28. My Sister Life, by Maria Flook

6 Jul

My Sister LIfe

My Sister Life by Maria Flook is number one on my list in my 20 Books of Summer challenge, inspired by Cathy at 746 Books. I’ve been avoiding this one for a few reasons. One, it has a depressing subject matter: It’s a memoir about how the author’s sister’s disappearance as a young teenager. Two, it was a little unclear from the cover copy what kind of book it was, since it seemed that the sister’s story would also be told. I wasn’t sure if it was a true memoir or a fiction hybrid, which gave me an off-feeling about it. And Three, a shallow reason to not read something: I’ve been avoiding Amazon by getting used books through Powell’s, and this was a particularly yellowing and unattractive book. A fancy design conceit where there was a hole in the front cover to indicate the sister’s absence looked vandalized and disturbing.

But how wrong I was to hesitate! This book was enthralling from the get-go, when, in chapter two, I realized that this would be a bad-mother memoir. In her first scene, the mother is getting dressed for a cocktail party, trekking “back and forth from her bureau to the closet dressed only in her strapless bra and panties.” She applies her “French Jean Patou perfume, pinching the rubber bulb of a cut-crystal atomizer. Next, she stooped before the full-length mirror to adjust her seamed stockings,” which she does “with insulated palms” wearing her short, white-cotton gloves for church. These details add up, gorgeously, until Flook explains that:

“Families take pride in their piety or in their prosperity, rejoicing in a father-and-son business venture, in a gifted child’s scholarship or in a prized commission in the military. But in our household Veronica’s enterprising sexuality overwhelmed our individual goals and spilled into family matters. Her erotic aspect emerged in her every routine and came more naturally to her than maternal duty.”

Flook’s thesis is simple but powerful. This cold, narcissistic woman did not provide love to her daughters and prevented their spineless father from doing so, either. The oldest sister, Karen, became promiscuous and ran away at age fourteen, to become a child prostitute. She lived in a trailer park with an abusive older ‘boyfriend’ named James and his other girlfriend, a woman named Ruth, who also ran a whorehouse where Karen soon started working. Amazingly, Karen preferred life with Ruth and James to the one at home with her well-off but frigid and mentally abusive parents. She left the world of luxury cruises and European vacations for the trailer park and prostitution without regret. Pitifully, she responds to Ruth and James’s affection and interest in her. James helps her steal a winter coat. They go out for ice cream and let her keep some of her earnings from prostitution. It’s extremely sad, but in Flook’s hands feels psychologically plausible.

Maria, the youngest child, also became a juvenile delinquent though a slightly more functional one. Her sister’s disappearance and the years where the family didn’t know if Karen was alive or dead turned Maria into a writer. She becomes morbid and obsessed with accidents and death, which she describes as “just keeping my eyes open.”

The book is powerfully written, full of subtle, sneaky metaphors for loss, and startling images that the writer uses to try to understand her experience.In one place she writes:

When one child goes missing, the remaining child is left untethered. I have seen a dog pull free of its collar and in its sudden freedom shudder, as if any connection it had had to the world remained in the coil of leather.

In another passage she recalls a childhood moment with Karen (as she does frequently) when little Maria has half-blinded herself with chlorine and her sister gives her a lollipop.

“I stared at the sucker” she writes. “Its glassy red bauble twinkled, exaggerated in my half-blind state. The candy warped the light with a kaleidoscope effect and it was just too beautiful to eat. ‘Aren’t you going to taste that?’ Karen asked me. Karen’s eyes weren’t blurred by the chlorine and she didn’t see the miraculous gift she had given me.”

Karen’s loss is a curse but it endows Maria with unusual powers.

I’ve written recently about terrible-stories-about-girls books, and how they unsatisfyingly present the drugs, promiscuity, abortions, etc., without seeming to delve into why. Flook delves. She may lay too much blame on her parents—the section where she explains that her mother bought her a pony to get her to spend more time away from home feels a little self-serving. But at least she’s looking for answers, making a powerful and articulate case for how she understands the forces that formed herself and her sister.

The second half of the book when Karen reappears and the sisters have some opportunities to be reunited but never really reconnect was less satisfying, especially since it brought up the same questions that made me hesitate over reading My Sister Life in the first place. How much of Maria’s startlingly clear retelling of Karen’s experiences is real? Karen doesn’t seem like she’d trust her sister enough to entrust such detailed recollections. One of the most unusual aspects of the book is that it does delve into the details and emotions of Karen’s experience  as a child prostitute so tenderly—Flook is retelling from a distance, and she doesn’t have the flatness of affect, anger, or defensiveness that often clouds such material when the author has been through it. The central question that kept me reading became How does she know? How did Flook and her sister heal the breach between them well enough to create this book? Frustratingly, that question was not answered.


