Too Many Books In The Kitchen

I'm Michael Hingston, books columnist for the Edmonton Journal (new columns every other Friday).

My first novel, The Dilettantes, was just published by Freehand Books. Here's everything you might want to know about it.

Other topics under discussion: podcasts, strange sodas, the Wu-Tang Clan, and Moby-Dick.

Email me, if you like, at hingston [at] gmail [dot] com. I'm available for hire and I like free books.

WRITING

Favourites: 2009 / 2010 / 2011 / 2012 / 2013
What I Read: 2009 / 2010 / 2011 / 2012 / 2013 / 2014 (so far)

All Reviews /
All Interviews /
All Columns

Mark Abley (1)
Henry Adams (1)
Chris Adrian (1)
Charlie Ahearn (1)
César Aira (1) (2) (3)
André Alexis (1)
Rona Altrows (1; interview)
Jonathan Ames (1)
Kingsley Amis (1)
Martin Amis (1) (2) (3)
Karen Armstrong (1)
Margaret Atwood (1)
Jane Austen (1)
Paul Auster (1)
Tash Aw (1)
Todd Babiak (1) (2; interview) (3; interview)
Chris Bachelder (1; Q&A)
Nicholson Baker (1) (2) (3) (4) (5)
Rosecrans Baldwin (1)
Jesse Ball (1)
J.G. Ballard (1)
Julian Barnes (1)
Kevin Barry (1)
John Barth (1)
Arjun Basu (1)
Elif Batuman (1)
Samuel Beckett (1)
Robert E. Belknap (1)
Katrina Best (1)
Otto Binder (1)
Laurent Binet (1)
Mike Birbiglia (1)
Heather Birrell (1)
Caroline Blackwood (1)
Andrej Blatnik (1)
Roy Blount Jr. (1)
Boethius (1)
Roberto Bolaño (1) (2)
Mike Boldt (1; interview)
Jacques Bonnet (1)
Jorge Luis Borges (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6)
Grégoire Bouillier (1)
Thea Bowering (1; interview)
Tim Bowling (1)
Stephen R. Bown (1; interview)
C.P. Boyko (1; interview) (2)
Inge Bremer-Trueman (1; interview)
Bertram Brooker (1)
Grant Buday (1)
Nellie Carlson (1)
Raymond Carver (1)
Adolfo Bioy Casares (1)
Michael Chabon (1)
Marty Chan (1; interview)
Dan Charnas (1; interview) (2)
Corinna Chong (1)
Chris Cleave (1)
Lynn Coady (1; interview) (2) (3; interview)
Douglas Coupland (1; interview)
Buffy Cram (1)
Lynn Crosbie (1)
Amanda Cross (1)
Nancy Jo Cullen (1)
John D'Agata (1)
Mark Z. Danielewski (1)
Diana Davidson (1; interview)
Don DeLillo (1) (2)
Charles Demers (1; interview)
Kristen den Hartog (1)
David Denby (1)
Helen DeWitt (1) (2)
Patrick deWitt (1; Q&A) (2; Q&A)
Marcello Di Cintio (1; interview)
Nicolas Dickner (1) (2)
Dave Eggers (1)
Alison Espach (1) (2; Q&A)
Percival Everett (1) (2)
Jim Fingal (1)
Anne Finger (1)
Meags Fitzgerald (1; interview)
Jonathan Safran Foer (1; interview)
Kaitlin Fontana (1; Q&A)
Cheryl Foggo (1)
Mark Frauenfelder (1; interview)
Jim Fricke (1)
Bill Gaston (1)
Marie-Louise Gay (1)
David Gilmour (1)
Malcolm Gladwell (1)
Misha Glouberman (1)
Adam Leith Gollner (1)
Manuel Gonzales (1)
Adam Gopnik (1)
Emily Gould (1)
John Gould (1)
Lee Gowan (1)
Linda Goyette (1)
Gwethalyn Graham (1)
Amelia Gray (1)
Chris Hadfield (1; interview)
Daniel Handler (1; interview)
Adam Haslett (1)
David Hayward (1)
Alan Heathcock (1)
Steve Hely (1)
Aleksandar Hemon (1)
Lee Henderson (1; interview)
Kira Henehan (1)
Lawrence Herzog (1)
Sheila Heti (1) (2; Q&A) (3) (4)
Jessica Hiemstra (1)
Miranda Hill (1)
Nick Hornby (1)
Robert Hough (1)
Sean Howe (1)
Mary-Beth Hughes (1)
