ASTRONAUTS & OTHER STORIES
by Matthew Iribarne (Simon & Schuster, $24) Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main, 624-6600 7:30 p.m. Wed., July 25
EVERYTHING'S gone wrong for Peter. On the day before his wedding, the protagonist of "Sudden Mysteries"—one of the best tales from Matthew Iribarne's impressive collection, Astronauts & Other Stories—has managed to crash his car into a tree and sleep with a woman who recently told her spouse to split. When her burly husband stops home to pick up his belongings, he suspiciously says to Peter, who's waiting for a tow truck there, "'Margaret never sings and now she is singing.'" Peter thinks of a blind man who regains his sight, a young girl who comes out of a coma. "What was singing in the kitchen," he muses, keeping in mind the day's string of events, "when compared to such things, these sudden mysteries?"
Miraculous mishaps occur throughout this San Francisco author's debut. A priest in "Make Them Laugh" drinks, drives, and slams his vehicle into a patrol car. In "The Gift," a man mistakes his nephew for a thief and aims his rifle. The mother in "A Dream, Not Alone" dies a few hospital floors below where her daughter just gave birth. These accidents cause marriages to crack and families to dissolve, and make Iribarne's characters long for a past that's out of reach. Leah of "The Wedding Dance" lovingly remembers a time before her husband strayed when the couple embraced in the middle of a river. Her mother consoles, "'Everything passes. . . . It's just the way things work.'"
How do these characters endure such tragedies? Though reminiscent of the prose of parables, Iribarne's simple sentence structures create a world that's surprisingly morally complex. One option for survival is acceptance. In "The Gift," Manuel decides to feel compassion, rather than contempt, for the man who shot his nephew. Having fallen himself, the priest of "Make Them Laugh" comes to see his parishioners as peers rather than sinners. After becoming estranged from his spouse and son, Ross of "Ross Willow's New and Used Cars" settles for fishing with a co-worker. "It was funny where people could end up," he reflects, "so far from where they thought they'd be, a million miles." Even after these characters admit their situations, and one finishes this stunning work, an ache remains.
by Jean Edward Smith (Simon & Schuster, $35)
ULYSSES S. GRANT was an aggressive, hard-drinking general during the Civil War and a lousy president afterwards. At least that's the story most Americans took away from their junior high school U.S. history class.
However, in recent years, historians have given Grant his due, calling him a great military thinker and principled chief executive. After reading this excellent biography by Jean Edward Smith, one could argue that Grant, not Teddy Roosevelt, deserved to be the fourth face on Mount Rushmore.
Smith doesn't argue much himself. Grant isn't a polemic railing against the general's critics, but a well-researched, "just the facts" historical biography. (In an amazing feat of brevity, Smith dismisses Grant's bad reputation among past historians with a single sentence.)
A West Point graduate, Grant distinguished himself as a young officer in the Mexican War, but proved a lackluster peacetime soldier. After resigning, he spent several years in poverty before being commissioned as a colonel of Illinois volunteers after the outbreak of the Civil War. He fought by a simple set of rules: Find the enemy, attack with all you have, and keep moving. President Abraham Lincoln quickly grew to appreciate Grant's battlefield victories, and consistently increased his rank and authority.
Although Grant wasn't elected president until 1868, Smith illustrates how the general served to keep Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, from acting on his pro-Southern loyalties and simply allowing former Confederates to assume their former positions of power in civil government. The war of words between the revered general and the unpopular president was often waged through letters (which were leaked to the press and widely disseminated).
While Smith makes a strong case that Grant was a better chief executive than previously thought, he acknowledges Grant's weaknesses. He was a decisive leader, and his unilateral decision making proved less popular in Washington, D.C., than it had on the battlefield. And the scrupulously honest Grant tended to assume everyone was equally honorable, which led to a few lousy political appointments (not to mention a lifetime of poor business investments).
However, Grant fought for full citizenship for freed slaves, pushed for a more humane policy toward Indian tribes, initiated civil service reform, and used federal law to fight the growth of the Ku Klux Klan and maintain order in the South. Smith contends that Grant's poor image owes mostly to the work of post-war Southern historians (and their resentment over his support for black equality). This fine volume should help reverse that trend.
BABE IN PARADISE: FICTION
by Marisa Silver (W.W. Norton & Company, $23.95) Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main, 624-6600 7:30 p.m. Thurs., July 26
LOS ANGELES is a sad, sprawling city— a desert city, in every sense. Its residents are vain and victimized—and, all too often, displaced; they've come from someplace else or there's someplace else they want to be. Destruction is commonplace. Brushfires blaze, beachfronts flood, the continent shifts. It's a landscape of metaphors.
Marisa Silver sets her stories in the midst of such tumult. Her characters are hungry and hopeful; they are people in pursuit. Some of them are Hollywood types—the aspiring actress, the narcissistic screenwriter—but many of them are ordinary people seeking hope, or a sense of security, or relief from the landscape of memory.
Silver is a remarkably talented and ambitious writer, and this collection shines like a valley of lights. Some pieces, of course, shine brighter than others. Out of nine, three very accomplished stories have one character in common: a vulnerable, headstrong bad girl named Babe. In the first story, which shares its title with the book, Babe is a teenager, newly transplanted from Cleveland, living with her delusional mother, and sleeping with a man who lives in a truck. By book's end, Babe has matured into a world-wise woman with college credits, a nose ring, and a steady job driving a limo. The concluding story, "The Passenger," is a wonderfully wry first-person account of one night on the job in the driver's seat. (It earned its author national attention when it was published in last year's summer fiction issue of The New Yorker, and it's the strongest piece in this collection.)
Babe is unlike Silver's other characters because she doesn't know where she's headed. "Miles go by without my noticing," she says. "Sometimes I'll reach a destination and have no idea how I got there."
And yet, enigmatically, she keeps on driving—until she has to stop for traffic. In this book, that's the consummate L.A. metaphor for stagnation in the pursuit of progress. Everyone's on the road, destination in mind—and for that very reason, no one gets anywhere.