Archive for May, 2011

“Orientation and Other Stories” by Daniel Orozco

Sunday, May 29th, 2011



“This book has been a long time coming,” Daniel Orozco writes in the Acknowledgments page at the end of “Orientation and Other Stories,” his terrific collection of nine short stories. The book gathers up all of the pieces Orozco has published thus far in literary magazines (both print and online), starting with the title story which he wrote 17 years ago.

Recently, Orozco was interviewed by the local newspaper in the town of Moscow, Idaho, where he teaches creative writing at the University of Idaho. He described his painstakingly slow path in composition, during which he might spend a week writing a paragraph and a month writing a page. This was, he said, “a way that makes me feel comfortable about moving on.”

It is no surprise, then, to find every one of the nine stories in “Orientation and Other Stories” to be of consistently high quality. That consistency does not come from Orozco chaining himself to one comfortable formula or style. No, he manages to pull something different and original out of the hat at each performance.

Thematic links do appear among the stories. Although he can be satirical (especially in several of the stories that take place in office settings) and flat out hilarious (as in the farcical mutual seduction of two cops in “Officers Weep”), Orozco’s overriding interest is in deadly serious matters: what it means to be alive (“this feeling that you’re part of a world with other people in it, and that you matter because somebody else seems to think you do’); why are human connections so difficult (“You can’t know anybody, not really, not in the brief overlaps of flimsy acquaintance, nor in any of the tenuous and fleeting opportunities for connection that we are afforded”); how living our modern, pretend lives (building imaginary connections) dooms us (“you get where you are by yourself’). Yes, much of this is bleak, depressing. Some of these stories will make you shiver in self-recognition.

If you’ve previously read one or more of Orozco’s stories, you probably don’t need any persuading. But if not, and you want to get a taste of his writing, the “Click to Look Inside!” book feature here on Amazon will give you access to the first eight pages of the first story. A complete version of the story is available elsewhere online (search the three words, Orozco Orientation nomrad). Want more? The fourth story in the collection, “I Run Every Day,” is available for free, in its entirety, at All-Story, the online literary magazine supported by the filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola (search the two words, Orozco Zoetrope). That story will begin to impress you with a remarkable thing Orozco has mastered as a writer, even in the small compass of these short stories: how to slow down or speed up the reader’s sense of time, in the service of the narrative. This is especially felt in “Somoza’s Dream,” in which Orozco, the son of Nicaraguan immigrants, imagines the life in exile of the Nicaraguan dictator. He “stops time” at the moment of Somoza’s gruesome assassination. Time speeds at the end of “Only Connect,” as a woman somehow harbors, for decades, an act of moral cowardice.

Fine touches are encountered in each story. In “Shakers,” a minor earthquake shakes old mortar off the ceiling of a prison dining hall, where it sifts down onto the prisoners, “dusting the tops of their heads like cannoli.” The best employee working for a Temp agency is granted “the assurance of permanent temporary employment.” A master at conveying the personal atmospherics of the workplace (Orozco notices how newcomers get tagged with nicknames, like “Baby” or the “I Don’t Know Girl”), he is equally observant describing the physical environment. Here is an office at the end of the week: “. . . the inevitable sound of an empty office–the enormous quietudes of Friday that roll through the corridors and lap into the conference rooms and cubicles like a submerging tide.”  He seems fond of exotic insects: a walking stick here, a helicopter damsel there. Even mechanical equipment can be anthropomorphized: “Overhead, security cameras mounted atop thirty-foot poles turn slowly, taking in the perimeter with ho-hum weariness.”

Additional notes:

1.  There’s news that Orozco is under contract with the publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, to complete a novel he started back in 2005 while living in a small town in West Texas. The settings will trace his personal journey as an adult: San Francisco, Washington state, and “a fictional town very much like Moscow.”  Its release date is still “a few years out.” In the meantime, the current book, “Orientation and Other Stories,” shows Orozco’s progress toward a psychological and moral accounting of our lives today. Count me as one who looks forward to reading his long-form report.

2.  Significant reviews of the book are found here and here. Revealing print interviews of the author are found here and here (in the first, from 2006, Orozco describes his work habits and ends by quoting Colette: “Who said you should be happy? Do your work.”). A 15-minute radio interview conducted at WNYC Radio in April is available for listening here.

3.  An abbreviated version of my review of “Orientation and Other Stories” is posted on Amazon, here.


“The Coffins of Little Hope” by Timothy Schaffert

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011



Timothy Schaffert’s “The Coffins of Little Hope” is a bang-up novel: smart, funny, sad, and magical.

The book’s intelligence, its melancholy, its subtle, down-home humor, and its manifold charms, are exhibited in many forms. There’s the unsentimental depiction of small rebellions in a small town in Nebraska, where “everything falls apart.” There’s a page-turning mystery about the fate of a missing 11-year-old girl named Lenore who may or may not be real (yes, the name is an allusion to Poe, and not the only one in the book). There’s a clever subplot involving the secret publication of the final volume of a best-selling series of Young Adult Gothic novels whose plucky protagonists, Miranda and Desiree, have captivated many in the community. There’s a light, fairy tale dusting that covers the town and its inhabitants, casting a spell that gently dislocates the reader’s sense of what exactly is going on. There is, front and center, the rueful yet wise voice of the novel’s 83-year-old narrator, Essie Myles, matriarch of the town’s newspaper and writer of its obituaries. Her spirit, simultaneously sinking (“I’ve come grim-reaping”) and unsinkable (“I’m happy to be sad”), dominates the book.

Let me add a few observations to the growing praise the novel is receiving:

The narrator, her philosophy and her family

The first is to note the rare quality of the narrator’s voice. In contemporary fiction the outlook of youth or middle-age predominates, and so it is refreshing to come across a successful novel grounded in the perspective of old age. Over the course of what Essie calls her year of “minor havoc,” the two people she holds most dear — her 38-year-old grandson, Doc, and her 14-year old great-granddaughter, Tiff — grow and change. But Essie remains, steadfastly, Essie. This means the book traces the slow unfolding of her essential self, contradictions and all.

Essie combines the wisdom of age with a writer’s appreciation for how contradictory terms often appear in conjunction. It is through Essie that Schaffert makes sport of this oxymoron called life. Not a page goes by without some remark about incongruities, pluses and minuses, the unavoidable either/or of living. Essie sees a man’s “gruff demeanor, which disguised his sweet, soft heart.” She observes how middle age has rendered Lenore’s mother “wasted and lovely both.” It frustrates her to realize that “now a parent can be doing the wrong thing even when she’s doing the right thing.” She spies a man “strumming an unplugged electric guitar.” At a funeral of an old friend, while sitting with her remaining pals, she confesses, “we were nearly moved to tears by our own lack of emotion.” So here is a test:  If you grow bored around the elderly when they start in talking about their philosophy of life, steer clear of “Coffins.” If, on the other hand, you miss a grandmother who stood her ground, spoke her mind and remained sharp to the end (and you miss her), then I think you’ll get hooked by this book.

A second notable aspect of “The Coffins of Little Hope” is how much it is about family. Essie begins Chapter 8 with a chart of her family tree. She is obliged to label it, “Little Family Tree,” since it has been reduced to only four living members. The most poignant relationship in the book is the loving bond between Essie and Tiff (though we are aware of the gap of seven decades between them). At times I was reminded of the sundered, incomplete families found in the novels of John Irving and Anne Tyler’s novels.

Shades of John Irving, shades of Anne Tyler

The Irving connection is felt in the violent accidents that chopped off limbs from Essie’s family tree, the sort of shocks that are a routine part of Irving’s generational sagas. At one point in “Coffins,” Tiff mistakenly hears the word “undertow” — which recalls the “undertow/under toad/unter tod” motif in “The World According to Garp.” Of course, no one can best Irving when it comes to being an “author lover” who must, in every novel, include a main character and/or supporting characters who are writers of some sort: novelists, journalists, children’s book authors, diarists, family historians, etc. (On this point, check out the chart of “Recurring Themes” in the Wikipedia article on John Irving, here.) In “Coffins,” Schaffert launches a challenge to Irving, marshaling the obit-writing Essie AND the reclusive Wilton Muscatine (author of those Miranda and Desiree books) AND the dead but still resonating lady novelist of the Plains, Myrtle Kingsley Fitch AND Lenore’s mother Daisy whose alternative M&D manuscript Muscatine covets.