Maude Hutchins (1)
Neamat Imam (1; interview)
Isol (1)
Harry Karlinsky (1) (2)
Esmé Claire Keith (1)
A.L. Kennedy (1) (2)
Etgar Keret (1)
Ross King (1; interview)
Chuck Klosterman (1) (2; interview)
Ryan Knighton (1)
Jane F. Kotapish (1)
Louise Ladouceur (1; interview)
Sarah Lang (1; interview)
Annette Lapointe (1)
Grant Lawrence (1; interview)
Nam Le (1)
Perrine Leblanc (1)
Fran Lebowitz (1; interview)
Shelley A. Leedahl (1)
Alex Leslie (1)
Lawrence Lessig (1)
Jonathan Lethem (1) (2) (3) (4)
Adam Levin (1)
Michael Lewis (1) (2)
Naomi K. Lewis (1; interview) (2; interview)
Tao Lin (1) (2; Q&A) (3)
Ewa Lipska (1)
David Lipsky (1) (2)
Sam Lipsyte (1)
Erlend Loe (1)
Lisa Lutz (1)
Janice MacDonald (1; interview)
Pasha Malla (1; interview)
Ben Marcus (1)
Adam Marek (1)
Clancy Martin (1)
Lisa Martin-DeMoor (1; interview)
Zachary Mason (1; Q&A) (2)
Colin McAdam (1; interview)
Tom McCarthy (1)
Franklin Davey McDowell (1)
Yukari F. Meldrum (1; interview)
Herman Melville (1)
David Mitchell (1)
Lorrie Moore (1) (2) (3) (4)
Horacio Castellanos Moya (1)
Haruki Murakami (1) (2) (3) (4)
Michael Murphy (1)
Billeh Nickerson (1; interview)
Jason Lee Norman (1; interview) (2; interview)
Dorthe Nors (1)
Benjamin Nugent (1)
Andrew O'Hagan (1)
Michael Ondaatje (1; interview)
Daniel Orozco (1)
John Ortved (1)
Patton Oswalt (1)
Boris Pahor (1)
Chuck Palahniuk (1; interview)
Orhan Pamuk (1)
DC Pierson (1) (2; Q&A)
Hannah Pittard (1)
Padgett Powell (1)
Thomas Pynchon (1) (2)
Jennifer Quist (1)
François Rabelais (1)
Nathan Rabin (1)
Kadrush Radogoshi (1; interview)
Ross Raisin (1) (2)
Simon Rich (1; interview) (2) (3)
Edward Riche (1)
Ringuet (1)
Santiago Roncagliolo (1)
Adam Ross (1)
Nicholas Ruddock (1)
Salman Rushdie (1)
Karen Russell (1)
Richard Russo (1)
Mike Sacks (1; interview)
Daniel Sada (1)
Laura Salverson (1)
José Saramago (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6)
George Saunders (1)
Elissa Schappell (1)
Anakana Schofield (1)
Salvatore Scibona (1)
Will Self (1; interview)
Carol Shaben (1)
Leanne Shapton (1)
Mikhail Shishkin (1)
Gary Shteyngart (1; interview)
Norm Sibum (1)
Katherine Silver (1; Q&A) (2; interview)
Zadie Smith (1) (2)
Lemony Snicket (1; interview)
Carrie Snyder (1)
Muriel Spark (1)
Dana Spiotta (1)
Kathleen Steinhauer (1)
Cassie Stocks (1; interview)
Cordelia Strube (1)
Alan Sullivan (1)
J. Courtney Sullivan (1) (2)
John Jeremiah Sullivan (1)
Miguel Syjuco (1)
Justin Taylor (1) (2; Q&A) (3)
Rob Taylor (1; Q&A)
Lysley Tenorio (1)
Lynne Tillman (1)
Ken Tingley (1)
Miriam Toews (1; interview)
Wells Tower (1)
Matthew J. Trafford (1)
Neil Turok (1)
Ellen Ullman (1)
Deb Olin Unferth (1)
Jean-Christophe Valtat (1)
Richard Van Camp (1)
Padma Viswanathan (1; interview)
Jorge Volpi (1)
Sarah Vowell (1)
David Foster Wallace (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6)
Russell Wangersky (1)
Mélanie Watt (1)
Teddy Wayne (1; interview)
Chris F. Westbury (1; interview)
Colson Whitehead (1)
David Whitton (1)
Ian Williams (1)
John Williams (1)
D.W. Wilson (1; interview)
Kevin Wilson (1)
Michael Winter (1)
James Wood (1)
Molly Young (1) (2; Q&A)
Vlado Žabot (1)

