Margo Christie, These Days, A Tale of Nostalgia on Baltimore’s “Block”. Reviewed by MiMi Zannino.

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Margo Christie, These Days, A Tale of Nostalgia on Baltimore’s “Block,” CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013. ISBN 10: 1484171195. ISBN 13: 978-1484171196, 322 pages. Price $14.95.

It’s not every day that a protagonist in a novel comes of age on Baltimore’s “Block”—the city’s red light district—but Margo Christie’s first novel, These Days, accomplishes this task. Moreover, in line with the adage about the burlesque artist, the novel leaves the reader wanting more. (Baltimore’s “Block” is a notorious stretch of nightlife that began in the early 1900s with burlesque, musicians, and comedy, but that morphed over the decades into seedier strip clubs and sex shops.)

The author is particularly deft at making dialogue flow in ribbons of rhythm throughout the twenty-four chapters. Her major and minor characters are vividly drawn, primarily due to the natural ease with which Christie imbues the repartee. Her agility with each character’s language might well derive from Christie’s personal experience of honing the art of conversation with strangers during her professional years as a stripper, which began in her mid-teens, and further sharpened while earning an English degree from the University of Maryland.

The story, which the author told me is “40 percent me, 40 percent women I knew, and 20 percent pure imagination,” takes hairpin turns during the protagonist’s 16th year of life. So, hold onto your seats as the main character, Becky Shelling, leaps from a bit role in a volunteer community theater to star performer at an adult-themed club on the Block.

So much happens in Becky’s journey that many might feel grateful for what they once deemed their own boring teenage life. But the author touches on down-to-earth relationships between the teenager and minor female characters who educate her about the choices one makes for love and money. These colorful women include a neighborhood barmaid in Highlandtown, a former burlesque dancer-turned-dressmaker who now creates satin stripper gowns and prom formals, as well as a gaggle of showgirls who range from soft-boiled to hard-fried.

I will refrain from commenting on the male characters except to say that I didn’t believe for one second that the 38-year-old character Lenny didn’t know that Becky was 15 going on 16 when he lured her into a world that has undoubtedly served as reality for many girls in this arena. Give me a break, Lenny. You were an insurance man before you bought the joint on The Block!

Reality meets fiction as we read in the author’s bio at the back of this soft-bound book: “Like Becky. . . [Margo Christie] landed on the adult-entertainment strip known as the ‘World-Famous Block’ in the late 70s, as the teenage girlfriend of a charismatic older man.” I was curious as to what the author found most gratifying about creating and publishing a semi-autobiographical novel. She responded candidly: “I wanted to capture an image of the in-between time when the glamour of what [once] was still smoldered beneath the sleazier surface [of the Block].”

The only hiccups are the too frequent omissions of little words like “a”, “an” and “the” which eluded the eye of whomever edited or proofread the manuscript and page proofs. Also, there are accidental switches such as the word “shrift” when the sentence called for “shift” to describe a waitress uniform, as well as “meringue” used to describe the character who was dancing in the Caribbean style known as “merengue.” Even as I type this word, my computer sneakily changes it back to “meringue”.  But these blasted computer errors made me laugh uproariously as I imagined the character dancing the merengue completely enveloped in stiff peaks of lemon meringue.

Christie’s novel brings to life a world of slinky rhinestone-studded gowns, feathered boas, satin gloves, sexy hosiery—all things sequined and sparkly.  Indeed, all things showgirl. The novelist and her character, Becky, share the goal of reviving the glory days of Baltimore burlesque. The story explores the pitfalls of alcoholism, drug addiction and melancholy to which so many fall prey along the way. Yet, it barely touches upon sobering realities such as sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancy, and other serious physical and sexual abuses associated with this risky lifestyle.

By the story’s close, both author and protagonist have learned, through hard knocks, that they can stand on their own two feet, with or without stilettos.

© Margo Christie and MiMi Zannino

Margo Christie is an author, artist, and burlesque performer. These Days is her first, semi-autobiographical novel and winner of the second prize in Amazon’s 2012 Breakthrough Novel Award. She is published in numerous Baltimore literary magazines and presses, including  End of 83, Smile, Hun, You’re in Baltimore, Voice of Baltimore, and Loch Raven Review. Margo is currently living in Gulfport, Florida, where she continues to produce art in addition to working on a collection of personal essays and a second novel. Visit Margo’s website at https://margochristie.wordpress.com.

MiMi Zannino is the author of poetry books for children and adults. She has portrayed the American poet, Emily Dickinson, over 50 times in a one-woman play that she researched and wrote. Since 1989, MiMi has been a teaching artist and poet-in-residence for over 10,000 students through the Maryland State Arts Council. Her recent work with senior citizens includes a one-hour program, “Music and Memory on the Ukulele.” Visit MiMi’s websites at http://mimizannino.com and http://emilydickinsonlive.com.

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