A Review of “Sweet Talk” by Stephanie Vaughn

Sweet TalkSweet Talk by Stephanie Vaughn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wasn’t familiar with Stephanie Vaughn prior to hearing her story, “Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog” on the New Yorker fiction podcast. The experience was one in which I remember where I was during the story, one in which I sat in my car after the commute from the office, unable to move until the story had completed. I remember sitting there, in that car, as Gemma looked out over the icy river after her father. “I was his eldest child, and he taught me what he knew,” one of the closing lines of the story, still echoes around my head. I searched out the story that same evening, and purchased this collection simply because of it.

I think the reason that “Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog” caught me so by surprise, struck me so where I live, is because of the intricate, fragile relationship between father and daughter that the story portrays. I read it shortly after the birth of our daughter, and in the midst of attempting to imagine our future and the care with which I was attempting to craft my relationship with her from the beginning, this story was…shaking…to me as Vaughn so clearly painted each character through the other’s eyes.

This collection is filled with just that…moments that are familiar to each of us in some capacity, not in their setting but in their events, capturing the one through the eyes of the other. I found myself examining many of the moments through which I have already traveled, and anticipating those through which I still must, looking to the other individuals that inhabit my own narrative with fresh perspective. The events that Vaughn captures are astounding in their normalcy, familiar in their commonality. There are no moments here in which I found myself closing the book to examine what the author meant. What Vaughn is doing, and what she is doing well, is placing each of us, either retroactively or predictively, into these situations through her characters and giving us the opportunity to explore ourselves.

Vaughn is following the same cast of characters here through various settings and stages of life. I immediately equated this with Salinger’s Nine Stories, but don’t, because, while parallels are easily drawn to the approach, there is nothing nearly as metaphysical going on in Vaughn’s collection. It’s absence is in no way a detractor. Vaughn’s stories are complex but never overwhelming. The timbre of her language resonates with a uniqueness, her prose is concise but never succinct, and always original. Her wit is quick, leaving the reader with a smile but never quite laughing aloud. This is not a lengthy read at just under 200 pages, but you may find yourself spacing it out into a story per evening as I did for over a week. This is because, what I did find myself pondering after each…the relationships in my own life…was worth the time to digest.

I wasn’t aware of Vaughn prior to that podcast. I’m certainly glad that has changed. Sweet Talk is a touching and sincere addition to your shelf that you will find quite necessary.

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Taking Care of the Instrument

Something that Karen had done a lot of before we were married, but that she’s had very little opportunity to do since we’ve been married, is sing. Which is really a shame, because her voice is angelic. And, while I know I’m biased, my opinion is reinforced by the observations of many other neutral parties.

Karen has most often practiced her gifts within a faith community, and, as we were previously heavily involved in theatrical endeavors in the community that we attended before moving to New England, she just simply couldn’t make the scheduling commitments of both work out. Recently, however, she was asked to join the musicians that play for the Saturday night “unplugged” worship service that we attend in our new town. She’s come alive lending her voice to these events. I’ve seen something in my wife that I haven’t seen before, something amazing, something carefree and in love. It’s been amazing to witness.

While I was out at work this Saturday afternoon, Karen told me that she was trying to take a nap while our daughter took hers (the only time that this is possible, as any parent will attest). Her rest was disrupted, she said, by a guy cleaning his car in the parking with screamer music pounding out of his speakers while he worked. That doesn’t make for good resting conditions.

Rock history, as you may know, is a bit of a hobby of mine. I’ve never been particularly attracted to what is alternatively and most commonly referred to a screamer or hardcore music. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate it. Music expresses the feelings of it’s era, and this genre contains a (quite literal) scream of angst and frustration, a rage against the machine, if you will, at the injustice that is so commonplace around us, the system that fails everyone, and generally being sick of the pain.

There are a handful of hardcore songs that I like, but they are rare. I respect the genre, and what it says about our cultural landscape…it’s just not really my taste. Karen’s opinion of it is slightly stronger.

In her recollection of a nap disrupted tonight, she reasoned out why she dislikes this music. She feels that, despite the urban legend that the screaming vocalists are using “a different part of their voice” and know how to scream without detrimental effect, any of us who have taken vocal lessons know that these vocalists are risking the long-term of effect of destroying their voice. The reason that this bothers Karen, she expressed, is that the musicians are thus not respecting their instrument, and, by extension, are interested only in doing what is popular, not in making true art.

