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reading tiger

Reading and Listening

This week's Earworm Weekly is on Mongo Santamaria's "Fatback." Never heard of Mongo Santamaria? Click on the link! You will also learn all about Valerie Capers, a blind black jazz composer who co-penned the song.

Besides, I will never beat the headline "Mongo Santamaria celebrates Thick Women and Good Cookin'."


Reading-wise, I whizzed through Nell Zink's Mislaid this week. The dry humor of the book was like catnip to me, and so, to an extent, was the setting; it begins at a Southern women's college in the 1960s with an affair between the resident gay male poet, faculty star, and black sheep of the local rich family, and a girl who dresses mostly in ill-fitting rugby shirts, wants to take his writing class but not his reading classes, and admires Anne Sexton because "she doesn't sound so good, but she's got something to day. I read Hopkins or Dylan Thomas and I think, these cats sound cool all right, but do they have something to say?"

After a brief, intense affair, he knocks her up. They get married and our female protagonist turns into a faculty wife to a gay poet who likes to entertain his old New York friends (and others) in a certain style. Needless to say, she is very unhappy. She has another baby, has a breakdown, and runs off with the younger child, a daughter, in tow; the older, a son, stays with his father. She steals the identity (i.e. obtains the birth certificate) of a black child who died at about the same age her daughter is and, being young, white, and crazy, figures it won't make that much of a difference. (She's wrong, of course.) She takes over an abandoned shack in the sticks and proceeds to raise her daughter under the radar in extreme poverty. Eventually she gets relocated into a housing project at about the same time as she starts dealing first mushrooms, then pot, and then harder drugs.

Meanwhile, her son is raised by his now unencumbered father and eventually gets sent to boarding school, then college. Her daughter is admitted to that same college (big prestigious state schools ftw). There's a big climactic collision of fate. And they all rediscover each other, reconcile, and live happily ever after. "He did not mention life goals again. Life has a goal, he noted, and harping on it is counterproductive." The end.

The last part was the biggest surprise. Another book would have punished these characters for their transgressions, and made it funny so we accepted it as their lot. A tragicomedy. This turns out just to be a comedy. In some ways, allowing the ending to unfold as it does may be the most transgressive part of the whole book. Because of the way things are coded in this world of ours, it initially made the book feel a little fluffy and unserious to me. But that's probably unfair, and as I sit and ponder I am more and more glad that Zink did what she did. Because it's not unserious at all; Zink takes risks with her material and never, ever goes for the easy joke. The jokes make themselves out of the absurdities of the setting -- that is, contemporary and near-historical America -- and the deformations of character they ask for. This was a hugely enjoyable read.