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Went to see Peter Geye read at Nicola's Books in Ann Arbor last night and it turned into a fairly cozy reading. That is, summer in Ann Arbor might not always be the best time for readings, especially right around Art Fair as people are running around, busy, worn out, etc. After those of us that were there for the reading spread ourselves our rather widely in the available seating, the moderator of the event suggested maybe we sit around their (UNLIT) fireplace--couple of couches, some comfy chairs, etc., and so we did.
Peter read the first chapter and then opened things up for questions and as he knew 71.4% of the listeners, I think maybe it opened up for some different types of questions than from a completely cold audience. He had a former student in the crowd, somebody with which he had shared a panel at Voices of the Midwest, another novelist, etc. He also had people that had read all three of his novels and knew of the association between the new one, Wintering, and the last before that, The Lighthouse Road, and those who had yet to read any of them.
So one or two of the questions were a bit more personal than you might usually see, and at the same time, Peter was doing his best not to release anything that might spoil the reading of Wintering for those that had not yet done. What it was though was enjoyable. The novel is fantastic, Peter's a nice guy who gave very long, thoughtful answers--a couple of the questions were in similar veins to those that he's been asked, but different enough that he had to think a bit about how exactly to answer them. Had it been snowy and cold out and that fireplace lit up might have been a bit more appropriate for this particular author/novel combination, but it was still a very good way to spend a portion of my evening.
Book Review 2016-013
Mincemeat: The Education of an Italian Chef by Leonardo Lucarelli
Translated by Lorena Rossi Gori and Danielle Rossi
2016 by Other Press, 352 pages
(I received a galley from the publisher--the book won't publish until December 6, 2016)
Leonardo Lucarelli has a degree in Anthropology from an Italian University. A great chunk of the money earned to pay for that degree came from working in restaurants in every position from dishwasher on up through head chef. In using the kitchen life to earn his way through school, Lucarelli caught himself a case of Kitchen Fever--becoming addicted to the highs and lows of the kitchen; the constant tension and need to concentrate and push; the need to constantly walk a thinner tightrope and search for more creative ways of doing things.
What Lucarelli does is give his readers the life of one who has worked for years in a kitchen but not become a name that even most foodies would know. He's not a television star; he doesn't have his name included in the name of five or six restaurants. He takes the reader into the kitchen and lifestyle at a level they might be able to see themselves in--something harder to do if you're reading the latest Top Chef judge's biography.
What Lucarelli does very well is get the reader to feel the way he does as a server, or cook or even chef--we understand the great gut punch felt when he arrives to a boat for a party he and another are hosting only to find that the galley has no sink and the one burner stove does not blend well with many meals, let alone the menu he's prepared and shown up with food ready to cook. We also feel the electric elation he feels when after that meal, another cook in attendance raves about a portion of the meal. We feel the fear he feels when pulled over on his motorcycle with a passenger holding onto a brick of drugs, and the emotions roiling through his head when he's involved with various women (frequently waitresses).
What I don't believe Lucarelli does overly well is create a solid arc for Mincemeat. There are a ton of great stories here involving drugs, arrests, threesomes with other cooks, travel and various level of cooking but not that bit that hits you as a reader with the a ha! moment. The, That's why I need to read this hammer. If there is that bit or topic, I believe it's Lucarelli's pointing out some of the perhaps unknown economics of life in the kitchen--at least in Italian kitchens. The fact that many cooks/chefs are immigrants working without contracts, that they are abused in the hours demanded, the treatment, the pay scale and even occasional lack of pay altogether. That under the table deals flow freely and can seemingly change on the fly without both parties agreeing. These sections are very well done and it's necessary for these aspects of the kitchen world to be pointed out. It just seems that then the more "exciting" stories surround these important portions not so much to help the reader understand but in order to entice them along as far as possible before foisting the realities on them again.
The writing itself is very good, and had I read four or five essays by Lucarelli, I believe I'd have held them all in high esteem and suggested readers with similar tastes, especially the foodies, give them a read. And I think that people in the groups I'd do that with will enjoy Mincemeat quite a bit as well. Where I think it lacks as a non-fiction work is when I hold it up to something like Kurlansky's Cod, a book about something I couldn't have cared less about, until I began to read his words. It's what I look for in my non-fiction, a work so well done and interesting that it holds the attention, and more, of those that had decided to give it a flyer and read it, not for those that picked it up relatively sure they'd enjoy it. Mincemeat is a very good, solid, even above average read...for foodies and those interested in the restaurant industry.
Book Review 2016-012
Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens
2016 by Tin House, 165 pages
(I purchased this title earlier this year)
I've sat in the waiting room during the C-Section of my oldest, and then was near enough to catch my 2nd and 3rd children as they were born but would never be bold enough to say that I had a clue of what was going on in a woman's head during labor--until maybe now where I think I at least have a clue thanks to Pamela Erens third novel, Eleven Hours.
