Friday, April 01, 2011

Promise of Plenty in the Penny Press!

An exceedingly enjoyable day in the Penny Press, proving once again its unending (one hopes) plenty, its aggregate ability to laughter, stimulation, and irritation to even the dreariest afternoon.  My old standbys could do no wrong today, starting, of course, with the mighty TLS, which this time around had as many quotable little bits as an episode of Deadwood. In Maren Meinhardt's wonderfully clear-headed review of the controversial Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which does more justice to the book in four paragraphs than most reviewers have managed to do in four or fourteen pages, she sums things up nicely:
Behind the posturing and special effects, the tenets underlying Chua's position are surprisingly sensible and relatively tame: most things that are worth doing need application and tend to become enjoyable once once one gets good at them; it is the job of parents to help their children get to that point.

I haven't yet managed to understand the outrage and commentary this book has produced, but then, my own tenets of parenting went out of fashion 400 years ago; practically every day, I see children launch themselves into utterly abominable public behavior, and they do it in the very consciously calculated certainty that their parents will not under any circumstances simply physically force them to mind their manners. Instead, such spoiled brats get to indulge themselves, scornful of the fact that the worst their parents will do is try to talk to them, to reason them out of their merchandise-destroying tantrum. "Amethyst," as I heard one over-pronouncing young mother say during one such tantrum, "remember what we discussed about social discourse?"

Elsewhere in this issue, P. J. Carnehan turns in a meaty review of a new art exhibit called "Georgian Faces" and wins this week's prize for Best Opening Line in a Review:
It's good to know that, during the latter half of the eighteenth century, the defense of Dorset against the prospect of invasion was in the hands of well-dressed men.

But then, the TLS has always been a showcase for linguistic pith - most often at the expense of the poor authors whose works fail to impress. It's true that Edmund Gordon over-praises Philip Hensher's merely good novel King of the Badgers (his follow-up to his genuinely great The Northern Clemency), but oh, the sweet compensation found in Matthew Adams' demolition of David Baddiel's The Death of Eli Gold! I haven't read Baddiel's book myself, which is about four narrators recalling the life of the title character, but after the working-over Adams gives it, I'd be happy to buy the author a consoling drink:
Ascribing to each character a distinct narrative voice, the novel attempts to offer a picture of their psychological and emotional development as they adjust to the great novelist's passing. It is a potentially effective idea, but Baddiel's frivolous approach to language and characterization, combine with his evident disregard for the reader, means that that potential is never recognized.

... The novel is sore with afflictions of this kind. To a different kind of enterprise, they might not have been so comprehensively damaging. But The Death of Eli Gold is a long, static, ostensibly reflective work, and as such it is almost totally dependent on precision, weight, and authenticity of voice. It has none of these qualities ...


One magazine-reading need my beloved book reviews don't fill is my foolishly persistent need for short fiction (well, almost never - the London Review of Books can keep running Alan Bennett's marvellous novellas forever, as far as I'm concerned) - 'foolish' because I'm so often disappointed you'd think I'd have stopped voluntarily long ago. Granted, writing a good short story is devilishly difficult, so I should keep my expectations low. But Penny Press days like today inflate those expectations - I found not one but two excellent stories. The first, "Twin Forks" by Daniel Woodrell, is in the latest Esquire - it's about a man named Morrow who buys a camp ground and general store out West hoping to escape some of the demons he left behind in Nebraska; it's got some very effective imaginings of loss and pain that a very different main character might have called a mid-life crisis, and the central scene, in which Morrow (with a little backstage help from his shop assistant Royce) confronts two machete-wielding drug addicts who pull up in front of his store in a beat-up car with two women in the back seat:
The women climbed from the beater and stood beside it, the elder subdued and expectant of the worst, the younger dark and expressionless, staring at Morrow. He looked back and could not believe how pretty her eyes were - what color is that? - then couldn't believe he'd noticed. He abruptly fired into the air while yet lost in her eyes and presence, said, "One more step."

