So many books, so little time. So how do you decide what to read next? My answer: Recommendations by friends and family (word-of-mouth); reviews; new book by an author I know; old book by an author I've discovered; a classic I've manage to avoid until I was old enough to appreciate it (I've begun dipping into the Essays of Montaigne); a title related to Japan; and—given this time of year—Top 10 Books of the Year lists.
Which is how I happened to read Happiness is a Chemical in the Brain a collection of stories by Lucia Perillo, her first such collection. It was one of Publishers Weekly's top 10 of 2012. Perillo has published five books of poetry, one of which, Inseminating the Elephant, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. In 2000, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. She is married, lives in Washington state, and has MS. She talks about her poetry and her background in a 2099 interview that is available on the web.
Perhaps because she is a poet, Perillo's language is extraordinary and yet she does not seem to be showing off. Her sentences don't shout, "Look at me! Look at me!" But here's the first paragraph of the book's first story, "Bad Boy Number Seventeen":
"Don't tell me about bad boys. I've seen my black clouds come and go. Coming they walk with their shoulders back like they've got a raw egg tucked inside each armpit, and they let their legs lead them. Going, you can count on the fact that their butts will cast no shadow on those lean long legs. You can't compete in the arena of squalid romance if you're one of those guys shaped in the rear like a leather mail sack: you're automatically disqualified. That's just the way it is. I didn't make the rules."
Among Perillo's characters are an addict trapped in a country house who becomes obsessed with vacuum cleaners and their door-to-door salespeople...a young woman whose older sister has Down syndrome...and an elderly surgeon living in an elder housing development whose neighbor commits suicide. Some of the stories sound like downers, but Perillo's humor and insights into (and comments on) the human condition not only redeem them, but make them resonate with wisdom.
The fourteen stories are all so strong I had to stop reading for a time, concerned that Perillo's voice would sneak into my own writing. On the other hand, they were so strong I had to finish the book. Thank you, Publishers Weekly. And I envy those of you who can look forward to the pleasures of Perillo's book.