Mauprat, George Sand

Mauprat by George SandI’ve been struggling to come up with something to say about Mauprat that’s not completely obvious for a while now. But here’s the thing: this book is completely obvious. Theres no ambiguity; no “showing, not telling”; nothing obtuse or inconclusive. It’s utterly transparent. The author tells us what happens in definite terms, and then she tells us how to interpret it, and then she tells us how we should feel about it. Sand had a point; a message about feminine value and feminine strength, about the complex relationship between nature and education in the formation of human character, which she wanted to convey to readers, critics, and very probably her soon-to-be ex-husband, loud and clear.

In Mauprat (1837), George Sand relates the life story young Bernard de Mauprat, tracing his progress from a busque and villainous youth, to a respectable and worthy gentleman. The novel adopts elements of many popular genres–its a gothic novel, a romance, a history, an (almost) murder mystery, and at its core, a coming of age story.

Like many novels of the same period and genre, Mauprat employs a nested story structure which lends itself to that uniquely 19th century combination of first person narration and omniscient soap boxing. Sand narrates the tale in the voice of an aged Bernard de Mauprat, relating his life-story to a pair of younger men over the course of two evenings spent before the fire at his home.

Bernard was born the grandson of an infamous noble tyrant and was, after the death of his parents raised by his grandfather and his eight brutal bachelor uncles in their deteriorating castle, Roche-Mauprat. He was brought up to a life of violence, indulgence, and oppression by a group of men who robbed, murdered, fought and drank, seizing what they wanted from the peasantry at will, abused by the old patriarch, and eager to treat anyone weaker than themselves in the same style.

Then, we meet the girl. The uncles bring her back to Roche-Mauprat after one of their marauding trips, having evidently discovered her lost in the woods after becoming separated from a hunting party and tricked her into believing that they would help her home. Of course, she’s beautiful. Somewhat less predictably she’s also their cousin. It seems that a lesser branch of the Mauprat family lives nearby, a cousin of the head of the house, and his daughter. This is the daughter, Edmee. She’s given to Bernard by his uncles, the first woman he’s ever had. Bernard is possessed by an instant passion, but can’t bring himself to rape the girl then hand her over to his uncles. Instead, he extracts an as-it-turns out, unfortunately unspecific promise of love, and the two escape to her home, where her father (his great uncle) receives Bernard joyfully. Safe at home, Edmee explains herself more fully: she’s not going to “give herself to him” immediately as payment for her life (which is what he expects), but she will marry him if he becomes educated. To be clear, Edmee is not asking Bernard to read a few books and learn to add; she’s speaking of a moral, social and philosophical education.

What follows his a seven-year courtship during which Bernard discovers, through painful trial and error, what it means to care for and think about others, to take responsibility, to exercise self control. He travels the world, fights in the American Revolution, make real friends, becomes a whole person. This provides Sand with a wealth of opportunities to discourse on the subjects of love and human nature.

There is, she tells us,

reason to believe that we carry within us from our earliest years the seeds of those virtues and vices which are in time made to bear fruit by the action of our environment.

and yet,

A man cannot change the essence of his nature, but he can guide his divers faculties towards a right path; he can almost succeed in turning his faults to account

Her advice, then, is:

Do not believe in any absolute and inevitable fate; and yet acknowledge, in a measure, that we are moulded by instincts, our faculties, the impressions of our infancy, the surroundings of our earliest childhood–in short, by all that outside world which has presided over the development of our soul. Admit that we are not always absolutely free to choose between good and evil, if you would be indulgent towards the guilty…

Bernard credits Edmee and his love for her with the evolution of his character, “from a wolf into a man.” She is not, however, a female pygmalion. Sand is very clear about this. Edmee, we are told, loved Bernard from the instant they met. She would not degrade herself by surrendering to him while he was so unworthy, or endanger herself by placing her person and property in his care while he was so incompetent–but she always loved him. She didn’t carve a statue and then fall in love with it; she fell in love with the block of marble and but refused to compromise her own principles or well being, until eventually it carved itself.

In this way, Sand gives us a three dimensional heroine; a woman who is both passionate and sane (is there anything more rare in gothic fiction?); a woman who is thoughtful and intelligent, but still gets angry; a woman of principal and integrity, who has weaknesses, but doesn’t give in to them.