10 Books of Summer Challenge

3 Jul

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I have been a sucker for a book challenge ever since reading the entire summer reading list in the fifth grade (we were supposed to pick, like,  two books out of 25 classics, so being a dork I read them all). The most recent, I suppose, was this very blog—in which I challenge myself to review every book I read—but now I’ve become interested in this girl from 746 books’s “20 books of summer” challenge, despite that the challenge is no more than “make a list of 20 books you’d like to read and then read them.”

But in addition to being a dork, I am a contrarian, so I am going to use the challenge to read books I don’t want to read. Specifically, the items cluttering up my to-read shelf for months or years that somehow I’ve never gotten around to. Either I got them for free and felt bad throwing them out, or I worry they’ll be depressing—very literary of me, I know—or I’ve tried to get into them and failed but have the good intention to try again. I will force myself to read them in the order they were randomly sitting there when I walked over to the shelf. Happily, because my book shelf is disorganized, this random selection includes a couple of books I actually was hoping to read sometime soon. Unhappily, Hunger by Knut Hamsen was still on the shelf, and I had given up on that book as unquenchably repellent and was just wating to donate it.

Also unhappily for the Diverse Books movement, though most of these writers are women and one is a transwoman, I think every one of them is white. I am not the hugest supporter of identity politics, but I do make an effort to keep my blog from being all white. All I can say is I’m going to try to make up for it in the fall, maybe take some recommendations from this blogger’s list.

Ok! Here is what the rest of my summer looks like:

  1. My Sister Life, by Maria Flook

A memoir written by a woman whose sister disappeared as a young teen, and was later discovered to have become a child-prostitute. Pros: Recommended by a friend with good taste. Cons: Sounds depressing.

My Sister LIfe

2. Rethinking Normal, A Memoir in Transition by Katie Rain Hill

The story of a bullied teen’s decision to transition into being a woman. Cons: Got it for free at a Lambda event; don’t like teen fiction; probably very political in a rote, generic way. Pros: The author makes a cute girl; topic is inherently interesting.

Rethinking Normal

3. The Rules of Inheritance, by Claire Bidwell Smith

A memoir by a woman whose parents were both diagnosed with cancer when she was fourteen—and who have both died by the time she’s 25. Story of loss and coming of age. Pros: This book was written by a friend of mine and I have been meaning to read it for years! I bought it when it was new in hardcover! Cons: Worried it will be depressing.

claire bidwell smith


4. Simians, Cyborgs and Women, by Donna J. Haraway

Some mind-bending cultural theory by a History of Consciousness professor at U Berkeley on what feminists can learn from cyborgs, and how early primate research falsely created femininity. Pros: I am already in the middle of this, and am really looking forward to getting back to it! Cons: Hell of dense.

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5. Animal Sanctuary, by Sarah Faulkner

A quirky book from Starcherone press about an eccentric ’60s movie star who opens an animal sanctuary. Cons: Sounds annoying and not plot driven; I was talked into buying this by its publisher at AWP. Pros: I like the cover.

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6. Omon Ra, by Victor Pelevin

A satirical novel about the Soviet space program by a contemporary Russian writer of cult acclaim. Pros: I have liked past Pelevin books. Cons: Pelevin is kind of opaque and self indulgent. I must have picked this up for free off a slush shelf at work.

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7. Mermaid in Chelsea Creek, by Michelle Tea

A YA book about a mermaid by a McSweeney’s author. Cons: I hate YA and the premise sounds way too twee. This was a freebie that I never intended to read. Pros: It’s set in Boston and I have liked an earlier Michelle Tea book.

8. The Crooning Wind, Three Greenlandic Poets

Oh my God, why do I even own this this!?!!

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9. Woman Rebel, The Margaret Sanger Story, by Peter Bagge

A graphic novel about Margaret Sanger, an early crusader for reproductive rights. Cons: Didactic and neo-liberal. Hideous drawings. Pros: An interesting topic. Graphic novels are usually quick reads.

10. Hunger, by Knut Hamsun

Published in 1890 and hailed as the beginning of the modern psychological novel, Hunger is about a young writer slowly starving to death in a generic small European capital. Cons: Relentlessly creepy and unpleasant. Pros: It’s a classic! I can say I’ve read it!

11. I Love Dick, by Chris Kraus

I can’t figure out what this is about, exactly, but it’s a feminist classic novel from the ’90s, (or is it a text?). Pros: I’m looking forward to reading it. Cons: It will probably have no plot.

27. The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith

30 Jun

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Thriller writer Patricia Highsmith—of Talented Mr. Ripley fame—published this groundbreaking early lesbian classic anonymously in the 1950s and later reissued it under her own name, when that could be done without destroying her career. (How times have changed, right?). But, amazingly, the changing times matter very little in the reader’s enjoyment of The Price of Salt. The book is a nail-biting romantic thriller that functions just as well today as it did in the fifties, despite that its forbidden love is now out-and-proud.

