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October 09, 2002 - Image 5

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The Michigan Daily, 2002-10-09

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Wednesday
October 9, 2002
michigandaily.com/arts
mae@michigandaily.com

ARTS

5

'Non-required'
lives up to its
too-wiytitle
By Stephanie Kapera
Daily Arts Writer
Pick up any edition of "The Best American Short Sto-
ries" but don't crack open the cover. Whether it's the 1915
publication or the newest 2002 volume, you can pretty
much assume, without even thumbing through it, that it'll
be stuffed to the gills with some of the best writing this
country has to offer. Take away all the John
Updikes, Alice Munros and Richard Fords,
replace them with a few satirical pieces of
journalism, a 24 page long comic, and many, A
many coming-of-age stories, and you're now
holding a copy of "The Best Nonrequired THE
Reading 2002." NONRI
This year, the creators of "The Best Ameri- READI]
can" series ("The Best American Essays,"
"The Best American Sports Writing") have Edited
introduced a new addition to the family. Cart and
Instead of a rosy-cheeked newborn, however, Marine
"Nonrequired Reading" seems more like a
delinquent stepchild in a family of books usually brimming
with literary poise. Series editor Michael Cart, and this
year's guest editor, Dave Eggers (author of the critically
acclaimed memoir "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering
Genius") have teamed up to produce an anthology geared
toward readers between the ages of 15 and 25. "Nonre-
quired Reading" differs from "Short Stories" in that it
includes satire, essays and news pieces that are plucked
from both mainstream and alternative publications - a
worthwhile project when you consider that "Short Stories"
often reads more like selections from the New Yorker or the
Paris Review.
The fiction chosen for "Nonrequired Reading" is, at its
best, poignant, clever and touching, although the book
steers clear of material that is too stunning or challenging.
David Schickler's "Fourth Angry Mouse," the best story in
the anthology, spins the rich tale of Jeremy Jax, the grand-
son of a famous comedian, who suddenly discovers that he
is not funny. Schickler's Manhattan is like a vibrant, pulsing
cartoon - the only setting in which we might be willing to
fly with the silliness and sweetness of his plot. Elizabeth
McKenize's gentle prose makes "Stop That Girl" a lovely
piece as well; in it, a fifth grader is banished to Europe
after kicking her new stepfather in the shin. Also of note is
Heidi Jon Schmidt's "Blood Poison," in which the grown
daughter of a feeble failure of a father must come to terms
with his weaknesses during a trip to New York City's Muse-
um of Natural History.
The non-fiction pieces are all well written, but many
seem to have been chosen for their gimmicks, which steers
the tone of the anthology in a cheesy sort of direction. Take,
for example, a piece like "Why McDonald's Fries Taste So
Good," - it sounds like it could have potential, but is in

'Fight Club' author Palahniuk's
'Lullaby,' fails to captivate, interest

er

fact boring, unless you truly care about scien-
tists who make flavors in the New Jersey
area. The humor pieces are funny, especial-
ly "'Jiving' With Your Teen," (which trans-
lates slang for confused parents) and
BEST "Local Hipster Overexplaining Why He
QUIRED Was At The Mall." However, their inclu-
G 2002 sion, mixed with some of the more serious
(and manipulatively saccharine) pieces
Michael about war in Afghanistan and speed addicts
ave Eggers in Bangkok, makes for a muddled and
Books watered-down reading experience.
The stories, explains Dave Eggers (in an
annoying and un-funny introduction), were chosen by he
and his "team" of student "helpers." Herein lies the book's
main problem. Instead of being an edgy collection of sto-
ries that we don't normally get to read because they're pub-
lished in ZYZZYVA and Zoetrope instead of The Atlantic
Monthly and Ploughshares, we get material chosen because
its content - not the power of the writing, but the topics
addressed by the author - appealed to a dozen teenagers
from the San Franscisco area. To college students, and
maybe even some high school students, this anthology will
feel a bit insulting. However, the book explains in its fore-
word that it exists for "young adults" - whoever they are
- in order to provide material that hasn't been censored by
mean parents.
If this is true, then that is precisely the angle that is spoil-
ing what could potentially be a wonderful read. Instead of a
celebration of lesser-known works, we are given a sort of
anthology of rebellion. This is disappointing, but if "Nonre-
quired Reading" is meant for the "Goosebumps" and
"Sweet Valley High" age groups, it's certainly a valuable
volume (although Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield are actu-
ally way more fun than "Nonrequired Reading").
For us college kids, though, this book might be a tad too
dumb. As a whole it felt bland; nothing really struck too
powerfully, and almost everything read like a weak David
Sedaris piece (including the David Sedaris piece itself).
Instead of picking up this anthology, which might have
been good had it not taken a left on "Chicken Soup for the
Soul" avenue, explore a copy of one of the
independent/alternative publications that "Nonrequired's"
pieces have been chosen from. Or, just buy "The Best
American Short Stories." After "Nonrequired Reading,"
required reading has never looked better.

