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


(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


(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.

Friday, April 4, 2014

A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole
Read: 25 July to 10 August 2012
3 / 5 stars

I've come to realize that a three-star rating is my literary equivalent of "It's not you, it's me," an embarrassed, apologetic concession that I'm the real problem here. It's usually an unspoken understanding that I can recognize why a work is so universally lauded but that it just didn't tickle me the way it ought to have. Sometimes it's simply a matter of taste, sometimes it's just bad timing, sometimes it's me having a visceral reaction to a work of fiction that shouldn't get under my skin so deeply. My three stars do not do this book justice, I realize that: They do, however, reflect just how torturous it was for me to watch Ignatius Reilly not get the thorough comeuppance or righteous bitch-slap that both hands of Fortuna owed such a thundering manchild.

So I always thought this was written by a contemporary of Jonathan Swift's. Why? Maybe it's because of the title. Maybe it's because Toole is the first person since Swift who could make satire purr like a satisfied lap cat. Maybe it's because this is a novel packed with odious vermin of the highest order. Whatever the cause for my wildly mistaken notion, I don't remember what set me straight, nor do I recall why gaining such corrective insight propelled me on a frantic mission to both own and read this book as soon as humanly possible: All I am c
ertain of is that the urge to get my hands on Confederacy of Dunces was impossible to put off 'til later, which is my preferred approach to doing almost anything. But every paper-and-ink copy I found had a cover that I absolutely hated (and now that I know the character, I'm annoyed that Ignatius looks more like a happy-go-lucky buffoon on many of the cover images when he is, in fact, a detestable, pretentious little wanker who masks his inability to relate to other people with an abrasive, over-educated front). The solution? Downloading this on my trusty but much-neglected Kindle.

It's not that I don't love my Kindle (because I do, to an almost psychotic extent). Nor does my bookworm snobbery extend to the assumption that digital books are automatically inferior to their traditional predecessors. It's just that, after my e-reader became less of a reading device and more of an avenue for proving my Scrabble dominance over that dick AI even though I almost always wind up with more vowels than I think the game really includes, I simply grew accustomed to not using Ruggles the Kindle for his intended nose-in-a-book purpose (yes, I recognize the irony in naming my e-reader after an author who was famously reluctant for his works to be digitalized).

But this isn't about my Kindle: This is more about the shiny new iPhone I acquired recently, the very device that signaled another blow to my pseudo-Luddite ways by thrusting me into the joyous world of being owned by a smartphone (.... I'm actually not sure if that was sarcasm, either). Because the first thing I did after shelling out money on yet another Apple product, aside from blowing more than half of my monthly data allotment on downloading selections from my iTunes library before even leaving the Verizon store, was put the Kindle app on my as-of-yet unnamed phone.

Seeing as I am, however reluctantly, part of the generation that feels unsettlingly naked without one's phone, my phone goes almost everywhere with me -- and now, so does my Kindle's vast treasury of reading material. Suddenly, the hatred I felt (and still feel) for one Ignatius Jacques Reilly grew in all directions, as if it, too, were glutting itself on Paradise Hot Dogs. I hated Ignatius at work. I hated him at home. I hated him in the bathroom. I hated him in bed, on the couch, in other people's cars, while waiting at everything from the grocery store to the dentist's office to the gas station, I hated him in a variety of locations to rival Dr. Seuss's rhyming lists. My burning dislike of the book's main character slipped its tentacles of ire around nearly every facet of my life to the point where I was transferring my irritation to probably undeserving but still irksome strangers.

Reader, I hated him.

And it felt bloody freeing, even if I'll never get the closure of punching Ignatius right in his stupid, Vaselined mustache. I'm the kind of person who feels uncomfortable when characters in books or movies are staunchly positioned under a storm cloud of shitty luck and proceed to have misfortune rained upon them to an allegedly humorous effect: Being in a position to shamelessly enjoy every irate former employer's final tongue lashing, to celebrate everyone who peeved Ignatius the way he annoyed the hell out of me (Dorian Greene, I think I might actually love you), to snicker at every unflattering description of a character who I loathed made me feel less awful about finally reveling in the seemingly downward trajectory of a character whose downfall I wished I could have on my otherwise itchy conscience. It was such a nice change to embrace the inevitable onslaught of woe that came rushing at a story's main character for once.

But Ignatius even ruined that for me, as his titanic girth is buoyed by an ego that just won't quit. What willful refusal to accept responsibility! What blissful ignorance of one's own flaws! What enthusiastic defiance of reality! The mental gymnastics required in tirelessly painting oneself as the eternal victim would have impressed me if the character executing such skillful lack of accepting blame for his lot in life weren't such an overgrown brat.

