This Month in Recreational Reading: Deanna Raybourn and Francesca Lia Block

Although I do sometimes make fun Cover illustration for The Dark Enquiry by Deanna Raybournof Deanna Raybourn’s over-the-top Gothic stylings, I freely admit that I snapped up her latest, The Dark Inquiry, the day it was released and finished the thing in about a day and a half.

The mystery portion of the plot is not quite so dark as in previous installments–no elicit sex, no incest or mummy babies–no tigers even. The solution is, however, a bit more difficult to predict, largely because the investigation remains unfocused for much of the book, leaving readers uncertain of what to watch for, and because the author withholds a key piece of information about one of the characters until the heroine’s own moment of realization.

Raybourn has a gift for continuing the romantic storyline even after her hero and heroine have moved past the tortuous and drawn out will-they-won’t-they phase of the relationship–a very rare trait among writers if any genre. Her characters are married and ostensibly living happily ever after–but they still fight. And they fight about real things. Then they make up again, without necessarily resolving the underlying issues–almost like a real relationship. This underlying honest streak counterbalances the more ridiculous aspects of her work to some extent, making for surprisingly touching and serious moments in the midst of what is at heart escapist fiction for English majors.

Cover illustration for Necklace of Kisses by Francesca Lia BlockIs there an arty chick under 40 who doesn’t have a certain soft spot in her heart for Francesca Lia Block–especially the Weetzie Bat books?

The first new addition to the Dangerous Angels series since 1995, Necklace of Kisses picks up with Weetzie at 40. After 20 years together, Weetzie and Max have somehow managed to loose each other in a haze of work and depression. So, Weetzie packs a bag full of her favorite clothes and goes to stay a pink hotel where she meets a spectrum of eccentric artists and struggles to heal and to find herself again.

This follow-up focuses on the relationship between Weetzie and her Secret Agent Lover Man, but readers will be glad to see all their old favorites–Coyote, Dirk and Duck, Ping and Valentine, Raphael and Cherokee, Witch Baby and Angel Juan (my personal favorites), and even the evil Jane Mansfield-style witch Vixanne.

The story isn’t as compelling and original–or as cohesive–as many of Block’s other books. Indeed, echos of Weetzie and Max’s separation in Weetzie Bat (1989), the first book in the series, may give long-time readers a slight feeling of de ja vu. However, there is enough new material here to keep readers interested and engaged, and the conclusion of the novel is, as always, enormously satisfying. It’s a comfort to know that, even twenty years later, love and art still save the day.

Escapist Fiction Swallows June: Cory Doctorow and Emma Bull

Cover illustration for Little Brother by Cory DoctorowIn Little Brother, Cory Doctorow tells the story of Marcus, a 17-year-old San Franciscan computer wiz caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the wake of a terrorist attack on San Francisco’s Bay Bridge, Marcus and his friends are picked up by Homeland Security and imprisoned, interrogated and terrorized for several days. After his release, Marcus sets out to take down the agency, protect the city’s rights of free speech, assembly, and privacy, and save his friend Darryl, missing since their arrest.

Little Brother is the first technophile novel I’ve actually semi-enjoyed (i.e. finished). It’s long-winded and a bit preachy and it seems to draw an inordinate amount of inspiration from Hackers and Season 2 of Jericho. And, like all techie writers, Doctorow spends easily half his word count explaining what things are and how they work, which, for the plot enthusiasts among his readers, isn’t exactly the best use of time and descriptive prowess.

Little Brother is, however, a fast, entertaining read, a great resource for reluctant readers, especially boys, and (within the limited world of YA fiction) it offers a valuable alternative perspective. Still, I’m left wondering–is there anything Neil Gainman won’t endorse these days?

Cover illustration for Bone Dance by Emma BullI’ve loved Emma Bull since I first moved to Berkeley and the fabulous gentleman in The Other Change of Hobbit recommended War for the Oaks, a book I have pressed on pretty much everyone I know who’s likely to enjoy a modern urban fantasy featuring a hot guy who dresses like Prince and long descriptions of the main’s character’s band. So, I’ve been slowly acquiring her books for a few years as they come in and out of print and show up from time to time in the Green Apple annex.

