Month: July 2009


BeatA few months back, author Steve Almond did a piece on NPR’s Here and Now on the emerging branch of memoir dedicated to bad parenting. Among the works he discussed were Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother and Diana Joseph’s I’m Sorry You Feel That Way. As you might guess, what all of these works have in common is a sense of sympathy toward mothers who act in a way that may, at times, seem selfish and which reveals a certain degree of ambivalence toward motherhood. One of the points Almond made in his piece was that these books are emerging at a time when many mothers have grown tired of reading about their perfect counterparts–women who can do it all for the sake of their children and who never have any regrets, second thoughts, or curiosity about what might have been if they never had children.

This genre represents somewhat of a risk in that it calls into question one of the great myths of our (and almost any) time: the idea that mothers are selfless individuals who only act with their children’s best interests at heart. Yet while “confessing” to bad mothering in the form of a memoir may be risky, conjuring such mothers for the sake of fiction may be more so. It’s one thing for the memoirist to admit to past “mistakes” or missteps (and, in so doing, perhaps tacitly beg the reader’s forgiveness), but it’s entirely another thing for an author to knowingly invent a character who egregiously violates some of our most deep-seated social taboos. (The problem, I think, is that some readers tend to mistake description for prescription, storytelling for advocacy.) Case in point, Amy Boaz’s Beat.

In Beat, Boaz presents the story of Frances, a wife and mother who has absconded to Paris with her young daughter, Cathy. Frances, it turns out, is tired of the safe, boring life she’s been leading with her husband and wishes, instead, to shack up with a poet of some small renown. Wandering the streets of Paris, Frances continually plots a reunion with said poet while alternating between wishing her daughter would stop complaining and wondering what it would be like to be a completely free woman.

In one deliciously devious passage, the narrator reports, “We pass under a Roman archway with three thick columns. I enter first; on a sudden, inexplicable impulse, a wicked, vengeful whim, I slip behind one of the columns to hide myself… She shoots frantic glances left and right. How long do I remain hidden? My eyes are glued to her rigid form. Some seconds, not many, but enough to scare her, enough to scare me.” The thing that gets me about this passage is that Frances comes through as so utterly conflicted–and thus so utterly human. On one hand, she toys with the idea of losing her daughter in a crowd, of scaring her daughter into realizing that Frances is her only lifeline, but on the other hand, she reels at the prospect of losing her daughter. This tension builds throughout the novel, and even as we shake our heads at all of the narrator’s misguided thinking (not to mention her ongoing romanticization of her relationship with the poet), we also can’t help rooting her on–or, at the very least, turning the page to see what sticky situation she gets herself into next.

All told, Beat presents a fascinating investigation of motherhood in the context of a botched extramarital affair. Boaz brings the streets of Paris to life as deftly as she conjures her flawed characters, and her humane investigation of the misguided obsessions that drive us all to some degree or another make this a brave, heartfelt, intelligent novel. Highly recommended for anyone who’s ever felt torn between doing the right thing and doing what feels good. Which is to say, recommended for everyone.

(And if you want more “bad parenting,” check out The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl!)

The Dead Husband

Dead-HusbandUp until recently, I wasn’t aware that cozy mysteries existed. Apparently, “cozy” denotes a mystery that frequently involves a bloodless crime, takes place in a small town, and is solved by an amateur sleuth. Murder She Wrote is generally cited as the best-known example of the genre, but RJ Brown’s latest novel, The Dead Husband, also serves as a wonderful example. In line with the specs of this novel, the mystery begins when the protagonist, Sally Collier, discovers a corpse in the garden of a house she’s cleaning. The corpse is intact, so no blood. Additionally, the mystery takes place in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, so it meets the “small town” criteria, too. And, finally, the sleuth has a day job: she’s a char woman (i.e., a house cleaner) — a profession chronicled by none other than Charles Dickens, so the novel not only meets all three criteria for a cozy mystery, but it also has somewhat of a classy literary pedigree.

