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May 14, 2003

The Contempo Lit Galaxy According to Me

Friedrich --

I'm a literary enough guy, but I don't have much time for most of the contempo lit-fic writers who are generally thought of as important: Updike, Roth, David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, Louise Erdrich, Sontag, Amis, Rushdie, Toni Morrison, DeLillo ... Talented and important they may be, but as far as I'm concerned: Snoozola, man. I'm not trying to be perverse; it's just that I can always think of a million things I'd rather be doing. In fact, that whole scene has always struck me as made-up, an ongoing soap opera with a rotating cast of characters, an illusion conceived and maintained to please the class of people (critics, editors, gullible recent English majors, indie bookstore employees) who need to believe that something of urgent literary importance is taking place on a weekly basis. When I view the scene as such, I can sometimes enjoy the spectacle. But when it's boiled down to a recommended-reading list, it's not one I can sign my name to.

But enough with the putdowns and grumpiness. It's too easy to score off people with big reputations. What lit-fict books do I recommend? Well, I've gathered a little courage and a few notes together, and I hereby present my list of lit-fict books from the last 20 or 30 years that I've been a big, big fan of. No genre books, and no books I simply enjoyed. Instead, these are the books that struck me as really terrif, the ones I'd press on friends and say, Hey, this is really something! Readers may not be surprised to notice that between my version and the offical version of the contempo literary world there isn't much overlap.

* My favorite contempo American lit-fict writer is Lee Smith. She's from Appalachia herself and most of her books are about Appalachian people, but there's nothing drearily worthy about them. Instead, her fiction is lyrical, soulful, often funny, and big-hearted. Her books do what the best movies do, combining the directness and ease of popular art with the sophistication and gravity of high art. Black Mountain Breakdown is the funniest of her books (though it's also quite sad), and Fair and Tender Ladies is probably her most moving (though it can be quite funny). I have no idea why more people don't know her work, which is always satisfying, accessible, moving and entertaining, and often a lot more.

* Tom Perrotta writes Lit Lite, but he does it really well -- his books are funny, sly, bemused, and blessedly un-messed-up by politics. They're good, quick reads that are also perceptive and moving. (He's like an American Nick Hornby.) Bad Haircut is a terrif collection of stories about suburban Jersey -- anyone who lived through the '80s should enjoy it. Election is the funny and malicious novel the Reese Witherspoon movie was based on. The Wishbones is a bittersweet romantic comedy about a 30ish guy who's still playing with a rock band and is struggling with the whole concept of settling down. Perrotta's most recent novel, Joe College, is about a working class kid who goes to Yale and is thoroughly mixed-up by the experience. They're all treats.

* William Price Fox's books often have a lot of life, heart and humor. Dixiana Moon is like a sweeter, less misanthropic "Nashville," Ruby Red has velocity and vitality, and Southern Fried is a classic collection of yarns. It's hard to do better when you're in the mood for Southern rowdiness and charm.

* I find almost all of Nicholson Baker annoying -- he's a grandstanding pest, and I fail to find the charm in his self-love and virtuosity. But but but ... I adored his semi-porn fantasy The Fermata, and found it hilarious, brilliant and sexy. That's the novel where the protagonist can stop time. So what does he do with his powers? Why, what any het man given such a gift would do: he undresses women, and feels them up.

* Brittle, evansecent, high-strung -- it's a very special, Bloomsburyish taste, but Deborah Eisenberg does it well. The stories collected in Transactions in a Foreign Currency are especially fine-tuned.

* I love Barry Hannah's early stories, the ones in Airships. Reading them is like going on a lucky bender -- all the outrageousness with none of the morning-after agonies. This is fragmented, drunk-on-words, shitkicking, blearily absurdist, southern-macho-lit stuff. The stories don't come to much, but, wow, they sure do make for fun three-and-four-page bursts.

* Charles Simmons' Wrinkles is slim, sophisticated, and one-of-a-kind -- an autobiographical fantasy told in a unique and brilliant way. In each chapter, the protagonist's life is told from birth right through death. But each chapter tells this story from a different thematic point of view. One might cover the protagonist's life from the point of view of food; one might cover it from the point of view of work ... This innovative, fragmented approach (postmodern before there was postmodernism) results in a moving portrait.