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The vintage cover with Highsmith’s pseudonym

The story is about a shop-girl in Manhattan with dreams of making it as a set designer, who meets and falls for a married woman living in New Jersey. At first the erotic subtext of their relationship is repressed. The ‘falling for’ is something neither one of them can quite admit, the shop girl because she has a boyfriend and doesn’t quite know she’s gay, and the married woman, who has had lesbian affairs before, because she has a small child and is in the middle of a divorce. Or possibly because she’s manipulative and prefers to watch the shop girl want her than to let the shop girl have her.

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Beautiful young Highsmith.

The “salt” of the title is passion. Both women are to some extent capable of passing in the straight world. Both have huge incentives to do so. Both have to choose between eroticism, thrill, “salt” over almost everything else. For the married woman the price is so high it’s not easy to say that she should pay it. She faces terrible choices, and her response to the escalating stakes in both the affair and the divorce is half-rational at best. The shop girl, despite her naive passion is a cool customer; it’s wonderful to watch her discovering her own mind and sticking to her own desires, against massive pressure.  The complexity of these characters is why the story still works. I’ve read it’s what set the book apart from the other lesbian pulp of the ’50s.

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This last bit will be a spoiler, so STOP HERE IF YOU’RE GOING TO READ THIS BOOK!!

It’s my theory that the happy ending was forced by conventions of the genre. There’s a chapter that feels like a real, complex, ending (a chapter I wanted to be the end), and then a last chapter that feels like the kind of movie scene where people run through the airport to catch each other before the plane takes off. I am so curious what the author’s thinking was about those two choices.


26. Explosion, by Zarina Zabrisky

28 Jun

Zarina Zabrisky

I lived in Moscow in the 1990s in the heyday of a nightlife newspaper called The eXile, a skinny, obscene paper with a shocking pink X on the cover run by two American frat boys who wrote very good political coverage and spilled the rest of their ink celebrating the economic and cultural moment that, as they said, rendered any man with an American passport able to fuck any Russian girl he wanted to, for money, for gifts, for breakfast at the Starlight Diner in the morning. There was some self-awareness and humor in this stance, “In my country, I’m a total loser, but here I can get pretty chicks!” But it was a callow take on a noxious moment, too.

I always liked the paper for its honesty.

I was young and female and dating in Russia at the time, and the prostitution was a fact I had to deal with. Russian girls who were out at night in bars and restaurants were, mostly, selling sex. If not pro then “semi-pro” as the terminology went. There were prostitution nightclubs where all the other women were hookers. There were many, many bars with young and beautiful women sitting alone on the barstools, silently waiting for male clientele. Routinely, I was assumed to be one of them until I started speaking. (I am American and speak Russian with an accent). For me, it was a strange period of power inversion. I was used to men pursuing me, not an environment in which the women were the pursuers. I was used to being sexually interesting, but most men discovering that I was American and thus not available for the night suddenly found me asexual and pointless. I’d see the brightness leave their eyes, feel the sudden shift as they waited for their moment to get away. I became invisible as they looked over my shoulder for the next girl.

All this to say that it feels like I’ve read 1,000 Perestroika memoirs, but it wasn’t until reading Zarina Zabrisky’s Explosion that I realized I’d never read one from the perspective of one of the Russian girls who were selling sex at that cultural moment. And that now that it’s come, Explosion feels essential and obvious, and I am overjoyed to have discovered it. (Also, thanks to Melanie Page at Grab the Lapels for having recommended it!! See Melanie’s review of the book, and interview with the author.)

(Also, perhaps a note that needs to be added: There were lots of girls in Moscow who were not involved in the prostitution culture, and I knew them too. But they’re mostly not who Zabrisky’s book is about.)

Zabrisky’s stories cover a time span in Russian history from Chernobyl (harrowing story, with the reveal so well done it’s still giving me chills) through Perestroika and the wild ’90s, to eventual emigration to the United States and the present. The heroines (and one hero) inhabit different worlds—some urban intelligentsia, some daughters of alcoholics in the provinces, one successful emigre business guy. In the earlier years they concern mostly the prostitution culture, poverty, drugs. The later American stories reflect more on Russia as a country and a motherland, and ask what it means to lose it. They ask, having lost it, which Russia it is, exactly, that the emigres remember and want to love? They lament the state of the country’s current politics.

