Book reviews

All of these book reviews originally ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer. I wrote many, many more reviews than this for the paper over the years, but these are my favorites.

Aimless Love
by Billy Collins (Random House)

“Billy Collins puts the fun back in profundity,” says the poet Alice Fulton playfully, and she’s right. His work is funny, flippant, even rude. But is it profound? Sometimes. Yeah, sometimes it is.

This hefty collection includes work from four books as well as previously unpublished material, and it spans more than ten years. It is not recommended that you try to read it all the way through. Compiled seemingly with a mission to “bury them alive” by editor David Ebershoff, this avalanche of poetry has the regrettable effect of making people who are fond of Billy Collins’ work—and there should be a lot of us, since he was the Poet Laureate of the U.S. twice, and was called “the most popular poet in America” by the New York Times—start to feel a little weary of Billy Collins’ work.

But don’t be discouraged. There’s good stuff here. If you pick out poems based solely on how amusing you find the titles, for instance, you will not be disappointed. “Hangover” and “Pornography” are glum and sensual, gleeful and subversive, just as the names suggest.

The collection’s title, Aimless Love, is a clever thing itself. I carried the book around with me for a few weeks as I read it—again, don’t do that—and often when I saw its cover peeking up from inside my bag, or beside the bed, I’d read it as endless love. Intentional or not, this play on words has an interesting effect. Endless love is something we’ve heard of, an idea we can believe in—something that is, on the face of it, pretty poetic. But aimless love? That’s good! The poem by the same name tells us what it means: In gorgeous, tender language, Collins describes his huge and fickle love for everything in the world, from Florida highways to brown field mice to lavender-scented soap. How like a poet to refuse to settle down.

Generally speaking, though, Collins doesn’t often traffic in the sounds of words, and only sometimes does he play with puns and double meanings. He is best known for creating a sense of wonder in a different way, via charming and unusual observations that often read as much like punch lines as they do lines of poetry. In more than one poem, the title is the gag. One such piece addresses a “large brown, thickly feathered creature / with a distinctive white head” whose name Collins cannot remember, but which he promises to look up in his illustrated guide to North American birds as soon as he gets home, even before he washes the gasoline from the boat from his hands, or hangs the ignition key on its nail, or pours himself a drink—he’s thinking a vodka soda with lemon. The poem is called “Osprey.”

Beyond his sense of humor—mordant and goofy at once (a fine combination if you ask me)—he is a master of small moments, the detritus of the modern everyday. He seems to be telling his entire life story in poems, one after the other, about meals and trips to the pharmacy and the article he just read in an architecture magazine. Reading this collection, you have the image of a journalist with a notebook, jotting down every detail, as in every detail of his life—as the title of that E.L. Doctorow book would have it, Reporting the Universe.

And his ideas can be arresting. In “The First Night,” he muses on life after death and the inadequacy of words and our minds to imagine it. “This is where language will stop, / the horse we have ridden all our lives / rearing up at the edge of a dizzying cliff.” “A Dog on His Master” is a tiny, angry masterpiece from the pet’s perspective that should give every animal lover pause.

But other times his ironies aren’t, really. He writes, “She was turning the pages of an expensive book, / on a coffee table, even though we were drinking tea…” and we can’t help but think the poem would have benefitted from one extra stroke of the red pen.

A reader familiar with Collins’ style may find herself wishing that some of his older work had been included. The haunting “Some Days” from 1998‘s Picnic, Lightning, in which he likens a person’s life to a doll in a dollhouse, stuck at a doll-sized kitchen table—“staring straight ahead with your little plastic face”—seems more like vintage Collins than some of those collected here. It’s a bit tougher, a bit less twee, and—one imagines—the kind of work that put him in the running for Poet Laureate in the first place.

It happens that Collins has a wonderful speaking voice, and he has done interesting projects with it. For the series “Action Poetry,” several of his poems were imagined as beautiful and eerie animated films over which Collins reads his own words. They’re worth watching and if, after viewing them, you find you hear his voice in your head as you read, it won’t be a bad thing. It may lend the poems a certain gravitas and atmosphere you want them to have, but can’t always find.

The Beauty Experiment
by Phoebe Baker Hyde (DaCapo)

At the beginning of The Beauty Experiment, Phoebe Baker Hyde describes a fairly typical modern lady experience. She spends too much money on a dress for a stupid holiday party, looks and feels bad in it, and is left feeling disgusted by the amount of work she’s expected to do to herself just to look acceptable, especially since she feels inadequate all the time anyway. We’ve all been there, but most people don’t take that pain and anger and make something from it. It’s always interesting to see what happens when someone does.

Hyde is a white American woman living in Hong Kong with her Chinese-American husband and their new baby. As it turns out, her frustration wasn’t just about the bad dress. She was angry with her husband for playing the important businessman while she spent most of her time alone with a baby, trying during naptime to write a novel. Furthermore, it had dawned on her that things like under-eye concealer served to, well, conceal the truth about her mental and physical health, which took a beating after the birth of her daughter. She wanted to be her authentic self, to live a life that felt more fulfilling and less frustrating.

So she dropped out. For one year she would use shampoo, deodorant, soap, a toothbrush and a hairbrush—the most basic tools for social appropriateness—but no makeup of any kind, no jewelry, no hair styling equipment, and no depilatory for the removal of body hair. In a less systematic way she also scaled back on her clothing options and, in a frenzy that might have seemed less crazy if it had been rendered in blank verse and included in the Ariel sequence, covered every mirrored wall in their fancy apartment with wrapping paper.

In addition to reporting on her personal experiment, the author conducted an informal survey of around 450 women on their sense of obligation toward maintaining appearances. The resulting book is by turns insightful, troubling, and really rather useful.

So what did Hyde learn? To a certain extent she saw that, by bending the rules of social behavior in her group, she cast herself outside of it. Without chit-chat about shopping and spa treatments, she soon found she had little to say to her fellow striving expats. Worse, there was one impeccable woman who shunned her for seemingly no reason other than Hyde’s unfussed-over appearance, her outgrown Sun-In streaks and hairy legs.

(Then again, rebellion has its own pleasures. “I’d never guessed that skipping the mascara could be so subversive, but it felt the tiniest bit like lying down in front of a tank and singing ‘Kumbaya.’” p 113)

The Beauty Experiment is about femaleness, of course, but it’s also about some of the places where gender overlaps with race, class, culture, and circumstance. Part of Hyde’s problem is cultural dislocation: As a broad-boned white person attempting to buy clothing in Hong Kong she can’t find much that fits, let alone flatters her, and her sense of herself as appropriately “feminine” is constantly challenged.

She also begins to map her pettier personal problems onto the more troubled female realities she sees around her. In the space between the modern high rise she lives in with her family and the auto body repair shop next door, she encounters a homeless woman living in a little structure made out of cardboard boxes, plastic bags, and tire retreads. This woman, dubbed Blue-Flower Shirt, wears the same clothes every single day. Taking note, Hyde hatches a plan to use the money she’ll save on beauty treatments (or beauty “work,” as she sometimes calls it) on charitable giving instead.

Hyde is an engaging, bright writer with a good sense of humor and a novelist’s gift for depicting social nuances with precision and wit. On the day of a pish-posh house party the aforementioned mean lady opened her door to Hyde and feigned delight, “her eyebrows trying to climb her face in dismay, but being held down by hostessing willpower.” Hyde’s reaction? “Half-moons burned under my eyes where concealer should have been.”

Her observations are keen, becoming only more insightful as her experiment deepens. For instance, it’s only after several months of staying away from clothing stores that she can identify the “mania” at the heart of the shopping-as-entertainment ritual.

But as deft as she can be, some of her descriptions of herself are so harsh it isn’t enlightening or even cathartic to read them, just painful. At the beach, comparing herself unhappily to a young teenage girl playing volleyball with her family, she describes herself as “…less a fertile woman in a bikini than a human coat rack with an assortment of damp towels, discarded sand toys, and an ‘I’m busy’ sign hanging off me.” Then again, it may hurt to read this because it’s so near the bone; ultimately, Hyde’s true project is documenting an inner voice of shame, self-criticism, and cruelty, the same one that lives inside the mind of every woman you know.

At the outset of her experiment Hyde seems unaware of the full extent of the pain she’s in, and how like self-abnegation that experiment is. In one memorable early scene she goes to a unisex Hong Kong salon called Squiffy with the stated purpose of getting a “man-cut” that would require no upkeep, but more likely because she secretly wanted to make herself look ugly to herself: At home later, she “savagely” cuts off the sideburns the hairdresser had left with a pair of nail scissors, nicking her ear. Unexpressed pain and rage keeps seeping through her prose, making her suffering seem impotent, and the reader worries that she won’t gain anything from her experiment but more hurt.

But that’s just in the first half of the book. As if working through the stages of grief, Hyde grapples with the loss of her public identity. She gets deep, even turning the chastisements of her inner voice into Zen koans, and has an honest-to-goodness spiritual moment by a little manmade pond, a glimpse of the sublime.

By peeling back the outer layer of her ambition and competitiveness (e.g., her longing for a beautiful, expensive handbag) she gets a closer look at her real desires and goals. In this way the lesson this book has to teach us poor, manipulated citizens of consumer capitalism is a genderless one, though a male version — an experiment in casting off the outer layers of learned “masculinity” — would be just as useful and no doubt equally fascinating.

By the book’s end Hyde earns a truer understanding of beauty, the most obvious result of an experiment like this. But she also finds peace by rejiggering her own priorities, and learns to appreciate ritual and myth and their functions in the larger social sphere we’re all a part of, whether we like it or not. It’s a fine transformation to watch. You could even call it beautiful.

Beyond Magenta
by Susan Kuklin (Candlewick) 

When photographer Susan Kuklin first began work on Beyond Magenta, she intended to make a photo book about sex and alienation. What she ended up with was much more fine-tuned. In a warm and down-to-earth manner, Kuklin has profiled six teens and young adults who are transgender or intersex. The resulting book—published by Candlewick, which routinely produces thoughtful, lovely titles for young readers—is colorful and appealing. But with its glossary, interview with a doctor from a primary care clinic for teens, and lists of resources, it can be taken seriously as a useful guide for young people who are questioning their gender identities.

The subjects—by turns candid, confident, emotional and self-aware—share their childhood memories down to the most chit-chatty details. Their transition stories are about bodies, hormones and surgery, but they are also about clothing and haircuts and Barbies, family and friends and foster care. Each piece is rendered in the teen’s voice, with only small asides from Kuklin to fill in a detail here or there. This may in fact be the book’s strongest feature: The pieces read less like interviews and more like blog entries, as though they were made by the teens themselves and not shaped by an outsider’s agenda.

In an illuminating epilogue, Kuklin, who is not transgender, writes that she used to have a fairly rigid notion of what the word means. What she found instead—and what is represented in the book—is a wide range of gender identities, including genderqueer folks who don’t consider themselves to be male or female, but both, or neither. She made her book diverse in other ways as well, by talking with subjects from a range of racial and class backgrounds. In this way, trans kids should find stories they can connect to, and non-trans readers stand to have their minds opened a little—or a lot. As gender-fluid Cameron, who is neither a boy nor a girl, explains, “Gender does not have endpoints: It’s three-dimensional. Males float around somewhere, females float around somewhere else, and some people just don’t float at all—they swim.”

Black Comix: African American Independent Comics, Art and Culture
by Damian Duffy, John Jennings, and Keith Knight (Mark Batty Publisher)

In his brief introduction to Black Comix, Keith Knight points out—hilariously—that cats tend to get better representation in the newspaper’s funny pages than black people do. This big, lush anthology, full of an impressive array of work by some 50 African-American comics artists, seeks to remedy that.

The other identifier in the book’s title is “independent,” defined beautifully by editor Damian Duffy as encompassing any number of things — all things, really, from creation to publishing, distribution, and promotion. “No small word, ‘independent,’” he writes.

