Monday, November 24, 2008
Happy on the Shelf #4
As faithful readers of this blog know, I was in the Bay Area a while back visiting old pal Dani Leone & several other nice folks as well. What you may not know is that Dani Leone, AKA Sister Exister, steel pan player & songster extraordinaire, is also a published author & a newspaper columnist. But like many gals who wield the pen (or the computer keyboard), Dani writes under a nom de plume, namely as L.E. Leone. As L.E. Leone, she writes the weekly “Cheap Eats” column for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, which you can read online here. Recently, L.E. Leone also published a book of fiction called Big Bend thru Sparkle Street Books. You can order a copy direct from the publisher here; as far as I know that’s the only way of getting one unless you can wend your way to Dani’s quaint cottage in the redwoods in deepest, darkest Sonoma County. Amazon does seem to anticipate getting a shipment, tho.
Big Bend is Dani’s third book-length publication, tho her first under the L.E. Leone pen name. She also published an earlier book of short stories called The Meaning of Lunch, & the most original collection of restaurant reviews I’ve ever read, Eat This, San Francisco. If you’re expecting to find yourself in Baghdad by the Bay, do yourself a favor & buy this book. Collected from Leone’s “Cheap Eats’” columns, this book can steer you to some delightful & very affordable Bay Area dining. The one drawback: it’s several years old, & some of the eateries are no longer available to serve your gustatory needs—for instance, both the legendary Gravy’s in Daly City & the fabled Anne’s Café in Oakland are among the dearly departed….
But enough of that, since our main purpose here today is to talk up the virtues of Big Bend. For my money, the eight stories & one novella in this collection are all strong work. They present a coherent worldview in tales that ping-pong back & forth between a certain light-heartedness & an underlying sense of profound existential crisis. The fact that Leone’s characters are about as everyday as they can be—a drifter, a bohemian young married couple, a small town musician, a worker in a spinach processing plant—makes the angst more pungent because it’s our angst: the strange backdrop of delight & mundanity & emptiness that underlies our day-to-day existence; decisions made or not made; words said or not said; fun had or not had; love accepted or declined….
& that’s the most interesting thread to me. Because the angst itself is something we’ve all written about, back in the day; but what makes the stories in Big Bend most remarkable is the consistent theme of finding connection. Were the collection to have an epigraph, it could take the pithy E.M. Forster quote from Howard’s End: “Only connect” – though L.E. could probably find an old-time country lyric saying the same thing, & that would be even more to the point. The characters in Leone’s stories all find themselves in situations where some real connection is possible, & when this opportunity is accepted, then the character may find some solace. Connection is meaning, or at least capable of creating it. Whether this involves a boy & his father in a surreal Mexican standoff on a snowy porch, or a drifter & an adolescent girl in an asexual Lolita odyssey across the most barren stretches of the west, or a husband trying desperately to save his marriage thru the advice of his adolescent partner in a lemonade stand, the characters either stand or fall at their moment of decision.
It’s important to note, however, that there’s a lot of fun & just sheer readability in all these stories. Leone seems to write on the margins of the tall tale or the urban legend; the situations in her stories are improbable, but are consistently so in a “truth is stranger than fiction” way. Play & fun are also important in the stories—after all, these are some of our most powerful ways of connecting with others (also eating, music, & those sort of long talks that seem strangely mundane to us as eavesdroppers, but which we immediately understand would seem momentous to the characters engaged in the conversation). The stories also carry you along on a tide of plot—a feature that may not be stressed enough in serious fiction, which Big Bend most certainly is. A hint: don’t start the 60-odd-page title novellette at bedtime unless you want to be up past your usual lights out.
There are a number of memorable images here—the satellite photo of the U.S. at night, showing the places where there’s no light—a character keeps this stashed behind his van’s sun visor; the broken guitar washed up in a flood; the immigrant grandmother’s hope chest (the latter from the final story, “Hope,” which is among other delightful things one of the more arch spoofs on 1980s grad creative writing programs I’ve seen). I’d like to mention others—I especially think of the images at the end of “A Place in the Choir” & “Big Bend,” but I try to maintain a strict “no spoilers” rule here at Robert Frost’s Banjo.
Leone’s writing in this collection is very consistent—there’s no “weak sister” (Exister or otherwise) here. Still, I’m sure you’ll have a few real faves when you check the book out, as you most certainly would be well advised to do. For myself I’d especially mention the title novelette, “River Song,” “A Place in the Choir,” & “Hope Chest,” but the other five don’t trail by a whole lot.
This is very fresh, imaginative & compelling writing—so I’m just saying, head on over to www.sparklestreet.com & get yourself a copy.