This Week's Reads

Helen Walsh, Kristine McKenna, Terry Gross, and Audrey Young.

Brass

By Helen Walsh (Canongate, $14) I wasn't prepared to encounter a graphic lesbian sex scene on the second page of this debut novel (which may send many of you sprinting to the bookstore), and this was one of the lesser surprises within. Helen Walsh's striking, rapidly paced Brass has already taken England by storm; it's in-your-face chick lit from a 26-year-old author. Nineteen-year-old Liverpool heroine Millie is definitely not your typical protagonist, college student, or woman. Starting from the first page, she's chasing prostitutes through cathedral gardens, screwing (physically and metaphorically) every man or woman in sight, snorting coke in public toilets . . . and then sauntering home to her daddy's house and her warm bed. The first-person narration switches between Millie and her closest male friend, Jamie, although the continuous barrage of slang can make it hard to follow. Millie is at once vulnerable and vulgar. She's cunning and lecherous with her sleazy friends yet tender with her undeserving father. And this middle-class college girl has a gutter mouth. It's cunt this and cunt that; Millie constantly makes reference to unpleasant smells, grotesque faces, vile bodies, and dirty secrets. Walsh succeeds in creating a memorable, if incomprehensible, character in Millie, but the plot of Brass is another matter. (Key elements include romantic tension between Millie and Jamie, her various addictions, his controlling and jealous fiancée, and her lying bastard father.) You can't figure out why she's paying women for sex since she's supposedly so beautiful. You can't understand how she came to be so empty and fucked up. You can't really even explain why the novel is so forceful. It just is. There is nothing safe about Brass, like Millie herself. Yet the utter chaos of the book accurately reflects its heroine. Both are simply true to themselves, making for a mesmerizing mess of a novel. HEATHER LOGUE Helen Walsh will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 5:30 p.m. Fri., Nov. 19.  Talk to Her: Interviews

By Kristine McKenna (Fantagraphics, $16.95)

All I Did Was Ask: Conversations with Writers, Actors, Musicians, and Artists

By Terry Gross (Hyperion, $24.95) All interviews are constructs. As Michael Stipe of R.E.M. recently told Wolfgang Tillmans in Butt magazine, "It's a completely false pretense that you're there. You're two people that don't know each other, but one knows a lot of information about the other, and you're going to have a conversation that is not really a conversation." Two recent compendiums of Q&A's demonstrate very different methods of overcoming these straits. For veteran Los Angeles journalist Kristine McKenna, the interview is an arena in which to get down to larger stuff than whatever new album or film the subject is flogging. She has a knack for posing big questions with specific resonances—Elvis Costello is asked how the press should function in relation to music, for instance. The interviews collected in Talk to Her feel more like conversations than Stipe's duels; some of the best stuff comes when she leaves the questions out altogether and simply quotes her subjects in paragraph-sized chunks. A contributor to Rolling Stone and The Los Angeles Times since the late '70s, McKenna is especially good at capturing the nuances of figures whose personalities are often cartoonishly overdrawn, as in an early-'80s talk with John Lydon, aka the Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten. Speaking of cartoons, Talk to Her features drawings of McKenna's subjects by an assortment of comics artists; the best is Tim Hensley's rendering of Television guitarist Tom Verlaine as Jughead in a six-panel mock-Archie strip, his quotes in word balloons. And though her research is impeccable, there's never a sense of invasion or simple fannishness. Rather, McKenna comes across as someone whose curiosity stems from, but isn't confined to, the work of the artists she questions. NPR's Fresh Air host Terry Gross' shtick is a lot homier. Often praised for the intimacy of her radio interviews, Gross' questioning style is closer to a cross between a job interview (plenty of research, all eyes on the guest) and cocktail party chit-chat: generally pleasant, seldom revelatory, often forced. While it's easy enough to zip through All I Did Was Ask, her first compendium of Q&A's, the book frequently feels milquetoast, as when the author indulges her middlebrow obsession with Taxi Driver by bunching together Q&A's with Albert Brooks, Jodie Foster, and Paul Schrader that shed little new light on an already overscrutinized film. And while there may be no such thing as a stupid question, there's certainly such a thing as an obvious one, as Gross proves again and again. Take her hoary queries to Foster about being a child actress; if Foster's teeth-gritting response wasn't accompanied by her patting Gross on the head, it should have been. Gross gets more gripping stuff out of lesser-known figures, such as pseudonymous lesbian pulp novelist Ann Bannon. As for the infamous go-round with Kiss' Gene Simmons, who upbraids the upright Gross with such charming banter as, "The notion is that if you want to welcome me with open arms, I'm afraid you're also going to have to welcome me with open legs," it's got less electricity on the page than in the air. Still, it's one instance where you cringe because of the answers, not the questions. MICHAELANGELO MATOS What Patients Taught Me: A Medical Student's Journey