And it’s true, the diversity of the work in this collection is impressive, even surprising. Each artist is given at least two pages to showcase his or her work. Several get more play than that, like Dawud Anyabwile, whose bombastic, colorful, graffiti-influenced characters blast across several pages. Anyabwile also gives an interview about his smart-superhero comic Brotherman and the company he started with his brothers, Big City Comics. His DIY story is inspiring enough to spur any budding artist into action.

But turn the page and you’ve got quiet, black-and-white line drawings and funny-papers one-liners by Lana Andrade, “a cartoonist that paints.” Then there’s Jerry Craft, one of the nation’s few syndicated African-American cartoonists, whose strip Mama’s Boyz does domestic humor and black issues in a warm, sweet manner. In fact many of the artists represented in these pages are high-profile, working for the major comics publishers or other huge media outlets, but, writes Duffy, the thing they have in common is an ongoing devotion to their own work.

There are as many real-looking people in this book as there are muscle- and cleavage-popping heros, and comics industry veterans sit alongside up-and-comers. (Be sure to check out twentysomething Leilani Hickerson, author of the lush, manga-inspired My Hafu.) Don’t forget the really wild stuff that can flourish in the comix underground, like Left-Handed Sophie, a ‘70s-looking albino voodoo queen, drawn by Phonzie Davis with true indie humor and style. Other standouts include Frances Liddell’s Grey No 1, whose beautiful, muted pieces look like storyboards for an epic movie, and Kenjji Marshall’s seriously bad-ass “WitchDoctor” and “Itako” drawings.

The anthology is broken into sections, ranging from hip-hop’s influence on the art to the so-called Black Age of comics, a term coined by Turtel Onli to refer to a distinct black movement happening in the industry. Several short interviews touch on the formation of ONYXCON, a fan convention dedicated to black comics, the Museum of Black Superheroes website, and other mind-opening resources. Cheers to Duffy and Jennings for making this comprehensive encyclopedia/anthology/celebration – it’s as fun and lively as it is important.

Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe
by Tara Murtha (Bloomsbury Academic)

The book series 33 1/3 is, as you might guess, about music. Each small book—they’re usually around 100 pages long—looks at a important albums from pop, rock, or rap history. The clever name, and the charming design of the books themselves, make the project tremendously appealing. But the series has been disappointingly uneven since publisher Continuum launched it in 2003; some titles are serious studies, but others, chockablock with typos and seeming incomplete—not so much.

Now published under the umbrella of Bloomsbury Academic, the series may have more to recommend it. This title, which looks at Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 album Ode to Billie Joe, certainly has real gravitas. That’s thanks to author Tara Murtha’s exhaustive research into one of pop music’s great mysteries: Whatever happened to Bobbie Gentry?

A melodramatic “Southern gothic,” the titular song from Gentry’s first album tells the story of a boy who jumped to his death off the Tallahatchie Bridge, for reasons unknown. Written and performed by a previously unknown gal from Chickasaw County, Mississippi, the song became a number-one hit that defied easy classification.

At the time, listeners speculated about what caused Billie Joe to do what he did. But the mystery that Murtha is concerned with has to do with the song’s author, who pulled one of show biz’s greatest disappearing acts. After writing, recording, and touring tirelessly for about a decade, Gentry slid out of public view without so much as a goodbye, and no one really knows why. She hasn’t given an interview in years.

She didn’t grant Murtha an interview, either—just a very gracious “no thank you.” But Murtha, a reporter from Philadelphia who consistently turns out tough, insightful articles that are often staunchly feminist, seems a good candidate for cracking the case. She digs up rare performance footage and interviews everyone from step-brothers to session musicians, soon discovering that a more apt question is, not where, but who is Bobbie Gentry?

She was a multifaceted performer who danced the hula on Southern California’s “tiki circuit” and, in the seventies, designed elaborate Vegas stage shows in which she performed wearing jeans studded with real Tiffany diamonds. Though she was often insulted by sexist reporters, Gentry was a savvy business person who made pots of money and never bothered concealing her ambition. And despite the fact that her act traded heavily on the image of her as a simple country girl, her work was taken seriously from the start: The handwritten lyrics to her famous ode are now archived at the University of Mississippi, “alongside works by Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner.”

Murtha pulls free the threads of truth from a tangled knot of personal mythology and contradictions. Her book is likely to be a hit with casual listeners and pop-culture obsessives alike.

Boredom: A Lively History
by Peter Toohey (Yale University Press)

One summer I worked for a temp agency, and they sent me on a retail assignment at a chichi home design shop. Starkly white and mostly empty, it looked like an art gallery and got about as much foot traffic. Technically I was a sales clerk, but they were using me mainly as a deterrent to robbers, so they didn’t train me to do much. For the most part I just stood there, all day long. I could look out the plate glass window onto the street but that only made me feel more cut off from a world where people did things. My boredom in this job was so total it felt almost holy, and for a long time afterward my joke was that if I were ever to find out I only had a week to live I’d spend it there, where every minute felt like an eternity.

We all have things to say about boredom, though like my story, they’re most often complaints. In his engaging meditation on the subject, University of Calgary professor Peter Toohey looks at boredom from a number of perspectives: philosophical, biological, and historical. He sets out to prove that, as unpleasant as it feels, boredom might be useful. But first he has to define what it is.

What do we mean when we say we’re bored? Different things, says Toohey, since the feeling is related to, and sometimes confused with, melancholy or loneliness. In trying to show us boredom he discusses paintings such as Melancholia by Lucas Cranach the Elder and Women Ironing by Degas. He describes Madame Bovary who, in her antsiness, took lovers and later her own life. Eventually he defines the emotion as “the first cousin of disgust,” which sounds about right. When we’re bored we’re not merely sleepy or distracted; we check out mentally to ignore a situation we can’t stand anymore.

The difficulty he finds in defining the emotion has to do with the fact that there are really two kinds, he says: “simple” boredom — the kind we feel doing repetitive jobs or listening to selfish conversationalists — and the loftier “existential” boredom, a supposedly more complicated state experienced by depressive intellectual types. Much has been written about that second, more impressive-sounding kind, Toohey admits, but he isn’t that interested in it anyway: he thinks it doesn’t exist. Or rather that it’s mostly a formulation, something found more often in art than in life, since adults don’t like to admit to feeling something as childish as boredom. The simple kind is the one that matters, he says. It’s universal and essential to survival, letting us know we’re in a situation that won’t do us any good.

Fairly short and rather sweet, Toohey’s book is reminiscent of the Oxford University Press Seven Deadly Sins series, for which different writers ruminated on lust, greed and company as they appear in history, art, and personal experience. Like some of those writers, Toohey has a light touch and a waggish sense of humor; in his short introduction he confesses to having been bored “for very large tracts of my life.”

Since he spends so much of the book dissecting boredom as it appears in art and literature, it’s too bad it came out before the posthumous publication of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. He might have mentioned Wallace’s treatment of the subject, as seen in this passage:

“Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there… surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets’ checkouts, airport gates, SUVs’ backseats. Walkman, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.”

So beautifully put. But what would Toohey make of it? He might say Wallace was describing depression, not boredom (the two, of course, sometimes coalesce). One of the most interesting ideas in his book is Toohey’s suggestion that boredom, which like isolation and nostalgia is often assumed to be a modern problem, has probably been around a long time. He describes the acedia suffered by early Christian monks who prayed in the confinement of their desert cells, the “noonday demon” that some of them wrote about in detail. It gave them, among other miserable feelings, the distorted sensation that time was slowing to a halt.

Ultimately Toohey seems to give the most weight to boredom’s biological basis. In his final chapter he looks at the science of the brain, and what could be the driest part of the book is actually the most pleasing to read. (By comparison some of his detailed descriptions of paintings are a bit, erm, dull, possibly because some of them seem like a stretch. Maybe the cactus lover in Der Kaktusliebhaber is enjoying looking at his plants. He doesn’t look all that unhappy to me.)

Here’s what Toohey found — that physical exercise and social interaction encourage a neural plasicity that’s necessary for healthy brain functioning. Furthermore, boredom might be closely related to disgust not just psychologically but anatomically. Both feelings are processed in the insular cortex, and both, he believes, serve the purpose of warning us away from things that are bad. Disgust at a foul odor keeps us from eating something that could make us sick. Disgust at a deadly cocktail party keeps us from circumstances that are bad for our brains, or at least our spirits.

It’s an interesting thought, in a sense the inverse of Wallace’s idea. Whichever way you choose to see it, Toohey’s investigation is thorough, and he wisely keeps his pondering brief. No one could accuse him of being a bore.

Bound
by Antonya Nelson (Bloomsbury USA)

There are novels that feel —interminably, at times — like novelists wrote them, and there are novels that — because of their economy of language, lyricism, and vivid imagery — feel more like short stories at heart. And sometimes those ones are better.

In this slender novel, Antonya Nelson’s fourth (she’s published six collections of short fiction), the writer looks at family and relationships, memory and loss — ordinary, everyday concerns. But there’s a serial killer on the loose, and his reality creates a constant background hum, a kind of white noise behind her characters’ lives. The BTK Killer of Wichita, Kansas (bind, torture, kill was his m.o.) who was at large in the ’70s has returned after a quiet thirty years, baiting the press with clues to new killings.

For a story with such grisly underpinnings this one is surprisingly free of any feeling malice or even eeriness. That seems to not be what Nelson was going for at all, which is an interesting choice. It’s as if she’s reminding us: This is the stuff of life, too. Sometimes awful things happen, yes, but when they don’t happen to us they can end up seeming like not much more than the scenery of our own lives — they create meaning and cause change, for sure, but probably in some way we’ll never really know.

So instead of telling us much about this high-profile violence Nelson has crafted a story within that story, a personal one, its tragedies exploding on a much smaller scale. First we meet Misty, the recovered alcoholic whose daughter has just moved east for boarding school and left her restlessly alone; Misty’s accidental death opens the novel. When Cattie is told that her one parent, her only family, has died, she doesn’t want to attend the school anymore but she can’t go home to Houston yet, either, so she hides out in the cluttered home of her one school friend’s stepsister. She has the spare bedroom and Randall, a spooked, post-traumatic soldier, has the attic.

We readers go back and forth between this odd little household to the brisker lives of Catherine, Misty’s best friend from high school, and Catherine’s much older, successful husband in Wichita. She doesn’t know that Misty ever had a baby, let alone that she named the girl after her, but she’s about to find out.

Meanwhile, the murderer is back in the news, leaving notes and possessions he claims belonged to women he killed. Catherine remembers how, weirdly, she and her friend weren’t very scared of him when they were in high school and he killed a family in Misty’s hardscrabble neighborhood. No one seems especially upset about the guy now, either, just fascinated by the spectacle as it unfolds on TV.

This novel — which is good, easy company from the first word — feels like a short story in all the best ways: Its language is economical and poetic, its metaphor apt. (Nelson shows us a tombstone that has the “name and birth date engraved with an empty space beside it, waiting like a blank on a quiz to be filled in.”) It also sort of feels like a good country western song, warm and sad, easy-going, clever. Bound, like much of Nelson’s other work, is a story that is not merely set in but is of the American West and Midwest. Even Cattie’s brief time in New England is seen through the eyes of someone used to looking at the wide open spaces of her Texas home.

Cattie’s mother, who we get to know through the girl’s memories, was tough, unpretty and mostly unlucky; her father was absent, her other relatives in and out of jail. In an effort to pull herself out of her difficult background Misty became a real estate agent and kept a house that was “appointed as if adhering to the designs of dollhouses: living room with a fireplace, dining room with a long empty table and candlesticks…” What a perfect way to describe the way a person might make a safe life for herself without having been given any real idea how to do that.

