Pure Hollywood by Christine Schutt

Hardcover, 144 pages
Published March 13th 2018 by Grove Atlantic

In 11 captivating tales, Pure Hollywood brings us into private worlds of corrupt familial love, intimacy, longing, and danger. From an alcoholic widowed actress living in desert seclusion, to a young mother whose rejection of her child has terrible consequences, a newlywed couple who ignore the violent warnings of a painter burned by love, to an eerie portrait of erotic obsession, each story in Pure Hollywood is an imagistic snapshot of what it means to live and learn love and hurt.

Schutt gives us sharply suspenseful and masterfully dark interior portraits of ordinary lives, infused with her signature observation and surprise.

Pure Hollywood proved to be a collection plagued by a wide spectrum of dullness. There were moments, mostly at the start of the collection, where overwrought prose ran rampant in a way that made no sense whatsoever. It was as if the author, Christine Schutt, had her trusty Word thesaurus immediately on hand, ready to whip out at any moment to form absurd sentences instead of creating readable literature—as if her way of being “creative” was to write so evasively and nonsensically as to confuse the reader into thinking, “Damn, this MUST be the newest form of erudite art; I’ve got to HAVE it!” purely (sure, why not?—pun intended) because they don’t get it at all.

As many readers and writers know, Ernest Hemingway is famously quoted as saying: “If a writer knows enough about what he is writing, he may omit things that he knows, and the reader … will feel those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” I’m confident that this is not what you’ll find in Schutt’s Pure Hollywood. All of the stories seemed incomplete and covered in a blanket of gray soot. They were all a bit dreary in atmosphere (I found that to be fine if that’s the mood she was going for) and very unfinished. There was very little shock factor in this collection at all, and what little there was wasn’t followed-up on, so the few moments of revelation turned out to be aimless, pointless, near-powerless punches that slipped off the skin like water, non-scathing and unmemorable.

The first story in the collection took up one-third of the space of the entire anthology and had literally only one moment of pure interest. You’ll know that moment when you get to it. I left “Pure Hollywood” behind feeling that moments of my life had been squandered in reading it. But, I pressed on.

The second story in this collection, “The Hedges,” begins as such:

The woman who had just been identified as attached to Dick Hedge looked pained by the clotted, green sound of her little boy’s breathing, an unwell honk that did not blend in with the sashaying plants and beachy-wet breeze of the island.

*raising hand* Umm, did you just try to say that a woman’s son was sick on the beach? I had to read that line at least three times just to extract some meaning from that sludge of words, almost senseless when mixed in that formula. That opening line alone was enough to make me say “Pass” on that story. BUT I pressed forward again. I ended up liking “The Hedges”—the story of a strangely unhappy young couple on vacation with their fussy toddler and the events on that vacation that led to an unfortunate event—far more than I liked any of the other stories, but I didn’t like everything about it. It read like an adult version of Fun with Dick and Jane (and the husband is even named Dick). If that was Schutt’s intent, it fell just short of being clever because it was somehow never fully realized. It read like an outline of a story with none of the goods filled in, and because of that I didn’t especially care about the family, particularly that toddler.

“The Duchess of Albany” was the absolute epitome of the word WASP(y) and held no interest for me whatsoever. It read easily, sometimes even jauntily, but in the end left absolutely no impact.

“Family Man” was a dull flash fiction about a dull man. Literally. That is all.

“Where You Live, When You Need Me” warranted only an annoyed side-eye glance and a curt flipping of the page. As far as I can tell, it said nothing about anything but still managed to be rather snobbishly WASPy. Are these people hiring a homeless woman whose full name they don’t even know to help them out around the homes they’re renting in “the Berkshires,” then contemplating their belief in God (for one ridiculously, pretty much ironically brief second) with nothing else said as if that was enough? The nerve. Nothing else to be said about this one.

“The Dot Sisters”—what for??

“Oh, the Obvious” drew me in because of the potential for irony implied in the title. There was some irony in the end that was tolerably well done.

In the end, Christine Schutt’s Pure Hollywood is a collection I’m sure most people can live without. This compilation of stories added nothing to the dialogue about anything, unless you are the kind of reader who enjoys a dry read of literary content the likes of which is sure to make future readers inexperienced with the genre cringe away from it. I get the feeling that Schutt may have been going for dry, witty, ironic and possibly socially commentating fiction, but I do feel that I very well might be stretching for benefit of the doubt. (If not, it definitely needed to be stepped up several notches.)For me, it was fiction without a soul (except for, maybe, the second one), which, I’ve noticed, is almost always what you get from Grove Atlantic/Grove Press. (This is an unfortunate, but accurate observation, in my personal opinion.) To give the best and most accurate analogy I can think of, this entire collection was written for and about extremely uptight Protestant-esque people of coin (probably family money) who would wear cardigans buttoned at the neck and drone on and on about the troubles with “the help.” Picture that person and you’ve got a pretty good idea of the audience for this short story collection. I struggled with what rating to give Pure Hollywood. In the end, 2 stars seemed fair enough, and I’ll move on with my life thinking no more about it. **

*I received an advance-read copy of the book from the publisher, Grove Atlantic, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

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The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Paperback, 289 pages
Published March 1st 2016 by Picador (first published March 3rd 2015)

The Sellout is the first book by an American author to win the UK’s prestigious Man Booker Prize.

A biting satire about a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game. It challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality – the black Chinese restaurant.

Born in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens – on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles – the narrator of The Sellout resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: “I’d die in the same bedroom I’d grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that’ve been there since ’68 quake.” Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, he spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He is led to believe that his father’s pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family’s financial woes. But when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that’s left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral.

