Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Brave New Girl by Louisa Luna

Brave New Girl by Louisa Luna

Brave New Girl by Louisa Luna is a coming-of-age tale that was published by MTV Books in 2001. MTV Books also published Tunnel Vision by Keith Lowe, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.

The protagonist in Brave New Girl is 14-year-old Doreen Severna. The novel describes her life during the summer between 8th grade and high school. Doreen has an authentic voice of a teenager in the 1990s. She’s sharp, biting, and funny. Like most teens, she answers adults in short sentences, but she shares her full thoughts with the reader.

Doreen’s voice is comparable in many ways to Holden Caulfield’s in The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, a classic book about adolescence set in the 1940s. Doreen talks about The Catcher in the Rye below, and I really loved these lines. They made me laugh.

Quotes on The Catcher in the Rye and Holden Caulfield from Brave New Girl by Louisa Luna

Like Holden Caulfield, Doreen does not fit in. The only person she trusts and cares about is her best friend Ted. Ted is an outcast too, and he has an alcoholic mother. Everyone at school considers them both losers. It doesn’t matter to Doreen and Ted though. They enjoy their time together, hanging out, joking with one another in Ted’s basement, listening to the Pixies, going to Tower Records, smoking, and eating junk food in the parking lot at 7-Eleven or Trader Joe’s. Their families and classmates all think they are dating, but they aren’t.

At home, Doreen’s father lectures her constantly, her mother wants her to be more feminine and have girlfriends, and her older sister Tracey is always unkind to her. Doreen is also troubled by the disappearance of her older brother Henry. He left home or was kicked out ten years ago when he was fourteen, the same age Doreen is now. Her family never talks about Henry, so Doreen doesn’t know where he is or even if he’s alive.

Tracey just graduated high school and is dating an older man named Matthew who is 21. Matthew shows an interest in Doreen and talks to her when others aren’t around. Doreen has a crush on him and is confused when Matthew tells her that he likes her more than he likes her sister. Eventually, Matthew’s behavior takes a dark turn when he rapes Doreen in her own bedroom. Doreen is unable to tell anyone, including Ted. Her family does not notice her pain and confusion. She’s silently suffering, hiding evidence of what happened, vomiting, bleeding, passing out, and crying.

Meanwhile, Ted is beat up by his classmates and is afraid and suffering too. In the end, Doreen finds a way to fight back by telling the truth, which helps her establish a relationship with her father. Unfortunately, her father didn’t take her to a doctor or the police. It was also disappointing that Doreen’s mother was so useless and unsympathetic and that her sister refused to believe her.

Somehow Doreen and Ted both survive their awful summer. I had to wonder where life would take them next.

Purchase and read books by Louisa Luna:

Brave New Girl by Louisa Luna Crooked by Louisa Luna

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Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Cathedral by Raymond Carver

Cathedral by Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver’s Cathedral (1983) is a collection of twelve short stories. These stories feature themes of discontent, broken relationships, despair, loss, and detachment. Many of the characters are alcoholics who are unable to change and grow. Overall, it’s a bleak read.

Here are summaries of the short stories contained in the volume:

"Feathers" is the story of the interactions between two couples at a dinner party. Jack and Fran are invited to have dinner at Bud and Olla’s house. Bud and Olla are a happy couple with a new baby and a peacock. Strangely, this visit has negative consequences on Jack and Fran's marriage.

"Chef's House" is about Wes, an alcoholic man, who is renting a home from a recovered alcoholic named Chef. Wes invites his estranged wife Edna to live with him, and they enjoy their time together at Chef’s house. Eventually, Chef tells Wes he must leave the house and move in a month. This loss creates a setback for Wes.

"Preservation" is the story of a stunted man who is unable to leave the sofa after losing his job.

"The Compartment" is about a man named Myers who is taking a train in Europe to meet his estranged son, but then changes his mind at the last minute.

"A Small, Good Thing" is about a couple who loses their child after he is struck by a car on his birthday and how they find comfort in an unlikely place from a baker.

"Vitamins" is a story of a couple struggling with alcoholism, discontent, and infidelity. The following quote about Portland in the story got my attention because I live in the city.

