My one-man book club meeting, now in progress

Between work and Tinsel pre-pub jitters and promo stuff, I keep forgetting to develop the part of my brain that can think of anything remotely worthwhile to type here and send off into the ether. So, until I get things rolling again, how about some book reports? I have three quickies…

Finished reading Lorrie Moore’s new novel, “A Gate at the Stairs,” on Saturday. It was great and yet it was … hmmm. I think this review, by Stephanie Zacharek in Salon (with the excellent headline “People Like Lorrie Moore Are the Only People Here”) sort of sums up my thoughts:

>>Moore is one of those writers we should theoretically be grateful for, a craftsperson who never wants to bore her audience, and for the first dozen or so pages of “A Gate at the Stairs,” her patter is lively and entertaining. At first Moore’s rat-a-tat puns and witty turns of phrase, her knowing banter, give her prose a sense of forward movement. Tassie describes the turn-on of being at school: “My brain was on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir. Twice a week a young professor named Thad, dressed in jeans and a tie, stood before a lecture hall of stunned farm kids like me and spoke thrillingly of Henry James’s masturbation of the comma. I was riveted. I had never before seen a man wear jeans with a tie.

Zacahrek is right. It’s pages and pages of amazing interior dialogue from a narrator who thinks and imagesexpresses her inner thoughts like … Lorrie Moore. Every bare winter tree and glint of January frost gets amazingly described. Some things happen. Some more things are described. Every. Thing. The people — especially the working mother who hires the narrator as a nanny — speak in wondrously sardonic ideas and blunt quips. Between p. 100 and p. 200 very little happens except that Lorrie Moore unleashes all the pent-up, usually topical, writing she has not been sharing with us for a decade. There are asides on everything: Starbucks, Whole Foods, strollers, mommies, race, 9/11, locavore restaurants, the taste of good wine, university life, bass guitars, e-mail, terrorism, etc. It’s not that it isn’t good writing, but it’s just … amorphous? I need a Lorrie Moore word for it. No doubt, there’s something devastatingly funny every few pages. I loved it on p. 237 where a character says this:

“I’m worried about all the precious culture that comes now from nowhere: that is, it comes from trust-funded children’s book authors. ‘The Adventures of Asparagus Alley’ and such things. Adults are living increasingly as children: completely in their imaginations. Reading Harry Potter while every newspaper in the country goes out of business. They know so little that is real.”

There’s a lot to say “amen” to (and “hahahaha” to and “yow” to) in this novel. But the novel itself — the plot — doesn’t kick in until the last 75-80 pages. Then I couldn’t put it down and lost what was supposed to have been a seriously productive Saturday to it — happily so. I will say she really turned me off with something that happens in a scene near the end, something that is so gross and weird, and didn’t have to be. I totally recommend this book only because I want to know what others think. Also, technically, the writing really is something to behold.

images-1I also recently finished Drew Gilpin Faust’s “This Republic of Suffering.” I’d been wanting to read this since last year, when all the good reviews came out. Was moved to finally do it after so much driving around in search of Sheetz of Wawa stores. I am soooo not a Civil War nut, but once in while, you can’t help it when you’re driving around out here, to think of all that death and heavy wool uniforms in summer, and disease and hate and loss and all that. I have an okey-dokey college degree and an omnivorous but casual interest in history, so every third or fourth book I read is about something I’m not technically interested in, but the right combination of my own curiosity and a good history book come along and spin me for a loop.

What I’m saying is: this is my favorite Civil War book.

Because it’s really about a profound social change in the way Americans started to view death and heaven and the funeral industry and memorials and heroics and military procedures for notifying next of kin, etc. And it’s hauntingly graphic, and does all I ever want from a history book: puts me there, in that place and in that time with those people, with details drawn from primary sources and with the crispest possible writing and thought. Without treading into dangerously sexist generalities (which is to say,  “I mean it as a compliment!”), I wonder if women often write better history books because of a certain eye for a certain kind of detail. There’s nothing feminine about this book, except, in an intriguing way, there is. It’s in the caring. Maps and battleplans and Lincoln’s speeches don’t make me feel sad about the Civil War. This book did.

images-2Finally, I’ve been enjoying, here and there and almost finished, Janet Malcolm’s “Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice.” (As in Stein and B. Toklas.) Like a lot of people, the first Janet Malcolm book I read was “The Journalist and the Murderer,” which spooks me still, but I could read her on anything, really (and have! on Freud, or on Sylvia Plath, or on arcane legal cases), because of the precision of the sentences. This time I thought, well, she’ll probably lose me here because I have read about these two old ladies before, back when I was Patty Hearst in the closet getting my indoctrinatin’ from Cinque and Fahiza. But darn if Malcolm’s sentences don’t still do the trick. And reading her is a hell of lot easier than reading Gertrude Stein. You know’m sayin’?

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