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Book Review 2015-002
Benchere in Wonderland by Steven Gillis
Copy via MS Word from Steve (wherein I disclose that I obviously know Steve)
This is the fifth novel of Steve's that I've read and the seventh book overall. It's the best of his that I've read, which is saying quite a bit, especially after the last trio of Temporary People, The Consequence of Skating, and The Law of Strings.
Benchere in Wonderland seems to "simply" ask What is Art? and What is Art's role in the world? I think it goes beyond that though and pushes the reader to think about what it means to be human--what it means to think, to act, to love, to grieve, to admire.
The Benchere in question is Michael Benchere--world renowned architect, and sculpture. I don't want to spoil anything for any readers of this wonderful novel and will simply say that Benchere ends up deciding to build a huge sculpture in the Kalahari Desert in Africa and while he simply wants/hopes to do it for the sake of the sculpture, it turns into much more--a media event, a place for people to converge, to make their own comments about art and about politics and love and ...
And Gillis has infused this novel with plenty of humor and entertainment. It's a novel that will entertain you greatly while causing you to think.
So, I've explained, probably more on Facebook than here at the blog, why now when I"m purchasing books, be it at a store, a used store, online, or even from quickly set up booths on a street, or when I'm requesting a review copy from a publisher, that I will not buy or ask for more male authored books than I will female authored books.
It comes down to the fact that I know that more books are being reviewed and touted that are penned by males than are so when penned by females. I know that if I look at the list of titles that I'm looking forward to based on past interactions with the author's work(s), that it has a male-penned slant to it for those very same reasons--for the 20-30 years I've been a heavy reader, I had greater opportunities to find out about books written by men.
Based on recent events, I think I'm going to have to change my policy. Well, at least in the cases of purchasing books--I don't think I'd feel right in changing this policy when it comes to requesting galleys or review copies as on a regular basis, the best PR that publisher/author/book gets out of me is a mention that I received the book here and on FB and Twitter--I don't find the time to review every one of them, no matter how much I'd love to.
But, I do believe that the new policy when buying is going to have to change to that I purchase at least one MORE title penned by a female than those penned by males. And the thing is, this policy doesn't hurt male writers; I'm still going to buy works written by men that I've enjoyed books by in the past, or have heard great things about. I'm just going to have to continue developing a better library of female authored titles. Which isn't going to hurt me at all either as since I've begun this policy I've done nothing but find wonderful novels and stories to read. So this upgrade to the policy is one I look forward to.
Recent developments you may inquire? This has happened two times in a row now but I'll only go through the details of this last incident. When you purchase books at a Barnes & Noble, they give you a little attachment to your receipt headed with "YOU MAY ALSO LIKE..."
The titles I purchased were:
Barbara the Slut, a debut short story collection by Laura Holmes
Make Your Home Among Strangers, the debut novel and 2nd title from Jennine Capo Crucet
Gangsterland, Tod Goldberg's best-selling novel, fairly deep into his career now (not at all to imply he's nearing the end, just that this is more than his first or second title published)
The titles recommended to me:
There Must Be Some Mistake by Frederick Barthelme, a novel, one of at least a few by Barthelme (now this one does have Goldberg's Gangsterland pop up on the Amazon page for it as "one other people purchased."
In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume, a novel that only has the fact that it was authored by a woman as a similarity with any of the above.
Redeployment by Phil Klay, which is a wonderful short story collection and so has that in common with the Holmes titles I guess.
Perfidia by James Ellroy, which I suppose has L.A. in connection with Goldberg's novel.
Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon.
So, I buy three titles, two by women, and am suggested to run back in and purchase five titles, four of them by men with not much tying them together to make me understand WHY I'd like those particular titles. They didn't think to suggest Mia Alvarez's collection, or Rebecca Makkai's--both of which, like Holmes', are debut AND STILL ON THEIR NEW TITLE SHELVES? Maybe Patricia Engel's It's Not Love, It's Just Paris, also a debut novel published after a very well received debut story collection? Or dozens and dozens of other titles that are undoubtedly more like what I purchased than the five they suggested? And this is not meant as a sleight to any of that quintet suggested. It just seems to one more means of having books by men suggested more frequently than those by women.
Hence, the upgrade to my policy.
At around the 2:45 mark of the video of Norm MacDonald roasting Bob Saget, he tells a ridiculous joke about Saget looking "like a flower...yeah, a cauliflower" and he then repeats and somewhat explains the joke. Not a stand-up comedian, it is my determination that MacDonald does this repetition/explanation to hammer home just how absurd this joke (and the others in this fantastic routine) was. In other words, he HAD A REASON to do so.
Maybe my biggest recent pet peeve in reading is when an author does NOT trust their own writing, or apparently believe that their reading audience is of a junior high school level or below. After writing a beautiful passage, with a nice subtle point to it, they'll follow that passage and period up with the explanation. WHY??? Why not trust that you've made the point with your writing? Why not believe that the person reading your work has the ability to piece together what you've sewn?
I'll show no example of this as it would be incredibly rude, but I think it's something younger writers especially should pay attention to--TRUST YOUR WRITING//TRUST YOUR READERS--it will make your work stronger.
Reading the short story "Missionaries" by Jeremiah Chamberlin (truly a great story, very hard to believe the Author Notes that it was his first nationally published story) in the Winter 2007 issue of Michigan Quarterly Review, the first page alone had me realizing there are different means of offering information to your reader and Chamberlin had used a couple quite well already.
There's the simple idea of what is currently going on given to us by the narrator's thoughts:
"I'm pumping the gas. My brother-in-law, Chris, is washing the windshield."
There's information from the past given, again, through the thoughts of the narrator:
"Chris was born again in high school, though he isn't any more."
There's observation of what others are doing and possibly thinking, again, through the thoughts of the narrator:
"Then she turns to her blonde friend and they laugh, as if we'd taken some kind of bait."
And there's also via dialogue, which can also be used to give some information from the past, though more in the line of the action, as opposed to from somebody's recollection:
"'Holy shit,' he says. '1979 Pontiac Phoenix. This was my first ride.'" (from Chris).
Each of these, and there are others, just not from the first page of this short story, have their reasons for being used. The current through the narrator's thoughts is a simple and easy way to catch the reader up to what is going on and get the story started. Some of that information from the past can be filled in through the current action (Chris pointing out the girls are driving in the same model as his original car) and other material from the past, if it's necessary for the reader to know, might need to be dropped in through the narrator's thoughts if there's no clean way of doing so in the current action. It seems most frequently this type of information will be useful as a bit of foreshadowing that maybe could have been slipped in through current action later in the work, but then it might seem almost too conveniently brought up.
I think Chamberlin has made great choices with all of these examples and again, hope to see this story in a full collection in the future if this, again, his FIRST, is any indication of what other stories he's written might be like.
One thing I've learned the last decade or so as a reader--make sure to have at least two things to read at all times when leaving the house and it's not a horrible idea to have something that you have been holding off starting sitting in the back seat of your car to boot.
The vast majority of the time I'm out and about, I don't care at all if I get to where I'm headed and there's a big line--that's reading time. Go out for a walk--reading time (be careful though). Even the dreaded traffic jam--while I'm usually a little more upset as I'll most likely be late to where I'm going, it's still reading time.
However, make SURE you have at least two things to read. A couple of books, a book and your eReader, at least a couple of new choices on the eReader, a journal or two. ONE TIME is all it took--maybe 7 or 8 years ago I only took one book with me to the bank. It was a Friday after work and there were probably 60 people in line ahead of me. I finished what I had been toting around with a good 20 people still ahead of me. I'm all for re-reading great stuff, but rarely do I start up the second I finish. Since then, at least two things with me every time I go out.
Today I was toting around a couple of story collections I probably should have been toting around at least a few years ago: May We Shed These Human Bodies by Amber Sparks (Curbside Splendor) and Other Heartbreaks by Patricia Henley (Engine Books)--two great writers representing two fantastic publishers.
You want your manuscript, your novel, your short story, your poem, or your essay to have a great opening line--I'm sure you've heard that before. There are numerous lists and FB posts about great first lines--lines that grab the reader and say YES YOU WANT TO READ ME. Well, picking up a fantastic short story collection earlier today, Shannon Cain's Drue Heinz Prize winning The Necessity of Certain Behaviors (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011), reminded me of just how important second lines are as well. I can promise you there have been novels and stories that absolutely sucked me in with grand slam opening lines that saw me quit reading when the promise of that start was horribly deflated by a second line so uninspired, so uninteresting, that it made me feel the author has played a trick on me with their opening line. They knew they'd written something so fantastic that anybody that looked at it would certainly keep reading--they had you and apparently figured that was all they needed to do.
To me, if the promise of that first sentence/line isn't followed at least pretty closely by the second, I start to have great fear that maybe the author only had one great sentence in them. That what I was about to spend what I consider precious time invested in the reading of, was simply not going to be able to be justified. However, when that second sentence is just as promising, if not even a little moreso, than the first--well, then I'm much more confident that I'm spending my time wisely.
In the story "The Steam Room," Cain starts the story with a pretty simple, yet informative, sentence:
"Helen was unhappily married to the mayor of their midsized American city."
It's not a wowser, but it's clean, it's informative and I'd keep reading. However, the second sentence:
"Sometimes she masturbated in the steam room of the downtown YMCA."
I'm in and not even necessarily for the perv factor so much as for the fact that I'm pretty sure at this point that Cain has created a very interesting character--one with a bit of darkness and something going on in her head. I want to read more.
Later in the collection, in "The Queer Zoo," Cain starts with:
"There's no actual policy at the Queer Zoo against hiring straight people: that would be illegal."
A sentence I would say that pulled me in a bit stronger than the opener of "The Steam Room." However, again, it's the following this up with another strong sentence that has me believing enough in the author to want to devote more time to the work, in this case:
"Sam is alert to rumors about the existence of other hetero employees, but so far none have turned out to be true."
It's a pattern for Cain in this very fine collection (more on that with a review soon) as really only one of the second sentences isn't pretty great even standing alone--and the one that isn't is exactly what it needed to be to move the story forward, which is exactly what I want each sentence I read to do.