Nelson also gives her characters some weird backstories, little details that feel all the more real because they’re so unlikely. Like: When Catherine and Misty were up-to-no-good teenagers they dated a couple of older guys they met by overhearing their conversation while they talked on the phone. The wires had crossed in such a way that they could hear the guys’ faint voices “haunting their call like a poltergeist.” It’s a skilled writer who can tell a story like that and know that it will feel like something that could really happen and not like something she dreamed up.

Then, of course, there is the book’s beautiful language, beginning with the poetry of the title. This isn’t a crime novel, and Nelson never introduces us to the killer’s victims or their families. The kind of bound she’s interested in has more to do with relationships, including old ones, and the way they can reach out for you from the darkness of the past even after you’ve stopped thinking about them. But the people of this novel are bound to that larger tragedy too, of course, tied to the place where the violence occurred. Hearing on the radio about the murderer’s return, Misty felt “a prickling pride in being from the city where he’d killed people, the curious emotion of by-proxy notoriety.” In her quietly smart way, Nelson shows us that even a disturbing relationship like this one is just one example of the way we’re all bound to each other — and who can say where those connections will lead?

The Burning Air
by Erin Kelly (Pamela Dorman Books)

The Poison Tree and The Dark Rose, Erin Kelly’s first two novels, were engrossing thrillers with wonderful plot twists and loose ends that didn’t get tied until the very last page. Set partially in the ‘90s, both novels are romantic and gothic, with crumbling London mansions and pouty heroines who go around smoking clove cigarettes and studying medieval tapestry. Their thick, heady atmosphere—which is less cheesy and more self-aware than this review is making it sound— accounts for at least 50 percent of their appeal.

The backdrop to The Burning Air is, for this reader anyway, less attractive, and this starts the novel off on weaker footing. Though Kelly sets us up with a teaser — the beginnings of a confession made years after the secret deed was done — the first quarter of the book isn’t very thrilling at all, just a limply literary depiction of some vaguely unlikable people on vacation.

The story opens as the happy, privileged extended family of the MacBrides begin to gather at their country home to observe Guy Fawkes Day, a traditional English weekend of bonfires and parties. Close-knit and chummy, they do this every year. But this year’s holiday is marred by the recent death of the family matriarch, Lydia, who as a court judge and wife of the headmaster of a prestigious private school, was a pillar of the community. She and her husband Rowan raised their children Sophie, Tara, and Felix in a beautiful home and with every advantage, including enrollment at the school.

Rowan, unhinged by grief, gets stinking drunk on the night the others get there, which is so unusual of him as to shock his grown children. Throughout the evening the siblings arrive with their own children and partners, one of whom is an outsider to their little tribe. Felix’s new girlfriend, with her pale skin and shining black hair, is beautiful — seemingly far out of his league — but weirdly silent. The stranger in their midst lends the get-together, already haunted by Lydia’s absence, a vague feeling of unease.

This being a thriller, we’re not meant to be surprised when, during the general chaos of Bonfire Night, everything goes terribly wrong. What is surprising is how the incident fails to grab us by the lapels. There’s something sort of unappetizing about the MacBrides — they come across as uptight and uninteresting— but their flaws aren’t so extreme as to make them seem dastardly. It’s hard to tell how Kelly wants us to view them.

What a treat it is, then, when she dips back in time by 15 years to tell us a new story. This one, about a strange, deprived child whose life intersects unhappily with the MacBrides’, is creepy and suspenseful—deliciously engaging—and ultimately delivers the novel’s most stunning surprise. As she proved twice before, Kelly is a mystery writer of great skill, and she’s in full command of her talents here. You just need to trust that she knows where she’s going.

There’s a challenge in talking about a story like this one, whose components fit together like the pieces of a puzzle box. It’s impossible to describe it in much detail without giving away something central to the suspense, surprise and pleasure the book was made to deliver. But it won’t interfere with anyone’s enjoyment of the novel to reveal that it addresses a few social ideas of some substance, underneath the thrills that make it a thriller. In this novel, Kelly has taken on the thorny issue of social class, and the way good “fortune,” when it comes to wealth and opportunity, is rarely about luck. These are ideas that seem to be of perennial interest and relevance to British readers, with their history of codified social roles, but they apply to American society too, if only we Americans could admit it.

Fictional stories scare us because they contain a kernel of truth; however fantastic they may become, they must play on real fears or they won’t succeed. Creeping, unspoken anxieties, like the kind that might be felt by people who suspect they don’t deserve their privilege, and guilty secrets — those skeletons rattling loudly in the closet —work best of all. Kelly has brought all these elements together to create an unsettling atmosphere that’s almost Shakespearean in its combination of divided loyalties, confused identities, and fatal flaws. If by the novel’s end you still aren’t sure which characters deserve your sympathy, she has succeeded in both giving you a thrill and making you think. It’s a pleasure to be able to say that she’s produced another winning novel—and to look forward to her next one.

Calling Dr. Laura: A Graphic Memoir
by Nicole J. Georges (Mariner Books)

I once wrote to Nicole Georges for advice.

I was already a fan of her work, the sweet, meticulously detailed drawings, so often of herself and her friends in their nouveau-hippie Portland, Oregon paradise. Furthermore, I consider us to be part of the same community, the worldwide collection of DIY artists and writers who self-publish their work in zines and mini-comics. So when she launched an advice column on her blog, I felt brave enough to write and ask her how she thought I should handle strangers who gave me attitude (this being the more punk-rock Philly). Nicole gave me good advice. In a nutshell, she told me to forget ’em.

In Calling Dr. Laura, her self-aware memoir-in-comics, Georges is the one in need of advice. Though she has always been told that her biological father died when she was a baby, her mother acts cagey on the subject. So when a friend treats Nicole to a visit to a psychic and the woman tells her that her father is “very much alive,” she finds she kind of believes it.

Throughout much of the book Nicole feels too afraid to broach the topic with her mother, who gets emotional and leaves the room whenever it’s brought up. She turns instead to the unlikely (and gosh, awfully nasty) radio advice lady, “Dr.” Laura Schlessinger, and asks her whether she should try to track down her dad. Dr. Laura told Nicole to forget about her problem, too, only she said it in a mean way and made Nicole cry.

This is Georges’ first full-length book, not including two anthologies of her long-running zine, Invincible Summer. She makes her debut as a developed and skilled storyteller. Calling Dr. Laura juxtaposes the story of her childhood, which was fraught with anxiety and related health problems as her mother dated unlikable men and married an abusive one, with the stories of her own present-day love life and her drive to understand her history in order to move past it.

The book has incredible visual charm as well. The drawings are detailed and loving, each panel like a tiny postcard from Nicole’s life: Here she is hugging her pet chickens, here she is sitting on her hardwood floor and talking on her corded phone. Georges is one of those artists whose life seems indistinguishable from her work, and not only because that work is autobiographical; it’s more like the whole thing is a performance that we’ve invited to watch, and her permanent bouffant and cat eye glasses are her costume. It’s fun to watch her tool around town on her bike and play music in the band she formed with her girlfriend Radar, who she met at the bar where she works as a karaoke D.J.

Indeed, getting to know Nicole means getting to know her community of fellow queer, punk artists, which comes across as vibrant and supportive. This makes it all the weirder that she was drawn to Dr. Laura, who has railed against feminism and attacked gay people for being gay, but this kind of surprise is central to what’s irresistible about Georges’ work. Her honesty feels ego-less, and in revealing things like her guilty-pleasure radio habit she lets us know her intimately.

Romantic troubles are the other struggle depicted in this story. Nicole would like to be able to talk to her mother about her problems with Radar, who can act volatile and distant (and cagey), but her gayness feels like an off-limits topic, too. Instead she goes home for Christmas with a smile plastered on her face, and refers to Radar as her friend and roommate.

Eventually, happily, she looks this problem in the face, too. Psychoanalyzing memoirists seems tacky, but I can’t help but find it interesting—and heartening—that a family that functions by keeping secrets could produce someone as invested in honesty as this young artist. She’s not only telling the truth, she’s telling the whole world.

People who already admire Georges’ work will be pleased to see she has a full-length book; that the book is so well-realized is an even greater pleasure, and should help it transcend her indie fandom and reach a wider audience. If you want my advice, you should read it.

Cha-Ching!
by Ali Liebegott (City Lights/Sister Spit)

When we first meet Theo she’s about to leave San Francisco for New York, where her life will be totally different. In New York, in a sweet apartment with wood floors, she will not drink or smoke. She’ll water the geraniums on her fire escape and stop waking up with weird bruises from half-remembered bar accidents the night before. Any sensible reader will fall right in love with Theo and her doomy hopefulness, tumbling down into the immediacy and warmth of her narration.

But Theo’s cross-country road trip, which she makes with her best friend the pit bull Cary Grant, throws a stumbling block in her path. Needing a shower and a good night’s sleep, she gets a room at a little motel beside a dog track and casino. After tossing and turning she leaves her bed and walks into the casino like a zombie in a B movie, proceeding to lose several hundred dollars on slot machines and games of roulette in the middle of the night. It’s only then that we learn that Theo has a problem besides the drinking, and the reader gets caught up in the tense moment, worrying Theo will never make it to New York but live out the rest of her life in this terrible motel room instead.

But she does get there, fighting her demons mightily in order to start a life. The character is about to turn 30 but her life is so unsettled that much of the novel feels like a coming-of-age story, classic and lovely. “Now that Theo had an apartment she needed to get a job so she could pay Sammy back. She’d always had a job. A job made her feel grounded, even if she hated it. Maybe it was the hatred that grounded her. She also needed a library card, a haircut and a new pair of shoes. With these she felt she could survive anything.”

In the face of its difficult subject matter, much of the novel is like this— earnest and innocent, hopeful and, maybe more than anything, funny. A lesbian whose gender presentation confuses people, Theo narrates her sometimes awkward existence in the world as if she’s a creature that has just been spotted by a nature docmentarian. “The timid sirma’amsir can be seen here hiding in the thick foliage, drinking Coca-Cola and chain-smoking.”

Cha-Ching! is Liebegott’s third book, and her writing, which has had flashes of brilliance all along, has gotten stronger and more fully developed. There is something about her perspective that makes her descriptions of things utterly unique. The depressed protagonist of her first novel, The Ihop Papers (who we understand as a stand-in for Liebegott in the same way that Cha-Ching! feels largely autobiographical) describes trying to dig up a scoop of the restaurant’s desiccated ice cream as being like “trying to scoop a sundae from a headstone.” In Cha-Ching!, Theo works as a cashier at the Party Store and a janitor at a “junk-mail factory.” Liebegott is a connoisseur of crummy jobs.

But more than anything, Cha-Ching! is about addiction, and Liebegott makes sure we understand just how out of control it feels to start drinking or gambling again after you said you’d quit. When Theo’s life is rolling along, steady and sober, the reading is easy. But when she first strolls into the dog track casino, or a few months later when she walks a little too casually into an Off Track Betting parlor, the novel’s atmosphere turns thick and tense. Some of Liebegott’s descriptions of gambling are sweatily exciting—Theo wants to feel “those bright-colored packets of endorphins hanging like candy bars fall and dissolve in her brain.” Others are simply bleak: “The casino was decorated for Christmas and full of people sitting alone.” Still others are downright spooky. “Now that she was drinking again anything could be normal. She had become a ghost walking beside her ghost self; when you’re a ghost you can be anything.”

To be sure, the biggest pleasure of this book, besides the companionship of the sensitive Theo, is its language. Liebegott’s style is mordant and naturalistic—seemingly effortless—and shot through with the most incredible sadness. In one highly detailed, almost erotic scene, Theo tries on and buys herself a badly-needed pair of socks. This small moment of self-care is devastating and hopeful in equal measure, and brings to mind Ray Carver’s heart-breaker of a poem, “Soda Crackers.” (Read it and weep.)

A reviewer on Goodreads or Amazon complained that she wished this book were longer, not because it’s too short but because she wanted to spend more time in it, and I agree. I want Liebegott’s writing to go on and on. You get the impression that living inside her head full-time isn’t always easy, but it sure is a nice place to visit.

