Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Women

New Short Story Collections: Justin Taylor, Paula Bomer and Hilary Mantel

by Levi Asher on Monday, November 17, 2014 03:08 pm


I used to read short stories all the time. At one point, I was more into short stories than novels.

Well, why not? This was back when Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Tama Janowitz, Lorrie Moore, John Updike, Cynthia Ozick, Alice Munro and William Trevor were all putting out stuff on a regular basis. It sure did seem like a golden age.

I never put much stock in golden ages, though. I'm sure there are just as many good short story writers out there today as there were in the Breakfast Club years. But I'm not always sure who these short story writers are. So, I made it a point to read three recent volumes by three acclaimed short story writers recently. I must have chosen well, because I struck gold of some sort with all three.

Flings by Justin Taylor

I almost had a bad experience with Flings by Justin Taylor. This is probably because I didn't begin on the first page, but instead skipped ahead to the one story named after a Phish song. This turned out to be one of the only stories in the book I didn't like.

Justin Taylor is the kind of hip young over-educated brooklyn writer I might never have noticed if he didn't have one quirk that caught my attention: his substantial knowledge of the Grateful Dead and Phish. Stereotypes about batik-wearing aisle dancers aside (and really, these stereotypes have become extremely stale), there is a lot of fresh energy and intellectual depth in our long-running jamband subcultures, and it's about time a hip young over-educated brooklyn writer decided to turn these subcultures and their fringe members into material for fiction.

I thought Justin Taylor really nailed the aching sweetness of modern-day hippiedom with his clever novel The Gospel of Anarchy, which is about a houseful of collegiate Florida neo-Situationists who conjure up a new religion from the filth of their communal kitchen. I remembered this book for its warm characters, but I was left cold by the selfish and thick-headed Dad who takes his gloomy children to a Phish concert in "Mike's Song", the first story I read in Flings. Perhaps I came to this story with unfair expectations, but I can't help hoping that a story about a Phish concert will capture some of the joyousness of the actual event. I didn't get the point of this story, and I couldn't help wishing Taylor had written with the mood of the story's setting instead of against it.

I then had a rough time with the opening story of Flings, which is also the title story of the collection. I found myself wearied by the endless stream of jumbled hapless college graduates who work for non-profits and try heroin and gossip about each other. Finishing the story, I had no idea what I was supposed to feel. I later read the acknowledgements at the end of the book:

"Flings" is, among other things, in loose homage to Virginia Woolf's 'The Waves'

To which I thought: thanks a lot, Justin, but you could have at least told me about the required reading in advance. All would be forgiven, of course, if the story worked on its own, but I don't think it does.

Fortunately, Flings immediately got better for me once I proceeded to the next story, Sungold, a playful romp that takes place in a college-town vegan pizza chain store, featuring a few of the wan anarchists and naive idealists Taylor draws so well. Then I loved Poets, maybe the best story in this book, which follows two egotistical young creative writing program junkies from their sophomoric beginnings to the eventual ravages of middle age, literary obscurity and romantic disconnection.

Even if it doesn't manage to find joy at a Phish concert, Justin Taylor's Flings is a delightful postmodernist grab bag, an accessible series of experiments in irony and attitude. The collection's title describes the book well: some of these flings don't fly, but that's the nature of a fling.






Maggie Estep

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, February 12, 2014 11:45 am


Maggie Estep, the charismatic and accessible spoken word poet and author, has suddenly died of a heart attack. She was 50 years old.

Maggie Estep was a big part of the slam poetry scene that emerged from Chicago and New York City in the 1980s and briefly flared into pop culture via MTV in the early 1990s. Her early published works include records like Love Is A Dog From Hell. Later, she published novels including Alice Fantastic and the Ruby Murphy mystery series.






Philosophy Weekend: Slavoj Zizek and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

by Levi Asher on Sunday, November 17, 2013 11:31 am


Slovenian philosopher and Litkicks favorite Slavoj Zizek has been exchanging letters with Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot, who is in jail for staging this protest in a Moscow cathedral:






A Writer's Family: Roxana Robinson and Harriet Beecher Stowe

by Levi Asher on Thursday, November 14, 2013 09:03 am


(We've been talking to novelist Roxana Robinson about her unique family history, which includes two celebrated 19th century Americans, Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In this conclusion to the two-part interview, we talk about Harriet Beecher Stowe, about religion in fiction, and about Roxana's own mission as a writer.)

LEVI: It's true, as you say, that Harriet Beecher Stowe's literary reputation currently suffers. She's seen as melodramatic, long-winded – a second-rate novelist. I didn't read Uncle Tom's Cabin myself until just recently, and I was happily surprised at the richness I found. Isn't this as well-written as any novel by Charles Dickens or Nathaniel Hawthorne? It's a riveting work, filled with psychological complexity and carefully drawn characters. Do you have any idea how her reputation got so bad? Was there a period in which she fell in public esteem?

As for the perception of Harriet Beecher Stowe as racist – I can only say that this is a terrible injustice. I wonder if the hot issues Harriet Beecher Stowe handled so bravely are still too controversial for us to see her fairly today. Do you know if she was often attacked or criticized on these terms during her life, and if so, how she responded to it?

ROXANA: In 1949 James Baldwin wrote a polemical essay called “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” in which he attacks the idea of the protest novel in general, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin in particular. It is a fierce and angry piece of writing, much of it graceful and eloquent. Baldwin was, of course, highly respected as a novelist and essayist, and he offered a black voice in the literary world, at a time when a black voice was rare and very welcome. But this essay is not particularly well reasoned or well-wrought. He begins by dismissing Uncle Tom’s Cabin as “a very bad novel.” He calls it sentimental and compares it, with contempt, to Little Women.






