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Cover image for A gate at the stairs a novel
A gate at the stairs a novel
Publication Information:
North Kingstown, R.I. : BBC Audiobooks America, ℗2009.
Physical Description:
10 audio discs (12 hr.) : digital ; 4 3/4 in.
As the United States begins gearing up for war in the Middle East, twenty-year-old Tassie Keltjin, the Midwestern daughter of a gentleman hill farmer has come to a university town as a college student. Between semesters, she takes a job as a part-time nanny. The family she works for seems both mysterious and glamorous to her. As the year unfolds and she is drawn deeper into each of these lives, her own life back home becomes ever more alien to her. Tassie finds herself becoming more and more the stranger she felt herself to be, and as life and love unravel dramatically, even shockingly, she is forever changed.
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In her dazzling new novel-her first in more than a decade-Moore turns her eye on the anxiety and disconnection of post-9/11 America, on the insidiousness of racism, the blind-sidedness of war, and the recklessness thrust on others in the name of love. As the United States begins gearing up for war in the Middle East, twenty-year-old Tassie Keltjin, the Midwestern daughter of a gentleman hill farmer-his Keltjin potatoes are justifiably famous-has come to a university town as a college student, her brain on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir. As the year unfolds and she is drawn deeper into each of these lives, her own life back home becomes ever more alien to her: her parents are frailer; her brother, aimless and lost in high school, contemplates joining the military. Tassie finds herself becoming more and more the stranger she felt herself to be, and as life and love unravel dramatically, even shockingly, she is forever changed.

Author Notes

Lorrie Moore was born Marie Lorena Moore on January 13, 1957 in Glen Falls, New York. She was nicknamed Lorrie by her parents. She attended St. Lawrence University and won Seventeen magazine's fiction contest. After graduation, she moved to Manhattan and worked as a paralegal for two years. In 1980 she enrolled in Cornell University's M.F.A. program. After graduation from Cornell she was encouraged by a teacher to contact an agent who sold her collection, Self-Help, which was composed of stories from her master's thesis. Lorrie Moore writes about failing relationships and terminal illness. She is the Delmore Schwartz Professor in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she teaches creative writing. She has also taught at Cornell University. She has written a children's book entitled The Forgotten Helper. She won the 1998 O. Henry Award for her short story People Like That They Are the Only People Here. In 1999 she was given the Irish Times International Fiction Prize for Birds of America. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2006 and in 2010 her novel A Gate at the stairs was a finalist for the Pen/Faulkner Award for fiction.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 5

Publisher's Weekly Review

Moore (Anagrams) knits together the shadow of 9/11 and a young girl's bumpy coming-of-age in this luminous, heart-wrenchingly wry novel-the author's first in 15 years. Tassie Keltjin, 20, a smalltown girl weathering a clumsy college year in "the Athens of the Midwest," is taken on as prospective nanny by brittle Sarah Brink, the proprietor of a pricey restaurant who is desperate to adopt a baby despite her dodgy past. Subsequent "adventures in prospective motherhood" involve a pregnant girl "with scarcely a tooth in her head" and a white birth mother abandoned by her African-American boyfriend-both encounters expose class and racial prejudice to an increasingly less naOve Tassie. In a parallel tale, Tassie lands a lover, enigmatic Reynaldo, who tries to keep certain parts of his life a secret from Tassie. Moore's graceful prose considers serious emotional and political issues with low-key clarity and poignancy, while generous flashes of wit-Tessie the sexual innocent using her roommate's vibrator to stir her chocolate milk-endow this stellar novel with great heart. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Kirkus Review

In How Fiction Works, the tutorial by the New Yorker critic and Harvard professor, James Wood writes, "Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life. And so on and on." Contemporary fiction has produced few noticers with a better eye and more engaging voice than Tassie Keltjin, the narrator of Lorrie Moore's deceptively powerful A Gate at the Stairs. For much of Moore's first novel in 15 yearsher short stories have established her as something of a Stateside Alice MunroTassie's eye and ear are pretty much all there is to the book. And they are more than enough, for the 20-year-old college student makes for good company. Perceptive, with a self-deprecating sense of humor, she lulls the reader into not taking the matter-of-fact events of Tassie's life too seriously, until that life darkens through a series of events that even the best noticers might not have predicted. Because her ostensible roommate now lives with a boyfriend, we get to know Tassie very wellas a fully fleshed character rather than a typeand spend a lot of time inside her head. She splits her year between the university community more liberal than the rest of the Midwest and the rural Wisconsin town where her father is considered more of a "hobbyist" farmer than a real one. "What kind of farmer's daughter was I?" she asks. A virgin, but more from lack of opportunity than moral compunction (she compares her dating experiences to an invisible electric fence for dogs), and a bass player, both electric and stand-up. Singing along to her instrument, she describes "trying to find the midway place between melody and rhythmwas this searching not the very journey of life?" Explains Moore of her protagonist, "Once I had the character and voice of Tassie I felt I was on my way. She would be the observer of several worlds that were both familiar and not familiar to herInitially I began in the third person and it was much more of a ghost story and there were a lot of sisters and, well, it was a false start." It's hard to imagine this novel working in the third person, because we need to see Tassie's life through her eyes. As she learns some crucial lessons outside the classroom, the reader learns as well to be a better noticer. Tassie's instincts are sound, but her comic innocence takes a tragic turn, as she falls into her first serious romance, finds a job as nanny for an adopted, biracial baby and suffers some aftershocks from 9/11 a long way from Manhattan. The enrichment of such complications makes this one of the year's best novels, yet it is Tassie's eye that makes us better readers of life. And so on and on. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Booklist Review