In an earlier post I noted the following: "...--as a publisher, as a reader, search for what Jynne Dilling Martin referred to in a conversation with Roxane as "urgent, unheard stories." Between the end cap essays and this one in particular, it's got me thinking about my own reading habits and how they've changed since 2000 and the inception of the EWN--these essays have me thinking that those changes have been in the right direction, just maybe not fast and harsh enough."
Elsewhere, I have expounded a bit on my still fairly recent (2nd half of 2014 or so) book purchasing policy--no matter what the situation, be it in a new store, a used store, an online store, or requesting review copies from a publicist, I will make sure that there are at least as many female authored titles in my hand, cart, or email request as there are male authored titles.
The thought process behind this certainly kicked in after some VIDA sponsored numbers and reports started to come out. As one who had named his blog the Emerging Writers Network, I had obviously geared my reading since 2000 toward newer writers, or "mid-list" writers that I still felt were under-recognized and under-read. A lot of the authors I read in that first decade plus as a blogger, reviewer, etc. had me relying on other bloggers, on publicists, on literary journals, and reviews in order to "discover" these writers. And then, as I began to read much more than I had been the previous five to ten years, I began developing certain tastes, but also began to recognize names much more. I loved Brady Udall's first novel so of course I was going to buy his second novel. I loved the story collection of Anthony Doerr so it was only sensible I'd buy his novel, his memoir, his next novel. And what I slowly came to realize was that while yes, I tried to "even things out" in my own reading numbers, but MY OWN READING HISTORY was going to skew future numbers if I didn't consciously make an effort to dissuade that fact.
There were many more male authors whose "next book" would be a book I'd head into the store to purchase than those of female authors, simply because I'd read more of their "last books." The only way I could think to counter that was the buy one, at least buy one scenario detailed above. Heading into the store KNOWING I'd be picking up the new Benjamin Percy and TC Boyle novels meant that I'd need to search for two books penned by females.
A side project this spring as well as a personal issue has led to not a ton of reading for personal pleasure so far this calendar year, but at the halfway point of the year (yes, this post is a couple of weeks late) I had only reviewed three titles in more than simple posts showing their covers online somewhere---two by women (Trudy Lewis' The Empire Rolls, and Roxane Gay's Urgent, Unheard Stories) and one by Matt Bell (Baldur's Gate II). At the halfway point I had mentioned 90 different titles via Facebook--books I'd purchased, that I'd received in the mail, that I had downloaded to my kindle. 45 were by women and 45 were by men. There were most likely more titles, percentage-wise, by writers of color, and/or having been translated to English, than in past years as well. And while I haven't read many things I've purchased or received this year in full, I can say that there isn't a title I've bought that I haven't dipped into at least a page, or story, or chapter, and I cannot wait to get past this last little hump of non-personal reading time and to dig into all of these. The dips into titles by women whose books I'd never heard of but stumbled upon because I "had" to make sure I was leaving the store with a female penned title have been wonderful---exciting, wide-ranging, different--and I'm extremely happy that I made this "purchasing/requesting policy" change this last year. It's not a policy that has hurt anybody--I'm still buying the books that I would have bought (or asked for) before...I've just added a bunch of other urgent, and unheard, stories to my pile to enjoy.
Book Review: 2015-001 Urgent, Unheard Stories by Roxane Gay (Harper Perennial)
This review copy was purchased at Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, MI
It seems odd to note that it's book review number 1 on June 28, but with the site pretty much being dormant for over a year, such is the case. I'm glad this is the first book though to get the treatment this year. While Roxane Gay is pretty well known, I'd suggest she is still an Emerging Writer. This title is a Limited Edition Autographed Copy, which is the type of thing we've always liked around the EWN. And it's really a great little (64 pages plus with no ruler in hand, I'd guess maybe 4.5 x 7") book with 5 essays and 2 interviews within. It's great because it's both well written AND it is a book that causes some thinking; I'd like to think especially so for a voracious reader.
It is set up very well too, with the end pieces both explaining something of Roxane's career to date as a published author in two very different ways. The interviews fit in nicely with a large part of what Roxane seems to want to say and the title essay, second to last piece in the book, really hammers home what I believe is the point of the book--as a publisher, as a reader, search for what Jynne Dilling Martin referred to in a conversation with Roxane as "urgent, unheard stories." Between the end cap essays and this one in particular, it's got me thinking about my own reading habits and how they've changed since 2000 and the inception of the EWN--these essays have me thinking that those changes have been in the right direction, just maybe not fast and harsh enough.
The first essay, "Two Damn Books: How I Got Here and Where I Want to Go," describes aspects of the publishing industry itself through Roxane's experiences publishing her first two books. One is with a smaller, independent publisher and the other with a much larger house. Working with both she notices their structure, who else they're publishing, who they have working for them--where there is diversity and where there isn't and how much more climbing still needs to be done. The last essay, "The Books That Made Me Who I Am: I Am the Product of Endless Books," goes through some of the books that have influenced Roxane as a writer. As she notes in the essay "A list could not contain me." While she's able to come up with many titles that had an effect on her, she's well aware that there are dozens, or probably hundreds, of others that did so as well. I love that she includes children's books on her list--something I don't think many other writers have been brave enough to do when asked to make up their own list.
Beyond giving her readers something to think about in regards to who and what they are reading and why, Roxane's essays and interviews also generously gives her readers dozens of authors and titles to read as suggestions. While I've enjoyed many of the authors or books named in these essays, there are many others that I'm now looking forward to--including more of Roxane's work.