Channeling her own voice through her characters, Sand asserts,

Men imagine that a woman can have no separate existence of her own, and that she must always be wrapped up in them; and yet the only woman they love deeply is she whose character seems to raise her above the weakness and indolence of her sex…

A spirit of independence, the conception of virtue, a love of duty, all these privileges of lofty souls are essential…in the woman who is to be one’s companion through life; and the more your mistress gives proof of strength and patience, the more you cherish her, in spite of what you may have to suffer.

Sand executes a neat trick in writing this novel from Bernard’s perspective, appropriating the authoritative voice of an elderly wealthy landed nobleman and using it to endorse a controversial message of gender and class equality. This approach also has a tempering effect on the feminist novel format. This is no hopeless, soul sucking Kate Chopin sob-fest. There’s no lonesome Margaret Fuller austerity. No one goes swimming with a pocket full of rocks. The men in this book are universally (with the exception of the Mauprat uncles and few other stray villains) estimable, offered up as examples of the solution, not causes of the problem.

Though not frequently read today, Mauprat has an important role in the literary discusion of education. In it, Sand replies to Rousseau’s Emile (1762) and borrows from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The novel exudes an air of La Belle et Bete (1740). Its easy to  imagine Charlotte Bronte drawing upon Mauprat for Jane Eyre (1847).

Man is born with more or less of passions, with more or less power to satisfy them, with more or less capacity for turning them to a good or bad account in society. But education can and must find a remedy for everything.

(quotes are from the free Kindle version)

Olive Kittridge, Elizabeth Strout

Cover illustration for Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth StroutOlive Kitteridge is easily the most depressing book I’ve read in years…maybe ever. This is the kind of book that sucks your soul away. The volume consists of 13 internlinking vignettes about the residents of a small Maine town, with the title character, Olive Kittridge, appearing in each. In some of sections, Olive is the star of her own story, in others she merely wanders, Where’s Waldo like, through the background.

This is no quaint charmer, however. Olive Kittridge is a book about resignation, disappointment, and loss, leavened with the lightest dusting of dark humor. These are stories of violence, illness, and divorce. There are robberies at gun point, near drownings, hunting accidents, strokes. Multiple characters have lost parents to suicide. A young girl starves herself to death, dying of a heart attack, a symptom of her chronic anorexia. The parents of a murderer become recluses, leaving the house only at night for twenty years. A lonely barroom piano player leaves her married lover. A wife discovers her spouse and childhood sweetheart’s infidelity on the day of his funeral.

More than the dark events, however, what makes this work so incredibly difficult is the overwhelming sense of helpless inertia. Strout shows us a sad, quiet town plagued by senseless, insurmountable pain. There’s no adventure here, and little hope. Only a grim decline, prejudice, gossip, resistance to change, inescapable circumstance, everything that’s worst about small town life, condensed into 250 pages.

Olive herself is eminently sympathetic without being exactly likable. A middle school math teacher, smarter than she needs to be, with a caustic edge capable of delivering dry humor or bitter reproof. Enormously judgmental, sporadically capable of profound intuitive empathy, insatiably hungry for a level of meaningful human interaction she can never attain.

All this isn’t to say Olive Kittridge is a bad book, necessarily. Its intelligent and nuanced, with moments of real beauty. It won a Pulitzer for a reason, after all. Its just very difficult. More difficult, for me, than stereotypically difficult novels, like 1984, The Road or the Bell Jar, because of its sickening, solid realism, untempered by the interest inherent in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, authoritarian dystopian government, or elegant madness. These are real people in circumstances not outside the realm of possibility for any of us.

Not dead, just busy…

Cover illustration for Fair Game by Patricia Briggs…too busy, for many months, to actually finish any non-school book. But not too busy to dork out at the first opportunity. Now I’m back, and, predictably, back with something trashy. Fair Game, the latest installment of Patricia Briggs’ off-shoot series, Alpha and Omega, falls somewhat short of the author’s usual standard–the funny, sexy fantasy for which she is so deservedly known–but it’s still more cleverly orchestrated and better written than the vast majority of the competition, and the ending promises a new and exciting future for the series.

In this installment, werewolves Anna and Charles find themselves partnering with the FBI (and a made-up paranormal governmental agency) to track a serial killer who has been targeting their kind. Their mission and their relationship are hampered by the fact that Charles is secretly haunted by ghosts–but not to worry–they can be dispelled via cell phone. Anna, meanwhile, is concerned because she and Charles haven’t had sex lately. Fortunately, midway through the novel, the couple go ahead and fuck in the woods in front of the FBI and a bunch of other werewolves, so that gets resolved, too. Happy endings all around. And, you know, they catch the killer and all.