(Umbrella of mercy…I’m summarizing someone else’s thoughts, and likely horribly over-simplifying. It sounded so much more logical when she said it…)

Not certain where I land on this issue. I agree that serious artists respect their instruments. I don’t for a moment buy the myth that these vocalists have learned to scream in a way that isn’t damaging to their voices. I also don’t buy the stereotype of all of these bands…their are hardcore musicians out there doing serious work and saying serious things. The sound is part of the musical landscape, and it says something about our history.

I also think that there are others that capture the angst and the edge with instruments other than their voices.


There’s also something to be said for sacrificing for the art, perhaps. I’m caught in the tension. The message of the sound is important, it says something, it’s an historical marker. The method producing the sound smacks of the amateur sound technician that thinks the way to make the band sound better is by turning everything up. There’s a way to accomplish what’s needed and remain true to one’s art. Sometimes, that’s not at all an easy balance to strike.

In Which I Can’t Forget the Woman Wearing a Trash Bag

The end of this past week was the end of two weeks of scrambling to make deadlines and survive life. The show, as those of us who have worked in the theatre know, must go on, and that’s regardless of complications. You adapt and overcome…it’s just that some things are more difficult to overcome than others.

The thing that’s been most difficult about the transition to making my living in the code of the web is that, with all of the creativity and flexibility that it allows, it is also is a very different frame of mind in many ways. That is to say, I’m an abstract thinker by nature, which is why I’ve always loved academics. The craft of implementing the web…of writing the code…is very concrete. At the end of the day, I just struggle with concrete things. I excel at theories, but don’t always do so great at implementation. All of the tiny details of which I have to keep track during an average day causes a sort of short circuit to occur. I’ve always been able to stay on top of nearly everything in life, to handle the onslaught of tasks and chores that come with being an adult, generally without letting things become overwhelming. I’m the guy who does the dishes every night. For the past six months, I can’t get myself together. There are so many details that require tracking during the day, I can’t handle any more at night. I forget things, important things…like laundry, for example…that I never tripped on before. Organization, I firmly believe, is the key to a calm life, and the combination of the career change, the nature of the career, and having a two-year-old, has resulted in my being just about as disorganized as they come.

All of those things together has left precious little room in my head for the things that I love. I’m rushed, so I don’t always appreciate beautiful things when I see them. I’m forcing myself to think pragmatically, so I miss the “vibe” that I always saw in things before. In my new found vernacular for the technical, I’ve mis-placed a tendency to see the human side of things.

In short, I’m failing to see the miraculous in the mundane.

When I was in college, I read some poems at a public reading that the campus literary journal, in which I had recently been published, held. One of the poems that I read was called “Passerby” (and, to date myself, this was before computers were on our laps and most of us went to the library to write our papers, so I can’t put my hands on this poem easily). The poem was about a woman that I saw one night on a street in New York City. I was leaving a play and walking back to my hotel, and it was raining in the Spring-time and windy, so the city was cold, damp, and it was miserable to be outside. The woman was standing on a street corner, wearing only a trash bag, pleading for money. She was desperate, she was cold…and I kept walking. I was haunted by that moment, which resulted in my writing the poem. I have been haunted by that moment on many occasions since.

The first summer after Karen and I were married, were were in Sacramento for a family wedding. We stopped at a Starbucks for breakfast, and a man was in the parking lot asking for money. I gave him the cash that I had. I liked to think that I had made progress since that night in New York years ago.

At the end of this week, I was rushing to make one last deadline as Karen was texting me details of our daughter, who was sick and had a fever. She needed to me to get medicine to bring home, and I was scrambling on a deadline that I couldn’t miss. As I finally got enough in working order to leave the office and pick up the medicine, I stopped at a traffic light. A woman was standing in the median, holding up a cardboard sign that proclaimed that she was homeless and needed money. I averted my eyes. I didn’t have any cash in my wallet to give her…it’s not like I was refusing to give up what I had. The issue was that I couldn’t think about her. My entire attention was focused on getting what our daughter needed and getting it home. I couldn’t ponder the humanity of that woman’s position. I couldn’t consider it. I didn’t have enough room in my head.

I don’t want to forget those people. I don’t want forget that woman from years ago wearing the trash bag…I pray that she is well and sheltered and with loved ones as I write this, whomever she was. I don’t want to be so absorbed in the insanity that is life in our age that I forget those with whom I am walking the journey. If I do, then I think that I am doing just as much wrong as not pausing that night in New York to even see if I had cash to give. I don’t want to repeat that error.

And I so often fear that I already have.