According to Facebook (my birthday calendar of record), it's Squire Babcock's birthday, which immediately brings to mind a great road trip with Aaron Burch and Matt Bell to Murray State University, a fried bologna sandwich, the Wiggles, a great cheeseburger in the middle of Ohio, broken bottles of beer, Matt Bell's great sleeping dilemma, and really enjoying the hell out of Squire's novel, The King of Gaheena, on the ride home.
...the EWN posting shall begin again
Another in a series of posts from other authors on the work of Merrill Joan Gerber--an author you should seriously track down and read. Today we have Rachel Swearingen writing about two story collections that Gerber published 20 years apart from each other.
One of the pleasures of reading Merrill Joan Gerber’s short story collections, Stop Here, My Friend (1963) and Honeymoon (1983), is tracing the development of the writer and her recurring characters. Gerber is masterful in turning the reader into confidante. In Stop Here, My Friend, written when the author was still in her twenties, she writes about women of various ages in New York City, Arizona, and Florida—mothers and daughters in the snare of family duty. She has been compared to Bellow, Roth, and Updike, but Gerber’s characters are unlikely to ever abandon their obligations for other adventures, and this simple fact is at the crux of many of these stories. Instead, Gerber’s women grow older and take care of children, husbands, siblings, and aging parents, all the while silently storing their own hard-earned wisdoms and their families’ complicated histories.
These tensions persist in Honeymoon, though social mores and expectations have relaxed somewhat, and California replaces New York as a prominent setting. The submerged dramas rarely erupt, but in this later collection, they boil and grow more complex, and the language loosens and in places turns richly, if briefly, lyrical.
Gerber, now in her seventies, has written over thirty books, sixteen of which have been released as eBooks by Dzanc Books as part of their rEprint Series. Her stories have appeared in numerous magazines, including The New Yorker, Sewanee Review, Redbook, and Atlantic Monthly. She studied with William Stegner at Stanford and has a style reminiscent of Grace Paley, Ray Carver, and Ann Beattie.
In the title story of Stop Here, My Friend, Kate fixates on a mother and daughter sharing an intimate lunch in a Chinese restaurant, telling us “she had always supposed there were mothers and daughters like this pair.” Kate is thirty-one and living with her parents, injecting insulin in her mother’s thigh every night with “a silver syringe,” and coming home each evening to a “neat glass of tomato juice arranged on a saucer between two Ritz crackers.” She wants her own apartment, but her parents are entirely dependent on her. She resists in small ways, throwing out the sandwiches her mother makes her and instead spending her money in restaurants—and daring to view a closet-sized walkup that is for rent. In a moment of boldness, Kate decides to take the apartment, but a few sentences later she reaches into her purse and discovers the fortune cookie from her lunch, “and grimly, grimly, she cracked it open.” The fortune is never revealed, and the “grimly, grimly” makes it implicit that Kate will return to her parents.
This grimness marks most of these early stories. Kate, like other young women in the book, grew up changing out of school dresses into “dungarees,” taking piano lessons, and being expected to marry good, “barmitzvahed” boys. This is a middle-class, post WWII, pre-Steinem world, where references to the “colored maid” appear, where women wear gloves, and there are just two kinds of girls, “good” and “fast.”
My favorite stories features smart, adolescent girls that ferret out discrepancies in adult stories and performances. In “Miss Mosh,” Marilyn, who hates playing the piano, has to endure endless lessons taught by incompetent neighborhood teachers. Marilyn meets her match in Miss Moss, a charlatan of a teacher who wears “some sort of terrible-smelling pomade on her wiry red hair, so that now she looked like a well-groomed porcupine.”
When her teacher’s behaviors grow too strange and cruel, Marilyn revolts and locks herself in the bathroom where she opens her teacher’s hidden suitcase and discovers a pink nightgown. “The feather stuffing in the garment was not distributed equally. In the front, or bosom of the slip, were two large shapeless mounds of feathers sticking out, giving the empty piece of underclothing a strange, living air. In the back, over the hips, was the same kind of stuffed feather mound, making the slip thrust out as if it had a bustle.”
Misfit, most likely transgendered, Miss Mosh veers dangerously close to the stereotypical eccentric, unmarried piano teacher, but Gerber reveals her in all her vulnerability and humanity. This turn appears in many of the early stories, and more subtly in later pieces that deal realistically with such difficult subjects as mental illness and domestic violence.
One of Gerber’s gifts is her dialogue. In Honeymoon, especially, she captures rich rhythms, pathos and wit. Take Janet’s Aunt Gertie, for example, bemoaning Janet’s widowed mother’s refusal to re-engage with the world: “But when I told her the program is going to be a paramedic teaching the methods of how do you call it, cardio-heart-massage, which is such a valuable thing to know at our age, what did your mother say? … she said ‘What do I need it for? To do it to myself, alone, someday in my apartment, when I have my heart attack?’”
