Spencer Stephens

Author of 'Church of Golf.' Also a student of nearly everything.

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Book Review. “Same Same” by Peter Mendelsund. Vintage Books, 2019.

It would take a daring and clever mind to convert the burning agony of a struggling, solitary writer into a provocative and amusing fantasy. Lucky for us, Peter Mendelsund has the goods. His novel, “Same Same,” is due out February 5.

Mendelsund’s protagonist, and perhaps his alter ego, Percy Frobisher, is an everyman who harbors the seeds of creativity and an urge to produce, perhaps to write. But life is a dullard’s ditch. A fellowship from ‘the Institute’ is dangled. He jumps. His existence becomes subsumed by the Institute and the expectation that he generate a creative project – any project. He can stay as long as he needs, can go in any direction. The Institute houses him, feeds him and assigns him a tea boy to help with his life’s labors, to free up his time.

The Institute is home to a cast of creatives that is flat-out weird – a hedonic psychometrician, a percussionist, moneymen who analyze derivatives of derivatives, a woman who covers herself in yarn. Is this art for art’s sake? Is it meaningful? 

Institute life is centered in a remote biodome, a spiritual retreat with tidy rooms, sustenance, daily structure and first-class recreational facilities, on what feels like a different planet, one with a wavy horizon, where buildings shift on a landscape of unirrigated rust. Massive dunes, pushed by wind, threaten to erase reality. Palm trees cast tarantula shadows. Inside the dome is green, lush, quiet – a place where minds can be remade. Inside, says Percy, soon after arriving: “I cease to belong to myself. … I feel unburdened of my materiality, uncoupled from the ground. I can think here.”

Happiness and productivity lack drama. So, of course, Percy dries up, a raisin in the sun. He agonizes, prone on his floor, overcome by narcosis. The essence of his project eludes definition. Percy procrastinates, refuses even to label his project. He imagines the atmosphere of a small town after a massacre. He might be dying inside.

Somehow, he manages to keep a damn fine journal; our view of the Institute is entirely through his eyes. His years there are shaped by the forces around him. The glass biodome, its condition, its effects and its place in his world – are in constant question. An Institute disciplinarian and handler, Miss Fairfax, embraces and spreads the gospel of things conventional: seminars offering tips and tricks, encouragement couched in Institute lingo. Percy befriends the resident cynic, a man for whom nothing matters. The Institute’s historian-guru offers words of wisdom – or are they the meaningless words of an idiot? Percy’s head keeps jerking in the direction of a Mysterious Woman who wanders into view, then disappears into ambiguity.  

In real life (“Irl,” Percy calls it), far outside of the biodome, in a town, is this novel’s namesake, the Same Same, a little shop. People go in with problems. They come out with solutions. Take in any item – stained, broken, incomplete – and it comes out better than new. The shop is an attractive resource, one the Institute declares taboo. The shop bears an uncanny resemblance to our reality and, sometimes, the things it turns out are imperfect, perhaps excessive. The shop might be a stand-in for beta readers, editors or crowd-sourced opinions on a writer’s early drafts, on the betterment that comes from receiving critical, outside analysis. It might represent the events that compose life, the essential moments from decades of experience that bring self-knowledge or wisdom, tens of thousands of days being sifted for bits that tell a story. The shop might represent the individual, having been improved by investing himself in creation. Or, it could have been contrived just so some writer could use it as the title of his book. Really, who’s to say?

Mendelsund’s tight tale might be called, Parable of the Novelist. Percy’s state of mind and the toll it takes are both known to many writers who work long daily hours, years on end. It is the insulated foil hat, the madman’s enclosure, that molds itself to your head when you want to craft the one thousand words that are your daily goal. It is the thing that makes you ignore loved ones pleading for attention, makes you tune out Irl.

Inside the foil hat is an oasis for one, a green place in life’s desert, divine loneliness. Unlike, say, musicians who can write and rehearse in groups, the writer usually runs solo, his life nearly empty of commiseration and team spirit. Every foil hat is distinct, can’t be duplicated – like a fingerprint or like the bacteria in a gut. Percy’s descriptions of the inside his foil hat – a state of ennui, tangled and blue – glow like burning coal. “Boredom,” he says, “is the exemplary state for fomenting a hyperawareness of time.”

Mr. Mendelsund’s background is evident in the text of Same Same. He was associate art director with Alfred A. Knopf and has doubtless inhaled a vast variety of books, allowed himself to be affected by them in order to conceive and generate appealing cover art. Percy’s journal, for example, calls on vocabulary plucked from hither and yon: Jewish mythology, taxonomy, Far East cosmetics, gardening, efficient text messaging, biology, modern dance, anatomy. I didn’t mind that I had to read this book with a dictionary in hand. With every exotic word, Percy became that much more mysterious.

