AMAZONIA: FIVE YEARS AT THE EPICENTER OF THE DOT.COM JUGGERNAUT
James Marcus’s amusing memoir tells how it was to be in the right place (Seattle) at the right time (the 90s). Personally interviewed by Jeff Bezos, Marcus was the 55th hire at then ramshackle Amazon.com. Tired of starving as a freelance writer and Italian translator, he reluctantly signed on for 60-hour weeks and chaotic warehouse stints. At first it wasn’t entirely clear what his duties entailed: the early Amazon was “half science lab, half mom-and-pop grocery.” Still, Bezos’s aggressive attitude was infectious: Marcus portrays a crew of eccentric individualists both fiercely competitive and a little dazed by their good fortune. But the heady atmosphere led to some missteps, as when Bezos purchased the disastrous Pets.com for a rumored $60 million.
As the site’s senior editor during this period of expansion, Marcus comments astutely on the contradictions of marketing literature–with its aspirations toward permanence–through the volatile online medium. He tamps down the self-congratulation one might expect, focusing instead upon Bezos’s audacious marriage of risky thinking and cutting-edge technology (his fondness for automated data collection ultimately made obsolete many positions within a workforce that numbered 8,000 at its peak), which allowed Amazon to thrive even as its purported death knell sounded in 2001.
The reader knows how the story ends, with a leaner, still shrewd Amazon dominating online book sales, but it’s compelling to see how Marcus’s generation of employees–no longer millionaires, but still better-off than many dot-com survivors–burned out after several years of Bezos’s new-agey grind. Marcus himself left in 2001, reasoning that his department’s hands-on period had passed. “Some of [our] vacant offices and cubicles had been filled by MBAs,” he writes. “Content was a dead language.” –Mike Newirth
AMERICAN DESERT: A NOVEL
Percival Everett’s American Desert is consistently diverting, regularly surprising, and in places laugh-out-loud funny. But these are superficial delights, and the book has little to offer beyond them. Unsuccessful, compulsively unfaithful English professor Ted Street is decapitated in a head-on collision en route to the beach, where he plans to drown himself a la Virginia Woolf.
At his funeral, he inexpli-cably rises from his coffin, his head crudely reattached via a morti-cian’s haphazard stitch, terrifying his wife and children and precipitating heart attacks and a riot. Directly, Street’s family home is besieged by the press. During a grocery-buying expedition, Street is abducted by fanatical, heterodox Christians in thrall to a charismatic lunatic who plans to rekill the “devilish” resurrectee, which sets off a madcap chain of events involving vivisection, a band of threatened children, and still more Christians. Everett’s point seems to be that disengagement from the particulars of life can yield perspective. But what’s remarkable about that? Monks have been saying it for centuries. And Everett’s conjectures regarding the afterlife (a state of nonbeing, in the manner of Epicurus) undermine the novel’s premise. If death is nonbeing, then what animates Street’s corpse? For maximum enjoyment, read American Desert without excessive thinking. –Paul Eberly
BOOMTOWN: A NOVEL
Greg Williams’s second novel is a rueful portrait of New York at the millennium, when Silicon Alley strivers still guzzled Cristal and dreamed of IPOs. Allminder.com CEO Jonathan Scarver thinks his fortune is just around the corner, and figures his indiscretions–skimming from the IT budget, an affair with his VP, a frivolous $4 million renova-tion–merely reflect the times. His Bright Lights, Big City-esque PR guru, Brad Smith, rebels against his socially conservative parents by pledging fealty to the new economy and getting drunk nightly at trendy spots like Cibar. For a while nobody at Allminder seems to notice that the profitless, apparently purposeless company has burned through its $50 million capitalization. Then the Nasdaq bloodletting of April 2000 postpones the IPO indefinitely. As Allminder’s prospects fade, Scarver plots layoffs that his embittered minions learn about via FuckedCompany.com, one of the novel’s amusing true-life elements. Meanwhile, Scarver’s vengeful systems manager, fed up with the hypocrisy he’s discovered through his habitual e-mail snooping, hatches a virus to deliver comeuppance wholesale.
