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Archived Short Takes


 September 1999
Short Takes

Oh, Jackie
Maudy Benz
Berkley Books
192 pp.


It's the summer of 1963--just months before John F. Kennedy's assassination--and North Wagoner is about to turn fifteen and spend the summer at a Michigan lake with her cousin Dee. Rock and Roll is still young and (by today's standards) innocent, Camelot is in full glory in Washington, and as far as North can tell, the world seems to promise a sublimated paradise: sexy but not dirty. In some sense, the world seems synced up to her own maturation, her coming of age into the world of love and desire.

Of course, adulthood is much more complicated than an innocent fifteen-year-old girl full of hopes can ever imagine--or predict, as North comes to learn at Glass Lake. Moving from innocence to experience comes at a cost she had never anticipated. Instead of sharing delicate kisses with a teenaged boy, North is subjected to her rich uncle's lecherous advances.

People are punished, North finds, for leaning too expectantly into experience, as her mother is forever warning her. A woman swimming in the lake among the teenage water skiers has her foot torn off by a boat's propeller blade and now spends her time at the club bar, prematurely aged. North's aunt takes a variety of prescription pills to forget the lech she's married. And North's cousin, Dee, may be pregnant--a tough thing for a teenager to face, in 1963.

Through it all, North borrows Jackie Kennedy's courage and poise as her own, simply to survive her coming of age: "She seemed to prove that my feet could stay on the ground like hers did, and one day my chosen boy might stand beside me, smiling like the President."

Oh, Jackie is Maudy Benz's first novel, and its tightly-controlled lyricism suggests we can expect strong, smartly introspect work from her in the future. She captures the fantasies and anxieties of adolescence beautifully, and her lyrical passages are nicely balanced by dialogue that is realistic and rooted.

If you've forgotten (through self-denial, therapy or otherwise) how painful adolescence was--or how sweet its promises once seemed--read Oh, Jackie. It's a wonderful debut.


--Daphne Frostchild

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Look Back
All the Green Valley

Fred Chappell

Picador USA
288 pp



If Dylan Thomas had been born in Appalachia, he would have been Fred Chappell.

Put simply, Chappell should be considered a national treasure. His work should be anticipated before release and celebrated after. His is that quiet voice that whispers stories of gentle people and reminds us that fiction should contain a poetic presence.

Look Back All the Green Valley is the concluding book in the Kirkman family saga. Chappell's three previous novels about them include I Am One of You Forever, Brighten the Corner Where You Are and Farewell, I'm Bound to Leave You. Each takes a different look at a segment of the family. Look Back All the Green Valley tells the tale of Jess Kirkman, a poetry professor who comes home to the hills of North Carolina to help prepare the way for his mother's passing. It is also his job to close down one of his late father's many hidden workshops.

Jess, a stereotypical head-in-the-clouds professor, is preoccupied with translating Dante's Inferno. But while he digs through that medieval interpretation of hell, he is also trying to fathom his irrepressible father's mind through the discovery of some of his notebooks.

Chappell interweaves his wonderful storytelling with his poetry as gently as a morning breeze. The reader will discover certain passages that contain such beauty that one will be tempted to read them over and over. Go ahead--the leisurely pace of Look Back All the Green Valley offers you the chance to do just that. It's the literary equivalent of drinking a good, iced lemonade while sitting on the front porch.

Fans of explosions, war battles and political intrigue will be sorely disappointed, for Look Back All the Green Valley is a book about exploration: exploration of self, family and what happens when you come to an alien world called home.

For those of you about to read Fred Chappell for the first time, I envy you. You are about to discover one of the best voices in American fiction and poetry. Enjoy the journey, for you will soon hear the sirens calling to you from an all too quickly disappearing South.

For those of you already are familiar with his work, all I can tell you is that in Look Back All the Green Valley, Chappell is at the top of his game, and this book should not be missed.

Indeed, the only disappointing part of Look Back All the Green Valley is that it ends. The family that we have listened to for years will now be silent. We'll have to strain our ears to hear new stories from new people.

I just hope it's Fred Chappell who introduces us.

--John Porter

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Gunfire Around the Gulf: The Last Major Naval Campaigns of the Civil War
Jack D. Coombe
Bantam Books
239 pp.



Jack Coombe thinks the naval battles of the Civil War have gotten shortchanged when it comes to the history books--and he's right. While everyone knows about Gettysburg and Sherman's March, far fewer readers could tell you about the naval battles for the ports of New Orleans, Vicksburg and Mobile Bay. And yet, as Coombe argues, Southern ports were vital to keeping the Confederacy supplied with "medicine, guns, powder, and clothing." Once the Confederacy lost those ports, it began, in Coombe's words, "a tragic march toward losing the war."