Chorus
by Saul Williams (Gallery Books)

Don’t call it an anthology. Poet and hip-hop artist Saul Williams would rather you think of his new book as a literary mixtape.

I love Willams’ mind — his humor, vitality, and surprising ideas, like the time he made an album with Trent Reznor, a seemingly unlikely a pairing that yielded The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!, one of the sickest albums of 2007. So when he said that this collection of 90-some poems by as many poets wasn’t an anthology in the usual sense, I was more than willing to go there with him. It just took me a moment to understand what he meant.

Williams collected the poems by putting out a call on Twitter and, with the help of co-editors Dufflyn Lammers and Aja Monet, culled his selections from the 7,000 submissions he received in response. Unsurprisingly, most of these poets are young-to-youngish, up-and-coming or recently-got-there. You might know some of their names already: The wonderful spoken word artist Andrea Gibson is in here, along with Staceyann Chin, a well-published poet and performer who co-wrote and performed in the Broadway version of Def Poetry Jam. A number of these poets are performers, in fact, which gives the book a unique character among dead-trees poetry. Williams has harnessed the electricity of a stage performance and put it on the page, and the book fairly crackles with it.

But this isn’t the only thing that makes Chorus unusual. Throughout the book proper each poem is identified with a number rather than its title and author, and in the list of titles and authors that appears at the end, no numbers are given. This means that matching a poem with the person who wrote it takes some doing, which, over time, has the interesting effect of making the identity of the individual poets feel much less important than their participation in the work as a whole. You get the sense that if one were missing, the rest would suffer, a feeling not of jockeying for attention but of already having found a place: a collaboration, a community, a chorus.

Moderato cantabile, the book wittily suggests on its opening page, and some of the work really does evoke the feeling of poetry as song. Queen Godis’ “KinShip,” to give one example, sounds like tongue-twisting music:

“flesh and flood fetuses

fed breath through blood,

board this hemoglobe,

with no boats to boast

we float.”

Some of the poems are more traditional than others, but for my money the most exciting ones have been influenced by not one but many traditions. In Def Sound’s “Portrait,” poetics and pop culture commingle quite naturally:

“We are all mirrors

We speak outbursts & job interview

Logos on our tongues

One movie quote away from laughter

One text message away from crying

Lips riddled with bilingual subtitles in the language

from a world we are not from” 

Yes, these new poets are ready to reinvent the form yet again. In the fierce “White Art,” Kevin Coval says: “we want poems that tie Billy Collins to a chair / and beat him” and “crack Donald’s Hall of mirrors.” He may be speaking metaphorically, but he’s not joking.

Williams writes in an afterword that the idea of editing an anthology of living poets was intriguing to him, “but not intriguing enough.” Instead he wanted to “weave poems and voices together as a DJ would, noting the tempo, mood, and theme of each piece…” A more traditional anthology might have its poems grouped by subject too, of course, but in practice his idea plays out much differently. Watch as the poems’ subjects and styles slide into and out of each other, a little batch of sexy ones, for example, leading inexorably into one about death. “She gives me her borsht recipe / without measurements, / says: do it to taste / and I do,” goes Gala Mulokolov’s slow-smiling scorcher “Talkin’ With My Mother.” Without missing a beat we’re onto Amir Sulaiman’s “Gorgeous Disaster,” a frenetic eulogy that blends hospital-speak with stories of resistance by people who lived through Jim Crow. William’s poetic turntablism turns out to be another way of making the book come alive, the contributing poets seeming to be as aware of their collaborators as if they were in the same room together.

I found a hokey line here and there — with so much passion and earnest intention, that’s probably inevitable. But as a whole the book is overwhelmingly, unusually good, strong enough to belong on a college reading list and subversive enough to give the professor the side-eye. Probably the most striking thing about it is that it doesn’t seem to bear the personality of any one editor. There are poems about love and sex by people of different genders, and I don’t mean just the usual two. There are poems by people of (every different) color — about race and racism, yes, and about Shug Avery and dancing at the end of the world and joining the Marines. Reading them all together, you don’t imagine a middle-aged white guy (or lady, sometimes it’s a lady) sitting at a desk, believing in his own myth. In fact, it’s hard to imagine any one person at all.

Clever Girl
by Tessa Hadley (HarperCollins)

Clever Girl is a novel about a girl who grows up to be a woman. As far as boilerplate descriptions go, there’s not much more to say about it than that. But British writer Tessa Hadley, author of four prize-winning previous novels, opens up the mysteries inside each moment so expertly that her book reminds us of the way in which one person’s story does, in some sense, contain the whole world.

We meet little Stella when she’s around eight, living in a spartan Bristol flat with her mother in the 1950s. Stella gets the bed, and her mother sleeps on the couch. When Stella was still a baby her father abandoned the family, and by the time she’s old enough to wonder about him her mother tells her that he died.

She goes on to do well in school (she’s a “clever girl”), but she’s also restless and passionate and often at odds with her stoic, get-on-with-it Mum. The girl grows up to make a life for herself, and it’s filled, as all of ours are, with tragedies and surprises and periods of boredom, bad jobs and interesting ones, long walks and self-doubt and decisions about haircuts.

The chapters flow into one another—in fact, sometimes the point where one ends and the next begins seems to have been chosen nearly at random—and yet each could be excised and read as distinct stories. Indeed two of them were first published this way, as pieces of short fiction in the New Yorker. We don’t doubt that this is fiction, as opposed to memoir dressed up as a novel, but these ten chapter-tales—of the time, when she was ten, that Stella left home without permission and took the bus to the horse stables where she had her weekly riding lesson; or the time when a little boy she knew was killed violently—all feel very “real.” They have what writer Natalie Goldberg calls the cut of truth, and the cut goes deep. Hadley’s incisiveness flays open everyday life to display the underground motivations of ordinary people as surely as if she can read their minds.

Clever Girl has a larger resonance because of its placement in time; Stella’s life unfolds in such a way that her story is, in a way, also the story of England in the second half of the twentieth century. As a child in the early 60s, Stella passes “bomb sites” on her way to school: Shells of family homes and even lone walls, with their wallpaper still clearly visible, litter the suburban landscape. By the time she’s a teenager it’s the 70s and she finds herself draping colorful scarves over lamps and living in a commune. This history-book effect is heightened by the manner of Stella’s narration, which is detached and self-aware. She sees now that some former attitude was silly, perhaps, or she remembers that she loved some particular boy, but it’s as if she’s looking at his picture now and finds she can’t stir much of the old feeling anymore. This gives the novel an unusual tone, less like prose and more like embedded reporting.

And yet—Hadley’s voluptuous language gives every little thing an immediacy. On an evening out at a restaurant: “Night falls while we are eating and the darkness outside presses greedily against the glass; an autumn moon swims up over the water, dowager-stately, trailing clouds like scarves, looming over its own reflection.” p 228 She has a poet’s gift for showing us the most mundane moments of our own lives as if for the first time, and this talent is used to its most vivid and appealing effect in the scenes from Stella’s childhood. The novel loses some of its magic when the girl grows up and begins having her own babies, her own worldly problems.

Still, all through Stella’s life she makes startling, wonderful observations. On the topic of her cleverness—and the place where it intersects with her femaleness—her insights are clear-eyed and poignant. “For years I had had to keep my cleverness cramped and concealed—not because it was dangerous or forbidden, but because it had no useful function in my daily life. In the wrong contexts, cleverness is just an inhibiting clumsiness.”

In fact, it’s tempting to construct a review of this book entirely out of quotations from it. Like Joyce at his most coherent and exuberant, each of Hadley’s sentences bristles with life, and every moment has significance. When Stella describes her intense love of learning, she could be describing what it feels like to read about it:

“When I lifted my head from my absorption—roused to a pitch of excitement, breathless and dizzy, because I’d been reading Oedipus the King or Adonais or Donne’s Holy Sonnets—I couldn’t believe that everything was going on unchanged around me in that quiet library, so muted and still that I could hear the pages turning and biros scribbling. In winter the daylight would even have drained away behind the windows without my noticing, and then I felt a niggling unease as if I’d missed something—although all I could have missed was my ordinary life with its prosaic clock-time, trundling from hour to hour.”

Get in Trouble
by Kelly Link (Random House)

Do you like magical realism? Stories that start out in normal places, with regular people, and then get impossible and weird? No? Me neither. It tends to make me feel the rug’s been pulled out from underneath me, that I’ve been fooled, led somewhere I didn’t intend to go. But then, I’d never read anything by Kelly Link before.

It’s reductive to compare a writer to other writers as a means of understanding what they do, but in the case of someone whose work is so hard to describe, it’s tempting. So: The stories in this new collection, Link’s first in ten years, are something like the wonderful short stories of Ray Bradbury, whose science fiction transcended that genre classification and always had so much heart. They’re reminiscent of Neil Gaiman, too, with something dark, feminine, and punk rock blended in, like something YA author Cecil Castellucci would cook up, only these are boozier and more grown-up and full of sex.

And when it comes to magical realism, or science fiction—whatever it is we’re calling the elements of Link’s fiction that put a superhero convention in the same hotel as a meeting of dentists—the stories in this collection fall into one of a few interesting categories. There are the ones like “Two Houses,” which takes place on a spaceship floating through the cosmos, that are strictly, well, otherworldly. There are ones that start out normal enough, like “The Summer People,” which introduces us to a girl who lives out in the country with her hard-drinking dad, before it takes a sharp turn into a backwoods lit up by magic, a haunted house of sorts, and antique toys that come to life.

There are even a couple of regular old literary stories in here, and these will really break your heart. Because when it comes to the world we actually live in, here and now, Link couldn’t be pithier, funnier, or more on-point. In one story, there’s a band called O Hell, Kitty. Another one, called “Light,” takes place on some alternate plane where people are born with two shadows and mermaids are an invasive species, but is also most definitely Dade County, Florida, a florid and alien landscape in its own right. It has “tunnels of coral reef, barely covered by blackish, sandy dirt … Geckos with their velvet bellies and papery clockwork insides, tick-tock barks … Lakes so big and shallow that you could spend all day walking across them.”

Once I’d read a few of these stories, I was hooked. I trusted Link to take me places I wanted to go, even if I didn’t know what they were. Because as it turns out, her wildly out-there stories are about unreality, which is an idea we grapple with all the time. They’re about the way you can believe in a fantasy with all your heart, if you’re feeling sad enough. They’re about the line between reality and imagination, which in our technology-driven world is growing blurrier every day.

In “The New Boyfriend,” a teenager named Immy is poisonously jealous of her best friend, Ainslie, for having not one, but three boyfriends—all of them fake—expensive, lifelike robots that she stores in a closet in the basement. When she wants to spend time with her Boyfriends, she switches a button on their heads, underneath their (real, human) hair, and they follow her around and gaze into her eyes and fetch her drinks and snacks.

It sounds creepy, but Link hasn’t written a horror story just for the thrill of it; she’s written one that seems entirely plausible. Ainslie’s Vampire Boyfriend wears a dark suit and is devoted to his owner for all eternity, and the Werewolf Boyfriend comes with both a boy head and a wolf head, as you’d expect. Just like the teenagers you know, the ones in this story have grown up in a world where simulated reality and actual, living things coexist, and Link has a wonderful knack for showing us how eerie and beautiful this is, and how it changes our human natures not one bit.

Immy loves Ainslie’s Ghost Boyfriend, tries to make him hers. She looks at his fabricated face and thinks about how weird, or not weird, this really is. He has the most beautiful eyes she’s ever seen, which is silly to say because they’re not real eyes, they’re made of colored gel and electric components that light them up. But how is that different from the vitreous humors and lenses that ours are made of, she wonders? Does interacting with something unreal that’s pretending to be real make her less real, too?

Or more?