Much like the time and place it examines, Boomtown is enticing but glib and a bit soulless. Williams, himself a dot-com vet, captures the atmosphere of high-end strip clubs and deluded corporate HQs as well as the heedless sprinting that dominated the dot-com era, but his reliance on telegraphic dialogue and stock characters–struggling actress, drunken flack, volatile billionaire investor–strands the book on the surface. Still, many erstwhile paper millionaires may recognize their salad days in its pages. –Mike Newirth
CUBA AND ITS MUSIC: FROM THE FIRST DRUMS TO THE MAMBO
Chicago Review Press
More than half a decade before Ry Cooder rounded up a slew of forgotten Cuban musicians for the Buena Vista Social Club, renewing global interest in the island’s music, Ned Sublette was making some of the greatest Afro-Cuban sounds–past and present–available to North American audiences via his Qbadisc label. Sublette became a salsa fanatic in New York during the mid-80s, and in 1990 began making regular trips to Cuba. He’s learned a thing or two since then.
Quite readable despite its rigorous scholarship, Cuba and Its Music braids history with music criticism to illustrate the essential syncretism of Cuban culture. Sublette describes the cultural conditions in Spain and Africa prior to the slave trade, then explains how African traditions melded with European ones, emphasizing the crucial role of transplanted African religions in the island’s development. He vividly documents Cuban music’s genesis and growth, introducing key musical concepts in a way that’s clear and jargon free.
Though it’s 600 pages long, the book doesn’t get beyond 1952, the year of Batista’s second coup–Sublette’s working on another volume. But the commentary on artists like Septeto Nacional, Machito, Arsenio Rodrigues, and Perez Prado is astute and illuminating. Sublette also takes care to address the island’s codependent political and cultural relationship to the U.S. By the end of the book his claim that Cuban music was a crucial ingredient in the birth of rock ‘n’ roll is more persuasive than you might expect. –Peter Margasak
DON DIMAIO OF LA PLATA
The latest from Robert Arellano (author of Fast Eddie, King of the Bees and a member of various Will Oldham bands) is a raucously funny satire of machine politics wrapped up in a parody of Don Quixote. Don Dimaio is the corrupt mayor of La Plata, which is, as the narrator-mayor himself says, “a town on the take. You wanna be a cop? Five will get you into the academy. If my mother knew your mother, maybe three.”
The story begins at the tail end of a fund-raiser. Dimaio and his driver, Pancho Sanchez, plus right-hand strong-arm Hank Cantare, plop into a limo to snort a few lines. A trip to the zoo ensues, whereupon Cantare unwittingly (or not) lets loose a white-cheeked gibbon. Over the course of the novel, the little ape plagues the mayor, showing up at the most inopportune of moments to jerk him off or simply scare him half silly. Along the way we become well acquainted with Dimaio’s penis (which he dubs “Rock Sinatra”), his dependence on smut (he can’t get it up without watching videos of porn star Dolly Dellabutta), and a cocaine-addicted toupee (“The Rug,” Dimaio calls it) that allows its wearer to inhabit the body of a close associate. In between segments of the mayor’s narration Arellano “transfellates” Cervantes’s text, easier explained by example: “In a village of La Plata, the name of which I have no desire to recall, there lived not so long ago one of those ‘gina men who always halve their pants in a whack, with ancient cockles, a skinny frank, and a gay hand for the chafe.”
If your sense of humor leans toward the scatological–you watch a Daley press conference and imagine the mayor jerking off while singing the national anthem–you’ll love it. –Todd Dills
GOD CLOBBERS US ALL
Hawthorne Books and Literary Arts
Ah, to be young in the 70s, a decade custom-made for being as stupid as you’re ever going to be. We know that God Clobbers Us All is set in the 70s because the characters drink a lot of sloe gin; we know the characters are young because sloe gin is the most sophisticated booze they drink. Young and fucked-up, they neglect others, even unto death.
Edgar Donahoe is 18 and aimless. He works as an orderly in an old folks’ home in San Diego and pals around with Pat Fillmore, a lesbian Blackfoot straight off the res. One night these salt-of-the-earth types push a full tab of four-way windowpane (that’s a lotta LSD) on Bev, an older, timid coworker. When they leave her alone to make a beer run before closing, Bev wanders away, and the novel remains haunted by her absence. Phony jacket blurbs from Nathanael West, Aldous Huxley, etc, tell us that maybe we shouldn’t worry, but we do.