Though it's not like many of the other characters had a whole lot more going for them other than reluctant sympathy and the old adage that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The duplicitous shrew Lana Lee probably should have been the most detestable member of the cast: While Ignatius is simply too emotionally immature to exist in harmony with the real world, Lana is straight-up starved of all redeeming qualities. As hard as I tried to sympathize with Irene, Ignatius's poor, long-suffering mother, she was clearly all talk and no action well before the book began, as Ignatius exhibits a lifetime of experience manhandling her into emotional submission -- let this book be a cautionary tale for the long-term damage of passive parenting! As for Mrs. Levy? She must have inflicted me with some kind of temporary Tourette's syndrome because I was helpless to squelch the string of profanities that wrenched themselves from my mouth every time she opened hers.

On the other hand, there were some redeeming dramatis personae to be found amidst Toole's merry band of walking character flaws. If Dorian's brief appearance was a breath of fresh air, Jones's presence was the life raft I clung to in a maelstrom of assholery. I might have actually cheered at the end when Officer Mancuso got the kudos he deserved after four-hundred-some pages of being shat on. I was pretty keen on Mr. Levy until Ignatius dug his teabag-scented claws into him. And, okay, fine: There were actually a lot of folks who I liked simply because they didn't annoy me, like Darlene and Mr. Clyde. Actually, Darlene's cockatoo might have been one of the most likable characters in the book by virtue of his role in kicking off the climax.

And then there's Myrna, who just might be the most effective foil ever. We hate in others what we hate most about ourselves, and Ignatius love-hates her because they're too much alike in all the wrong ways. Their letters are strokes of narrative brilliance, offering a richly suggested history between the two: I got such a kick out of how Myrna is the only character who gets even a kernel of truth from Ignatius and she assumes that he's exaggerating with every stroke of his pen. I probably would have liked her less had she been more of an active force here, so I'll be happy with how stingy Toole was with her scenes.

This should, by all rights, be at least a four-star novel. It's Toole's fault that he was too adept at creating characters that embody so much of what disgusts me in real people.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Now all I need is for Tastykake to make key lime pies

I finally visited the popcorn store that's been within walking distance of my office since it opened nearly three years. Four bags of whimsically flavored snacks later, I realized that I've spent my entire life waiting to stuff key lime popcorn in my mouth by the unladylike, insatiable handfuls.
(Gourmet Popcorn Creations, Collingswood, NJ)

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

And the Dark Sacred Night

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

And the Dark Sacred Night, Julia Glass
Read: 19 to 30 March 2014   
3.75 / 5 stars

I don't remember many details from Julia Glass's first novel, Three Junes, other than stumbling upon it that summer between high school and college when I only read books with award medallions emblazoned on their covers, finding justification for such a pretentious pursuit in my enjoyment of that novel. That same ease of getting lost in a story packed with likably intriguing personalities came screaming back after a couple dozen pages into Glass's fifth and most recent offering, And the Dark Sacred Night--a novel that, like the Louis Armstrong song from which it borrows a lyric to refurbish into a title, is unconventionally beautiful and just the right amount of earnest.

Glass returns to a handful of events and characters introduced in her debut novel, dipping into its material for a splash of background color in some places and smaller but crucial supporting detail in others, to spin a new yarn about the connectedness of people and the familial ties that alternately bind and throw out that last viable lifeline. Kit, an out-of-work husband and father, is not only in the throes of a mid-life crisis of crippling proportions but also pushing his wife, however unintentionally, to the limits of her patience. The only solution to Kit's inactivity, he and his wife, Sandra, agree, is to finally seek out the identity of and story behind the father he never knew, as Kit's mother, Daphne, has remained doggedly silent about her teenage lover who died in his 30s, more than 20 years removed from the book's present. Kit's efforts reconnect him with his first stepfather, the man who formally adopted Kit as a boy and with whom a teenage Kit lived well after his mother left, who puts him in contact with the paternal family he never knew existed.

Here, the rich backgrounds and layered stories that give each character dimension have also made each character palpable and engaging. These are everyday people with the kind of problems people face every day--making ends meet with dwindling resources, the slowly realized crisis of a faith that was once unshakable, the dawning of an augmented understanding of the self, aging parents and spouses, chronically underestimating the decency of which most people are capable--and who are forced to yield their secrets as others' unanswered questions become too much to bear. What's more, Glass's characters actually behave like adults, aware as they are that no two people want the same things or see the world the same way because every individual is a composite of their unique experiences and places, as well as the private details that add further duality to their personalities. The maturity with which Glass graces her characters allows for their adult dilemmas to be addressed in an adult manner, fostering an effective contrast between the teenage urgency and freedom that emanates from the flashbacks to Daphne's fateful summer at the music camp where Kit was conceived.