* James Wilcox's early novels are exquisitely turned, dizzy and very funny. His later books, where he tries to be more Chekhovian, don't do much for me. But the bittersweet farces Southern Baptists and North Gladiola are inspired (and rather touching) pieces of semi-camp silliness.

* He's been dead for a while, but I always get a kick out of reading Charles Bukowski. It's rotgut, overblown, feet-in-the-gutter/mind-in-the-stars baloney -- but what can I say, it still rings my bells. Most of the women I know have no patience with his writing at all.

* The San Francisco novelist Don Carpenter has also been dead for a while, but I remain a big fan of his hardbitten lit-fic, especially his acrid and funny showbiz road novel A Couple of Comedians, about a squabbling comic duo, modeled, it seems, half on Martin and Lewis and half on Cheech and Chong.

* Have you tried the po-mo-ish, new-wavish Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami? I love his early A Wild Sheep's Chase, which is a dreamlike comic-book fantasia about post-pop Japan and World War II guilt, presented as a metaphysical mystery novel.

* Or how about Josef Skvorecky? He's a Czech emigre who lives in Toronto. I love a couple of his books: The Bass Saxophone, two soulful novellas about jazz, with an essay intro (about what jazz meant to his generation) that's just as good as the stories; and Dvorak in Love, a really superb novel about the composer Antonin Dvorak and a long visit he made to America. It's like a modernist symphony -- moody, richly patterned and moving. It's also a great intro to 19th century American musical history. I got curious and looked up a number of the facts and stories Skvorecky recounts in the novel, many of which seem bizarre and unlikely -- and every historical fact in the book appears to be true. The 19th century was a much stranger, and more wild and woolly, time in American musical and art history than our profs led us to believe.

* Maurice Shadbolt is an amazingly good New Zealand novelist no one in America has ever heard of. He wrote a trilogy about clashes between the native Maoris and the English, and the first two volumes are sensational. (They're great as individual works, and don't need to be read together.) The first one, Season of the Jew, about a Maori who becomes convinced that he's Jesus, is probably better. But the second, Monday's Warriors, about an English soldier who winds up fighting with the Maoris, is also fab. They're like hyper-stylized, hallucinatory Westerns set in exotic dreamscapes -- intense, propulsive, shocking. I liked these two novels better than the Cormac McCarthys and the Robert Stones I've read. Heck, I liked 'em better than Hemingway.

* As for the usual suspects, you've probably read some of the short stories of Alice Munro, who I'm not alone in thinking is a giant. And I did love a few of the well-known Gabriel Garcia Marquez books, especially Love in the Time of Cholera.

* But back to the unusual suspects. Dany Laferriere is a Caribbean black guy who moved to Montreal and caused a scandal when he published an autobiographical novel called How to Make Love to a Negro. I loved it. It's slim, Beat and earthy, but it's also elegant, poetic and epigrammatic. (Funny and erotic too.) One of the things that strikes you first about the book is that it has none of the usual politicized "black male rage." Laferriere is straightforwardly (and likably, opportunistically) amused by the fact that so many white girls want to sleep with a black man. The other books of his that I've read are beautifully written too but don't hold together nearly as well.

* Manuel Puig -- I love a half a dozen of his books. He was the very gay, po-mo Latino novelist who wrote movie-struck autobiographical rhapsodies. I find them little-boy sweet, absurd and heartbreaking. Kiss of the Spiderwoman, which was the source for the movie and the stage musical, is his best-known novel, and I liked it a lot. But I liked The Buenos Aires Affair and Heartbreak Tango even better.

I've liked a lot of other contempo lit-fict too. Peter Lefcourt regularly turns out lowdown, high-quality humorous novels -- he's an amazing performer -- and Michael Tolkin's bizarro The Player and Among the Dead are hard to shake off. And Richard Price has been darned good for a couple of decades. (Aaron Haspel sings the praises of Price here.) And of course there's so much I haven't read.

