Bookmarked Place: Francesca Lia Block’s Manhattan

St. John the Divine

Visiting the Upper West Side’s Peace Fountain in 2012

Fiction represents places in ways that resonate or inspire, validating our own experiences or giving us new perspectives on them. For this reason, I’ve been meaning to start a series of blog posts in which I relate books to places. This is my first attempt at such a post.

Francesca Lia Block is best known for her tales of a magical Los Angeles, but her knack for capturing the spirit of a place isn’t limited to her native city. Although a seasoned New Yorker might disapprove of turning to a California author for a representation of the city, as a fellow Californian with a connection to NYC, I relate to Block’s vision of New York.

Block captures a certain fantasy of the city. It’s a distant presence in many of her books, including Weetzie Bat. The iconic Weetzie, a quirky blonde pixie of a protagonist, knows NYC through her New Yorker father, who sends her “postcards with pictures of the Empire State Building or reproductions of paintings from the Metropolitan Museum, Statue of Liberty key chains, and plastic heart jewelry.” In I Was a Teenage Fairy, main-character Barbie (named after a doll she doesn’t want to be like) imagines a symbolic New York woman:

She is always carrying bags of clothes, bouquets of roses, take-out Chinese containers, or bagels. Museum tags fill her pockets and purses, along with perfume samples and invitations to art gallery openings. When she is walking to work, to ward off bums or psychos, her face resembles the Statue of Liberty, but at home in her candlelit, dove-colored apartment, the stony look fades away and she smiles like the sterling roses she has bought for herself to make up for the fact that she is single and her feet are sore.

This image may be romanticized or stereotypical, but it demonstrates Block’s fearlessness in delving into the aesthetics and associations of place and popular culture—all of which draw me to her work.

Although I am far from a naturalized New Yorker, I did live there, once, and that period of residency was about as formative as a stint of less than three years could be. Continue reading

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Ordinary Transformations: Ms. Hempel Chronicles

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Living as they did, at the top of the house, Beatrice and her brother were surrounded by trees. In the summer, their rooms filled with a green light. In the winter, the fir boughs grew heavy with snow and brushed against their windowpanes. Because they lived in rooms meant only for servants, their windows were small and perfectly square, not long and grand like those in the rest of the house. But they preferred it this way; they liked living in their tiny rooms, aloft in the trees; they liked the green light falling in squares at their feet. Their rooms were almost the same, but not quite: Calvin had a fireplace in his, and Beatrice had a wall of bookshelves built into hers.

Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, Ms. Hempel Chronicles

I’m lucky enough to have the occasional Wednesday off. Sometimes it’s used for errands or appointments, but on a recent mid-week reprieve, I woke to a quiet apartment and crawled into my new reading chair, bathed in buttery sunlight, and revisited a book I’ve read and loved before. I was struck by the passage abovethe feeling of childhood comfort and make believe in a private world up in the trees. I felt like I was stepping into my own little lofty room away up in the eaves, even though I’m really in a first-floor apartment. On that recent quiet Wednesdaywhich I reminisce about now knowing I won’t have another one for a good little chunk of timemy space was as peaceful as any hideaway.

editedfullnookHaving recently left my twenties behind and just barely entered my thirties, there was no better moment to reread this book. Beatrice Hempel is a middle school English teacher in her late twenties when we meet her, and this period of her life unifies the book, providing points of entry into her past and future. Rather than a strict chronology, the book is structured as a series of narrative glimpses into various stages of Ms. Hempel’s development.

Yet we never really get past an indeterminate point in her thirties, and don’t go much further back than her teens. That’s one of the things I love about this bookit portrays a slice of life that seems, from my vantage point, heady with identity formation. Ms. Hempel occupies the awkward years seldom spoken of as such, when one is outwardly an adult, but not old enough to have fully left youth culture behind.

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In the book’s first chapter, Ms. Hempel sits in the middle school auditorium watching a talent show, wondering how to react to the risqué rap lyrics (I feel a poke coming through …) accompanying a dance routine. She is “caught, again, in an awkward position: still young enough to decipher the lyrics, yet old enough to feel that a certain degree of outrage was required of her.” The moment is typical of Ms. Hempel: She is capable of compelling insights while remaining fairly clueless about how to respond to them. She senses that her position is delicate, placed at an instrumental point not only in her life but in the lives of her students. And though she often wins over her students, just as often, she feels a sense of unease about her own legitimacy as a teacher.

The book is filled not only with her own dynamic memories, but with her affection for the quirky, innocent troublemakersfrom ebulliently confident Harriet Reznik to dark-and-stormy Jonathan Hamishwho color her days. Still, it’s Ms. Hempel’s personality that carries the book throughher ability to slip into a fantasy world while riding a school bus, or to view her fiancé’s sexual kink with a wryness tempered by a longing for romance. Bynum combines humorous realism with an almost Victorian whimsy, and it’s a pairing I find endlessly appealing.