Of course, there comes an inevitable moment when Charles has to save Anna. All the passion of their relationship is wound up with the desperate threat of loss. It’s sort of hilarious watching as Briggs tries to balance her deep-seated BDSM fantasies about domination and possessiveness with feminism. It’s not that these things are inherently incompatible. Rather, the author’s own internal tension is palpable in the work. Anna, like all Briggs’ female leads, walks a thin line between resilience and strength, luck and wit; her greatest asset is the fact that she is beloved of someone far more dangerous and far more deeply damaged than herself. It seems with each successive book some of the artifice and some of the craft is stripped away, and readers are brought closer and closer to whatever it is that lies at the core of all Briggs’ stories–perhaps the author herself, perhaps merely a question she asks. Or maybe I’ve just read too many of these things.

Weirdly, this book is packed (no pun intended) with references to popular SciFi–something I don’t recall from previous installments. The characters banter about zombies and Tolkien. It’s all very meta. Perhaps my favorite moment comes when a drunk cop rudely asks Anna whether she and Charles have sex as animals, and what its like. Anna, of course, doesn’t confirm or deny. I can only suppose people must have asked the author about it at comic-con or something, and she decided to taunt us.

Like River Marked before it, this is very much a series-building book, occupied more with getting the characters from one place to another than with telling us anymore about them–but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender

Cover illustration for The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee BenderAs gifted a short story writer as Aimee Bender is, the long form is not her strong suit. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is ploddingly, draggingly, achingly slow–especially considering that the events of the story are actually pretty fantastical.

The narrator, Rose Edelstein, is the eager younger sibling in an ordinary middle class family of four living in Los Angeles–reserved lawyer father, crafty hippie mother, still searching for her place in life, brilliant older brother, cut off from his high school peers and, increasingly, from the world at large. But at the age of nine, Rose begins to experience a strange new phenomenon: when she eats, she can taste the emotions and often even discern the secrets of the person who prepared it. Alienated by her ability, Rose grows up avoiding decisions, depth, relationships. Her brother Joseph, meanwhile, becomes increasingly antisocial, until finally he simply disappears, a development that leaves the family bereft. Rose cannot bring herself to follow a traditional path–leaving home, attending college–but in time she finds some solace in cooking her own food and working in a restaurant and discovers the secret behind her strange ability and her brother’s disappearance.

I see The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake as an inverted Like Water for Chocolate set in a Southern California suburban wasteland, minus all the drama and most of the sex (wasn’t there also a Sarah Michelle Geller movie with this exact same premise?). I don’t want to imply that this book wasn’t good–it was well written, intelligently crafted–but also extremely slow. The plot is so simple in its essentials that it cannot sustain a whole novel. As a short story, it would have been brilliant. As it is, it comes up lacking.

This is exacerbated by a certainly flatness about the main character and narrator, Rose. In the early chapters, nine-year-old Rose is effectively and endearingly animated by childish confidences and concerns, but as she matures the burden of her gift seems to take over her whole personality. Her character is stripped away, leaving a passive observer of a first person narrator, inert and ill-defined. This is a deliberate choice on Bender’s part, and a truth Rose herself discovers when sampling her own food, “I was left with two particularly disturbing first impressions. One was the sickly-sweet nostalgia, in the taste of a tantrum, the longing for an earlier, sweeter time with an aftertaste like cancer-casing sugar substitution. And the second was that factory.” (241) Later, when the taste of the factory continues to show up in her cooking, she concludes, “it must’ve come from the cook.” (242) She has been so dominated by her ability that her emotions have become mechanical, her internal life repressed out of a desire for self-preservation. This is a sensible choice for the character, but a 300 page novel in which we know as much about the main character at the end as at the beginning doesn’t exactly make for a page turner.

The other characters are almost equally elusive. Kind, vague father, smart and efficient, and yet haunted in someway; mother, lost in her own life, waiting for signs and portents, missing her lost son; and George, her brother’s charming best friend and her own lifelong crush, perpetually cheerful, insightful, good, but always receding–college, grad school, married, gone. It’s a story of profound and unavoidable loss–of innocence, of loved ones, of human connection, of hopes for the future. As the title promised, a truly depressing novel.