Bone Dance is, like most of Bull’s work, well written and skillfully developed, structurally complex, and completely, fascinatingly bizarre, but (alas!) secondary to her one book that’s actually famous. (Isn’t it usually the opposite?)

Set in a post-apocalyptic, post-climate change version of Minneapolis, Bone Dance is told from the perspective of Sparrow, a genderless media enthusiast and technologist with mysterious origins. Our hero makes a living hawking classic films to wealthy collectors and mixing for a local nightclub. The rest of the time, Sparrow just tries to act normal and keep acquaintances at as much distance as possible. But lately Sparrow has started loosing time–waking up in the middle of nowhere with no memory of the night before, running into strangers who seem to have a bone to pick, and getting truly creepy tarrot readings from the friendly neighborhood Vodou priestess. The whole thing is very mysterious, but it just may have something to do with the Horsemen–psychic warriors capable of possessing, or “riding,” other people (like a horse, get it?).

Bull doesn’t hold her readers’ hands. There’s not a single pronoun relating to Sparrow in the first 3/4 of the novel (this could not have been written in the third person); she throws slang around, names people and places without explaining who or what they are, and expects us to catch on. After a while, we do, becoming acclimated to the unusual linguistic structure and the odd mix of eclectic classic movie quotes, noir references, vodou magic, and body-snatcher-style possession.

Incidentally, this one also features an endorsement from Neil Gainman (yep, he’s a whore…)

This Month in Trashy Books

Cover illustration for River Marked by Patricia Briggs  I found myself seriously in need of some escapist fare this month, so I abandoned all pretense of reading actual literature and instead entertained myself with Patricia Briggs, Michelle Tea, and Deanna Rayborn.

As excited as I was for the March 1 release of River Marked, the 6th installment of Briggs’ uber-popular urban fantasy series staring Mercy Thompson, it took me quite a while to work my way threw this book. The story opens (inexplicably) when our heroine pays a visit to her friend Stephan and finds him doing less-then-well. From there, we move on to Mercy’s wedding to long-time love interest Adam, a planned elopement which turns into a surprise wedding and reception, followed by a sex-filled camping trip/honeymoon. It’s sweet and satisfying, but again, not especially relevant. This may serve the series as a whole, but it makes for a rather rambling and plot-less opening to this installment. The actual story begins about 20% of the way through the book, when couple discover a monster in the Columbia River.

Even though these are the books that have really put Briggs on the map, the series has just become too much for me…especially when I consider that all five volumes have supposedly taken place over the course of just 18 months. This poor character gets beaten and maimed almost to death in every book, not to mention raped and coerced in #4. I mean, how many bad things can happen to one woman in a year and a half?

Cover illustration for Rent Girl by Michelle TeaAs a follow-up to Valencia, I decided to check out Michele Tea’s Rent Girl, a collaborative graphic novel style memoir about the author’s years as a prostitute in Boston and, briefly, San Francisco. I loved the style and aesthetic of this book (even though a bizarre number of the illustrations were just pictures of Tea in various outfits, facing the viewer with this “let me tell you how it is” look on her face).

The prose was stylistically similar to Tea’s other work, but more focused on the topic at hand. The author spends little time discussing her own emotions, thought processes and even her own life outside work and the people she worked with. This book is interesting not because Tea offers compelling characters or a fully developed life story, but because she explains frankly and unabashedly what prostitution is like.

Overall, it was a good read, but not as absorbing as some of her other work.

After devouring the Julia Grey series back in November, I thought I’d check out Deanna Raybourn’s newest offering, The Dead Travel Fast, an atmospheric mystery/romance staring Theodora, an aspiring novelist who travels from Edinburgh to, yes, Transylvania to visit an old school friend. As the guest of her friend’s noble family, she meets all the characters you might expect–the darkly romantic and super hot count, his mistreated and ailing mother, the strangely hostile maid servant, and the friendly local physician–and stumbles into what may (or may not) be a series of supernatural murders.