Mendelsund’s extensive analysis of books and his interaction with authors and book editors have left him able to turn out elegant prose. The man knows what readers like. He is a living example of what extensive reading can do for a writer. The narrative is absorbing, insightful and compelling. It is the evocative story of man in search of meaning, a classic arrangement of life’s elements. And it is paced like a once-in-a-lifetime vacation to a foreign land: The flavors, smells and sights are many, as are opportunities for reflection, and you are left richer, more peaceful.

This book could only have been written by one who’s explored their foil hat, who’s withdrawn from life in pursuit of work that might end up being meaningful to no one but himself. No doubt, Mendelsund has worked closely with many authors who’ve done the same. He knows how the foil hat can be an imagined paradise, how it might lead one to lift his head and to discover, in shock, that he’s wandered, alone and without water, into an empty desert. Mendelsund has a message for those who’ve worn the foil hat, who have dared down the path that might lead to creation of something that pleases no one else: Congratulations. You have arrived.

How to Explain Creation of a Monster?

Book Review. Mrs Saville by Ted Morrissey. 2018 by Twelve Winters Press

Ever been awed and inspired by a writer who defined the beginning of a genre? Ever wondered what fed that writer’s imagination? Ted Morrissey certainly has. His newest effort, Mrs Saville, is an homage to Mary Shelley and Frankenstein. I am awed and inspired.

Literati are marking the two-hundredth anniversary of Frankenstein; Ms. Shelley and her book are the admired grandmothers of all science fiction. Before 1818, when Frankenstein was first published, there was no science fiction. No imagination had conceived of it. Only after Frankenstein could there have been H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov. Only then could there have been Buck Rogers, Captain James T. Kirk, Darth Vader, The Terminator. Continue reading

Book Review. “Daphne,” by Will Boast. Liveright, 2018.

daphne.cover .1 225x300 Book Review. Daphne, by Will Boast. Liveright, 2018.Whether to live within the limits of our most fragile selves? Whether the safe harbor or the open ocean? A suffering mind or the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune?

These are core questions, urgent questions, in life and in literature. They were central for Hamlet and for Bilbo Baggins, and they remain so in the world around us – for astronauts, for Shark Tank contestants and for commercial fishermen. The questions are also central for Daphne, the protagonist in this insightful and completely lovely novel. Continue reading

Book Review. “Crowsong for the Stricken,” by Ted Morrissey. Twelve Winters Press, 2017.

crowsong.tiny  Book Review. “Crowsong for the Stricken,” by Ted Morrissey. Twelve Winters Press, 2017.In a long-ago American village, an ordinary place settled by people with Anglo-Saxon names like Patterson and Abernathy, spirits occupied unlit corners of dank basements. Some of them trolled for sex. They picked out village daughters whose extreme niceness grew from fear of rejection. Slithering past intact hymen, the spirits entered the girls, impregnated them. They talked in false confidence with select villagers and conspired to divide friends. Some, they followed at a distance. They whispered, were heard by strangers and inspired fear, then turned dramatic; they allowed themselves to be felt and seen for moments at a time. What follows is, for a reader, Frankenstinian dread.

So it is that Ted Morrissey, in his new book, embeds us in a community of Germanic Midwesterners,  a group that is function-oriented, studious and politely Christian. These are people who would covet a set of nice tools and then hope no one found out. The earliest generation of villagers revealed by Mr. Morrissey complies strictly with their town’s rules on how and when to quarantine Plague families. The town fathers commonly torched the homes of Plague victims, bodies sealed inside. Morrissey follows those who think they’ve seen ghostly movements in windows while houses were being consumed. Did some get burned who weren’t yet dead?

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Book Review. “The Loyal: The Story of Atwood and the Second Civil War,” by Christopher Wilde. The Bend Publishing Company, 2017. 

the.loyal .cover .2nd Book Review. The Loyal: The Story of Atwood and the Second Civil War, by Christopher Wilde. The Bend Publishing Company, 2017. One can speculate about charismatic extremists who might thrive in the shadow of a hateful president, a man greedy for control of an entire country. Christopher Wilde has done so in his new novella, a provocative read that is absorbing, realistic and deeply frightening.