When I first read this book, just a year or two ago, I wrote that “reading this book in my late twenties was like reading The Catcher in the Rye when I was 13. Perfect timing.” Which leads to my next question: Do certain books mark certain times in your own life? Which books do you find yourself rereading, and how have your tastes changed (or stayed the same) over the years?

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Omnivore’s Oeuvre: The Novels of Jeffrey Eugenides

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One of my mini-projects this summer has been reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ complete novels. The author’s Greek-American heritage and native Detroit inspire much of his subject matter, and romantic and familial relationships are central to his work. But Eugenides’ seemingly slim output belies the breadth of ambition displayed in his three novels. The first novel is poetic and poignant; the second, intricate, verging on epic; and the third, engaging and quick-paced. All are compelling reads.

1. The Virgin Suicides (1993) is my favorite. If you’ve seen Sofia Coppola’s film you will notice that the movie’s dreamlike quality matches the texture and tone of Eugenides’ novel. The first-person plural narration tells the story of the Lisbon sisters through the lens of a group of neighborhood boys infatuated with them. Seen from afar, the Lisbon girls—Therese, Mary, Bonnie, Lux, and Cecilia—take on a mysterious quality that starts as fleshly beauty and moves into something ethereal. As the sisters grapple with Cecilia’s suicide and grow increasingly isolated, a sense of longing from the the neighborhood boys amplifies the heartbreaking way the girls fade from view.

Despite the subject matter, I would not say this novel is dominated by stark tragedy. Eugenides weaves a lyrical and evocative narrative that luxuriates in the details of the boys’ imaginations and the material clues of the girls’ lives. Though I am one to react against the stereotypical “male gaze,” Eugenides’ gorgeous prose and the mix of innocence, curiousity, and adolescent wonder in the narrative voice creates a complicated and finely-woven tale.

The male gaze is not un-self-conscious. At one point, Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon reluctantly allow Therese, Mary, Bonnie, and Lux to go to homecoming on a group date that includes some of the neighborhood boys. For one night the girls become real, and the narrator acknowledges the gap between who the Lisbon girls appear to be from afar, and who they prove to be on closer inspection. “Who had known they talked so much, held so many opinions, jabbed at the world’s sights with so many fingers?” the narrator asks. “Between our sporadic glimpses of the girls they had been continuously living, developing in ways we couldn’t imagine, reading every book on the bowdlerized family bookshelf.” With a wave of the wand, Eugenides acknowledges the multifaceted and unseen personalities of the Lisbon girls. Though they are developed characters within the novel, they are often imaginary, sifted and glimpsed through the observations and fantasies of their neighbors. Eugenides reveals beauty and flaws in the ways the boys romanticize the Lisbon sisters from afar. Continue reading

Relationships Resonate in The Vacationers

TheVacationersCoverEmma Straub’s The Vacationers is as effervescent and breezy as its chlorine-blue cover implies—but it’s also much more. Set primarily in a vacation house in Mallorca, Spain, the novel weaves through the various perspectives and backstories of the Post family and friends. Though I floated effortlessly through most of the family intrigue, Straub reveals hidden depths as the novel concludes. As usual, her characters are warmly rendered, and relationships are complex and resonant. As with her last two titles, I felt a bit bereft when I closed the book, not wanting to give up the excellent company of the “vacationers” I’d come to know.

Straub’s characters face enough conflict to keep things interesting. Matriarch Franny Post (who previously appeared in Straub’s story collection, Other People We Married, along with Jim, Charles, and Bobby) is a short and feisty woman—at heart, still a practical, wide-eyed girl from Brooklyn. She sets out on the family vacation determined to make the most of it, but she also plans to decide what her next step will be in light of her husband Jim’s recent infidelity. As they prepare for take-off, Jim reflects on his recent slip-up and also fears that when his youngest child leaves for college, “the time they had all spent together would seem like a fantasy, someone else’s comfortably imperfect life.” “Comfortably imperfect” seems a fair description of the Post family and friends’ circumstances—and I mean that in a good way. Straub provides a frank estimation of the flaws of family life without ever abandoning a sense of optimism.

In her review of the book, Janet Maslin of The New York Times writes that “The male characters tend to be two-dimensional, but the story’s women are so well drawn that they seem instantly familiar.” To a certain extent, I agree. The female characters are fully developed, but Franny and Jim’s oldest offspring, 28-year-old Bobby, is the only character for whom I never felt true empathy. Seemingly a Post family aberration, he’s taken up a fitness and real estate-focused life in Miami, eschewing the intellectual New York life in which he was reared. The Post family quietly but obviously disapproves of his longterm girlfriend, Carmen, a native Floridian and personal trainer with an iron-clad will and a lack of interest in books. But it’s not Bobby’s lifestyle that makes him less sympathetic than the other characters—it’s his actions. Stuck in an unpromising life, Bobby parties to distract himself from his circumstances. We’re given limited insight into his psyche, and his actions are seen most vividly through the lenses of his sister Sylvia and girlfriend Carmen, neither of whom are terribly pleased with the person he’s become.

