Under a Glass Bell
And Other Stories
Anaïs Nin
Nin is known as a master stylist --- and also for being rather racy, maybe a little crazy. If so, it doesn't much show here in this book ... I mean the passion stuff. One of the best parts tells of a lady living on a houseboat there on the Seine, in the midst of Paris, amid the beggars and rats and fleas.

Nin likes repetition, short sentences, a touch of mystery ... and surprises. Here, in a story called "Ragtime," she writes about one of her neighbors, a Parisian ragpicker: "A complete object made him sad. What could one do with a complete object? Put it in a museum. Not touch it. But a torn paper, a shoelace without its double, a cup without a saucer, that was stirring."

    They could be transformed, melted into something else. A twisted piece of pipe. Wonderful, this basket without a handle. Wonderful, this bottle without a stopper. Wonderful, the box without a key. Wonderful, half a dress, the ribbon off a hat, a fan with a feather missing. Wonderful, the camera plate without the camera, the lone bicycle wheel, half a phonograph disk. Fragments, incompleted worlds, rags, detritus, the end of objects, and the beginning of transmutations.

"Wonderful" five times. "Without" five times. A pun, "a cup without a saucer, that was stirring." A few lines that could come in as poetry:

    half a dress
    the ribbon off a hat
    a fan with a feather missing.

The ragpicker finds a something that is "round, inexplicable." There is the smell of bread; the bag has "fleas in it, pirouetting." And "the tail of a dead cat for luck." To Nin the bag looks like the hump of a camel, but she, in her houseboat there being towed out of the city, feels that she is riding a camel's back:

    The bag on the shadow was the hump of a camel. The beard the camel muzzle. The camel's walk, up and down the sand dunes. The camel's walk, up and down. I sat on the camel's hump.

Many years ago, I recall reading a peculiar passage from one of her books which seemed (one can never be too sure with her) to describe an act of necrophilia. In a boat.

I'll look for it, see if I can dig it up; meantime, what I remember about it was its poetry, and its tenderness. You knew what it was, but, at the same time, it wasn't what you think. She does that all the time, and she does it wonderfully well in Under a Glass Bell.

Flyover Lives
A Memoir
Diane Johnson
I read this one a while back and promptly forgot about it, but then kept running into reviews in all the right places --- The New Yorker, NYRB, New York Times, NPR --- so I figured Johnson was important, and I didn't want to be left out of the in-crowd, so I picked it up again. There at the beginning (and again at the end) we find Johnson visiting with some military types who don't seem to care for her too much, viz, "Also she herself had fully developed general's wife killer instincts; it was a pity she hadn't been able to use them like the other women, real generals' wives." The end of the book is more of the same, turns scraggly, as if she and her publisher had agreed on a deadline and she wasn't too sure how to shut down the prose-factory (this is her fifteenth book).

But when she remembers growing up in Moline, she wins us over because her life there was so like our own from seventy years past. We spent our time at home playing Parcheesi and Monopoly, read a lot, listened --- as she did --- to radio, to "The Fred Allen Show" (taking a walk down Allen's Alley.)

The front door was never locked, ever (even when we went away for a weekend.) She has the same reaction as my own when she reveals how "you hear nowadays that these small cities and towns in the Midwest are hotbeds of meth labs and speed" --- they say the same thing about the place where I grew up --- and then when we think back, we think as a friend of hers says, "It was Brigadoon."

And by the time she gets her first pair of glasses, that's it. I could have written it myself ... wish I had: "If you were a nearsighted child, you will remember getting your first pair of glasses, on a day that changed your life in two (or more) ways." She still remembers the stupefaction at

    seeing all the way down the street, at how bright and clear the world was ... None of the disadavantages had yet occurred to me, it was simple astonishment. "I didn't know you were supposed to see way over there," I said.

Her father wept because he didn't see that she wasn't seeing, felt guilty. For me it was the moon. I slipped out of the house after supper, and there it was, that fat farmer, leaning over the wall, so bright, so clear, with all the mares so clear. You got this right, Diane, so forgive me for taking you to task. I just didn't know you were supposed to see way over there.

The Third Son
A Novel
Julie Wu
(Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill)
Tong Chia-lin grew up on Taiwan during and after World War Two. The Taiwanese would say that the Japanese were bad enough --- they'd kill you if you broke their laws --- but they built highways and made the trains run on time. When the Japanese bailed out, Chaing Kai-Shek's Nationlists hit the island and they were more like ratty dogs. They had been kicked out of the mainland by Mao, were starving, acted like marauding thieves more than soldiers, beat those who complained about being robbed.

Tong had enough troubles before the Japanese ran out: his mother beat him daily with a cane whip because he was always late, and his father, a small time politician, was no help. They favored the older brother Kazuo (I misread him for several chapters as "Kazoo.")

Like all good heroes, though, Tong loves the stars and the wind on the rice fields. And this is, after all, the mysterious Orient. His sweetie, Yoshida reports that she almost got sold into slavery when she was twelve, but lucked out because she happened to be sleeping at the time, so they auctioned off her cousin instead.