But I've more or less stopped following new literary fiction these days. Enough was enough, I'm enjoying following my own whims thank you very much, and lordy why did I ever spend so much energy for so many years sorting out what I thought was of worth in the contempo scene? It's not like anyone was paying me to do so. (Or not often, anyway.) Still: not bad pickins. The secret, I discovered, was to give up looking for greatness and to open myself to pleasure instead. Though many people seem to think that now's a lousy time for lit fiction writing, I'd argue that there's a lot of talent hard at work these days -- and that the main problem is with the press and the critics, as well as the publishing business itself, who are doing a lousy job of steering readers to the best writers and books.

But there I go again, assuming my tastes might mean something to someone. Now, back to indulging my own interests. Hey: Older books! Nonfiction books! Genre fiction!

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at May 14, 2003




Comments

Don Miguel:

Wow!

A good list of writers and books and a calm wave-off to those writers you do not abide. What has happened here?

Anyway, I couldn't in good conscience pass up an opportunity to question the "Though many people seem to think that now's a lousy time for lit fiction writing, I'd argue that there's a lot of talent hard at work these days –" even as I commend your recognition of the efforts of manifold writers to satisfy a hungry readership.

Where I hang out there is a frequent claim that, yes there are many poor books being published, but there is also much fine writing going on and some is even making it to market. Considering the shit storm of so-called information loosed on the world (that is, us) that would seem to be very hopeful.

Who are the naysayers that say this is a lousy time for lit fiction writing? I would be happy to succumb to engaging in one of your favorite activities—a list to light the road to salvation for these miscreants.

Posted by: ROBERT BIRNBAUM on May 14, 2003 08:35 AM



Hannah is a worth choice. Though I didn't particularly care for his most recent novel, the collection "Bats out of Hell" is a great read. David Gates and Denis Johnson rank high on my current list of recommendations.

Posted by: Jeff on May 14, 2003 09:31 AM




Let me drag this discussion down. The Fermata? I don't get it. If a Brazilian pole vaulter moved in down the street, and I could develop a super power, I'd go for mind control. The analogy is radically changed, to be sure, but to a story with more verisimilitude. I am not, I assure you and Mr. Baker sitting around my house waiting for the touch of invisible hands. The kind of women who are sitting around the house waiting for the touch of invisible hands are, at least judging from my slutty friends, the sort who are perfectly happy to see you, even if you look like Baker. To me, why such women are perfectly happy to see anyone is a worthy topic, while the secret wish of men to get their hands on women strikes me as merely smutty. Double standard? Or reasoned POV?

Perhaps it's time for a long post about erotica and pure-D fantasy and why some of y'all can only take it with a bit of lit flavour. In response, we science fictions fans can defend J. G. Ballard and Bruce Sterling as thoughtful social critics.

Your comments on Dany Laferriere and black male rage made me realize, for the first time, that Colson Whitehead probably has black male rage. He's such a funny and engaging writer, and certainly doesn't exaggerate any race issues... so I just never recognized that aspect of his work.

Have you read the short stories of Breece Pancake and Mary Ladd Gavell? They're both in Lee Smith's neighborhood.

Posted by: j.c. on May 14, 2003 01:11 PM



Michael:

What are you thinking, posting a list of modern, high-lit books you actually enjoy. If you keep this up, you'll have Robert Birnbaum writing you congratulatory comments...oh, no, too late! (apologies to Mr. Birnbaum for my pathetic attempt at humor.)

I look at all of this benignly, but from a distance, having pretty much left the world of contemporary fiction behind years ago. Since college, I have read fiction, but only in fits and starts: Greek tragedy, Saul Bellow novels, some Philip K. Dick science fiction, Shakespeare, a few other odds and ends. Meanwhile, my non-fiction reading has been considerable. From what I've read on this blog, that pattern is not all that unusual. Can you identify in yourself or your friends and associates what qualities make (or break) adult fiction readers?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on May 14, 2003 01:54 PM



What a cheery bunch! Who says book-lovers are sourpusses?

Hey Robert, I dunno, I was just overcome by an access of well-being and tolerance. I'll get back to ranting and denouncing soon, though. Are you volunteering a recommended reading list of some sort? Eager to see it -- I'm pretty sure you've read at least ten times as much new lit-fict as I have.

