This Week's Reads

Nick Licata, Julie Orringer, and Garrison Keillor.


By Nick Licata (Fratri Gracchi, $17.87) From the literature of Swift's England to the folktales of the Prague Spring to the Fujian hand puppetry of the 1800s toin our own timesthe picture books of exiled Chilean novelist Ariel Dorfman, faux-naive artistic forms have long provided an effective veil for political critique. These innocuous-seeming, non-privileged narratives serve as a vehicle for satire that would otherwise be forbidden. It is within this subversive intellectual tradition that we can best understand the debut children's book from Seattle City Council member Nick Licata. Charmingly innocent on its surface, Licata's story of a plucky 11-year-old princess who escapes from a sinister new ruler and crosses a treacherous landscape in search of her mother is also, unavoidably, a kind of palimpsest for recent Seattle political history, a sometimes obscure, sometimes none-too-subtle allegory in which the foibles of our leadershipeverything from the Nordstrom garage to the City Light fiasco to the circus animal debateare thrown into caustic relief. For instance, the hapless Mr. Popolo ("who looks like a pear balanced on the edge of a coin") is plainly a stand-in for Mayor Greg Nickels. As his early leadership of Bianca's adventure gradually shrinks to irrelevance ("His huge body was more bulk than muscle and it was not made for bicycling"), Popolo/Nickels seeks refuge in an alliance with the authoritarian Mrs. Arbor/Margaret Pageler, who commands her charges: "Quit this racket! You'd better have your chores done before dinner, or I'll dunk your heads in a bucket of cold water." Likewise the members of "the Chamber," who "meet in secrecy" and "would like to become a Town Council and be able to make rules," are but thinly disguised correlates of the lobbyists from Vulcan Northwest. And here Licata provides a neat composite of both the Compton-and-gal-pal-fly-free-to-Portland and Strippergate scandals, as Bianca and her friends enjoy a no-questions-asked airborne journey to and from their home kingdom, courtesy of a giant winged horse. Their point of departure? Rick's Lake City strip club, which in Licata's slyly rendered analogue becomes the wondrous Cave of Wishes ("a giant cave with hot springs"). At times, Licata's covert satire can be downright cruel, at least to this reader, as when he has Bianca staring "eye-to-eye into an old woman's wrinkled face," (i.e., Jean Godden): "With the striking exception of a pair of bright red lips and black-framed glasses, a thick coating of face powder gave her a ghostly appearance." But by and large, this is a deft burlesque as well as an entertaining story for children, a shrewd send-up of recent Seattle politics that only an insider could provide. When Licata's Wizard protests the establishment of a town council in the Kingdom of Tiara, saying it "will lead to confusionso many petty concerns, worthless opinions . . . ," we can only smile in bemused recognition. And once you've read about the Wizard's plans "to build a road through the pass . . . so he can cut down the Tygan forest and sell the trees to Zurbia," you will never be able to view the Lake Union streetcar proposal the same way. MARK D. FEFER HOW TO BREATHE UNDERWATER

By Julie Orringer (Knopf, $21) Given her personal history, it's not surprising that short-story writer Orringer is obsessed with female adolescence. Her mother died of cancer a decade ago when the author was only 20. Each of the nine stories in Underwater narrows in on an aspect of girlhood or young womanhoodor, more accurately, the fragile transitional phase between the two. Her young female protagonists seem frozen in their respective moments, united by fear and sadness. There's an overwhelming feeling of smallness in Orringer's stories as well; generally outcasts, her self-conscious heroines seem aware of their modest places in a larger, indifferent world. Each is mature enough to fear maturation. In "When She Is Old and I Am Famous," a smart, fat, gifted painter envies the beauty, grace, and simplicity of her model cousin, Aïda ("That is her terrible name. Ai-ee-duh: two cries of pain and one of stupidity"). In "What We Save," 14-year-old Helena is embarrassed by her cancer- stricken mother's perceived childishness in chasing her former high-school love. Helena deeply resents this man; worse, his two sons tease and finally molest her during a horrid day at Disney World. This story has a quality of ghostlike detachment, as if her mother is already dead in Helena's mind, buried in the past along with her childhood. In "Care," a twentysomething drug addict feels a familiar inferiority to her highly functional sister while attempting to baby-sit her 6-year-old niece for a day on the San Francisco wharfa task at which she proves hopelessly inadequate. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a former Stegner fellow at Stanford's Creative Writing Program, Orringer has learned well from her studies. She vividly portrays these sad girls and their vulnerabilities with an empathy that, whether lived or imagined, well serves her craft. KATIE MILLBAUER LOVE ME

By Garrison Keillor (Viking, $24.95) Keillor's sixth novel takes place at a sort of bizarro-universe, alternate-reality version of The New Yorker: William Shawn, E.B. White, and Pauline Kael neither left nor died, and Calvin Trillin still escorts freshman writers to their offices like a college dorm R.A. ("There's a gun in the desk, top right-hand drawer. If you need paper, dial O for office boy. They serve drinks downstairs in the library at five o'clock. And if Jerry Salinger asks you to co-author something with him, say no and be firm about it.") Fresh out of St. Paul, Larry Wyler lands at the mag thanks to an acclaimed first novel (Spacious Skies), which also earns him a glamorous literary life and a Central Park West apartment. Then his clunky follow-up (Amber Waves of Grain) precipitates insurmountable writer's block relieved only by his advice column, "Ask Mr. Blue." No doubt you've already noticed the Keillor/Wyler assonance, since Keillor actually worked for The New Yorker and wrote an advice column of that same name for Trying to figure out just how much more à clef Keillor's roman is starts to become just a bit distracting. Then Love Me spins into outright farce, revealing that The New Yorker has really been mob run all these years. The power behind the editor's desk, in the Chazz Palminteri role, is one Tony Crossandotti ("If you want to hear about how I snuffed that family in Kansas so Capote could write In Cold Blood, come over to the Algonquin, I'll buy you a drink"). Not a whole lot happens in the novel: Wyler mopes around Manhattan, commits various adulteries (his very patient wife stayed in St. Paul), answers his Mr. Blue letters, and saves The New Yorker from being merged with Field & Stream. Throughout, Keillor's satire fizzes like ginger ale. He skewers the right out of anger and the left out of affectionate impatience, equally funny in either mode. Parodies of Shakespeare or S.J. Perelman flash by. He also writes great, deliberately bad poetry, andalways the master of the unexpected, even eyebrow-raising endingsveers off here to a rather gray epilogue. Wyler's command of language in this first-person tale begins to slip askew as he mentally unwinds right on the page. After the preceding dry wit, this coda is poignant but unsentimental, inventively word infatuated like the entire confection. GAVIN BORCHERT

comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow