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Almost Famous Women for blog“Maybe the world had been bad to its great and unusual women,” reflects a character in Megan Mayhew Bergman’s second collection of short stories. “Maybe there wasn’t a worthy place for the female hero to live out her golden years, to be celebrated as the men had been celebrated, to take from that celebration what she needed to survive.”

Now there is. With the keen insight and penetrating empathy she brought to her debut collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, Bergman resurrects a fascinating assortment of characters who’ve been marked by fame, and explores the difficult choices that have shaped their lives.

The women we meet in the pages of Almost Famous Women have risked everything — approval, acceptance, emotional and physical well-being, friendships and family ties — to wander outside society’s usual boundaries.

Opening the book, “The Pretty, Grown-Together Children” reimagines the lives of conjoined twins, Violet and Daisy Hilton, former showgirls who once flaunted “floor-length raccoon coats, matching luggage, tortoiseshell combs and high-end lipstick,” only to end up bagging groceries at a local Sack and Save in South Carolina.

In “The Siege at Whale Cay,” set on an island owned by brassy Standard Oil heiress and boat-racing champ, M.B. “Joe” Carstairs, her current girlfriend — and former Weeki Wachee mermaid — vies for Joe’s favors with witchy diva Marlene Dietrich.

Dolly Wilde

Dolly Wilde

And “Hell-Diving Women” follows lesbian trumpeter Ernestine “Tiny” Davis of the integrated International Sweethearts of Rhythm band, who’d rather duke it out with hecklers from her audiences than suck it up — regardless of how deep her tour bus travels into Jim Crow territory.

Bergman grew up in Rocky Mount, N.C., on a diet of Southern storytelling, including Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, George Singleton, Allan Gurganus and Jill McCorkle. It may account for the liberties she’s taken with some of the biographical details — relocating the childhood of the Hilton twins from England to the South, for instance, and casting Carstairs as an American — but most of the stories adhere to the facts, which Bergman riffs off of with breathtaking confidence and precision.

Outside the convent where Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter Allegra is sent to be educated (and forgotten), early 19th-century Rome jumps to life:

“Vendors set up leather, vegetable, and paper carts underneath our public arches…. I could smell garlic, pungent and a little sweet, burning in the trattorias on my afternoon walks past the Palazzo Gradenigo to the boundary of Porta Pieve, the town gate. At night, from my cold bed, I could hear the syncopated rhythm of horse hooves on via Garibaldi’s cobblestone when all else was still.”

Letter to Lord Byron from his daughter Allegra, 1821

Letter to Lord Byron from his daughter Allegra, 1821

Bergman finds the heart of Allegra’s story in an anonymous novice whose loss of her own baby leads her to risk expulsion rather than turn her back on Byron’s unloved love child.

Although some tales are seen through the eyes of their subjects, most are told by the lesser lights who worship and envy them — a sister or lover or caretaker who’s inherited these fallen stars well after their fame and fortunes are exhausted.

A nameless childhood friend supplies Oscar Wilde’s drug-addled niece Dolly, at one time the witty queen of a glamorous social circle, with the companionship and morphine she needs to dull the shell shock of WWI horrors she once faced with bravado.

The houseboy who cares for the washed-up painter Romaine Brooks, sees all too clearly “the sort of dying that happens when the beautiful person you once were wears off and all that’s left is someone frightened and ugly, this hard and cruel kernel of a self that’s difficult to look at.”

But as much as the famous need their admirers, they need the famous more. Dolly’s friend, describing her fascination with Wilde’s eccentric escapades, says, “I needed [her] stories because I had none of my own. I was too wealthy to work … and too shy to have my own adventures … I lived vicariously through Dolly. It had always been that way; it was our currency.”

Long stories — like the enthralling and gossipy account from the sister of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay — alternate with brief vignettes, as in the sketch of a young Beryl Markham who’d rather break a dangerous horse than be “a good wife” because, “Isn’t that better than watching your sad sack of a husband drink himself stupid?”