I can no longer accuse this author of writing predictable mysteries. The conclusion to this one took me completely by surprise. Ann Radcliffe like, Raybourn creates a Gothic horror story, and then, challenges it with the most mundane explanation imaginable (given the circumstances). Personally, I find Julia Grey a more compelling character, but I enjoyed this novel.

New Year, New Whatever: Recent reads from Robin McKinley and April Lindner

Cover illustration for Sunshine by RobinMcKinleyOn the lighter side of the reading scale, I kicked off this month with cult hit Sunshine, from everybody’s favorite feminist fantasy author, Robin McKinley. I read (and adored) McKinley’s 80s classic The Blue Sword, as well as her slightly obsessive multiple re-tellings of Beauty and the Beast, Beauty (1978) and Rose Daughter (1997) while still in high school, so I fully expected to love this book. Meh. It was okay. I’m going to try to sell it to Green Apple.

The story takes place in an alternative modern day America in which the various things that go bump in the night are all real, and the landscape has been ravaged by a recent inter-species war. The action begins when twenty-something baker and title character Sunshine is captured by vampires and offered up as a snack for a vampire prisoner, Constantine (no joke). Luckily her fellow prisoner refuses to eat her. When Sunshine’s latent magical abilities help her to escape, she decides to take Con with her as a sort of thanks-for-not-eating-me gesture. The two form a tight bond, and decide to face their captor together.

Cover illustration for Jane by April LindnerI’m a sucker (no pun) for modernizations of classic literature (“Cruel Intentions,” “Clueless,” how could you go wrong?), so I couldn’t quite resist this one. That, and this Jane goes to my alma mater, Sarah Lawrence (woo!). It’s a fun read, and fully lives of up to the legacy of–well, new movies about old books, more or less.

Minus the Lowood school and TB, the plot is virtually identical to Bronte’s Jane Eyre, right down to the wife in the attic–sure, Mr. Rochester is a middle aged rock star and Jane has an neglectful mother rather than a hateful aunt, but same dif. Despite the parallel plot line, however, author April Linder has managed to strip the story of it’s pathos and urgency, leaving behind only a rather charming romance.

Bronte’s Jane Eyre is an enormously effective Gothic mystery and a compelling romance–but it’s also a novel about self-respect, strength of mind, character, faith, and (though its anachronistic to use the term) feminism. It’s that deeper, richer portion of the novel that gets lost in translation–along with a certain amount of the logic behind the story.

In this modernization the need for secrecy surrounding Mrs. Rochester’s mental illness is unconvincing, nor does it seem that she’s better off locked inside all the time, unable to see or interact with anyone but a drunk maid, than she would be at a high class institution. Likewise, Jane’s struggles in leaving Thornfield loose their significance, and River St. John’s offer lacks force.

Truthfully I’m not sure it’s possible to translate Jane Eyre into a modern-day American context. The stakes in the modern world just aren’t high enough. The major plot points cannot retain their original emotional significance in a culture without either a true aristocracy or a powerful homogeneous faith, where women have more equal rights and opportunities, where premarital sex and divorce are both common, and where insane asylums are no longer glorified prisons. The story might play better set in a society with more rules and a more formalized class structure, like India or Iran. To achieve the emotional effect of Jane Eyre in a modern-day American novel, you’d have to tell a very different story.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan

Cover illustration for A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer EganThis was a great one. Seriously. I enjoyed it more than anything I’ve read in recent months. A Visit from the Goon Squad is funny, sad, creative, endearing. The writing is spectacular–smart and apt, with an absorbing natural flow. The characters are fully fleshed, thoroughly flawed, and extremely winning.

Like most fiction with a claim to the “postmodern” label, A Visit from the Goon Squad is highly structured, with a somewhat nebulous plot. The novel is episodic, and Egan makes use of a variety of literary styles. Although a standard intimate third person past tense dominates, there are segments of present tense and first person, a mock-celebrity magazine article complete with footnotes (a well known staple of postmodern fiction), and even power point presentation. I’m frequently annoyed by these types of devices, but this came off beautifully. I have to agree with Ron Charles when he writes, “If Jennifer Egan is our reward for living through the self-conscious gimmicks and ironic claptrap of postmodernism, then it was all worthwhile.”