The men halted at the sound, looked at each other, laughed till they bent in the middle and had to lean together. The machetes fell to the ground. The driver turned to the staring girl, "Toss me the keys to the trunk."

Royce said, "Don't let them open that trunk. You won't want that."

Woodrell is unknown to me, but the bio-note in Esquire indicates his a fairly seasoned writer, which might help to explain how effective most of "Twin Forks" is - although when it comes to short stories, I've seen many, many seasoned hands fall flat. My notorious case in point would be Alice Munro, who has never written a single well-done short story despite having spent an entire lifetime doing nothing but trying. So imagine my surprise when I turned to her preferred venue, The New Yorker, and found - not a well-done Munro short story, of course (what were you thinking?), but an utterly fantastic tale written by a newcomer to the field. The writer's name is Ramona Ausubel, and the story is called "Atria," and if it's any indication of her talent, her forthcoming book of short stories is worth pre-ordering right now.

"Atria" stars teenager Hazel Whiting, an intelligent and quirkily introspective high school student with a dead father and a hapless mother ("Hazel and her father were never in the world together - by the time she entered, he had already closed the door behind him"). Hazel is a fairly dispassionate observer of the world around her, and when she loses her virginity to a convenience store clerk one afternoon, she does so with almost clinical detachment ("This is it?" she thought. "This is the whole entire thing?"). Shortly after, she's raped by a different man and becomes pregnant, although she refuses to believe she's carrying an actual human baby:
She thought of the men who could have created this. "How could you be a person?" she asked her growing baby. She dreamed that night, and for all the nights of that summer, of a ball of light in her belly. A glowing knot of illuminated strands, heating her from the inside out. Then it grew fur, but it still shone. Pretty soon she saw its claws and its teeth, long and yellow. It had no eyes, just blindly scratched around, sniffing her cave. She did not know if this creature was here to help or to punish her.

The story is told in writing so confident and yet loose-limbed that I'm hard-pressed to think of a similar style - maybe early George Saunders, but there's an ease here that he has yet to achieve (and, to be fair, doesn't seem to want to). There's ample dramatic control as well - the final eight paragraphs of this story will have your heart in your throat, and the effect is entirely uncontrived, springing from Hazel's character itself. It was a thrill to read, and it'll be a thrill to add another young writer to my 'must read' list. Going from "Atria" to the next Munro aunt-a-thon will be a harsh thing.

And since today is the first of the month, there's another entry in the Penny Press I naturally want to mention - and since this post marks the 800th entry here at Stevereads, I'm allowing myself a little indulgence! The first of every month marks the appearance of a new issue of Open Letters Monthly, and since it's the best online literary and arts review there is, it not only qualifies as a part of the Penny Press but also stands implicit comparison with the best of its paper-and-staple brethren. I play a part in the creation of OLM every month, but this in no way cheapens my evaluation - I was a periodical reader long before I was any kind of periodical participant, and I'm well able to click on over to the latest issue of OLM on the first of the month and simply encounter it as a reader. It's true that I know the genesis of the pieces with an intimacy I don't have with other magazines (in this case, for instance, I know the title Jeff Eaton's fantastic review of Colonel Roosevelt had before it got the boring-ass snoozer of a title it currently sports - stuff like that), but knowing that kind of thing can't make the reading experience any better or worse, believe me.

So I'm indulging myself here at Post #800 by telling you this: Open Letters is a hell of a good read every month.

The secret, of course, is the strength of the writing - and I know this because the strength of the writing keeps me reading essays on subjects I'd otherwise immediately ignore. In this latest issue, for instance, one review deals with Teju Cole's novel Open City, which I found stilted, canned, and stomach-churningly egotistical. You'd think, therefore, that a review of it would hold no interest for me - but Andrew Martin's piece in the latest OLM is so urbane and allusive and chatty that I found myself reading along and happy, despite anything I might think about its subject:
The darkness and light that Cole describes seem to project themselves back onto the image of the solitary man in a flickering subway car, and forward onto the titles of Mahler’s final works. Moreover, the connections don’t feel forced. They are clearly the work of someone thinking—they are self-consciously essayistic in construction—but the prose is steady, driving. One keeps reading the book for these moments, and there are many of them.

