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Austin Chronicle Off the Bookshelf

AUGUST 9, 1999: 

Sky Over El Nido by C.M. Mayo (University of Georgia Press), $12.95 paper

The stories in C.M. Mayo's collection Sky Over El Nido are primarily set in Mexico -- a kaleidoscopic, internationally adorned Mexico seen through the eyes of the privileged and vulnerable. Each story is a trip with a dizzying character: A Manhattan broker fabricates the life of a long-lost best friend; a spoiled young girl, temporarily abandoned, makes herself at home in a five-star hotel; a rich businessman takes an AIDS victim to Warsaw just to scandalize his high society wife. Mayo also writes stories about the poor, and that world is equally, though more modestly, ornamented: Prisoners seek pancake syrup; a scam artist uses broken chairs to protect a woman from the rain. Mayo's language is luxurious but unrelenting, and this adds to the heady feeling of having entered a very strange world. Sky Over El Nido, winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, is hauntingly, humorously, beautiful. --Lissa Richardson


Body Edited by Sharon Sloan Fiffer and Steve Fiffer (Bard Books), $23 hard

Anthologies of essays and stories devoted to everything from the Chinese-American experience to graduate school fiction workshops have been exploding off bookshelves. Now, the editors of the anthologies Home and Family bring us Body, in which both well-known and largely unheralded writers explore parts of their bodies. Many of the pieces collected here were no doubt commissioned, and that's one of the problems with this collection -- too often the essays feel forced, as if the writers were trying too hard to attach profundity to, say, their elbows. Still, many of the essays here live up to the promise of the book. Jane Smiley reflects on her belly as she prepares to get a midlife-crisis-induced navel ring, Rosario Ferré sings the praises of her butt, and in the jewel of the book, Ron Carlson manages to write about the penis ("mankind's most potent friend and foe") with wit, intelligence, and surprising tenderness. --Martin Wilson


The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor Lipman (Vintage), $12 paper

When 12-year-old Natalie Marx discovers that her family is refused reservations at an inn in Vermont because they are Jewish, she is confused, hurt, and angry. Natalie finds her way into the resort anyway, and so begins her life-long love/hate affair with the Inn at Lake Divine and its proprietors, the Berry family. But Natalie's perceptive account of a young woman coming to grips with difference, prejudice, and unfairness in the turbulent Sixties and Seventies too soon crumbles into a saccharine romance. By the last third of the book, Natalie's mind seems taken over by a simplistic, gratuitous Judy Blume-ish sensibility. Sexual experiences are made crass, not erotic, lovers' talk cheap and unnatural. Natalie's caustic analysis of ethnicity, class, and gender is obscured; scenes that feel straight out of Forever replace the crafted prose that Lipman is capable of, and bog down an otherwise intelligent novel. --Angela Miller


Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig (Quill/William Morrow), $13 soft

After reading this book, I couldn't help but think that, at least on the surface, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a perfect fit for the city of Austin. From the beginning, Pirsig is concerned with the dualistic nature of art versus technology, and a possible melding of the two. He uses the story of a man and his son on a motorcycle trip to flesh out his concept of Quality, an all-encompassing doctrine that gathers together the practical and the aesthetic under one philosophical roof. Written at a time when cultural mores were in a state of flux, Zen bridges the gap between the Ancient Greeks and the counterculture of the Sixties. This 25th anniversary edition leaves the original mostly intact. A new forward and some additional formatting for clarity are the biggest changes to what has become one of the most enduring works of the latter half of the 20th century. --Rod Machen


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