A Visit from the Goon Squad follows a series of interconnected characters, all linked (occasionally though several degrees of separation) to record producer Bennie Salazar. The novel opens with Sasha, Bennie’s klepto assistant, in contemporary New York City. It flashes back to Bennie’s youth in the 1970s San Francisco punk rock scene; follows his producer-mentor on a family vacation to Africa; introduces his son, his (sometimes ex)wife, her journalist brother, and her boss, struggling publicist Dolly. We meet troubled actress Kitty Jackson, an assortment of Bennie’s high school friends, an unnamed dictator, and Sasha’s closest friend from college. Characters occasionally surface unexpectedly in the midst of other character’s narratives. The narrative slides smoothly through time and place without fanfare, a series of loosely connected anecdotes gradually building toward a climactic moment some ten or twenty years in the future.

Though the thematic core of the work centers on loss, on the slow chipping away over time, it’s surprisingly not nostalgic (except perhaps as concerns the music industry). Egan exhibits throughout an acute sense of humorous perversity, making the novel light and fast even in it’s more depressing moments.

Egan achieves a rare balance between the completely entertaining and the beautifully executed.

Cover image for Shiver by Maggie StiefvaterShiver, by Maggie Stiefvater is a truly horrendously bad teen paranormal romance. As child, Grace was attacked by the wolves who live in the woods behind her house, but saved just in time by a yellow-eyed wolf. Even years later Grace watches for the yellow-eyed wolf, and it seems that he is watching her, too. But after a local boy is attacked the town turns against their local wolf pack. Anxious for her wolves, Grace interrupts an impromptu hunt on her way home from school and unexpectedly runs into an injured naked guy. When she looks into his yellow eyes, she’s sure he’s her wolf.

Grace and her wolf, Sam, fall instantly and easily in love. Trouble is, these werewolves aren’t subject to the moon; they’re human in summer, animal in winter. And, eventually, they just stay wolves. Equally troubling, the boy everyone thought was dead has actually become a werewolf, and his reckless behavior is threatening to expose them all.

Among the most amusing atrocities in this terrible book are: (1) Sam’s completely awful teenage poetry sprinkled indiscriminately throughout, (2) The absolutely unapologetic sickeningly sentimental relationship between the lovers, and (3) the fact that no one in this small town seems to have noticed the huge group of dudes who all spend the summer together in a giant house right outside town (as someone who grew up in a town about this size, can I just say, this is not the kind of thing that would go unremarked).

Cover image for Linger by Maggie StiefvaterYes, I read the sequel. I know, I know. Someone told me it was better. She told me that after reading Shiver she thought “eh” but then read Linger and couldn’t wait for more.

This installment does include the excellent addition of Cole, an underage man-whore rock star werewolf with a substance problem and a dark past. It’s hard to go wrong with that. Sam’s poetry is if possible even worse, mostly because now he sings it (will he and Cole form a band in #3? one can only hope…) Also, in case the melodrama quotient wasn’t sufficient before, Grace may or may not be dying.

Cover image for Water Witch by Cynthia Felice and Connie WillisThis 1982 classic from Connie Willis and Cynthia Felice tells the story of Deza, the titular Water Witch , depicted in the somewhat terrifying cover illustration. Anastasia like, Deza impersonates a missing princess as part of a con, then realizes that she may actually be a princess after all. Good thing she’s already sleeping with the prince.

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen

Illustrations from Northanger AbbeyThough obviously distracted by the ongoing tax debate (which seems to have become inexplicably focused on the estate tax, rather than the >$250k break point, but whatever) I did manage to finish a novel this weekend: Northanger Abbey, the lost Austen.

Begun in 1798 and finished in 1803, Northanger was one if the first novels Austen completed, as well as her first sale, though it did not appear in print until after her death. She had already written Lady Susan and had started both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, however. It was a particularly unhappy and tumultuous period in the novelists’ life, encompassing her father’s retirement and the family’s subsequent move to Bath, a city she loathed, as well as her over night engagement to Harris Bigg-Wither.

