What I Read in July

August 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

The Normal School, Volume Six, Issue One. One great thing about The Normal School: I come away from each issue feeling like I’ve learned something. There was Ned Stuckey-French’s superb Elvis essay a while back, and now Joe Bonomo (This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began), in “Mama Loved the Ways of the World,” writes about a subject of charming serendipity: old country music 45-RPM records that approach the subject of topless dancing. There are apparently enough of them out there, if you look in the right places, to form a cottage industry, and WFMU disc jockey Greg Germani is an avid collector who shared some of his treasures with Bonomo. The jewel of these recordings is “Please Don’t Go Topless, Mother,” a novelty performance tune written by Ron Hellard and sung by 7-year-old Troy Hess:

“You’re ruining your reputation, and I can give you two big reasons why.”

Bonomo tracks down Hess, now 48, to recall the story behind the record and its aftereffects: its limited run of 750 copies; its suppression by radio stations that refused to play it and consequent aftermarket among collectors who found gold in its kitschy ribaldness; industry journalists who caught up with Hess later in his young career and portrayed him as an example of a child star being exploited by his record-producer father. Bonomo’s writing is fluid, fun and engaging; he is in on the joke without piling on to it further, and his exposure to the adult Hess gives him access to some withering anecdotes, including one of the boy, his singing career having cooled off, being dropped off at his local school in the custom van in which he once toured, with his name still in fading letters on the side.

This issue also includes a short story by Peter Ho Davies, who had a story appear in Harper’s in January 2001 called “What You Know.” That story concerns a writing teacher who must cope with the news of a deadly shooting committed by a student at the school where he teaches. It was probably one of the first pieces of post-Columbine fiction to address the subject of in-school mass violence, and it foreshadowed later novels on the subject by Jim Shepard, Richard Russo, and Lionel Shriver. Coincidentally, this issue also includes an essay about school violence: “Boys Least Likely To,” by Colin Rafferty. According to an author’s note, Rafferty had originally begun the piece in the wake of the Columbine shootings but shelved it, and picked it up again after the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary. The essay interlaces a timeline of the events at Columbine with a hypothetical third shooter’s first-person account of the tragedy:

I am about to become real with a muscle’s twitch, a hammer’s fall. From my vantage point, I have watched them walk from the cars (the bombs I’ve built, the things I’ve known) to the top of the hill. People eat lunch, waiting, mouths moving slowly in contemplation. Rachel Scott is laughing at something her friend has said; her hair is falling back onto her shoulders. Down the hill, the cafeteria doors open, and I can see the toe of Dan Rohrbough’s sneaker edging out.

It is a beautiful day; this is why we start outdoors. Part of me is glad the propane does not catch fire.

The fact that a piece like this can still be fresh tells us how few of our questions about youth violence, and the rage and giving up, have really been answered.

Zoetrope: All-Story, Spring 2013. Each issue of Zoetrope is a showcase of design, not just new writing, and this issue is no exception with edgy cutout art by Geoff McFetridge (some of it tied to the stories in the issue). There is a reprint of Daphne Du Maurier’s “The Birds,” the basis for the Hitchcock film, and a clever story called “AP Style” by Dan Keane, ostensibly about beauty pageant scandal in Bolivia and set against the backdrop of that country’s crumbling infrastructure. The story is alternately told in official dispatches from a journalist stationed in La Paz and balanced out with terse, insensitive exchanges with the press agency.

The summer issue of Zoetrope is designed by Michael Stipe and includes stories by Karen Russell and Chris Adrian.

Look! Look! Feathers, Mike Young. Received this book as a gift from the author at AWP. Young’s writing is electric; in these stories he finds new and inventive ways to paint modern landscapes, dotted with new fusion restaurants and salvaged buildings and old bingo halls. His verbing of words (“tried to karate a guy”; “slump to bed, blear up at noon”; “started to windmill the dude”) creates a frantic pace that slides the reader past the obvious next step and into the sublime. A good number of his metaphors invoke food, which allows for a vicarious participation of the two least-invoked senses in fiction. Character is not skimped on; each story brings together a community of eccentrics and semi-frustrated observers who know each other and are comfortable letting their familiar quirks do the communicating for them. This is one of those books I’ll be coming back to more than once.

Fourteen Hills, Vol. 19.2. For some reason I received two copies of this issue in the mail, about two weeks apart. For the second time in three issues of Fourteen Hills my favorite piece was sports-related: the narrative poem “What people have against sports,” by Joe Sacksteder. It is ostensibly about two cousins on opposing junior-varsity hockey squads facing off in a championship game, but Sacksteder sets the lyrical scene against alarmingly on-point generalizations:

They have a problem with hockeymoms / with pennies in a milk jug, cowbells—though by the time hockeymoms get to the college level they’ve abandoned these noisemakers / They have a problem with their harpy screeches / with their unbridled aggression / with their absolute knowledge of the rulebook

May We Shed These Human Bodies, Amber Sparks. The back cover of this book has a blurb by Ben Loory, whose book I read last September, and it’s appropriate, because before I noticed the blurb I was thinking that some of the early stories in this collection reminded me of Loory’s fables. Sparks is not as deliberately elementary with her language, however; in some of these tales the plot fades off the page so that the reader’s attention is directed to sentence rhythm, the echoing of sounds, and in many cases close character is shunned in favor of a helicoptering over an arrangement of actors, as in an anthropological study:

There comes a point, always, where the wolf-child or the goat-child or the bear-child or the monkey-child is discovered by humans. There is power in the inverse of the usual myth: A child is found, is a foundling, will be the founder of a new civilization or dynasty or world. There is power in the second beginning, the tumbling out from the wild woods’ womb, the original loss glossed over and made to disappear.

 I Am Charlotte Simmons, Tom Wolfe. It is as tone-deaf as any novel about the modern college experience written by a sheltered elderly writer who refuses to listen to his editor can be. The events depicted here with the intent to shock—the hooking up in place of meaningful relationships, the gaping athlete-student divide, the cheating and plagiarism, the fraternal entitlements, all in prose as subtle as a train derailment—have been going on in the American university system for decades, and I honestly think Wolfe wrote this book thinking he was doing the public a favor by letting us know about it all.

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