OTHER PIECES

"Comic Sans" (The Incongruous Quarterly)
"'No Fear' T-Shirts Based on Board Games" (McSweeney's)

"The Men in the Mirror"
"Moby-Dick; or, My Favourite Book"
"The Pop-Culture Annotated 'Lord's Prayer'"
"Tumblr Recommends"

Mary-Beth Hughes, Double Happiness

To many people, writing is about implication—scaling back, paring down. It’s the things you don’t put down on the page that count. When this philosophy is put to really good use (as in your Hemingways, your Carvers, or even your Tao Lins), it’s hard to argue with the results.

But what happens when minimalism goes wrong? What happens when a piece of writing is so vigourously pruned that plot, character, and cohesion itself wind up on the scrap heap, leaving nothing behind but an inscrutable stump?

These questions are answered seven times over in Double Happiness, the disappointing and frequently mystifying debut collection of short fiction by New York’s Mary-Beth Hughes. A couple of the nine stories here are followable on a sentence-by-sentence basis—not coincidentally, these are the ones I liked. The others, however, might as well be in point form.

The collection is haunted by a few choice ghosts: divorce, pain, and men that are alternately distant, adulterous, and abusive. In “The Aces,” a hotshot magazine editor sits on a plane, fantasizing about an old affair and cursing his pregnant wife’s newly affected maternal glow. In “Pelican Song,” a modern dancer helps her mother flee a violent second husband by telling her how to shimmy out a bathroom window. In the title story, a 9/11 widow finds newfound purpose by pushing a book cart around her children’s old Catholic school.

From afar, these premises sound auspicious enough. But when you’re knee-deep in the ensuing stories, such discernible images are nowhere to be found. It’s not that the language is too flowery or convoluted; it’s that the simple logic that connects one sentence to another is almost wholly absent. Stray observations and details are parachuted in without clear owners. Entire characters wander through the scene, their importance implied but never explained. The stories in Double Happiness left me feeling like the victim of some kind of head trauma: I stared at the pages, recognizing the individual words but unable for the life of me to put them together.

Only two times is Hughes willing to drop the cryptic tone and put her story first. “Rome,” an aching story of a third-grader and her father’s day trip to New York City, gets in a few choice twists—and here the consequences of adultery are given the most weight, when the father has an awkward run-in with his mistress in a department store. And “Guidance” deploys some expert misdirection. Over 25-odd pages, we realize our airhead model/narrator has no idea she’s about to be kidnapped by a disgruntled bodyguard.

Overall, though, the frustration-to-pleasure ratio is way too high. The prose cuts too many corners, and the characters often fall into the same uneasy dynamics. This is how the narrator of “Guidance” sums up her husband, a millionaire more than three times her age: “He meant well. The whole subservience thing just a personailty glitch.” The same could be said of nearly all of Hughes’s male leads.

Look at that quote again. Isn’t there supposed to be a “was” in the second half? Usually I’d chalk that up to a proofreader’s error and move on, but in this case I once again sense the work of Hughes’s overactive hedge-clippers.

Grove Press, 224 pp., $14, paperback

(review also appeared in SEE Magazine, July 1, 2010)

Jun 25, 2010
Comments
blog comments powered by Disqus