The novel follows 17-year-old Ann Radcliffe enthusiast Catherine Morland on a visit to Bath. Under the guardianship of complacent childless family friends, Catherine visits the pump room and attends public balls, making new acquaintances. She quickly meets and befriends the lovely but manipulative Isabella Thorpe, and it emerges that the two girls older brothers also know each other at Oxford. When the young men pay a visit to Bath a dual brother-sister match seems eminent, or at last intended. Catherine, however, dislikes Mr Thorpe and remains blissfully unaware of his blundering attempts at courtship. She’s much too interested in Mr. Henry Tilney, a clever and handsome young clergyman. Just Catherine’s visit draws to close, she is invited by Henry’s sister to visit the Tilney family at their home, (you guessed it) Northanger Abbey.

Northanger is perhaps the least sympathetic of all Jane Austen’s satires. Though frequently both critical and comedic, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion, all have the benefit of a compelling heroine and at least one honest romance. Catherine, on the other hand, is in many ways a foil–a nice girl, honest and not too bright, but with a healthy imagination where melodrama is concerned. She is Harriet Smith, with a better family and a stronger character. Her romance with Henry Tilney also lacks the weight of the relationships in Austen’s other novels–it’s funny and frequently charming, but, like Catherine herself, not too deep.

The real pleasure of the book comes from Austen’s language, her frequent tangential diatribes on the nature and import of novels, and her many hilarious digs at Ann Radcliffe–who as far as Austen is concerned, seems to have been the Stephenie Meyer of her day (only pro-woman, a better writer, and a different kind of crazy). Indeed, though the older author clearly influenced Austen’s work, Radcliffe jokes were something she could never quite give up–witness the roll The Romance of the Forrest plays in the breech between Harriet and Robert Martin in Emma.

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

Cover illustration for Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo IshiguroWith the movie version of Never Let Me Go releasing last month, I was inspired to race through this book before the movie got nominated for something. Plus, never having read any of Ishiguro’s work (no, not even Remains of the Day), I felt it was a bit overdue. (As is this entry, given that I finished the book over a week ago.)

Never Let Me Go takes takes place in an alternate present (or an alternate late 1990s) with a dystopian bent. The novel is told in a conversational (and very, very English) first person voice from the point of view of Kathe H., a 31 year old about to retire from being a “carer” in order to become a “donor.” Kathe explains that, as she prepares for the next stage of her life, she feels the urge to recall her past with her two dearest friends, Tommy and Ruth, and more than that, to come to some understanding of what it has all meant. She begins her story at Hailsham, the boarding school where she and her friends grew up, on a beautiful but isolated country estate, and follows them through their late teens, living with a group of other students at a rural cottage, and into their adult lives as carers and donors.

The story, though phrased in a way that assumes a certain level of knowledge on the part of the reader, isn’t intended to be mystery. Like the students in the novel, readers know from the beginning that the characters are being carefully groomed to become multiple organ donors. As the children grow up, their knowledge of the specifics increases, and so does their understanding of where they come from, and the what donation will mean. Readers piece together the details of the donation system gradually from bits of information dropped throughout the text. The antiseptic language and Hailsham-specific slang scattered throughout infuses the book with a sense of creepy authenticity.

Throughout the work, Kathy comes across as friendly, matter of fact and honest–but she is not strictly speaking, a trustworthy narrator. Her remarkable evenhanded forthrightness in relating the events of the story, even her own faults and her sex life, is oddly offset by her extreme reserve. As the work progresses, it becomes clear that her own emotions are tightly controlled and deeply suppressed, perhaps as a survival mechanism, perhaps simply as a function of the expectations with which she has been raised. She faces the deaths of her friends, if not with equanimity, than with acceptance. Still, there are aspects of the donor’s fate, particularly what may happen after they “complete” that she cannot face, can barely imply. The emotion and drama of the story, like the precise truth behind the characters lives, is left largely to the reader to uncover.

