Some of you may know that I’m currently up to my ears in grad school applications. Luckily, posting on The Millions has a salutary effect on me, and also, I just finished a book, so I need to write about it. Jamesland opens with Alice, great-granddaughter of philosopher William James, having an odd waking dream of a deer in her house. Alice fixates on the deer as a portent of a coming change in her life, and the very next day her life begins to change slowly and inexorably. The book does not dwell on the supernatural, though it does have a bemused dialogue with the otherworldly throughout. Mostly it is about three forty-somethings whose social and professional lives are deteriorating and reconfiguring. I’d call it a mid-life crisis, but these characters have that quality, peculiar to Californians, of being youthful, unserious adults. The book is mostly set on the East Side of Los Angeles in neighborhoods that I know well. It was great to read a book that addresses a somewhat larger Los Angeles than usual. Movie stars are around, and Hollywood is nearby, but they are just parts of the great stew of the city, things that are noticed but after a while not accorded any greater importance than things like Griffith Park or the LA River. The only other book that I have read that successfully turns LA’s flashy side into just another bit of peripheral scenery is T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. Huneven is well-known in Los Angeles as the food critic for the LA Weekly, and the way she writes about food in this book is magnificent. Pete (who along with Helen, a modern sort of minister, are the other two wayward adults) is a former near-celebrity chef who is recovering from a nervous breakdown, suicide attempt combo. His character is both abrasive and charming, the type of person who makes you nervous the moment he steps into the room. As he coaxes himself back into the functioning world, he takes up cooking again, and this is the venue for Huneven’s descriptions of foods. It was nice to see that Huneven did not place this book firmly in the world of food and restaurants in the way that many writers tend to crib from their day jobs. Instead, Huneven manages to weave her knowledge skillfully into the larger narrative. The book itself is a rather satisfying meal, best taken over a few languorous days on a sunny balcony or sitting on a park bench.
1. Justin Gifford’s timing is impeccable. He has just published his second book, Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim, a vivid retelling of the fluorescently eventful life of a hardened pimp, drug addict, and convict who turned to writing highly autobiographical pulp fiction about black street life. Though published by a small press and available mostly in drugstores, liquor stores, barbershops, and prisons, Iceberg Slim’s books, including his scorching autobiography Pimp: The Story of My Life, sold millions of copies and influenced countless writers, actors, directors, comedians, and musicians, including the creators of blaxploitation films, street fiction, and gangsta rap. Chris Rock, Ice-T, and Andrew Vachss are major fans. “He is arguably one of the most influential figures of the past fifty years,” Gifford writes, “and yet, apart from what he reveals in his own writings, very little is known about this fascinating and contradictory character.” Gifford’s worthy goal is to right this wrong. He tells us that Iceberg Slim was born Robert Lee Moppins Jr., in Chicago in 1918, and later changed his name to Robert Beck. His abusive father left soon after his birth, and his mother abandoned her devoted second husband in favor of a street hustler, a pivotal event in young Robert’s life. Another was his sexual abuse at the age of three by a babysitter. These traumas spawned a deep ambivalence toward women, especially his mother. He despised school -- he got expelled after a brief stint at Tuskegee Institute because he spent most of his time in juke joints -- and he saw no future in straight, menial jobs. He would do time in prisons that were little more than academies for refining criminal skills. Later he described his world as a “black hell” awash in “the poisonous pus of double standard justice, racial bigotry and criminal economic freeze-out.” It was almost inevitable that he got seduced by the dazzle of the pimp life. Street Poison paints a rich picture of a young pimp’s unsentimental education. The trade secrets were passed down by word of mouth from veteran pimps in the form of the unwritten pimp “book.” Young Beck drank in these lessons, spent hours practicing his come-ons. As he put it with typical flair, “I had