The details Zabrisky reveals about being a young woman in Russia at that time are excellent. In a story called “Honey Hued Eyes” the sixteen-year-old girl narrator has been having sex with a female friend with the titular honey-hued eyes, “all boys being away in the army.” (So funny! I knew lots of Russian girls with early teenage lesbian affairs, ostensibly for the same reason.) But then she decides to lose her virginity to a gross old guy who gives her a gypsy cab ride. Here’s how she explains it:

“One winter day, I got a ride from a gypsy cab. Gypsy cabs were illegal cabs. Plenty were available; men would give girls a ride for free “for a talk” and would ask for stuff, but if you said “no,” it was a “no”—usually. It was dangerous at night and girls got raped …but that was their own fault, right?”

On the day the story takes place, the narrator writes, “Then he asked me if I wanted to fuck. And, though normally I said no, I said yes.” They have sex. He offers her money, which she turns down. And then he offers her advice, which is to never give anything away for free. He says he works for the KGB and offers to set her up as a prostitute for foreigners in the fancy hotels. “We will pay you three thousand roubles a month and in five years will find you a nice Finnish or Swedish man and marry you off abroad. Deal?”

The story is only a few pages long. The narrator turns down the offer. We find out that she got pregnant young, moved to Finland and ended up married to a Finnish man anyway. Her honey-hued friend was not so lucky. The two girls’ twinned fates make the story a short, brutal revelation on the casual commodification of young womanhood and concurrent valueless-ness of young womanhood.  Maybe more obvious in Russia at that time, but true everywhere.

In the next story, the narrator’s sister is a prostitute for foreigners working in a fancy hotel.

The book sometimes got too melodramatic for me. I didn’t believe the teenage junkie in “Beast” would kill her boyfriend; the story about nostalgic drunk women lionizing Pussy Riot felt… about as complex as that sounds. But I always found them rescued by the details. (How does a girl manage baby diapers in a village without running water in her house! Awful, fascinating question. The friendship that young mother strikes up with another young mother at the local well feels, in its way, just like Brooklyn.)

I came to this book connecting with the parts about Russia, but left it connecting as a woman, which, oddly, is kind of my story with Russia itself. The magnified Russian femininity—the high heels and hookers and even the mothers and motherland—has always been a distorted mirror to hold up to my own, and to learn from.




25. Inside Madeline, by Paula Bomer

25 Jun

Paula Bomer

This blog post, which deals with Paula Bomer’s Inside Madeline will be number one of two that could fall under the subheading, “horrible stories about girls”—look for the second one, concerning Explosion by Zarina Zabrisky in upcoming days.

I like horrible stories about girls and I am also exhausted by horrible stories about girls. I understand horrible stories about girls. I remember their concerns—anorexia, promiscuity, rage, drug and alcohol abuse, hooking up with other girls, pregnancies and abortions, men in bands, “breasts” (a story title in Inside Madeline) “pussies” (same), denying or coming to terms with your body, relationships, passivity, mirroring yourself in other girls. All of those things.

Paula Bomer and I have more in common than that, too. The stories are set in Boston, where I grew up. The one named “cleveland circle house” conjures a neighborhood for me, a T-stop. She is also a crisp, smart, cold narrator whose casual alienation from the things she’s describing makes her good at her job. This is something I think about myself, in the (unpublished!) short fiction I write, and something I like in the fiction of friends—Alden Jones’s Unaccompanied Minors, another book of short stories about young people and sex, comes to mind.

These stories are page-turners, gripping, very easy to read in one sense, and difficult in another. I had a hard time with the gruesome body descriptions. “A week later her other nipple burst” about a girl growing breasts. “I know my breasts have disappeared completely and my nipples lay flat against my chest. I am aware that the new girl has hair growing out of her face. The girl’s body sprouts hair like moss on a tree stump, everywhere, to keep itself warm, to protect itself” in a story about anorexia. And then this, from the title story, “inside madeline”:

“When she bathed, she practiced more. The water lubricating her, in went one finger then two then three. Soon her hand slid deftly in. She then put bars of soap and within weeks, shampoo bottles inside of herself. Up went her rubber ducky. Up went the washcloth. Her mother would knock impatiently on the door…”

I cringe at this UTI waiting to happen!, but this story is one of the most difficult and best, about an overweight teenage girl who becomes obsessed with her vaginal capacity, and pursues the promiscuity to prove it. There’s a harrowing gang-bang scene that happens to one of the girl’s friends. The story is long, almost a novella, and the girl is cruel to herself in various ways, until she too ends up in the hospital for anorexia.

The two anorexia stories serve as brackets for the rest, rather nicely.

If my rapture is modified, I think partially I am just too old. I would really have identified with this in my 20s, found it ballsy and awesome. The cavernous Madeline scaring the shit out of everyone with her vaginal prowess is a clever idea, a great character, and also so sad. (Could this metaphor of absence, of ever-expanding internal negative space be played as empowering? I’m not sure and in any case Bomer doesn’t try. By the end of the story Madeline is anorexic, negating herself from the outside in as opposed to the inside out, the flip side of the same coin.)