Ballantine, a seriously funny writer, gives Edgar’s narration a sweet, twisted-slacker sensibility while providing a sense of urgency–too much nonchalance and Edgar could come to share Bev’s ghostly fate. In the end it’s his work with the aged and dying at Lemon Acres that redeems him, sort of, as he stumbles into the future with nothing but a pair of wet boxer shorts and a dime for the phone, no one to call. –Patrick Daily
The third release in Akashic’s “Little House on the Bowery” series, edited by cult novelist Dennis Cooper, Grab Bag comprises the first two books by Canadian Derek McCormack, both previously unavailable in the U.S. The first, Dark Rides, is a “novel in stories” about a gay teenager growing up in Peterborough, Ontario, in the 1950s. Its quiet, detached tone and achronological structure help evoke a bottomless world of alienation in which the narrator tries again and again to define or even simply disguise himself–macho cowpoke? sneering JD? a lover like any other?–only to have each attempt end in collapse.
Wish Book, a “catalog of stories” also set in Peterborough, is even better. McCormack’s Depression-era characters are broke, sick, and in love with the wrong people; to get by they scheme and dream, using their imaginations and their hands to craft escape routes, skirting shame and disaster along the way. The stories here, named after their narrators–“The Bell-Ringer,” “The Chuck-Shooter”–are more playful, full of pulpy dialogue, jokey rhythms, and quizzical endings that both amuse and unsettle. Powerful images and characters echo and reappear in jumbled forms throughout the book, and McCormack keeps returning to centers of desire and desperation–the hospital, the fair, the department store–to expose their secrets and hard-edged lingo. It makes for a kaleidoscopic look at a world of cheap furbelows and carnival flash, a place where childlike wonder goes hand in hand with cruel cynicism, and where even the promise of heaven appears as tawdry as an eye-shadow case. –Ryan Brooks
A HISTORY OF THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN PEOPLE [PROPOSED] BY STROM THURMOND
Percival Everett and James Kincaid
This novel consists of correspondence among a number of mildly insane people attempting to forge the “history” detailed in the title. Thurmond, of course, is the last person on earth anyone reasonable would expect to write a work of black history–the book proposal’s the brainchild of one Barton Wilkes, an aide to the senator who wants to give the senator a chance to set the record straight on his segregationist past. Enter a desperate editor at Simon & Schuster; the editor’s embattled assistant and sometime lover, Juniper; and Everett and Kincaid, a pair of would-be ghostwriters who teach at USC.
In actuality as well as in the fictional world of the book, Everett’s authored many works of fiction, Kincaid several volumes of lit crit. Everett’s also the guy who, in 1989, precipitated a long quarrel in the South Carolina state legislature over the Confederate battle flag flying above the capitol by refusing to go on with a speech he was giving there. The flag was subsequently moved to an even more prominent position on the grounds.
Something of a cross between Allan Gurganus’s Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All and Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s, the tale hilariously satirizes the paternalistic racism of the old Dixie, simultaneously offering an indictment of big publishing’s quest for the best seller. But it’s got some depth too: The personal ties thicken as the memos and letters pile up, and in the end two marriages are in the offing. Thurmond dies mid-headstand in front of a southern-style D.C. eatery before his history can be completed, but Everett and Kincaid decide to publish their correspondence. They’re promptly rejected by S & S, but thanks to Akashic, here you have it. –Todd Dills
NOVELTIES & SOUVENIRS: COLLECTED SHORT FICTION
John Crowley is an American magic realist, too literary for mainstream fantasy readers and too fantastical for the literary-fiction crowd. His ongoing AEgypt series is a dense, painstaking collection of overlapping perspectives, points of view, and timelines, in which the modern world overlaps with the thought of Renaissance philosopher-magicians and middle-class northeasterners engage nervously with protean Appalachian folk memories. This new collection of short works from 1977 to the present is less intimidating, but Crowley’s usually at his best with room to sprawl. His writing has a leisurely, lush Edwardian quality, and there’s a subversive joy in savoring his prose in defiance of both pop culture’s prevailing instant-gratification aesthetic and high art’s temple of modernist minimalism. But even when Crowley writes short, he’s engaging big themes–heaven, creativity, mortality.