memorized an arsenal of howitzer motivators I’d kept on instant alert in my skull. I’d barraged them daily for three years to persuade a ten ho stable to hump my pockets obese.” Beck was in awe of the smooth Chicago pimps, who drove Duesenbergs and kept pet ocelots. One of his most influential mentors was a notorious Chicago pimp and killer named Albert “Baby” Bell, who set an impossibly high standard of cruelty. “Bell’s form of pimping was more violent and manipulative than anything Beck had ever seen in prison or in the taverns of Milwaukee,” Gifford writes. “His main philosophy was ‘One whore ain’t got but one pussy and one jib. You got to get what there is in her as fast as you can...’” Bell encouraged Beck to beat his whores with a coat hanger when they got out of line because “ain’t no bitch, freak or not, can stand up to that hanger.” Beck had never been shy about using physical force, but Bell showed him that he had a serious career liability: He didn’t hate women enough. Beck admitted as much in later interviews: “I had a very good mother. Most of the successful pimps in those days had been dumped in garbage cans, had been abandoned and had never known maternal love. They were the cold-blooded ones...But I always had that sucker streak in me...I was never the best pimp. To be a great pimp, you’ve really got to hate your mother.” That shortcoming didn’t stop him from having a long career with all the conventional trappings: the hotel suites, the fine clothes, the jewelry, the Cadillacs, the dope (Beck was partial to speedballs), and the inevitable prison stretches. His street name was oddly high-tone: Cavanaugh Slim. After his release from the grim Chicago House of Correction in 1962, Beck left the pimp life and relocated to Los Angeles, where he hoped to reconcile with his dying mother. He started a family and worked straight jobs. He also started writing, acting out the stories of his life for his white common-law wife, Betty Mae Shew, who typed them up. Together, they turned Cavanaugh Slim into Iceberg Slim and in 1967 they sold Pimp to Holloway House, a small L.A. publisher. The book became an underground sensation, and several autobiographical novels followed. Within a few years, Iceberg Slim was the bestselling black author in America. Small wonder. His writing leaps off the page. Here, for instance, are an ex-con’s rueful ruminations after he gets double-crossed by his former cellmate and decides to salve the wound by finding himself a whore: It was black ghetto Christmas. Saturday night! Easy to cop a ho! I’d guerilla my Watusi ass into a chrome-and-leather ho den and gattle-gun my pimp-dream shit into some mud-kicker’s frosty car. I pimp-pranced toward a ho jungle of neon blossoms a half mile away. Some ass-kicker was a cinch to be a ho short when the joints folded in the a.m. In Pimp, Beck recounts being transfixed the first time he heard a group of pimps performing a “toast,” a cousin of the dozens, a bawdy, nearly Shakespearean roundelay of boasts, puns, putdowns, and one-ups-man-ship. Neither subtle nor politically correct, the pimp toast proved electrifying to certain ears. As Gifford writes, “Although he couldn’t know it at the time, Beck was witnessing one of the origins of gangsta rap and hip-hop in these toasts...Like the dozens and the pimp book, these toasts grew out of African American oral expressions, and they became the direct forerunners of the comedy of Rudy Ray Moore and the gansta rap of N.W.A., Ice-T and Snoop Dogg.” Rudy Ray Moore’s bad-ass character Dolemite, for instance, concocted this toast-inspired putdown: “You ain’t nothin’ but a born-insecure, rat-soup-eatin’, barnyard muth-a-fucka!” Which brings us back to Justin Gifford’s impeccable timing. 2. A few days after Street Poison was published, a splashy Hollywood production called Straight Outta Compton, directed by F. Gary Gray, opened in theaters nationwide. It tells the 1980s origin story of N.W.A., a group of young rappers in the Compton section of Los Angeles led by three buddies, Eazy-E (played by Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr., Ice Cube’s real-life son). As Gifford points out, numerous hip-hop artists have drawn on the legend of Iceberg Slim for their monikers and their attitude. He singles out Ice Cube and Ice-T, but he could have added the Houston rappers Pimp C and Slim Thug, among many others. Like Robert Beck, the members of N.W.A. were faced with limited options in terms of jobs and housing. As crack cocaine and gang warfare engulfed their corner of L.A., they repeatedly tasted the wrath of a brutal police force. Joining the drug trade was one career choice -- the movie opens with Eazy-E making a delivery to a drug house moments before the police storm the place -- but these buddies decide to pursue music instead. You know the rest. Though it’s a sanitized version of N.W.A.’s story, Straight Outta Compton does have its moments, including a live performance of the incendiary anthem “Fuck tha Police,” which triggers a riot inside a Detroit arena. Several songs on the soundtrack reveal gangsta rap’s twin lodestars: the prizing of flash and money, and the simultaneous devaluing of women as nothing more than sex toys and furniture. In one telling scene, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E are poolside at their respective compounds, talking by phone about a possible N.W.A. reunion -- while Dre’s woman reads a magazine and Eazy-E’s touches up her toenail polish. As N.W.A. sings in “Gangsta Gangsta,” “Life ain’t nothin’ but bitches and money.” Straight Outta Compton stops far short of revealing the dark flipside of this mantra -- gangsta rappers’ history of physical violence against women, something Iceberg Slim knew a great deal about. As the movie debuted, three women came forward with stories about receiving vicious physical beatings from Dr. Dre, who had recently sold his Beats company to Apple for $3 billion. After scoffing at these charges for decades, Dr. Dre suddenly came clean, issuing an apology that made the front page of The New York Times: “Twenty-five years ago I was a young man drinking too much and in over my head with no real structure in my life. However, none of this is an excuse for what I did...I apologize to the women I’ve hurt.” The timing of this apology made it impossible not to question its sincerity. It sounded like a billionaire’s advisers had finally convinced him that misogyny is bad for business. Dubious as this sudden turnabout was, it couldn’t match the somersaults of the movie’s director, F. Gary Gray. The original script included Dr. Dre’s beating of the hip-hop journalist Dee Barnes, which resulted in his plea of no contest to assault and battery charges. (Dr. Dre was sentenced to community service and probation, fined $2,500, and ordered to make a public service announcement denouncing domestic violence. A civil suit was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.) Asked why the scene was dropped from the final version of “Straight Outta Compton,” Gray said the filmmakers decided the movie “wasn’t about a lot of side stories.” He added, “You can make five different N.W.A. movies. We made the one we wanted to make.” What they did not want to make, obviously, was a movie that would make hip-hop’s first billionaire look bad. 3. Once again, Iceberg Slim was way ahead of the curve. Even before his literary career began to take off, he’d become a supporter of the Black Panthers and of another former pimp who turned his life around, Malcolm Little, aka Detroit Red, aka Malcolm X. As Beck’s autobiography and fiction gained popularity among black readers, he expanded into writing essays, vignettes, and personal deliberations, also lecturing at libraries and colleges and appearing on television. He was a tireless promoter of black liberation and a tireless critic of the racism that had shaped his life -- the shabby housing and limited job opportunities, the police and the prisons, the undying disdain of white America. The street was his pulpit and street people were his flock, leading him to disparage not only white racists but also the black bourgeoisie, all the prosperous movie stars, professors, preachers, politicians, and landlords who are nothing more than “outlaw whores in the stable of the white power structure.” Gifford, an associate professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno, is also the author of Pimping Fictions: African American Crime Literature and the Untold Story of Black Pulp Publishing. He spent 10 years researching and writing Street Poison, and though his prose is sometimes wooden, his knowledge and affection for his subject are evident on every page. Near the book’s end, Gifford recounts Beck’s appearance on a TV show called Black Journal, where he gave an interview that might have been addressed personally to Dr. Dre and his fellow gangsta rappers. Gifford writes: Here he outlined how his failed life as a pimp ultimately led to his revolutionary consciousness. As he proclaims at the end of the interview, ‘I’m here tonight appearing before you as a well individual. Free of the street poison that put me into the kind of position where I brutalized and exploited our black queens. You have to have a realization that when you exploit your own kind, that you are, in effect, counter-revolutionary.’ Beck had been both exploiter and exploited. He received a fraction of the royalties due him from Holloway House -- which meant, ironically, that he got pimped by his publisher. Beck had also been an eyewitness to the Watts riots of 1965, and as he lay dying of diabetes and gangrene in a Los Angeles hospital bed in 1992, fire was again sweeping the city -- following the acquittal of four white L.A. cops for the brutal, videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King. So much had changed, so little had changed. So little has changed. But we can be glad that one thing remains the same: Iceberg Slim has something timeless to say not just to gangsta rappers, but to all Americans, black and white, rich and poor, male and female, criminal and law-abiding. It’s in his books, and it’s in the pages of the timely and richly rewarding biography Street Poison.
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Netherland is a good book, and much has already been written, here and elsewhere, to that effect. Its central conceit, that of the New York City immigrant subculture of cricket, provides a fresh perspective on a city about which so much has already been written, and the parallel story, of the dissolution of lonely Hans van der Broek's marriage, often cuts with the immediacy of real, unmitigated loss. But, and of course there is a but -- and perhaps it's only due to my predilection for stories that come at me "like a big hot meteor screaming down from the Kansas sky," as Stephen King put it in his introduction to The Best American Short Stories of 2007 -- there is a deep problem with Netherland, and it's that the book more often exemplifies rather than illuminates the central dilemma that draws its attention, the modern challenge of an individual trying to author a coherent story for his own life.This is the problem facing Hans van der Broek as he surveys post-9/11 New York from his rented two-bedroom apartment in the eclectic Chelsea Hotel. His wife Rachel has decamped to London, taking their young son Jake with her. Her reason for leaving is ostensibly fear of another terrorist attack but really the problem is with Hans who seems barely present, wrapped in a malaise of his own divining. In Rachel's absence Hans falls into the subculture of city cricket. He's taking his suitcase out of the trunk of a taxi cab when he spies the driver's cricket bat lying in the wheel well. He inquires as he pays, and the next Saturday he's standing on a field on Staten Island, the only white man on a team of immigrants from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and other former colonial tracts. Reading Hans' conversation with the cab driver, I was struck by the improbability of the social engagement that results. The divide between driver and passenger in a New York City cab is typically absolute and O'Neill presents their conversation as something like Alice's rabbit hole, a whole new world revealed in plain sight. By contrast with Alice's journey, though, Hans' is fairly low stakes. He is a tourist, not an adventurer in this new world.Hans becomes a regular on the cricket pitch, through which he meets Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian immigrant with an entrepreneur's interest in cricket, though no real talent for the game. Chuck dreams of building a cricket stadium on deserted waterfront property in Brooklyn, thereby restoring New York - and America - to its cricket roots and making himself rich at the same time. Hans takes quickly and casually to Chuck, explaining, "Because his deviousness was so transparent and because it alternated with an immigrant's credulousness... I found all the feinting and dodging and thrusting oddly soothing." Hans finds Chuck's presence soothing, but not important. He has time on his hands with his family across the pond, and in that context, Chuck is a convenient diversion, a placeholder. There is never anything Hans has to learn from Chuck, or accomplish with him in order to get his life back on track. Such tenuous relationships are not the stuff of great literature, and absent real stakes in the story, the character of Chuck Ramkissoon is more inventive than artful.Much the same is true of the rest of the architecture of Netherland, which comes across as contrived and clever more often than real and human. Certain problems are established at the outset of the book - a murder and a de facto divorce - but there is little effort throughout the narrative to explore them, unravel them, or even, often enough, to address them. Instead, Hans flits episodically through life in New York and