Lore, a young woman getting to the hospital maybe just a bit early, alone with her own book of how things will go in she wants to be as natural an experience as possible, is paired with a nurse, Frankline, who brings many unique aspects to her experience for the labor that follows. Frankline was born in Haiti where as a young girl she began to involve herself in the various births happening in her area up until she took on the role of midwife. She also happens to be pregnant herself, early enough to not have told anyone, including her husband, just yet, as she's afraid of what could still happen.
Erens explores the minds of both of these quiet women--giving the reader an inside peek into what each is thinking and at what stages of Lore's labor. As the contractions get stronger, last longer, causing more pain, Erens' writing gets a bit darker, a bit grittier. She's able to express the pain as it spreads through Lore's body from the middle of her back to her pelvis and ribs and returning to the muscles in lower back again. Beyond her description of this pain is the emotional beating that both Lore, and Frankline, as she worries about Lore being alone while also being concerned about the child inside her, go through both during the contraction and the lulls between.
Erens uses these lulls well as each time there's an type of break in the more action-filled portions of labor, Lore's thoughts go to the relationships of her past, specifically those with her former fiance, Asa, the father, and their mutual best friend, Julia. The relationships and interactions from the past are slowly foisted onto the reader through the labor--really expertly done, giving one just as much information as is needed throughout. Erens has us fully understanding where Lore's mind is at and why by the time things are really moving forward with the labor.
The inclusion of Frankline and her pregnancy, as well as getting into Lore's head between contractions, has Erens showing the weight that being pregnant carries--the lack of any time that its not front and center, even when it might not appear to be via outward appearances. It's a short novel, and a fast read, though it should be enjoyed as slowly as possible to really get the feelings, the pains, the emotions running through these two women. It's a really great read.
The second chapter of Annie Proulx's Barkskins continues where chapter one left off--the story is still being told in a direct, straightforward manner. It begins with a note that Duquet was gone and has Monsieur Trepagny becoming a little more talkative with Rene. This leads to his noting:
"Our people in earlier times were badly treated in France. The popish demon church called us heretics and tortured us. They believed they had conquered us. They were wrong. We have held to our beliefs, hand, heart and body in secret for centuries and here in New France we will grow strong again." He extolled the new land, said it would surpass Old France in richness in power.
He also explains to Rene information about both the foresting that they are doing, as well as the trapping industry--and by doing so within conversation, Proulx takes away the TELL factor. As a reader, I didn't find myself taking this information in as the author giving me a big history lesson so I'd understand what comes next. Instead it rolled off of Trepagny's tongue to Rene Sel in a very believable manner.
In similar ways, Proulx allows Rene to learn better methods of fishing and catching eel from Mari, and Trepagny's Uncle Chara shows up, adding to the group and taking Duquet's place--kind of, not much of a worker Chara (though he wasn't replacing much of a worker either).
Again, a chapter that makes me want to bump the next page side of my kindle screen.
Section II of Jeffrey Renard Allen's Rails Under My Back is entitled Chosen and has 38 chapters to it.
Chapter 2 concentrates on Jesus's parents--John and Gracie--and their relationship in a very short (4 pages) bit of writing. He uses italics for flashbacks during this section:
His old running buddy, run off into a dust and dirt cloud of memory, his funky unwashed pea coat billowing out from his shoulder blades like a racing car's parachute. John and Dallas: used to be hard to know where one began and the other left off. Why don't you say what you mean?
By usage of these bits of flashback writing, Allen allows us the knowledge that John fought in the war (at this point I'm guessing Viet Nam) and that early in their relationship Gracie seemed more interested in having fun with John than in having something more serious. We also learn a bit about Gracie's relationships with her mother, Lula Mae, and sister, Sheila, while the current time discussion between John and Gracie allows the reader into their worries over their eldest, Jesus.
It is really a great little chapter for how Allen's specific usage of styles brings forth information and how it's allowing the reader into various aspects of the story and not just plowing along into a single line.
The thing with this Read Along With the EWN series is that it is going to involve big books. Even in paperback form, Allen's Rails Under My Back is a hefty tome to lug around. So there will also most likely always be a concurrent Read Along With title that is on my kindle. In this case it's the new Annie Proulx novel, Barkskins. This beast is 736 pages long and was picked up a week ago or so. I'm going to apologize in advance for not understanding typepad well enough to figure out how to get the various French accents into these posts--they are numerous.
The first section of the novel is "foret, hache, famille 1693-1716" and it is broken into multiple chapters, the first of which is Trepagny.
The end of the first paragraph reads: "Mud, rain, biting insects and the odor of willows made the first impression of New France. The second impression was of dark vast, forest, inimical wilderness." And with these words, Proulx establishes the setting of her novel. New France--the land of the Upper Midwest of what is now the United States and across the now border with Canada on up to Quebec (Kebec in this novel).
Proulx is especially good with descriptions of just how rugged this world was during this stretch of time:
"Mosquitoes covered their hands and necks like fur."
"Bebites assailed them, minuscule no-see-ums like heated needles, blackflies with a painless bite that dispersed slow toxins, swarms of mosquitoes in such millions that their shrill keening was the sound of the woods."
and they continue on. The who involved are Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, both sold to a master Monsieur Trepagny. They are walking through this forest from where he picked them up to the land he owns and is working. They are his engages.
The writing is straightforward. Proulx has done a very nice job of setting up Rene Sel as a character, his setting in New France along with Monsieur Trepagny, and his situation--he's working alongside Trepagny clearing the forest--by chapter's end, Duquet has snuck off into the forest, having let Rene know that his intentions all along were to become a fur trader.
So far, the novel is entertaining, informative and I'm looking forward to chapter two.
To reiterate the idea behind the Read Along With...program here at the EWN, "Reading along with the EWN--where I'll begin to tackle these larger titles and do so in sections, to help push me to a) make sure I tackle all of the books on my pile and not just the shorter novels or story collections, and b) read at least a little bit every day---I've noticed when reading a 2-300 page novel, unless I know I have 2-3 hours carved out to really dig in, that I'll set it aside, which has led to a lot of recent weekend and Holiday reading and not much else."
One thing I hope will be interesting is the process of discovery throughout reading a longer novel--I'm aware that my own thoughts can change drastically through the reading of a novel, especially a longer one. The learning through further reading of what exactly the author is doing, how their writing style might help or harm my understanding, etc.
Jeffrey Renard Allen's Rails Under My Back was originally published in 2000 by FSG. The version I have is the reprinting by his current publisher, Graywolf Press, from 2015 with an introduction by Charles Johnson. I know I read the introduction earlier this year when I pulled this book out for reading, but chose not to this time. Instead I jumped right into Allen's writing.
Part One: Seasonal Travel - Chapter 1
"Long before Jesus entered the world, blades of southern grass sliced up the soles of his grandmother's feet." These words begin Allen's novel and begin a section devoted mainly to this character, Jesus. We do get bits and pieces of his family--his father, John; his mother and her sister; and his cousins. We're also introduced to Jesus' world--a contemporary named No Face (who is missing one eye).
Allen's writing is full of life, bursting at the seams at times:
And John--the man he knew as his father, wild in the face, sensing the stuff in Jesus and Hatch, their young blood purring, gurgling, lifted high, struggling to be heard--John snuck Jesus and Hatch from under the hopeful eyes of the family into the morning, the sun's bare ribs poking through the clouds, Jesus and Hatch perched in the back seat of John's gold Park Avenue, a huge ship of a car.
There are numerous sentences like this spread throughout this section--long, winding, reversing, explanatory sentences. Sentences that beg to be re-read once or twice both for enjoyment, and for better understanding.
Allen bounced Jesus from dinner with his family to smoking with No Face to playing basketball with others. The POV roams from 2nd to 3rd in a way that keeps me on my toes as a reader. Allen also digs into the manner of language that these particular characters use--the various conversations eschewing quotation marks:
Like that, huh? A mission.
Hard-core. No Face patted his heart.
Then how come you ain't got no rep?
He looked at Jesus for a long moment. You don't know me from Adam. I got a rep. You jus ain't heard about it.
Yeah. I heard you a busterpunklyinmotherfucks.
Now why you come at me like that?
Jus stop frontin. I got proof. Real proof.
Man, you don't know me from Adam. I got proof too. I--
Jus fire up the Buddha
One thing I have noticed that I tend to do once I'm actually active again here, especially once I begin to review books again, is that I tend to shun larger books for those with a little less heft. It's not entirely intentional but has certainly happened in the past. A book I mentioned earlier this year has sat pretty much untouched until last night--Jeffrey Renard Allen's debut, Rails Under My Back. The version I have (paperback from Graywolf Press) has an introduction by Charles Johnson as well.
That all in mind, I've decided I'm going to start a new series here--Reading along with the EWN--where I'll begin to tackle these larger titles and do so in sections, to help push me to a) make sure I tackle all of the books on my pile and not just the shorter novels or story collections, and b) read at least a little bit every day---I've noticed when reading a 2-300 page novel, unless I know I have 2-3 hours carved out to really dig in, that I'll set it aside, which has led to a lot of recent weekend and Holiday reading and not much else.
So I'm beginning with Rails Under My Back, which is not much less than 600 pages but is broken up into 55 chapters/sections. So, I'm going to read one per day and comment upon it the next day here at the EWN Blog. I hope the notes are of at least some interest--I have noticed over time the differences in my thoughts while reading a book compared to those after completion, after finding out where the writer was intending to go all along. This series will run concurrently with the complete book reviews and interviews I'll continue to do--reading more than one title at a time has never been too much of a problem.
Had a nice trip to Ann Arbor earlier today that included a visit to Literati. While at various points during the visit I was probably carrying 6-10 books, I ended up purchasing and bringing home a trio:
Jensen Beach's short story collection, Swallowed By The Cold (Graywolf Press), Dorthe Nors novella collection, So Much For That Winter (Graywolf Press) and the latest novel from Samantha Hunt, Mr. Splitfoot (HMH).