It didn't happen overnight, of course. From the moment it lost Fort Sumter, the Union strategists understoond how vital the South's ports were--without them, the cotton-for-guns-and-bullets trade with England would come to a halt, and the agrarian-based South would soon collapse. (England was the primary market for the South's cotton.) Thus, five days after the loss of Fort Sumter, President Lincoln, newly elected, announced an extended blockade of the Southern coast--a difficult task, given the South's 3,500 miles of coastline. But the Union navy, though small by today's standards (when war broke out, it had only forty-two vessels in active service; by 1865, it would have seven hundred), significantly outweighed the South's, which didn't have a single flotilla of ships when the war began.

While none of the North's strategy was easily executed, setting up successful blockades around the Gulf of Mexico proved most difficult for the North, given its undersized fleet, and the South successfully got blockade-runners around Florida and up to Texas for quite a while. (Indeed, Coombe notes, "[D]uring the last three years of the conflict, the Confederacy still managed to ship half a million bales of cotton and violated the blockade more than 8,000 times.") Only with Mobile Bay's defeat at the hands of Union Admiral David Farragut in August 1864 did the North completely shut down the Confederacy's trade route. And with that, Coombe argues, the South was doomed.

While Gunfire Around the Gulf is a military history with its fair share of dates and strategies, Coombe manages to keep even an idle reader interested with well-drawn characters and a writing style that breathes life and action into dusty dates. (An example: the residents of New Orleans so hated the Union's iron-fisted occupying general, Benjamin Butler, that they put "his picture in the bottom of chamber pots.") His five-chapter-long examination of the battle over Mobile Bay is particularly strong.

For anyone looking for a new angle on the Civil War, Coombe's naval history is a wonderful introduction.

--Woody Arbunkle

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Old Buddy Old Pal
Michael Laser
The Permanent Press
175 pp


Every so often, a book comes along set among the skyscrapers of Manhattan. More often than not, it deals with the fast-paced life, towering ambition and the...well, New Yorkness of the place.

This is not one of those books.

Old Buddy Old Pal is a different kind of New York book. Rather than depending on a fast-paced story to keep you hooked, Michael Laser's debut novel is an interior exploration that deals with friendship and love. It is sparse but poignant. Essentially, a young man suffering through life's ennui finds himself at a career crossroad while simultaneously becoming involved with the woman he's always loved--his best friend's wife.

Things like this always come at a price, and this time it may involve losing his friends, his lover, his fact, losing everything he's ever desired. But there are also rewards: a new life, a new love, a new, more beautiful way of looking at things and people.

Mr. Laser's dialogue is not puffed out or pontifically pretentious. It is pared down to the bones, and the pain that our hero Burt feels over slights and losses is palpable and real. Burt is the nebbish we all know and try to love but in reality want to slap and say, Get a grip, will ya?

Alan is the by-his-own-bootstraps kind of a guy who gets written up in success magazines. He's the wild daredevil Neal Cassady to Burt's more introverted Jack Kerouac. Alan has the perfect life that he trades for just one more chance with his college lover. Both Alan and Burt have the opportunity that each thinks has passed him by.

Self-discovery is never easy--but with these two guys, you should add "painful" to the equation.

Old Buddy Old Pal is a strong first novel. Mr. Laser is obviously in love with words and with New York City. The combination is delightful.

--John Porter

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Talk Sports Like a Pro:
99 Secrets to Becoming
a Sports Goddess
Jean M. McCormick
300 pp.



In this fun, eclectic book, Jean McCormick--a former producer for both Nightline and ESPN--sets out to prove that "Any woman can become a Sports Goddess...The only person holding her back is herself."

The problem novices face, of course, is trying to get started--with all the rules and positions, it's hard to look knowledgable while watching something that seems to have competition and ridicule of weakness built into its very definition. And that's where McCormick's book is most useful.

Think of it as "How to Use Sports Knowledge to Win Friends and Influence People." It's part primer, part cheat sheet for women who want to understand what men are talking about around the water cooler. For starters, McCormick suggests, think THIN: TV, Headline News, Internet, Newspaper. Catch a few minutes of a game (check McCormick on which minutes--while she suggests watching the beginning of a football game, she recommends catching only the last five minutes of a basketball game), watch the sports section on the local news or even tune into one of ESPN's sports shows, hit a sports-driven Web site, and at least glance at your newspaper's sports section.

You don't have to be able to defend your positions at length, of course. Listen to men's sports talk in the office sometime--really, it's often drawn from little more than you can get by thinking THIN.

That's the cheat sheet aspect to Talk Sports Like a Pro. But McCormick offers something much larger and more useful, if the sports novice is interested in doing more than looking like one of the guys around the water cooler. In case you actually want to understand and enjoy the game, McCormick explains the basic rules and suggests which positions are important to watch for everything from professional football and basketball to tennis, horse racing, auto racing and even sailing.

It's an easy book to read casually on and off because it's structured around McCormick's ninety-nine tips--plus a few Bonus Secrets thrown in by sports journalists like Bob Costas and Chris Berman. And it's not just relevant to women readers. As far as the rules explication goes, a budding Little League player or football player starting his first season could profit from the book.