What really brings this mystery to life is the characterization of char woman-cum-detective Sally Collier. The character lives and breathes on the page, and Brown conjures her so naturally that one can almost hear the narrator’s cockney accent (at least, that’s how I heard it!) as Sally goes about the business of trying to solve her first murder mystery. Indeed, sitting down with The Dead Husband is, I would imagine, just like sitting down with Sally herself. Sure, she has a tendency to ramble, but that’s what we love about her, and that’s what makes the narrative–and, needless to say, Brown’s writing style–so much fun. All in all, The Dead Husband is a lovely book, and I can say without exaggeration that it’s the best cozy mystery I’ve ever read.

Philly Fiction 2

pf2coverThe good folks at Don Ron Books have recently followed up their highly-praised Philly Fiction anthology with a sequel: Philly Fiction 2. This collection does a wonderful job of gathering some of the area’s finest writers to conjure a vision of Philadelphia that is both realistic and touching. Among the authors featured in this volume are Elise Juska (author of Getting Over Jack Wagner and One for Sorrow, Two for Joy), Susan Balee (book critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer), and Beth Goldner (author of The Number We End Up With), and the stories have been culled from a number of respected literary journals including The Hudson Review and Philadelphia Stories. Needless to say, the end result is a highly engaging collection that paints a moving picture of the City of Brotherly Love.

What emerges in this collection is a city of battered sedans parked in front of run-down row homes, but also a city that has given rise to sprawling suburbs and Honda dealerships. And, like the city itself, the characters all come alive with their odd idiosyncracies and secret desires. There’s the car dealer who suspects his deceased wife of having had an affair with his best customer. There’s the straight-laced classics scholar who falls in love with a girl in penguin panties. There’s the spurned college student who, years later, comes to find that the love of his life is just another suburban housewife leading a life of not-so-quiet desperation. And, in one of my favorite pieces, there’s the girl from the suburbs who visits her all-too-mature cousin in Northeast Philly only to learn that hanging with the big kids isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. These stories are all told with loving attention to the details that make Philadelphia all that it is — a city, a people, a home, and a character in its own right. A must-read for anyone who loves the City of Brotherly Love.

More Popular Than Reagan

sexysexy2I was–very briefly, and really only in a manner of speaking–in a band with Joe Lavelle many, many years ago. One of us had a modicum of musical talent, and the other went on to eventually start this blog. Now, many, many years later, Joe is performing in Los Angeles under the name SexySexy Joe Lavelle, and I’m glad to report that his modicum of musical talent has grown (“like mold in the shower,” to borrow a phrase from one of his songs) to encompass comedy as well. His 2006 release, More Popular Than Reagan, deftly highlights both skill sets.

The tracks on More Popular Than Reagan paint a twisted picture of life in these United States at the dawn of the new millennium. Opening with “Jesus Said He Loves You,” Lavelle pulls no punches; the title’s rejoinder is that Jesus was drunk at the time, so the declaration is meaningless. Likewise, a track titled “Sharing” refers less to the beauty of a selfless relationship than to the unifying bond inherent in holding STDs in common with a loved one. “I Only Drink When I Parent” is largely self-explanatory. Perhaps the strongest title on the CD is “Erin Gray,” a paean to the (minor) 80’s icon of Buck Rogers and Silver Spoons fame. Perhaps, then, it’s appropriate that More Popular Than Jesus puts me in a late-eighties mindset as far as the music goes. I’m thinking works of lo-fi Jenius (with a capital J) like “The Daves I Know” by the Kids in the Hall and, fast-forwarding a few years, The Young Fresh Fellows’ Electric Bird Digest. The less-kid-friendly work of They Might Be Giants also comes to mind, as does the entire ouevre of “Weird Al” Yankovic. (I’d liken Joe to Flight of the Conchords, but the comparison seems a little unfair, as More Popular Than Reagan predates the American debut of the Conchords’ TV series by a year.) Overall, it’s a wacky little CD, one that’s bound to drive everyone in the house batty (in a good way) after only a few rotations. My only lament is that I didn’t stick it out with Joe’s band–if I had, then maybe I’d be bigger than Reagan, too.