*Starred Review* Readers of Moore's other works will feel right at home with this one, which recounts a year in the life of college student Tassie Keltgin. Although not completely part of her small Wisconsin farming community (her mother is Jewish, her father grows exotic potatoes), she feels adrift in the college town of Troy. She is hired as a child-care provider by Sarah and Edward Brink-Thornwood, sophisticated transplants from the East Coast who are in the process of adopting a child. The child they end up with is Mary, a biracial two-year-old. Sarah, owner of a high-end restaurant, and Edward, a researcher at the university, are curiously uninvolved parents, and Tassie and Mary are left to their own devices more often than not. Tassie herself is fresh from childhood, as she puts it, her head still stuffed with fairy tales. Through the events of the year, which include sexual initiation, brushes with racism, heartbreaking revelations, and family tragedy, she discovers that the adult world has grim and gruesome fairy tales of its own. Moore serves up disorder and disaster but also humor and a feast of recurring themes the way people use language; the changing of the seasons; food, from mashed bananas for babies to fennel-cured salmon noisettes. The unique vision and exquisite writing cast a spell.--Quinn, Mary Ellen Copyright 2009 Booklist

New York Review of Books Review

I'm aware of one - one - reader who doesn't care for Lorrie Moore, and even that one seems a little apologetic about it. "Too . . . punny," my friend explains, resorting to a pun as though hypnotized by the very tendency that sets off his resistance. For others, Moore may be, exactly, the most irresistible contemporary American writer: brainy, humane, unpretentious and warm; seemingly effortlessly lyrical; Lily-Tomlin-funny. Most of all, Moore is capable of enlisting not just our sympathies but our sorrows. Her last book, the 1998 story collection "Birds of America," included the unforgettable baby-with-cancer story "People Like That Are the Only People Here," a breathtakingly dark overture to a decade's silence - as if the Beatles had exited on "A Day in the Life." For many readers, the fact that Moore has now relieved an 11-year publishing hiatus is reason enough to start Google-mapping a route to the nearest surviving bookstore. If American fiction writers largely find themselves sorted tediously into the category of "natural" at either the short or the long form, regardless of the extent of their commitment to both, then Moore - justly celebrated for her three story collections - has surely been counted as a miniaturist. This book should spell the end of that. "A Gate at the Stairs" is more expansive than either of her two previous novels, the slender, Nabokovian "Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?" and the structurally dizzy novel-as-set-of-variations "Anagrams." It's also a novel that brandishes some "big" material: racism, war, etc. - albeit in Moore's resolutely insouciant key. THE novel's protagonist and narrator, Tassie Keltjin, is a student at a Midwestern college mecca, daughter of a boutique potato cultivator, who finds work as the nanny-in-waiting for a brainy couple awkwardly on the verge of adoption. This ambiguous assignment takes the foreground in a tale ranging over Tassie's home life and love life - the nest she's just departed and the nest she's hoping to flutter into. Moore's class diagnostics are so exact she can make us feel the uneasiness not only between town and country in a single landlocked state, but between different types of farmers on neighboring plots. The book is also set in the autumn of 2001, a fact Moore has the patience to barely deploy for 200 pages, and then only with a deft sleight of hand that will make readers reflect on the ways so many other treatments of this (unfinished) passage in American life have resembled heart surgery performed with a croquet mallet. In a 2005 interview, Moore made an allusion to this "post-9/11" aspect of the work that grew into this novel: "I'm . . . interested in the way that the workings of governments and elected officials intrude upon the lives and minds of people who feel generally safe from the immediate effects of such workings." The delicacy of this remark fails to disguise its clarity of purpose, and, as it happens, distant international affairs are by no means the only source of "intrusion" in "A Gate at the Stairs." Moore's continuing interest in how power imbalances make themselves felt in human encounters fastens here on the Kafka-worthy bureaucracy of adoption agencies and foster homes. Combined with her immaculately tender portrayals of young children, so real you want to pass around their snapshots, this aspect of her novel will do such things to your heart that you may find yourself wishing for the surgeon with the croquet mallet, just for mercy. Moore's cast is sneaky-large (she's like an athlete you keep wanting to call sneaky-fast, or sneaky-tough). Any of Tassie's relationships - like that with her adoption-seeking employer Sarah