This Week's Reads

Vendela Vida, Larry Watson, Glenn Gaslin, Brendan Halpin, and Robert Macfarlane.


By Vendela Vida (Knopf, $19.95) On a bench in New York City's Riverside Park, a man wearing Armani sunglasses holds a gun to a Columbia grad student's head and tells her that he wants to die and doesn't feel like doing it alone. As a means of saving her lifeor simply as an act of desperationthe young woman, whose name is Ellis (after the island), begins quoting poetry: Larkin, Pound, Frost, and others to the tune of an old Liz Phair song. Miraculously, it works: Her recitations either scare the hell out of him or lull him into a weird submission, and he runs away. In the months and pages that follow, Ellis does some running, too. She dodges and dumps her current boyfriend; hooks up with a couple of losers, including an ROTC meathead and a coke fiend; saves her fuckoff rich ex-boyfriend from a quasi-suicide; then travels home to the Bay Area to spend time with her splintered-but-temporarily-mended prototypically dysfunctional family. There, Ellis discovers her beloved little sister is being abused by a crank psychotherapist. Later, she even accompanies her surgical nurse mother to the Philippines to help perform cataract surgeries. Whoa. A little too much plot you ask? Indeed, Go is packed with the stuff. Yet debut novelist Vendela Vida gives good language. (She shouldshe's married to Dave Eggers and co-edits The Believer with fellow it-lit girl Heidi Julavits.) Her style is like studied stream of consciousness, fast and elliptical but intelligent and efficient. And Vida makes Ellis an interesting, clever, yet ultimately aimless character, one I would've liked more had she been given the room to reflect on her near-death episode instead of being crowded out by extraneous characters. She's never finally capable of processing her picaresque experiences into any conclusions, any credos, any . . . anything. Ultimately, Go goes nowhere. For its 198 pagesa length that feels at once tedious and entirely insufficientthe novel merely chronicles Ellis' reckless, aimless reeling. LAURA CASSIDY Vendela Vida will read at Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Thurs., Sept. 11.   ORCHARD

By Larry Watson (Random House, $24.95) This spare, beautifully detailed novel about an artist and the model who becomes his muse has as its compass points obsession, jealousy, reputation, and redemption. Those who remember Andrew Wyeth's "Helga" series in 1986, and the scandal it created, may find that those pictures give an extra dimension to Orchard, an almost 3-D effect. (The revelation of 240 portraits by the celebrated realist painter and art-dynasty paterfamilias of his Prussian-immigrant neighbor, many of them nudes and made in secret over 14 years, also came as a shock to Wyeth's wife.) Taking off from these elements, Larry Watson (Montana 1948) subtly builds an intense portrait of two marriages and the struggle for possession by a well-known artist, Ned Weaver, and a farmer-husband, Henry House, of a woman: Henry's wife, Sonja, who eludes them both. Crucially, Watson has set Orchard in the 1950s, when a husband's "ownership" of his wife was taken for granted, particularly in a place like rural Door County, Wis. Over the decades, Harriet Weaver has hung in through her husband's boundless womanizing for the rewards of his international reputation and her position as his critical eye. It's a thankless job: Ned is runty, prodigiously gifted, and mean as turpentine. On her own since being shipped from Norway to the U.S. at 12, Sonja has had a decent-enough marriage and two children with Henry, an apple orchard grower, until a domestic tragedy seals the couple into separate miseries. Her air of "winter still" catches Ned's eye; intrigued, he hires her as a model and finds her a collaborator who's amazingly gifted yet crucially opaque. "Must one understand an enigma in order to portray it to others?" he broods. Orchard isn't about lust in the studio (although there's plenty, it's unrequited) but about the power of seeingfor both the beholder and the beheld. Watson's own perception, rendered with fine, pure prose, is as evocative as Wyeth's eye, and he achieves shattering tension as his story hurtles inexorably toward tragedy. SHEILA BENSON Larry Watson will read at Third Place Books (17171 Bothell Way N.E., 206-366-3333), 6 p.m. Sat., Sept. 13.  

Former fast-food flunky Gaslin.

photo: Todd Messegee BEEMER

By Glenn Gaslin (Soho, $23) Just how accelerated do you like your contemporary pop fiction? Consider this sequence in Beemer: Mere moments after terrorists obliterate a suburban Home Depot, protagonist Beemer Minutia's publicist girlfriend, Paul (not Paulettejust Paul), organizes an impromptu parking-lot benefit show with her band, Eunuch Town, as customers stagger by with melted faces and missing arms. If you paused to sigh and/or roll your eyes two times or more while reading that sentence, Beemer's minutiae are not for you. Former fast-food flunky Glenn Gaslin is officially pledging the fraternity of J.G. Ballard and Chuck Palahniuk, and he's certainly earning his letters in meticulous, how-cool-stuff-works observationand familiar societal cynicism. His first novel is bursting with the tangential, theoretical, countercultural, fretful, postgrad West Coast angst and distrust that have inundated, oh, every story Douglas Coupland's ever written. Beemer is a child of the road, a 25-year-old drifter who lives out of his Civic and aspires for nothing less than fame, fortune, and subversive capitalist domination via the most marketable product in his universe: himself (hence the ). Unsurprisingly, the blank variable in the "Beemer + ______ = fame and fortune" equation doesn't appear to yield a viable solution. So Beemer makes two pained compromises: (a) move in with similarly detached Paul at her folks' place in Orange County (where he rooms next to her mysterious, Trench Coat Mafia-esque little brother, dubbed Brandon Tartikoff); and (b) get his first real job in a subversive advertising think tankboth of which thrust the novel into surrealist overdrive. A blitzkrieg of sharp, unpredictable consumer satire ensues, at the expense of Paul and Beemer's trivial romance. While imaginative and visceral, the unflinchingly tangential Beemer seems preordained for an afterlife as an unfilmable Charlie Kaufman spec script. Now there's a concept its hero would surely appreciate. ANDREW BONAZELLI  

Halpin takes a break from pedagogy.