remembrances of his childhood. Netherland is a character study more than a story and the central challenge facing the character is that he's been unable to craft a coherent story for his own life, one fortified with governing values, purposeful action, and consequential relationships. What's true in life turns out to be true in novels, too. It is hard to have a good one without those things.In one particularly well-wrought episode from the book, Hans is approached in a Manhattan diner by Danielle, a fleeting acquaintance from his former life in London. The two go on a date and then pass a romping night together in Hans' apartment. Danielle has no precursor in the story, nor any legs. She appears and disappears and at the end of her section, I wrote in exasperation, "Is it possible to deepen an understanding of the character without deepening the plot?" In Netherland the events are connected only through Hans, as he experiences and remembers them. This leads, in Hans, to a sense of vertigo and groundlessness, tethered as he is only to himself. In me as a reader, it led, quite frankly, only to boredom. My intellect was engaged and my aesthetic sensibilities stimulated, but at almost no point in the book did I really care about what was happening.Halfway through the book, Hans takes shoeboxes of old photographs to a woman named Eliza who arranges photo albums for a living. She says to Hans, describing her work, "People want a story. They like a story," to which Hans replies, "A story. Yes. That's what I need." Tantalized by O'Neill's writing and very often drawn in by the creativity of his sets, I was filled with optimism as I read this. A story was all that remained to redeem Netherland, just as it was all that remained to rehabilitate Hans. But unfortunately, the story never comes, and the lasting impression of Netherland is a thought, an idea, not a feeling, and it is not for such things that I read novels.See also: Garth's take on Netherland
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When I was a child, I developed a set of deliciously painful fantasies to reach for whenever my life felt stifling: running away, contracting a wasting illness, being orphaned (or kidnapped) and raised by disciplinarian ninjas. One of the most potent dreams involved becoming a latchkey kid, free after school hours to move around the city on my own dubious recognizance. I grew up in the suburbs, so my notions of “the city” were vague, but I supposed that I would live by my wits, sneaking through back-alley shortcuts and shoplifting candy bars when the need was great. In Marie-Helene Bertino’s debut novel 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas, nine-year-old Madeleine Altimari is a near-perfect stand-in for the scamp of my childhood dreams. She makes her own breakfast and escorts herself home at the end of the day; she knows swears. But her world is more fraught and dangerous than the one I had in mind. For one thing, her mother is dead, and, unlike the sympathetic thugs from my fantasy (who always showed up in the nick of time to grab my hand and tell me to run), the adults who remain in her life don’t follow her around to keep her safe. They each stay in their place, and she skips between them like a stone. Some of Bertino’s characters are more stuck than others. For instance: Lorca, the owner of the titular club, who spends most of the book trying to keep his business running in the face of blatant city code violations. Or Mrs. Santiago, the deli owner who feeds Madeleine and asks about her day: she provides a necessary stability for the girl, but seems so fixed in her routine that she won’t even chase her dog (the marvelous Pedro) during his frequent bids for freedom. But what’s enchanting is the way that most everyone – no matter how fixed at the story’s outset – is moving towards the same sublime adolescent freedom as Madeleine. It’s our privilege as readers to not just witness this mass unfettering, but to share in it: we feel the new lightness in each character’s step. Sarina Greene – Madeleine’s schoolteacher – is the clearest example: she starts off woebegone, still wearing her high-school-era discontents and sitting silently in the corner at a Christmas party. Soon, though, she’s chasing her new paramour through ice-cold fountains, making snap decisions, having fun. And so are we. As we follow the antic momentum towards the Cat’s Pajamas (and, we assume, the hour of 2 A.M.), the book shimmers with pratfalls and wit, feeling at once real-to-life and larger-than. Not everyone is perfectly happy: Madeleine – an aspiring jazz singer – discovers the club and decides to make