Quote about Portland, Oregon in the short story Vitamins in Cathedral by Raymond Carver

"Careful" is about an alcoholic man named Lloyd who is living separately from his wife Inez, but is still dependent on her.

"Where I'm Calling From" is about men sharing their personal stories of how alcohol ruined their lives while they are drying out at a rehabilitation house.

"The Train" is a story about Miss Dent waiting at a train station and her interactions with two people there. It’s a response to John Cheever’s short story "The Five-Forty-Eight."

"Fever" is about a man named Carlyle who struggles to find a caregiver for his children after his wife leaves him.

"The Bridle" is about a woman named Marge and her observations of a new family that is renting an apartment at the building she manages with her husband.

"Cathedral" is a story narrated by a bigoted man whose wife is preparing for a visit from an old friend who is blind. The narrator grows as he tries to communicate with the blind man and describe and draw a cathedral with him.

The final story was the most enjoyable because it showed growth, connection, and humanity. Carver writes minimalist stories, and for me, many of the stories felt unfinished and dissatisfying.

Purchase and read books by Raymond Carver:

Cathedral by Raymond Carver Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? by Raymond Carver

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Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Recent Reads: Magazine Articles

Happiness by Jill De Haan in Departures Magazine
Here are a few magazine articles (old and new) that I read and enjoyed recently.

"Happiness" published in Departures, September 2020
by Eviana Hartman, Illustrations by Jill De Haan

"Happiness: it may seem elusive to the point of impossible, but true contentment is within reach, even now especially now."

This magazine was sitting on a shelf for nearly two years, and I finally read through it and found some gems like this article that provided a hopeful outlook. I especially loved the accompanying illustrations by Jill De Haan. I photographed one of her beautiful drawings above.

"Padma Laksmi: The Storyteller" published in Departures, September 2020
by Korsha Wilson

"The Top Chef host takes on a new mission: to chronicle American life, one dish at a time."

I watched the first season of Taste the Nation when it first aired, and it was really wonderful. Padma's show presented such diversity in American food, with a beautiful emphasis on women's voices and immigrant stories.

"Willa, Truman. Truman, Willa" published in Vanity Fair, November 16, 2006
"Remembering Willa Cather" by Truman Capote

"A chance meeting between a destitute young journalist and a blue-eyed lady in a sable coat brought together two of America's greatest writers. Published here exclusively, 22 years after his death, the author's final work describes the day he met his idol, Willa Cather, in a New York City snowstorm."

This was such a charming recounting of an unexpected meeting between two fantastic writers.

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Thursday, June 9, 2022

Late Spring Blooms

Here are a few photographs of flowers taken during my walks.

Oregon Checkerbloom

Photograph of Oregon Checkbloom

Raindrops on a Rose

Photograph of a Rose Bloom

Columbine Flower

Photograph of a Columbine Flower

Bush Anemone

Photograph of a Bush Anemone

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Wednesday, June 8, 2022

My Face for the World to See by Alfred Hayes

My Face for the World to See by Alfred Hayes, cover photograph "Sleep" (1955) by Saul Leiter.

My Face for the World to See (1958) is a novel by Alfred Hayes about the dark side of Hollywood. It’s a beautifully written book with sharp prose. However, the plot itself is unsettling and disturbing. It’s taken me time to process the story.

The two main characters are nameless. The narrator is a 37-year-old man. He’s a financially successful screenwriter, but is dissatisfied with his work and life. He’s been married for 15 years, and his wife and daughter live in New York. He works in LA part of the year and comes to the city alone. As the story begins, he’s at a Hollywood party on the beach. He watches a woman, with a drink in hand, exit a bedroom at the house and walk outside towards the edge of the surf. She falls with the undertow and then walks directly into the ocean and goes under. The man rescues her.

Two days later, she calls him, and he asks her out to dinner. She agrees. After dinner, they go to a club together, and she asks him, “You’re married, aren’t you?” and he responds, “A little. Why?” The two eventually begin an affair.

