“Isadora” by Amelia Gray is captivating historical fiction from the award-winning author of “Threats” (2012) and “Museum of the Weird” (2010).
As the “mother of modern dance,” Isadora Duncan pioneered a style of movement that released the body from the rigid discipline of ballet. Her choreography favored free-flowing movements designed to seem more like spontaneous expression than a practiced performance. At first, the feverish, practically Gothic voice that Gray invents for her protagonist seems an odd fit for a woman inspired by the simple lines and unadorned grace of classical art and architecture, but, as the reader goes deeper into Isadora’s world, Gray’s choice begins to make perfect sense.
Duncan’s modernism included the concept of the artist as rogue and celebrity — someone whose creativity demanded freedom from everyday norms. And, certainly, fate played a role in making Duncan extraordinary in life and in death. This novel begins when the dancer’s two small children drown in the Seine, and early chapters depict Duncan’s immediate reaction to this awful tragedy. To say that she is not restrained in her grieving would be a dramatic understatement, but it soon becomes clear that restraint simply is not part of her makeup.
Gray’s prose is over-the-top but utterly apt. Isadora’s words are gorgeous even when they are grisly, and Gray does a terrific job of depicting not just the bereavement of a mother, but also the bereavement of a mother for whom life is a source of fuel for art. Gray also makes the canny choice to include other narrators, observers whose cooler viewpoints are expressed in the third person. Paris Singer, heir to his father’s sewing-machine fortune and the father of her son, is the one who takes care of quotidian details while Isadora pursues her muse. And her sister, Elizabeth, is also an excellent foil. As the administrator of the schools founded by the dancer, Elizabeth depends upon Isadora. But, more than anyone, Elizabeth recognizes the performative aspect of Isadora’s everyday existence. Together, these interwoven voices tell the story of a singular genius at one of the turning points of history, the moment when the promises of modernism give way to the first total war.
A novel equal to its larger-than-life protagonist.
(Amelia Gray will speak in conversation with Susan Quesal and sign copies of her book starting at 7 p.m. Monday, June 19, at BookPeople. Free to attend; only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing. Information: bookpeople.com.)
A sharp and funny edge
A blogger (“Bitches Gotta Eat”) has to laugh to keep from crying — or maybe killing somebody — in “We Are Never Meeting in Real Life” by Samantha Irby, a collection of essays from the black, full-figured female perspective.
The second collection of essays by Irby (“Meaty”) explores what it means to be “fat and black.” Though she has an active and diverse sex life, the author seems to prefer staying home with her cat, with whom she’s “trapped in this mutually abusive codependent relationship.” She watches a lot of TV and eats a lot of junk food while watching junk TV. She prefers writing jokes for online consumption rather than interacting with so-called real people in the so-called real world.
“People are boring and terrible,” she writes. “I am boring and terrible. My funny runs out, my cute runs out, my smart sometimes hiccups, my sexy wakes up with uncontrollable diarrhea. I have an attitude. And a sharp edge!”
Irby shows her sharp edge throughout a collection that touches on topics ranging from the potential pros and cons of living in a small town, her employment adventures at an animal hospital, her upbringing with an alcoholic, abusive father and the mother he exploited, her preoccupation with death, and her unpredicted path to lesbian marriage. She responds to a pre-marriage questionnaire that asks, “how important is sex to you?” with “Is there such a thing as ‘the opposite of important?’…. Hopefully lesbian bed death is real and not another unattainable fantasy the Internet has lied to me about, like poreless skin.”
Though the collection is uneven, and many of the pieces strain for effect, some are very funny, some of them ring painfully true, and the best do both. Consider the essay about what happens when all of Irby’s friends have reached the birthing and raising children stages, and she has no experience around kids: “I forget when they’re within earshot and say mean things about dead people or recount in excruciating detail the highlights of my most recent gynecological exam.”
Personal embarrassment provides plenty of material for in-print or online entertainment.
(Samantha Irby will speak in conversation with Jenny Lawson and sign copies of her book starting at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 20 at BookPeople. Free to attend; only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing. Information: bookpeople.com.)
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