As for the connection to Anne Tyler, Schaffter’s examination of Midwestern family dynamics made me think of Tyler’s Baltimore which, as portrayed by her in novel after novel, somehow still feels like a small-town. Schaffert even includes a version of Tyler’s trademark comic scenes — the awkward moments that arise when a member of a tight-knit family dares to bring home to a family meal someone new he’s met. Other echoes of Tyler are found in the early mid-life crisis of Essie’s grandson Doc; the nostalgia some characters express about a past filled with better days; and some characters’ clasp of the quotidian in hopes of holding time’s swift hand back. A kinship between Schaffert and Tyler is also evident in the finale to “Coffins,” which brings the reader to the cusp of a wedding (a ploy both writers smartly steal from Jane Austen). And I could have sworn I was reading a page out of Tyler when Schaffert closes chapter 54 with this “she-leaves-in-a-huff” ending to a family breakfast:

“Penny for your thoughts'” Ivy [Essie’s grand-daughter and Tiff’s mother] said.

“I’ve always hated that expression,” [Essie] said. “It’s aggressive. And what’s worse, it’s disguised as a little piece of friendly adorableness in needlepoint stitch.”

“Wow, tell us what you really think,” Ivy said.

“I hate that expression even worse,” I said. “Practically for the same reasons.”

I then caught sight of them all exchanging quick glances and raised eyebrows, as if they were collectively declaring me a senile crank. “You think I don’t see that?” I said, making matters worse.

So, if Schaffert’s book tour should bring him to Washington, DC, and if the event allows for questions, I’ll bring to the microphone this one: “Mr. Schaffer, what do John Irving and Anne Tyler mean to you?”

An abundant writer

If there is a fault to be found in “The Coffins of Little Hope” it is that Schaffert’s elliptical path travels through all too many stations, its narrative has all too many diversions. So the reader must be willing to encounter a variety of riches, for that is what you get with Schaffert. On every page, he displays an easy wit and imagination, relayed through an engaging writing style. Once again, it is Essie who provides the starring “voice,” best of all when she unspools regional colloquialisms and some bad puns. She’s embarrassed by her “disgraceful fur coat, a mink that had long been on its last legs.” She describes her grand-daughter’s escape to Paris: “Ivy had just up and left.” She admonishes herself for an “infantile need to know everything before everyone else.” Schaffert’s applies an economical hand to character descriptions and scene-setting: “Ivy mourned her parents by falling in love, dangerously so, with a man beautiful but demented, and she then became pregnant.” Someone else’s daughter “had married poorly, ruined her life early on, and thickened herself on bad food from drive-through windows.” Note, too, the author’s tidy parallelisms: The Miranda and Desiree series comprises eleven books and “Coffins” contains eleven “Parts.”  (BTW, there is a webpage devoted to M&D, here.) On page one, Esther Myles informs us that if she were to reduce her full name to just one letter, the surviving letter would be “S” — a condensation also befitting the author.

This guy is good and this book is a delight.


[A shortened version of this review is posted on Amazon, here.]

“Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928-1960” by William Boyd

Friday, May 13th, 2011



The mail brought me a catalog for an exhibition of paintings by Jack Roth (1927-2004) opening this month at Spanierman Modern, in New York. Roth “worked his way through the major developments in postwar American art, from Abstract Expressionism, through Pop, and ultimately through Color Field abstraction,” yet today his work is largely forgotten. The catalog contains a well written essay — essentially a concise critical biography — by Thomas McCormick. It can be read (for free) here. As portrayed by McCormick, the artist had a strong personality, led a colorful life, and left a significant body of work (stored in a rural onion barn!). On the basis of the catalog’s reproductions, I’d say the large and colorful paintings of his final years are impressive, and they deserve to be rediscovered.