The circles I get a look at are mostly arty media circles, who generally think the sky is falling, and 'way out of the loop mid-Americans, who generally don't have time or information enough to do the kind of lit exploring you and I do. And I find that people in both camps generally bemoan the state of lit. Are your friends more upbeat? I'm mezzo-mezzo myself. My take is: So long as you're patient and aren't expecting great work on a hyper-regular basis, you can find a lot that's both new and more than worthwhile. On the other hand, people do seem to be reading less, people are spending more time at their computers, and many talented kids who years ago would have taken a stab at the great American novel seem to be going into non-lit fields instead. So, sigh...

Hi Jeff, I don't generally go for Hannah's long fiction either. He seems to have a hard time sustaining what's cool about his work for more than ten page or so, don't you find? I did enjoy "Ray," but that was some bizarre aftermath-of-an-explosion artifact. (Rumor has it that Gordon Lish did a lot of oddball shaping and editing on the book.) I haven't found Johnson's and Gates' work that appealing so far, but I should read more before opinionating. Thanks for reminding me of them.

Hey J.C. -- You didn't enjoy "The Fermata"? A lot of people didn't, apparently. What puzzles me is that some of them also say they enjoyed "Vox," so it isn't because they foundn "The Fermata" too dirty. "Vox," though, I found pretty lame, and much less well crafted. Any idea why so many would have preferred "Vox"?

"Smutty" is certainly a word I should have used describing "The Fermata," but I'd have done so in an approving way. "The higher smut" -- something like that. Although that wouldn't account for how funny I found the book. Having the power to stop time is such a classic fantasy, and Baker did a great job of describing and evoking the texture of what that might feel like.

And then: find Bin Laden and off him? Straighten out some tragedy? Nah: feel up a girl instead. The fantasy per se means nothing to me personally, but still. I dunno, I found the book such a perfect, needling, shrewd expression of the obsessive male psyche that I couldn't keep from cracking up.

But there's a kind of fiction, which this is an example of, where the central fantasy is exemplified and played-out without being "criticized" (except, maybe, implicitly) -- the films of Bertrand Blier and some of Bukowski's stories are examples of this approach too. And many people just don't like it. Beats me why. It's an approach I'm very fond of.

The central fantasy of "The Fermata" probably did as little for me as it did for you. (It isn't one of my pet fantasies.) What I enjoyed was the shrewd and dirty way Baker evoked it and played it out. I'd love to read a book about a woman, mind-control and the Brazilian pole-vaulter down the street too.

It probably is time for a posting, or a whole bunch of postings, about eroticism and art. Hmm, I wonder if I'm man enough ... As for the "why can we take it only with some art" question: heck, I sometimes like it without the art and sometimes with the art. Two different kinds of experiences, as far as I'm concerned, each rich with possibilities for pleasure.

I haven't tried Whitehead -- is he good? Years ago I read Breece d'J, but can't remember much about it. Mary Ladd Gavell I know nothing about. Do you recommend her work?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 14, 2003 02:00 PM



Okay Comrades,

Here are some recent fiction titles that I have read in the past year and that I think pass an elemental test of readability:

DANCER – Colum McCann
MAN EATER – RAY SHANNON
A MEMORY OF WAR- Fredrick Busch
SOUL CIRCUS –George Pelecanos
UNDER THE SKIN – James Carlos Baker
I SHOULD BE PLEASED TO BE IN YOUR COMPANY- Brian Hall
DROP CITY –TC Boyle
THE COFFEE TRADER - David Liss
A SHIP MADE OF PAPER – Scott Spencer
DRINKING COFFEE ELSEWHERE- ZZ Packer
WHAT I LOVED – Siri Huldveldt
SHUTTER ISLAND – Dennis Lehane
ON THE NATURE OF HUMAN ROMANTIC INTERACTION- Karl Iagnemma
GOOD FAITH – Jane Smiley
BAY OF SOULS – Robert Stone
THE LAST GOOD DAY - Peter Blauner
THE LIGHT OF DAY – Graham Swift
WATERSHED Percival Everett –
SERVANTS OF THE MAP – Andrea Barrett
A MULTITUDE OF SINS- Richard Ford
BURNING MARGUERITE – Elizabeth Iness-Brown
FEMALE TROUBLE-Antonya Nelson
THE SEAL WIFE- Kathyrn Harrison
A SIMPLE HABANA MELODY- Oscar Hijuelos
THE HEAVEN OF MERCURY- Brad Watson
THREE JUNES- Julia Glass
THE WHORE’S CHILD AND OTHER STORIES – Richard Russo
BLOOD OF VICTORY – Alan Furst
THE PISTOLEER-James Carlos Blake
THE FALL OF A SPARROW – Robert Hellinga
OYSTER- John Biguenet
THAT’S TRUE OF EVERYBODY- Mark Winegardner
THE PIANO TUNER – Daniel Mason
IN THE RIVER SWEET – Patricia Henley
GREAT DREAM OF HEAVEN – Sam Shepard
CARAMELO – Sandra Cisneros
THE LITTLE FRIEND – Donna Tartt
BEL CANTO –Ann Patchett
YELLOW - Don Lee
FAT OLLIE’S BOOK – Ed McBain
SAMARITAN - Richard Price
THE DRIFT – John Ridley
THE OXYGEN MAN– Steve Yarbrough