A nice treat when getting home was the envelope from West Virginia University Press which contained an Advanced Reading Copy of Sheryl Monks' forthcoming (November 2016) short story collection, Monsters in Appalachia. I first "met" Sheryl via her work at Press 53 where she was at least partially responsible for the publishing of Visiting Hours, the short fiction anthology I edited. Watching this book develop via Facebook posts has been a treat and I'm looking forward to dipping into some stories.
The first EWN email in quite some time went out a little over a week ago--three book reviews and a comic book review from some of the latest material at the EWN website. Included was this note:
You are receiving this email because at one point long ago, you signed up to receive emails on the EWN list. I don't want to assume you're still as interested as you were many years ago so this will be the last time I include your email address on a list unless I hear from you asking to remain on the list--a simply reply to email@example.com to let me know and I'll make sure you continue to receive the future emails.
So far the Emerging Writers Network 2.0 is up to 58 members.
The next email, going out to that group, will be going in the next 48 hours or so--one of those hours.
Anybody not receiving said email that would be interested in future emails, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org
We have a few different guest posts for the month and the first up will be from Jodi Paloni (whose story collection I'm currently enjoying):
A Small Town Short: “Incoming Tide” by Elizabeth Strout
Taking a walk down the dirt road where I live, I make a correlation between the short stories I like best and what I like about living in rural northeastern towns. I’m talking about the one post office, one general store, and an ice cream stand in summer type towns. Here’s what those stories do:
Establish a sense of place. While all towns have it, and suburbs, and cities, too–––a feature, and more than one, that distinguish a particular place from some of the others–––not all stories do the job. The ones I like best make use of rugged backdrops, rocks and naked trees, corvids, seabirds, overgrown lanes and rusty vehicles, tides. Weave a dreary atmosphere, a chill, and, as far as I’m concerned, you elevate the narrative.
Now evoke dissonance. It’s crazy hot for late April in Maine, the sun beating down on dampness everywhere. Up here, when it’s hot like this, I feel unsettled. Temperatures say its swimming weather, but there’s scarce green in the woods. Not enough birds. Too quiet. Something’s amiss. It’s reminiscent of slow-burning first act tension in literature.
Throw in the unexpected character. My near neighbor, the guy with the long white hair on the Harley, revved up engine, slows down when passing me, flashes a smile, flicks a friendly wave. He’s called The Outlaw. An American flag is appliqued on the back of his jeans jacket.
Not everything is as it appears. Characters have their wily ways. There’s his conduct. Fifty yards ahead, The Outlaw chucks the bottle he’s drinking from to the ditch and let’s loose a giant hocker. He knows I see him. He’s my nearest neighbor. I drive a fuel-efficient vehicle with a loon stamped on my conservation vanity license plate. He’s marking his territory, starting a conversation. It’s my move, but I’m not biting. I’m considering his backstory, his motivation, the mystery between us. For now, I leave the bottle where he left it, the ending unwritten.
I finish my walk. I try to enjoy the gift of sunshine on a New England seaside town.
Elizabeth Strout’s short story, “Incoming Tide” from her Pulitzer-prize winning short story collection, Olive Kitteridge, opens by creating a sense of place and establishes that place matters. A bay. Shifting rocks. The twang of a cable against a mast. The cry of a gull. A marina.
Kevin, our third person narrator, has been sitting in his car looking out over the water, taking it all in, which is nothing unusual on the coast of Maine, but he’s been parked there awhile. How much time went by, Kevin didn’t know. He’d been away and now he’s back. He was as much a stranger up here now as any tourist might be, and yet gazing back at the sun-sliced bay, he noted how familiar it felt; he had not expected that. What had he expected? Why should it matter? Dissonance. Something is amiss.
For a few pages, you get Kevin’s backstory–––childhood trauma, mental illness, no family. He finds himself lost in a memory about a woman, a waitress at the marina restaurant, who he sees from his car window as she crosses the parking lot carrying a bucket, and preparing to chuck clamshells from a pail over the cliff into the sea. He has fond memories of her from when they were children. A yearning stirred in him that was not sexual but a kind of reaching towards her simplicity of form. His reverie is interrupted when Olive Kitteridge, his ungainly seventh grade schoolteacher from years ago, suddenly appears, raps on his windshield and lets herself into his vehicle. She can do this. It’s a small town, and Kevin’s family’s story, his mother’s tragic end, left a mark, far-reaching.
Plenty of backdrops work well to show characters living on the edge. In this case, Strout has positioned her protagonist on a literal edge–––a parking lot near a cliff, a bay that feeds into the Atlantic Ocean. Plenty of stories show how a strange alliance can enter the protagonist’s world. But Olive Kitteridge, the burly buttinsky, is unlike the prosaic small town gossip, or another manifestation, The Outlaw, the cliché, Olive means to get to the heart. She prompts. She’s here, not to meddle, or provoke, but to salvage.
In my way of thinking, these details make a difference. If you have characters on the edge, why not place them on the farthest reach you can find? Employ a busybody as a mover and shaker and make sure she’s got the presence of mind to sit still when the dark stuff starts to rise, the gumption to spring into action when serious shit hits the fan.
As Kevin and Olive, the unlikely pair, observe the vulnerability of the waitress whose personal struggle, from the little we find out, parallels the story enclosed in the parked car, their conversation progresses. Kevin is thrown into discourse on private matters he’d prefer not to discuss, while Olive proves a worthy listener, for she too has survived the tenebrous tangle of mental illness in one of her parents.
In this story, the topic of suicide is the glass bottle thrown to the ditch like a gauntlet. Strout handles it as lightly on the page as I have seen–––a glance at a gun in the back seat, wind blowing at the skirt of the thin figure standing on the precipice of the sea. Before you know it, the story has taken you to the outer lip of a desolate landscape and inside the emotional hollows of three loosely connected people, now dependent on one another for survival. You are indelibly marked.
Jodi Paloni grew up in rural Pennsylvania, and moved north to Vermont, where she lived for twenty-five years. She recently settled on the rocky coast of Maine. Her debut story collection, They Could Live With Themselves (Press 53, 2016), comprises eleven linked stories set in the fictional town of Stark Run, Vermont. She was a runner up in the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction, the Raymond Carver Short Story Contest, and winner of the Short Story America prize for Short Fiction. Her stories appear in a number of literary journals in print and on-line. You can learn more at www.jodipaloni.com and on Twitter @JodiPaloni.
The USPS was kind today, dropping off the copy of Michael Martone's short story collection, Fort Wayne is Seventh On Hitler's List (Indiana University Press, 1993). To be honest, I wasn't sure if I had this collection or not, and had read Enlarged Edition on the publisher's website and ordered it with that in mind.
Reading the preface though, I realize that I'd had the book before, and might still (things are a little cluttery still here when it comes to books, boxes and shelves). I knew that Martone's debut, Alive and Dead in Indiana (which is available in eBook form from Dzanc Books rEprint series) had been cut to a slimmer size by Knopf before it was published. What I didn't know (or remember) is that this collection was essentially that book bulked up with four more stories---what I don't know and am curious about now is if the bulking up replaced whatever Knopf requested removed, or if these were different stories altogether. I'm going to give those stories, specifically, a read during the month!
"Tom was on glory hole duty and Ericka was doing the dog shit, so when Crystal went on break, she went out back by herself and lay in the lettuce bags with one of the pamphlets from the Info Kiosk, a pamphlet for the Akron Zoo, a place with things like tigers and fruit bats and penguins that were sort of like dogs and the deer they sometimes saw, but not like dogs and deer at all."
This is the first line of the short story, "Service Area," by Matthew Kirkpatrick today at The Rumpus. Go back and read that again and tell me there's any way in hell you're not reading the second sentence and beyond.
"Service Area" reminded me of a Matthew Derby story in a way--a lot of recognizable aspects to it, but just different enough in details to be a little beyond offbeat. The service areas in question seem to be those stopping areas with gas stations and food courts on the Ohio Turnpike. The biggest difference in this fine piece of writing is that those that are workers in the service areas reside there, living and working, and have been doing so since birth--the majority, if not all, of the people having been found as babies in dumpsters--a bright, almost magical, light shining the way so they'd be found as quickly as possible.
Those residing/working in the service areas dream about the places they hear of from passers through--mostly Cleveland, Toledo, Gary, though there is a group of teenagers heading to California to 'become stars.' The part that has me already thinking of re-reading the work is the idea of just how similar the world Kirkpatrick has placed his characters is to our current situation--but the slight differences give me all the reason in the world to read this another time or two before this weekend is over. He makes it look effortless it's done so smoothly but I don't think it could have been so and I want to try to unpack what Kirkpatrick has done. It also makes me realize I have at least one, if not two, copies of his FC2 story collection in this house that was (were?) purchased and set in a stack and then found its (their) way to a shelf somewhere. I need to search for it (them?) and get reading more of his work.
Maybe right after I re-read this story a time or two.
Thought we'd start off National Short Story Month with a read of an online journal short story. "Sex Coffee" by Desiree Cooper comes to us from Blood Orange Review. This is a great little flash piece that starts off:
You walk into the coffeehouse and pick a seat beside the thin woman whose beauty is coiled into tight vines of hair. Never seen her here before, you think as you slide into the bench beside her, careful not to get caught looking in her direction.
You take off your coat, power up your laptop, check your cell phone for messages. You coyly lay your trap.
I generally like second person point of view pieces--one thing I've found is that those that have made it into publication are usually written very well. I almost think that a little extra care must have gone into each one to help the story/poem/novel/essay get past whatever hang-ups an editor might have had about the point of view.
I like how, even though this is a pretty short flash, Cooper was able to find something to use as a thread from beginning to end--from the third paragraph:
The skinny, clear-skinned woman looks up, a gazelle at the watering hole.
From later toward the very end of the piece:
She leans so close to your lips, you can smell the savannah in her pores.