Never Let Me Go features an unusual narrative structure that is both striking and convincing, though occasionally a little wearing. The story is primarily a sort of continuous flashback, one narrator recalling a series of a events in chronological order. But within those recollections, the plot tends to swirl and eddy, doubling back on itself. Kathy H., like any of us, telling a story to a friend, might start out to relate a specific event, then become sidetracked by some peripheral detail–what a particular teacher was like, which areas at school were and were not considered “in bounds,” etc.–leading to a whole other anecdote. It might be 10 or 15 pages before the narrator brings us back around to the original tale. Ishiguro adds a further layer by including frequent references to subsequent discussions the characters had about the events in question. In this way, each incident is rendered using a rich depth of perspectives, all filtered through the narrator’s current self, creating something manifold and complex and at the same time entirely one-sided. It’s really a great device, although I’ll admit that by about halfway through the book, it had started to drive me a little crazy.

In it’s style, characterization, relationships, and even in the simplicity of many of the events, this novel is compellingly realistic. It’s one of those rare books that inserts one fantastical detail into a world that is otherwise utterly true to life. As so many have pointed out, Ishiguro uses the novel as a venue to raise implicit questions about science and morality; what it means to be human, and what human beings are capable of.

Equally present in the work, but less discussed, is the apparent ease with which Kathy, Ruth and Tommy, and all the students accept their fate as donors. What is it that keeps these characters so grounded, so balanced, so willing? They aren’t restrained in any physical way–compulsion isn’t necessary. I would imagine that these students, released into the world as teenagers, would run as wild as Amish kids on Rumspringa, partying and shooting up and sleeping with outsiders. I’d expect runaways, or, if that were impossible, at least some self-destructive acting out–ODs, high speed car accidents, probably even a couple of deliberate suicides just before the donation processes begins. But none of that happens. In fact, the young people frequently make requests to begin their training early. There is only one context in which any kind of a reprieve is ever discussed, and even that is so modest: not a pardon, just a short stay of execution, a few extra years.

So why is that? I think Ishiguro intends it as a comment upon nature vs nurture, on the ways in which experiences and expectations can limit vision, can hold human beings in mental cages–and yet they still, as much as they are able, look for a way out. They crave the idea that a way out is even possible. It feeds back into the larger issue of amoral science: the author is saying, look, these children have been so thoroughly indoctrinated that they submit willingly to their own systematized execution–but they still love one another, they will still fantasize about the future, they will still try. This acceptance makes sense in context, but I found it consistently troubling, the one aspect of the book I could never quite credit.

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, Heidi Durrow

Cover illustration for The Girl Who Fell from the SkyThe Girl Who Fell from the Sky tells a story of a family tragedy and survival from the points of view of five interconnected characters. Though the story is in fact very simple, the nonlinear time line, limited narrators, and unconventional sentence structure, give The Girl Who Fell from the Sky an odd sense of unreality and mystery–an airy elusiveness that keeps readers guessing, working to put the pieces together.

Set in 1980s Portland, OR, the novel opens innocuously with 10-year-old Rachel moving in with her grandmother. It’s clear that the move is precipitated by some recent family tragedy, but the exact nature of what has happened remains at first obscure. Rachel’s first-person, child’s-eye-view narration is absorbing. Bright and perceptive, she eagerly relates the details that strike her as new and curious–her grandmother’s unfamiliar speech and special lavender lotion, her aunt Loretta’s smooth beauty and “potential lizard,” Drew. More reluctantly, she discusses her sense of cultural alienation as the daughter of an African American serviceman and a Danish woman, living in America (and experiencing American racial tensions) for almost the first time. Rachel feels divided from the white girls at school because of her darker skin, alienated from black girls because of her blue eyes, her over-achiever status, and her prematurely large breasts. She also desperately misses the hybrid Danish-American culture in which she was raised.

“At the AME Zion Church, when we sing holiday songs, beneath my breath I sing the Danish words. The Choir is so loud no one can tell that during “Silent Night” I sing stille and not “still,” hellige and not “holy.” I’m glad I remember these sounds. I have learned a lot of words since I came to Granda’s. Dis, conversate, Jheri curl. There are a lot more. And sometimes I feel those words taking up too much space. I can’t remember how to say cotton in Danish or even the word for loud. What if you can have only so many words in you at once? What happens to the other words?”