By chance, my learning about Jack Roth coincided with my reading a new hardback edition of British novelist’s William Boyd’s invented artist biography, “Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928-1960,” featuring a similarly forgotten (as he never existed) postwar artist.  Initially published in 1998 as a lark by the author in cahoots with friends David Bowie, John Richardson and Gore Vidal, this was a spoof intended to entrap and embarrass art world cognoscenti. And in fact the short-lived scam caused a minor commotion, as recounted here. But now, in 2011, what does this book offer us?

Not so much.

In book form, the text of the monograph, which originally appeared as an article in an art magazine, manages to occupy a mere 38 pages. More than half of those pages display only a few lines each. On those meager pages the remaining space is filled with fuzzy photographs or art reproductions. The total word count is less than 8,000, and the average reader can get through it in about half an hour. Is this the book’s saving grace?


Boyd relays the life story of Nat Tate with no joy and little finesse. It struck me as a shallow exercise, a paint-by-numbers effort. Of course Tate had a pinched childhood, his father disappearing before his birth (Roth’s father died when he was four). Of course Tate’s nascent talent is discovered by a discerning few (as was Roth’s). Of course he brushes up against an idiosyncratic mentor (Hans Hofmann, at his summer school in Provincetown; in Roth’s case is was Clyfford Still). Of course he hobnobs with the art pack at the Cedar Tavern; drinks too much; suffers and dies young, a suicide. What disappointed me is that in telling this tale Boyd displays little interest in granting the reader any relief from the dull proceedings. He dots his portrait with few details, and there’s not much fun in the game of Where was this item cribbed from? (E.g., Tate’s omnipresent bottle of Jack Daniels, borrowed from de Kooning and Rauschenberg). The fictional suicide of Tate failed to move me, while McCormick’s simple description of Roth’s end did:

“In the early 1990’s, Jack Roth began to suffer early onset Alzheimer’s disease and in 1992, he retired from teaching. He had great plans to keep working and wanted to study cellular biology. The disease slowly progressed, and one day he announced to his wife that he just could not paint anymore. She recalls that. true to form, he never complained. Roth became completely debilitated toward the end of his life and died in a care facility in March of 2004, just shy of his 78th birthday.”

Disappointingly, Boyd does not illuminate any really new aspect of the New York art scene of the 1950’s; he offers no psychological insights beyond clichés, no fine descriptions of places and incidents.With the exception of a quick cutaway moment when he inserts a funny parody of a Frank O’Hara poem (it spotlights the abstract expressionist circle, and its opening line asks, “What if we hadn’t had such great names?”), Boyd’s prose is uninspired, serviceable at best. Something of equivalent quality could have been concocted by any of several thousand other writers, after a minimal amount of research. All of which is to say this is a plausible biography but it’s not very good. (By the way, how many would agree with Boyd’s assessment that “the three great pillars of twentieth-century painting” are Picasso, Matisse and . . . Braque? And how many would consider Boyd’s talent at describing Tate’s paintings to be on par with the creativity of Michael Cunningham in summoning up the works of fictional artists in “By Nightfall“?)

Some might argue Boyd was compelled to write flatly in order to disguise his tongue-in-cheek designs. I’m not convinced: after all, by the time Boyd was conceiving Nat Tate, biographers had long since given themselves permission to use novelistic techniques to energize non-fiction. Biography is not inherently dull.

What the purchaser of “Nat Tate” is left with is a souvenir of a practical joke, a remnant of a hoax that once caught some people unawares. What is the appeal of such a thing? Is anyone today interested in reading Konrad Kujau’s fake diaries of Adolph Hitler? Does this false artifact have any continuing hold over contemporary imagination and thinking? Isn’t it telling that virtually all reviews of the book discuss it as an art world event, and say little if anything about it as a reading experience?

Buy this book if you want an object to talk about, a conversation piece.

– – – – –

An abbreviated version of this review appears on Amazon, here.