her way there, but despite her age and her Puckish quest, she’s not innocent. Her father, locked away in his grief, sleeps in their apartment like an ogre underneath a bridge; caustic and dangerous when startled awake. (He’s also the one exception, so far as we see, to the rule of stuck characters breaking loose.) Still, it’s his alienation that gives Madeleine the leeway she needs to step out into the evening and play her part. And this seems to be another loose rule of the book: no redemption without suffering. Fair enough. One question: is it possible for a group of characters to be too charismatic? If so, that was my only real objection to Bertino’s novel. The cast is large, and many more than our three major players (Madeleine, Sarina, and Lorca) take over as point-of-view characters for a page or two. Quite rightly, Bertino lets most of these personalities fall to the wayside so her plot can progress, but a few stuck in my mind long past their expiration dates: Clare Kelly – Madeleine’s nemesis – for example, is such a delicious brat that I couldn’t help but want more time with her. I also snagged on the suggestion of a parallel between Madeleine’s competition with Clare and her mother’s long-ago rivalry with a woman we know as Principal Randles (who expels Madeleine from elementary school, seemingly to get back at her mother for being too pretty), but the connection goes largely unexplored. It’s fair to say, though, that all this really points out is that Bertino draws rich and real human beings with enviably few strokes of the pen. Instead of feeling overcrowded, the book feels lively, with the jostling energy of…well, a club. It’s packed. You might elbow someone to get to your table. But in the end you don’t really mind, because those electric connections are part of the fun.
What Gets Kept. It’s the title of Lynne Tillman's latest creative project, an LP of recordings of Tillman reading selections drawn from her oeuvre. The name itself is at once serious and playful; and like much of Tillman’s writing, it embraces this contradiction. There’s a nudge of self-acknowledgment, too, that however arbitrary or intentional the choice, what appears here has become part of the “kept.” Make note: this isn’t album with anthological aspirations or “greatest-hits” ambitions. (For the better.) Rather, the album resembles a 40-minute retrospective show. It’s a curated collection, with Tillman as the guide. Contained within? Ten pieces spanning Tillman’s career, including passages from her first novel, Haunted Houses, her first story collection, Absence Makes the Heart, and up through last year’s critical collection, What Would Lynne Tillman Do? An amplification of themes and obsessions that surface repeatedly throughout Tillman’s writing -- from the influence of Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis to memory and imagination and Marilyn Monroe, the depiction of women’s lives and desires, and, perhaps most significantly, language, its inscrutability, its everything. Tillman’s work can’t be contained but it can be collected, aggregated, selected: “Collecting seems such a conscious activity,” Tillman says via Madame Realism, when reflecting on Freud’s personal collection, “though the unconscious...is always lurking.” Madame Realism makes assumptions about Freud based on his collection of art. “It was as if Freud, who was father to fantasy, had himself become a source for fantasy...Didn’t this exhibition ask the spectator to enter into his mind, to partake of his fascination, his lover’s discourse?” Perhaps we can make assumptions about Tillman from her choices here, too. Accumulation (and omission) becomes not only a guiding act for generating this album, but also a fundamental concern throughout What Gets Kept. And what is lurking? Not always what we’d expect. “It’s startling, what gets kept,” the narrator remarks in “Original Impulse,” a story focused on the uncanny assortment of reminiscences, dreams, desires that stick with us. Tillman through Madame Realism looks back to Coney Island’s long defunct past as turn-of-the-century fantasy; she recreates the atmosphere of Semiotext(e)’s legendary Schizo-Culture conference, when John Cage quietly took the stage, or then there’s Marilyn Monroe fictionalized, at her labia in a mirror. And somehow Tillman manages to unite Monroe and Freud, with telling how part of Monroe’s estate was awarded to The Anna Freud Centre, and how “Marilyn, in death, would be happy to learn that her money was supporting Freud’s work.” Memory informs and perhaps even invades the present. “Only amnesiacs live in the present,” Tillman remarks. The imprint of