The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter

Cover image for The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

On the back of The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, an endorsement from Jonathan Lethem compares Aimee Bender to Angela Carter. I had never heard of her, but I loved Bender’s debut collection and I’ve been known to enjoy a Lethem novel or two, so I promptly put The Bloody Chamber on hold at the library. A month or two later, it came.

First of all, I just have to say, this work has nothing in common with Aimee Bender’s aside from a faint leaning toward the fantastical. While Bender’s prose is spare and modern with little ironic flourishes, Carter’s is rich and Baroque. Complex, mythic, layered. Her stories have the heavy overtones of sex and magic inherent in the traditional fairy tale, while Bender’s surreal tales dryly juxtapose elements of the fantastic with the mundane. These dense, lyrical stories are far more comparable to the work of Francesca Lia Block than that of Aimee Bender. However, while the Lethem’s comment proved patently untrue (maybe it allies more closely with her novels? or was recommended by a publicist?), I did greatly enjoy Carter’s collection.

The Bloody Chamber includes ten stories based, with varying degrees of fidelity, on popular fairy tales–Blue Beard (the title story), two takes on Beauty and the Beast, and three versions of Little Red Riding Hood, as well as Puss in Boots, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and, somewhat less well known in the United States, the Erlking. The stories are structurally simple and stylistically lush, dense with repeated images of caged birds, flowers, blood, and beasts.

The tales are mostly set in the years leading up to World War I, in a Europe in which horse-drawn carriages and automobiles mingle on the roads and the contradictory systems of magic and logic agitate on one another’s boarders. The setting is more driven by atmosphere than any afinity for or loyalty to the past. Carter has created a neo-gothic world of secluded mansions and forests primaeval, a close cousin to Du Maurier’s Cornwall. In keeping with the collection’s 1979 publication date, however, the stories have a distinctly second wave feminist sensibility and explore issues of female sexuality and power, examining the limitations and restraints of femininity and offering surprising glimpses of strength and transcendence.

Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney

Cover illustration for Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerneyBright Lights, Big City is, for me, both brutally timely and eerily nostalgic. Nostalgic partly because of it’s old school Vintage cover art, it’s beat up laminated library binding and the check out slip dating from March of 1989, but also because of it’s angsty-cum-tragic tone, the narrator’s early youthful bitterness. It is, for me, all high school. Holding it in my hands, that particular peeling library binding feel, those particular manila colored pages–watermarked, of course–reminds me of being 14, sitting on the hallway carpet in front of the wall heater, reading in the hours between school and dinner, dishes and bed. Timely, because, well–we all know what Bright Lights, Big City is about, right? Failure on all fronts: professional, romantic, artistic, financial.

The novel opens at a Manhattan night club around 2:00 am, where the narrator and his friend, the unstoppable hedonist Tad Allagash, are imbibing and attempting to either score some coke or separate one of the weaker women from the herd. Or both. We will come back to this scene a few different times.

Our hero is in the midst of a brief spiraling downfall punctuated by parties, bars, and mountains of Peruvian flake. On the verge of loosing his job as an entry-level fact checker at a prestigious magazine. In the aftermath of his wife’s desertion. In the realization that, at 24 he has failed to achieve the early promise he felt on his arrival in the city at 22.

Bright Lights, Big City Movie PosterFrom the description so far, this novel may seem to exhibit all the markings of a Bret Easton Ellis nihilism fest, but I don’t mean to give that impression. McInerney’s style and voice is anything but. His work is full of wit and humor. Dry for the most part, but at times almost slapstick, he offers a gently mocking portrait of fading glory of the New York literati, the 1980s nightlife, and a few boyish pranks. It also contains moments of startling honesty and clarity, in which a character grounded in escapism suddenly cuts through the bullshit and delivers an insight for which he seems thoroughly unprepared.

My only real gripe with this book (other than the uncomfortable feeling of resonance) is the ending, which, without offering too big a spoiler, adheres too closely to trends in literary fiction at the time and concludes with an abrupt hopeful up-note which, this reader felt, was not quite justified.

Kicking off the Holiday Season with Patricia Briggs and Deanna Raybourn

Cover illustration for Wolfsbane by Patricia BriggsI started off November with the incredibly fabulous corn-ball extravaganza, Wolfsbane, by Patricia Briggs, the long unpublished squeal to the author’s 1993 flop, Masques (which I, incidentally, adore).

