Review: The New York Regional Mormon Singles Dance, by Elna Baker

The New York Regional Mormon Singles
Halloween Dance
, by Elna Baker
2009 | Plume | 272 pp
I first heard of Elna Baker on the Moth podcast which, if you've never listened to it, you should try it out, and prepare for ugly crying on the subway. On the Moth, Baker told an abridged version a story from her memoir - a book that deals mostly with her life in New York, trying to date as an overweight twenty-something, and a Mormon. The title alludes to an annual event in the Mormon community to which Baker returns year after year like a recurring nightmare, or a gym membership. If you're looking to try a memoir on for size but aren't quite ready for the episodic sexcapades of Isaac Oliver, this book might work for you.

Baker is a lovely storyteller, which is why I finally picked up the book. She speaks very plainly and genuinely from the heart on every subject - from being the "funny" sibling, to battling her religious roots, to nearly ODing on diet pills. Her frank portrayal of modern Mormonism isn't fully fleshed out - she seems, as of 2009, to still have been battling with her own beliefs and as a result, reading it can sometimes feel like watching shadow puppets while the real players hide behind the curtain.

I am self-confessed ignoramus when it comes to most religions, but probably most especially Mormonism. I often accidentally confuse it with the Mennonites - not because I'm stupid or purposely ignorant or anything, but probably because of the clothes. I just get confused. Those bonnets throw me off. After reading Baker's memoir, I can't confess to being much the wiser on the subject. But beyond that, I did get the sister-in-arms feeling that I think she was going for. Being single in this city is certainly daunting, and being an outsider in one way or another intensifies that feeling. Baker's story provides more insight than hope on that subject, perhaps an effect of writing a memoir so early in life, before the arc could be fully formed. Her writing is sweet and bubbly, and the kind of thing that I wish I'd been able to read when I was starting out in New York. As a mostly-jaded established New Yorker now, it's a little flat.


Review: Intimacy Idiot, by Isaac Oliver

Intimacy Idiot, by Isaac Oliver
2015 | Scribner | 274 pp
In light of this weekend's festivities, I thought it appropriate to talk about Isaac Oliver's debut collection Intimacy Idiot.

In the interest of full disclosure: I've known Isaac for about a decade now (it makes us all sound so old when it's said like that... I've known Isaac for about a third of my life - oh god, that sounds worse; I've known Isaac for years - there, that's better.) We went to college together, we both worked box-offic-y jobs for too many years (and now his watch is ended), and nine years ago we did a Fringe show together called Moral Values: A Grand Farce, or Me No Likey the Homo Touch-Touch written by another talented classmate of ours, Ian McWethy (who, last year, had a different play among the most-produced short plays in high schools).

Moral Values took place in a near-future where not only had the US government legalized gay marriage, but therein had enacted a policy by which all households were assigned a gay man to welcome into their homes for a specified time in the interest of education and tolerance. I was also an avid reader of Isaac's blog before it was transformed into (parts of) this book, and I've attended his readings, eagerly anticipating the newer stories. As such, my opinion here cannot be completely objective.

That said, this is truly a book that has something for everyone. At turns biting, candid and vulnerable, Oliver's stories (which are interspersed with subway anecdotes, vignettes, poetry and - perhaps my favorite - recipes for one) provide a fiercely hilarious glimpse into the life of a brilliantly funny guy doing his best to schlep through New York, Grindr and life in a box office. He has embraced the art of self-deprecation, putting forth his neuroses, his love for cheese, and his eczema in a way that is both endearing and mildly mortifying. And now that we're at a place in time where gay marriage has in fact been legalized, and without bizarre sweeping cure-all tolerance initiatives queued up, please consider Isaac Oliver to be your assigned gay man - welcome his book into your home, and maybe learn a thing or two about love. Or at least, about furries.


Review: Perfume - The Story of a Murderer, by Patrick Süskind

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer,
by Patrick Süskind
This ed: 2001 Vintage | 255pp
There are geniuses in our midst - painters, musicians, writers, chefs, persons who work in mediums that one can see and hear and feel and taste - mediums that last. But for author Patrick Süskind, that wasn't enough.

In 1985, Süskind published what would become his best-known work internationally: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. And while little has been seen of, or from, the author since the novel's publication (and subsequent translation from the original German, plus a feature film in 2006) one is certain that within this medium lies his greatest strength; it's a kind of magical realism that pulls on the source of endless memories, and which relentlessly binds the reader to that world.

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, born into abandonment with no scent of his own, carves his way through life in pursuit of what one can only call the scent of pure love - that essence which he has been denied since before his untimely birth. This is not simply a novel about that fifth sense to which the title alludes, but about a man for whom that sense is so keen, and whose beacon of purpose shines so brightly, that the reader cannot help but urge him on to the finale. The protagonist (though I almost hesitate to call him that) is not your average serial killer, and his story certainly borders on the unusual.

Süskind's intoxicating prose is embellishment itself - labeling each and every scent of the world as if the olfactory genius is recalling them by scientific name and spitting them out like ticker tape onto the page. This kind of barrage of words might seem affronting, but in Suskind's hand it's magical and enticing. The words race towards the climax which is nothing short of a literal orgy which Grenouille has induced.

The film adaptation (which stars Ben Whishaw, and features Alan Rickman, Dustin Hoffman and Rachel Hurd-Wood) is a visual stunner that develops some of the finer points of Grenouille's education very nicely but, without the omniscient prose of the novel, much of the richness and detail is lost in the medium translation. One countdown (Laure's approaching birthday) is replaced with another (the 13 essences) more effective device, bringing things to a conclusion more swiftly, but losing delicate layers of aromatic ambience that make the novel shine. The film is a splendid portrayal of scent as a medium, but the novel is significantly more gratifying, and far more varied and interesting a feast for the consumer.

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