Pain, as if seen through glass

My review of Cate Kennedy’s new short story collection, Dark Roots, appears in the weekend’s New York Times Book Review. Here’s an excerpt:

A writer, Eudora Welty insisted, must know her characters’ “hearts and minds before they ever set visible foot on stage. You must know all, then not tell it all, or not tell too much at once: simply the right thing at the right moment.” When fiction doles out its revelations in this way — when it allows just the right sequence of glimpses through a parted curtain — we misleadingly call it “realistic.” Actual existence is rarely well choreographed.

The stories in “Dark Roots,” the Australian writer Cate Kennedy’s first collection, are melancholy but deliberate and coolly exact. They depict characters in crisis, often so mired in what Walker Percy called the malaise of everydayness that the horror of their condition is invisible to them. Some of the stories culminate in epiphanies; others hinge on a jolt — a violent act or loss.

You can read the excellent “Black Ice” (published in the collection as “Cold Snap”) at The New Yorker. And there’s an interview with the author at The Age.

Thursday afternoon Steve Toltz giveaway

So far I’ve read only the first chapter of Steve Toltz’s 544-page first novel, A Fraction of the Whole, but when I get around to unpacking my future-reading pile, the book will be waiting at the top of the box.

Toltz’s narrator begins his story from prison, the morning after a rousing, mattress-burning riot. “It’s always something here,” he says.

[I]f there isn’t a riot, then someone’s usually trying to escape. The wasted effort helps me see the positives of imprisonment. Unlike those pulling their hair out in good society, here we don’t have to feel ashamed of our day-to-day unhappiness. Here we have someone visible to blame — someone wearing shiny boots. That’s why, on consideration, freedom leaves me cold. Because out there in the real world, freedom means you have to admit authorship, even when your story turns out to be a stinker.

Esquire‘s Tom Chiarella calls the book “an episodic story, kite-strung with mind fucks”; “it reads like Mark Twain with access to an intercontinental Airbus.” Richard Rayner says it’s a “willfully misanthropic and very funny… meditation on the inescapable legacies that fathers bequeath their sons and the overall toxicity of family.” Everyone seems to agree that the plot “is very much beside the point” in a tale this voice-driven and stampeding.

“[T]his story will be as much about my father as it is about me,” Toltz’s narrator warns us. “I hate how no one can tell the story of his life without making a star of his enemy, but that’s just the way it is.”

If you’re interested in reading the book, too, and you haven’t already won one of my giveaways, email me at maud [at] maudnewton [dot] com today (2/21) before 11:59 p.m. EST with “Toltz” in the subject line. All entries will be assigned numbers based on the order received, and the randomizer will choose a winner. The randomizer likes Helene W. of Oakland, CA.

Wednesday afternoon Mary Swan giveaway

I admit it: I started into Mary Swan’s The Boys in the Trees more out of curiosity than interest. The story of a brutal crime that shocks a 19th-century community and destroys a family, etc., etc. — the description didn’t grab me.

But it seemed so unusual that a novel would bear enthusiastic blurbs from both the sharp-witted, gimlet-eyed Hilary Mantel, and the despairing, pathologically empathetic Alice Munro, that I had to read at least the first page. After I did that, I didn’t stop.

The Boys in the Trees is one of those rare contemporary novels that is slender and sharp and unfolds through multiple perspectives but isn’t detached, coy, or icily knowing. As Dory Cerny writes in Quill & Quire:

Each chapter is told from a different character’s perspective, but rather than being disjointed, the novel feels complete…. Swan uses the effect of the crime on each narrator as a connecting thread, weaving an intricate web that provides glimpses into each character’s story, without sacrificing the importance of the central figures, William Heath and his family.

“Finishing [the book],” Hilary Mantel says, “I feel as if I am still listening for it. It has the compelling logic of a lingering, powerful dream.” I had the same experience — and don’t tell Stephany, but I want to send her a copy for her birthday, to see if she gets caught up in the strange nightmare intensity of the story, too.

If you’d like a copy of The Boys in the Trees, and you haven’t already won one of my giveaways, email me at maud [at] maudnewton [dot] com today (2/20) before 11:59 p.m. EST with “Swan” in the subject line. All entries will be assigned numbers based on the order received, and a randomizer will choose the winner. J. Brown wins the book. Many thanks to all who wrote in; one of these days, I hope to respond properly.

