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'Spoiled: Stories,' by Caitlin Macy

Also: 'Notes from No Man's Land: American Essays,' by Eula Bliss

March 15, 2009|Susan Salter Reynolds

Spoiled

Stories

Caitlin Macy

Random House: 240 pp., $24

Writers often seem arrogant, looking down on humans from their lofty perches, ivory towers or righteous margins. You can almost hear them chuckling at the calisthenics they put us through: Should we trust this narrator? Do we like this or that character?

Sometimes, as in most of the stories in this collection, the chuckling is too loud. Beauty is sacrificed; characters and landscapes become flat, like the repeating backgrounds in old animation. The writing is too transparently an exercise in telling us how the author thinks the world should be. It's fun to laugh at silly rich people, and these stories, especially in these times, are extremely entertaining. Each of them contains a smug little twist, for example, the person trying to do the right thing betrays a hopeless naivete, worse, an utter lack of self-awareness, like the mother on the playground lending money to the nanny, or the L.A. actress who tries to sympathize with the waitress she knew in high school. Caitlin Macy has nothing but disdain for her characters, with their $2-million apartments and their myriad pretensions, not least of all the "well-off New York City children who had been stimulated with educational toys, and taken to music and swimming classes, and shown how important they were in every way from three months of age." Who doesn't? But be forewarned: Her disdain pins her to the surface of things, making the writing bland and lifeless.

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Notes From No Man's Land

American Essays

Eula Bliss

Graywolf Press: 230 pp., $15 paper

"There is no biological basis for what we call race," Eula Bliss writes in this collection of pressure points. "Race is a social fiction. But it is also, for now at least, a social fact." She begins with a meditation on telephone poles as cross-shaped, iconic items. Telephone poles as infrastructure for communication. Telephone poles used in lynchings. History, her own and this country's, for Bliss, is a kind of no man's land. All her adult life, she has lived in no man's lands -- New York, San Diego, Iowa (her childhood home) and Chicago -- that are mixed and have no racial majority. Bliss is white, her parents were white, but after her parents divorced, her mother lived with an African American and then a man from China. One of her mother's sisters adopted a black son, the other a Cherokee daughter. "Notes From No Man's Land" ends with an essay on apologies, and the importance of apologizing, even if you are not guilty. The book is a beautiful exercise in consciousness; in bringing both intelligence and experience to bear on a subject that has implications for the way one behaves in the world. To many white people, she writes, integration means assimilation: "But I would like to believe that this country is capable of a version of integration greater, more ambitious than that."

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susan.reynolds@latimes.com

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