Gerber explores several unreliable narrators and incorporates vibrant, barbed argument between family members and even neighbors. In “Straight from the Deathbed,” we revisit Edna, Martha’s mother-in-law from Stop Here, My Friend. Edna’s late-husband has made her promise to apologize to Martha for their initial terrible treatment of her. Edna can’t bring herself to grant this dying wish, though she is fond of Martha now and grateful for the grandchildren. She would “give her eyes” to see her husband spoil the children’s appetite with candy, a habit that used to annoy her. Instead she argues with and badgers her son until he threatens to take the family and leave. The anger mounts to near cataclysm, everyone sits down to eat, and overcome with guilt and anxiety, Edna breaks out her husband’s gumdrops, warning the children not eat too many.
In both books, Gerber’s characters give generously and often reluctantly. They sneak gefilte fish into nursing homes for their mothers. They feed entire packages of hotdogs to barking, distressed dogs they earlier fantasized about poisoning. They hide instructions for their burials in their pianos, so as not to burden their daughters. They spill bits of tragic family legend, while hiding crucial information.
Gerber's structures are linear and deceptively simple, but this combined withholding and generosity creates an undertow. Strikingly, her characters rarely succumb to despair. They love fiercely and faithfully, even when the people they care for are failing or incapable of change. I read these books quickly, and weeks later the characters linger. It's entirely plausible that somewhere, in Brooklyn or Los Angeles perhaps, Martha, Janet, and all the rest are still trying like the rest of us to live the best they can.
Throughout June we'll be posting about the career of Merrill Joan Gerber. I've asked some writers to take a look at her work from the 60's through last year and will most likely write a post or three myself during the month.
Merrill Joan Gerber is exactly the type of author we had in mind when we created the Dzanc Books rEprint Series. One of our goals with the series is to bring back great works of literature in eBook format and find a new readership and discussion for these works and authors. Merrill Joan Gerber's outstanding body of work deserves the attention that the eBook format will offer her.
Gerber has published over a dozen critically acclaimed books. She's frequently had her writing compared to greats such as Bellow and Roth. She's had stories selected for both the Best American Short Story series and the O.Henry Prize anthology series. She's had a novel win a Pushcart Editors' Book Award and had another receive the Ribalow Award from Hadassah Magazine for the "best English-language book on a Jewish theme." The L.A. Times listed her Anna in the Afterlife as a Best Novel of 2002. Cynthia Ozick has called Gerber "one of the masters."
Today, Anne Valente writes about Gerber's story collection, Anna in Chains.
Across the eleven stories featured in Anna in Chains, Merrill Joan Gerber offers readers varying glimpses into elderly life and the world of a nursing home. A linked collection, Anna in Chains invites the reader into the perspective of cantankerous and spunky Anna Goldman, a former piano player and widow who progresses from the independence of her mid-70s into the decreased mobility and nursing-home confinement of her late-80s. What is truly remarkable about the collection is that it manages to make the reader feel confined along with Anna, and also ruminate on the lack of elderly protagonists in American fiction and what it means to grow old in our society.
Early in the collection, Anna is mobile: she still visits her two daughters and their children, she still complains about her Armenian neighbors, and she still notices with shock the bared midriffs and open sexuality of those around her in the changing world of Los Angeles, a world still turning away from the mass fear of AIDS in 1998 when the collection was originally published. As the collection progresses, the wide-open and liberal landscape of Los Angeles serves as a counterpoint to the realm of the nursing home. Anna falls; she loses the independence of her own home. She loses the ability to freely visit her family, to walk Santa Monica Boulevard, to notice the diversity of the city around her, to be part of the live-studio audience of The Phil Donahue Show with her sister. Her world instead becomes one of “Wheel of Fortune, Meals on Wheels, poker, little tiny portions of milk frozen in margarine containers to last the week.”
As Anna’s world narrows her mind expands, growing more and more active within the nursing home. She finds herself underestimated, assumed to be shell of her once-self. She also finds herself frustrated, confined not only by her surroundings but by her own body too, in decline while her mind remains active and alert. This disconnect is hauntingly expressed: “The skin of her face was an accordion of the days of her life, folded one upon the other. This was what was left of her. What counted was inside, invisible.” Anna recognizes her own dismissal by nurses, orderlies, and even by her own children. Gerber captures masterfully the ways in which the elderly are neglected and ignored, and how both the body and the hospital become cages for a woman who knows her own character as unbound by age. Anna resists her evolution into obscurity, a backward march of time: “She was becoming an infant without teeth, a baby who peed in bed, who couldn’t walk, who couldn’t turn over herself, a baby who was going backward into the sea of time till soon she’d sink under, her head disappearing, and be gone.”
Upon finishing Anna in Chains, the reader may view his or her surroundings in a new light. He or she may also reflect with surprise on how little the end of life features in American fiction. The nursing home is a rarely addressed reality of old age, a landscape most readers and writers would rather ignore. Merrill Joan Gerber evokes this landscape with pain and precision, and through Anna’s compelling voice. Anna in Chains is a brave collection, one not easily set aside when finished. Gerber pulls back the veil on what it means to age, and what it means to be immobile and at the mercy of being forgotten.
Yesterday the postman was VERY nice, leaving a package from Graywolf Press that held an advanced reading copy of Eula Biss' forthcoming On Immunity: An Inoculation. This one comes out in late September. I loved her essay collection, Notes from No Man's Land and have been looking forward to this since hearing about it a month or so ago.