Some of these stories deliver a graceful existential punch. Crowley’s particularly adept at the sensual fairy tale (unsurprising to fans of his 1982 World Fantasy Award winner Little, Big). Yet sometimes his epiphanies seem like they’d be better discovered through the commitment his longer work demands and rewards. Were short-story broadsheets, sold one at a time, commercially viable, that’s the form I’d think Crowley’s short works were best suited to: one road at a time, and every wildflower and insect and dead animal and piece of litter by its side given its rightful impact. –Monica Kendrick
PARIS 75016: HELL’S DIARY
French Millennium Library
It’s hard to write convincing fiction about the wellborn. If you’re a member of the collared classes, even the white ones, you have to remember not to stamp all your clueless richies with the same evil die. And if you’re a scribbling inheritor, the gilded cage of privilege often breeds a fatal lack of perspective and empathy. But in Paris 75016: Hell’s Diary, Lolita Pille makes narrator Hell, a “filthy rich and totally insufferable” teenager from the 90210 of the City of Light, both empathetic and revolting by letting her at all the cocaine money can buy and then chronicling the chaos that ensues. Perhaps this is an overused ploy, but the moral complexity lurking beneath the surface of the author’s shock-jock style makes it fresh.
Pille (apparently a pen name for Louis Gardel, the book’s copyright holder) introduces us to Hell while she’s still capable of gloating with appealing frankness over the miserable fates of the majority. Then a few scenes in she mentions her social cocaine use, and after a series of dizzying switches between precocious, poetic self-awareness and idiocy she’s stumbling from abortion clinic to breakup to the bottom of a pit she doesn’t care to leave, describing the view in sadistic detail. But every time the author nearly cons the reader into snorting “Boo hoo, poor little rich girl” and chucking Hell’s story at the wall, up comes another twist on her entrancing, frightening voice. Sometimes I felt for the tart–and sometimes I wanted her to quit killing herself so I could do it myself–but I never lost interest in her fate. The “downward spiral” trope is rarely this engaging. –Ann Sterzinger
THE PERFECT MILE
In 1954 breaking the four-minute mile was considered every bit as significant as the conquest of Everest the year before. Some physiologists considered such a time beyond human capability. But that year three young men were pushing the envelope. Roger Bannister, a 25-year-old Oxford medical student, was a gentleman athlete hopeful of one last blaze of glory for a Britain that had lost its empire and exhausted itself in World War II. His rivals, Australian John Landy and University of Kansas track star Wes Santee, were equally desperate to be first past the barrier.
On May 6, at Oxford’s Iffley Road track, Bannister broke the tape in 3:59.4. Six weeks later Landy bested Bannister’s mark. That summer the two finally met at the Empire Games in Vancouver for a race both considered the biggest of their lives. The Perfect Mile is sports history at its best: you know the ending, but can’t wait to find out how it happened. –Ted McClelland
THE PLUMBER OF SOULS
Carroll & Graf
Michael Guinzburg doesn’t just mix the sacred and the profane–he’s got them humping “in the style made famous by dogs.” First published in France, where Guinzburg is more widely read, his latest novel is loosely structured as the case files of a globe-trotting scandal-fixer for the Vatican, a “human enema” who can make anyone spill his guts in the name of absolution. He’s privy to a foul stream of corrupted innocence and crass consumption, relaying these confessions in honeyed tones and gleefully offensive similes: “with each massive puff the red ember of her cigarette glowed brightly and grew like a dog’s erection”; “Sister Genevieve . . . ran from the room in tears, her full breasts bobbling like puppies wrestling in a sack.”
As the confessions get weirder–“The Billionth Burger” combines freaky sex and greasy fast food–the honey gets thicker, the puns get tackier, and the plot twists are more absurd. By “The Trillionth Shit,” things have clogged; this tale of the Merdistes, a cult of poop worshippers living and butt fucking in the sewers of Paris, goes on for way longer than seems prudent. “The Zillionth Star” brings together Fidel Castro, pedophiliac computer genius “Gill Bates,” the lamb of God, a clone of Adolf Hitler, and a dancer at a Cicero strip club. Guinzburg tries to inject some last-minute redemption into this final chapter, and as a result the book ends on a distinctly artificial note. Still, his vision of the salvation of man is pretty ingenious, and the raw thrill of his prose has plenty of redemptive power of its own. –Ryan Brooks
RUINING IT FOR EVERYBODY
The title of journalist Jim Knipfel’s third memoir, Ruining It for Everybody, caused me to snatch the review copy from a coworker’s hands and start devouring it on the spot. As the cover promises, this ain’t the story of a saint. Knipfel flaunts his command of delayed narrative gratification and his empathy, remorse, and dry, miserable wit, weaving his tale of an unapologetic drunk toward a sort of redemptive light.