Girls to the Front
by Sara Marcus (HarperPerennial)

Like Legs McNeil did in Please Kill Me, an “oral history” of punk rock that he cobbled together by talking to its early practitioners, Sara Marcus’ Girls to the Front tells the story of riot grrrl, one person at a time. We get to know these musicians, zinesters, and activists intimately — and not just them and their projects, but their families, their majors in college, their grubby apartments and part-time jobs. It’s an appropriate nod to the ethos of the ’90s, when the personal was political.

But unlike Please Kill Me and rock histories like it, the figures Marcus cares about about aren’t all celebrities. Of course there’s Kathleen Hanna, the de facto leader of the movement who said she never wanted to be thought of that way. But many of the other doers we meet in these pages were young women immersed (or stuck) in their own lives when word of the new feminism came to them via photocopied flyer or Sassy magazine. They were just ordinary kids, coming into a burgeoning sense of what it meant to them to be female. In her prologue Marcus sets the stage for RG’s creation, fitting it into its context in the larger culture and mainstream feminism. She goes on at length, but her argument is simple: Riot grrrl was the moment when feminism wasn’t just for women anymore, but for GIRLS, too.

You might find yourself wishing for more of the presence, the SPIRIT, of those big personalities, though. Where are the outrageous claims, the flamboyant performances, the punk-scene anecdotes? They’re here, don’t worry — we meet Corin Tucker and the fabulous Nomy Lamm — but gossip and celebrity worship isn’t Marcus’ bag. This is real journalism, and her research is impressively thorough and precise. At times, though, the who knew whom and how and when feels meticulous, repetitive.

Then again, many of these details are simply wonderful. Who knew, for instance, that the name riot grrrl started out as kind of a joke? The spelling of the word girl was Tobi Vail’s tongue-in-cheek comment on pained feminist re-spellings of words like wimmin, womon, womyn. Also delightful to think that identifying as a riot grrrl was, at first, not very cool. In fact it was a happy home for nerds, anti-cool, in a way: “Christina [Woolner] was excited to transform her uncoolness into an asset through the alchemical power of some jerry-rigged feminist theory.”

Most of the book’s action bounces back and forth between Olympia and Washington, D.C., where the two main cells of RG existed. Marcus takes us all over the place, though, to the Twin Cities and small towns in Nebraska and even the UK. She tells some of the smallest stories, about high school girls who learned about the funny, foul-mouthed brand of feminism and started organizing their own meetings, writing their own zines. It’s an inspired approach, since that’s really what this movement was: Girls who knew each other from around the way, talking and listening and making art together.

As a writer Marcus really shines when she’s doing that rock journalist thing of celebrating her subject in eloquent, jazzed-up prose that, when read aloud, sounds a bit like music. She can dissect a song’s meaning with real verve, and not just Bikini Kill or Bratmobile ones; she takes apart Jesus Jones’ 1992 hit “Right Here Right Now” for two pages, finding in it evidence of the kind of lazy anti-rebellion that characterized the age, the smug inertia our grrrls were pushing up against.

Despite its fastidiousness this is a moving read, not what you’d call uplifting, but stirring. The bulk of it takes place during and after major magazines and newspapers took an (overwhelming) interest in riot grrrl, misunderstanding and diminishing its purpose and insulting the girls in the tired old ways they were used to being insulted. Here too Marcus uses beautiful language to describe the pain they felt. “It reminded them that to be a girl in public is always to be watched.”

Happiness is a Chemical in the Brain
by Lucia Perillo (W.W. Norton)

Sometimes it seems like all literary fiction is about the same people: middle-class depressives, suburban adulterers — the kind of people who write literary fiction, actually. And don’t get me wrong, I love to read stories like this, when they’re good.

But it was incredibly refreshing to meet the people who populate Happiness is a Chemical in the Brain, a first collection of short stories by veteran poet Lucia Perillo. These folks don’t live in the suburbs or in cities; they seem to be rattling around in the middle of nowhere, though upon closer inspection they’re actually in the Pacific Northwest, not the middle of anything but right on the edge of an especially rugged ocean. They live near marinas and forests of firs, in mobile homes or, as one character describes her remote family home – which is situated between a Christmas tree lot and a junk yard — “the gulag.”

It’s the people themselves who are middle of nowhere — stuck between jobs, recently out of rehab, or  bumping from one bad boyfriend to the next. (They may well be depressed, but they don’t have the time or inclination to diagnose it.) Substance abuse is a theme, as is a general loserishness, to use Perillo’s term, which she applies to her people with a kind of perverse joyfulness. “How outpatient at Saint Jude’s worked,” the personable narrator of “Saint Jude in Persia” tells us, “was that we went around the room delivering our bulletins from Loserville, the plots of which were all fundamentally the same…”

But darned if this book is more cheerful than anything else. It’s very funny and often beautiful, though not in the corny way of fiction that glorifies bad behavior or romanticizes hardship. It’s deeper than that, in the way that earned wisdom always is. Perillo isn’t slumming it, but telling us stories about people she knows and likes.

The unnamed narrator of “Bad Boy Number Seventeen,” which starts the book off with a bang, is probably the strongest and most memorable of the collection. (That’s why it’s a treat to read on and discover that two other stories feature the same characters.) A veteran of many failed romances, the woman hangs out with her sister Louisa, who has Down syndrome and is easily pleased by a trip to the movies and the local dive for a “happy beer.” In the bar, they bump into a guy the narrator met earlier at work, and we’re not surprised when she goes home with him that night. But actually, it’s a whole truckload of folks that end up back at the trailer: she and the guy and her sister and the guy’s big dog, who he was supposed to have put down that day because his wife is allergic but who he gives to Louisa instead. The gift reminds us that there’s a lasting (if messy) beauty in the way we collide with each other, however briefly.

The story “Ashes” has a similar whimsy: It starts in a library, winds its way to a strip club, and ends up in a primordial pine forest in the dead of night. Though it deals with the recent death of a man’s elderly father, the whole thing feels like a farce until the very end, where Perillo sets us down softly with a line that reads almost like prayer.

Some of the stories are tougher, sadder. “Big Dot Day” shows us an unhappy family outing through the eyes of the woman’s young son, a droll innocent who may as well be Ray Carver himself. The boy’s mother has taken up with the latest in a long string of silly men, and the three of them have hit the road in search of a better life. But their couplehood is squalid and sad, and we feel worried for the kid, who isn’t in the forefront of the adults’ minds as they drink and disappear, giggling, into the steamy motel bathroom. For all their supposed carefree living it’s the boy who does something wild and weird, bringing the only bit of color to an otherwise bleak situation.

Speaking of that master of the short story, Carver’s influence can be felt here, but not in an obvious, writerly way; the witty, chatty personality inhabiting Perillo’s stories is only her own. Better to think of it this way: Her characters seem to inhabit the same world his did, and you wouldn’t be surprised if they bumped into each other. Perillo, whose poetry collection, Inseminating the Elephant, was a finalist for a Pulitzer in 2010, brings to these stories the poet’s gift for creating images in the mind, so apt they’re surprising, even funny. “In her sweater and pearls,” one woman tells us of another, “she could be Lassie’s mom.” And of their cocktails: “An olive floats like a tiny zeppelin between the ice.”

I Can Give You Anything But Love
by Gary Indiana (Rizzoli)

Gary Indiana has written a new book, and it’s a memoir. (Well, as he told the Paris Review earlier this year, it’s “a kind of memoir, but we’re not calling it that.”) And if you have any sense at all, you’ll be excited by this news.

The author of several novels as well as plays, films, and art criticism—and a video artist whose work was included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial—Indiana has been doing interesting work for decades now, but in all this time he has failed to become well known outside of certain underground circles. Though one assumes Indiana is uninterested in celebrity, it’s a shame his writing isn’t more widely read. He is hilarious, insightful, pissed-off, and profane—and occasionally, guardedly, a tiny bit tender, too.

Though his fiction has sometimes been autobiographical, I Can Give You Anything But Love is Indiana’s first real stab at telling his life story. The book can only be described as a complete success. It is engrossing, enlightening, and—though he may find it hard to believe, as he can be so harsh in his self-assessment—totally sympathetic.

Born in rural New Hampshire in 1950, Indiana came of age at a time and in a place when being gay was necessarily a secret. That’s not to say he was unsuccessful in his early attempts to meet boys: Indiana recalls his adolescence as a series of clandestine affairs. At 19 he begins his tenure in a crumbling hippie mansion in the Haight, a bleary experiment in communal living with a changing roster of fellow freaks that resulted in the odd art project, but whose main focus was on complicated love relationships (and some good-natured gonzo pornography). Later he moves south, gets into punk, and works in Watts. Some of the scenarios from his lonely personal life are downright squalid—the nights he spends in Los Angeles bars and drug dens are especially dark—but his use of language is so impeccable that every story glows with the warmth of his intelligence.

Scenes from Indiana’s early life are intercut with depictions of his present-day one, in the huge apartment in Havana where he has lived, off and on, for many years. We join him as he drinks coffee on his sun-washed balcony and drifts down to the street to feed the stray cats there. He lets us in on his thought process, too, as he attempts to write the book we’re reading, and we get the sense that he isn’t entirely convinced that his fascinating stories would be of much interest to anyone else.

It’s so refreshing. At 65, Indiana displays a real lack of attitude (outside of the sour-grapes remarks he makes about people who have hurt him, and his shockingly unflattering characterization of ex-friend Susan Sontag: delicious!). He is, as the title suggests, jaded when it comes to the idea of himself in love, but in all other aspects the writer is fresh as a daisy—open to new experiences, self-deprecatingly modest, and full of youthful vigor. Reading this book, you could get the idea that he has spent the last 40 years doing nothing but hook up with gorgeous young men and read, read, read. But that’s only because the memoir ends before he’s published his first book, on the day he up and moves to New York. Clearly, there’s more to this story. Dare we hope for a second volume? This reviewer certainly will.

I Wear the Black Hat
by Chuck Klosterman (Scribner)

It’s been like a year now but I still can’t believe it: Chuck Klosterman writes the Ethicist column for the New York Times Magazine. Reflecting on this I am unable to decide which irritates me more: The fact that the NYT Magazine feels it is upon them to have an “ethicist,” or the fact that Chuck Klosterman is now he.

Chuck Klosterman? The guy who wrote practically a whole book about his relationship with the music of Motley Crüe? The man who, in the guise (or service) of writing about goth kids or Morrissey’s Mexican fan base has also written movingly, revealingly, even embarrassingly about his adolescence on a North Dakota farm, and the women he likes who don’t like him back? For years now the cultural critic has functioned as a confessional writer (though he never gets called this because he’s a man), and aging indie kids have loved him all this time, mainly because he’s smart and has great taste in music but because he also knows that unimportant junk like TV commercials and Facebook is worth talking about too, because those are the things that fill our days. And he’s funny.

But now, with the column and his new book, he has taken a different, ostensibly much more serious approach: He’s writing about the nature of evil. Yeah. As the waggish title of a book by previous Ethicist, Randy Cohen, would have it, he’s interested in sorting out the good, the bad, and the difference.

Since this seemed awfully ambitious, I found myself beginning I Wear the Black Hat by flipping around, looking for essays about music. This has always been Klosterman’s stock-in-trade, and he has usually done it very well. He looks at performers like Fred Durst and Radiohead and shows us what our consumption of their work tells us about ourselves. Like some of Jonathan Franzen’s fine personal essays, they are about himself as much as they are about their purported subject, and somehow also about everything.

To my satisfaction I did find stupid Fred Durst, backwards baseball cap and all, and also the Eagles (the band), in what was far and away the funniest essay in the book: “The Other Thing About the Eagles is That I (Am Contractually Obligated To) Hate Them.” Funny but interesting too, because after listing the music he has passionately hated in earlier periods of his life he writes that he is no longer able to feel contempt for the idea of a band or a musician, and he tries to sort out why this might be. (Maybe he just grew up? If that’s all it is he’s much more mature than I am.)