The Smart Set: Lauren Cerand’s weekly events

The Smart Set is a weekly feature, compiled and posted by Lauren Cerand, that usually appears Mondays at 12:30 pm and highlights the best of the week to come. Special favor is given to New York’s independent booksellers and venues, and low-cost and free events. Please send details to Ms. Cerand at lauren [at] by the Thursday prior to publication. Due to the volume of submissions, events cannot be considered unless the date appears in the subject line of your message.

Fresh-faced and just back from a weekend in the country, I must bid you leave once again– to find a dress for a Leap Day party with an invitation so hot, thought I heard a sizzle when it touched my hand (sadly, am not allowed to bring “The Smart Set” as my +1; I asked). Herewith, the Double Trouble Edition:

WED, 2.20: Sip Lit, “a monthly series of readings in a cafe,” presents Edward Mendelson reading W.H. Auden’s prose and Mark Svenvold. At Sip, 998 Amsterdam Avenue between 109th and 110th Streets. Highly recommended. 8PM, FREE. Also on the Upper West Side, Bookculture has some spectacularly intriguing events lined up in coming weeks.

THU, 2.21:Winkleman Gallery is very pleased to present a solo exhibition of new paintings by New York artist Joy Garnett. In four large canvases Garnett continues her groundbreaking exploration of the malleability of instantly globalized images and how they have begun to replace written language as the markers of mankind’s collective memory or consciousness. Unlike her last three New York exhibitions, which centered on specific themes of conflict or violence, this grouping is united only by the loose suggestion of images possibly taken at precisely the same moment in very different locations around the world. Garnett circles the planet to underscore perhaps the unstoppable imperative of this new lingua franca.” Highly recommended. Opening: 6 – 8PM, FREE. In Brooklyn, “Translator Anne McLean reads from and discusses her recent translation of Julio Cortázar’s Autonauts of the Cosmoroute. Julio Cortázar (1914–1984) was a true giant of twentieth-century Latin American literature. Autonauts of the Cosmoroute is a love story, an irreverent travelogue of elaborate tales and snapshots detailing Cortázar and wife Carol Dunlop’s thirty-three-day voyage on the Paris-Marseilles freeway.” With Yuriy Tarnawsky, “a bilingual American/Ukrainian writer, born in Ukraine but raised in the West,” as part of OFF THE RAIL, curated by Donald Breckenridge and happening at the Brooklyn Central Library (10 Grand Army Plaza). 7PM, FREE.

FRI, 2.22: “Paragraph is thrilled to host a reading in honor of Wales Week with three internationally recognized Welsh Poets and Novelists: Paul Henry, Owen Sheers and Richard Gwyn at Clay, followed by a wine and cheese reception at Paragraph. Free and open to the public.” Highly recommended. 8:30PM, FREE.

SAT, 2.23 & SUN, 2.24: At the Morgan Library, “Close Encounters: Irving Penn, Portraits of Artists and Writers.

MON, 2.25: Rachel Cline reads from her new novel, My Liar, at Rocky Sullivan’s in Red Hook. “What’s it about? The mutually exploitative friendship between two women who work together in the movie business.” 8PM, FREE. At the Museum of Sex, Stephen Elliott (interviewed previously in The Smart Set), Anthony Swofford and Nick Flynn read from Sex for America. 7PM. Also, “The New York City Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society has announced the finalists for its 12th annual Books for a Better Life Awards, honoring the best self-improvement books of 2007. The winners will be announced on Monday, February 25, 2008 during an awards ceremony in Manhattan, hosted by NBC Today Show Co-anchor Meredith Vieira, who is also an active member of the Chapter’s Board of Trustees… Proceeds will support national research, as well as vital services and medical programs for those with MS in the metropolitan area.” Details.

TUE, 2.26: At the Center for the Humanities, “Poet C. D. Wright and photographer Deborah Luster discuss their work on One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana with Alice Quinn. C. D. Wright is author of numerous poetry collections, including Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil, Steal Away: New and Selected Poems, and String Light, which won the Poetry Center Book Award. Deborah Luster’s photography has been the subject of numerous solo exhibitions throughout the country. Alice Quinn is Executive Director of the Poetry Society of America.” 7PM, FREE.