By Brendan Halpin (Villard, $21.95) Bad pun notwithstanding, Faculties takes a compelling look at the experience of teaching in high school. Armed with a conversational tone reminiscent of his acclaimed debut, It Takes a Worried Man (a tragicomic memoir about his wife's ultimately successful struggle with cancer), Brendan Halpin is at his best when he delves into the idiocies of school politics. While teaching an antitruancy class, the author encounters a bright young student named Jorge, in whom he manages to spark more interest than the kid ever felt in his regular special-ed class. But Halpin has no special-ed training, and Jorge's advocate makes a stink about it, as Halpin describes: "Well, he says, then we are in violation of Jorge's ed plan, and this whole thing is illegal, and we'd better get his ass back into the self-contained special-ed class he hated so much he never went." Faculties is not a trite "inspirational" story but a blow-by-blow account of the unmitigated bullshit an ambitious, highly resourceful teacher must endure to continue doing his job. Throughout the book, Halpin knowingly references the stereotypes and cultural mythos surrounding the "heroic teacher" figure. "I never set out to be the Urban Education Warrior," he muses. Later, he wonders, "Will this room turn into a scene out of the first half of Lean on Me, before Morgan Freeman starts carrying a bat and Showing Those Tough Kids Who's Boss?" The author is almost too aware of his role as the privileged young teacher standing before his underprivileged students, and his giddy prosestudded with nervous little jokesreflects both anxiety and unbending determination. Halpin conveys remarkable insight about his profession in just over 230 entertaining pages, and Faculties should be on every teacher's personal reading list. Yet the book offers just as much to non-teachers (parents of school kids perhaps among them)namely, an honest report on the contemporary high-school scene, full of little triumphs and tragedies only teachers and students normally witness. NEAL SCHINDLER   MOUNTAINS OF THE MIND

By Robert Macfarlane (Pantheon, $24) Ever since Into Thin Air and the rise of adventure-journalism mags like Outside, climbingor mountaineering, to use the old-school termhas become faddish, suffering from a surfeit of steroid prose and short-term thinking. Yet as this valuable cultural history expounds in its rather verbose subtitle (How Desolate and Forbidding Heights Were Transformed Into Experiences of Indomitable Spirit), the sport wasn't always this way. In fact, author and mountaineer Robert Macfarlane reminds us, it didn't start out as a sport at all but rather as a kind of aesthetic realm. Instead of climbers bragging about their hard-man 5.10d exploits and comparing "car to car" times (thus a ramble becomes a race), Macfarlane focuses on the symbolic aspect to snow-topped crags and yawning blue glaciers. "We read landscapes," he writes. Mountains aren't just giant landmasses but "the products of human perception; they have been imagined into existence down the centuries." If you studied the Romantic poets in college, you'll recall how the Alps inspired Wordsworth, Coleridge, and company with the idea of the sublime. Yet today's mania for the mountains as a kind of granite gymnasium for athletes with rock-hard abs is also an outgrowth of the same alpine imagination. For the 19th-century art theorist/ avid hiker John Ruskin, the fundamental dyad of beauty/difficulty can't be separated: "[I]f you go through with the danger, though it may have been apparently rash and foolish to encounter it, you come out of the encounter a stronger and better man." Mountains reads like a rambling, erudite, and engaging university lecture, providing a great little abridged historical survey course that would benefit many an REI gearhead. Along the way, we bump into pioneering glaciologist Charles Lyell (an influence on Darwin, we're told), Rousseau, Goethe, Shelly, Samuel Johnson, Roland Barthes . . . even Nietzsche, Wagner, and Hitler. Why does snow seem pure? Why does a long, tough slog up Rainier seem spiritually rewarding and somehow cleansing? Macfarlane's thesis gets at the roots of those culturally constructed notions, how they shifted from medieval terror to Romantic appreciation. His point is that they keep changing to suit human needs; after all, the Romantics might not have launched the alpine craze were it not for the smoke and horror of the Industrial Revolution back at sea level. And what today drives us weekend warriors to the Cascades if not our claustrophobic cubicles and condos and cars? Macfarlane concludes with a familiar bit on the ill-fated 1924 Mallory-Irvine Everest expedition, making the useful point that those two were, in a sense, the victims of 300 years of cultural conditioning. The Big E had become "the third pole," the last untouched place on Earth worth reaching, which made their deaths less tragic than Romantic. They perished climbing an ideal. Mountains is worth buying in hardcover, but true fast-and-light alpinists will probably hope for a tiny paperback printed on onionskin pagesthe better to pack along and read when stormed in and trapped in their tents. BRIAN MILLER

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