It's an example to me of the little things that Cooper does within her stories, both flash and the longer pieces, that elevates her work. Examples like this are easy to spot throughout Cooper's stories. "Sex Coffee" is an excellent flash capturing a certain type of dude just perfectly. While short in length, it doesn't lack any power, not wasting any words or space on the page. A great start to the month and just one more great effort from Desiree Cooper.
Stories and collections and publishers and authors will be discussed here and hopefully at many other sites during the month.
Today's work of the day is the poem, The Point, by C. Dale Young via the fine journal StorySouth.
Young has published four collections of poetry to date (I'm behind on this by one I believe) and has a collection of short stories I'm greatly looking forward to coming from Four Way Books next year. Young is also a doctor and while this doesn't always directly enter his poetry, when it does, it can be very powerful.
His other doctors proclaimed he would die
within a month. He kept on living for years:
the simple fact is that he was barely thirty
is the opening stanza of sixteen such stanzas which are followed by a single line. Here's where I have to offer my standard poetry apology--I've not studied poetry at all, if this is a particular type of poem or if there's a better way to describe these "sections" I do not know.
While one never knows just how autobiographical a piece is, be it poetry or fiction, I think there's an inherent belief by most readers that there's something within the work that comes direct from the author's life. And when the author has the protagonist in her/her work be very similar to themselves, it makes it that much more difficult for the reader to avoid this.
In which case, I imagine the ideas behind this poem must have flooded out of Young, though also much have been pretty crushing to continue working on and refine until he had it just right. While the patient noted "kept on living for years," I think it's pretty obvious from that opening that things aren't going to continue on that way for long.
And while I think doctors must have some sort of mechanism to get through the lost patients--especially those working mainly with patients that suffer life-threatening diseases--I also think there must be patients that have something about them that make these mechanisms seem very inefficient.
So this is it? You're just going to let me die?
Mano, you leave me here to die like this?
But here, you see, the tongue is wiser than
a knife, the word selected not just "brother" but
a word that cut far deeper than English ever could.
The urge to prophecy is deep but not a given.
The italicized section the words of this patient as the doctor has run out of ways to fight his cancer. And these words, this particular word, Mano, has cut the doctor deep. As implied early in the poem, the patient does indeed pass away. Early the morning that this occurs, this conversation returns to the doctor's mind. The patient's sister called later that day to inform that doctor that her brother had passed very early that a.m. This leads to the doctor wondering how he knew and again brought to mind that word Mano.
Whether or not this is a situation Dr. Young has personally gone through, one would assume his years of doctoring, of associating with other doctors, is what has given him the insight to write such a poem, but it's his years of working with words on the page that have allowed him to draw such power into this work. That allowed it to be as concise as it is--that allows the reader to feel the gut punch that the doctor in The Point must feel.
Book Review 2016-006
Hesitation Wounds by Amy Koppelman
2015 by The Overlook Press, 187 pages
(I purchased a copy of this hardcover when it came out late in the fall)
(There are a plot spoiler or two in this review--couldn't really figure out how to keep them out)
Amy Koppelman might be the bravest writer I know. She writes of difficult subjects--specifically various forms of depression--and does not shy away from any aspects of the disease. Her debut, A Mouthful of Air (MacAdam/Cage, 2003) told the story of a new mother suffering from postpartum depression. Her follow-up, I Smile Back (Two Dollar Radio, 2008), followed a married mother as she tried to work through her bi-polar depression through searching for wider ranges of high excitement. In each of these cases, Koppelman chose to allow the reader to feel as close to what it feels like to have either of these forms of depression by digging deeply into their minds. Not simply implying or stating that they were feeling dark, but expressing exactly what they were feeling and how their actions might help or hinder any development toward their improvement.
In Hesitation Wounds, while still dealing with the subject of depression, Koppelman has switched points of view and has as her main character Susanna Seliger, a renowned psychiatrist working with patients suffering from treatment-resistant depression. Koppelman gives us the thoughts from one who helps battle depression for others, and not one battling herself. And while depression, specifically of two individuals, plays a prominent role in this novel, Koppelman has really tackled grief and memory in Hesitation Wounds.
The novel begins with Dr. Seliger in an airport--she's recently received a phone call from an adoption agency suggesting they believe they've found her a daughter. Without much warning the narrative goes into her remembering a patient, Jim, telling her a story. It's something Koppelman does very well in this novel--she changes time frames and what one might refer to as scenes freely and while the time span covers some nearly 30 years, the novel is mainly written in the present tense. However, Koppelman's writing is so crystal clear, it never takes more than a sentence or so for the reader to realize that a switch has been made.
The patient, Jim, is undergoing ETC (electroconvulsive therapy) as what one would have to consider a last ditch effort to battle the voices that have been in and out of his head for years. At this time he's in for his last treatment. He's middle-aged, married, has a couple of dogs, and is a freelance writer. As this afternoon comes to an end, Jim is headed off with his wife and Dr. Seliger runs slightly late to meet Evan for dinner at an Italian restaurant. I don't remember it being clear at the moment of this meal, but it comes out later that the two are in a long-standing relationship but not married. During the meal, right after Susa (her childhood nickname) tells Evan that she loves him, he lets her know that he impregnated a waitress on his last trip out of town. Which leads to their relationship ending and throughout the rest of the novel has Dr. Seliger remembering incidents from this and other relationships.
Getting back to grief and memory--Jim ends up succumbing to the voices and hangs himself. Something about his death really brings to the forefront Susa's memories of her brother Dan, dead now some 28 years. While Dan didn't necessarily commit suicide, Susa's memories have her convinced that he was suffering from depression, was offering her clues, and that her hesitation to act upon them allowed him to not prevent himself from dying in a fire. While he may not have planned out a suicide, from his best friend's (Ray) description of the event, Dan didn't do very much to stop it from happening once he realized what was going on--in fact a little grin crossed his face upon that realization. And Susa has been suffering from his loss ever since.
The novel spends time in the 80's, back before Dan died, times when he and Susa and Ray (and at times 2 or 3 others were mentioned but not strongly) spent time getting high, talking about the two boys going out tagging--this in NYC when it wasn't shiny like it is now. It spends more closer to current time with Evan and Dr. Seliger. There's time not so long after Dan dies that Susa and Ray have a long relationship, moving in together. It also leaps to what would seemingly be the future considering the starting point of the novel, a time where Dr. Seliger has adopted a nearly five year old Cambodian named Mai. Much of it is in the form of Susa talking to her deceased brother, and, in this way, it feels as if she's speaking directly to the reader.
Throughout each different time period (beyond that when Dan is still alive), Susa constantly grieves for Dan. The levels vary, and the things that trigger her grief aren't consistent. What also varies, albeit slightly, is how Susa remembers things. She seems to be letting her memories convince herself that Dan was trying to signal to her that he was suffering, that he was going to do something about it, and that she could have done something to stop from happening what eventually did. Especially after her patient Jim's final actions.
If instead of calling you crazy I said I was willing to go with you, would you have waited for me? Could I have saved you? Could I have?
At one point she even wonders if she continues to think about the past will she be able to keep track of what is memory and what is real.
Koppelman's writing also needs mentioning here. To call it spare is not an overstatement. In the sections that are not dialogue, one imagines that Koppelman must have done a lot of deleting during revisions until she found just the right words, just the right number of syllables, just the right structure:
I can feel the pages of the book against my thumb. A paperback. The edges worn. Dog-eared.
The above is a typical paragraph. No lengthy, descriptive, sentences. Information chopped up and offered piecemeal. Between that and the time jumps but keeping everything in the present tense, the book really flies by. I read it in two sittings and if I didn't have to stop in between I wouldn't have. People frequently tell each other to work through their grief--it will get better. What Koppelman shows through Dr. Seliger is that it might not necessarily really get better, but when you can find other things to keep your thoughts busy, that grief isn't the main focus of your attention. While the topic isn't the brightest, the writing and structure are so fantastic that it's truly a great read.
Picked up a couple of titles today, one hard copy and one via kindle.
I'm enjoying Peter Geye's Safe From the Sea and know his forthcoming Wintering is headed here and so grabbed a copy of The Lighthouse Road so that I can have it so I'm reading his work in chronological order. If you know nothing about Peter's work, here's all you need to know--Greg Michalson of Unbridled Books brought the first two into the world, and Gary Fisketjon of Knopf is the editor on Wintering. This has been a pretty wonderful combination in the past (Steve Yarbrough for one) and simply put--two editors with FANTASTIC eyes for great writers and wonderful books.
I also picked up Sara Baume's debut novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither (2016, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)--at least the version I bought is 2016 from HMH. This book was originally published in Baume's native Ireland where it was the winner of the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature; winner of the Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year; Short-listed for the Costa First Novel Award; Long-listed for the Guardian First Book Award, Reader's Choice; Long-listed for the Warwick Prize for Writing; and Long-listed for the Edinburgh First Book Award---and it has a DOG ON THE COVER. Plus the prologue was fantastic.
Keith Lee Morris' new one, Traveler's Rest arrived today, as did Jason Lee Brown's novella, Championship Run, and Philip F. Deaver's long-awaited second story collection, Forty Martyrs.
I absolutely loved Morris' The Dart League King as you can read if you click here and scroll down to number 46, calling it maybe the best book I'd read in 2008, and dug his story collection published after that as well. Very much looking forward to this new one.
Jason Lee Brown, I met in November of 2006 at Devil's Kitchen, a literary conference hosted by Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Since then I've kept in touch with him and his work and was very excited when he announced the publication of this novella.
I don't remember how long it's been since I first read Philip K. Deaver's Silent Retreats (Flannery O'Connor Short Fiction Award winner), but I know I've dipped into it for a story or three (or the whole collection) at least once per year since that original read. I also loved his poetry collection.