Wilde’s book documents the rise of a revolutionary hero and an actuarial genius named Atwood, a woman bent on control. She is the sexy blond wizard at the tip of a lethal spear: She heads a nationwide movement of millennials. She blames baby boomers for bringing children into a world of want and sucking the life from them. Atwood claims that boomers selfishly control the wealth, the jobs, the health care system and the government. Narcissistic to the core, boomers elected the worst of their own as president, a man who promised to safeguard the boomers’ dominance. The world contains every part of young adults’ birthright, but the boomers maintain a death grip. So, Atwood declares war.

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Book Review. ‘Manhattan Beach,’ by Jennifer Egan. Scribner, 2017.

manhattan.beach .cover .2nd Book Review. Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan. Scribner, 2017.There are many windows into our past. Few offer a view that is as detailed, as accurate or as absorbing as ‘Manhattan Beach.’

The protagonist in this lovely piece of historical fiction is a working-class girl of Irish descent, Anna Kerrigan. She is freakishly unlucky but stalwart, living in Depression-era New York City. The names of the neighborhoods she frequents are lit on road signs with the flickering, colored lights of gangsterism and industrialism that illuminated Gotham during the Roosevelt years. Most will have heard of Anna’s neighborhoods and will recognize the connotations that go with the names. These are the places around Sheepshead Bay where the Navy built battleships, where Syndicate underbosses ran jazz clubs and gambling parlors, where prostitutes and loan sharks were always at one’s elbow. This is the place and the time into which mobster John Gotti was born.

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Book Review. “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” by Jesmyn Ward. Scribner, 2017.

s l140 Book Review. “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” by Jesmyn Ward. Scribner, 2017.Some lives get so ugly and hopeless that, even to an outsider, crystal meth and murder look perfectly sensible. That’s one of several Faulknerian themes baked into this thin, memorable novel.

The family at the heart of this story is impossibly poor and seemingly stuck in the red mud of Mississippi’s gulf coast. It never gets any better. The dear and the innocent are slain and their ghosts haunt. The desperate and unwary have babies with men who their parents know are suited only for life in prison. And the children, the simple ones who are slapped down when they speak of severe hunger, they study the scenes. They try to guess which path might permit their survival. You might find yourself recognizing advantages you didn’t know you had.

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Book Review. “My Absolute Darling,” by Gabriel Tallent. Riverhead Books, 2017.

 Book Review. My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Tallent. Riverhead Books, 2017.One hundred pages into ‘My Absolute Darling,’ it was already the best book I’ve read this year. Like many others, I picked up this first-time novelist’s work only because Stephen King called it a masterpiece. Mr. King admitted feeling green because (his words) he could never have written anything so good. The book is a masterpiece: You will marvel at the writer’s gift for making you eagerly turn pages so that you can keep up with a story rooted in the disgusting.

This is a human horror story. It is about a fourteen-year-old girl who learns to cope with her sexually and physically abusive father. The book’s beauty and substance come from the writer’s presentation of people, places and emotions. His descriptions compel a deliberate pace so that you don’t dare miss Mr. Tallent’s blue-black narrative of a horrific man doing horrific things, of a girl torn between loyalty and hate.

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Book Review. ‘Born to Run,’ by Bruce Springsteen. Simon & Schuster, 2016.

springsteen.cover  200x300 Book Review. ‘Born to Run,’ by Bruce Springsteen. Simon & Schuster, 2016.There are two big things about Bruce I took from his accessible, cozy autobiography. The first: The Boss is a businessman. He’s all about the contracts, the rights, the residuals. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Given what Bruce admits, the label sticks. He is the bandleader. Always. Everybody else is an employee; their work and compensation are defined by written contracts. Bruce and his manager dictated all the thousands of things that made up a Springsteen tour: dates and locations, the players, the rehearsal schedule, transportation, hotels, meals. The songs are his. The set list is his. The profits? His. He tells of one band member (Mr. Springsteen is discreet and doesn’t identify him) who, mid-tour, demanded a raise. Bruce asked for proof there was one comparable musician who made more. End of conversation.

Bruce doesn’t say what he pays his band but leaves the impression he is no Scrooge. He seems to care deeply about the people who work for him. Many have been friends since before the day when his mother paid for his first guitar. For those who are no longer his employees, friendships remain. Bruce successfully mixes business and personal relationships as very few have (and as very few should dare try).

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Bibliophiles Get a Little Rowdy

If you’ve written a book, the day will probably come when you attend a book festival, full of hope and glory, dragging along a box full of copies.  Like dozens of other aspiring authors, you figure you’ll come home in a few hours with a few sales to brag about. It turns out that you’re more likely to come home with some stories and a few new friends.

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