Lorrie Moore's Balsamic Voice

Lorrie Moore's new novel, A Gate At The Stairs, is narrated by Tassie Keltjin, the daughter of a gourmet potato farmer/smuggler, and the central plot saut├ęs around an ambiguously-partnered chef who employs Tassie as a nanny. Much haute-foodie verbiage ensues, so when I recently listened to a podcast of Moore reading her short story, "Paper Losses," the influence of A Gate At The Stairs made me consider Moore's spoken voice in gustatory terms. The flavors suggested are dark cherries and balsamic vinegar. When Moore reads aloud she conveys an end-of-summer sweetness swirled (but not blended) with the balsamic acerbity of a woman who's too smart to miss the aesthetic indignities of her marital dismantling, but who is also too human to deny the emotional cost, or the sweetness of the children the marriage produced. There's also Moore's whisky sibilance, which aerates her voice-vinaigrette with every "s." (I know this is over the top, but this is what happens when you make your fans wait more than a decade for a new book: they get a bad case of imitative-pretentious prose palate.)

You can count on Moore to avenge roguery with humor, and in "Paper Losses" the protagonist's wit is both heartbreaking and triumphant. The story is dry, dry, dry, but also full-bodied, and surprisingly un-depressing, thanks to Moore's complex voice, both on the page and as recorded. You can listen to Lorrie Moore read "Paper Losses" at the Guardian Books archive (about 25 minutes) and come up with your own voice flavors. You can also read the text of "Paper Losses" on the New Yorker's fiction archive.

For a writer so famed for her literary voice, Lorrie Moore's actual voice is rather scarce online. She's done radio snippets to promote A Gate At The Stairs, and the interview she did with Scott Simon for Weekend Edition in early September is one of my favorites (9 minutes). The video of Moore's address to BookExpo America 2009 (18 minutes) is also available online.

I'm still waiting for an in-depth audio interview with Moore about A Gate At The Stairs. Perhaps Tom Ashbrook will interview her for an hour at On Point when she comes to the Boston area to read at Brookline Booksmith, or maybe Michael Silverblatt will caramelize her on Bookworm. If so, I'll post updated links. In the meantime, you can read my review of A Gate At The Stairs for IdentityTheory.com, in which I try to convey the scope of the novel without spoiling the plot.


Labor Day Podcast: Ron Carlson's Classic Tale of Terrycloth and Theoretical Math

Ron Carlson's short story, "Towel Season" (first published in Esquire in 1998) is a modern classic, as much about reconciling vocation and family life, as a portrait of summer in a neighborhood where recursive towels and seemingly fixed-value adults travel from cookout to cookout. The story is narrated by a theoretical mathematician who's grasping after his big discovery, the one that will save him from plain old applied engineering. Innumerates need not fear the subject matter: the process of theoretical math is suggested in visual, accessible language. The story runs more wet than dry, and it's a pleasure to follow the trail of towels to the silver bus at the puzzle-like ending, where the towels are dropped and math and theory get melded with marriage.

PRI: Selected Shorts has reposted the audio of actor James Naughton reading "Towel Season" in their Selected Shorts iTunes podcast just in time for Labor Day 2009. Naughton reads with unassuming comedic timing, and his voice lends a everyman quality to the suburban yet "unsettled" character of Edison. The "Towel Season" audio runs about 35 minutes (long enough to grill some boneless chicken), and it's followed by "A Bad Joke," a short Ha Jin story read by B.D. Wong. The combined podcast, titled "Figuring It Out," will be available for free download for four weeks.

If you must hear "Towel Season" after the weather's cooled and the title has expired from the podcast, you can purchase the Selected Shorts: William Hurt Collection 3-CD compilation from NPR. The Collection includes audio of Hurt reading "Towel Season," as well as stories by Aleksander Hemon, Richard Ford, and Tobias Wolff.

Non-audio news: Carlson's most recent book is the novel The Signal. Carlson talks about his new book, and also his "Towel Season" story, in this profile from The Orange County Register.