Monthly Archives: February 2013

A Girl’s Honesty Sees Her Through Adults’ Lunacy: Lenore Zion’s ‘Stupid Children’

There’s a lot of good writing out there—an amazing amount, really, considering the ongoing moaning and groaning going on about the “death of literacy’’ and other current cultural shibboleths—but not that much that is truly original, free of clearly demarcated literary influences, antecedents and referents. A thousand Eggers, David Foster Wallaces, let alone Kerouac and Salinger imitators, bloom from every Brooklyn basement and suburban redoubt. All the more remarkable, then, when someone finds a way to make it new, speaking her own truths against the powers of the past. Which makes Los Angeles author Lenore Zion’s first novel, Stupid Children …Continue reading

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The Noisiest Book Review in the World Also Pretty Entertaining: ‘The Best of RALPH’

The Noisiest Book Review in the Known World: The Best of RALPH (Mho & Mho Works; 979 pages, two volumes, edited by Lolita Lark) is a collection of the more acclaimed book reviews, essays, excerpts, and letters published by RALPH: The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities. Originally known as The Fessenden Review, the literary magazine published reviews and excerpts of little known or self-published books while it also, as they proudly state on their website, “lambasted many of the dubious stars of the East Coast Publishing Establishment.” Following the demise of the printed magazine, RALPH, operating from …Continue reading

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Giving Voice to the Stifled, the Neglected, the Heartbroken: Susan Steinberg’s ‘Spectacle’

Susan Steinberg’s Spectacle (152 pages; Graywolf Press) is a story collection of intertwining vignettes, a series of experimental narratives that speak to the vulnerability of being female and the roles women are expected to play in a male-dominant world. Steinberg does not cast a rosy hue over her portrayal of society. She writes her truth—her female narrators’ truth—and makes no attempt to censor it. The narrators’ voices blend together, as do the male characters: lovers, fathers, and brothers move in and out of one another until they become indistinguishable. The opening story, “Superstar,” tells of a woman who breaks into …Continue reading

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Galvanized Yet Undone by a Tragedy: Dennis Mahoney’s ‘Fellow Mortals’

On the first page of Dennis Mahoney’s first novel, Fellow Mortals (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 277 pages), a fire burns down two houses and damages two more on Arcadia Street. It’s pretty much all downhill from there for the characters. As their lives creep along in the aftermath of that tragedy, Mahoney’s characters show us how a single event can galvanize a group of people yet destroy them at the same time. Infelicitous mailman Henry Cooper starts the blaze on Arcadia Street while trying to light a cigar on his route. The fire demolishes the houses of Nan and Joan …Continue reading

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Letting Go of Their Dreams for Whatever Might Come Next: Jim Gavin’s ‘Middle Men’

From time to time we may ask ourselves, what is a short story? To be sure, length is a defining characteristic, but it is not enough. Can we trace certain recurring threads throughout the now expansive history of the form: a constant set of concerns, a type of character, a type of plot? The form is, to its credit, too nimble for such decrees; what Alice Munro does with a short story is dramatically distinct from what George Saunders does, and both use the form with exactness and brilliance. But perhaps we can observe, in general, that there are particular …Continue reading

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Getting Out from the Daily Rut: Joshua Mohr’s ‘Fight Song’

Suburban harmony is under attack in Joshua Mohr’s new novel, Fight Song (Soft Skull Press, 272 pages). The book is a humorous ride through one week in the life of a middle age man who is going off the rails. But it’s also a critical look at how suburbia has been taken over by gadgets and corporations, as well as the stasis that traps people inside their jobs and within their gated communities. Bob Coffen is one of those people. When we meet him, he’s just trying to bike from his job to his boring home. He’s been working at …Continue reading

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Reckoning With the Millennials: ‘Our Practical Heaven’ at the Aurora Theatre

Anthony Clarvoe’s Our Practical Heaven, a world premiere directed by Allen McKelvey at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley, raises some interesting questions about how traditional media, such as plays and novels, can incorporate new media and new ways of communicating. Can you fictionalize Facebooking, tweeting, texting, and instant messaging without sounding phony and ridiculous? Fads, brand names, and recent technology can jar us out of a fiction, somehow betraying the text they’re embedded in. It’s hard to say why this should be, when there’s nothing weird about a character in a novel or play picking up the practically obsolete telephone. …Continue reading

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Not for the Money, But for the Art: Jim Harrison’s ‘The River Swimmer’

Two men looking at life from opposite directions are at the center of The River Swimmer, the new collection of two novellas by Jim Harrison (Grove Press, 198 pages). Each novella contains a rich, original story but read together they offer different perspectives on what is essentially the same issue. “The Land of Unlikeness” examines the nostalgia of a man who was once defined by art but has since given up his passion. Clive, a former painter turned art history professor, returns to his hometown of Ypsilanti, Michigan, following an embarrassing incident at a lecture. Placed in charge of caring …Continue reading

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Reading Music

Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is one of the great examples of program music, which means notes, not words, are the storytellers. The story here is a lurid one of opium induced reveries and unrequited love that descends into murder, execution, and hell. I heard it for the first time in junior high school, back when music appreciation was considered a part of a public school’s core curriculum and stories of opium and sin didn’t trigger over-protective hysteria in the PTA. The work became the first piece of classical music I could recognize, despite the fact that music of all kinds …Continue reading

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Words Are Not Enough: David Shields’ ‘How Literature Saved My Life’

David Shields’ How Literature Saved My Life looks like a book. It has 224 pages, printed with ink forming words, and words forming paragraphs that form chapters. Knopf will publish it February 5 and those who dare read this uncategorizable form of non-fiction will speed eagerly through it—although a few readers might rip out pages in anguish. Shields’ new work wants desperately to believe in books. It posits, after all, that books contain therapeutic, even life-saving properties. But where on the bookshelf do you put a book that doesn’t trust words? Within these highly literary pages, Shields undermines words using the only tool he has: words. …Continue reading

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The Story Is All That We Are: Percival Everett’s ‘Percival Everett By Virgil Russell’

Percival Everett By Virgil Russell by Percival Everett proves to be exactly what the title advertises; a novel that teases the reader with the identity of the narrator until the last page and even then, we are left wondering. The book opens with a conversation in a nursing home between a dying father and his son, presumably based on Percival Everett and his own father, a final attempt to connect and salvage a relationship weakened by time spent apart. The character of the father begins by telling his son he is going to read his writing aloud. “And I’ve written …Continue reading

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The Outlaw Barney Rosset

Because my brother Howie and I collected comics as poor kids in the Bronx, hoping to score a prized first edition of, say, Avengers #4 (which heralded the return appearance of Captain America) or Amazing Fantasy #15 (containing the origin of Spiderman) we haunted the sleazy second hand bookstores around the Bronx of the 1960s, dark moldy storefronts stacked with boxes full of lurid paperbacks and stag mags. In such a shop, I found a wooden grapefruits crate containing back issues of a magazine called Evergreen Review, edited and published by one Barney Rosset. Fred Jordan, the other name prominently …Continue reading

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