The novel opens with the main character, Aralorn, heading home to her family estate to attend her father’s funeral. Her morose but hot lover, Wolf, joins her at the family castle, and the two soon discover that her father is not in fact dead, but under the influence of a powerful spell that will kill him before long. The book follows Aralorn and Wolf and a small host of friends and family as they work to discover who is responsible for the attack and undo the spell. Their continued romance forms the major subplot of the book, occasionally superseding the mystery, so that it’s almost a toss up whether this is a fantasy-mystery novel with some elements of romance, or a romance novel with some elements of fantasy and mystery. So obviously that was enormously satisfying. (Did I mention my boyfriend has been out of town?)

Deanna Raybourn Julia GreyI followed that one up with the Lady Julia Grey Bundle for Kindle, a compendium of three slightly tongue-in-cheek Gothic mystery romances from Deanna Raybourn (no I don’t think it’s her real name either). Widowed in the first line of the first book, Lady Julia Grey proceeds to solve gruesome murders, ruminate on the depravity of human kind, fight with her prodigious family, and make out with brooding but hot private inquiry agent Nicholas Brisbane. The mysteries pretty much weren’t, but the whole experience was completely enjoyable.

Cover illustration for Dark Road to Darjeeling by Deanna RaybournI’m now about 85% done with the newly released fourth book in the series, The Dark Road to Darjeeling, another winner. I’m guessing selling #4 at full price is the reason they bundled 1-3–and it worked, because I totally bought it. I don’t want to give away the mystery (not that the author hasn’t already done so) but in this one, there is an all black man-eating tiger.

I think a good rule of thumb is this: if the word “bane” appears in either the book title or any character name, the book is going to be

a) really fun, and
b) really embarrassing

When I’m done, I swear I’ll finish Super Sad True Love Story.

A Few Brief Comments on Books I Need to Return to the Library–“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and “Push”

…before they take out a contract and start posting my picture at all the branches.

Cover illustration for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark HaddonMark Haddon’s bestseller, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has been on my to-read list for years. It’s one of those bestsellers that even my writer friends rave about.

There’s defiantly something special about this book. I’ve never read anything quite like it. Hoddon’s severely autistic main character, Christopher narrates with a striking combination of literal observations, misinterpretations, dramatic irony, and involved tangents about maths.

The story begins when Christopher finds the body of his neighbor’s poodle, stabbed with a garden fork in her front yard, but, as in the original “curious incident,” the dog is somewhat incidental, a clue and a catalyst, rather than the heart of the story. The “murder” of the dog inspires Christopher to write a murder mystery about the crime for school, leading to conversations with neighbors, confrontations with his father, and eventually, the uncovering of a much larger truth about his own life, and the people close to him.

The work does have it’s challenging moments. Christopher is a prickly character, at times difficult to like, but his novel and intricate voice keeps readers engaged. His frustrated and overworked parents are similarly difficult to empathize, though the difficulties inherent in raising Christopher do make them a bit more sympathetic. The novel decrescendos in a rather rushed style, wrapping up all the loose ends in a way that makes the author’s hand show a little too clearly.

Overall, however, I found this a fascinating, original novel.

Cover illustration for Push by SapphireI read the beginning of Push for the first time on Amazon’s search inside. Normally, I haven’t got much patience for that particular feature (hate how they skip pages!), but when I discovered Push, I just couldn’t look away. The novel’s famous vernacular narration is exquisite and compelling. Though she is sometimes criticized as a foil, the narrator comes through, clear and whole, as far as I am concerned.

So, why’s it taken me three library renewals and who knows how much in fines to finish it?

This is a bit of a spoiler, but I’m just going to go ahead and say it: it’s after she gets HIV. It was just so horrifically heart breakingly awful. As a reader, you become so sympathetic to this character, and so absorbed in her personality, and then she gets this news and just collapses, and you’re right there with her.

I put it away for a while.

Not that I’m recommending that for anyone else.

Push, by legendary slam poet Sapphire, tells the story of Clarisse Precious Jones, an illiterate and 15-year-old girl living in Harlem with her abusive mother. Pregnant with her second child by her vicious rapist father, Precious is expelled from public school but referred to an alternative school where she meets teacher and mentor Ms. Rain, develops her literacy (and literary) skills, and becomes one in a tight community of young women students.

Kicked out of her mother’s house after the birth of her son, Abdul, Precious finds shelter in a half-way-house near school, and really begins to come into her own.

