Saturday, July 24, 2010

Cynthia Robinson

Cynthia Robinson lives in San Francisco, where she works as a part-time advertising shill, and a full-time raconteur.

Her debut novel, The Dog Park Club, is a noir comedy. It’s the first installment in a series about the reluctant adventures of Max Bravo—an opera singer whose real life adventures are even more dramatic than his stage roles. The sequel, The Barbary Galahad, is coming in 2011.

Earlier this month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Momento Mori by Muriel Spark

There’s a lot of buzz about Muriel Spark right now. Her biography, by Martin Stannard, has just come out and that’s what turned me on to her—I caught a review of it in the New York Times.

Once I learned a bit about Ms. Spark—she was imperious, tempestuous, brilliant, a documented speed-freak and a purported lesbian—I had to read her.

I went to a local bookstore intending to buy The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Instead, I came away with Momento Mori. Two reasons: The Tennessee Williams endorsement on the cover. And the book’s subject.

It’s about a set of aged, 1950s British aristocrats being terrorized by an anonymous phone caller who keeps reminding them that they must die.

How germane, I thought, in this time when the insistent shadow of our Baby Boom generation is baring its long teeth everywhere you go; bargain matinee movies, the opera house, the queue at the grocery market they instigate by laboriously writing out cheques.

Ms. Spark’s keen eye and sharp wit renders her ancient characters in deft, resonant strokes. It’s sly and funny and unstoppable.

She captures mannerisms perfectly. And motivations. Ms. Spark’s characters are driven by the mad furies that whirl inside their own grey heads. The past intrudes on the present. Secrets and intrigues, many of them decades old, run riot. And it turns out that these desiccated passions—wandering the landscape like senile zombies—are far scarier than the mysterious phone stalker.

The most illuminating moments come when Ms. Spark allows her characters to break free of their obsessions. That is, when they simply choose to stop sweating the small stuff—which is, let’s be honest, pretty much everything.

It’s in these bright spots that Ms. Spark is sublime. Many sharp-penned satirists can skewer their subjects. Ms. Spark can do so with a perfect compassion that comes only from divine detachment.

The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen

This book was published in 1899. It’s the third time I’ve read it. Never has it seemed so pertinent to me as it is right now.

Veblen is popularly known as the economics theoretician who developed the theory of “conspicuous consumption.” He, of course, goes a whole lot deeper than that. And his precise, vivid prose is as riveting a read as you’ll find.

I recommend reading Veblen. Do it now. While the shrapnel of our freshly imploded consumer-spending-based economy is still lodged in your mind.
Read an excerpt from The Dog Park Club, and learn more about the book and author at Cynthia Robinson's website.

--Marshal Zeringue