And if I was initially sceptical about any review dealing with a junk writer like Cole, you can imagine what I initially thought about an entire feature on perfume. My first reaction was that a high-priced ephemeral vanity product like perfume didn't deserve even a glance from what is primarily still a literary review - I certainly wasn't willing to grant perfumery the status of an art. But I read Elisa Gabbert's "On the Scent" column avidly each time it appears, and I do so for her agile, confident prose:
An all-natural perfume would stick out like a sore thumb at the perfume counter in a department store, as they smell and behave in a fundamentally different way and lack ingredients found in the majority of commercial fragrances (such as synthetic musks, dihydromercenol, and Iso E Super); perhaps counterintuitively, it’s usually synthetic chemicals that make a contemporary perfume smell “fresh.”

Likewise I've been mostly uninterested in novelist Ahdaf Soueif's involvement with the recent political upheaval in Egypt, tempted to write it off as Norman Mailer-style opportunistic grandstanding - until I read Rohan Maitzen's exploration of Soueif's activism as seen through the prism of her novels In the Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love. In every piece she writes for OLM, Maitzen exhibits both a joy in meaningful complexity and an explicit faith in the power of literature - it can be an incredibly thought-provoking combination:
“I know there’s an awful lot I don’t know,” Isabel says to Amal. “That’s a start, isn’t it?” Against this epistemological humility, which enables exploration, discovery, and cooperation, run powerful countervailing certainties that, refusing empathy, instead license prejudice, inhumanity, and violence.

Soueif’s novels work against such certainties. Even the heartrending conclusion to The Map of Love is productive, because our mourning prompts us to ask why, to demand a better, more just, more hopeful resolution. Both novels also not only invoke but create their own version of the Mezzaterra: a literary common ground, an optimistic, if endangered, space well served by the novelist’s tools.

Perhaps the ultimate example of this kind of bait-and-switch occurs when a first-rate writer decides to review a book that's not mediocre (like Cole) but outright awful. This contrast is jarring enough when less talented reviewers do it (I myself, for instance, do it all the time) - when really talented people indulge themselves like this, the effect can be surreal. Perfect case-in-point: in the latest OLM, John Cotter (another of those 'Must Read' young novelists on my list) turns in a review of "Alta Ifland"'s 60-page collection of short stories called Death-in-a-Box. The booklet is flyblown garbage in its every pretentious sentence, but something in it caught Cotter's imagination and prompted a beguiling review that's several orders of magnitude more thoughtful and poetic than its subject:
Ifland’s spiky narration turns fables into essays and then into sermons, milking the efficacy of the forms she passes through; just as characters double and blend, so do forms. Not that all of this blending works all the time; generally speaking, these stories begin with strong premises and then escape themselves. Sometimes this is an uroboros (as in “Death-In-A-Box” where the premise with which we begin winds elegantly back on itself); sometimes these endings are fine disappearing acts (as in “Twin Sisters” when one character disappears into another); sometimes these escapes are just French exits, unsatisfying evasions (as in “Uncle Otto,” where a zany character piece decomposes into drunken paperwork).

And the list goes on, in every issue of Open Letters. Part of this is luck, no doubt (magazine editors dislike admitting it, of course, but luck plays a disconcerting role in whether or not a potential freelancer says 'yes, sure' - and whether or not that freelancer then delivers the goods), but a bigger part of it is hard work on the part of OLM's editors, who find, chase, shape, and polish these pieces every month. The process of that finding, chasing, shaping, and polishing is no different at OLM than it is at the TLS or The New Yorker, except in scale and number of available hands on deck, and the results of all that work were among the many Penny Press offerings that pleased me today - so I thought it deserved a mention right alongside the others. Credit where credit's due, and all that.

And for my next 800 entries? Six words: All Paul Marron - All The Time!

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