The woman is a 25-year-old aspiring actress. When she learns that the narrator’s daughter is eight years old, she notes, “She was born when I was seventeen.” The woman is an adult, but there’s a big age difference and power differential between her and the narrator. He has contacts in the film industry; she doesn’t. He also knows she’s struggling with her mental health. She tells him she’s seeing an analyst and that she used to drink heavily, and he knows she may have tried to kill herself. She explains that when she was at her worst, she was under the delusion that people had been following her since she came to LA. They were watching her every move. She believed that if she passed through the “great trial by loneliness and hunger” that they were putting her through, she would be rewarded with success and fame in Hollywood.

They continue to date. The narrator decides to get the woman an appointment at the studio through a colleague named Charlie, and he expects to be her hero when things go well. But something happens at the appointment that leaves the woman crushed. She doesn’t elaborate on what occurred, but I was left feeling that it was a casting couch assault. The narrator dismisses her reaction, thinking it was just a silly part that was not worth being so disheartened over. Although the narrator tells himself that their relationship isn’t serious, that night, he tells the woman that he loves her.

Later, the narrator receives a letter from his wife, which provides an interesting perspective about her and her childhood. Her father has died, and she’s decided to come to LA. She’s ready to talk over all the misunderstandings in their marriage.

The narrator takes the woman out to dinner, and she gathers that his wife is coming to town on her own. The result isn’t pretty. The woman is angry and lets the narrator have it in a brutal breakup scene. He imagines that they can eat together peacefully, but she sticks her cigarette into the duck on their table. She gets drunk, dances with a young man, and disappears from the restaurant. He’s angry and goes home alone.

She shows up at his place late that night, heavily drunk and disturbed. She’s angry that he didn’t look for her. She recalls old memories in monologues of disturbing events in her life, and she’s clearly in crisis. The narrator is upset that she’s making so much noise. Then the woman slits her wrists in the bathroom. Instead of calling the police or a doctor, the narrator calls his friend Charlie, saying “I’m in a jam.” Together they take her home because, “Home’s for suicides. Get her out.” When they bring her inert body home, the narrator says, “...still I first knocked on her door thinking that all I’d come for was to take her to dinner, to dinner, because after all she’d been a girl I’d, oddly enough, saved.” Only, he wasn’t interested in saving her this time.

The narrator calls the woman’s analyst and explains that she needs help. While waiting in the car down the street, the narrator implies that the woman’s first suicide attempt in the ocean may have been because she knew Charlie. It made me wonder, have these men been actively preying on this vulnerable woman? The narrator continues talking to Charlie and confuses him when he speaks of the same delusions of Hollywood spies that he attributed to the woman earlier in the novel. Were the delusions about spies his own, or is he now taking on the woman’s delusions? Charlie is concerned. After they drive off, Charlie takes the narrator to a restaurant where they will be seen to create an alibi. The novel’s title, “my face for the world to see,” initially was the woman’s dream, but it now applies to the narrator. His face had to be seen by the world; hers would be forgotten.

The novel concludes in an unsettling manner, and the reader does not know if the woman dies or survives. I wondered how much of the narrator’s story was true. How reliable is he? Is the story his guilt talking? Is this his way of creating an alibi? He is a writer, and he’s great at telling a story. He’s adept at giving himself and the woman voices, but the woman’s voice is not her own. What would the woman choose to say?

The novel, though written in the 1950s, feels modern. Men in power in Hollywood still manipulate, abuse, and discard vulnerable women. Underneath the glitz and glamour is a lot of darkness.

In terms of style, Alfred Hayes had a unique way of writing dialogue. Sometimes conversations begin in traditional quote marks, and then meander into unmarked paragraphs with both dialogue and the narrator’s unspoken thoughts flowing together in a stream. You feel like you’re both in the action of the scene and in the narrator’s mind at the same time.

Hayes was a screenwriter, and he knew how to write a story that could translate visually to the screen. The chapter where the narrator describes the woman’s reaction to watching bullfights in Mexico is upsetting and painful, a vast contrast to the romanticized notion of the sport in Hemingway’s The Dangerous Summer and The Sun Also Rises. The narrator’s unspoken refusal to help the woman and escort her out of the arena stands out as cruel and cold. The final restaurant breakup scene was such a vicious and biting end to a relationship. I haven’t read a more vivid depiction of a toxic breakup in literature, and I think it would be incredible to watch in a film.

