‘Netsuke’ by Rikki Ducornet

Back when I was in my 20s, and before 9/11 made saying such things tacky, one of my friends used to refer to the systematic dismantling of ones life as “Crashing the plane.” When we engaged in some sort of horrific behavior, using erratic means to quickly thrust a relationship status into critical condition, when we did something passive aggressive at work that caused the loathing to show throw the seams, any sort of rash bad behavior that would implode on itself, that was crashing the plane.

The main character in Rikki Ducornet’s novella Netsuke is definitely trying to crash the plane.

When the story opens, the world’s least ethical psychoanalyst is out for a run. He exchanges glances with woman on the path and a few seconds later they are rutting in the woods. This sparks some inner monologue about his dual nature: The doctor with a practice in an office on his property, married to an artsy perfectionist who collects netsuke, Japanese ornaments. But he is also a bad, bad man. Bedding a parade of store clerks, strangers, and patients including a cutter and a cross dresser. Back at home the psychoanalyst takes his daily hour-long shower to wash away the debauchery and become the man his wife believes him to be.

Meanwhile, he wants to get caught. Flimsy alibis, taking her to restaurants he shares with lovers, telling her details from sessions to give the relationship seedlings of doubt and mistrust. Sometimes just saying the word “woman” aloud to her gives him a thrill.

When she begins to shift into frustration over his busy schedule, or she starts to sense something is amiss, he makes empty promises about getting away together soon. In the later part of the book, Aikio is given a voice and a reader finds that she knows more than she thinks she knows.

There is some wonderful writing here, although better if you read the book in one sitting. Coming back to it dulls the flow and makes it sound a little overly pretty and self conscious. The psychoanalyst in particular has this sort of manic and brainiac-ness to him, like a Poe character, with shifts between first and third person that really seal him as this sex addict slash narcissist. Reading it feels like stumbling on an indie film you’ve never heard of starring Ben Kingsley.

Plotwise, there isn’t a lot to hold on to here. It is a lot of the same, a rolling boil of conflict that doesn’t escalate quite enough. His relationships never getting beyond the physical. And when the story shifts to include perspectives of his lovers and wife, the voices aren’t really distinct. Even a moment when two of his patients discover they are both getting special treatment is a sort of gray area that lacks tension.

This review was originally posted May 25, 2011 on Minnesota Reads.

‘Fun Home’ by Alison Bechdel

Sometimes my reading takes on a sort of frantic archeological hunt-ness and I find myself tearing through books looking for the best sentence, the most aurally appealing word, the most curious idea. The next best thing ever. Or the next worst thing ever. A superlative in some respect. Something that bonks me over the head, bleeding from pores and lamenting the cruelty of only being able to read this thing for the first time once. And that there is a chance I will never again read anything better, so prepare for a lifetime of disappointment. Better find a new hobby. Maybe hiking.

Of course, this rarely happens. The majority of books are fine. Fine-ish. Just enough of everything. Next book, please.

Enter Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Game over. Time to find a nice trail, sturdy boots, and tick repellent. This is the most multi-layered, wholly complete graphic anything I’ve read or suspect I will ever read. It would stand on its own as a novel; it would stand on its own as completely wordless.

The longtime “Dykes to Watch Out For” creator’s coming-out-of-age story centers on growing up not-at-all pink and flowery in an old mansion with hug-free parents — mom is a Henry James-style character, and dad is more Gatsby. Her father Bruce dies two weeks after she reveals to her parents by letter from college that she is a lesbian and her mother reveals that her father has had a series of flings with teen-aged boys. She suspects he killed himself, purposefully stepping in front of a truck.

Bechdel tells her story in a way that keeps doubling back to this discovery about her father, and she writes the story of her life from this new perspective about what was really going on in this huge old house he was restoring just millimeters from where he grew up in a town teeming with Bechdels.

Whoa. Bechdel has got a crazy way with words and descriptions and the chops to pull off the story even without these wicked detailed panels. Second of all, whoa. The art is amazing with telling details and bits of humor. One of her best tricks is telling a story from mythology or a classic novel with her words, while including images of her family’s parallel narrative.

Your brain will explode at the consideration taken in creating this graphic memoir.

This review was posted on May 23, 2011 on Minnesota Reads.

