But first a note: I'll be performing in Mill Valley this Saturday night, 6/21, at the Community Church of Mill Valley, 8 Olive St at 8 p.m with 4 other women tellers. The title: Sex, Death & Jackie Gleason's Diet Doctor. (Doesn't that cover the gamut?) $15 at the door but $10 through BrownPaperTickets.Com. I'd love to see you there.
This installment: a memoir of hippie days; short stories that plunge under the plastic surface of suburbia; a clutch of novels: the last book in Atwood’s trilogy (on CD); Belfast magical realism, kind of; a homeless Liberian woman in Greece; and a CDof a classic.
Free Spirit by Joshua Safran
Subtitled: growing up on the road and off the grid. I gobble up these memoirs of hippie days because I Was There, and because I’m so glad I didn’t go that far. Safran’s mother Claudia pursued her ideological and spiritual dreams fiercely, all over the map. But there was little Joshie dragged along, left with less than attentive babysitters, cowering under tarps as the rain beat down, and more. Crazed, freeloading partners didn’t help. The Welfare State and the grandmother funded them, barely. What a miracle he emerged into functional, articulate adulthood with perspective and forgiveness. His description of a sodden Rainbow Gathering is a richly drawn Technicolor nightmare.
Nine Inches by Tom Perotta
This author specializes in suburbia and finds depth, tragedy and comedy right under the plastic surfaces. Of course all is not squeaky clean in these short stories, as teenagers sell drugs, cops put the creepy make on them, a high school student takes SATs for pay but sabotages his rival, and another bonds weirdly with an old lady neighbor as he sits out the football season as a result of a concussion. The title, in case you’re curious, refers to the prescribed distance between partners during slow dances at school parties. Great stuff!
MaddAdam by Margaret Atwood
I’ve awaited the conclusion of this trilogy with great eagerness, and it came to me on CD first. Four voices do it justice. So this is the post-post apocalyptic world in which the few humans left, along with the fascinating hybrid Crakers, try to start again. With terrifying Painballers afoot, as well as hybrid Pigoons, it’s very dicey. The villains are canny and sadistic; the animals, with their human brain tissue, finally arrive at a détente with the humans and prove to be great allies. Who communicates between species? Blackbeard, a Craker boy with extrasensory powers who connects deeply with Toby and becomes literate. The Crakers are childlike as well as floridly sexual and need bedtime stories, which is how we catch up with past history. It’s wonderfully funny to hear Toby try to explain complex nuances of human behavior to these beings. The book stands on its own but if you haven’t read the other two yet, I suggest you start from the beginning. It’ll extend the joy of experiencing Atwood’s wiggy, penetrating worldview as played out in rich detail.
The Boy Who Could See Demons by Carolyn Jess-Cooke
Full of surprises and peculiar verisimilitude for what seems utterly fantastic: 10 year old Alex in the slums of Belfast has a coterie of demons who interact with him intensely. No one else can see them, of course. The first chapter is in his voice, and reminded me of Donahue’s brilliant Room. Then we hear from his psychiatrist, Anya, who has her own sorrows. A social worker, Michael, wants to keep Alex and his mother Cindy together after she recovers from her latest suicide attempt. Alex shows preternatural talents, insights, and bizarre strength. And oh what an amazing ending. Mesmerizing, vivid.
A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik
Jacqueline is homeless and haunted when we first encounter her on a Greek island. We glimpse fragments of personal tragedy but don’t get whole dreadful story until the very end. She’s from Liberia, has strong survival skills, and manages by giving foot massages to tourists in the beach and bedding down in caves or abandoned buildings. There are kind folks who reach out but it’s very hard for her to accept help. A stark, sad tale, well fleshed out and very worth reading if you have the stomach for it.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy
It’s rewarding to experience the classics by ear, I’ve discovered, especially when there are long, complicated names. There I am, in the car but also in Russia where the spoiled, unpleasant protagonist has just died. Something seems off at the funeral. We learn more about Ivan’s quite ordinary life: he was ambitious, greedy, and finally smug with apparent fulfillment. But then a stupid accident and his troubles start, culminating in prolonged agony and (here’s the surprise) redemption at death. His primary comforter is a peasant servant who has “nothing” except the peace Ivan so yearns for. The actor does very well with the soundtrack of suffering—all those groans. Quite satisfying--the reward of classics without effort, as it were.
Back next Monday.