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Posts tagged ‘shorts: short stories/short books/short reviews’

Michael Chabon: Manhood for Amateurs

39206346.JPGThis is Michael Chabon’s first book of nonfiction. In subjects ranging from his bond with his brother to his search for a “murse” (male purse) to why he loves Jose Canseco, Chabon gives us a detailed glimpse into his sometimes-deep, sometimes-shallow, but always engaging mind. I have absolutely no interest in any aspect of baseball, but I found myself skimming the Canseco essay anyway, a victim of what I’ve come to think of as New Yorker Syndrome: the writing is so good that I find myself reading it regardless of the subject matter.

The tone of the essays in this book varies wildly: in some he goes deep into the details of a passion of his — say, Legos — but in michael-chabon-1008-lg.jpgothers, he’s dealing in emotional bonds and the connection he feels with his parents, now that he has children of his own. The essays on his wife, writer Ayelet Waldman, are particularly touching. Here’s a sample:

Not very long afterward, in an ongoing act of surrender to the world beyond my window, with no possibility of knowing what joy or disaster might result, I married her. And since that afternoon in Berkeley, California, standing along the deepest seam of the Hayward Fault — no, since our first date — this woman has dragged nudged, coaxed, led, stirred, embroiled, mocked, seduced, finagled, or carried me into every last instance of delight or sorrow, every debacle, every success, every brilliant call, and every terrible mistake, that I have known or made. I’m grateful for that, because if it were not for her, I would never go anywhere, never see anything, never meet anyone. It’s too much bother. It’s dangerous, hard work, or expensive. I lost my ticket. I kind of have a headache. They don’t speak English there, it’s too far away, they’re closed for the day, they’re full, they said we can’t, it’s too much bother with children along.

She will have none of that. She is quick, mercurial, intemperate. She has a big mouth, a rash heart, a generous nature (always a liability, in my view), and if my way is always to opt out, to sit in the window seat with a book in my lap, pressing my face against the pane, then her great weakness, indistinguishable from her great strength, is a fatal, manic aptitude for saying yes. She gets herself, and us, and me, into trouble: into noble causes and silly disputes, into pregnancies and terminations, into journeys and strange hotel beds and awkward situations, into putting my money where my mouth is and my name on fund-raising pitch letters for the things that I believe in but otherwise, I don’t know, haven’t gotten around to yet. She is the curse and the wolfman charm in my blood, calling me to shed my flannel shirt and my pressed pants with their sensible belt and lope on all fours into the forest.

author photo: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Lowboy, part II

tunnel450px.jpgJust a short review on this one, since I wrote about it when it arrived last month. This book lived up to the hype, in my opinion. I only wish I’d had time to read it without interruption, so I could have gotten into the rhythm of Wray’s cutting between Will, the schizophrenic teenage mental hospital escapee, and the missing persons detective trying (with Will’s mother in tow) to find him before something bad happens. Will’s character is startlingly real; read a passage where he starts out lucid and veers off into paranoia, and you’re probably as close to being inside a schizophrenic’s thought processes as you care to go, maybe closer:

As soon as his eyes came open he regretted it. The objects around him flickered for an instant before coming clear, as though he’d caught them by surprise, and their outlines began to twitch and run together. Oh no, he thought. The argon lights were stuttering like pigeons There was some kind of intelligence behind them. He tried to convince himself that what he saw made no difference, that it was none of his business, but it was too late to convince himself of anything. He clutched at the bench, breathing in little sucks and forced himself to look things in the eye. The bench was smooth, the wall was bright, the skeletons were as dull and dead as ever. Everything was as it should have been, inanimate and still. Even the people waiting for the train seemed perfectly assembled and composed; but that was wrong again. It was as though he’d caught a glimpse behind the curtain in a theater, behind the canvas backdrop and the props, and though the play was a good one he couldn’t forget about the ropes and pulleys. You should have expected this to happen, he said to himself. You did expect it. But the truth was that he hadn’t expected it so soon, not yet, and he felt hollow and incapable and sick.

A cigarette wrapper skittered up the platform, dancing past the bench coquettishly: a bashful totem. A harbinger. He pressed his face against his legs and panted.

The supporting characters are complex and mostly sympathetic. Ali Lateef  is just the sort of detective you’d want helping you, even when he’s unsuccessful. We can understand teenage Emily’s fascination with Will, and how she might get pulled in, despite his troubled history. Will’s mother, Violet, is more enigmatic — to say more would give away too much of the plot.

tunnel photo:

Money Walks: An Experiment in Serial Storytelling

46001204-06122542-100116.gifFrom the LA Times:

This is the first chapter in an experiment in serial storytelling called “Money Walks” that we will publish in Calendar during the next three weeks. Every weekday and Saturday between now and April 24, we will bring you another installment, first by our own Mary McNamara, and then by Los Angeles fiction writers including, among others, Seth Greenland, Marisa Silver, Aimee Bender, Denise Hamilton and Jerry Stahl.

Each chapter is about 600 words long. The story so far is about the widespread disappearance of money from every type of financial account everywhere (not such a stretch, given the current financial climate and the extent to which online transactions have taken hold), told through the eyes of an Episcopal priest in LA. Read LA Times television critic Mary McNamara’s first chapter here; novelist Seth Greenland (Shining City, The Bones) picks up Chapter 2 today here.

2 Short Takes: Junot Diaz and Sloane Crosley

One of my “problems” as a fiction addict with first crack at the new books (oops, note to self: in future, don’t use “crack” and “addict” in the same sentence — it’s not THAT kind of a problem) is that I’m slow to read books given to me as gifts, since they have no due date. In the past few weeks, I’ve made a concerted effort to get to some of the backlog (so far, no luck in getting myself to tackle Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, though — sorry, Chris!) but I did get to Junot Diaz’s Drown and Sloane Crosley’s book of essays I Was Told There’d Be Cake. These two books don’t belong in the same review, unless you’re grouping by approximate book weight, type of cover, and size.

diaz200s.jpg27474628.JPGI loved Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao when I read it over a year ago. It’s still one of the first books I think of when someone asks me what book has really made an impression on me lately. Drown is a collection of stories he wrote before Oscar Wao; all of the stories’ main characters are Dominicans or Dominican Americans, and the reader can see some of the groundwork for the novel. Drown was critically acclaimed when it came out, and Diaz won the PEN/Malamud Award for Short Fiction. He also was named as one of twenty writers to watch in the twenty-first century by the New Yorker. Maybe it was reading the later, bigger book first, or maybe I get more engaged with the characters in the longer form, but Drown didn’t have the same effect on me as Oscar Wao. Still, if you can’t tackle Oscar due to aversion to footnotes or lack of time (or if you prefer short stories), Drown might be better for you. Here’s a link to an NPR page with a podcast of Diaz reading from Oscar.

25436172.JPG40645846.jpgThe cover of Sloane Crosley’s I Was Told There’d Be Cake is full of the kind of raves (“twenty-first century Dorothy Parker” says Jonathan Ames) that can backfire. And the fact that Crosley is young, cute, and a book publicist to boot doesn’t help. Some of the raves on the cover are from authors she’s promoted, but others aren’t. While I wouldn’t put her in Dorothy Parker’s league, some of the essays (“Smell This”, “The Height of Luxury”) are very funny. At least one (“The Pony Problem”) successfully walked a line between funny and genuinely touching. Others grated a bit for me. If you like your fiction with a healthy shot of humor, she’s worth checking out. She also constructed dioramas for a couple of the essays, as well as a hilarious video featuring a hand wearing pants walking through one of them. They’re on her website.

Author photos, from top:

Lily Oei
Jayne Wexler