But as a woman in my 40s I wanted more self-awareness in the narration, more character behind the characters. Some girls are really fucked up about sex and their bodies and womanhood, and some girls are not. Exploring the fucked-up terrain is awful and riveting. Bomer’s stories twist and thrash with it, kind of like a cat suffocating in a garbage bag (to steal an image from another Boston-area chronicler of halfway houses). Turn myself this way I’m tits, that way I’m a vagina, I’m anorexic, I’m fat, I’m obsessed with other women and also blind to them. I’m dying in here, in this feminine skinBut there are usually reasons behind these feelings, reasons involving love, family, community the particular details of a particular person’s psychology that make her herself, and not just a girl. Such reasons are the way in and also the way out of the bag. Inside Madeline doesn’t provide much in the way of reasons, which has a certain purity as a work of art, but also feels lacking.

Here’s my friend at Grab the Lapels reviewing another Bomer book, Nine Months.



23. The Rose of Tibet, by Lionel Davidson

22 Jun

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Recently I won my Top Reader reality-TV challenge*—a timed challenge!—by using my bookworm know-how to find an amazing book in an airport bookstore. You know, that moment of truth in the reader’s life when she has only a few minutes before her flight, and is confronted with a wall of generic bestsellers. The wrong choice will result in a dull 3-6 hours. In such conditions I’m happy to read a literary bestseller, a thriller, a romance, nonfiction, violent historical fiction about knights (strangely preponderant in the U.K.)…I’ll read anything as long as it’s tightly written and plotted, suspenseful and has realistic characters. You would think that every bestseller would be like that, but sadly no, very few. (Why mass-market fiction sells like gangbusters and is genuinely hard-to-read is a topic deserving its own post.)

I was hindered—or possibly helped—by having either read and disliked, or tried to read and not finished many of the literary entries available in the shop. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Johnathan Franzen’s Purity, The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth MacKenzie, Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible… all books I’ve already tried and discarded. I have also learned the hard way in previous airports about the later works of Phillipa Gregory, posthumous works by Robert B. Parker and Lee Childs, full stop.

The book I chose was The Rose of Tibet, by a writer I hadn’t heard of named Lionel Davidson. I chose it mostly because it was written in 1962 and is a thriller involving a hapless Englishman going on a desperate quest to find his lost filmmaker brother on the slopes of Mount Everest. The vintage re-release and the locale made the book seem a little bit different. I like Everest stories. The cover copy promised a thrilling, can’t-put-it-down plot.  And here was the first paragraph:

In the summer of 1949, when he was twenty-seven, Houston found himself having an affair with a married woman. She was thirty, and he was not in love with her, and he had gone into it only because he was bored and lonely. He didn’t think that the affair would outlast the summer, but it did, and by the autumn, when he started school again, he was wondering how to end it. He was a bit disgusted with himself.

It’s hard to say why I fell in love at first sight with this paragraph. The man-at-loose-ends was the perfect starting point for an adventure. I liked the character right away for sleeping with an older woman, and for being lonely. His slight self-disgust was human and unusual.

And then what follows is almost a James Bond-level thriller, with the exotic locale, Chinese-Tibetan politics in the 1950s, a forbidden romance and brilliant, excellent salting of the drama and suspense throughout the book’s early pages.

The narration is also really interesting. In my copy there are two prologues, one from a contemporary writer, which contains many spoilers and should be skipped, and another by Lionel Davidson (second prologue, should definitely be read), who claims to be merely the editor of the following adventure story. Reading alone on the airplane I wasn’t quite sure if Davidson was in truth the author or just the editor, if I was reading fiction or non-, and I really enjoyed the suspense. The insertions of Davidson’s editorial voice served to dramatically increase the tension, with tantalizing asides like “oh, of course, Houston hadn’t murdered anyone yet…”.

As promised on the cover, I couldn’t put it down.  Alas, Top Reader is not a reality show that exists, but if it did, I feel confident that a panel of judges would pick The Rose of Tibet as the most readable book in that whole store, and I’d be moving on to the next round…..



24. The Mexican Man in His Back Yard, by Stephen D Gutierrez

10 May

Stephen D Gutierrez

So, in the critical wasteland which is the American Book Review, a review in the “working class fiction” issue, written by , recently stood out. It was readable and coherent, an utter rarity in that publication. It recommended the work of a writer named Stephen D Gutierrez, and operating on the assumption that a man who can write might know another man who can write when he sees one, I obediently purchased the book the reviewer was recommending, The Mexican Man in His Backyard.  The book turns out to be a quiet classic on poverty, race and storytelling. Also unique: The stories manage to be meta-fictional and really elegant without feeling commercially polished or insincere. It’s a very interesting book.