‘The Pleasure of my Company’ by Steve Martin

Daniel Pecan Cambridge lives in a prison of disorder. His life in Santa Monica is a highly structured life in which he must find a way to the Rite Aid that doesn’t involve stepping off a curb. He is mentally unable to hold a job like the one he once had at Hewlitt Packard. He is unable to use public transportation unless he can draw lines between passengers based upon the plaids and stripes they are wearing. He prioritizes his mail into three piles, savoring letters from his grandmother in Texas like they are the middle part of an Oreo.

When Steve Martin’s novella The Pleasure of My Company opens, Daniel has been cleared of murder charges and has developed a friendship with his neighbor Philipa, an actress who doesn’t know he is slipping her Qualudes. He is visited regularly by an interning psychology student named Clarissa, whom he lies to about his life. He has it bad for Elizabeth, the Real Estate agent who is trying to fill some apartments down the street.

A reader might go through these stages in the early parts of Martin’s second whack at fiction: 1) Ha! That Steve Martin. This is hilarious! 2) Oh my. Should I be laughing at a character who has such a debilitating case of OCD and a touch of Asperger Syndrome? 3) Oh my aching heart!

This list of funny compulsions is all fun and games until Daniel gets a letter from his grandmother who lives in Texas, his benefactor — whom he prefers when she isn’t sending him checks, as much as he needs the checks. Then everything kind of shifts when you realize he isn’t pure, neurotic comedy. He’s a being with feelings who is trapped by things like curbs, the wattage of light bulbs, and expressing emotions.

“The irony is that the one person who gives me money is the one person I wish I could hand the check back to and say no, only joy can pass between you and me. I found it difficult to write back. But I did, stingy with loving words because they didn’t come out of me easily. I hoped she could read between the lines.”

Daniel’s life changes when he is invited by Philipa’s boyfriend Brian to go for a run and he realizes that by following Brian he can soar over curbs, and when he enters an essay contest in search of the most average American. And when he starts to learn more about Clarissa and the complexity of her life with child and hostile ex.

This is a pleasant little story. Nice, funny, easy. And it wraps up tightly like a burrito.

It has taken reading three books by Steve Martin to understand that he is never ever going to do anything super terrible to his characters. This is both frustrating and also alleviates a ton of the stress of reading and worrying about characters. Children won’t die left in the hands of a man who has debilitating street-crossing habits. A character who has fallen in love with his therapist will not do anything super embarrassing to proclaim his feelings. Even the obsessive compulsive gets a slight break when he takes up with a girlfriend who categorizes his ticks into three headings: Acceptable, unacceptable, and hilarious. As though requited love can cure him of OCD and Asperger Syndrome.

Steve Martin’s novels aren’t going to break your heart or make your pulse race. They are simple stories with likable characters whose stories end nicely without shrapnel or gritty nails or paint splatters or messy hair or the need for hand sanitizer.

This review was originally published May 16, 2011 on Minnesota Reads.

‘Say Her Name’ by Francisco Goldman

The character named Francisco Goldman has smelled his dead wife’s clothes. He has a shrine that includes her wedding dress and toys. He wears their wedding rings on a chain around his neck. He meets with her old friends, also still grief-stricken, sometimes falling into bed with one or another as both parties desperately try to resurrect Aura Estrada.

But the best voodoo that the author Francisco Goldman has done is write this novel-based-on-real-life Say Her Name. Here he takes the chance to exhaust Aura, research Aura, and write Aura in such a lovely way that you can almost see her in the pages — there but not there — like a flirty ghost.

Aura Estrada died when she was 30, nearly two years into their marriage, four years into their relationship. It was a body surfing accident, a fluky and not immediate death, the details of which Goldman saves for the final 50 super detailed pages of the story while he considers things like the life span of the wave that flipped her, the signs that might have indicated she would die that day, and his own level of culpability. Aura’s mother Juanita blames him for her death. And frankly, he doesn’t seem to not blame himself a little. She has involved lawyers and won’t relinquish her daughter’s ashes, not even a heaping teaspoon of them.

Before that, Goldman writes about Aura: A young woman from Mexico who collects degrees and is on her way to a career in fiction writing. A bit of a reformed wild child with a shaken background and an unstable mother. A woman who speaks in a fantastical way: She wonders whether a friend’s husband has a prosthetic limb (and what if it was made of cheese!) and contemplates the invention of robot shoes that come when you call (but can’t handle stairs on their own!).