He opens the book with a statement about the body’s control of the mind that anyone over 25 can relate to and a list of his own excuses for being a prickly pear–swiftly deteriorating eyesight, occasional lameness, cysts, epilepsy, mysterious bleeding. Then we get the childhood, mostly in Wisconsin; his descriptions of growing up cheesehead ring true to this compatriot thanks in part to old-timers’ sayings like “don’t be a shit.” From there he moves on to adolescent suicide attempts, disturbing college crimes committed in the name of rock ‘n’ roll, stubborn failure in the job market, and his slow, accidental (he’d have you believe) climb up the lower rungs of indie journalism as a writer for the New York Press. His clinical look at his life is mostly honest and consistently entertaining; the soul-searching promised by the book jacket mainly consists of calling himself an asshole, feeling bad about it, and saying he’s sorry. He’s probably annoying to sit next to at a bar, but in print Knipfel manages to be charming and pithy despite himself. –Ann Sterzinger
STEP RIGHT UP: STORIES OF CARNIVALS, SIDESHOWS, AND THE CIRCUS
Nathaniel Knaebel, ed.
Carroll & Graf
This diverse collection combines essays, reportage, history, short stories, and excerpts from contemporary carnival- and circus-themed novels. In keeping with the democratic and anarchic spirit of the midway, pieces by the likes of Eudora Welty and Maxim Gorky are included alongside newspaper accounts and choice selections from the sideshow zine/journal Shocked and Amazed! In fact, the historical and nonfiction selections here are particularly strong.
Read of Mabel Stark, at one time the circus world’s top female tiger trainer. Hear the bearded Lady Olga reminisce about working with former boxing champ Jack Johnson and appearing in MGM’s 1932 classic Freaks. Let Harry Crews initiate you into the carny’s secret world of impenetrable slang, powerful amphetamines, and contempt for straights, while former carnival worker Edward Hoagland muses on Edward Kelty’s circus photographs and the relationship between entertainers and their public, also known as “marks” and “lot lice.”
The performers and entrepreneurs depicted here are often heroic and occasionally villainous. There’s plenty of drama, from the murder trial of Grady “Lobster Boy” Stiles Jr. to the rise, reversal, and eventual triumph of original showman P.T. Barnum. The dividing line between “freaks” and “normals” may be fluid, but as this book demonstrates, it’s also deeper and more profound than any cotton-candy-eating mark would ever suspect. –Eva Neuberg
Surfaces, the latest offering from Chicago-based Flood Editions (which also publishes the magazine LVNG), features the collected mean-derings of Chicago Poetry Project curator John Tipton. In some ways an homage to automatic writing and mathematical poetics, this collection of 11 poems (and 6 untitled pieces called “ladders”) actively engages with the downside of such experiments–the nonsensical confusion or sense of failure that emerges nearly as often as the beauty of randomness. Tipton plays with multiple logic systems, some related to language and poetry and others drawn from everyday life (stoplight grids, car engines). Recurring characters undermine the apparent symmetry of couplets and numbered sections. Menacing ants–“ants whose jaws mesh on boneless linkages”–show up nearly as often as references to famous mathematicians, and snow is omnipresent. Surfaces allows the reader to luxuriate in the folds of systematic writing even while mourning its limitations. –Heidi Broadhead
THE TICKET OUT: DARRYL STRAWBERRY AND THE BOYS OF CRENSHAW
Simon & Schuster
Since Jackie Robinson integrated the major leagues in 1947, baseball has often been portrayed as an arena for African-American advancement. Michael Sokolove presented the other side of the coin in his 2001 New York Times Magazine piece about the rise and fall of Darryl Strawberry. Strawberry flashed Hall of Fame potential while playing for the Mets, the Dodgers, and the Yankees in the 1980s and ’90s. But cocaine, alcohol, and a first marriage plagued by adultery and domestic violence sapped his talent and money. Cancer and a prison stint followed.
In The Ticket Out Sokolove presents Strawberry’s story alongside those of his high school teammates on the Crenshaw Cougars, who dominated inner-city LA baseball in the late 70s. Most of the team’s players went on to be draft picks. Like Strawberry, third baseman Chris Brown developed into an all-star. But injuries derailed his career. Twins Darryl and Derwin McNealy signed with the San Francisco Giants and the Yankees, respectively, but only reached the minor leagues. The Giants cut Darryl, along with another Cougars teammate, after they used a stolen credit card. Carl Jones, a catcher who ruled pitchers with an iron hand, didn’t get drafted and eventually became a crack addict. He’s serving 25 to life after committing two burglaries and vandalizing his old school.