Tong isn't much as the central character of this story ... we prefer his feisty old bamboo-wielding mother. At least she has something she firmly believes in --- spare the rod spoil the child --- while he acts so much the Doubting Thomas we come to want to whale away at him a bit ourselves.

The unforgettable parts of The Third Son have to do with the politics of Taiwan in the 1940s and 1950s. Chiang Kai-shek was a scoundrel and survived only because the United States kept him and his band of forty thousand thieves in business long after they should have been sent off to the equivalent Chinese Siberia. The only thing they managed to do for Taiwan was to rob it blind.

Fortunately for him, Tong turns out to be a genius in disguise although we had our doubts. With the odds being one out of ten thousand or so, he blitzes a national test that permits him a year of study in the United States. What a victory: instead of being mugged at home he gets to do it overseas.

When Tong finally makes it to San Francisco, he goes bananas over an American refrigerator with a little light inside and a special place for the eggs. This is capitalism in action. He does tell us, though, that he's puzzled when people walk into other's people's houses without taking off their shoes.

In general it's a let-down for all of us when he finally arrives in Ann Arbor. People call him "gook" but they are wrong. He's just a bore ... and I had to give up on him around page 200. With relish that I had managed to steal from that big American refrigerator.

The Little Black Book
Of Grisélidis Réal

Days and Nights of
An Anarchist Whore

Jean-Luc Hennig,
Ariana Raines,

Hennig's job is working as a whore. 'Tis pity she's a whore? Perish the thought. She loves it, and after it is all over, before her clients get out the door, she hands them pamphlets of Prudhomme and Bakunin. Some of these tricks, apparently, don't get it. They're not interested in politics when they're involved in the beast with two backs.

Hennig may be a lady of the night, but she has a few strictures. She doesn't want to be woken up too early to go to work. She doesn't like the guys who go on too long, without getting off: she gets bored. Yes, she washes them all down thoroughly before she begins operations, and she keeps a little black book, with a list of their preferences, what they prefer her to do, upside or downside, those little artful things she does with her hands ... the red whip, too, hanging there on the wall.

We do wonder, sometimes, though, about William Barton Rogers, the founder, 200 years ago, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: What exactly would he have made of all this stuff ... this world that Hennig describes so exactly, the stuff she does with her hands, and the washrag, and the red riding crop, etc., being distributed by MIT Press and all?

Go to a letter
from Semiotext(e) about this

The Cost of Lunch, Etc.
Short Stories
Marge Piercy
There are twenty stories here and instead of calling them The Cost of Lunch, Etc. they might better have been entitled just Etc. Or even better Leftovers from the Slush Pile. Some of these are so disjointed that we get the feeling that Piercy had gotten to the tail-end of the mine, was in a hurry to send them off to her agent to get published and make off (like a bandit) with the check.

It may have to do with logorrhea. Or just simply word weariness. By this time in her life, Piercy has published seventeen novels, eighteen books of poetry, and seven books known merely as "Other."

There are a few themes dotted about here and there that make it all very East Coast. There's lots of Martini drinking. Casual --- if not boring --- sex. Women who "breed." The clitoris makes a timely if ungainly appearance half-way through.

The last story, "How to Seduce a Feminist (or Not)," gives us five tedious date tales --- not date off the palm but the new guy on your doorstep: what are you gonna do with (or to) him?

There were a couple out of the collection that perked us up, though. In fact, two were about collecting. Stuff that older ladies pick up at garage sales, in Goodwill, or out on the sidewalks.

In "Saving Mother from Herself," Mom has to put up with a television reality program in which they show the world all this junk that she's carefully collected over the years. You have trouble getting in the front door, have to make a zig-zag path to get to the bathroom ... just like the Collyer brothers. So they clean her out, tote it off to the dump or to the junk shops in town and she has to sneak out furtively to the self-same junk shops to buy it all back --- the favorite (hers and ours) being a great dusty stuffed owl.

Then there are the cat ladies. In "What Remains," Sandra is dying of cancer so she leaves her three cats to her beloved sister. And after she is gone, the three cats take over Sis's house back there in Roslindale. She begins to add more and you have the distinct feeling that in a couple of years she'll be one of those people you read about in the National Observer who had 57 cats jammed in her house, yowling day and night, neighbors complaining because of the stink, the police come, she refuses to give them up, etc. etc.

The best story of them all --- "The Border" --- comes from Piercy's years as an antiwar activist. She drove young men to the border to help them escape the draft. In those days, back in the 60s, you could drive right up to the border town of Derby Line, Vermont; he'd slip out of the car, cross over Main Street ... and there he'd be in Canada.

Those were the days, right? When the USA trusted its own citizens to be honorable and good, when we pretended to be friendly with our neighbors --- and you could complain about our wars and get heard.

Or at the worst, get back to that genteel civilization there in the north.

--- Richard Saturday
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