WED, 2.27: Jami Attenberg, whose new novel is The Kept Man, and Janice Erlbaum, whose new memoir is Have You Found Her, read from both books, both set in New York right now, at Bookcourt [Full disclosure as always: I am Janice's publicist]. 7PM, FREE.

THU, 2.28: The Film Society of Lincoln Center presents a screening of Walker. “Of all Cox films maudits, this quixotic broadside at the Reagan administration efforts to overthrow Nicaragua’s Sandinista government has to be the most maudit of all. Written by Rudy Wurlitzer, it boldly (and surreally) reconstructs the true story of the 1855 invasion of Nicaragua by deranged American imperialist William Walker, played with manic intensity by Ed Harris. An unruly Peckinpah-meets-Buñuel fantasia, ripe for rediscovery. Universal, who incredibly enough bankrolled the film, buried it after a token theatrical release. Still, per Cox, Walker was the second-biggest box-office hit ever in Nicaragua, after The Sound of Music. The film’s music is by Joe Strummer, and if you watch out you can see him in many scenes as one of Walker’s ragtag soldiers.” [Full disclosure, as always: I am the publicist for Wurlitzer's novel, The Drop Edge of Yonder, out next month]. 6:30PM, $11.

FRI, 2.29: Friend of The Smart Set, Gabriel Cohen, says: I’d like to invite you to two book parties for my new book Storms Can’t Hurt the Sky: a Buddhist Path Through Divorce, now available from Da Capo Lifelong Books. The book offers some radical advice about how to get through life’s tough stuff (not just divorce); how to improve relationships; and how to be more happy. The official launch party will take place on Friday, February 29 at the Rubin Museum of Art in Chelsea. One of my favorite museums in the world, the Rubin contains a spectacular, intimate collection of Himalayan art, as well as a great café, bookstore, and gift shop. My reading and talk will be part of a lively evening featuring DJs and a full bar, a guest visual artist, and a David Cronenberg film. The talk and gallery admission after 7 p.m. are free.”

SAT, 3.1: publish and be damned, an exhibition of an international archive of artist fanzines, continues at Ludlow 38, a new art space on Ludlow Street (between Grand + Hester) [Full disclosure, as always: I am the publicist for this project].

SUN, 3.2: Disco nap. Highly recommended.

Monday morning Barthelme giveaway

The move approacheth, and the stomach recoileth at the prospect of yet more pizza, potato chips, and oily bodega coffee.

Next week the site will be quiet for the loading and unloading of boxes. This week you may see a handful of new things in the remainders bar, but mostly I’m doing giveaways.

Today’s books — The Teachings of Don B and Not-Knowing — will appeal to Barthelme completists, Thanksgiving haters, and do-it-yourself, packaged-soup-loving caterers. Oh, and Pynchon lovers. The Gravity’s Rainbow author’s original introduction to The Teachings of Don B is reprinted in the new Counterpoint edition.

Not-Knowing (introduction by John Barth) is a collection of essays and interviews I’ve yet to read. “Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing,” Barthelme famously said, “a forcing of what and how.”

If you’d like to win these books, email me at maud [at] maudnewton [dot] com today (2/18) before 11:59 p.m. EST with “Barthelme” in the subject line. All entries will be assigned numbers based on the order received, and a randomizer will choose the winner.Kevin Arthur wins the books. Thanks to all who entered, and for the well-wishes on the move.

Shot of pizza from local joint stolen from Famous Fat Dave.

NYPL flagship branch to incorporate circulation?

The New York Public Library is gearing up for some big changes. A confidential source reports that plans are afoot to install a circulating central library in the flagship Fifth Avenue branch, which currently is just a research library and exhibitions site.

According to the source, new space beneath Bryant Park, and improvements in digital technology, will enable the NYPL to free up the stacks below the Rose Main Reading Room on the west side of the building and to make the space open to the public for the first time.

Plans have not yet been approved, but the design reportedly will be both mindful of the building’s past and forward-looking. I’d love to see what BLDG BLOG would suggest.

Late last month, following the sale of the Donnell building, Library Journal called for greater transparency in decision-making at the NYPL and expressed concern that the library might intend to sell its Mid-Manhattan building.

Whether more sales are in the works, I don’t know, but if this comes off, I’ll be first in line.