By Audrey Young (Sasquatch, $22.95) As someone who's recently had to spend time—too much time—at Harborview, I can testify to what a great source of stories a hospital can be. Never mind my hardships (legs broken in a mountain climbing accident); that place was brimming with human drama. Out in the halls, patients were having psychotic breakdowns and drug withdrawals. On the sidewalk, desperately ill people had lugged their IV stands outside in order to smoke—I saw one of them lighting a cigarette despite two broken arms. Among a succession of my roommates during different stays, there was a guy who had to be restrained to his bed because he kept trying to escape (one attempt resulted in a pool of blood washing across the floor between us); an evangelical Christian who conducted regular noisy tent-raising prayer circles at his bedside; and a bellicose, walrus-sized motorcyclist who rang the staff every five minutes all night and day—apparently for the sheer malicious pleasure of insulting them. You can't make this stuff up. Though the enduring appeal of medical shows like ER and Nip/Tuck depends on the daily drama, comedy, and pathos each new patient presents, the facts are often stranger than fiction. Anyone who reads Oliver Sacks, Sherwin Nuland (How We Die), or The New Yorker's Atul Gawande and Jerome Groopman knows that a difficult diagnosis can make for a great story. But that's not to be confused with each individual doctor's story. Audrey Young's Journey takes her through Harborview and many of the other standard stops for a UW physician in training, including four years of school, three in residency, and various stints in the boondocks (Alaska, Idaho, Montana, etc.). She even ventures to Africa for one rotation. Along the way, she meets various patients who, yes, teach her humility and compassion—making her a better, wiser doctor in the process. Fair enough; it's her journey, not theirs. In the same vein—no pun intended—is another recent memoir by a Seattle physician, Emily Transue's On Call: A Doctor's Days and Nights in Residency (St. Martin's, $23.95). Hers is a little more grounded in nitty-gritty detail; she's less prone to commonplace NPR- essay epiphanies than Young ("There was such a thing as dying a good death"). Young often speculates about her patients' lives outside the hospital or clinic—like a pregnant teen passing from town to town on a bus—while Transue confines herself to the concrete, like a grizzled WWII veteran telling her how he survived six weeks on a life raft in the Pacific. Both books amount to self-justification, in a way, and both hew to the same how-I-became-a-doctor narrative that contains the same predictable closure: getting that hard-earned M.D. The authors both assume the storyteller's privileged position as if donning that totemic white coat. And their earnest, intelligent accounts mostly skip over the broader, uglier realities of our overtaxed, understaffed health care system. Institutional medicine can be like a factory where we patients can't teach our well-intentioned doctors anything; the assembly line moves too fast for that. Young's and Transue's professionalism and concern for their patients come through at every turn, but where is the impatience, the ridiculousness, the dark humor often necessary to cope with darker medical outcomes? (In the ER, one of my med-student friends and her colleagues devised an "Idiot of the Week" competition to see who admitted the most stupidly self-inflicted injury.) However much I'd like to have Young or Transue as a doctor, I'd rather read something by, say, Dr. David Sedaris or Dr. Augusten Burroughs. Running With Scalpels, anyone? BRIAN MILLER Audrey Young will appear at University Book Store, 7 p.m. Mon., Oct. 22.

 
comments powered by Disqus