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A Gate at the Stairs - Lorrie Moore So I picked up this book because it was on a list somewhere and that is how I find most books. About 25 pages in I started to think...huh, this is in WI so Troy has to be a version of Madison. Well then for the rest of the book (as someone who lives in Madison), I tried to decide if it really was or not. And then I finished reading and looked up Lorrie Morris and discovered that she is a UW prof. So, yeah, it is and it isn't Madison. Not that it really matters, but it was a bit distracting for me. Although it actually reminded me more (other than being set in WI) of Grinnell IA where I did my undergrad work, and a bit of Richard Russo's small towns, especially because Madison is really a much bigger town than this fictional Troy.

I gave this book five stars because it was a great character piece. The first 200ish pages I was enthralled with Morris's prose and style and I loved Taissa's honesty and insecurities and attempts to figure out life. And then there was all of a sudden a plot to the book. This surprised me and (while having some unbelievable aspects) just pulled the rug out from under me and so Morris gets five stars as kudos for surprise.

Taissa is passive agressive in a way that I do not like in people but found amusing in the story: "Strangley, at the stamp machine at the post office, I had recently bought the newly issued adoption postage stamps...and gleefully adhered them to my letters home to my mother. It was a form of malice I felt entitled to. It was quiet and deniable." Certainly, one wonders why a college girl in 2001 is writing letters, but the point is so hilarious and beautifully made that I can forgive the anachronism.

I just finished Didion's Blue Nights and this reminded me of that in the way that Morris used repetition of phrase to emphasize her point. Somehow it did not annoy me here quite as much. Maybe because I was not worried about potential decline in Morris's cognitive abilities. A funny example of this was: "Contents may shift during the flight, we had been told. Would that be good or bad? And what about the discontents? Would they please shift too?"

She deals with a couple heavy topics: death and race and adoptions and yet the book is quite funny. I loved (and again she repeated several times): "Racial blindness--now there's a white idea." and her commentary on stuff: "I peered inside the plastic trash bag. It was amazing to me that you could still be the tiniest thing and have stuff. On the other hand, it also amazed me that there was so little of it, and so seemed sad that a human being was going through the world accumulating all this needless crap and yet also pathetic that this was all she had." and of course the art of bullshit that can be academia: "I turned in all my papers and exams. There was not an informed word in them. I had no idea what I was talking about, though here and there I would burst forth with an embarrassing intensity of assertion. I was given Bs."

I agree with some other complaints that the 9/11 setting seemed under-utilized (except for the Robert side track which felt melodramatic and not so believable), but the race stuff and adoption stuff was very well done. Unlike most of my reviews I am really hesitant to say too much about plot. I want to emphasize that this is a character piece and the plot issues are noteworthy but separate.

Overall, it was just very solid and poignant; at times meaningful and very entertaining.