Embedded in the memories of a young medical student is an unforgettable evangelical summer in Georgia during which she tried to convert “Gone With the Wind” star Butterfly McQueen, “an avowed atheist,” then in her 80s. McQueen’s belief in the “good we can see and good we can know” instead converts the narrator, sowing a “kernel of doubt” that takes root and grows.

Lucia Joyce ca. 1929 (Berenice Abbott)

Lucia Joyce ca. 1929 (Berenice Abbott)

In a haunting glimpse of Lucia Joyce, the troubled daughter of Irish writer James struggles to keep dancing, remembering a time when “her thoughts were the color of moss and her head was teeming with them.” In a mere three pages, Bergman conveys a mother’s callousness, her daughter’s heartache over ex-lover Samuel Beckett, and the fury and creative frustration that was Lucia’s life.

Save for one out-of-place futuristic story based on Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Bergman’s scenarios are addictive and tantalizing, each one whetting our appetite for more.

“Tell me,” says Edna St. Vincent Millay to her almost-famous sister. “What kind of ride is it, on my coat-tails? Is it good?”

In these stunning depictions of how fame’s fire warms with even the slightest contact, the ride is often a harrowing journey “over the war-scorched earth” through a minefield of delusions, pharmaceuticals and flashes of greatness — and worth every minute.

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Watch Joe Carstairs present her 3,000 h.p. challenger “Estelle IV” at the Isle-of-Wight in 1929. http://www.britishpathe.com/video/to-regain-british-international-motor-boat-motorbo/

Read more about the author here.

Check out Tiny Davis and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm doing “I Left My Man” with a nice solo by Tiny at 2:24:

Happy Holidays!

Jerry helps decorate the tree in “The Night Before Christmas” (1941)

Jerry helps decorate the tree in “The Night Before Christmas” (1941)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Reblogged from Mothic Flights and Flutterings.)

My back pages

thoughts-31You know how they tell you everything stays on the internet forever? It’s true of that annoying People story from 1987 about the Ga. Satellites that makes me sound like a dork, and the recipe for mulligatawny soup I asked Rainbow Grocery to share about ten years ago. But sadly, it’s not true for most of the book reviews linked to 8 Hamilton Ave., that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has taken off their website. I might try to resurrect these if I can dig up the old copies on my computer, and transfer directly onto this site. For anyone interested in the archived lists, bear with me. Meanwhile, take a look at my recent reviews of a couple of books that are making this year’s Best Of lists all over the place: Ugly Girls, by Lindsay Hunter, and Love Me Back, by Merritt Tierce. And sorry about the snow; I haven’t figured out how to turn it off yet.

Love Me BackOnce you get past the jittery, voyeuristic stranger-sex in the prologue to Love Me Back, the narrator’s plight is so touching that you think, in answer to the title’s request, Of course I will.

A naive teenager named Marie finds work as a waitress to help support herself after getting pregnant and marrying a boy she has known for only five days. A valedictorian who has already met with her Yale professors, 17-year-old Marie trades her dream of attending seminary for the anxieties of breastfeeding, child-rearing and her fear of doing it all wrong.

To quell those worries, Marie throws herself into mastering the art of the good server at a series of restaurants, beginning with the Olive Garden. She learns “how to sweep aggressively and efficiently… how to anticipate and consolidate, which is all waiting tables is.” She learns “how to use work to forget.”

But forgetting, as author Merritt Tierce makes plain in this ferocious debut novel, takes a lethal amount of effort, and what began as a poignant glimpse of a teen mother careens into an inescapable train wreck we can’t look away from for the next 200 pages.

Tierce, a former waitress who drew heavily from her experience in the Texas restaurant business, merely hints at what Marie has lost by getting sucked into a life she never wanted. Instead, scarred by her father’s disgust and the church elders who blame her for her fall from grace, she brings her high achiever’s perfectionism to the extraction of pound after pound of flesh as penitence for her sin.

She cheats on her husband and gives him an STD. She gets pregnant again, by a fellow waiter — she’s not sure which one, as she’s slept with them all: “September was John, October was Luke, and November was Damon.” Her husband divorces her. While caring for her daughter she cuts and burns herself and finally loses custody. She stays in the restaurant business, scoring a job at a high-end steakhouse in Dallas.