By Ted McDermott
For the Daily
The sentences that carry us through "Lullaby," Chuck
Palahniuk's fifth novel, are clear and direct. Unfortunately,
nothing else about the novel is worthy of these adjectives.
The prologue introduces us to what the
third-person narrator describes as "our
hero, Helen Hoover Boyle." "Our hero" is a
such a constant tag that in the prologue it
works almost as a "Mrs." would. Clearly,
this is either pretty heavy-handed foreshad- LULL
owing, or even heavier-handed irony. Helen NO
is a real estate agent. But rather than nego- B
tiating the transactions of typical suburban By Chuc
homes or offices, she deals exclusively in Doub
haunted houses.
"Lullaby" narrator Carl Streator is a journalist
assigned to a five-part series on Sudden Infant Death
Syndrome (SIDS).
As might be gleaned from Helen's atypical real estate
dealing, Palahniuk demands that the reader either
believe in magic or that the reader take it as a necessary
device for the telling of his story and just accept it. The
first option, believing in magic, seems impossible and is
not up for discussion either way. The second option,
though not necessarily problematic, is mandatory in this
particular situation.
There are plenty of examples in literature in which
the author asks the reader to go along with the super-
natural (Kafka's "Metamorphosis," for one). Which is
to say, the going-along is not the problem here, it is that
the entire story, essentially from first to last sentence,
is an exercise in accepting the impossible for no appar-
ent reason (except authorial laziness).
"Lullaby's" narrator is Carl Streator. Streator's most
recent assignment is to write a five-part series on SIDS.
He discovers, rather quickly, that the cause of SIDS is
the reading of a culling song found on page twenty-
seven of "Poems and Rhymes from Around the World."
The culling song is thought to be a lullaby; unsuspect-
ing parents read it to their children, killing them. The
method of discovery is painfully simple - Carl finds
the book either open to page 27 or a copy of the book
that falls open to this page at the scene of the various
SIDS death scenes he is using for his articles.
It is difficult to accept a lot of this - that a lullaby
kills babies, that this lullaby can be checked-out of
your neighborhood public library (and remains undis-
covered), and that ghosts exist and haunt houses.
Unfortunately these are just some, and some of the less
extreme, instances of Palahniuk stretching and ignoring
reality for the sake of his story.
Part of Palahniuk's motivation, it seems, in using
these devices is as metaphor for his overt social com-
mentary. A seemingly innocent lullaby being the cause
of SIDS seem toreflect the narrator's obsessive irrita-

,
l

tion with society's addiction to sound - the sound of
televisions, stereos - and fear of silence.
"These music-oholics. These calm-ophobics," Carl
refers to the sound-obsessed.
The reading aloud of a lullaby exists as a sound, a
disturbance of the calm before sleep and, in Carl and
Helen's world, a murder weapon. The
metaphorical link is not hard to discern
here. Besides this function, the inclusion
* of the supernatural acts to tie all of the
many the loose ends together.
ABY: A Neither of these motives seems justifi-
)VEL able. When Palahniuk avoids the supernat-
.l i ural, which he does do for certain side
Palahniuk streams, it works quite well. His writing is
bleday much more powerful, his social commen-
tary more biting. The loose ends are a
clear fault. Excusing them with the supernatural only
exacerbates their obviousness and the problems they
create in the story.
Palahniuk is an excellent crafter of clear, brief sen-
tences. He is talented at creating unusual and interesting
characters. And, clearly, he is an imaginative storyteller. In
this story's case there is simply too much tugging on the
bounds of reality. The inclusion of some of these supernat-
ural twists would not be unreasonable, but "Lullaby" is
simply a case of taking it too far, making these twists too
prevalent and too important.

.1

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