Brink, or her vivid goof of a younger brother, or her exotic first love interest, Reynaldo (whom she meets in "Intro to Sufism") - may seem this book's essential one, at least while it assumes center stage. But the novel's real essence is its sinuous roving spotlight, in which each character and element is embraced in Tassie's wondering and exact sensibility, as when with her brother she revisits a childhood haunt: "When the gnats weren't bad I had sometimes accompanied him, sat in the waist-high widgeon grass beside him, the place pink with coneflowers, telling him the plot of, say, a Sam Peckinpah movie I'd never seen but had read about once in a syndicated article in The Dellacrosse Sunday Star. Crickets the size of your thumb would sing their sweet monotony from the brush. Sometimes there was a butterfly so perfect and beautiful, it was like a party barrette you wanted to clip in your hair. Above and around us green leaves would flash wet with sunsetting light. In this verdant cove I recounted the entire plot of 'Straw Dogs.' . . . Now we stood at the cold stream's edge, tossing a stone in and listening for its plonk and plummet. I wanted to say, 'Remember the time . . .' But too often when we compared stories from our childhood, they didn't match. I would speak of a trip or a meal or a visit from a cousin and of something that had happened during it, and Robert would look at me as if I were speaking of the adventures of some Albanian rock band. So I stayed quiet with him. It is something that people who have been children together can effortlessly do. It is sometimes preferable to the talk, which is also effortless. We found more stones and tossed them. 'A stone can't drown,' said my brother finally. 'It's already drowned.' 'You been reading poetry?' I smiled at him." As for the puns, they seem to me less an eagerness to entertain than a true writerly obsession. Moore is an equal-opportunity japester: heroes and villains both crack wise with Chandleresque vivacity, so you can't use cleverness as a moral index. The wrinkly recursiveness of her language seems lodged at the layer of consciousness itself, where Moore demands readers' attention to the innate thingliness of words. This includes not only their plastic capacity as puns, and the oddnesses residing in the names for food, foliage and products - for instance, the fact that probably no bachelor ever wore the flowers called "bachelor buttons," or that a fabric's neutral hue can be awarded names as various as pigeon, parmesan, platinum or pebble - but also their potential use as deliberate uncommunication: "'Sounds good,' I sang out into the dark of the car. Sounds good, that same Midwestern girl's slightly frightened reply. It appeared to clinch a deal, and was meant to sound the same as the more soldierly Good to go, except it was promiseless - mere affirmative description." FINALLY, this book plumbs deep because it is anchored deep, in a system of natural imagery as tightly organized as that in a cycle of poems like Ted Hughes's "Crow." The motif is birth, gestation and burial, a seed or fetus uncovering its nature in secrecy, a coffin being offered to the earth. The motif declares itself upfront in Tassie's father's potatoes, which like sleeper cells grow clustered in darkness and then, unearthed, assume names: Klamath pearls, yellow fingerlings, purple Peruvians and Rose Finns. In "A Gate at the Stairs" it is not just potatoes that adapt for the world behind assumed names, but babies and grown-ups too. Great writers usually present us with mysteries, but the mystery Lorrie Moore presents consists of appearing genial, joshing and earnest at once - unmysterious, in other words, yet still great. She's a discomfiting, sometimes even rageful writer, lurking in the disguise of an endearing one. On finishing "A Gate at the Stairs" I turned to the reader nearest to me and made her swear to read it immediately (well, the dog was between us, but she doesn't read much, and none of what I recommend). I might even urge it on my dissenting friend. Jonathan Lethem's eighth novel, "Chronic City," will be published in October. Moore's heroes and villains both crack wise. In her fiction, cleverness can't be used as a moral index.

Library Journal Review

Midwesterner Tassie Keltjin learns hard lessons about lying, life, and love during her first year of college in Moore's long-awaited third novel, following Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994) and featuring her signature juxtapositions and wordplay. Actress Mia Barron, recipient of a 2003 Publishers Weekly Listen Up Award, narrates this character-driven bildungsroman, perfectly delivering Tassie's thoughtful and wry musings. Recommended for public libraries; possibly of interest to precocious teens as well as adults. ["The challenge for readers is to reconcile the beautiful sharpness of (Moore's) language with two wildly improbable plot threads," read the review of the Knopf hc, LJ 8/09.-Ed.]-Carly Wiggins, formerly with Allen Cty. P.L., Fort Wayne, IN (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.