There, her self-immolation revs into high gear. The unprotected and frequent sex takes place in the same spirit Marie reserves for waitressing: to serve, to organize (often with two or more men), to let herself be used. But she clearly has another goal in mind: obliteration. “It wasn’t about pleasure,” she tells us, “it was about how some kinds of pain make fine antidotes to others.”

Between threesomes and foursomes Tierce portrays in graphic detail, Marie labors like an ox. She has no ambition to climb any ladders, only to remain in a purgatory where “if you have an affliction, any remorse or anguish, eat it, drink it, snort it, fuck it, use it, suck it, kill it.” Even when she manages to find a way to spend a day and night with her daughter, Annalise, she leaves the child alone to watch TV while she burns herself with a fondue fork in the kitchen, telling her daughter afterward it’s an insect bite.

“What kind of bug would do that?” Annalise asks. Indeed.

Marie’s sadness over losing her child, her husband and her Ivy League future still lingers, buried beneath a stack of dirty dishes and dirty sex. It shines through in jagged flashbacks that reveal Marie’s back story: the church trip to Mexico, her regret over a husband “whose kindness is as rare as genius,” how no one trusted her alone with the baby.

The restaurants of the book are grounded in the kind of authenticity that can only come from an author who’s tag-teamed a party of 30 “all white, fat, and over 50 men” who tell crude, Merritt Tiercesexist jokes while she’s “setting out steak knives and crumbing.” Portraits of owners, managers, sous-chefs, bussers, servers and customers, even a piano player, make up an alternate family far more real to her than the one Marie fled.

“In that restaurant all of us were off. Chipped. … Maybe that’s just what it is to be alive, you’ve got that broken sooty piece of something lodged inside you making you veer left.”

Tierce originally wrote the book as a collection of short stories, then added extra material, notably the chapters about Marie’s daughter, “to provide some connective tissue.” If at times the novel feels stitched together, it also echoes Marie’s disconnected psyche and how far from home she’ll always be.

Love Me Back resists a happy ending and offers no illusion that Marie’s choices are redemptive or character-building, nor even many reasons for the reader to love her back. The author has given us a 21st-century Suzanne who takes us on a mind-blowing tour of “the garbage and the flowers” in the lives of everyone who’s ever had to say, “My name is Marie and I’ll take care of you tonight.”

Ugly GirlsOn the face of it, the two teenage rebels in Ugly Girls (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), Lindsay Hunter’s debut novel, are no different from a lot of girls their age. For Dayna (aka Baby Girl) and Perry, getting into trouble is the key to feeling alive.

Fun means taking risks, the more outrageous the better, proving to each other how cool they are. They vent their frustrations and emotional turmoil in defiance and petty crimes, and we first meet them in medias res: They’ve stolen a car and are joyriding down the highway before dawn, blasting their music and talking trash.

Best friends since they were kids, Perry and Baby Girl’s long-standing relationship provides a lot of things — solidarity, reassurance, one-upmanship and entertainment — but affection and trust are no longer part of it. “They didn’t talk, really, they just did.” Their go-nowhere lives have chained them together, and the small triumphs they enjoy over each other each day are the only ones they have.

Their battle for top dog leaves them achingly vulnerable. When a strange boy begins to play them against each other via email and Facebook, it’s not long before what’s left of their friendship begins to self-destruct, spiraling toward chaos.

Hunter, who spent part of her childhood in Ocoee, Florida, and part in Orlando, steers clear of naming the setting in Ugly Girls. Instead, she locates the story in a scruffy neighborhood boasting a trailer park, a truck-stop diner and a series of convenience stores and fast-food franchises.

Nestled into this cheerless landscape, Perry shares a double-wide with her lonely lush of a mother, Myra, and stepfather, Jim, a prison guard whose job threatens to rob him of what humanity he has. Baby Girl is the chief caretaker for her brother, once a much-admired Bad Boy, now brain-damaged after a motorcycle crash.

Through the eyes of five different characters — the girls, Perry’s parents, and Jamey, an internet predator — we see abundant evidence of cramped lives, generational abuse and the paralyzing power of environment.

