THE QUALITY OF LIFE REPORT: A Novel.
By Meghan Daum.
Viking. 309 pp. $24.95.
In this winning debut novel from Meghan Daum (known best for her essay collection My Misspent Youth, Open City), wry TV reporter Lucinda Trout bails on big-city life for Prairie City, USA–a tiny metropolis bound by its motto, “Open Hearts, Open Minds.” While reporting from PC for New York Up Early! on housewives addicted to methamphetamine, Trout falls for the heartland. She convinces her boss in New York to station her there for a full year; Trout envisions producing “The Quality of Life Report,” a series that will allow urban hermits to breathe vicariously through her in a place where “quality of life flows like water.” Despite the cheap rent and good cheer, however, Trout’s own quality of life steadily declines in PC. Her new, bad-boy boyfriend becomes a drug addict; her rented farm is freezing cold; her stylized TV segments, during which neighbors are forced to don plaid shirts and cowboy boots, justifiably alienate most of the community.
In the course of telling Trout’s story, Daum manages to present, then explode, a motley crew of American stereotypes: the rail-thin media hotshot; the country bumpkin; the folk-singer lesbian; the jaded ex-New Yorker who wants a simpler life. No one escapes Daum’s wit or criticism; ultimately, each earns her respect. (It bears mentioning, too, that animals inhabit this book, including a pig, for reasons better left unexplained, named Diva Starz.) If the premise sounds a bit stale–big-city girl searches for happiness, love and better life in small town–The Quality of Life Report is anything but. Daum’s humor and humanity have seen to that.
I AM NOT JACKSON POLLOCK: Stories.
By John Haskell.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 180 pp. $20.
The cover of I Am Not Jackson Pollock advises us to expect a handful of stories. But “story” does not properly describe what lies within these pages. True, Haskell’s pieces are, to an extent, fictional narratives. However, they’re also haunting history lessons, sophisticated notes on film and melancholy meditations on survival and death. In “Glenn Gould in Six Parts,” Haskell writes that “all of us create a world…an individual world in which we function.” And it’s that personal space–around known figures like Jackson Pollock, Hedy Lamarr, Glenn Gould and Laika the Cosmonaut Dog–Haskell lovingly imagines, explores and embellishes.
More examples of Haskell’s peculiar sense of form: In “Elephant Feelings,” Haskell links the stories of Topsy the elephant (who was electrocuted at Coney Island in 1903 for killing a man), Saartjie Baartman (who is better known as the Hottentot Venus) and the Hindu god Ganesha (who walks with the body of a man but carries the head of an elephant) to illustrate how the combination of frustrated love and anger can destroy a life. In “The Judgment of Psycho” he jumps from an investigation of the sexual dynamic between Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins to a discussion of the Trojan War. Each piece is equally original, sad and strange; a collection recommended for artsy recent college grads, moms who like independent film and anyone who prefers feeling blue.