Eliza White, the narrator of Alicia Metcalf Miller's My Life on Mars (Plume Books), doesn't live on Mars; she lives in Santa Fe (close enough, right?). Actually, Mars refers to the ***image1***name of the street in a suburb west of Cleveland where White grew up. She returns there, for the entirety of the novel, to help her widowed mother pack up the childhood house. It is in this seemingly unremarkable community, where the streets are named for stars and planets, where White finally deals with both her child- and adulthood. The former consisted of a distant and adulterous father and a mother too sick and tired to mother. The latter has turned into White's relationship with her own adulterous husband and children. As her mother recovers in the hospital from a broken hip, White has, for the first time in many years, the space and will to delve into her family's secrets-and her own. At the same time, a brewing new romance with a stranger creates, for White, a sexual idyll. If that sounds a little too Lifetime for Women, well, maybe. But Miller's main character undergoes emotional changes so subtly that what could read as melodrama instead is rendered as a story of suspense, in which the potential happiness of the protagonist becomes of supreme importance to the reader.
Reading the collection of Will Self's essays published in Junk Mail (Black Cat) is the literary equivalent of a very enjoyable cup of Turkish coffee: bracing, adrenalin-inducing and a regular cup of ***image2***coffee will seem forever mundane after the experience.
Self may be better known to some as a novelist (Cock & Null, The Quantity Theory of Insanity, among others), and his journalism is that of an accomplished prose writer equally adept at describing places with an unwavering eye while sputtering incredulity at the weirdness and occasional stupidity of contemporary society. Whether he's tackling the topic of crack, Brett Easton Ellis or his hometown of London, Self is weirdly and wonderfully original and sharp. Consider the Ellis essay, fully titled, "Brett Easton Ellis: The Rules of Repulsion," in which Self sets the scene with a disassociated omnipresent narrator who slowly discovers that Brett Easton Ellis is…nice. "This is a man who I'd happily let bath my children-should he wish to engage in such an atrocity."
And, one must admit, Self's British voice (though he characterizes himself, in the introduction, as having become an American writer since 9.11, and Self is an American citizen) is bound to charm even those who eschew gratuitous profanity. How can one not love an essay on Nick Hornby that begins, "If I were Nick Hornby I'd be shitting my whack." Well, don't answer that, just read the book.
One is not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but a book about books should really look less trashy than Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack's literacy and longing in LA (Delacorte Press). Dora (named for Eudora Welty) had a crap childhood in which she, like her mother, sought escape in books. But not in ***image3***an unhappy child/bookworm kind of way; Dora binges on books, locks herself in her house and does nothing but read madly and addictively for days on end when she's trying to escape. What does Dora have to escape from besides her unhappy childhood? Her predictably unhappy adulthood, in which Dora is separated from her second husband, unemployed (but trying to get re-employed as a journalist) and slowly getting into debt, thanks to the LA shopping lifestyle. Meanwhile, she's started a fling with Fred, a pretentious (but well-read and good in bed) bookstore clerk and has taken on a maternal interest in Fred's mother and niece after Fred's sister dies (drugs). The book is littered with literary references, footnoted for convenience (or pretension, it is a bit hard to tell); and close to 10 pages of book citations in the end drive home the point that this is a book about books (but not War and Peace, as may be obvious already from the description). Despite having a certain annoying quality, the book is carried through by the character of Dora, who is a ticking time bomb of anti-social feeling and sarcastic observation (and, frankly, occasionally poor taste in books).
Lisa Tucker's third novel, Once Upon a Day (Atria Books), is her strongest effort to date and it's a lovely and surprising book. Dorothea grew up in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico, with no contact with the outside world. Thus, in her early 20s, she is positively Amish in her ***image4***outlook, with an old-fashioned and naïve understanding of the contemporary mores others take for granted. She leaves this environment to go in search of her brother, who has fled the
"sanctuary" (think Wacoesque compound, minus the violence) created by their father.
As Dorothea searches for her brother, she must come to understand the world she has been sheltered from and, more importantly, the world her father took her away from. Stephen, a doctor who lost his wife and child in an accident and now drives a taxi, crosses Dorothea's path and helps her start to piece things together.
Running parallel to Dorothea's story is an older story of a young aspiring actress, Lucy, and the controlling director, Charles, who marries her and turns her into a star. The journey to the intersection of these two stories is emotionally suspenseful and its resolution very satisfying.
Julia Glass won the National Book Award for Three Junes. Her latest, The Whole World Over (Pantheon Books) would not appear to be destined for a similar fate. It is, nonetheless, a weighty and compelling novel. Greenie Duquette is a chef, best known for deserts, whose New York life and New York marriage are in serious need of renewal. ***image5***Be careful what you wish for, fictional dissatisfied wives. Change comes easily when Duquette is recruited to be the personal chef for (drum roll, please) the governor of New Mexico. Here is where local readers may find suspension of belief harder work than it should be; Glass' New Mexico governor is a diehard Republican with a heart of gold. Fortunately, we don't have to spend too much time with this character (one gathers, from the author notes, that Glass spent time in the real governor's mansion with the real governor's wife, as part of her research for this book). The book is quite littered with characters, all of whom are given their own point of view, including Greenie's husband, psychoanalyst Alan; her former boss, gay restaurant owner Walter; the waifish brain-damaged Saga (whose real name is Emily). Saga's saga involves the accident that led to her brain injury, as well as her current work in helping to rescue animals. Walter is looking for love in all the wrong places, and Alan is carrying around the secret that he impregnated another woman at his high school reunion. And if that's not enough plot for you, let us not forget Greenie's adulterous affair, the drought in the West and 9.11, all of which play a role in this book. It's a tribute to Glass' talents that the book is as cohesive as it is, since it covers almost the entire world of emotional geography-hence, we assume, the title.
It's difficult to live in New Mexico and not be aware of flamenco. But after reading The Flamenco Academy by Sarah Bird (Knopf), it may be impossible to ever think of the art of ***image6***flamenco in the same way. Set in an authentically rendered Albuquerque-often dirty and hard and poor-the story revolves around Rae, an unlikely candidate for becoming a flamenco dancer (blond, Texan) and her best friend, Didi, whose only destiny is to become a star. Both girls' fathers die of cancer and their mothers are unable to deal with much of anything. They find recluse in their friendship and obsessions. Rae's obsession takes the form of Tomás, a flamenco guitarist, which leads her to study and pursue a career as a flamenco dancer. Rae's own story intermingles a sad tale of friendship and betrayal with powerful glimpses into the legacy of flamenco, its mysteries and power. Even better, the story is rooted in New Mexico's flamenco world, and Bird's exploration of this local, yet often hidden, oeuvre is fascinating.