While it IS Short Story Month, the last two visits to the bookstore found me purchasing non-story collections. A little over a week ago I walked in and was specifically looking for a "mystery" title but was hit with the front table stack of books with a picture of Affirmed and Alydar on the cover. As a 12 year old that watched any horse racing that was on television, seeing two three year olds go 1-2 in all three Triple Crown races and end up a total of less than 3 lengths apart was ingrained in my memory. The book was a no brainer to pick up. Then passing the biography section I see Richard Nixon along with his with Pat on the cover of a book. Even less brains needed. And then I found the book I was there to pick up in the first place, The Thousand Dollar Tan Line (sue me, I'm an unabashed Veronica Mars fan). So far two of these have been finished and were very much enjoyed. Duel for the Crown: Affirmed, Alydar, and Racing's Gretaest Rivalry was a well done history of the two horses, their jockeys, their trainers and the farms that they came up with. Lots of great little details and the race scenes written in a manner to induce excitement in the reader (even one that knew how each race was going to end). And if you were a fan of the television series, or the recent Kickstarter aided movie, you'll like the Veronica Mars based novel.
My most recent visit to a bookstore had me as one of those patrons I've never been fond of--not buying any books, but instead flashcards for my daughter's forthcoming AP History test.
Wayne State University Press publishes a series titled Made in Michigan that has published many quite enjoyable story and poetry collections. This month sees the publishing of Strange Love, a collection by Lisa Lenzo (her second, the first won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award (University of Iowa Press).
I've had the pleasure of reading the first two stories and realizing that they're linked--a divorced, single mother, Annie, raising her daughter, Marly, (8 in story one, 12 in story two) in what seems to be in the SW Michigan area. So far both stories have delved into the idea of looking for love--the first, "Still Life," with Annie considering following up on personal ads to find somebody to date, while "Aliens" has Annie come to the realization that Marly has added sexual activity to her lifestyle.
Both are great stories--they're subtle, they sneak humor in when you're not expecting it, they don't have a BIG moment smacking the reader about the head three or four times--they don't need to.
I'm very much looking forward to seeing where Annie and Marly head in the other seven stories.
A short little story collection, Karate Chop by Dorthe Nors (translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken) from Graywolf Press is full of short gems. Stories that might seem like they'll be cute or simply slide toward the dark or weird.
"The Duckling" begins:
Alongside the big farm, dad ran a duck farm, and because he was a clever man he earned a lot of money from it.
A story called "The Duckling" starting off that way--how dark can it get? Well at some point the dad gives the daughter who narrates the story a duckling born somewhat unhealthy, giving her a chance to raise it. Her thought is to put it in a bowl lined with a towel and put it in the oven to keep it warm. Perhaps not so surprisingly it dies. In a nice upswing however, they have a nice father/daughter moment burying the duckling together.
Another story, "Female Killers" has a married man staying up after his wife has gone to bed and he starts wandering the internet. He ends up looking up various female killers and maybe the only thing stranger than the facts that start to pop up about the killers is the thoughts that pop into the man's head about the female killers--they're odd, they're scary--they're inspired writing. He worries for the son (given up at birth) of the serial killer that will one day find out her name and find there are over 200,000 hits for her on Google; he thinks of chimps killing bush babies with spears they've made when put in the position of being hungry.
Nors' stories are short, but not quite what I'd consider minimalist. They have big ideas and just get to them quickly. It's a very entertaining collection and one you'll read in a day.
The first book from the folks at A Strange Object, Kelly Luce's short story collection, Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail is a wonderful little object.
It is filled with ten stories, all of which had been previously published in journals such as The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, Shenandoah, Crazy Horse, and others.
Luce brings a great sense of imagination to her stories but doesn't stop there with the great and interesting ideas--she then follows up with observations on how people live and might react to such ideas and perhaps it's the combination of having lived both in the United States and in Japan for some time that gives her a slightly unique perspective.
The story "Reunion" begins:
Over the course of that interminable weekend after Jun died, Asian lady beetles overtook our place in the shadowy Tatsuka-cho. Orange, winged bodies coated the ceiling and left yellow stains; carapaces crunched underfoot against the bathroom tile. The air smelled like rancid walnuts.
It's an opening that has me pushing forward for sure--we know somebody has died, and the odd scenario of so many beetles taking over that they're crunching under the narrator's feet as she (we find out) walks in her apartment.
The protagonist moved into a room that her next-door neighbor offers her--her own husband having recently passed away himself. He had been a vacuum-cleaner designer and there were parts strewn throughout the small apartment she offered to the protagonist. One in fact almost looked like a person the way it's puffed up bag stood, like the torso of a human, sitting atop an odd assortment of feet.
The reader finds out that Jun had just given the protagonist the news that he was finally divorcing his wife--that soon they'd be able to be seen in public together, that their relationship would become more real. She reminisces a bit about their first time out together, a fair and losing at the three shell game over and over--the evening that they first kissed. The next door neighbor leaves her to her new place alone and after an interaction with the human looking vacuum-cleaner, the protagonist apparently falls into a dream beginning with:
...and a barker called out, his voice like a hook:
One night only, for sale at cost, everything you've ever lost!