Besides the four members of the Post family and Carmen, Franny’s best friend Charles, and his husband, Lawrence, also come along for the trip, and Sylvia is tutored by a gorgeous local (of the male variety) with the exotically gender-confusing name Joan (pronounced Joe-ahhhn). Straub juxtaposes Franny and Jim’s relationship against those of their family and friends, creating a sense of inquiry into the nature of romantic relationships. Throughout, she provides vivid perspectives that create lasting impressions. That’s what makes Straub’s characters so hard to part with—they linger in the mind, half-promising to continue their stories.

Sweet on Emma Straub

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Yesterday marked the release of Emma Straub’s third book, The Vacationers. As a mere mortal, I haven’t yet read it. But I recently read her first two books, and was won over by their warmth and insightful realism.

Initially, I was a bit skeptical of Straub’s story collection, Other People We Married (2011). Straub studied with one of my favorite authors, Lorrie Moore, and the similarities between their short stories seemed almost too strong at first. The first-person narrators of pieces like “Some People Must Really Fall in Love,” in which a university lecturer has a crush on a student, and “A Map of Modern Palm Springs,” in which a twenty-something goes on a fraught vacation with an insensitive older sister, are closely related to the voices in Moore’s own debut collection, Self-Help (1985). This could have added up to too much of a good thing, had Straub’s stories not had a momentum of their own. But she pulled me in with her depictions of smart women who are underdogs in one way or another.

By the time I got to “Abraham’s Enchanted Forest,” I was hooked. Set in a bit of woods rigged up as a roadside attraction, the piece focuses on the teenage daughter of an eccentric couple who seem to lead a charmed alternative existence. The keenly observant Greta spends summers working alongside her parents, Abraham and Judy, while wearing a pair of fairy wings. She frequently ponders her parents’ wending paths to the present—a quintessentially 1970s story involving candlemaking, an old school bus, and a roadtrip. Straub portrays Greta’s ponderings through the third person: “It was almost too much too bear, the thousands of choices that led up to Greta’s existence. It all just seemed so unlikely.” Contemplating the funky theme park of her parents’ creation—a Ferris wheel; a gardening-shed-turned-Hall-of-Mirrors; a restaurant famous for apple pie—Greta thinks, “If the Enchanted Forest were in a movie, they’d always be playing Bob Dylan or Van Morrison or maybe even Leonard Cohen in the background.” Poised on the precipice of adulthood, Greta anticipates spreading her (fairy) wings just as she begins to see her family in a new light. “Abraham’s Enchanted Forest” is an apt depiction of the kinds of quirky childhoods those of us born to flower children tend to have.

After finishing the book, I found myself craving further immersion in Straub’s world. Thisbe Nissen writes that “Emma Straub’s stories mean that there are fewer lonely people in the world; they are the best kind of company.” I certainly felt the absence of her characters and stories after finishing the book, and I can say that her next book had the same effect. Continue reading

Stories of a Vivid Palette

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Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake chronicles the coming-of-age of a girl with the uncanny ability to taste the emotions of those who have prepared her food. The book is vital, revealing, and somehow comforting. It is one of those friendly titles that I like to keep nestled in my bedside bookshelf.

Bender’s most recent work, The Color Master, may merit a place beside it. Populated by Amazonian women, ogres, royalty, and humans with special powers or complicated flaws, these stories trouble and enchant.

The collection opens with a short and stunning piece, “Appleless.” Shot through with lyrically-driven descriptions of edibles, “Appleless” evokes many of Bender’s signature traits, but sets an unsettling tone. Told mostly in the eery first-person plural, the story centers on a mysterious community of apple-eaters.

Bender tempers disquieting premises by keeping the human capacity for affection in view. The narrator of “Lemonade,” a misfit teenage girl navigating a precarious social circle, provides a remarkably tender, generous, and idiosyncratic voice—one akin to a contemporary, better-tempered Holden Caulfield. “I smiled at people walking by,” the narrator, Louanne, tells us. “An old man with overalls walked by; I don’t think old people should wear overalls; it makes them look like shrivelly toddlers. But I smiled at him anyway.” Later, after being ditched by her friends at the mall—teenage betrayal if ever there was such a thing—Louanne remains beneficently engaged with her environment, spreading goodwill with each thoughtful glance while providing her own peculiar philosophies. Continue reading