Although I found the story’s subject matter disturbing, I loved Alfred Hayes’s writing. I spent a lot of time contemplating this novel, and I’m planning to read his other works.

Favorite Quote:
“There was a noisy rush of water from the bathroom, and she appeared, ready for the evening, a smile she had chosen, I thought, from a small collection of smiles she kept for occasions like this, fixed upon her face.”

Cover Art:
I also love the cover photograph "Sleep" (1955) by Saul Leiter.

Related Review:
In Love by Alfred Hayes
The End of Me by Alfred Hayes

Purchase and read books by Alfred Hayes:

My Face for the World to See by Alfred Hayes In Love by Alfred Hayes The End of Me by Alfred Hayes

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Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch is a novel that was written as a collaboration between Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett in 1990. It’s a funny, entertaining book about friendship and appreciating humanity. I find it fitting that friends wrote the story together.

The book’s premise is that the end of the world is near. The final battle between Good and Evil will occur according to the Divine Plan. The Antichrist is born and delivered to a hospital in England, and he will be raised by an American diplomat.

An angel named Aziraphale and a demon named Crowley must play their assigned roles, but they don’t want to. They’ve lived on Earth among humans for so long that they enjoy it, and they don’t want to world to end. Beyond that, after being enemies for 6,000 years, they’ve ended up becoming friends.

So together, Crowley and Aziraphale decide to sabotage the end of the world, or at least postpone it so that they have more time. They plan to help raise the Antichrist so that he can’t tell the difference between Good and Evil. But the problem is, they lose track of the baby. Meanwhile, the Antichrist Adam Young ends up growing up in Lower Tadfield, an idyllic English village.

Chaos ensues as Aziraphale and Crowley try to locate the Antichrist, and the armies of Good and Evil amass their forces. The story is full of humor and was a fun read.

Along with making me smile, the book made me reflect. Maybe it’s appropriate that I read this book during this time while living in Portland, OR during the pandemic. As I read about the horsemen, I realized that I’ve felt that all four were at my door during the past years.

War – The city has been destroyed by riots and fighting between protesters and the police, Antifa and the Proud Boys, and political and class warfare. Helicopters circled overhead for months. You could hear the sounds of anger and flash-bang grenades on the streets. Stores are still boarded up and closed.

Famine – The homeless crisis in Portland has been unbearable with people living in squalor in tents on sidewalks. During covid, this escalated, and at the start of this year, there were probably more people living in tents within a block of my apartment building than there were tenants in my building itself. So many people who lived downtown left the city (and even the state) in a mass urban flight.

Pestilence/Pollution – Of course, covid. And beyond that, there were massive wildfires during the first year of the pandemic that made the sky appear yellow and orange. Ash fell from above like snow. Last summer’s heat dome here in the Pacific Northwest shattered temperature records. These events were not good omens.

Death – Death has seemed to hover so close at hand with so many people sick and dying worldwide during the pandemic. I’ve had family members who have been sick with covid. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve had recurring dreams of a friend who died unexpectedly. Sometimes, I feel like his ghost wants to talk to me.

I wouldn’t have thought to compare these events and experiences in my own life to the four horsemen of the apocalypse if not for reading this book. What a strange, eerie feeling to recognize such similarities between fiction and life.

If only I tried to dispel the horsemen with a sword crafted from twigs and twine, a handmade pair of scales, and a crown of grasses and flowers…

Sometimes you read books when you need them, and stories help you heal. That’s what this book did for me in reminding me of the power of small actions and finding a way to laugh and smile when it feels like the end is near.

Adam was right. There’s more to do, see, imagine, learn, and explore. There’s joy in being human. And there’s more living to do. There are friends to find and care for—even angels and demons. In this world, nothing is set in stone. Change is always possible.

Purchase and read books by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett:

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett American Gods: A Novel by Neil Gaiman The Color of Magic: A Discworld Novel by Terry Pratchett

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