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Snap Judgments (exist) - 1

By Sheerly Avni, Robin Ekiss, Victoria Schlesinger, Dan Strachota, Elizabeth Varnell | December 30, 2010 | Story

(Counterpoint Press)
You're 21. Your mother, the poet Anne Sexton, who won the Pulitzer Prize for writing about her suicidal tendencies, succeeds in killing herself, and you've been appointed her literary executor. Is it even possible to imagine yourself in Linda Gray Sexton's shoes? In this stark, affecting memoir, the now 57-year-old Redwood City resident picks up where she left off in her 1994 tell-all Searching for Mercy Street, this time exploring her own attempts at suicide. Whether or not that's her legacy (as she claims), some of her other inheritances are undeniable: alcoholism depression, mental illness, marital discord, ambivalence about mothering. Understandably, Gray Sexton's childhood is a painful personal obsession, but it's only when she recounts her experiences after her mother's death that her story gains momentum. Readers may wish she'd linger less in the mind and more in the moment; sentimentality and melodramatic metaphor often mar her prose, as when she writes of her first suicide attempt, “I was ready to make music with the keyboard of my wrist.” But beyond these difficulties lies a compelling candidness, especially about her deteriorating marriage and her predilection for cutting herself. In the end, we're rewarded not by Gray Sexton's inevitable listing toward harm but by her resilience in the face of it. B

(Focus Features)
Sofia Coppola's latest tone poem on film nails a microcosm of life in L.A. as enacted at 8221 Sunset Boulevard, where Chateau Marmont is tucked away above the Strip. The same lenses that the director's father used to shoot Rumble Fish pan over sundrenched balconies and lowslung couches as leaf blowers and car engines compete with chirping birds. Even the vacant looks of cool kids in training, self-conscious pole dancers, and sycophants at flashbulb-filled parties are on the money. As in Coppola's first three films, meta may as well be a character, but the insider references float by like smoke from Stephen Dorff's Camels and make you smile rather than squirm. Dorff plays actor Johnny Marco, who lives at the Chateau for long, boring stretches—broken up only by press junkets, angry email from former one-night stands, and dalliances with new ones—until his 11-year-old daughter comes to stay with him. Slowly, shyly, they get reacquainted. All the standard Sofia-isms are here: the paralyzing lethargy of The Virgin Suicides, the rampant hedonism of Marie Antoinette, the older guy-younger girl pairing of Lost in Translation. And once again, what remains unsaid and unheard in this ode to Coppola's Los Angeles is just as important as the words the characters speak. A

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Anguish over his young daughter Chiara's future frames this new book by San Francisco environmental journalist Mark Hertsgaard. Synthesizing the past 20 years of climatechange history and envisioning the world Chiara will grapple with decades from now, Hertsgaard aims to breathe life into the clichéd—if accurate—argument that we owe our descendants a habitable planet. In energetic prose, he revisits the alternately dry and stormy fates awaiting Bangladesh, the Netherlands, and the U.S.—California in particular, with West Marin's rising coastline, our wine country's nonchalance toward climate change (because the hot weather has been producing better grapes), and Sacramento's flimsy levee system, which the author compares to New Orleans' famously failed one. None of this is new information, but Hertsgaard summarizes it well. While he sees little hope of escaping a hotter world, he does look toward cities with aggressive environmental policies as potential safe havens for Chiara, and he urges the wealthy among us to pursue a Green Apollo program. Hertsgaard's outlook ultimately corresponds with that of renowned German climate scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber: “On the one hand, there is selfishness and short-term thinking. On the other hand, there is compassion and concern for one's children and grandchildren. We'll see which one wins.” B

(Upbeat Records)
Over the past 17 years, the alt-rock scene has watched many trends come and go, from pop-punk and nü metal to garage and dance rock. During all that time, Sacramento's Cake has remained resolutely unchanged: The band's sixth studio effort—its first in seven years—sounds much like its 1994 debut, Motorcade of Generosity. (The title even seems to allude to that album.) Showroom of Compassion retains front man John McCrea's talky, bemused vocals, Xan McCurdy's thick guitar hooks, and the occasional mariachi horn sashay. If anything, Cake has grown less showy and jokey, as if they had fewer reasons to try for another hit like 1996's “The Distance” (although the new album's bouncy “Sick of You” has garnered significant radio play). McCrea sounds comfortable with becoming an American Ray Davies, spinning finely detailed, bittersweet tales of modern life, depressing holiday flights, and the unstoppable march of time. “Bound Away” contains perhaps the most perfectly succinct depiction of the aging process yet: “Seconds turn to minutes / Minutes turn to hours / Hours give you a lifetime / And a grave with pink flowers.” Cake may always be unfashionable, but the band's subtle hooks and literate wordplay are still a breath of fresh air. A

It might be cheating a bit to call Caribou Island a first novel. University of San Francisco professor David Vann's first published work of fiction was also a novel of sorts: an award-winning collection of short stories that were also studies of his father's death, appropriately titled Legend of a Suicide. In that book, which took the former Stegner Fellow a decade to write and even longer to publish, the tone shifted from piece to piece, skipping from Carver to Hemingway to Cormac McCarthy with a virtuosic agility that often approached mimicry. In his full-length debut, Vann again sets the narrative almost entirely in his native Alaska and again opens with a suicide—but this time, he has come fully into his own voice, from the striking opening scene to the fateful final sentence. In between, we encounter a half-built cabin, a failed marriage, a loyal daughter, a stoner son, a fishing boat, a troublemaking tourist, enough wind and rain to sink a ship, and an oddly exhilarating horror story in which human demons spring from the smoke of their own disappointment and regret. Caribou Island earns Vann a seat beside the masters—no longer as a student but as a peer. A+


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