Sawbill: A Search for Place
By Jennifer Case. (University of New Mexico Press, 264 pages, $19.95.)
Gosh, this is a curious book, almost like peeking into someone’s diary. North Shore devotees familiar with Sawbill Canoe Outfitters or Solbakken Lodge may glean some history, such as that the log lodge at Sawbill was moved and rebuilt at Solbakken. Jennifer Case, who grew up in Mankato, says she’s “infatuated” with the fact that her grandparents owned Sawbill Lodge for a few years when her father was a boy.
In this book, she means to explore the power of place and what is lost in our more mobile culture. The topic is worthy, but it’s buried beneath the suffocating weight of her search for drama. She is irked that her grandparents aren’t well-remembered as lodge owners. She’s unsettled by an aunt’s breezy reminiscence, thwarting the search for “grievances that sent my family from that place.” Case’s own rootlessness distresses her, moving with her husband as they start their careers.
If only her grandparents hadn’t left the resort, then maybe she wouldn’t have left Minnesota. Turns out, Case eventually learns that the resort simply was a lot of work — something she had not considered. “Without anyone in particular to blame, I have nowhere to transfer my anger, my dissatisfaction at my family’s nebulous tie to this place,” she writes. “It settles around me, heavy and amorphous, while outside it rains and rains and rains.” Oof.
The House of Impossible Beauties
By Joseph Cassara. (Ecco, 416 pages, $26.99.)
“Eat dessert first. You’ll pay for it later,” seems to be the motto of “The House of Impossible Beauties” by Joseph Cassara, which imagines the lives of actual Puerto Rican-American drag queens who lived in New York in the early 1980s. The first half of “Impossible Beauties” is wicked fun, as several young men — some of whom later identify as female, some of whom don’t — find their way to a community of performers who call themselves the House of Impossible Beauties and who piece together a living during the day so they can dazzle evening audiences with their glamour and wit.
Cassara deftly captures the tough-minded compassion of the performers and he reminds us — as others have pointed out — that contemporary slang owes a lot to the Vogue Ball scene depicted in the documentary landmark “Paris Burning.” “Realness,” “throwing shade” and other phrases were being bandied about by these folks three decades before the rest of us caught up.
Unfortunately, the tragic second half of “Impossible Beauties” feels like it’s punishing us for enjoying the first 200 pages. It’s true that many of the real-life characters whose stories Cassara imagines did meet with tragic ends, but those tragedies aren’t earned in a book that doesn’t help us understand why so many of these characters ended up overdosing or getting stabbed in the neck. Reading the book, it feels like the writer is much more interested in the madcap creation of the House of Impossible Beauties than its sordid collapse and, given how much fun it is to read about that creation, who can blame him?