She is smart and sunny and when she gets drunk she recites poetry. She sits on a folding chair on the patio smoking cigarettes and reading. She writes. She has always written. She flirtingly mocks Goldman, frequently referencing his age when it is apparent in his trick knee or graying hair and telling him he is ugly.

“You are so lucky, Francisco, she would say. You are the luckiest man on earth, to have a young, intelligent, talented wife who loves you the way I do. Do you know how lucky you are?”

After her death he researches his lost love: He delves into her childhood journals, the writing she did as an adult, he interviews her estranged father, he meets with friends to learn everything he can about his dead wife. He also studies waves to learn more about the science behind her death, and travels to places she wanted to see. He thinks of all the stories that died with her, the way that without her there is no one to fact check against his own accounts of their shared life.

And sometimes he sees her: In the branches of a tree, in a light during a memorial reading, laying with him in bed.

This is all very lovely and wrenching, this thorough tribute to Aura Estrada, in the way that love songs are especially beautiful when you know they are actually about someone real with whom the artist genuinely loves. The only thing that gives this soul mate-y story a dash of ew is that Goldman is 22 years older than Estrada, a scenario that seems to be his dating rule rather than exception. Before he met her and after her death he had a thing for getting handsy with twentysomethings while going pupil-to-pupil with 50. Most of the time in his relationship with Aura this age difference isn’t glaring, but when it is, especially when he continues to bed twentysomethings medicinally after Aura’s death … whoa it is.

This review was originally published May 14, 2011 on Minnesota Reads.

‘The Broom of the System’ by David Foster Wallace

What if David Foster Wallace wrote a super accessible novel without end notes, but still filled with his signature loony characters, absurd situations and hilarious dialogue? Dum-dum-dum. He did! Before his brain got too so super big, while he was still honing voice and construction, DF-Dubs wrote a pleasant little novel that doesn’t require holing up like an agoraphobic and conceding defeat to muscle atrophy.

The Broom of the System only takes a month to read! And every single page of it makes sense as much as this mess of coincidences can possibly make sense.

Lenore Beadsman, always dressed in black Converse and a white dress, comes from the equivalent of Ohio royalty. Her people settled the town where she lives, which is in the shape of Jayne Mansfield’s profile, and next to the Great Ohio Desert — a bit of real estate built in the 1970s and filled with black sand. A bit of savage reference for people who perhaps have things too easy. She is engaged in a relationship with Rick Vigorous, who owns the publishing company she works for, and satiates her with bedtime stories submitted to his rag instead of satiating her the old fashioned way. She’s incredibly close to her great-grandmother, also named Lenore Beadsman, a word-nerd who goes missing with about two dozen other residents from a nursing home.

Lenore Beadsman the younger has a pet bird named Vlad the Impaler who has somehow developed a much more complex vocabulary. She has a brother who has a fake leg with a secret drawer for storing drugs and he refers to said leg as though it is its own being. Her best friend Candy Mandible likes doing it. The man who owns the building where she works is trying to get fat enough to take over the world with his space. Rick Vigorous is obsessed with her, creates flimsily veiled fan fiction about her and plies their mutual therapist for the deets on Lenore.

There are a ton of Infinite Jest-isms in this novel, the seeds that will eventually sprout into DFW’s most-famous work. And like IJ, it is heavy on activity and bare on plot. More incident-based than forward-moving.

Of course, I really dug the experience of reading Infinite Jest, which is like a harrowing event that a person survives as well as a great piece of fiction. The Broom of the System is less of an event, but still wonderful fiction filled with enviable writing in a style I call “the controlled free fall system,” in which it seems like a writer has just cut loose and started riffing and lets things go where they will. Some writers just free fall, which comes off as unfocused and willy nilly; DFW is really good at it. He sets his pen free, but doesn’t dissolve into something that is a dizzying cacophony of clarinets. This is why his stuff is so freaking great.

I think this makes for a nice gateway drug into DFW, for those who are Wallace-curious and don’t want to commit to something that weighs as much as a sack of flour.

This review was originally posted May 2, 2011 on Minnesota Reads.