Then, her mother tells her than her father had died of AIDS, and more questions about Precious’ future arise. Ultimately, the author leaves the conclusion of Precious’ story ambiguous. Having criticized Alice Walker for the fairy tale ending of The Color Purple through the voice of her narrator, Sapphire ends her own tale on a tenuously, precariously hopeful note–but no more.

Anagrams, Lorrie Moore

Cover art for Anagrams by Lorrie MooreThere are more puns in Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams than I have heard in the whole rest of my life combined. During the weeks I spent reading this novel, I became an obsessive word play spotting machine. One of the teachers at work was creating a homophone matching game with index cards. I completely lost control. Be and Bee. Night and Knight. See and Sea. Meet and Meat. Fare and Fair. I actually uttered the explanatory phrase, “Feet like feet, and feat like a ‘feat of daring do.” I may or may not have punched my fist into the air as I said that. Bazaar and Bizarre. I couldn’t stop myself.

Anyway (or, as Lorrie Moore’s main character would say, “anyways….”)

Anagrams tells the story of Benna and Gerard. Sometimes friends, sometimes lovers, their relationship is profound and difficult to pin down. The novel begins with three chapter-length vignettes. In the first, Benna is a night club singer, Gerard her near-beer guzzling, secretly admiring neighbor. Then, Benna is a geriatric aerobics instructor in a troubled relationship with Gerard. Then, they are a separating couple holding a garage sale (Sale and Sail). Through it all, Benna’s best friend Eleanor offers a funny if sometimes slightly disturbing counterpoint–cheating with Gerard, selling an old skirt and neglige at at the garage sale.

Then, abruptly, the short stories give way to a broader more novelistic approach. In all her incarnations, Benna a character terrified of movement, change, relationships, and connections. In this version she’s stalled out somewhere just short of her doctorate, retreating into a fictional life. Benna is a widow, a struggling poetry professor at a less than prestigious junior college who spends her days hanging out with a cheerful semi-alcholic lounge singing Gerard and fantasizing about an imaginary daughter and best friend (Eleanor, again).

In my reading of the work, it’s this longest section that is the true one, or, at least, the most true. Partly, this is simply because it is the longest. Also the most depressing. But more importantly, this is the part of the story that offers some explicit meaningful symbolism,

some clue to what it’s all about.

Midway through this longer, more novelistic section, the main character recounts the story of her separation from her late husband, a few months before his suicide. The couple are brushing their teeth side by side the morning after a big fight. Her husband says, “I never want to see you again,” but she hears “I want to see again” and a confusing and embarrassing discussion ensues. Benna reflects,

“When I was little, I didn’t understand that you could change a few sounds in a name or phrase and have it mean something entirely different…I thought Bing Crosby and Bill Cosby were the same person. That buddy Holly and Billie Holiday were the same person. That Leon Trotsky and Leo Tolstoy were the same person….Meaning, if it existed at all, was unstable and could not survive the slightest reshuffling of letters. One gust of wind and Santa became Satan. A slip of the pen and pears turned into pearls.”

The anagram metaphor, this idea of twisted reality–the same but different–lies at the center of Moore’s story.

While this novel is, like all Moore’s work, clever, poignant, and stylistically excellent, it’s not my favorite. As a reader, I became distracted and occasionally even bored. The concept behind Anagrams is fascinating and the execution is strong, but when you get right down to it, not much happens in this novel. I can only spend so long peering over the shoulder of an profoundly disassociated character as she drags through her days. Even the best writing in the world can only carry something like that for so long.

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, Aimee Bender

Cover art for The Girl in the Flammable SkirtThere’s really nothing bad I can possibly say about The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. I honestly really loved it. Bender strikes a delicate balance between whimsical, eccentric content and constrained, precise prose, juxtaposing magical realist fare against a clear, open voice, threaded with subtle humor.

These short, surreal tales are difficult to summarize, and they probably sound more fantastical in descriptions than they feel when you experience them. A woman watches her lover experience reverse evolution, transitioning from man, to ape, to sea turtle, and beyond; a mermaid and an imp hide out in high school; a girl follows her one night stand down a man hole; an orphaned boy develops a gift for finding lost things; a stolen ruby ring turns the ocean red.

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt reminded me of a lot of things. A darker, starker, and more modern Francesca Lia Block; a more feminine George Saunders; a Melissa Bank who writes of people with giant holes through their abdomens, instead of people with cancer. But that’s not to say it isn’t original–Bender definitely stakes out her own spot on the post modern magical realist chick-lit-leaning continuum.

I’m looking forward to reading more of her stuff.