I would add Alice Munro, Elmore Leonard,Alan Lightman, ELizabeth Cox, Peter Carey,Jim Harrison, Reynolds Price, Russell Banks,Amy Bloom,James Ellroy, Jamaica Kincaid,Michael Malone, Thomas Sanchez , Michael Pye Margot Livesey, Thom McGuane, Dorothy Allison, to whatever list of names being brewed up here for the enlightenment of those sad people whose attitude about the current state of literature is in need of an overhaul or at least serious adjustment.

Posted by: Mr. Birnbaum on May 14, 2003 08:59 PM



Christ, but that's a lot of fiction for one year. What did you read that didn't pass the test?

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on May 14, 2003 09:48 PM



I forgot that you mentioned Don Carpenter; good call. I just read his first (and mine of his), Hard Rain Falling, and it's well worth your time, even if you're not as interested in pool hustling as I am.

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on May 14, 2003 10:01 PM



Robert -- Good god, when do you get a chance to shop/bathe/pay bills/etc? Thanks for the list. I stand in awe.

Aaron -- Do you suppose that makes two of us in NYC who are fans of Carpenter's? A mystery to me why he isn't better known. Did you ever catch the movie he wrote -- "Payday," with Rip Torn as a burned-out C&W singer? A good one. Lordy, I just looked it up on IMDB to make sure I wasn't misremembering, and I caught the year it was made: 1972. 30 years ago -- yikes.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 14, 2003 10:53 PM



Hmm

Bathe/shop.pay bills/shower? How bourgeois!

Did I mention Pete Dexter, Charles Portis, Charles Baxter, Thomas Mallon, Allan Gurganis, Jim Crace, Ian McEwan,Nathan Englander, Valerie Martin, David Gates,Jane Hamilton, William Boyd, Madison Smartt Bell, Louise Erdich,Joan Didion, Michael Doane, Susanna Moore, Edmund White, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Olen Butler, Lorrie Moore..?

I did not want to be the first person to break the peace, so to speak, so I did leave off three names that I normally include in any list of recommended contemporary authors.

Posted by: Robert Birnbaum on May 15, 2003 02:22 AM



But, but, but, Mr. Birnbaum, you forgot Salmon Rushdie and Toni Morrison.

Posted by: Deb on May 15, 2003 09:15 AM



"Comrades"? The Marxism influence in lit circles these days is worst than I thought.

Deb, just because you're a woman doesn't mean you can't be the victim of a vicious wedgie. ;)

Posted by: Yahmdallah on May 15, 2003 09:20 AM



Yahmdallah,

Awww, I'm just jealous cuz I've only read 5 or 6 of the books on his list.

I will readjust my undies now. ;0)

Posted by: Deb on May 15, 2003 09:54 AM



If I post a glowing review of DeLillo's new book that just arrived in the lusciuos brown Amazon's book, will you find it in your heart to forgive me?

I'm filled with trepidation over this new one, you know, thanks to you 2.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on May 15, 2003 11:40 PM



Citizen -Readers:

Tread lightly when naming the 2 Blowhard Unholy Troika of writers, for sleeping dragons will arise. Nonetheless, I am heartened by the (slightly meek)stirring of the unrepentant. Revolutions have been made with less.

Arise, Readers of the World!