‘Blood, Bones and Butter’ by Gabrielle Hamilton

Gabrielle Hamilton’s food memoir Blood, Bones & Butter is a bit of a sleeper. It starts with pleasant and wholesome childhood memories in a big old house on plenty of acreage, parked under mother’s chin listening to her talk, watching her prepare huge feasts.

Then Whammo! It’s girls gone wild. Age deception, booze, drugs, alternative schooling, jetting off to New York City to live with her sister and steal dinero from the bar where she works. Wandering down the East Coast to hone hippie sensibilities, still keeping a toe in the food industry. Off to Michigan to study writing among peers she doesn’t really connect with and cater events among co-workers with whom she does.

There is a definite wait-what? moment.

This memoir is pretty uneven. The writing, specifically the moments when she is really talking food, is not only super visual, but almost taste-able. But some of the life story is a little dry documentary. Some of the best parts are set in Italy, but it goes on too long and is repetitive.

There are some wicked scenes in this book, including a lobster massacre at a summer camp so inexcusable — picture the poor little creatures unable to breathe, crawling up each others backs to escape — that Hamilton fled the premises leaving a bucket of KFC as a token of her discontent. Baby’s first chicken kill-pluck-cook, however, is the beautiful flavor of gore.

When one decides to write a memoir, she can include, smudge, or ignore any facet of her life. In the case of this one, the smudged and ignored parts are a bit distracting. Our hero paints her mother, first, as this wonderfully exotic and worldly woman who spent hours in the kitchen and tag-teamed with her husband a massive lamb feast every summer. Then her parents split up. Later in the story she is on her way to meet her mother for the first time in 20 years. There is a vague resolution at the end of the trip. But without even a bit of an idea of why they were estranged, it lacks impact.

Also: At one point Hamilton enters into a long term relationship with a woman she meets while getting her MFA in Michigan. Hamilton cheats on her with Michele, the Italian green card-needer she eventually marries and makes puppies with. Their actual relationship is unclear — they do it, they don’t live together, they travel to Italy together every year, they don’t communicate, she seems to like the idea of this family thing. Not really the stuff of pop ballads.

During one of the best parts of the story, Hamilton is opening her restaurant Prune in the morning and there is an overwhelming smell of human feces, which is coming from outside the back door. Later she looks out and sees a dead rat — newly dead and even still breathing, she thinks — until it falls down a step and busts open revealing a slew of maggots.

The person who wrote this scene is probably the same kind of person who knows there are huge omissions in her story, shrugged, and said “Eff ‘em.” Which is also kind of awesome.

This review was posted April 17, 2011 on Minnesota Reads.

‘The Paris Wife’ by Paula McLain

I’ve always been super attracted to the Ex-Pats, boozing their blurry-eyed way through Paris in the 1920s. Falling into gutters and falling into beds. Being so so serious about this art thing and passing the salt and pepper to Gertrude Stein.

While listening to, yes listening to, Paula McLain’s bit of historical fiction The Paris Wife, I had a thought that I’ve never had in a decade and a half of consuming Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and the like. It went like this: Why, these people are idiot ego-maniac twenty-somethings with no pause button on the old immediate gratification trigger.

This understanding doesn’t make this story, told mostly from the perspective of Hadley Richardson, Ernest’s first wife, any less delicious. I mean, I lap up a modern version of this bad behavior every week on “Jersey Shore.”

The story covers the Hadley-Ernest combo meal from first glances to the final phone call long after they have divorced. In between there is travel, a baby, and Hemingway’s first bursts of literary fame including the writing of The Sun Also Rises, which was taken right from the couple’s travels, although curiously omits any mention of Hadley, real or disguised. You get front row seats for the integration of the other woman, Pauline Pfeiffer, who worked her way into their daily life well into the affair, riding bikes with Hadley — who knew the score — and nooners with Ernest. She becomes his second of four wives.

It’s the stuff of A Moveable Feast, but from the sideline camera of a woman who is “just the wife.”

My goodness McLain does this well. She has captured the voices and brain waves of these characters in such a convincing way it was easy to forget the “fiction” label. The shifts in perspective to consider Hemingway’s struggles are a nice contrast. They are the ideas of a romantic who just can’t help himself. He’s torn between the woman he believes is his other half, and this sassy minx in smart coats who works in fashion.

Meanwhile, the scenes including F. Scott and Zelda are like all-star comedy disaster cameos. I missed this story when it was gone.