March 17th, 2012, 5:10 PM
Top Floor, Minas, The Avenue, Hampden
(Minas Gallery and Boutique, 815 West 36th Street, Baltimore, MD 21211)
The top floor of Minas is a light, airy art gallery. Hangers of what I had at first thought were curtains billowed in the 70OF breeze. With another glance I saw that they were painted panels of gauze, to create an illusion of depth in the galaxies and comets they portrayed. There were palimpsests that I wanted to examine, but people filtered in and I had to get a good seat.
The first reader was J.R. (Ross) Angelella, reading the first chapter of his book Zombie.
“For all intents and purposes, this book should not exist,” said Ross as he stepped up to the podium after a glowing introduction. Then he read us two emails he’d gotten from advance readers of his book. According to one, “You should be ashamed of yourself. I can’t think of anyone who would read and like this.” The second: “I don’t want to read any book at all anymore, and I have you to thank for it.”
The first chapter of Zombie was a scene in which a father drops off his son, Jeremy, for the first day at an all-boys Catholic high school, and dispenses advice about what it means to be a man. The first section of advice centered on neckties, and what the different knots communicate about a man’s “massiveness.” (Don’t worry- Jeremy groaned too.) The second bit involved Jeremy feeling guilty about ogling a middle-aged woman in Spandex, and Dad honking at her and telling Jeremy: “Not all mothers are your mother.” Then Dad posited a zombie-apocalypse scenario to Jeremy and asked him to formulate an escape plan.
Most of the excerpt of Zombie was ha-ha funny (and I did laugh aloud several times), with dark hints lurking throughout. Jeremy has a set of “Zombie Survival Rules”- and as Dad examines Jeremy’s tie and pronounces the knot a “limp-d*ck,” Jeremy applies these rules to his own interactions with Dad. Rules such as “avoid eye contact,” “keep quiet,” and “forget the past.”
I can see how Zombie isn’t for everyone. But I was hooked. I picked up an advance reading copy. I got it signed. I’m on Chapter 9 now. I’m probably going to finish this book absurdly quickly and write a review. Stay tuned.
The next reader, Karen Lillis, read from her book Watch The Doors As They Close. The book is written as a series of journal entries detailing the narrator’s difficult breakup with an idiosyncratic man. As she read, Karen ended each sentence with a faint note of a question: mimicking the uncertainty with which a breakup leaves a person. I can see why her writing has been hailed as “a love letter to anyone who has ever experienced heartbreak.” The narrator’s pain is unevenly varnished with bitter humor. The list of “things Anselm hates” is mostly funny, with a few dark items tucked in. The entry about Anselm dressing up as a woman for the first time he met the narrator’s brother got laughs from the audience, but after the initial shock, the narrator describes every aspect of her own toilette for that day, and how Anselm’s halfhearted female disguise nullified everything she was going for.
Though I’m not quite ready for a love letter from Karen, I will be sure to read her work when I’m in a position to laugh and sigh with her narrator.
After a ten-minute break, Elisabeth Dahl read from her novel Brood, which is not yet published. Brood is set in Baltimore during 1953, 1970, 1987, and 2004: four cicada emergency years.
She read excerpts which jump around in character and in time. The first is a 16-year-old runaway boy who lives on the streets outside an apartment complex, and finally the landlord agrees to allow him to live in the tool shed if he does some chores around the place. The tool shed is full of naked female mannequins.
The second is a budding romance between a MICA senior and a Hopkins freshman meeting at a coffee shop. The senior (first person narrator) is freaked out by a giant cicada, and the boy catches it and says, “I’m not going to kill a guy who waited 17 years to get laid!”
The third is an aging woman reminiscing about the men from her past as she deals with a power outage in her apartment. She writes a stunning line in her journal: “Blackouts were blizzards twisted inside out.”
I’m going to keep Brood on my radar. I hope it gets published soon. In addition to the beautiful writing and the sticky characters, I’m drawn to the Baltimore-ness of the excerpts. Whether I stay or go, I’ll want to keep a piece of the city with me. The broad range of dates demonstrates the timelessness of some aspects of the city, and the writer is atmospheric in a way that would appeal to any Baltimore native, transplant, or lover. Here’s a link to download and listen to her reading on “The Signal.”
The fourth reader, Justin Sirois, read from his novel Falcons on the Floor. Justin looked like a Baltimore guy to me, with his thick glasses and tattooed arms, but his book had nothing to do with Charm City quirks. Falcons on the Floor is about two Iraqi young men escaping from the Battle of Fallujah. In order to achieve the narrative’s authenticity, Justin corresponded via email with an Iraqi refugee woman now living in Cairo named Haneen Alshujairy, whom he has never met.
After that intriguing intro, the excerpts did not disappoint. The second excerpt that he read, a journal entry from Salim (the main character, one of the young men), describes truly horrifying scenes with high, poetic diction shot through with anger. The book is dark, no doubt, but the prose is beautiful and every word has dignity.