Fueled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town’s most famous resident – the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins – he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.

This entire novel, especially the prologue, reminded me of the ramblings of someone’s old grandpa rocking on the front porch of his clapboard home. I can only assume this is exactly what Beatty was going for, by the direction the novel ended up taking, but I felt like I was reading—no, sifting through—a bunch of nonsense I just wanted to be done with. And a lot of this read like an ultra-liberal excuse to spout out the n-word (hard er, mind you) as both a starting point, comma and full stop to every paragraph. It was absolutely exhausting.

I was looking forward to a good satire, but I don’t think I ever laughed once, because I was too distracted by trying to figure out what the hell he was even rambling about and how it fit into any possible plot line, ironic device, literary direction–hell, even a Katt Williams-like satirical skit–anything! I wanted to like this one – the first time non-Commonwealthers are allowed to be considered for the Man Booker Prize and an American—I’d be lying if I didn’t go ahead and point out—and African American wins it. I HAVE to read it; I’m so excited…I’m so confused…I’m so let down.

I don’t want to take away from the win at all. Have it; keep it, Paul Beatty. But I’m not on the bandwagon. Not even a little bit. DNF.


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Paul Beatty Paul Beatty (born 1962 in Los Angeles) is a contemporary African-American author. Beatty received an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College and an MA in psychology from Boston University. He is a 1980 graduate of El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills, California.

In 1990, Paul Beatty was crowned the first ever Grand Poetry Slam Champion of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. One of the prizes for winning that championship title was the book deal which resulted in his first volume of poetry, Big Bank Takes Little Bank. This would be followed by another book of poetry Joker, Joker, Deuce as well as appearances performing his poetry on MTV and PBS (in the series The United States of Poetry). In 1993, he was awarded a grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grants to Artists Award.

His first novel, The White Boy Shuffle received a positive review in The New York Times, the reviewer, Richard Bernstein, called the book “a blast of satirical heat from the talented heart of black American life.” His second book, Tuff received a positive notice in Time Magazine. Most recently, Beatty edited an anthology of African-American humor called Hokum and wrote an article in The New York Times on the same subject.

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Paperback, 248 pages
Published October 3rd 2017 by Graywolf Press

In Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado blithely demolishes the arbitrary borders between psychological realism and science fiction, comedy and horror, fantasy and fabulism. While her work has earned her comparisons to Karen Russell and Kelly Link, she has a voice that is all her own. In this electric and provocative debut, Machado bends genre to shape startling narratives that map the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited upon their bodies.

A wife refuses her husband’s entreaties to remove the green ribbon from around her neck. A woman recounts her sexual encounters as a plague slowly consumes humanity. A salesclerk in a mall makes a horrifying discovery within the seams of the store’s prom dresses. One woman’s surgery-induced weight loss results in an unwanted houseguest. And in the bravura novella Especially Heinous, Machado reimagines every episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a show we naively assumed had shown it all, generating a phantasmagoric police procedural full of doppelgangers, ghosts, and girls with bells for eyes.

Earthy and otherworldly, antic and sexy, queer and caustic, comic and deadly serious, Her Body and Other Parties swings from horrific violence to the most exquisite sentiment. In their explosive originality, these stories enlarge the possibilities of contemporary fiction.

Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties is a collection I was so excited to read I dragged a friend in to read it with me. We handed off back and forth who got to pick the next story, never going in order, and found ourselves surprisingly disappointed by each one.

In all honesty, I was drawn to what Machado was trying to do here, to what she was trying to say. But, she didn’t say it with enough force. Some of her stories, such as “Real Women Have Bodies” and “Eight Bites” seemed to not amount to much more than a harsh whisper, if that, never fully realizing themselves. I wanted more–MORE from a voice that dared to tackle such bold topics as the female experience and psyche. And by “more” I don’t mean argumentative or domineering in tone; some of my favorite short stories ever crept up on me with a gentle breeze at my neck only to bowl me over in the end with words just as gentle. Machado and Her Body didn’t do that for me. In fact, what I remember most about this collection is my buddy reader’s and my disappointed-mounting-to-annoyed reaction as each story was read and discussed. For such a topic that spoke to us, we both wanted to learn something, to feel something–something.

Here’s what I will say: Carmen Maria Machado clearly has something to say, though I, myself, didn’t hear it loudly enough. I thoroughly enjoyed her use of Gothic elements–vaguely supernatural devices used to convey her thoughts, to tinge her messages in wonder. Yet, some of her works were too referential without adding enough to the conversation to warrant the blatant references (to “The Girl with the Ribbon Around her Neck” and Law & Order: SVU in particular). “The Husband Stitch” was my favorite story, because of the unique and haunting asides inserted into the narrative, but the ending failed to shock or move me, so even that story did not live up to the hype around this collection. Every story I read left me wishing there was more–not length but meat and substance, not words but voice and resonance. As we all know, fabulously original ideas must, too, be supported by the execution of them, and that I did not see impressively done here. 2.5* rounded up to ***

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Carmen Maria MachadoCarmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2017. She is a fiction writer, critic, and essayist whose work has appeared in The New YorkerGrantaAGNI, NPR, VICEBest American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2015Best Horror of the YearYear’s Best Weird Fiction, and Best Women’s Erotica. She has been the recipient of a Millay Colony for the Arts residency, the CINTAS Foundation Fellowship in Creative Writing, the Elizabeth George Foundation Fellowship, and a Michener-Copernicus Fellowship, as well as nominated for a Nebula and Shirley Jackson Awards and longlisted for a Tiptree Award. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, and lives in Philadelphia with her partner.