the past is carried with us, sometimes consciously but more often not: a former classmate wears the same makeup 20 years out; an ex-lover has a recurring appearance in dreams. Inevitably, to be remembered is to have acquired significance, to have affected someone and, through them, the world in some way. In “Save Me from the Pious and the Vengeful,” Tillman says: “Memory is what everyone talks about these days. Will we remember and what will we remember, who will be written out, ignored, or obliterated. Someone could say: They never existed. It’s a singular terror.” To be forgotten is to be overlooked, erased, discarded. It’s FOMO eternally. In “The Original Impulse,” a character considers apologizing to her wronged ex-lovers but quickly reconsiders: “Most likely they’d claim they’d moved on and forgotten her. Besides, they might say, you never really meant that much to me. Or, let’s be friends on Facebook.” With a shift in perspective, she sees it would do her no good to apologize: they’re probably long over it and she would see how little she meant to them. We star in our own narratives, and it’s sometimes better not to be reminded of what role we’ve been relegated to in the narratives of others. Though one thing that might be worse than being forgotten is making an empty gesture in the absence of connection. No one knows the limitations of language better than a writer. Tillman says it again and again, “Out of nothing comes language and out of language comes nothing and everything,” and “What words were there for nothing. Nothing.” Tillman has admitted that she “subject[s] [her] sentences and words to a kind of Grand Inquisition...always trying to leave out what’s extraneous.” Stilted language, miscommunication, inadequacies of description always threaten to interfere. Despite this ambivalence, however, Tillman has unwavering faith in stories, their survival, and enduring significance -- “certainly there will always be stories.” But characters come first, through their voices, “the character talks itself into being, through its articulations and mistakes...The character is built with words. The voice is words.” Voice and words, they’re inextricable. Tillman’s authorial voice is singular, and her spoken voice is, too. It’s truly an amplification of the voice on the page. It may sound redundant, but for writers this doesn’t necessarily hold true. Many people have remarked on the quality of Tillman’s voice: its strength and intellect, its wit and warmth. It’s also raspy, sensitive, perceptive, keen—delivered with a New York accent, of course. Colm Tóibín wrote of the first time he saw Tillman read, and how he was struck by her delivery, her voice, and its many textures: She was wearing black; she had a glass of whiskey on the rocks in her hand. Her delivery was dry, deadpan, deliberate. There was an ironic undertow in her voice, and a sense that she had it in for earnestness, easy emotion, realism. She exuded a tone which was considered, examined and then re-examined. She understood, it seemed to me, that everything she said would have to be able to survive the listeners’ intelligence and sense of irony; her own intelligence was high and refined, her sense of irony knowing and humorous. And the humor! I’d be remiss to not mention the humor here on the album, or in Tillman’s work, or in her voice, even, how it complements her seriousness, provides another layer. The final cut on the album, the last word, is “A Few Jokes,” quite literally, where she recites riddles from her novel No Lease on Life. There’s one about a hunter, a gun, a pissed-off bear, and some sodomy, or try this one out: “There's a restaurant on the moon. Yeah? Great food, no atmosphere.” The jokes are lighthearted, playful, corny even, and offer a unique glimpse into the playful, unguarded Tillman. Like Madame Realism entering Freud’s imagination through his art collection, by listening to this album you become an intimate guest in Tillman’s lair. What is it like? Imagine this voice crooning at you with so much intelligence and wit. For 40 minutes, telling stories. Imagine the vinyl swirling in circles, the click of the needle, while meditating on artist Peter Dreher’s cover painting of a silver bowl, dissolving into reflections of what becomes yellow and blue labia, the artist and his canvas -- your own personal Rorschach -- and you will have an idea. Whatever you see, you will hear and know this LP is for keeps. Lynne Tillman’s What Gets Kept is a limited-edition LP, available from Penny Ante Editions, issued as part of their Success and Failure Series. A release party will be held at Printed Matter, NYC, on March 6.