As Glass demonstrates her knack for believably and effectively linking people and events across time and connections, she twines them together to revelatory but largely positive effect: A book with a less optimistic regard for human nature wouldn't have allowed Kit to be so warmly welcomed by the grandparents and extended family he meets for the first time in his 40s, nor would his mother be so understanding (but forgivably reluctant) of Kit's need and right to discover his genealogical past for himself. But this isn't a novel that seeks external conflict to move its plot along so much as it demands that the personal growth of its characters develop the story. The recurring element of underestimating people only to be pleasantly surprised is evidence enough that this is a warm-hearted book, as is the way it embraces tragedy as one of the greatest unifiers among those touched by it.

Every good story needs some friction, though, and that which punctuates And the Dark Sacred Night is the novel-long query of conscious that weighs the benefits of lifting the veil of ignorance to gain a fuller understanding of one's self against its consequences, namely the risk that an escalating ripple effect could throw another's life in complete upheaval. But since there is no way to accurately compare what is with what could have been on account of the myriad unpredictable, unforeseeable variables of the roads not travelled, the limbo that comes from a lack of closure is deemed to be a far worse fate than the fleeting hell of slicing open old wounds and setting oneself for new ones. All anyone can do in an unpredictable world is take responsibility for their own happiness and find peace in knowing that any chance is taken with the best intentions.

And the Dark Sacred Night's many successes, unfortunately, do make its faltering missteps jarringly obvious. There is some heavy-handed drawing of parallels (a blizzard forces Kit to prolong the visit to his stepfather; later, when a hurricane similarly traps a house full of newly acquainted connections that share Kit's father as their common bond, it's a bit obvious that storms signal momentous occasions, diminishing the shock of the tragedy the latter sets up) and somewhat laboriously emphasized meanings, as if Glass doesn't always trust her audience to follow her implications. But such things are mostly innocuous grievances, as Glass deftly navigates her way through the most important instances of foreshadowing and symbols.

As a whole, Glass's newest novel is a largely successful one that, like its characters, is a bit uneven and imperfect but is buoyed by hopeful optimism that certainly deserves kudos for avoiding the kind of pat sentiment that is all too tempting to deploy when matters of the heart float so close to the surface.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

"Something Wrong With Her" virtual book tour

Welcome to the second stop on Cris Mazza's blog tour for her newest book, Something Wrong With Her. Yesterday, Lori over at the TNBBC blog offered an audio clip of Cris reading her own words in her own voice; today, I bring you a review of Cris's groundbreaking real-time memoir. Cris is the author of more than 17 books, including Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls, Waterbaby, Trickle-Down Timeline, and Is It Sexual Harassment Yet? Her first novel, How to Leave a Country, won the PEN/Nelson Algren Award for book-length fiction. Mazza has co-edited three anthologies, including Men Undressed: Women Writers on the Male Sexual Experience. In addition to fiction, Mazza has authored a collection of personal essays, Indigenous: Growing Up Californian. Currently living 50 miles west of Chicago, she is a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. 

Somewhere in the nebulous ether between a memoir and a duet performed by two banged-up soulmates across decades and flurries of letters lies Cris Mazza's Something Wrong With Her, a real-time introspective retrospective of the author's turbulent sexual and romantic past that chronicles the damages incurred along the way.

Something Wrong With Her is an appropriately messy meditation on how the past is never really gone and how the present has no meaning without the foundation of previous experience giving it support and contextual relevance. While Mazza focuses most intently on both her post-secondary-education and adult selves, the fact that the younger version of her was never sexualized in a healthy way is among the many refrains to which she returns, both as a pure concept and as a variation on the theme that has cast its predatory pall over too many aspects of her life. She explores how she never felt that unabashed sex drive that held so many of her teenage peers in hormonal thrall, how the very idea of boys wanting the whole of her--especially the "dirty" parts of her body she could barely acknowledge as hers--never even dawned on her as a possibility, how being her male friends' neutral zone of safe experimentation before doing the deeds with their girlfriends left her with a sense of always being the stand-in for prettier and more desirable girls, how rape games and harassment comprise the bulk of her earliest sexual experiences, and how all these and so many more stomach-churning thoughts and milestones have all compounded to leave Mazza with a sense that there is, indeed, something wrong with her.