The stories are about Mexican-American life in Fresno and L.A., starting in the 1960s. The title story, subtitled “a fable” tells of a newcomer to a Mexican neighborhood in Fresno who is casually racist while thinking he’s multicultural. He wants to appropriate his neighbor (the titular Mexican man, hanging out in his backyard) while condescending to him. The story is complicated (first twist) by the fact that the narrator is also of Mexican descent, but barely speaks Spanish and rolls out racist chestnuts, like saying about his wife that “she’s as shy of Mexicans as they are around her.” So, Gutierrez seems to be critiquing not just the outsiders but the insiders who falsely venerate people they don’t essentially respect. It’s sharp, this story. It’s also structurally done very well, since it’s told by a first-person narrator we grow to mistrust. I love those reveals where the voice you think you trust starts sounding wonky, and such a device used on a story about the moral bankruptcy of our fashionable multiculturalism (the voice you think you trust), is a knockout punch. At the end of the story the narrator manages to briefly engage the Mexican Man, but the Mexican Man then goes back to his TV. The last line is “He didn’t care”  (about the narrator). And we are glad.

Another story I loved in this collection was “The Spot”.

The Spot was on the roof of a “squat building with drab gray walls and dark windows at the very top. Headquarters for an electronics firm, it employed many people and saw them go home at night.” On it, “was a tightly wedged corner by a buzzing electrical storage shed that overlooked the city, a metal structure vibrating your back when you stood against it.”

It doesn’t sound like a great place, but it was special to the narrator, who explains:

“And I held my first ass there, cupping that handful of delicious flesh, and almost got a hickey. I pulled away from scared and laughed nervously about. I dug my face in the collar of my heart throb’s pea coat as I grabbed another handful of ass and told her, “Not now.”

We kissed for hours.

The moon was up.”

The sentiment is heart-felt, and that bit of nervous elision “I pulled away from scared and laughed nervously about” is lovely.

Later the girl goes home, and the narrator meets up with his friends. While they’re hanging out in the park, shooting the shit, they hear a noise. “Great echoes reverberated off the handball courts.” It’s ambiguous, but I think what’s happening is that the sounds are gunshots. Someone says, “Shut up, they’re dying” though it’s not clear who or what or what it means. The last paragraph reads:

“We argued the last stretch, straining to hear. We couldn’t catch it anymore, the faint echoes sounding in the night, the loud hollow booms diminishing to a muffled vibrato, an airy remnant.”

Again, I thought this story, which is very short, was just brilliant. The juxtaposition of this idyllic early sexuality and urban decay has a kind of primordial beauty, of love flowering even against the electrical storage shed between people still young enough to be hopeful. If the sound is gunshots, a reading is available that the kids do know that their world is dangerous—they recognize the gunshots better than the reader does—but the danger hasn’t caught up to them yet. If it’s thunder or something more innocuous….maybe I’m the asshole for assuming it’s gunshots. I don’t know.

Every story in this book is that good. Each one could make its own new and different blog post. And the strategy of the collection overal—it lives in a weird space between essay, fiction and autobiography—feels endlessly inventive.

I wrote more about Gutierrez here.

22. Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich

8 May

Nickle and Dimed

Okay, so this book is life-changing.

It was also so difficult-to-put-down, suspenseful and enthralling that I was reading it in taxi-cabs (which makes me nauseated, but it was worth it) and while actually walking, in public.

In 1998 investigative journalist Barbara Ehrenreich tried to survive on minimum wage in three different cities in three different ways (waitress, maid, Wal-mart worker, plus second jobs). She took the approach of someone starting at square one, without much in savings, useful work experience, or family or community support. She was testing out the premise that anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps here in America, if only they work hard enough.

And of course, alternatively, refuting the idea that poor people are poor because they aren’t trying.

Ehrenreich survived, sort of, though even working one or two jobs she would probably have ended up homeless or in the shelter system if her experiments had gone on for more than a month. Her goal, which was to make enough the first month for a next-month’s rent, was never realized. Let’s cast our minds back to remember that 1998 was near the peak of a bubble, when jobs were plentiful and housing was more affordable. Things are worse now.

Obviously, many people do survive at minimum wage. But the important part to understand is “How?” Ehrenreich excelled in relating her experience clearly, with the relevant details and stakes attached. So when she struggled to get her one pair of work pants clean without the extra change to do laundry, or was given a sandwich by a pitying co-worker, the tension was extreme. She demonstrated in concrete detail that people do survive, yes, but they do so under conditions of such constant work and physical and emotional stress that, well, no, they don’t have a lot of extra resources left for bootstrapping. And you wouldn’t either.

As we come into an election season in America, I find myself thinking a lot about how we could build a better world. For which, you need to understand how the world currently works, and that’s why this book was so exciting to me. It offered a brilliantly simple formula for understanding many puzzling aspects of our political life.