The Ticket Out uses the athletes’ stories to show the limitations of athletic glory. “Baseball could not raise Darryl Strawberry,” Sokolove writes. “It couldn’t be his father. It couldn’t give him courage and wisdom. Baseball was his ticket out, but he emerged from inner-city LA as damaged goods.” –Michael Marsh
TROLL: A LOVE STORY
Johanna Sinisalo has achieved some notoriety in her homeland, winning something called the Atorox Prize for best Finnish science-fiction or fantasy story seven times, as well as taking first place (and second twice) in Finland’s Kemi National Comic Strip Contest and the 2000 Finlandia award for literature. Still, her latest novel, Troll: A Love Story, is her first to be published in English. I sure hope it isn’t the last.
Troll opens with Mikael, a gay photographer nicknamed Angel for his beauty, stumbling home one night after a Guinness too many. In his apartment courtyard he finds a group of young punks tormenting some unfortunate creature, which turns out to be a troll cub. Forget any cartoon image you may have of trolls; this is a wild beast with dark black fur, a tufted mane, a switch of a tail, and a somewhat human face. Having rescued it, Angel surfs the Internet and scours libraries, uncovering, along with the familiar mythology (the trolls of fairy tales are demons, changelings, child stealers), that Felipithecus trollius is a member of the “cat-ape” family, extremely rare and extremely shy of human contact.
Hiding and caring for a carnivorous feral animal in one’s home (what to feed it?) is rough enough, but the troll also emits some powerful pheromones: Angel becomes even more attractive to his suitors, and his attachment to his pet (and vice versa) gets increasingly dicey. In a broad sense, Sinisalo’s fablelike story explores the risks inherent in desire and possession, and how much of our own nature remains “animal.” “I’ve tried to capture part of the forest,” Angel says, “and now the forest has captured me.” –Jerome Ludwig
TRUTH & BEAUTY
In 1994 Lucy Grealy achieved minor literary celebrity with Autobiography of a Face, her memoir of surviving the childhood cancer that deprived her of half her jaw. That same year Ann Patchett, her friend and fellow Iowa Writers’ Workshop grad, published a dud novel called Taft. But by 2002 Patchett was making a splash with her third work of fiction, Bel Canto, while Grealy had degenerated into abject junkiedom. She died of a heroin overdose in December of that year. Now Patchett’s written her own memoir of Lucy’s life, and of life with Lucy. Did we really need another remake of A Star Is Born?
Grealy–as she makes clear in her own book–was damaged, self-loathing, and self-destructive. Patchett not only literally carried her in her arms at times but petted her, fed her, and saw her through a series of increasingly excruciating but unsuccessful plastic surgeries. All along, Patchett wrote steadily; Grealy fiddled, when she wasn’t breaking down.
Patchett presents her account as the searingly honest chronicle of a friendship. But if it were really honest, it wouldn’t just dish the dirt. People responded passionately to Grealy’s memoir not because she revealed her consuming sadness or promiscuity, but because of her acute psychological insight–particularly when it came to childhood suffering–and precise, compelling prose. In this wallow, Patchett shows few signs of comparable self-understanding. In fact, it’s Grealy who at one point remarks, “At least I can make you feel like a saint.” –Kate Schmidt
VENUS OF CHALK
The setting of Susan Stinson’s third novel, Venus of Chalk, is a major switch from the historical western/magic realist atmosphere of her last one, Martha Moody–published almost ten years ago–but the two books share a poetic style. The heroine of this contemporary story is Carline, who lives happily in Massachusetts with her poet lover and earns her living writing home economics pamphlets–a self-consciously old-fashioned conceit that Stinson handles well. One night when a pack of boys yells at her for being fat, she reacts in an ancient, unexpected way, and–reacting to her reaction–finds herself on a spontaneous bus ride to visit a grieving aunt in her native Texas.