But there are some disappointments here. The first is that most of this book is not really about music or pop culture, even when it is—that Klosterman keeps trying to take on bigger questions. Instead of looking at mostly unimportant but contentious public figures, he’s talking about “villains,” real and perceived. The other is that these arguments, about technocrats and sociopaths and politicians, are insightful and attractive-sounding —he really does have a way with words—but are often specious, with too much hinging on one weak premise. At their best these essays make a few real insights and/or make you laugh, but at their worst they’re simply uninteresting, a bit of mental exercise that is ultimately mostly disappointing, like chewing for a million hours on some over-sticky taffy that doesn’t even taste that good.

When it comes to pop culture writing, though, Klosterman is still a master of observation. (“It does not seem like photographs of Aleister Crowley should exist. … He seems like a creature who should have lived long ago, before cameras…” It’s so true!) He is also still very funny. More on Crowley: “Two of his central creeds were a) never make claims that cannot be proven and b) never pretend to be something you are not. This is actually excellent advice, although horribly impractical for a pansexual magick user who once tried to kill a personal rival with mind bullets.” And when he’s right, he’s right. On Crowley again: “It still means something to care about Aleister Crowley. It’s code. … it means your superficial sympathies fall with the opposite of whatever you were taught to believe.”

More important, maybe, is that he is not afraid to take his writing to a difficult place—which in this book is often a dirty, self-doubting place—and he does so with the intention to understand something rather than to manipulate or shock. He gets real. When he shows us his heart of darkness, as he does in the essay about what makes entertainers hateful to us (Don Henley, Chevy Chase, Howard Cosell, himself), it is as affecting and effective as his writing has ever been. In the same way that the chapter about drinking in Fargo Rock City revealed something fragile and frightened about the man, these parts of the book feel like, if not a cry for help, at least a cri de coeur. Klosterman is trying to work out something about himself here, and rather than giving us pompous lectures on ethics he seems genuinely concerned that he is amoral, or imperfect to some terrible degree. He never did try to stand in isolated judgment of the musicians he loved and loathed, which is part of what makes him good at what he does, and likable too. But too often in these essays it seems he hasn’t made his mind up yet, that he let Black Hat go to print before he figured out why he set about writing it in the first place.

As he does throughout the book, he brings the conversation back to himself in the piece “What You Say About His Company is What You Say About Society” (which is the Machiavelli one, actually, and ends up also being about George W. Bush and Newt Gingrich). “[Newt] would tie a woman to the railroad tracks just to prove he knew what time the train left the station. This is why I always find myself rooting for him, even when I’m against what he pretends to desire. I know exactly what he’s doing. It’s like looking into a mirror I do not possess the capacity to smash.”

Okay. That’s heavy. I’m not entirely sure what it means, but I appreciate the way these essays are always circling memoir like buzzards. It seems decent of Klosterman to let us get to know him; it makes his criticism stronger, more human, justifiable and yet much more brutal, when the subject calls for it. Still, I find myself wishing he would stick to doing his entertaining criticism of the kinds of things that maybe don’t deserve it, and leave the bigger issues to someone else.

In Real Life
by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang (First Second)

The world of online gaming has always been dominated by guys, and often in a not-so-nice way. But make no mistake: Gamer girls are having a moment.

In Real Life, a collaboration between writer Cory Doctorow and artist Jen Wang, is the story of a high schooler named Anda who signs up for an MMO (a massively multiplayer online game) after a young woman visits her school and encourages the girls to play as part of her all-female guild.

The game is a made-up one called Coarsegold that is based on real ones like World of Warcraft and Everquest. As anyone who has played a game like those knows, it’s possible to make real-world money by selling virtual items within the game that help players advance faster by doing less work. It’s usually against the terms of service, but a common practice, particularly in Asian countries where people can—and in many cases, need to—earn a living this way. (Strange but true; the writer and game designer Neal Stephenson has been quoted as saying, “Gold farming is one of those things that makes you want to quit science fiction writing because you could never think up something that weird.”)

Anda turns out to be a natural at Coarsegold, slaying and raiding and racking up points. She soon gets recruited by another player, a punky looking young woman who calls herself the Sarge, to help kill off the hordes of gold farmers. The Sarge says farming lowers the value of gold, and that reducing the numbers of farmers is unquestionably a good thing to do. But the ethics of the situation turn out to be quite a bit more complicated than that, and Anda soon begins to learn as much about the “real” world as she does about the game.

A science fiction writer who is perhaps best known for running the consistently awesome tech-news website Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow seems to have x-ray vision for every subject he looks at. In an introduction to this story, Doctorow tells his readers in no uncertain terms that what he’s really writing about is the internet, and the way it has changed the way human beings organize themselves—from getting a group of friends together for dinner to the workings of the global economy.

It’s hard to isolate just one or two things to like best about this book; it’s got too much going for it. For one, Anda is depicted as a pleasingly plus-sized girl, and her weight is never once mentioned as a problem. Then there’s Wang’s charming rendering of the game’s characters, humanoid creatures who are all decked out in pastel shades, pointy ears, and fabulous hair. Most importantly, Anda’s gaming experiences highlight specific instances of global economic disparity that are part of Western kids’ everyday lives, but in such an insidious, invisible way that they may never have considered or even heard of them before.

The fact that most of the book’s real drama is played out “in game” is interesting too; it proves the point that the things we do online most definitely count as “real life.”

It is Almost That: A Collection of Image + Text Work by Women Artists & Writers
by Lisa Perason (Siglio)

This anthology isn’t a collection of comics, or of art that has a narrative in any traditional sense. Rather these are all pieces of fine art made in a variety of media, from photographs to artist’s books to engravings. But all the pieces — some of which are reproduced in their entirety, others as excerpts — combine text and image to tell a kind of story. As editor Lisa Pearson writes in her afterword, “…texts do not always appear on pristine white fields; images are not illustrative and language does not explain; stories do not unfold in predictable ways—and yet every page is meant to be read.”

Twenty six works are represented. All are arresting, though some appear simple at first. Dorothy Iannone’s mid-70s-era “Trixie, the Connoisseur” seems to be a simple comic-in-panels, but it tells the story of an extraordinary woman whose life and love become liberated, almost to the point of personal reinvention. The artist’s biography informs us that her work is inspired by her male lover, who serves as a muse.

A few pieces are experiments, such as Eleanor Antin’s “Domestic Peace,” for which she drew graphs of conversations with her mother that indicate their subjects and corresponding levels of agitation. The concept is funny but the execution is drolly serious serious and looks, on the page, like a sound-wave readout, as though she’s made a legitimate scientific study of domestic survival. One especially appealing project, in both concept and execution, is Suzanne Triester’s “Alchemy” piece, for which she transcribed the words and images from front pages of several UK newspapers, in all their trashy gossip mongering, and translated them visually into the style of 17th and 18th-century alchemical diagrams. The result is complex and beautiful to look at, and makes disturbing suggestions about the huge (but not so cosmic) forces at work in our lives.

The book includes lesser-known or previously unpublished works by important artists, including Bernadette Mayer and Lousie Borgeouis. At least one has historical importance: In 1968, Fluxus artist Alison Knowles used the Fortran programming language to produce “A House of Dust,” which is thought to be the first computer-generated poem. Most are by less famous creators, though none are especially young — with the exception of thirty-something Molly Springfield, whose exciting project speaks to the of-the-moment tension between machine reproduction and things written by hand. Using every English translation of the first chapter of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (called Swann’s Way) — which of course deals with memory and translation —Springfield transcribed the pages by hand, replicating the look of a printed book with photorealistic drawings in 1:1 scale.

Toward the book’s end is “Docking Competitions” by Erica Van Horn and Laurie Clark, which pairs tiny, delicate line drawings with unembellished contest descriptions (“The competition will be for the prettiest hanky”, “The competition will be for The Longest Stick of Rhubarb”). This study and repetition of the mundane makes a revelation of the day-to-day details of female domestic experience. On the whole this is an important collection, imagination-stretching and educational even for readers who think they know women artists.

***

“Docking Competitions” feels feminist in a few ways. Artists Erica Van Horn and Laurie Clark have paired tiny, delicate line drawings with unembellished descriptions of contests organized by the Women’s Section of the Royal British Legion. These include “The competition will be for the prettiest hanky” and “The competition will be for The Longest Stick of Rhubarb.” The repetitive nature of the text draws attention to a certain  tedium of these lives, but the drawings are so charming, so lovingly made, it’s hard to read the piece as critical. It’s more like a combination of second-wave consciousness-raising and third-wave wit.

Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting
by Ann Hood (Norton)

The idea of knitting may conjure one of a few static ideas for you: itchy woolen scarves, old-fashioned values, or maybe the up-to-date craft revivalists, with tattoos under their itchy woolen scarves. If that’s the case, just read this ingenious anthology—a collection of 27 essays, plus a handful of patterns by designer Helen Bingham—and you’ll see there’s a lot more to it than that. (And while I can’t review the patterns because I haven’t tried one yet, I can report with pleasure that Bingham lists two yarn options for each design, a rare treat in a world of discontinued boutique yarns.)

In the poetic words of Barbara Kingsolver, knitting is natural and basic and human. “The two-plied strands of your chromosomes have been spun by all thin-skinned creatures for all of time, and now they offer you no more bottomless thrill than the point-nosed plow of prepared-ness.” This is certainly a literary bunch; many have at least one bestselling book or O. Henry Prize, and more than one of them name-checks Madame Defarge. (Really.) But regarding handicrafts, they come in a range. There are veterans and beginners, folks who have been knitting since childhood and those who consider it more of a spectator sport, deriving comfort from sitting beside a friend or a grandmother as the needles click comfortingly.

Though memories of that sensual first visit to the yarn shop are lovely, the collection’s strongest pieces interpret the theme in a less obvious way, using knitting as a jumping-off point to tell another kind of story. In “Knitting in Kathmandu,” journalist Jessi Hempel recalls her backpacking trip through Asia after college, where she had only ever dated women, and the day she fell in love on a bus in Nepal with a young man who she spied knitting socks on a circular needle. Marianne Leone, who you may remember as Christopher Moltisanti’s mom in The Sopranos, contributes a brief meditation on family, love, and the sense of dislocation created by immigration. Written in a quirky, distinctive voice, it’s one of the brightest and funniest pieces in the book.

The wonderful Elinor Lipman has the other funniest one, an epic poem about crafting ambivalence:

And oh the projects I have started,

But then I find myself fainthearted,

I loved this cotton at the store,

But I don’t like it anymore.

There is in fact a thread (a strand?) of wry humor that runs through this entire collection. Elissa Schappell, who learned to knit as a way to relax and ease her high blood pressure, writes in one laugh-out-loud line: “Soon after—in the way that shoplifters start noticing other people sticking turkeys under their sweatshirts—I started seeing knitters everywhere.” Do most good writers have a solid sense of humor? Or is it their shared interest in knitting that gives these ladies their jeu d’esprit? Could it be that writers who knit are the cleverest people in the world? You can guess what this reviewer-knitter thinks.

Like any good anthology, Knitting Yarns introduces us to writers who are new to us, people whose books we will happily add to our ever-growing to-read list. Kaylie Jones was one of those for me; her “Judite” is a heart-breaker of a story about the nanny who raised and loved her (and crocheted metric tons of doilies, blankets, and clothes for the family—even the author’s first little bra) while her parents ignored her and threw parties in the flat downstairs. There isn’t one real clunker in the whole book, though Sue Grafton’s piece is so odd and disjointed you wonder if she chopped it up with scissors like a Dadaist and asked the editor to reassemble it.

One reason for knitting’s deep appeal, as most of the contributors mention in one way or another, is the easy sisterhood of it, the way it connects us to generations of women who went before us. Since traditional women’s work is her subject, editor Ann Hood was able to assemble a mostly-female cast without ever having to identify her book as “women’s writing,” or some equally awkward designation. And there’s something deliciously subversive about that.

