This Week's Reads

Kirsten Sundberg, Abha Dawesar, Chris Turner, Heather Barbieri, and Mireille Guiliano.

The Life She's Chosen

By Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum (Chronicle, $20) The watchword for Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum's debut collection of stories is quiet: the quiet of emotions restrained, of distances preserved, of catastrophe that never wholly arrives. For the mother and daughter of the title story, a lifetime's worth of disapproval, betrayal, and guilt shows itself in flashes against the backdrop of a well-planned dinner party. "Disappearing" follows two sisters, one anorexic, one not, each doing her best to retreat from view. When the narrator of "A Visitor" receives an unwelcome call from her baby's birth mother, it seems that all this silent desperation might finally burst into something like sound. But the story ends with a trip upstairs to the nursery, the hammering of rain on the roof, and, yes, mugs of tea (even if one has a lacing of rum). This is the kind of book that inevitably gets called "beautifully crafted," and it is—full of layered emotions and pleasantly rhythmical prose, each seemingly small moment charged with the weight of each careful life. Northwest author Lunstrum's measured approach yields moments of lovely, imagistic immediacy: "Her body was soft, dimpled just above her backside, her hips lined with fine pale stretch marks like hairline fractures on a porcelain dish." Read one at a time, these stories have an atmospheric sort of power, like a melancholy song that haunts the listener hours after it's heard. But taken together, the impression is overwhelmingly static: None of these women go anywhere; little if anything changes. Lunstrum shows promise as a writer, but a form with more movement might work better to broaden her gifts. MARY PARK Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum will appear at Third Place Books, 6:30 p.m. Fri., Feb. 18; and at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Sat., Feb. 19. Babyji

By Abha Dawesar (Anchor, $13) India is steeped in conservative, patriarchal tradition. So when the 16-year-old protagonist of a first-person novel set in early 1990s Delhi has multiple lesbian love affairs, there are a couple possible interpretations. One, the Harvard-educated author, today a New York City resident, is perhaps projecting Western sexual freedom on the conservative Delhi of her girlhood. Or two, it's payback time against the patriarchy. Heroine Anamika's liaisons with a single mother, a classmate, and her own family servant evolve with an ease that teeters on unconvincing. In a strict society that still practices arranged marriages, how much freedom to sneak between lovers would a teen girl actually have? Especially lesbian lovers, the height of cultural taboo. Yet there are precedents; see Deepa Mehta's 1998 movie, Fire, which drew protests for its depiction of a same-sex romance between two unhappily married women. There, the closet door cracked ever so slightly open. Here, Anamika—nicknamed "Babyji" by Rani, her servant and lover—seems determined to bust it down. She rejects subservience in all aspects of her life, a feat made easier by her high Brahmin caste. She's head prefect at school, determining punishments for her mischievous peers and offering advice to faculty members. She's the only child of doting parents. And she's the dominant partner in three different relationships. In short, she wears the pants wherever she goes. That doesn't mean readers will like her. Anamika's destructive teen selfishness runs wild without punishment or discipline (as author Dawesar likely intends us to notice). To her credit, Anamika offers to educate Rani. She also lobbies an elementary school to admit the son of another lover, Tripta. But these deeds can't redeem Anamika for raping Sheela, a beautiful, vulnerable classmate. Anamika doesn't deserve the latter's eager forgiveness. And it's hard to see how her planned move to America will improve her behavior. Engulfed in narcissism, the serial seducer barely acknowledges the heartache she'll leave behind. Is this empowerment? In Anamika's fleeting good moments, perhaps she could be seen to advance the cause of feminism. But in surveying the wreckage left in her wake, her volatile—and sometimes violent—sexuality too closely resembles the chauvinism her lovers once hoped to escape. EMILY PAGE Abha Dawesar will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Tues., Feb. 22. Planet Simpson: How a Cartoon Masterpiece Defined a Generation

By Chris Turner (Da Capo, $26) This is the age of The Simpsons. I have no problem accepting that. The show captures its time like Madame Bovary or Uncle Tom's Cabin or, I don't know, the plays of Shakespeare. Like that. Students in the 23rd century will study it as the key to our current pop-culture-obsessed American bubble of indolence. Given this, why is reading Planet Simpson like eating lumber? Why? I made a list. (1) You have to be a genius or New Yorker theater critic John Lahr to analyze comedy without being an impossible bore, and Chris Turner is not John Lahr. He merely piles up an Everest of superlatives and carries on like an overcaffeinated blogger about how superduper great and funny The Simpsons is ("a magnificent escalating-irony gag . . . another flawlessly executed parody . . . one of the greatest one-off gags in Simpsons history . . . " ). (2) He doesn't merely belabor any point he has (and, OK, he does have a few), he sends it on a death march through charts and footnotes and endless subsections, each with its own cute headline. Having begun its life as a magazine article, the book runs an absurdly overfed 450 pages. (3) Turner's narrow frame of reference, in which the world began when the Beatles played on The Ed Sullivan Show. For him, comparing something to punk rock is the highest possible praise (as in, "Bart [is] an all-encompassing emblem of the multivalent forces of the first wave of punk"). Let's see, there are a couple more items on my list, but to be honest, I probably never actually gave this book a fair chance to begin with. Something about Turner's tone, so bouncy and pleased with himself, caused an immediate throat-burning irritation that only got worse as his book dragged on. I think I just don't like the guy. And anyway, it's probably not even possible to write a worthwhile book about The Simpsons (currently in its 16th season of Emmy-winning glory), which already critiques itself so wittily. (See www.doheth.co.uk/lists/self.shtml for a disturbingly thorough list of the show's self-references, or visit the show's comprehensive official site, www.thesimpsons.com.) If some other writer wants to provide a service to those Simpsons students of the future, he could do some old-fashioned journalism (here's a novel idea—interview the show's writers) instead of this kind of glorified fanboy spooging. DAVID STOESZ Snow in July

