November 29, 2011
In Joshua Mohr’s new novel, Kris Kringle is drunk on cheap booze most of the time and using a pool table for a bed. Of course, he’s not our North Pole man — it’s not even Christmas – rather, he’s Owen, the owner of Damascus, a dive bar in San Francisco’s Mission District. His out-of-season costume is a means to cover up an embarrassing birth mark underneath his nose that looks like a Hitler moustache and to find asylum from his insecurity.
Owen’s deadbeat bar customers similarly find asylum behind the doors of his bar, where the ceiling is a star-filled night sky created from mirror shards and cotton balls. Damascus may be, in simple definition, an alcoholic’s hangout. To understand its true nature, though, this colorful establishment is better described as a demented Cheers in atmosphere and an assisted living facility in function. The perpetually soused Owen desires to give everyone a break. He provides refuge to an ex-Marine paratrooper, Byron Settles, who’s too drunk to drive home, and opens his bar to Sylvia Suture, an artist needing space for her olfactory installation that’s been rejected by 15 galleries.
No wonder, there. With the sound of whirling helicopter blades in the background, Sylvia nails dead catfish to 12 portraits of American soldiers who died in Operation Iraqi Freedom, recreating what she believes is the stink George W. Bush created for our nation. Her effort lays the groundwork for explosive tension to arise between Syl’s fans and Byron Settles’ fellow U.S. Marines, who threaten Owen and storm Damascus in anger.
If the novel Damascus is beginning to feel like just another bar story showcasing the antics of the alcoholic down-and-out population, don’t be fooled. Yet I’ll admit to having gone down that path, when I first heard about this book being set in a dive bar, thinking I might be getting into one of those novels where the prose virtually reeks of stale beer and rank drunks. You could say I was engaging in literary profiling, and would’ve made a big mistake, had I let the preconceived misjudgment influence me. Because what we’re given in Mohr’s third novel is not the problems and burdens of alcoholics crawling around in society’s margins, rather a brilliantly quirky and compassionately heartfelt story about diverse people wearing their own versions of a Santa suit while seeking a semblance of self-worth.
That’s especially true for the most memorable Damascus customers, Shambles and No Eyebrows. No Eyebrows is a gifted litigator, now suffering under the ravages of stage-four lung cancer. He skipped out on his family to spare them the hardship of his death. Shambles is the “patron saint of hand jobs,” claiming the Damascus bathroom as her office. She walked away from a stable marriage, unable to cope with that very stability. These two find themselves cruising the San Francisco streets in a cab that’s unable to make progress going forward due to street flooding, a metaphor for their own inability to go forward as a couple.
I don’t want to tell you what happens to Shambles and No Eyebrows, let alone the consequences of Syl’s installation under the wrath of the Operation Iraqi Freedom vets. That’s meant to be discovered when reading this unique and exceptional story that reveals the inner being of a bar and its inhabitants. Instead, I’ll offer what comes to mind for me as I think about the conclusion of Damascus. It’s an image of No Eyebrows’ daughter tap dancing her heart out on a tiny plywood stage to cheer up her mother. It’s working because, “There’s something naked about it. Something simple.” The novel Damascus is working for the same reason, with kudos to a bizarre cast of characters you can’t help but love.
November 18, 2011
What an extraordinary collection of short stories — This Road Will Take Us Closer to the Moon is narrated in the first person by Margaret Mackenzie from a perch of wisdom and reflection. These 14 linked, fictional stories start with her childhood in the 1950s (“That’s a Fact”) and end with her sister Eileen struggling to get Margaret into a supportive care facility (“Final Dispositions”). The approach to us as readers is intimate, with Margaret revealing her life humbly and openly, freewheeling comedic wise-cracks for levity. It gives this enticing collection an air of confessional authenticity.
I feel I want to go on and on about this narrator Margaret. She had such a mesmerizing draw on me, speaking from a center of yearning that’s neither overwrought nor oversimplified, rather perfectly articulated. Hers is the kind of narrative voice you don’t forget, telling life stories that feel as close as your own. Perhaps that’s because they capture how we all yearn for possibilities we can’t seem to touch, and when they pass us by, as they eventually do, we can’t seem to reason our way through them. “I am forever trying to make life offer reasons,” Margaret says.
