair liability into an asset, which led her to adopt the mannerisms, dress and persona of a man, denying the world a chance to thwart her ascent, both as an intellectual and a human being, by seizing an opportunity to turn biology's lousy hand into something she could take control of and claim as her own.

If Violet's off-putting bravado and ferocity are pleasingly mitigated by inclusion of both her past and her first-person chapters, then her actions are justified by the more submissive Sylvia, who can't catch a break and shrinks from people in direct opposition to the way Violet sought to dominate them. Sylvia has merely inherited the equality for which her female predecessors have won and quietly moves through life, never questioning the path she has chosen until she begins to wonder what would have happened if she ever sought the pleasure of another woman's company, while Violet has struggled to assert herself in a male-dominated world, wrestling her way into commanding respect where she could get it and striking fear where she could not. The opposing trajectories of their writing lives--Sylvia chronicling the rise of Violet's career while her own is in rapid decline--and the sense of novelty with which each regards her near-perfect foil is a subtle affirmation that expression of one's sexuality can be a thing constricted by the absence of that perfect half, lying in wait for its cue to finally rise from dormancy.

The achingly gorgeous prose in which Palmerino is written strikes pitch-perfect harmony with its equally strong expression of humanity, promising that the hidden beauty within is always worth the time it takes to discover it.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Imperfectionists

The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman
Read: 2 March to 4 March 2013
4 / 5 stars 

Once upon an occupationally happier time, I was an award-winning journalist. The "award-winning" part wasn’t all that important (though obviously not some unwelcome kudos) because I have loved print journalism in ways one should never love an inanimate intangible ever since the gateway drug that was my mediocre private university's labor-of-love, student-run newspaper showed me what I was meant to do with my life, a certainty that was cemented by the soaring pride I felt when our Little Paper That Could beat the piss out of Princeton's college paper in the New Jersey Press Awards the year I was opinion editor.

When I graduated as a bright-eyed, enthusiastic young drunk, the only tears I shed during the ceremonial severance from the first place that ever felt like home were over saying goodbye to the paper that had directed me to my future path (and, for bonus sentimentalization, introduced me to my husband). At the time, I had no idea that I would spend the rest of my professional career desperately seeking the same sense of personal pride and professional satisfaction that has, so far, been exclusive to my days as a collegiate journalist.

I am grateful that I got to spend a little more than three years in newspapers; unfortunately, my dream job exists in an industry that has been manhandled literally to death since the rise of the internet. My last paper was under the control of a company whose corporate-bigwigs’ salaries reached numbers that I still can't believe actually exist and whose stock is doing well enough to reliably earn a spot in certain mutual funds' top-ten holdings. So, naturally, the newsrooms themselves -- the places where the actual product is miraculously birthed seven days a week as the few remaining editors and reporters and behind-the-scenes staff pick up yet another unceremoniously laid-off comrade's smorgasbord of responsibility -- face cut after cut, furlough after furlough, bloodbath layoff after bloodbath layoff and are still expected to perform as they did in the golden days of print journalism.

When I bid adieu to the newspapering life, I was disillusioned and demoralized. What began as the personal satisfaction of working in the very world I set out to immerse myself in ended with overworked anguish as I found myself moving farther from the very things that drew me to journalism in the first place. It had been ages since I last wrote an article or attended a meeting or snapped a photo or did any of the things that made me love coming home with newspaper ink under my fingernails. That, combined with hearing the industry's death rattle grow louder with every passing day, was what finally drove me to more stable ground.

For those and myriad other reasons, The Imperfectionists is a hard book for me to approach objectively: With absolutely no regard for reality, my newsroom nostalgia is a thing now steeped in shamelessly over-romantic fondness and colors anything that stirs it in a wistfully rosy hue. There are little things in here that betray the author's keen awareness of universal newsroom truths -- the bitter divide between editorial and corporate; the misunderstood self-righteousness of those tasked with maintaining some modicum of integrity in an industry that doesn't always put such an admirable endeavor above sensationalism and the almighty dollar (also: there are papers that still have corrections editors!?); the self-sacrifice and seeming dehumanization required to ascend in rank while keeping the paper's best interest at heart -- that hit all the notes of a sad song I know too well. The fictional focus of "The Imperfectionists" is the ballad of just one more newspaper on the brink of obsolescence and it is filled with the slow panic that is now endemic to any publication left standing these days.

The very human personalities pouring from these pages are what I imagine would make this a compelling story for those who haven't given their hearts to the cruel mistress of print journalism: This is, ultimately, a workplace tragicomedy that delves into the characters' personal lives, too. In newspapers as in any manically paced work environment, it is all too easy to form alliances that blind one to a compatriot's flaws, just as it's even easier to vilify the ad rep who constantly delays the release of dummy pages, the copy editor who inserts errors into flawless stories, the section editor who demands unreasonable word counts, the reporter who thinks her shit doesn't stink. Disregarding the non-professional side of one's coworkers makes it easier to despise them and launch ongoing battles, as well as serving as a much-needed distraction from the bigger, less controlled ugliness of shrinking ad sales and rapidly declining subscription numbers.

For being a dude-penned tale, the plight of being a lady journalist was explored with a surprising reverence. I wasn't always crazy about the way the female employees were represented here but Kathleen, the paper's executive editor, was a too-spot-on example of what it's like to be a woman playing in the boys' club (which, judging by some of the horror stories I've heard about newsrooms of yore, isn't nearly as bad as it used to be but, good God, some of the old-head editors I've worked with made it clear that it wasn't always my passion and journalistic acumen that got me hired). The lone female copy editor here, Ruby, paints a lonely picture of what it's like to care too much when a deserved pat on the back is swapped for constant animosity and serving as the go-to scapegoat: A woman who lives both alone and for the paper that employs her strikes a more poignant chord of melancholy than a man in the same position, and Ruby is the perfect vehicle for giving such aching sadness a place in the world outside the newspaper's walls.

Placing an English-language paper in Italy and staffing it with uprooted Americans was a nice touch. There is such a divide between Newspaper Life and Real Life that it's a difficult thing to translate for people who don't live for their work like any overly passionate journalist does, and the emphasized chasm of a cultural difference that lives just outside the office walls captures that dichotomy perfectly. There were other little flourishes that made my long-dormant inner journalist perk up with recognition, like how all of the news editor's thoughts are in headlines ("Keys in pocket, sources say") and the way all the non-flashback chapters are told in the present tense.

The closing chapters of this book broke my heart. Just. Destroyed it. It's obvious where the story's going pretty early on but it doesn't mitigate the ending's impact. Kind of like how that one last look at the newspaper office -- the very place that's become a second home after all the twelve-hour days and countless late nights, where you cried over Election Night results because there's no other place in the world you'd rather be when your candidate delivers a victory speech, where you swore in equal measures that you'd never work in this industry again because fuck this bullshit and couldn't imagine feeling this completely at home in any other workplace -- on your last day of being a journalist is always an increasingly close reality but is a terrible mix of freedom and defeat as the familiar building grows smaller and smaller in your rear-view mirror that final time.