Like the best first-person narrators, Rachel tells readers more than she means to, occasionally even more than she herself understands. Gradually, it becomes clear that Rachel’s mother and younger siblings recently died in an “accident”–that the whole family fell from the top of a Chicago apartment building where they had been living for most of one summer, leaving Rachel the only survivor.

Interspersed with Rachel’s narration are third-person sections following Jamie, a young neighbor boy who witnesses the family’s fall, and Laronne, the supervisor at the community college library where Rachel’s mother, Nella, had worked during her short stay in Chicago. As the novel progresses, Laronne finds and reads Nella’s diaries, while Jamie meets and talks to Rachel’s father Roger, creating fourth and fifth narrative strains that also help to fill out the story.

Eleven-year-old “Jamie who was really James,” known later in the story as Brick, is reading a fieldguide on birds in the apartment courtyard when Rachel’s brother plummets to the pavement, followed by her mother and infant sister, and last of all Rachel herself. Obsessed with the incident, Jamie hangs around the memorial erected in the courtyard meeting reporters and other visitors (including Laronne). Quizzed by a reporter, Jamie claims there was a man on the roof before the family fell, sparking questions about what exactly happened–did Nella throw her children off the roof and jump herself, or did some man push them? And who was the man on the roof: Nella’s red-headed boyfriend? Her estranged husband? Or only the crazy old Pigeon Man who raises birds on the roof? Jamie also visits Rachel’s hospital room, where he meets her father Roger and hears the story of Roger and Nella’s first son, killed in a fire before Rachel and her siblings were born. Soon after, afraid of the police and of the Pigeon Man, Jamie leaves the apartment building, living for a time with Laronne before heading West (somewhat inexplicably) to find Rachel and tell her Roger’s story. It takes six years before the two meet in Portland.

The novel is complicated, not only by the mode of storytelling, but by the themes which populate it–race and class, of course, but also alcoholism and addiction. The language of addiction and recovery is prevalent. In their youth, Nella and Roger are both alcoholics. The fire that kills their first son is started when Roger passes out drunk with a cigarette in hand. Nella meets the man she leaves her husband for at a meeting, and the fight that proceeds her death is brought on in part by his drinking and drug use. Roger drinks heavily at Rachel’s hospital bedside, and after the death of aunt Loretta, Rachel’s grandmother also becomes an alcoholic. Loretta’s fiance Drew runs the recovery program at the local Salvation Army. After leaving Chicago, Jamie/Brick becomes an alcoholic and addict as well. It’s through the Salvation Army and Drew that he and Rachel become reacquainted as teenagers. Creepily, young Rachel’s diary parallels that of her dead mother by numbering the entries “Day 1, Day 2, Day 3” AA style, rather than using conventional dates.

Finally, imagery of birds and flight and sky and maps permeates the text, flowing through nearly every section–ornithology, the bird-feeder, Pigeon-Man, the sky metaphors, pilots, bird-boy, the map maker, the maps on Rachel’s body, and of course, the family’s fate–it goes on and on. The effect is striking, artistic, holistic, but also unsubtle.

More importantly, the conclusion is seriously lacking. The climax of the story falls flat, failing to deliver the emotional impact that has been set up, and leaving behind a myriad of loose ends. It’s common in novels that aspire to “post modernism” that stories trail off, that life goes on, as it might in the real world, without the neat bows and morals of classical literature, but this is extreme. In the final chapters, it seems, all the characters but two disappear without explanation. It feels rushed, and it feels false. But it’s worth keeping in mind that Durrow is still a very young writer. Her prose is astounding, her characterization deep and astute, she just hasn’t mastered plot and pacing completely.

Valencia, Michelle Tea

Cover illustration for Valencia, by Michelle TeaMichelle Tea is one of San Francisco’s living literary heroes–if you go to readings in the city, you hear her name all the time as an example of San Francisco’s vital literary scene. I’ve even heard her read a few times over the years without really knowing who she was. Her name carries such weight that, at the recent Litquake Litcrawl event, I found myself explaining the RADAR Reading Series to a friend, saying: they do a lot of alternative-style narrative. And Michelle Tea is really involved in it.

