Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 9
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
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Of Vampires and Office Workers: Karen Russell and Nicholson Baker Read at Princeton

Ellen Gilbert

As the featured speakers in the opening program of the spring Althea Ward Clark W’21 Reading Series last Wednesday, authors Karen Russell and Nicholson Baker were a study in contrasts.

Petite, ebullient, and unapologetically casual (she addressed the audience as “you guys”), Ms. Russell’s reading was richly descriptive, fantastical, and emotional. As author Jess Row observed when introducing her, she is a chronicler of “how sad it is to have to learn to be human.”

Except that humans were not the subject of Ms. Russell’s reading. After her initial success with the book St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, Ms. Russell explained, she wanted to write an adult love story. In what she described as “a supreme overcorrection,” she ended up writing about a 300 year-old vampire named Clyde, in a story called “Vampires in the Lemon Grove.” Love is very much a part of the story, however, as Clyde, then a tender 130, meets his wife-to-be in a cemetery (“we bared our fangs over a tombstone”). Over the coming years, she disabuses him of all the traditional beliefs about vampires, weaning him off blood, leading him to destroy the coffin he’s slept in nightly, and luring him out into daylight. “The sun wasn’t fatal,” he discovers. “It was just really uncomfortable.”

In his introduction of Mr. Baker, whose books include Vox, The Mezzanine, Human Smoke, and the National Book Critics Circle award-winning Double Fold, writer Jeffrey Eugenides likened him to artist Marcel Duchamp in “his skill at conceptual ground-breaking.” Noting that “most of our ideas come more from hearsay than observation,” and often fall back on clichés, Mr. Eugenides described how Mr. Baker “startles us out of our habitual ways of seeing.” He concluded by recalling Donald Barthelme’s comment that “Grace Paley is a great writer and troublemaker; we are fortunate to have her in our country,” saying that the same applied to Mr. Baker.

Strikingly tall and quieter in presence than Ms. Russell, Mr. Baker spoke briefly about how, unemployed after a brief, unsuccessful stint as a Wall Street stock broker, he came to write Mezzanine, his first novel, in 1988. Library Journal described the book, which is told from the point of view of an office worker, as having “more digressions, asides, and tiny facets than one can imagine fitting into an afternoon, or a short novel, for that matter.” In his reading from Mezzanine, Mr. Baker followed his protagonist as he unwrapped shirts fresh from the dry cleaners (evoking memories of his mother unwrapping thinly-sliced Westphalian ham wrapped in brown paper from the deli); choosing and putting on one of the shirts (“always colder than you expected”); and closing the buttons (the cuff buttons, with their concentration of starch, were always the hardest). The young man scores a major triumph when, upon realizing he has forgotten to put on anti-perspirant after the shirt is closed, he devises a way to apply it without entirely removing the shirt. A meditation on eating triangularly-sliced toast and a mid-subway ride epiphany about attaining adulthood, followed.

Writers appearing in upcoming programs in the Althea Ward Clark Reading Series include poet Sharon Olds, to be introduced by Joyce Carol Oates, on March 4; fiction writer Sheila Kohler and fiction writer and poet Wang Ping, both to be introduced by Chang-rae Lee, on March 25; poet Cambell McGrath, who will be introduced by Susan Wheeler, and poet and translator Malena Mörling, to be introduced by C.K. Williams, on March 25. Poet Paul Muldoon will introduce poet, essayist, and critic Robert Pinsky on Wednesday, April 1; translation readings with Valzhyna Mort, Franz Wright, and Adam Zagajewski, will be introduced by Sarah Arvio on April 15; and student readings will be held on April 22. All readings, which are free and open to the public, take place at 4:30 p.m. in the James M. Stewart ’32 Theater, in the Lewis Center for the Arts at 185 Nassau Street. A book signing will follow all readings. For more information, visit

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