But before you buy it for a nephew's birthday, you might consider the book's pink spine--and the fact that McCormick keeps referring to the reader as a Sports Goddess in Training.

--Daphne Frostchild

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Starting Out
in the Evening
Brian Morton
Berkley Books
325 pp.


Heather Wolfe is a young, ambitious woman with literary aspirations. She has worshipped Leonard Schiller since the age of fifteen, when she "discovered" one of his few published novels on a library shelf. After voraciously reading his two early works, he becomes her hero, role model and mentor. She shapes her life by asking herself how the characters in Schiller's books would react in her situation.

Finally, in graduate school (she is writing her master's thesis on Schiller's work), Heather arranges to meet Schiller. But she is not prepared for the person he has become. He is no longer a brash, self-determining young man; his only remaining joys are his writing (which he does unfailingly every day) and his daughter Ariel, whom he loves unquestioningly despite her limited intellect. Surprised, Heather reads his later novels and finds them lacking in all that made his earlier works interesting to her.

Heather isn't alone in her apprehension. While Heather must somehow reconcile her image of Schiller to his bloated, decrepit body and stultifying predictability, Schiller finds himself attracted to Heather's youthful vitality (he sees Heather as his last chance at immortality) but has serious doubts about her capabilities.

Brian Morton focuses on their ensuing relationship, and on Ariel's obsession with motherhood and marriage. Because the three central characters are all about a generation apart, it is, in one respect, a novel-length parable of the Ages of Man.

Starting Out in the Evening is a thought-provoking book that deals honestly with human emotions and maturation, and it provides a fascinating study of how age affects personality and relationships.

Morton's first book (The Dylanist)was a strong effort; I highly recommend his second.

--Daphne Frostchild

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Missing Women
and Others
June Spence
Riverhead Books
196 pp.



There's a word for June Spence: minimalist. And there are two words to describe the kind of minimalist she is: damn good. The short stories in this collection are quiet on the surface, but as Hemingway (the Grand Papa of all minimalists) used to say, writing is like an iceberg: it's what you don't see that's important...and dangerous.

Throughout this collection, Spence explores the nuances of emptiness--how we lose love and loved ones and why we keep hoping (sometimes hopelessly) that they'll come back (or that, if necessary, we'll find something better to replace our current selves). In "Terms of Lease," a newly divorced woman sleeps in a bed full of books and pretends their sharp corners are her lover's "sharp hips and elbows." In "Once Removed," a woman worries that a friendly co-worker will see in her the same unknown flaw that keeps her cat from coming around her. In "Fight or Flight," a woman protests a bit too strongly that she's grown to prefer being alone after all. In "A Nice Man, A Nice Girl," a man imagines what his daughter would have been like at eighteen, had she not died at birth. In the same story, a woman loses her identity in methamphetamine-driven encounters with college boys.

Only in "The Water Man"'s widowed grandmother do we find a character at peace with her loss. While she still reaches out in sleep to pat her long-missing husband, she accepts her loneliness in a way Spence's other characters do not because she knows and appreciates her self-worth. She's earned it with age and experience--which gives hope, I suppose, for Spence's younger, needier characters, who are trapped in the chasm between desire and fulfillment, between need and honest declaration of need (with all its attendant risks of exposure and rejection).

Spence is willing to explore character at greater length than Hemingway, and she's more willing to describe what, precisely, is at stake for her characters. But her reticence about herself as these stories' writer--her unwillingness to force herself into her characters' stories--places her solidly among the best minimalists.

For serious readers who have strayed too far from their life-sustaining roots and languished too long among beachgoers' drivel, read Spence. You will remember, in a sudden flush, what your attraction to literature was all about.

--Charlie Onion

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The Blair Witch Project:
A Dossier

Compiled by D.A. Stern



Yes, it's a movie tie-in for that low-budget sleeper about the three student filmmakers who disappeared in a stretch of Maryland woods while making a documentary about a legendary witch.

But consider the movie: made for what John Travolta probably gets paid for a single take, this film shot to the top of the box office because it didn't do the same old thing in the same old way.

It dared to be different.

So, of course, the tie-in book's got to be different too, right?


As a sign that creativity and originality will win sometimes, this book stays faithful to the film's jarring documentary style by presenting the story as if it were an investigator's file, complete with a private investigator's letters and memos, dummied-up newspaper articles (a la The Onion's Our Dumb Century; must be a postmodern pastiche thing), the local sheriff's press releases, "missing" posters, extensive transcripts of the private investigator's interviews, excerpts from the female filmmaker's journal, and a few grimly realistic crime scene photos.

It's an enjoyable twist on a predictable genre, and even the two or three people who haven't seen the movie (you know who you are) will find the book intriguing. And that's saying something, for a movie tie-in.

--Woody Arbunkle

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Archived Short Takes

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