But there are a few men in the book, actually, and while in this venue they may be more like honorary women, their view of knitting adds a valuable new dimension to the topic. John Dufresne contributes a gorgeous piece about family traditions and the importance of having roots. Taylor M. Polites, a gay man who attends a colorful and diverse knitting circle in order to get over some of his hang-ups about “masculinity.” By the essay’s end he has taken his hobby to new levels by knitting sweaters for his tiny dog, Clovis. He writes, “Not only had I assumed some gender-subversive behavior, it was age-subversive as well. I was acting like an 80-year-old woman.”

Man, woman, whatever: Polites also includes his own knitting pattern, “Clovis’ Perfect-Fit Sweater.” It’s just one delightful surprise in a book full of them.

Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries
by Jon Ronson (Riverhead)

Jon Ronson is enormously likable. And while likability is not a quality that’s necessary to successful journalism, for the kind of writing he does it really helps.

A practitioner — possibly a forerunner — of a certain “well I’ll be damned” style of reporting, Ronson investigates oddities amidst the everyday and shows us how weird a place the world truly is. In his first major book, the provocative and charming Them: Adventures With Extremists, he investigated the belief held be some that the world is controlled by a small group of people, a “shadowy elite” made up of Christian fundamentalists, or members of British Parliament, or something.

Lost At Sea is about more ordinary people who are nonetheless doing extraordinary things. We meet a tiny religious group called the Jesus Christians whose members are trying their hardest to donate a kidney each to a stranger on the organ donation waiting list, even though they’re not legally allowed to. In the book’s most unsettling piece, we’re introduced to a Unitarian minister from West Virginia who helps depressed people commit suicide. In its funniest one, we accompany Ronson as he recreates, in a borrowed Aston Martin, a James Bond journey from London to Geneva while freely admitting that he’s never understood the appeal of James Bond. We meet the people who were accused of cheating the UK game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire; a science hobbyist who figured out how to split the atom in his Angelholm, Sweden apartment; and a robot that was created in the likeness of a billionaire’s wife.

An important feature of Ronson’s work is that he includes himself in these stories. We learn what he does to get his interviews and travel along with him as he goes to conduct them. Reading a Jon Ronson essay is like spending a day or week or months in his company, which is fun for us because he’s self-effacing and witty but unfailingly skeptical, with one metaphorical eyebrow permanently cocked.

Ronson is British, but he lives between London and New York and sometimes writes for American publications. This gives his reportage an interesting bipartisan perspective: In a cultural climate where making fun of Americans in a clever way could almost guarantee a British writer some degree of success, Ronson has opted to make his work about both countries and accessible to people in either of them. Further, he approaches his work with a freshness that all journalists should have, though many don’t, often walking away from scenarios marked by a seemingly unassailable ludicrousness with his mind changed or his feelings conflicted.

In “Santa’s Little Conspirators” he visits North Pole, Alaska, a real town that “celebrates” Christmas year-round with decorations and carols. Children’s letters to Santa often end up here because it’s said to be the place where the real Santa lives — and last year, it was also the site of a planned middle school massacre that was stopped before its six 13-year-old instigators had a chance to carry it out. In other words, North Pole, Alaska is everything that’s wrong with modern-day American culture all wrapped into one hideous package. But Ronson doesn’t use the occasion to moralize or crack jokes. Instead he draws vivid character sketches of the people he meets there, allowing us to feel disdain and deep sympathy in equal, uneasy measure.

It’s this decentness that probably accounts in large part for Ronson’s success. (And he is successful — two of his books have been international bestsellers and one of them, The Men Who Stare at Goats, was made into the 2009 film starring George Clooney.) In the story that opens the book, Ronson interviews Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope of the rap duo Insane Clown Posse in an attempt to understand why these notoriously angry men might have written the song “Miracles,” a sweet and dopey ode to the wonders of the universe. Insane Clown Posse is known for their violent, misogynistic lyrics and also for the serial-killer clown makeup the singers (and their fans) wear, and they have a devoted following made up mostly of people like themselves: poor, disenfranchised white folks from the midwest. Many journalists have already written about the perceived idiocy of the music or attended their record label’s annual festival in order to make fun of the subculture that’s grown up around it, which is as uninteresting as it is mean. It’s a measure of Ronson as a writer and a person that he did not set out to make these guys look foolish, but instead shows them as the unhappy and conflicted — and yes, pretty foolish — human beings that they are.

Bright, entertaining, and sometimes very moving — it’s hard to imagine who you couldn’t recommend a book like this to. And yet there are a couple of problems with presenting his work in the way it has been here. Ronson’s process, which is so effective and appealing in a single essay, begins, after reading several of them in a row, to feel a bit shticky, making him seem less ingenuous than he most likely actually is. (It seems worth mentioning that when I was a new journalist myself, I was so taken with Ronson’s book Them that I talked a small magazine into letting me interview him, and he and I had a memorably warm and spirited phone conversation about his reporting process and his favorite books. Ronson has the kind of generosity of spirit and genuine interest in other people that, when you’re speaking with him, makes his intelligence feel like your own.)

In other words, my only complaint is with the way the book was made, not the way Ronson wrote it. It’s presented as a cohesive, themed collection, when it’s actually just a bunch of pieces originally published in the Guardian and American GQ. I felt set up to expect a neater conclusion or a narrative through-line when in fact the book wasn’t written this way and the nature of Ronson’s reporting is such that the reader is usually left to form her own opinions — which happens to be one of its strongest features. It’s too bad, because there isn’t a thing wrong with a collection of essays on a variety of topics by an entertaining and seasoned journalist. And that’s exactly what this is.

The More You Ignore Me
by Travis Nichols (Coffee House Press)

Morrissey fans know the rest of that sentence.

“The more you ignore me,” goes the title and first line of one of his witty, haunting songs, “the closer I get.” It’s an ode to a certain kind of resentful loneliness, framed as devotion.

With his debut novel, Nichols gives us the perspective of another kind of unwanted devotee—an online troll. It’s a type of person most of us have at some point tried to imagine. Who are these people, insulting strangers on Youtube? How pitiful must a person be to get pleasure out of such pointless cruelty?

Nichols shows us how pitiful: very. Written in the form of one preposterously long blog comment, the novel is the story of what we soon realize is lifelong series of obsessions. Narrator lynksys181 has formed a fixation on a stranger who he first spied in the background of a politician’s press photo. She so resembled the woman he loved back in college that he believed she was his second chance at love. (He flubbed it badly, and weirdly, the first time.) So he tracks this stranger down—we’re given the image of a person with very little to do besides plumb the internet for the information and interactions he craves—and begins making contact as a commenter on her wedding blog.

Nichols has nailed the tone of the Internet troll—sniffy, a little too proper, fault-finding, superior. The occasional, unctuous smiley-face, emoticon as middle finger. But while some of the details of lynksys181’s life are nicely weird (he cooks all his food in a coffemaker), others beggar belief. It’s not uncommon to be treated brusquely by a doctor, but it’s pretty hard to imagine one showing disgust during a rectal exam by saying, “Putting a finger up there. Not cool.” (Repeating this here makes it sound funnier than it is in the book, where it comes across as puzzling.)

Though lynksys181 is unbalanced, he’s not wrong about everything, which gives his narrative power. Take his withering description of the cool kids he observed at his nephew’s wedding: “Can no one under the age of thirty simply wear a suit or a dress, get a haircut, or sport a pair of shoes without screaming ‘Notice above all that I am special!’” 

He has a point.

But reading this brief story, one wishes Nichols’ writing had more of Morrissey’s wit and nuance, or that he’d taken a cue from the more subtle writers in his own genre. In Notes on a Scandal, another fictional treatment of an unstable individual playing havoc in other people’s lives, author Zoe Heller opened up the narrator’s psyche slowly, ever so slowly. She sounded so reasonable, so clear-eyed, that we trusted her until it was too late—just as her victim did. But poor lynksys181 is crazy right out of the gate, so there’s not enough suspense to carry us along. The book’s interesting premise and unusual execution, its deliciously promising title, and the sheer pleasure I took in seeing anyone lampoon the custom of keeping a wedding blog kept me reading, but I would have felt more committed to it if the queasy uncertainty that builds in the final 30 pages had been spread out a bit more.

Still, the novel is a success in many ways. Small publisher Coffee House consistently makes attractive books of high literary quality, and this one is no exception. Nichols’ language and humor are on-point; there are whiffs of the great satirist George Saunders throughout, as when our narrator tells us he once showed promise as a basketball player but he choked too often, leading him to “renounce” the game. “For years I refused to even acknowledge a pair of sneakers on television. They were dead to me.”

Most significantly, the novel pokes at some interesting ideas regarding social behavior and the ways it has changed (or stayed the same) in the digital era. The unspoken rules of Internet etiquette put forth that some online spaces are private, even though, actually, they are public. It would be weird to comment on a stranger’s wedding blog, in other words, so we don’t do it. But lynksys181 doesn’t understand the rules, and his social failures force us to look at them in a new light. He considers the blog an online community, even addressing the other visitors directly as “Community.” It feels sad, but sympathetic too, in a way: It’s not like it’s easy to keep up. Instagram, tumblr, Google+, Pinterest—there’s a lot of personal stuff being made public out there, and the terms are always shifting. What constitutes privacy, and community, in today’s world? Spend a little time with lynksys181, and what sounded way out-there at first begins to seem practically sane. After all, he was only joining in the conversation. As he says, almost without guile, “Without comments, a weblog is merely a monologue, correct?”

Nora Webster
by Colm Tóibín (Scribner)

When we first meet Nora Webster, she’s answering her door; it’s a straggler, one of the last of the callers who have come to express their condolences about her husband. The visitors are pesty and Nora is weary of them.

Maurice died at 40 after a long illness, leaving Nora and their two younger children who are still at home. The family lives in a town in Ireland that’s small enough for Nora to know something about nearly everyone she passes on the street, and for them to know about her. Tóibín allows us to view it either as a place that’s stiflingly oppressive, or one that feels cozily like an extended family—most likely because it is both of those things at once.

And this is what the novel is about.

It’s difficult to say more than this, to find a way to talk intelligently about a book this good. Tóibín’s language is so unadorned that calling it beautiful doesn’t feel quite right, and yet the book is so perfectly made that it almost defies deconstruction and examination, as if the character of Nora Webster isn’t an invention at all but a real person living a real life. Using the same kind of magic Ray Carver had access to, Tóibín creates a world with his prose that feels as solid and inhabitable as a physical place. It’s a sacred space, and reading the first page is like walking into a cathedral of quiet.

Indeed, little “action” takes place in these almost 400 pages. Nora Webster learns to live without her husband, yes, but whatever transformation she undergoes is subtle, not dramatic. One sentence follows another like one foot in front of the other, and Nora’s day-to-day life is filled with little more than the exchanges she has with the people she knows and her own interiority, which is as full as the town she lives in and all its inhabitants.

Nora must endure the embarrassment of returning to a job she held before she married Maurice and left it to raise her family. She’s lost some of her footing, socially, and there are people in the town who don’t mind reminding her of that. Her sons are suffering too, but for the first time in their lives, their feelings are locked away from her. “In these months, she realized, something had changed in the clear, easy connection between her and them, and perhaps, for them, between each other. She felt that she would never be sure about them again.” We have the sense that things are very difficult, but also that this is simply a part of the normal order of things. The undercurrent of bleakness that is so often present in Irish fiction is absent here, and though this isn’t a boisterous story it is a happy one, every moment infused with hope and a reason to go on living.

The novel is so entirely focused on the small details of these personal relationships that for a while it’s impossible to place it in any one decade of the twentieth century; it feels timeless. But slowly we begin to find mentions of popular singers and political movements that serve as clues. On her TV at home, Nora watches the unrest in Northern Ireland and then in Dublin, with the burning of the British Embassy in 1972. There is a climate of political awareness that is like a backdrop to Nora’s life, a given. Sometimes events in the larger world affect her personally, and sometimes they don’t.