And at this point she notices a stuffed animal on the table--one that she lost when she was a very young girl, it had fallen off the back of her mother's bike and even though she'd made her mother re-trace their steps close to a dozen times, it was never found. She places money on the table and takes the stuffed animal. She then sees other things she's lost over the years--socks, hair ties, a boot--and buys them all back. It's a strange scenario and seemingly adds a little more to the imaginiative side of Luce's writing. However she ends it in a powerful manner:
The last table held just one thing, a fist-sized, crimson lmp that shivered and thrashed like a fish out of water. I stared until it became a red blur. No price tag. My wallet was empty anyway. I turned away, my arms full and an empty feeling in my chest, a feeling like three shells and a realization--no ball, there never was a ball--and listened for a voice, any voice, to bring me back.
Having read the bulk of this small collection I'm happy to say that Luce continues doing this--finding new and interesting scenarios to dig her way into being able to write about every day ongoings. Not only having something to say, but doing so in an interesting way that maybe hasn't been done before. She definitely had me more than willing to start each new story just as soon as I finished the prior one.
And because a) I skimped out on Poetry month in April and b) I'm always happy to find a way to link to Hobart, here is a Chicago Cub Sestina written by Ms. Luce.
To date I believe this story has only seen the light of day in a limited edition (500 copies, 450 of which were signed, numbered and made available for sale) hardcover single story edition. Hair O' The Chine was published by Bruccoli Clark in 1979. The subtitle for this story is "A Documentary Film Script" and as Robert Coover has been known to do, it's a close and interesting look at a fairy tale, in this case that of The Three Little Pigs.
As Coover has also been known to do, this story takes a look at this particular fairy tale through lenses such as religion as well as sexuality. Slightly similar to his often anthologized story "The Babysitter," this story is told in fragments--though it differs, in my opinion, from "The Babysitter" in that Hair O' The Chine's fragments appear to be in chronological order.
It's been some time since I've read anything about, or including The Three Little Pigs itself, much of what Coover brings about was still familiar to me. However, the sections involving the pig and the wolf (told in documentary style to be explained shortly) were interspersed with sections about a man and a maid--two individuals that very may well have been in the original fairy tale--but even if they weren't, they fit in very well in Coover's story.
The documentary film style fragments specific to the pig and the wolf include scene descriptions (fade, pan, zoom in, etc.) and voiceovers for what is being "seen" by the reader. Much of the voiceover work is describing what how scholars and theologians have described what they've seen and determined the work to mean.
Cut to the pig in the window, as before. Silence, except for a faint distant whimpering and the soft tinkle of the children's song, heard before. The camera occupies itself with a slow scan of the entire tableau. The song and the whimpering gradually fade away. After a pause, the Voice clears its throat and, in something of a monotone at first, resumes:
Many have related this Temptation Sequence...
Quick pan back to the pig in the window, Voice continuing uninterrupted:
...to that of Christ in the Wilderness, while still other paraphrasts, grabbing at that infamous...ah...apple, argue again for the Adamic thing. Titus, whom we have mentioned, while not entirely throwing in with the theologians, has certainly furthered their cause with his exploitation of the well-known etymological relationship--indeed, identity--between "hog" and "lamb" in his book, Christ and the Brick, though his primary purpose is to demonstrate that Christ founded his church on a brick, not a rock. Now, may I have--?
Zoom back to reveal entire tableau once more with the text below. Voice:
Yes. Now, insofar as the red apple is a timeless image, of course, the one-track Adamists do not seem entirely astray, but their thesis that the abundant corn is a symbol of Eden, and the butterchurn one of labor in exile, shows how truly remote these boys are from this or any other world. All right, then, the actual temptations, so-called, are three: the pig is invited to a cornfield...
Zoom in to the cornfield at the extreme right of the tableau.
Pan left to the apple tree
...and a fair, to receive ears of corn...
Back to the cornfield.
Again to the apple tree.
...and a "bargain," which turns out to be...
Pan left to the butterchurn.
...yes, a butterchurn. On each occasion, the pig feels obliged somehow to accept the invitation, and on each occasion, the pig's danger is augmented. We seem to discover here, do we not, something approximating a series of trysts, of boy-girl dates, with the wolf making greater and greater advances. Though the pig escapes easily the first time, he--or she--must send the wolf chasing "an apple" the second time, and finally must wallop him with this the...uh...oh, oh...
Children's music distantly again, played on bells, as before. Close-up of the butterchurn in the clearing, as seen earlier. A slender hand reaches out from off-camera and touches it with the tip of one finger. The finger trails softly down the length of the churnstaff.
I've tried, with this selection from just beyond the middle of this story, to dip at least a little into each of the things Coover's got going on throughout this story. There's not so much of the man and maid here (though that is the maid's finger trailing softly down the length of the churnstaff in what one can only assume at this point, especially with the Voiced "uh...oh, oh..." above, to be just as sexual as one would believe from a Robert Coover story.
As always, Coover gives his readers much to think about, much to simply enjoy, and many fantastic, winding, meandering, thrilling sentences.
"Juggernaut" by Rick Bass starts off:
When I was seventeen, Kirby and I had a teacher who was crazy. This happened in the last year before Houston got big and unlivable.
