Neshama’s Choices for September 18th

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Book of Extraordinary Tragedies by Joe Meno  

In the decaying neighborhood of south side Chicago, this benighted family (mother from Poland, father from Yugoslavia) is not doing well.  Mother is sick and delusional, if somewhat cheerful. Her grown children Aleksander and Isobel were once prodigies—him in music, her in math—but are now barely keeping it together.  Alex’s deafness is increasing; Isobel has overcome her anxiety just enough to toil as a bank teller.  Teenage sibling Daniel, a brilliant graphic artist but reluctant student, is compiling a book of all the tragedies that have beset the world.  Then there’s Jazzy, Isobel’s 4-year-old. Alex creates amazing compositions in his head as he struggles through demeaning ill-paid jobs. But there’s a freshness and joy, believe it or not, that seeps through all this dysfunction and makes the book a pleasure to read despite all that pain.  


Shy by Max Porter  

Not quite the way I’d describe the eponymous protagonist, 15, who is subject to bad dreams and rages.  This is how Shy ends up at Last Chance, a school for disturbed kids.  Porter takes us straight into Shy’s head.  His stream of conscious thoughts has a surrealistic quality verging on hallucinatory; they can also be vulgar, self-pitying, and even poetic. Will the funky, once-grand old mansion that houses the school be sold to developers? That would be tragic because the staff is so compassionate and attuned to their challenging charges. Unusual, emotional, arresting.  


Nevada by Imogen Binnie  

Maria, who’s trans, lives with girlfriend Steph but shuts down during sex. She works in a NYC bookstore and will probably never get enough money together to convert her “junk” into a vagina.  All told, she’s a confused, unhappy 30 -year-old. How does Nevada get into the story?  In the second half of the book, she fetches up in Star City with Steph’s “borrowed” car to explore irresponsibility and freedom; previously she was always trying not to be noticed.  In Walmart, she spots Jeff H behind the counter and instantly recognizes her younger self.  She’s determined to help him claim his nascent identity.  It doesn’t work, but oh how she tries. Raw, fiery, anguished, candid. An extensive afterward describes the history of the book’s evolution and the author’s own journey, as well as literary influences.  An enlightening immersion into a very complicated world.  


I Was Better Last Night by Harvey Fierstein   

This packed memoir covers six decades of a life steeped in theater, from the big stories of struggles and triumphs to delightful anecdotes. That Fierstein is some storyteller! Through the lens of a gay man who loves drag, which works its way into most of his theatrical offerings like (to mention some of the most well-known shows) La Cage Aux Folles, Torch Song Trilogy, and Hairspray. He’s collaborated with the best of the best and takes us behind the scenes to witness the complexities of getting a show to work which often means considerable compromises. From early plays in experimental venues to blockbuster Broadway hits, acting as well as writing, the AIDs crisis, relationship joys, and woes—a cornucopia of personal and theatrical history.