Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Robin Bradford, Fri., Feb. 16, 2001
Talk Storiesby Jamaica Kincaid
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 224 pp., $23
A woman we know of has published a new book. The new book is full of something called Talk stories. The woman wrote them in the Seventies and Eighties when she would go around and tell people she was a writer. She wrote them when she was living in other people's houses. She wrote them when she had no money and had just come from an island called Antigua. The stories were published in a magazine called The New Yorker, the woman says, "a magazine that has long since gone out of business, though there exists now a magazine by that name."
What the book contains: one West Indian Festival, one Kenyan Trade Fair, one soap opera exposition, one World Plate Collectors Fair, one Antiques and Memorabilia Show, lunchtime disco dancing, lunchtime theatre, pop singers (Blue Magic, Deniece Williams, Tammy Wynette, Boz Scaggs, and Sting, to name a few), Richard Pryor explaining how he got to be funny ("I go to sleep for about a year. I wake up with cobwebs all over my face. I roll them up in a large ball with milk and sugar, eat it quickly, and then I start laughing"), one Junior Miss, one Miss Marker, one Miss Jamaica, one runner (nine year-old Machelle Sweeting, who loves the color blue), one charm school owner ("Mascara is a must, must, must"), Chris Evert Lloyd, royalty, one Fourth of July ("I love America and Americans because my father ... used to tell me how funny and great Abbott and Costello were"), one train ride (from Cleveland to New York), one driving story ("a super-favorite driving song": "I Heard It Through the Grapevine"), dinosaurs ("one bite for a T. Rex could probably feed a family of four for one month"), a haircutter named Pippo of Rome ("WE MAKE EVERYONE LOOK THEIR BEST!"), one story about moving to a new apartment in New York ("I hated the woman who would be moving in after I moved out"), publishing advice ("Big scenes are very important in a novel"), where everyone was at noon on the 10th of September, 1979 ("Don Clay, an interior designer, was sitting on a No. 3 Seventh Avenue train on his way to Wall Street"), two cat stories, one art exhibition (featuring objects, such as a helicopter, made from Prime-Foam-X foam board), one fashion show (Gloria Vanderbilt), one press conference, one audition, one benefit, three civil gatherings, one breakfast, eight luncheons ("Scotch salmon, blanquette de veau with rice, carrots, pear tart"), and 18 parties ("'The next time I get an invitation to a party,' said the pretty girl, 'I will say to myself, "All those fish heads I have in the freezer -- now it's time to make a soup out of them."'")
One of the best things about these Talk stories is that the young woman writes about growing up on an island in the West Indies. She writes about how everyone on the island gets up before six o'clock. She writes about how Mr. Jarvis and his goats would pass her house every morning and wake them with the sound of his goats and his whistling calypso songs. She writes about how she still wakes early in Manhattan and spends the time reading about Jane Pauley in women's magazines. Another great thing about the book is that the young woman writes about living in New York. She writes: "There are moments when this city can jolt us with the certainty that we'd rather be alive right here and now than anywhere else on earth at anytime whatever." She writes about what she imagines ("I imagined that I had different-colored underwear for each day of the year. ... I imagined that I knew by heart all of the poems of William Wordsworth").
But the greatest thing about the stories written by this young, excitable woman is reading the thoughts in her head that were her writing. This was long before she published books like At the Bottom of the River, Annie John, The Autobiography of My Mother, and My Brother, most of which we have read and count among our favorite things. Remembering the time when she wrote these stories, she writes: "In the beginning was my word and my word became the world as I ordered it to be."