That statement comes in a story about a book club, which Margaret describes as a chance for her group of friends to get together and talk about themselves. This night, they talk about themselves and World War II. “Another night it might be ourselves and recycling.” As with all the stories in this distinctive collection, author Linda McCullough Moore uses Margaret’s wonderment to veer into meaningful spaces beyond the main plot. In this story, she tackles the complexities of God’s existence in the face of war’s horrors and a scorn toward religion versus a need for salvation.
In other stories, Margaret runs into her ex-husband at Boston’s Logan Airport; walks out on her boring job; dates loser men she’s met online; works as a waitress; visits a childhood friend who’s now a Catholic priest, yet once was a frank Baptist; and takes her stroke paralyzed mother to her childhood home. They are filled with questions about life, death and God in Margaret’s search for meaning and purpose, such as when Margaret returns to her hometown late in middle age and thinks, “…it occurs to me I have somehow misplaced thirty years…and realize I can account for maybe half my life.” During a family Thanksgiving, she thinks:
“You don’t know anything is happening while it is going on. You can stop the clock a hundred times a day, but when you wake up the next morning, it will still be 7:45 and there will be an odd tapping on the roof, and you’ll be late before you’ve even gotten out of bed.”
This Thanksgiving story epitomizes the bizarre in family holidays. Margaret’s family visits an ancient aunt at a nursing home on Turkey Day and breaks into singing and dancing of “Hava Nagila” in the visitors’ room. They also go to the cemetery to visit family gravesites, and a nephew mistakenly takes pictures of Macintosh tombstones, instead of their family, Mackenzie. On the way home from the cemetery, Margaret’s niece insists she take a spontaneous right turn because the road will take them closer to the moon.
These are warm, inviting stories that portray a thoughtful connection to life with emotional truth-seeking. And Margaret is unforgettable, ultimately encouraging us to live the meaning of the Hebrew song “Hava Nagila”: Let us rejoice and be glad.
November 9, 2011
I have a memory of following my father into the basement, when I was a little girl, and he pointed out a space near his workbench where he thought our family could build a bomb shelter. This was during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but I was too young to understand the intensity of the cold war stand-off or to be afraid. My father’s consideration seemed no different than my mother’s concern over the water stain on the dining room ceiling.
In Lauren Redniss’s Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout, Vic Rantala, president of Safecastle, LLC, describes today’s average bomb shelter — approximately seven feet tall, eight feet wide and twenty feet long, which would cost $23,000, not including installation and transportation. It’s rather chilling to contemplate on the Safecastle website.
Redniss’s thought-provoking book isn’t about bomb shelters, though. It’s an astonishing artistic narrative about Pierre and Marie Curie and their scientific advances regarding radioactivity during the 19th and 20th centuries. Their life story of love, marriage (1895), collaboration in their Paris lab, discoveries and Nobel Prizes (1903 and 1911) provides a biographical narrative told in prose and also drawings, photos and charts that, altogether, create a startling and hypnotic sensory punch.
There’s also another story going on here — the broader story of consequences, which Redniss tells by juxtaposing historic events, news and facts with the Curies’ biography, taking us on brief detours, you could say, to put their discoveries in perspective. There are, for example, visually beautiful and factually sobering “detours” about Hiroshima, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, those aforementioned Safecastle fallout shelters and the poisoning of exiled former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko in London (2006) by the radioactive isotope polonium 210.
Marie and Pierre discovered polonium and radium and demonstrated their existence through the elements’ radioactivity. Redniss informs us that Marie slept with a small jar of glowing radium by her pillow, unaware of its toxic properties. This brilliant scientist was enamored by the powers of radium, as were many others, which seemed to offer a wealth of:
“…potential applications, some mystical, some practical, many appealing to both impulses at once. Radium, it was said, could cure: Anemia, Arteriosclerosis, Arthritis, Asthenia, Diabetes… Radium was also touted as a replacement for electric lighting.”