Venus of Chalk is a classic road novel, full of unexpected revelations and parallels between Carline’s old world and her new, but her interior and physical life are like nothing you’ve ever read before. Stinson’s writing, rooted in the physical world, is thick with graceful, telescopic observations and feelings and bound together with invisible connective tissue that’s extremely strong: it’s one thing to write masterfully about the feeling of eating instant oatmeal from a Styrofoam cup in the morning, it’s another to immediately bring you along to the next, unrelated idea with kinetic grace. But the narrative structure isn’t a match for Stinson’s powerful prose. At times I wished for a more focused, sustained plot–one reason Martha Moody worked so well was that the Bunyan-size story fit Stinson’s writing. But in general, the spell her words weave is strong enough to take you wherever she wants you to go.
In all her work Stinson deploys the full force of her pen to describe the lives of fat women; it’s pure pleasure to see such tour-de-force writing articulate the interior lives of people who can be invisible to the rest of the world. –Elizabeth M. Tamny
WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS? HOW CONSERVATIVES WON THE HEART OF AMERICA
Nowadays Kansas politics are best known for producing conservatives like senators Bob Dole and Sam Brownback, but the state was settled by abolitionists and its history is pockmarked by populist, socialist, and communist movements. In his latest book, Baffler editor Thomas Frank attempts to explain how his home state arrived at its self-defeating embrace of the Republican Party and by extension unpack the story of all the red states of the midwest and the south.
While the Democratic Party used to comprise the poor and working-class, now the blue states are clustered around urban areas and the coasts. The Republicans, Frank argues, have changed the focus of public debate from economics to moral issues like gay rights and abortion, fanning the flames of the heartland’s fury at the degradation of family values to collect votes. Meanwhile, to compete with Republican fund-raising, Democrats have switched their focus to the urban elite and abandoned their former strongholds to the likes of Brownback, just one of the book’s many villains.
What’s the Matter With Kansas? offers no solutions, nor does Frank spend much time with any progressives fighting the good fight, like pro-choice Wichita doctor George Tiller. But though it makes the state look like it’s populated solely by loons, the book still offers more insight into the divide between red and blue than anything else I’ve read lately. –Jessa Crispin
THE WORLD: WHO WANTS IT?
As a response to 9/11, third-world nations offer the U.S. an aid package that draws on the skills that have allowed them to endure in a poverty that globalization has left largely unmolested. Volunteers from China teach Americans to make skin, entrails, and bones into tasty meals. The Vietnamese show us how to get the last bit of toothpaste out of the tube. Cuban mechanics expert in maintaining ’50s Chevys train us to keep our SUVs running forever. Meanwhile, in New Jerusalem, Palestinians run the Gaza airport, while Israeli security ensures safety for pilgrims of all faiths, for whom a “Cafeteria of Perpetual Distraction” is built on the Temple Mount.
Such reversals of values, in prolific, witty, and wearying repetition, are the basis for IIT architecture professor Ben Nicholson’s intricate satiric vision of a new world order. Nicholson doesn’t quite live up to a cover blurb hailing him as “the greatest satirist since Swift,” but he comes damn close in the final chapter, which imagines a bin Laden trial as an extravaganza to put O.J. in the shade. Nicholson satirizes his subjects not by exaggerating their venality to comic effect, but by inventing for them a second self far more beneficent than they’re able–or interested–in inventing for themselves. As a result, despite its pointed and pervasive irony, a pall of earnestness hangs over The World:Who Wants It? The first goal of satire, after all, is not to reform your subject, but to expose him for the fool that he is. –Lynn Becker
YOU HAVE TO BE CAREFUL IN THE LAND OF THE FREE
Jeremiah Brown is wandering from bar to bar in an unnamed town in Colorado, contemplating the airline ticket waiting for him back at his motel. He’s expected to return to Scotland for the first time in seven years to see his ailing mother, but, as he puts it, “I didnay even want to go hame.” James Kelman’s You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free may encompass only one night in the life of one character, but Brown is quite the character, and he has 12 years of living in America to assess before his return home.
Kelman won the Booker Prize for his 1994 novel How Late It Was, How Late, and like that book You Have to Be Careful is written in a Scottish vernacular that can make for slow reading and the embarrassing need to sound the occasional word out loud, but Brown is a wonderful companion. His brain skips from fantasizing about his waitress to his two-year-old daughter–whom he ditched with his ex-girlfriend back on the east coast–and then to the family he left behind in Scotland.
Brown never becomes tiring–by the last of the novel’s 410 pages he feels like an old friend you’ve been catching up with over beers. Part of the same Scottish movement that gave the world Janice Galloway and Alasdair Gray, Kelman’s given us another warm and wise book. –Jessa Crispin