Please understand that “messy" carries not a hint of criticism here: There are an awful lot of crucial but incongruent pieces jammed together so that some of their seams are showing, but it adds an authenticity to Mazza's journey of self-discovery, showing just how long and how hard she has been fighting the false starts and full stops that added to the interior hurdles she faced while making peace with and learning about herself. Reading Something Wrong With Her is like watching Mazza revisit diary entries, letters, doodles, photographs, factual life experiences reimagined as the fictionalized components of previously published works, and dusty personal relics to create both a life-sized puzzle of her development and a roadmap of the paths she took to arrive at the state she's in now. As Mazza compares the patterns of her past and examines their long-range influence on her present, delving deeper into Something Wrong With Her becomes less like reading and more like cheering on a long-suffering soul as she finally breaks through all the negative perceptions she held of herself and her sexuality in a therapy session that's chock-full of AHA! moments.

The writer and musician personae that are roiling within Mazza (the former being the dominant force of her current identity, the latter but a vestigial flicker of the crucial role it played in her earlier years) provide an unexpectedly harmonic call-and-answer element in these pages: Mazza employs music as a metaphor for life, proving that improvisation requires a better ear and more complete sense of the bigger piece than the untrained ear realizes by letting her story carry its narrative in the direction it naturally flows as old memories resurface and new voices chime in with their own unplanned contributions. Old mentors, old friends, old lovers and old nemeses come and go, introducing and underscoring their myriad influences and impacts, each being reexamined as the same pieces of old exchanges are called back to the stage for further scrutiny. Far from being repetitive, they add a poignant recurring theme to a story that is so familiar to its writer but to which she is still a servant, helpless to resist the unplanned direction writing tends to lead its master's hand. While the events Mazza discusses and revisits are all in the past, her reclamation of her sexuality and her self-understanding are still works in progress, leaving some questions unanswered, some elements unexplored  and some threads untied. Unlike a memoir that covers a definitive, complete period of its writer's life, Mazza's memoir in real time addresses what it is to be her as a writer, a woman, a still-developing individual and maybe, just maybe, a secure romantic partner as she continues to forge ahead on those previously uncharted paths.

Much of Mazza's odyssey sings of the things familiar to any woman who was once (or perhaps still is) an awkward, insecure girl on the cusp of womanhood with no clue as to how her peers seem to be making the adjustment with minor mishaps (as opposed to paralyzing confusion and a sense of being either passed over or a consolation prize) and in full possession of themselves. Her self-pummeling mantras of "I should enjoy this" in the face of teenage and college boys' clumsy advances and hormone-soaked attempts to fumble their way into her pants betray an inability to see herself as a physically adept or desirable entity of femininity, how her own gender roles and expectations are awash in shameful discomfort reinforced and exacerbated by a parade of ruinous men and boys alike. She marvels at more sexually adventurous and confident girls who navigate the murky depths of sexual awakening as if they belonged to a different species entirely, free of the crippling fixations Mazza finds herself haunted by.

While much of the story pertains to how Mazza grapples to reconcile her physically adverse reactions to sex--namely the pain of a weak pelvic floor compounded by anorgasmia, the inability to experience an orgasm--with her psychological aversion to it, the beating heart of this book, for me, was the lifelong (though far from smoothly unfolding) friendship between Mazza and Mark. It's impossible to exist in such a void that outside factors hold no sway over the development of an individual, and those external forces can serve as some of the most objective vantage points to witness the progression of a personality: Mazza relies heavily upon Mark's input, drawing directly from their volumes of interactions and allowing their emailed exchanges to speak of a love that has patiently waited decades to be revealed. The progression of their relationship, from stumbling teenagers to adults whose hindsight is awash in the wisdom of experience and uncertainty of facing long-ago mistakes neither realized they were making, is a heartening affirmation that finding the absolutely right person at the absolute worst time is not always a tragic sentence of irreparable proportions. The love (both easily platonic and desperately romantic) and dawning awareness that transpire between the two are the book's best evidence in proving Mazza wrong for thinking herself frigid.

With the easy payoff that comes with writing about sex making the erotica that was once taboo a wildly popular genre these days, a story about its deliberate absence is a welcome change, and Mazza’s honesty and willingness to put her own hang-ups and mistakes under the microscope of public examination exemplifies the equally matched interplay between bravery and vulnerability that is the hallmark of a compelling memoir.