Redniss takes us through the death of Pierre, struck by a horse-drawn carriage crossing the Pont Neuf in Paris in 1906; Marie’s scandalous love affair with a married man; her continued discoveries and second Nobel Prize; and her death and scientific legacy taken up by her daughter Irene. It is Irene’s research with her husband in artificial radioactivity that transformed a naturally stable element into a radioactive one, contributing to studies that led to the development of the atomic bomb. They, too, would win a Nobel Prize (1935).
Additional to the extraordinariness of this book is the cyanotype printing used for some of the images. Chemicals are applied to paper and a negative or transparency of the image is pressed to the paper, which is then exposed to sunlight, turning the paper blue. The end result lends a spooky, radium-like aura to some of the pages.
The combined elements of artwork and text make the Curies’ scientific research exciting, accessible and easily understood, and also places before us the ominous side of what these famous scientists gave the world in their discoveries, that can save us through medical radiation treatments, or destroy us with a nuclear bomb.
Radioactive is among the nominees for the 2011 National Book Award in the category of non-fiction. The cover of Radioactive is printed with glow-in-the-dark ink. The title for this TLC blog post is taken from the song “Radioactive” by the Kings of Leon.
November 3, 2011
I don’t think you must have visited Paris to enjoy the books written about it. A case in point would be Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon, a collection of essays about living in Paris with his wife and son, a New York Times best-seller. I doubt the thousands who enjoyed his book had all visited Paris. Speaking of Gopnik, he’s written a new book, again with the French at its core, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food.
Penelope Rowlands presents in Paris Was Ours: Thirty-Two Writers Reflect on the City of Light, the experiences and viewpoints of diverse writers who reflect on their love affairs with Paris. The majority of the essays are original to this collection, others previously published in books or magazines. Of the previously published, a few feel pulled out of their original environment – they are interesting, but you can feel their edges, lacking the narrative intimacy that comes from a connected narrative flow. All in all, the 32 are quick to read, varied in tone (humorous versus nostalgic, for example) and wide-ranging in focus on topics that include money, parenting, cooking, schooling, fashion, dating, homelessness and more.
Contributor Véronique Vienne (The Art of Doing Nothing) returned to take up residency in Paris after many years of living in New York and discovered Parisians find discussions, let alone causal references, about money to be crude and tactless. Indeed, it’s a big cultural no-no, at odds with the American need to converse about our shopping bargains, investments and financial worries. Vienne’s essay is enjoyable not only for her light-hearted sharing of blunders and vulnerabilities, but also for its reflection on our money-focused selves. Vienne writes, if we don’t talk about money, then ”What’s left to talk about? The asparagus season, the Tour de France, Japanese art, the films of Jean-Luc Godard, photojournalism…” While asparagus isn’t high on my discussion list, I got the point.
Patric Kuhn (The Last Days of Haute Cuisine: The Coming of Age of American Restaurants) writes about his experience as a newbie chef in this gourmand’s metropolis and begins his essay, “There are no tryouts in Paris kitchens …You’re thrown in. Deal with it.” And Jeremy Mercer (Time Was Soft There) writes about bunking as a poor writer at Shakespeare & Company, the famous bookstore on the Left Bank. Janine Giovanni (The Place at the End of the World) shares her shock at French parenting techniques that are harsh and mean yet considered necessary by the French to teach discipline, manners and self-reliance.
Paris Was Ours gives the sense of this culturally rich city from the eyes of romantic newcomers, sometimes rudely awakened to its realities. Nevertheless, they come under its siren-like spell and develop an intimate connection. The yield for us as readers is a delightful, easygoing perspective of people who, for various reasons, took themselves to Paris and discovered more than they imagined.
A book of note about French culture and life: Richard Bernstein, The New York Times Paris bureau chief from 1984 to 1987, wrote Fragile Glory: A Portrait of France and the French, a keenly observed portrayal of not only Parisian France but also its deep countryside, La France Profonde. First published in 1990, Fragile Glory is still in print (paperback). One of the book’s most insightful sections is “The French: Who They Are.”