The stories in Lorrie Moore's second collection, "Like Life" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), are indeed a lot like life, but life somewhat skewed--life through a window smeared with Vaseline, perhaps, slightly dreamy, almost hallucinatory, or maybe life through a windshield after the rain, everything a little clearer than it once was.
Moore's characters inhabit a world, at once our world and not our world, where 11-year-old girls spit at you ("Two Boys"), where a woman has a disturbing party conversation with a man dressed up as a naked woman ("You're Ugly, Too") a world (in "Like Life") where all the movies are about people with plates in their heads, and it is illegal not to have a television.
All of Moore's characters seem to be on the brink of either dissolution or salvation, sometimes both. Harry, the idealistic playwright in "Vissi d'Arte," whose life is slowly and strangely spiraling downward, even as he holds on to grandiose visions of his career, is a quintessential Moore character. Harry likes to go to a diner and have coffee and rice pudding, "his brain aflame with sugar and caffeine, his thoughts heated to a usable caramel."
Reading Moore's work has a similar effect--everything seems suddenly stretchy and fluid and, despite the darkness of many of the stories, curiously sweet.
If you had grown up, as I did, in a musical home where Chopin was a sort of distant cousin and "The Paderwski Memoirs" a sacred text, then perhaps you would remember Oscar Levant. Even as a child, I was curiously cheered by his intelligence and comforted by the knowledge that there was at least one other person as eccentric as my mother.
Levant's friend, Sam Behrman, called him "a character who, if he did not exist, could not be imagined." Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger prove this on every page of "A Talent for Genius: The Life and Times of Oscar Levant" (Villard Books, 1996).
With them, we take a fantastic journey through crowded concert halls, a vanished Hollywood and the lost world of radio and early television. Here is name-dropping of the highest order, from George Gershwin to Vladimir Horowitz, John Garfield to James Dean. The detailed index makes fascinating reading by itself.
Despite his many addictions and the demons that followed him from his childhood in Pittsburgh to his last home in Beverly Hills, Levant drew people to him with his unequaled wit and his musical and literary talent. He left more than 100 piano recordings, 14 films, and three books--quite a legacy for the man who once described himself as living "on the periphery."
"The God of Small Things" by Arundhati Roy, a story of two young children in 1969 India, went straight to my heart. I am a counselor who works with at-risk teens, and I know the devastation a parent's ill-chosen words can create in youngsters.
In this book, a mother tells her twins they are "a millstone around her neck." The boy and girl, Estha and Rahel, take this to heart and plan an escape, during which a tragic death occurs. As a consequence, a beloved friend is murdered. The twins blame themselves for both of these deaths and are emotionally ruined.
"The God of Small Things," with its vulnerable yet comic heroes, made me more determined to let my students know that lots of adult things are not their fault.
I don't usually read a travel book as if it were a novel, but I recently discovered that "Romantic Weekends: San Francisco and the Bay Area," by Phyllis and Robert White, published by Hunter Books, was different.
I got it while looking for a nice hotel and found myself caught up in some fascinating history: the tragic, Lolita-like story of the middle-aged Russian count who fell in love with the beautiful 15-year-old daughter of the commandante of San Francisco's Presidio and the great story of feminist-before-her-time Lillie Coit, who built Coit Tower, and her philandering husband.
I recommend the information about inns, restaurants and sights for anyone going to San Francisco, and the stories for everyone.
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Next Week: Cathy Curtis on art and photography books.