From the Ministry of Enlightenment

Posted by: Robert Birnbaum on May 16, 2003 02:53 AM



The Fat Guy will be forgiven only if he finally comes through with that top-ten, best-of, recommended-CD Texas music list. Until then, everything the Fat Guy does is viewed very judgmentally. Unless, of course, he's published the list already and I somehow missed it. Hey, what can I say, I'm in the mood for some Texas music and don't know where to start. Townes van Zandt, Guy Clark, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and his crowd -- and then I'm completely lost.

Does anyone else wonder how, given the amount of reading he does, Senor Birnbaum finds time for writing? I'm guessing that he's got a large staff taking care of the grunt work (ie., toothbrushing, book-envelope-opening, yelling at editors, etc) for him.

Signed

Michael (panties in a twist) Blowhard

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 16, 2003 10:01 AM



It's that 10 BEST part that's throwing that deal off. How about the "10 that I can remember"?

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on May 16, 2003 11:07 AM



More than good enough for me. Knowing what the middle-aged brain is like from all too much experience of it, I'll be impressed that you can remember ten.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 16, 2003 11:25 AM



My security assistant had to quiet my staff, my manicurist and masseuse included, while my e mail assistant read aloud the scurrilous and vile slurs on my proletarian nationality published in that well-known house organ and journal of capitalist quislings and revanchists.

Here's my secret to a satisfying reading life. No shopping. And no television. The TV abstinence can be a little tough especially with Jon Stewart and Keith Obermann doing such stellar work .But then again I enjoy reading about them (Obermann calling the Fox News people" Murdoch's flying monkeys" still cracks me up).

And the Chicago Cubs have had a promising start of their season so that too is something I miss. But there are box scores…

Anyway, no shopping, no TV. Get it? How many hours could one devote to reading then?

Ah, Texas.ThoseTexas Dems. have put a little life and even hope in the American political sandbox. Yeah, Texas…Willie Nelson, Doug Sahm, Augie Meyer, Lyle Lovett, Lightin Hopkins, Bobby Bland, Robert Keen Wheeler, Willie Parker, Buddy Holly, Bob Wills…whew.

Posted by: Robert Birnbaum on May 16, 2003 01:28 PM



No shopping? Robert, one wonders how you food, new socks, and cleaning supplies make their way into your home.

Michael - this is a bit late, but perhaps your SQL creature alerts you to new posts.
Whitehead is he good but I don't know that he's worth recommending. Perhaps I'm bending over too far backwards to avoid touting an delightful acquaintance. His books have vigor and zip and love of language and, what is for me the most appealing fantasy, a self-contained lone-wolf heroine. He's certainly a new voice, perhaps comparable to reading Vonnegut before he was Vonnegut. As a steady reader, you may not find Whitehead's stories new. Breece d'J, IMHO, suffers from having a comical name and being dead. Almost all of his short stories are perfect. Mary Ladd Gavell is an author I "discovered" while browsing... and then discovered that her short story "The Rotifer" and her secret career had been the topic of 4,000 reviews which came out while I was living under a rock. Read her at once. Perhaps her work will scratch your itch for Texas music and for fresh fiction. (On the music side, there's always Lucinda Williams, and the half of Terry Allen's work that's good. (Like the little curl with the curl in the middle of her forehead, when he's bad, he's horrid. Ditto Don Williams.) Billy Joe Shaver? Kenefick? By Texas, do you mean only Texas, or would you consider general literate redneck? Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely used to play with ... Butch Hancock. (By the way, one of my favorite things to do when traveling is to hear what the home crowd thinks by searching for: blogs "local music" [name of destinatation] [name of well-known club in destination] and phrases such as "then we went to" or "bought the CD." So much more informative than using the local entertainment listings. (e.g. This is how I learned Nashville has a thriving metal scene.)

Friedrich - "Can you identify in yourself or your friends and associates what qualities make (or break) adult fiction readers?" Been thinking about this. Still no decent answer. I find myself once again using "a bar" as the source of all stories. Basically, if the writer seems to be someone who could interest me in a bar, I'll read 'em. This lame-ass idea is, certainly, a comment on me rather than the authors I read.

Posted by: j. Lorrie Moore gives me a cramp" c. on May 19, 2003 11:34 PM






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