Carolyn Cassady, 1923 - 2013

by Brian Hassett on Friday, September 20, 2013 07:12 pm


(Carolyn Cassady, a major figure from the earliest days of the Beat Generation and a valuable spokesperson for the feminine side of Beat culture, has died at the age of 90. Carolyn was married to Neal Cassady and was also beloved by Jack Kerouac, who wrote her into both 'On The Road' and 'Big Sur'. She published her memoir twice, first as 'Heartbeat' (which was made into a movie starring Sissy Spacek) and then (with greater perspective) as 'Off the Road'. I was privileged to have hung out with the delightful and brilliant Carolyn Cassady a few times, but I did not know her as well as her dear friend Brian Hassett, who wrote the tribute below for his website and took the photos on this page. -- Levi)

Another giant has fallen — another angel taken flight.

Carolyn Cassady has just left us to join Neal and Jack on that great road trip in the sky.

Her son John, the light of her life, was there by her side till the end.






Katharine Graham, the Heroine of the Washington Post

by Levi Asher on Monday, August 5, 2013 09:30 pm


A surprise announcement that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is buying the Washington Post has signaled the end of a distinctive era in family publishing. The Washington Post has been owned by three generations of a single family since Eugene Meyer bought it in 1933. The Post was then only one of several scrappy newspapers in the District of Columbia, and it wasn't until Eugene's daughter Katharine married a very smart young journalist and entrepreneur named Philip Graham that the Washington Post began to rise above the Capitol City sludge to become a world-class newspaper. Eugene Meyer entrusted his new son-in-law to run the entire Washington Post organization. Philip Graham became a sensationally successful newspaper publisher, also establishing himself as an early multimedia visionary when he bought Newsweek magazine and a radio station.

Philip and Katharine Graham married for love -- they were part of a fashionable young set in Georgetown, and had a strong relationship at first. But Philip Graham was a complicated man, prone to terrible episodes of weird manic-depressive extremes, and he seemed to resent the fact that he had only become publisher of the Post by marrying into the family. The young businessman pushed himself hard and pursued risks, alternately stumbling and flying. He became a close friend and supporter of Lyndon Baines Johnson, which gave him a distinctive position both as a newsman and as a Georgetown socialite when LBJ was elected Vice President in 1960. He fell in love with another woman, which put him in an impossible position because his marriage to Katharine Graham was his connection to his business, his life: the Washington Post/Newsweek company.






The Great Lost Jazz Memoir: Lady Sings the Blues by Billie Holiday

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, June 4, 2013 10:18 pm


With all this acting experience behind me, Shelton thought I was ready for a crack at the movies. Not Hollywood, just Astoria, Long Island. He got me a part out there playing mob scenes in a picture with Paul Robeson. From that I got a real part in a short featuring Duke Ellington. It was a musical, with a little story to it, and it gave me a chance to sing a song -- a real weird and pretty blues number. That was the good thing about the part.

The rough part, of course, was that I had to play a chippie. Opposite me there was a comedian who'll kill me because I can't remember his name. He played my pimp or sweetheart. He was supposed to knock me around.

He knocked me down about twenty times the first day of shooting. Each time I took a fall I landed on the hard old floor painted to look like sidewalk. And there was nothing to break my falls except the flesh on my bones. The second morning when I showed up at the studio I was so sore I couldn't even think about breaking my falls. I must have hit that hard painted pavement about fifty times before the man hollered "Cut."

I saw a little bit of this epic one time at the studio, but that was all. Mom, of course, thought I was going to be a big movie star and she told everyone to watch for the picture. I don't know if anybody else saw it, but we never did. It was just a short subject, something they filled in with when they couldn't get Mickey Mouse. We'd have had to hire a private detective to find out where the hell it was playing.

What a voice. Rich, dark, sassy, slangy and street-smart. Funny, bitter, bristling with innocent joy. I'm talking about Billie Holiday's voice, but I'm not talking about her singing voice. I'm talking about her memoir, Lady Sings the Blues by Billie Holiday with William Dufty, published in 1956:






Elizabeth Wurtzel Looks Back Harshly

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, January 9, 2013 03:55 pm


I was born with a mind that is compromised by preternatural unhappiness, and I might have died very young or done very little. Instead, I made a career out of my emotions. And now I am just quarreling with normal.

Elizabeth Wurtzel has written a New York magazine article that looks back harshly at her social life and her writing career of nearly 20 years. The article has created a big buzz, both favorable and highly critical. "I start reading every Elizabeth Wurtzel essay with optimism, like maybe finally she put her talent to writing about something than herself, and by the end of paragraph three that optimism has fled" says Jessa Crispin at Bookslut. "A deliciously hathotic middle-aged whine" says Rod Dreher at the American Conservative. "I like this lady's style" says David Lat at Above The Law.






Whore Stories, by Tyler Stoddard Smith

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, November 6, 2012 05:57 pm


There are a lot of ways a book called Whore Stories: A Revealing History of the World's Oldest Profession can go wrong. Fortunately, this brisk new study of the cultural history of prostitution by Tyler Stoddard Smith aims for big intellectual and sociopolitical connections, and finds quite a few.






Hitchhiking With Vanessa

by Levi Asher on Friday, October 19, 2012 08:40 am


"A small crowd gathered around the dumpster in the rain. Word filtered back that the girl was a teenage hitchhiker. I remember thinking that it could be me, because I was also a teenage hitchhiker."

That's Vanessa Veselka, up-and-coming novelist and Litkicks favorite, telling a harrowing true story about a past run-in with a serial killer in the pages of the latest (November 2012) GQ magazine. GQ doesn't seem to have the story online (have they heard that Newsweek is going all-digital? GQ may want to update its content strategy) but it's worth seeking out. We're glad Vanessa Veselka is being more careful (we think) about her personal safety today.






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