Lindsay Hunter (photo by Zach Dodson)

Lindsay Hunter (photo by Zach Dodson)

Hunter got her start writing flash fiction, then published two collections of short-short stories, Don’t Kiss Me and Daddy’s. Her work — bleak, probing and raw — has always refused to shy away from ugly. But the wider scope of a novel allows for a much more nuanced interpretation. After laying out a handful of predictably nasty trailer-trash stereotypes — one of the most inspired is Jamey’s obese and slyly abusive mother — Hunter then explodes them, page by page, revealing all-too human qualities that evoke sympathy side by side with horror.

Pretty Perry is not without flaws. She has “a widish nose, a fang on one side of her mouth, a gray molar,” and a bad habit of insulting the people she loves. While Baby Girl, who goes out of her way to appear ugly, exhibits a lovely tolerance for her disabled, dependent brother.

Jamey, though far from the goofy teenager he claims to be, is neither inhuman nor evil. By turns, he’s hopeful, generous, cagey, understanding, sympathetic, shy. He sees his compulsion as merely “this difficulty with his pants,” a problem that will take care of itself once his plan for the girls works out.

And despite the meanness that drags them under, everyone in Ugly Girls longs for a way to express their real feelings that wouldn’t “require a trip around the world, a magic trick, some impossible kind of journey.” With a keen understanding of deprivation and its hold over her characters, Hunter presents their thoughts in tune with their stifling existence; then, whenever a chance beckons to escape it, reels the prose out to soar:

“[Baby Girl] pulled the slim jim out, worked it into the door. The lock went with a soft pop. For Perry, that pop was an exploding cosmos of possibility. White tails of glitter shooting out. If felt like she and Baby Girl were mirrors reflecting the light from the streetlamps back and forth a million times. They were light. They could do anything, go anywhere.”

Ah, but they don’t. As Perry says of Baby Girl, “it’s two steps forward and a day’s worth of walking backward” — an observation that applies to everyone in the novel. The victory in this tender, fearless look at the down-trodden and doomed is a portrait of an ugly world that highlights its all-too-fleeting moments of beauty and dignity.

 

Us ConductorsThis past June, Sean Michaels stopped in Atlanta as part of an unusual book tour that included a reading and a theremin performance in each city. About a week beforehand, he contacted me on Twitter to say that he’d looked at this blog and read my reviews at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and wondered if the newspaper might be interested in his book. A flurry ensued as I requested a copy from publisher Tin House, asked my editor at the paper if it was something the AJC would like to cover, and got approval for a feature and an interview. When the book arrived, I fell in love from the first page.

Last night, Us Conductors won one of the most prestigious prizes in Canada, the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize. I can’t think of a better reason to share my AJC interview and also note the performance by the local Atlanta band that helped make the reading such a phenomenal event. Congratulations, Sean Michaels!

Unusual instrument sets tone for Us Conductors book, musical tour

The theremin. Even if you don’t know what it is, chances are you’ve heard it.

It’s the unearthly, eerie music on the soundtrack of “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “The Lost Weekend” and in the themes of “The Outer Limits” and “One Step Beyond.” Tim Burton re-created it in “Ed Wood” to mimic the soundtrack for “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” A version of it opens the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”; Jimmy Page used it to create the ethereal interlude in Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.”

Invented in 1921 by a Russian physicist, Lev Sergeyevich Termen, the theremin is an electronic instrument played without physical contact. Two antennas sense the to and fro movement of the player’s hands, which control high-frequency oscillators for pitch and volume. These electric signals are then amplified and sent to a speaker. For something almost a century old, the theremin still feels as if it time-traveled out of the future.

Termen, or Leon Theremin as he was known in the West, arrived in the U.S. following a grand tour of Russia and Europe, and was soon playing Carnegie Hall and performing throughout the United States. He patented the instrument in 1928, and RCA began to manufacture and sell theremins across the country. Devotees of the theremin included violinist Clara Rockmore, one of its finest practitioners, and teacher and music theorist Joseph Schillinger.

And then, in 1938, Leon Theremin disappeared.