By Heather Barbieri (Soho Press, $24) Seattle author Heather Barbieri's debut novel almost succeeds in enlivening what can be a tired premise—drug abuse and those left in its wake. Erin Mulcahy is 18 years old and months away from possibly leaving the "ghost-filled dustbowl" of Butte, Mont., for art school. Then her older sister Meghan, whose drug addiction has enveloped the family for years, arrives back in town. Erin and her mother are soon caring for Meghan's two young daughters, while she again resolves to become sober. Old familial patterns return as Erin bounces between guardedly loving her sister and resenting her weakness. Throughout the novel, Erin compares the Meghan of her childhood—radiant, smart, exalted older sister—with the selfish, strung-out woman of the present. Erin's voice is fraught with clichés of her age, but hardened by her struggle to find her own identity outside the shadow of her heroin-addicted sister. While Barbieri's credibility writing as a teenage narrator is shaky, the contrast between Erin as both hopeful youth and seasoned adult is effective. Suspended between the obligations of blood and the itch to break free, Erin feels ultimately responsible for her family. Snow in July is uneven, one moment seeming forced and the next delivering intricate, commanding descriptions of landscape or memory. As a narrator, Erin overexplains, as though Barbieri needs to convince the reader how damaged these women are instead of allowing the story to reveal their wounds organically. It is when Barbieri lets her characters develop unencumbered by narrative disclosure that the book is most natural. Erin Mulcahy doesn't have the fluid grittiness of another young fighter from Montana, Lucy Diamond in Pete Fromm's As Cool as I Am, but her attentive insights provide the strength of the book. If Barbieri had allowed her often page-stiffened characters to breathe freely, the bitter repercussions of addiction might have been more plausibly felt. COLEEN SMITH French Women Don't Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure

By Mireille Guiliano (Knopf, $22) A recent Associated Press article related studies finding that the United States is bad for immigrants' waistlines. Not that the U.S. isn't bad for its natives' waistlines, too, but the Journal of the American Medical Association study cited focused on new Americans—people who have only recently become accustomed to navigating endless cereal aisles and eating meals in moving cars or in front of the TV. Eight percent of the study's participants were obese after living here for one year; after living here for 15 years, that number jumped to 19 percent. Although she didn't become obese, it only took a year for Frenchwoman Mireille Guiliano to discover that America makes you fat—and this was back in the '60s, no less. As an exchange student in Boston, the author found herself growing pudgy and round for the first time in her life. She also found herself in front of plates upon plates of brownies for the first time in her life. Returning home to France, her friends and family weren't shy about noticing the change in her appearance. She sought the advice of her family doctor, who reprogrammed her to eat like a native again. French Women includes the advice given to her by "Dr. Miracle" (as Guiliano called him), which mandated that she eat small, rich portions so she would feel satisfied but not stuffed. She ate seasonal fruits and vegetables again; she became aware of her body type; and, most important, she embraced moderation—and a little denial here and there. Her weight loss wasn't a matter of going on a diet, Guiliano explains; it was about "recasting" her lifestyle (don't eat in the car, use cloth napkins so that eating is an event). Her book's jacket photo is proof that the lean Guiliano is still in control. Half memoir, half cookbook/menu planner, French Women includes plenty of recipes and case studies of some American friends she's helped. Americans will be surprised to find recipes for "diet food" that call for cream and butter, but again, Guiliano's plan has mostly to do with moderation and lifestyle—albeit one that's fairly privileged. She writes, "Your eating and living habits are by now tailored to your tastes and metabolism, so like a classic Chanel suit, they should last you forever with minor alterations over the years." There's no question that this book was written for a certain class of overweight woman. The question is whether or not any American woman can subsist on pear tarts and celery root rémoulade in the land of Doritos and drive-ins. French Women will sell. We know that other cultures don't have the obesity problems that Americans have (yet), and Guiliano and her publishers smartly get the bulk of their gloating done on the cover. And anyway, our culture loves diet books, and Guiliano's throws in a well-written mini- travelogue and a diary, too. Will it rival Atkins as a food craze or radically change American eating habits? No, but it will still be fairly fun to read. LAURA CASSIDY

 
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