Ehrenreich puts the reader temporarily in the shoes of someone at-her-wits-end poor, stressed out, and busy. If you apply that formula, “people living in poverty are horribly stressed out and crushingly, grindingly busy”  to any social question involving them, it provides an answer that make sense.

Some examples: I share a community with a large, very poor NYC housing project, and the type of questions you hear are Why don’t these parents show up at the PTA? Why don’t they use the library? It’s free! Why aren’t they ever on the beautiful playground in the center of their own housing project that all the white people use instead?

All of these facts are slightly mystifying to the wealthy observer, and seem to have obvious conservative-pundit answers that couldn’t possibly be true. Answers like “They don’t care about their kids.” “They don’t care about books.” !!?!  Contrast the likelihood of that with a sensible answer like, “They are at work. Or they’re involved in the ludicrously time-consuming mechanics of survival without a job or any money. And their lives are so stressful just keeping the essentials together that ha ha PTA, whatever.” Which answer makes sense?

Ehrenreich’s book offers the brilliantly simple understanding of poverty as NO TIME +  STRESS. It removes the moral theater, the idea that some people just deserve it, are weaker or beyond helping. No time + terrible stress = Totally Normal People, But Poor.

And once you understand that modern poverty is a war waged against time, solutions present themselves. People busting their asses for minimum wage need more affordable housing, better-paid jobs, and less degrading management policies. They need a little more time and a little less stress. And they know that. And you know what that makes them? I’m so sorry to say this, but it makes them Trump voters. Voters for a political candidate who promises a protectionist and anti-immigrant economic policy that says it will bring jobs back to America and limit wage competition from low-paid illegals.

It’s like that old question, “what’s the matter with Kansas?”, answered! And not even a mystery. (For the record, Ehrenreich is a huge lefty and thinks that what these people need is stronger unions. She would not agree with the ends I’m putting her book to.)

So anyway, I don’t know if Trump will deliver on his promises, but using my NO TIME + TERRIBLE STRESS = PEOPLE AREN’T IDIOTS formula it seems much less alarming why people would vote for him. They’re not awful hate-filled people, mostly. They’re people in economic duress. Liberals who find them to be horrifying bigots simply are too wealthy to understand the basic conditions of their lives. (Anyone reading this blog post, for example, has way too much time.) And these people would rather speak for themselves rather than voting for the candidates who claim to speak for them, offering blah blah blah government services blah blah blah.

Anyway, that’s a little off-topic of Nickel and Dimed, which was written nearly 20 years ago in a different political climate. Other people might have different takeaways than I did. But in any case, I entreat EVERYONE to go read it.



20. The Pulse Between Dimensions and the Desert, by Rios De La Luz

5 May


It sometimes happens that I get an indie-press book whose author seems personally appealing or whose cover is beautiful or whose press I like, and then I get into the book and a) hate it and b) feel guilty about writing about how much I hate it, since the author is probably a nice person and certainly this book was their dream and it’s such an obscure book anyway, why bother?

Well, The Pulse Between Dimensions and the Desert, by Rios De La Luz, published by Ladybox press out of Portland, Oregon, is a classic example of that problem. I struggled through it. I thought it was actively awful. And despite that probably no one but its author cares about this book, I’m going to expound upon why.

So, it’s a book about race, about being a queer Latina, and the kind of myth-making and dreaming you need to do to make space for yourself if you are those things in an unfriendly world. That’s my best guess. The stories are about girls dating, grandmas, mean white boys, early girlfriends, cleaning houses for a living, sexual assault, with self-consicously lyrical flights like….

“During recess, I lugged the classroom’s bucket of crayons, color pencils and markers with me. The class played kickball and I sat under the shade of a palo verde tree because of asthma. I arranged all the greens together, blues and reds together…. Yellows owned the sun. Naranjas represented astronauts with Martian dust on their boots. Brown was my favorite. Brown represented the people I interacted with every single day.”

The  lyrical space-making mission isn’t a terrible idea, but its execution it struck me as so out of ideas. A crayon box? Really? The crayon box to talk about skin color? That is the biggest cliché in the history of writing about skin color. In a book that’s supposed to be lyrical and odd, a fucking crayon box?

None of the execution of these stories, from the good brown girls to the bad white boys brought any complexity beyond what you’d expect from campus politics. Brown girls might be more sympathetic than white boys. Many grandmas are lovely and deserve to have their struggles lionized. But these truths are not self-evident, both god and the devil are in the details, which De La Luz skips.

The story “Rosario,” is a two-page hash of bad things white boys have done to the narrator, one thing a sexual assault, another the annoying way they try to speak Spanish to pick her up, for example.  Those two things don’t seem the same to me, and erasing the differences between them obscure the possible stories therein, and the meaning of either anecdote. The point of the story is that the narrator is angry at white men and doesn’t forgive them for their crimes, but that’s not a story yet either. Lines like “Blatant sexualization of my brownness makes me gag,” are all tell, not show.

