LOITERING: New & Collected Essays
By Charles D'Ambrosio. (Tin House Books, 368 pages, $15.95.)
"Loitering" is an ironic title for this masterful collection. There is nothing lax about D'Ambrosio's writing or thinking; both are muscular and sophisticated. The Oregon essayist and short-story writer is at once an intellectual and a down-to-earth man whose humble, almost shabby persona pervades his highly recognizable work, which has taken on almost a cult status in some circles.
His recurring theme seems to be a thoughtful misfit's effort to find a place, and meaning, in the strange, crass world that is modern America. He intertwines ruminations on such subjects as J.D. Salinger's work and the psychology of teenagers in a Russian orphanage with deeply poignant laments about such personal sorrows as his father's madness and his brother's suicide.
Typical of his point of view is a gentle but heartbreaking essay on a conservative Christian group's Hell House, whose every room contains a graphic representation of the bloody wages of some conventional sin. D'Ambrosio despairs over the lack of any quiet human moments in these playlets. His work is not always easy to navigate — his intellect is profound but labyrinthine, and his subjects are usually painful — but it is well worth the odyssey.
West/north metro editor
Self-Portrait in Green
By Marie Ndiaye. (Two Lines Press, 103 pages, $9.95.)
Here is a small book that can be read in an evening. It's a book that, once read, leaves you wondering what to think about it, but knowing at the least that you had a thought-provoking evening.
Those words sound halfhearted, but are meant to convey better. Perhaps they're influenced by Ndiaye herself, who has written a mysterious memoir of sorts through "portraits" of women clad in green. They are her, but also a friend, a mother, a river.
The idea that these green women represent death arrives too early and too easily; it will be dashed. But the ensuing questions about what's real and what's metaphorical actually prove more intriguing than frustrating. Likely, this reaction is due to Ndiaye's distinctive voice, gently rocking a reader through portraits that are hardly soothing.
The result is a strange, strong series of stories. Ndiaye has won France's highest honor for writers, the Prix Goncourt, and was a 2013 finalist for the Man Booker International Prize.