At one point, deep into the novel, Nora is out in a pub and is asked to sing for the crowd, and we learn that she has a beautiful voice. She later takes voice lessons from an eccentric ex-nun, who laments that Nora never trained her voice when she was younger since now there is a limit to what she’ll be able to do with it. To Nora this isn’t a tragedy, just the way it is. Still, it is the music, and the coaxing forth of her voice, that help her find a new way to live.

As much as Nora Webster is about one person, it’s also about the impossibility of being simply one person, since we’re all woven into the tapestry of human connection. Nora has her own strong personality—and it’s intractable enough for one of her sisters to call her “a demon”—but she is also a kind of composite of her children, her sisters, and her poor husband; the saleswoman at the record shop; the just-folks types at the pub, who she feels at ease with; the snooty, affected woman she works for; and the country itself, and its history and future.

In the end, it’s the joining of all these voices that gives this novel its life force—Nora Webster singing with a choir, rather than on her own.

Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet
by Andrew Blum (Echo)

Remember the tubes thing? When Alaska senator Ted Stevens described the Internet as being like a “series of tubes,” and everyone laughed at how clueless and old-media he sounded? That joke was everywhere for awhile. On the day I met a tech-savvy young librarian who is now a friend of mine, she and I were standing in the kitchen at a friend’s party when someone complimented her t-shirt. On it was a diagram of the female reproductive system, emblazoned with the phrase “The Internet: A Series of Tubes.” We all chuckled knowingly.

And yet, as Andrew Blum reports in his new book about the Internet, his metaphor was pretty apt — even literal. After losing his own web connection at home one day because a squirrel had chewed through a cable outside his window, Blum realized that, beyond a general, mostly fanciful idea about “the cloud,” he really had no idea what made up the Internet and where those physical components existed. In this, the journalist’s spirited first book, he has endeavored to find the Internet. And among many other discoveries he learns that “There are buildings filled with tubes, and hundreds of thousands of miles of roads and railroad tracks, beside which lie buried tubes. Everything you do online travels through a tube. Inside those tubes (by and large) are glass fibers. Inside those fibers is light. Encoded in that light is, increasingly, us.”

Though it often leads him to draw enraptured conclusions like that one, this kind of hard evidence of the Internet is what Blum is after, “something real amid the merely virtual—something realer than pixels and bits.” And the realness is there to be found: in nondescript buildings in Amsterdam, beside a windswept potato field in Cornwall, England, and inside a giant, humming facility in poky little Ashburn, Virginia, to name a few.

Simply put, the Internet is a network of computer networks, and in order for them to communicate they must physically connect to each other somewhere. For much of his book, Blum learns where those connections are made and goes and looks at them. One early visit was to Leonard Kleinrock, a UCLA professor who became a founder of the Internet when, in the late ‘60s, he helped create an early and experimental computer network. Kleinrock shows him the machine that did it, the “interface message processor” (IMP) that looked like “a file cabinet dressed up as R2-D2” and smelled like an air conditioner. Beginning with Kleinrock’s rather stirring story — Blum credits those web pioneers with establishing the Internet from the beginning as a network that was open and decentralized by design — he gives us a brief history lesson. But soon he returns to his real preoccupation: finding what’s here now.

Imagining the idea of here when it comes to the Internet is a bit tricky, of course, but as a journalist who often writes about architecture Blum has a special interest in the idea of physical place, and a pleasing habit of drawing parallels between physical spaces and conceptual ones. Often, the two overlap.

One important place of internetworking is the building in Ashburn, which whirs with electricity and giant fans and is filled to the gills with the blinking routers that make the all-important connections. Places like this one give the so-called cloud some substance; though the machinery is impressive, these big ugly buildings are nothing we haven’t seen before. Still, we feel Blum’s excitement at each new discovery. With all their loving detail, his accounts of places like these read like the description of a sitting room you’d find in a Regency novel.

In a way it’s incredible that no one has written a book like this yet. But the truth is that most of us understand very little of what goes on inside our personal computers, and we’ve been content to think of the way they connect to each other in almost magical terms and leave it at that.

“It’s an interesting and sociological commentary that people are not curious about it,” Kleinrock says. “It’s like oxygen. People don’t ask where oxygen comes from.”

Furthermore, as Blum finds out, there are people who would prefer to keep us in the dark about it. His visit to Google’s data center — one of the places where the information we put on the Web is stored, like the emails in our gmail accounts and our countless downloads — is awkward and the conversations scripted, a closed door.

Compared to the data people, though, the tubes folks are open and chatty; Blum meets one networking engineer after another who is happy to take him, after a retina scan or two, into the bowels of these Internet buildings. Eventually he gets to watch some cable being put down in the ocean off the coast of Portugal, with the purpose of connecting to Africa, and we feel two opposing things at once: a thrill at the thought of a magically shrinking globe, and the clunking realization that all this wizardry works on sheer mechanics, like a plug in a socket. Again and again we share Blum’s surprise and pleasure in learning that, rather than being “everywhere,” the Internet has hook-ups in very specific places. Indeed, in his attempt to peek behind the curtain Blum sometimes gets bogged down in the physical details, the plod from one place to another, and one wonders why he waits until the book’s end to get to the good Google gossip.

Readers will appreciate the book’s clear explanations of complicated processes, though some will enjoy it simply for Blum’s sense of wonderment; if sheer magnitude is your thing you won’t be let down. At one point Blum marvels at the amount of information traveling through the networking cables as he stands in a room looking at them, each one “represent[ing] up to ten gigabits of traffic per second — enough to transmit ten thousand family pictures per second.”

But as he does by conjuring those snapshots that fill Facebook to bursting, Blum keeps circling back to the same basic idea, as touching as it is true: that the Internet, wherever it exists physically, is an extension of the human networks that were forged a long time ago.

Even the visionary Kleinrock was unable to see what the Internet would come to mean. “I thought it was going to be computers talking to computers or people talking to computers. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about you and me talking.”

Women in Clothes
by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton (Blue Rider Press)

Women and their clothes: such a simple conceit, and yet there’s so very much to say. For this literary take on a quotidian concern, editors Heti, Julavits, and Shapton (the first two accomplished fiction writers, the third an artist and memoirist) invited many dozens of contributors to discuss things like their shopping methodologies and the colors they most like to wear. But they talk about larger ideas too, such as what it means to look and be looked at, and the ways in which the artifacts in our closets connect us to our mothers and grandmothers before us.

Unlike the average anthology, this one is absolutely packed with content—just over 500 pages’ worth. The contributions come in a huge range of categories, and were written by famous ladies and ordinary folks alike, the latter via “surveys” styled like questions you’d ask a close friend. (“What’s the situation with your hair?”) Their responses are so varied, humorous, and brief as to result in a kind of massive-scale coffee break (or cocktail hour). And with the inclusion of women like Girls’ Lena Dunham, teenage fashion editor Tavi Gevinson, and elder hipsters Kim Gordon and Cindy Sherman, the book’s vibe is modern and cool.

Surely, there is something here for everyone. You might like the Projects section, which features artistic riffs on the same themes. Miranda July’s “Thirty Six Women” shows photographs of six people swapping clothes—they take turns wearing each other’s favorite outfit—with the result looking something like one of those “who wore it better” photo spreads, only for, say, The Paris Review instead of US Weekly. “Ring Cycle” is a collection of interviews with women in a newspaper office about the rings they’re wearing, accompanied by photocopies of their hands. This piece, like many others in the book, has a wonderful way of feeling carefully considered and off-the-cuff at the same time—like your favorite outfit, perhaps, which makes you look great but also like you haven’t tried too hard.

The Conversations might appeal to you the most, since they feel so deliciously like eavesdropping. “Black Girls Talking” is a charming conversation about favorite fabrics and new hairstyles by a few young women—friends, from the sound of it—who produce a podcast by the same name.

There are longer prose pieces in here too, but even those have a fleeting feeling, as though you’ve just flipped past someone talking on TV and decided to leave the channel on while she describes the freedom she feels when she wears the hijab, or which jeans she prefers to have on while she works on her father’s horse ranch.

Guaranteed, somewhere in this book someone has expressed an opinion you haven’t heard yet, and you’ll be the better for having read it. Every page is brimming with ideas in their many forms: memories, opinions, even half-remembered dreams. Because the thing that editors Heti, Julavits and Shapton know—and that makes this book such a delightful success—is that clothing is never just about clothing.

Why Grow Up?
by Susan Neiman (FSG)

One morning a few days before I started reading philosopher Susan Neiman’s new book, I tore off my daily calendar of New Yorker cartoons and found this gem, by Joe Dator: Two children are sitting together, and one says to the other, “What do you want to be when you give up?”

It’s funny because it’s true.

Or at least it can seem that way—to the very young and hopeful, as well as in the eyes of our dominant culture, which fetishizes their innocence and selectively forgets how hard it often is to be young.

According to Neiman, the essence of maturity is not resignation, but wisdom and balance: the ability to accept life’s difficulties as inevitable while never abandoning the struggle to better our lives and the world around us. To convince us, she takes us on a tour of the world and through the history of thought, discussing the ways that childhood, adolescence, and adulthood have been conceived of in different times and cultures.

“Coming of age is an Enlightenment problem…” she tells us, and many of our ideas about choosing the right path to adulthood come from this time, when traditional societal structures began to loosen, individuals had more autonomy, and ideas about the right way to be a person were first conceived of as philosophical problems.

American-born Neiman lives in Germany, where she is the director of the Einstein Forum, which hosts lectures and other programs to engage the public with important thinkers—to take their ideas out of the academy and share them with the rest of us. Unsurprisingly then, her book is easy to understand, and serves as a solid introduction to some of the major themes of the Enlightenment, with a special focus on Kant and his ideas about reason and experience and the importance of both.

In looking at the stages of human development, Neiman makes the case that all of us, beginning in earliest childhood, learn that there is a difference between the way the world is and the way it ought to be. The difference between is and ought, of course, would be the central concern of most schools of philosophy. The Epicureans were a little too frivolous, with their whole If it feels go do it ethos, and the Stoics were just kidding themselves, trying to desensitize themselves to the swift kicking life would give them (as it gives us all). Hume and others have tried to pass off that latter line of thought as maturity, but—as she often does—Neiman aligns her thinking with Kant’s, who accepted the more difficult truth, that happiness and virtue aren’t always one in the same. Neiman then explores three categories of experience that are essential parts of “growing up”: education, travel, and work (this last one essential to our very humanity, according to Kant, Hegel, and Hannah Arendt, so be sure to finish those chores you promised to do today).

Neiman bolsters this discussion with writings from psychologists and studies by primatologists, as well as thinkers from other fields, and builds toward her chief argument: that we totally should grow up, because it’s difficult and interesting to do so. She calls on us to bring the ideas of the Enlightenment into the twenty-first century, by being vigilant against threats to freedom and “extending social justice,” asserting that “growing up depends on both.”

It’s stirring stuff. Nonetheless, Neiman briefly makes forays into a lesser sort of advice giving—make friends with smart people, take breaks from the Internet—and she makes frequent anecdotal comparisons between American and European custom that aren’t terribly useful or, ahem, enlightening.

But she’s impassioned and thorough, alive with curiosity, devilishly well-read, fair-minded and funny. Her writing is strongest when she puts to use her good humor and graciousness, as when she takes issue with the claim that elder rockers should get off the stage. Far from embarrassing, Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen make fine role models for us all, proving that creative development can—and should—continue for much longer than we’ve been told. (The only regrettable thing about this argument is that Neiman forgets to mention Patti Smith.) The philosopher’s calls to grow up, and grow up well, are frequent, and in this instance, surprising and moving. She asks: “Can it be that these men produce resentment because we are too lazy, or frightened, to grow up ourselves?”