Big Ed, we caled him: Eddie Odom. Mr. Odom. He taught geometry as an afterthought; his stories were what he got excited about. Class began at nine o'clock. By 9:20, he would be winded, tired of sines and cosines, and he would turn to the clock in a way that almost arounsed sympathy--so tired!--ten minutes before going into his stories. The thrill that Kirby and I felt when he lurched into these stories following a halfhearted geometry lecture--there would be no warning whatsoever, we would suddenly be listening to something as fantastically wild and free as geometry was boring, and we wouldn't have done anything to earn it, we'd find ourselves just pulled into it, in the middle of it, and enjoying.
And that's exactly where Bass has his reader at this point--in the middle of it and enjoying. And he continues doing that, while seemingly jumping from story to story across Houston with Kirby and the narrator (and Big Ed again, later on). And it goes on and on until ending with:
Anything is possible.
Which also fits well with Bass' writing in this story--anything does seem possible in his hands. Had I read this back in '87, I definitely would have looked for more writing by Rick Bass
At first I thought the title of Pamela Schirmeister's "Greving" was a typo (which seemed more than odd for this particular journal), but realized shortly into it that it was correct and that greves were a type of African birds the main characters were watching.
Okay, my stupidity out of the way, I kept noticing the introductory sentence to each paragraph as I read the story:
"For six days and nights now ithas been raining, a small August rain, bouncing on the roof of the tent."
"Perhaps Brand is vanishing, but at least there is very little to disturb us here."
"I do not think I would mind the rains were it not for the greves, which are very difficult to look for in the rain."
"Perhaps that makes little difference, either, since Brand speaks hardly at all these days and often takes to the tent."
"It must be admitted that there was a time when we thought of nothing but the greves."
"On the way, the rain let up quite suddenly, with a big wind coming to blow us around, and then the sky deepened, as if to leave us room."
These sentences almost tell the story on their own, but there is also something, well, "off" seems to be too strong a word, but to me, Schirmeister has a way with words all her own. It isn't passive, but it rarely takes on the subject--verb structure. Not in a way that distracts, but more in a way that kept my interest.
It's been way too long and there have been too many great books published, read and not written about since that last post.
Coming soon will be some reviews of Merrill Joan Gerber's backlist.
We are only five days away!
Otherwise known as my favorite month of the year when it comes to reading. I have a stack of collections and journals that I'll be posting about this month. Stay tuned.
The story "Church" is in the Spring 2013 issue of Ploughshares and per her contributor notes, is Kimblery Swayze's first story published (along with some previously published poetry). Let's hope as readers that it's not the last one she publishes.
Because he could not afford to bury her, Wilson was still living with his mother.
That's how Swayze opens the story--seriously, how in the hell do you not read the second sentence after that beginning? Which is:
On the whole, though, his luck was holding.
What? He's living with the dead body of his mother--how well can his luck be holding? I'm definitely in at this point and over the course of the next 11 or 12 pages, Swayze doesn't give me any reason to let myself wander to another writer in this journal--the writing is gritty, it's full of surprises, for example:
He did not want her touching him. She drew closer, pusher her face against his shoulder. He could feel the warmth of her body. He edged away, as far as he could go. Darlene slid closer, trapping him against the door. She put her hand on his thigh. She began to stroke, using her palm, her fingernails.
Obviously we all know where this is headed...
Wilson's stomach roiled, his mouth filled with brine. he knew what would happen next. Wilson clenched his jaws together, choking as his mouth filled up. He made a desperate attempt to shove her away in time but he wasn't fast enough. She shrieked, leapt aside, snatcher her purse away from the stream of vomit. Her jacket, her furry boots, were splattered.
Not quite what I was expecting. Swayze's writing is exciting--again, gritty (as seen above), and takes on a pretty dark subject and goes maybe even farther than is comfortable--which is exactly how I prefer the writers I read deliver their works. I'll be watching for more work from Kimberly Swayze for sure.
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A fantastic collection, Ralph Lombreglia's debut. I first read the title story in BASS 1987 in a class. I enjoyed it enough to keep the name on my radar and purchased his full collection once I found it.
Much as I enjoyed the title story, I think I actually liked "Inn Essence" a little bit more--the story of a slightly crazed, perfectionist, dessert chef as well as the others that worked in the restaurant that he did had some intrigue, a lot of humor, great sentences, and reminded me a little of T.C. Boyle's "Sorry Fugu," only maybe a little bit better--which at that time was close to reading opinion sacrilege where I was concerned.
Other great include "Museum of Love," the story of a house turned museum as it showed off the development and breakdown of a love affair--with the dumped male residing in the museum; "Jazzers," a bit of a mid-life crisis story about guys that used to be in a band trying to re-live those glory days a bit (that's a poor description though--much more going on); and again the title story, good enough to be included in BASS that year.
Lombreglia is a great story writer--one that comes up with really cool ideas and then delivers by writing his butt off infusing the stories with humor, with great descriptions, wonderful characters, and again, the humor. It's not beat you over the head "I'm trying to make you laugh" humor, but that fantastically subtle humor that gets you to smile, to chuckle aloud a bit and realize you're in the hands of one that observes his fellow man very well.
Men Under Water is now available in eBook form as part of the Dzanc Books rEprint Series. You can find it here. Something I am thrilled to be able to say.