I’m going to write soon about The Mexican Man in His Back Yard, a collection of stories by the incredible Stephen D. Gutierrez on growing up poor and Mexican in Fresno and Los Angeles, a book with so much truth, passion, and pain that it makes the flaws of a book like De La Luz’s glare. Gutierrez’s stories are about race and class, but they’re about other things too: the history of illness in Gutierrez’s family; a local bully Gutierrez didn’t like. It is through talking about these other things—these characters’ real lives, because they are people first and race representatives second—that the insights about race bubble up. The cliche events in De La Luz’s book might be cliche because they’re true, but they’re so literal they allow no bubbling.

For example, in a wonderful story “Lucky Guys Forever,” Gutierrez writes about a local kid “a poor boy…. His name was Herrera. He was dark, with big, bulging frog eyes and a lambskin-lined jacket he wore all seasons of the year.” In Herrera’s one shining moment of social functioning he had a 10-speed bike early, when they were cool, and he loved it and was proud of it. That’s sad in a mostly-obvious way. I thought of the character Dukie from The Wire. But as the story goes on, it focuses not on the sad kid but on the narrator writing this kid’s story, and how much the narrator hated this kid. Gutierrez does some fancy meta-fictional footwork, circling through methods of telling that would allow his child self to beat this boy up—whom he had personal reasons to want to beat and also, we suspect, symbolic reasons. Symbolically perhaps he doesn’t want to be this sad kid with his perfect-bike sad moment. He doesn’t want to have to empathize. But eventually, he does. Here’s what he thinks:

Everything’s cool. I saw a little bit of myself in him. And I knew he needed only one thing, love. We had to help each other, the wounded. This came upon me in a flash, without premeditation. Later I would learn what it was called, an epiphany. And in that state, feeling much for him and the world, with myself included, I turned away for a second.”

The empathy is powerful because it was hard-won. It’s a brilliant story about rewriting stories. It’s a story about how much Gutierrez hates that sad-kid story, at the same time as he must admit that it’s related to his story, and find a positive, powerful way to incorporate it into his identity. The real killer in that paragraph is with myself included. At every turn, Gutierrez writes himself in, overwrites cliches about race. He’s brilliant.

Writing didactic stories De La Luz erases the details, turns everyone into caricatures, reveals nothing, includes neither herself nor the people she’s critiquing. The lyricism in this context feels like hiding from truth, or covering it. Don’t know how you really feel about your grandma? Invent her a time machine!  Sexually assaulted? Imagine throwing paint over yourself.

It’s so much easier than putting who you really are and how you really feel on the page.



21. Margaret the First, by Danielle Dutton

5 May


Daily life in the 1600s was stranger, even, than we can imagine, but it’s fun to try. Margaret the First is the story of Margaret of Newcastle-on-Tyne, an eccentric lady-writer-aristocrat, a wearer of weird hats whose London provocations and bizarre plays were a Baz Luhrmann wet dream, all flocks of rooks and potted limes and stars like comets. Here are some science questions Margaret asked:

“Are seeds annihilated when a plant grows?”

“Is God full of ideas?
“Is lightning a fluid?”

“Is thunder a blast of the stars?”

Margaret was the first woman in England to write for publication under her own name. She wrote poetry, philosophy, feminist plays and utopian science fiction—some of the very earliest sci-fi on record. Dutton takes these accomplishments as a fictional jumping-off point, and writes Margaret’s story as that of a woman artist inventing herself, with a focus on the difficulties she faced as a woman in a men’s arena.

The writing on Margaret’s creative process is exciting, vivid, beautiful. I related to this:

“But Margaret wanted the whole house to move three feet to the left. It was indescribable what she wanted. She was restless. She wanted to work. She wanted to be thirty people. She wanted to wear a cap of pearls and a coat of bright blue diamonds. To live as nature does, in many ages, in many brains.”

The delight of this book is Dutton’s prose, and her skill at inhabiting the weird details of the historical moment. Hair is “crimped and fierce as wild lettuce”. Young Margaret wears “petal flecked shoes” and takes a “conserve of marigolds for breakfast, trying to loosen a cough.” Awful sounding medical treatments, arcane plants and flowers, strange outfits, carriages, Kings, wars, hysterical blindness and perilous sea voyages…. it’s a lusciously textured vision of the 1600s.

My only slight cavil was that the pro-woman-artist perspective felt so….modern. Margaret’s “woman-in-a-man’s-world” struggle was recognizable as how we think today. And I suppose since obviously we know that story, it’s a little bit flat as a plot. The fun is discovering how Margaret’s era was weirdly different than ours. I wanted her values, and especially her feminism, to have that same psychedelic pulse of difference. But overall this was fun to read and I enjoyed it.