This is where Sean Michaels comes in. Michaels, award-winning music writer and founder of music blog, Said the Gramaphone,Sean Michaels has written a wildly imaginative first novel inspired by the life of the Russian inventor and reluctant spy. “Us Conductors” (Tin House, $15.95) is a timeless story variously set in Bolshevik Russia, New York City in the Roaring ’20s and the new Soviet Republic’s punishing labor camps.

“It’s a book about love, lies, longing and kung fu,” Michaels says, “with this strange, one-of-a-kind musical instrument at its heart.”

As the book opens, Theremin, imprisoned in a cabin on a ship returning him to the Soviet Union, is writing a letter to his “one true love,” Clara Rockmore. He reminisces about his early days as a student in Leningrad, the acclaim he received as the inventor of the theremin, and the Russian state’s decision to send him to America as a spy. We learn about the enthusiastic reception he found among New York City’s cultural elite, meet his eager students, and watch as he falls madly in love with the much younger Clara. But Russia has not forgotten him. Theremin’s brilliant career in the U.S. is soon cut short — while his new life in a Siberian gulag is about to begin.

Michaels, who was born in Canada and now lives in Montreal, says he was inspired to write about Theremin and his love affair with Clara for a number of reasons. “It seemed like such a strange yarn, with moments of thrill and solitude, glitz and science. It lit up my imagination — I wanted to imagine the places and scenes that surrounded these people. But it also nudged some other questions I had been puzzling over — questions of responsibility, coincidence, true and lying love.”

image006As imagined by Michaels, it’s a life filled with as much fact as fiction. Though Leon Theremin did not in reality practice kung fu or murder anyone as described in the novel, he really was a madcap dancer, hobnobbed with George Gershwin and Glenn Miller, taught Lenin the theremin and made metal detectors for Alcatraz. For the scenes set in Russia, Michaels traveled as far as Magadan, a former Stalin-era hard-labor camp where the second half of the novel takes place. He’s even learned to play a theremin, though he says it’s challenging: “Even the tiniest gesture affects the yowling sound.”

Michaels has embarked on one of the more offbeat book tours to hit the U.S.: He’ll be reading in various cities with local musicians whose specialty is the theremin — not the easiest crew to round up, he says.

Though “virtuosos of the theremin are rare as heck,” Michaels says, “I’ve managed to find masters of the device all across the country.” In Atlanta, he’ll perform with Scott Burland and Frank Schultz’s Duet for Theremin and Lap Steel, whose music has been described as the “long-lost soundtrack to a deep-sea documentary.”

Duet debuted at Eyedrum in December 2006, and has performed in England, Scotland and France, as well as in the U.S.; their most recent album, “Collaborations,” will be available at the show. Burland and Schultz will talk about the theremin and demonstrate Lev Sergeyevich Termen’s most lasting contribution; Michaels will read and discuss Us Conductors. He anticipates “a special and extraordinary evening … a weird mix of music and words.”

At a party to celebrate the birth of her first child, Jowita Bydlowska did what a lot of relieved, new mothers might do: She drank a glass of champagne, after nine long months of sobriety.

Oops. Make that three and a half years of sobriety—gone in the space of a split-second and not to return anytime soon.

Her frankly titled memoir—Drunk Mom (Viking Penguin, $16)—doesn’t begin on that day, but during a much later one, an evening when she’s at a museum and finds a baggie of coke in the women’s restroom. This baggie is perched on top of the toilet paper container, no less. Bydlowska sets the tone for her story that will underlie nearly every decision:

“So what do I do?” she asks, then answers: “I pour the powder down the toilet.” Pause. “No, no I don’t.” She gets out her makeup mirror, cuts “a slug of a line,” snorts it, and returns to a party. Immediately, she’s overcome by an appetite for more, “no ordinary wanting.”

This wanting is more like a giant baby, “a wet hungry baby that no one is picking up to soothe.” Like the one she left at home, with her sister babysitting him: her few-months-old baby, whose appetites will now compete with her own throughout a book that reads like Augusten Burroughs’ Dry, but with a baby in it. Continue Reading »

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