So, I figured it was time to get with the program and actually read something she wrote. For my first foray, I chose Valencia, the second and best known of Tea’s three memoirs. She is also the author, co-author or editor of nine other books in a range of genres including poetry, fiction, collected essays, and one graphic novel, but this book stands out as her signature title–the one that always makes it in the author bio or the introductory speech. In other words, the perfect place to start.

Valencia is a fast-paced if slightly meandering narrative of 20-something Michelle Tea’s substance-fueled adventures in 90s San Francisco. The story follows Michelle through a series of friendships, jobs, drunken hook-ups, and, of course, girlfriends–especially her doomed relationship with socially conscious Southern girl, Iris. Tea’s language is elastic–by turns spartan and poetic–creating a mobile, richly textured narrative with a voice that sucks you in and propels you forward through the story. The author comes through as fearless and eager, blindingly enthusiastic, in love with love and with the city, by turns casual and obsessive, self-absorbed yet self-aware, and always unapologetic. She makes a compelling narrator, and not always a completely sympathetic one.

Tea doesn’t dwell on the inner lives of her characters or on the significance the events that befall them, and that can make Valencia seem shallow. (That, and lines like this: “I could never come up with a good reason not to have a beer, so I completely understood. Plus she looked good with a beer in her hand.” Or this: “But I wondered about being with someone who tried to stop me from drinking coffee.”) The truth is, unlike most memoirs, the trajectory of the author’s life and the emotional weight of events doesn’t seem to be the point of this story. Valencia is, more than anything else, a tribute: to youth, to the particular culture represented by the eclectic cast of characters, and most of all to the city of San Francisco. It’s a world Tea brings to life with clarity and honesty and a certain amount of wistfulness. “But back to when it was thick and glistening and alive. I mean life, never knowing what was going to happen.”

Publisher’s Weekly has described Tea as “a modern-day Beat,” an assignation I find somewhat mystifying. Yes, Michelle Tea, like the Beats, writes about doing drugs, quitting jobs, sleeping with strangers, and meeting people on the bus–but that’s where the similarity ends.

Tea’s core themes center on feminism, class, and sex (or sex work). There were no female Beats. Just women who let the Beats crash in their spare bedrooms or shoot apples off their heads. The Beats were for the most part,1The big exception, of course, is group muse Neil Cassady. disaffected members of the middle class: Alan Ginsberg, Lucien Carr and Jack Kerouac all met at Columbia. William S. Burroughs went to Harvard. They weren’t born into poverty and abuse. They didn’t work as whores (although they paid some).

More importantly, the spirit of the Tea’s work is so fundamentally different from that of the Beat poets. The Beats were in many ways modern-day transcendentalists. The intellectual precursors of the hippies, they believed in the inherent holiness of life’s simplest aspects, and the inherent goodness of humanity’s purest desires. They rejected the mainstream emphasis on material wealth that characterized the post-war years. They looked for beauty in small good things, but also in seedier side of society. More than that, they had confidence that all this mattered in some way larger then themselves.

Tea, like an up-beat Brett Easton Ellis, leaves her readers with the vague impression that none of what happens matters all that much. She has post-modernist, post-hippie, self-analytical sensibilities that prevent her from taking anything (even her own love and pain) too terribly seriously. “Even I was bored with trying to convince her that she was in love with me, or that she should be.” Tea writes, on breaking up with a girl friend. Describing late nights with a group of friends, she recalls, “…everyone’s political consciousness was very fresh and important and we loved to dress them up and trot them around the ring.”

Even during some of the more emotionally charged moments of the story, Tea retains her perspective. On tumbling into the ill-fated relationship that arguably forms the center of the story, she has this to say: “It was that gross. We would just stare at each other…It was very meaningful, we shivered with it… Once, when I was very high on pot, Iris raked her fingers up my back, and I had a vision of the world being born, dry land splitting into rivers. I was out of my mind.” All this grand, dramatic imagery, but also that self-regulating reality check (it was gross, I was out of my mind) that is the trademark of her generation.

So, ultimately, Valencia is a fast, fun read, artfully narrated and dotted with moments of surprising humor. It might not change your life, but it can definitely brighten your day.

 

References   [ + ]

1. The big exception, of course, is group muse Neil Cassady.