Book Review 2016-004
Know the Mother by Desiree Cooper
2016 by Wayne State University Press, 213 pages
(I requested and received this review copy from WSU Press)
Desiree Cooper's Know the Mother is one of the most singularly focused short story collections I've encountered that wasn't really a novel-in-stories, or a collection of stories about a specific character or entity. Cooper's focus is women, and while she covers a very wide range of women, there's no doubt that, while wildly different in many aspects of life, in a world where racism is at least being discussed rather openly, sexism remains prevalent without discussion, even coming from those that love us most, and it touches them all.
There are 31 stories in this collection and while I see from her biography that Cooper was a founding board member of Cave Canem, a national residency for emerging black poets, and so one would believe a lover of poetry, I can't help wonder if her having been a columnist for (I'm guessing here as one who used to read her work in Detroit) at least a decade isn't somewhat responsible for her ability to hone in on her subject and not waste a word in the numerous flash fictions within this collection. And much as I really love the two longer stories in the collection, "Reporting for Duty, 1959" and "Night Coming," I really think she shines most brightly in the flashes that are a page or less in length.
The collection begins with "Witching Hour," a half-page effort that asks seven questions including the collection opening:
Why do we wake each night in that spiritless moment between worlds, we mothers and daughters and wives?
The story and seven questions serve as a great introduction to the book as Cooper gets the reader thinking about women and the expectations they put upon themselves, or have had thrust upon themselves, right away. The stories that follow have women of all kinds--those taking care of ailing parents, mothers of young children, wives early in their marriages, young single women, older single women, women in happy marriages, women in unhappy marriages, mothers of boys, girls, heterosexuals, and lesbians. Women struggling to stretch every penny and women living in the nicest neighborhoods. And Cooper seems to inhabit each type of woman perfectly with her words.
The questions asked of these women, the pressures put upon them, from the outside or from within their own selves, should shock, until one really contemplates our world today and the knowledge that this is really still how it is out there. The story "Ceiling" ends:
"If you wanted to have babies," he said, smiling gently, "why did you go to law school?"
Another story, "Cartoon Blue," about a woman working at a law firm includes:
The ladies' bathroom has only two stalls. No one deemed that more than a handful of women would ever work here.
And it's not just women that work that are forced into stressful positions. In perhaps the longest story in the collection, "Reporting for Duty, 1959," Joyce is the African American mother of two, driving cross country with her husband who is an Air Force Sgt. Again, it's 1959 and the older of her two sons pushes the dad into stopping to try to get a room at the Holiday Inn he's been seeing commercials for (big tv's and swimming pools!). Though the sign says Vacancy, it's apparent through the car and lobby windows to Joyce that things aren't going smoothly inside:
Joyce had been watching, too, her hand holding the door handle so tightly that blue veins popped up like Highway 10 on Junior's road map. She bit her lip nervously and turned to the boys.
The things men take for granted aren't always obvious either, from "Origins of Sacrifice""
Jim steered with one hand, driving into the quiet evening, preoccupied with important things. Kate stared jealously at how easy driving was for him--like an extension of breathing. Because she had been put on bed rest--and then had a C-section--Kate hadn't been able to drive for months. She tried to remember that feeling of absolute, one-handed control.
Cooper isn't just succinct with her usage of words, but has strung together many powerful, beautifully written sentences:
Junior stared at his father, at the steadiness of his father's eyes on the road, the patience of hismouth, the stripes on his sleeve, the eagle insignia on his hat.
Beneath me runs a clotted river. The water is red. The walls are cooling-board brown.
But she stared back, her feet planted and steady, the queasiness fading into resolve.
He fled into the night, the falling snow erasing his footsteps.
The women in Know the Mother are strong, even when it might outwardly appear they aren't. They carry the weight of the world on their shoulders and nobody stops them from doing so--even their own mothers. While this collection might be read more frequently by women, hopefully it will fall into the hands of many men as well.
Monday night I went out to the first reading I've been to in a while. Desiree Cooper, whose story collection, Know the Mother, I had just reviewed, was reading. Earlier in the afternoon I also happened to hear her give a great interview on the local NPR station.
As is typical with readings at Literati, the introduction was fantastic--not too long, but not a simple announcement. Desiree had a great reading voice, was plenty loud for those of us who opted to sit in the back, and she had the ability to, without using voices, convey the different characters as she read her work.
The collection has many flash stories--and many of her flash stories are 750 words or less. This allowed her to read more than one or two complete works and not excerpts. She began with the opening story, "Witching Hour," which is a wonderful introduction to her collection.
Cooper then discussed the various types of women in her stories and how they were the focus of the collection. She brought up women that worked and then read"Ceiling," a story about a lawyer asking about maternity leave and hearing the phrase: 'If you wanted to have babies, why did you go to law school." This followed by "Cartoon Blue," a story about a lawyer who actually goes through the beginning of a miscarriage while on the phone with a client. It's a brutal story and maybe even more so having heard it read aloud.
Other works I remember Cooper reading include:
"Princess Lily," about a 14 year old who got pregnant while living in Japan and how she stayed with a Japanese family during the time of her 'condition;'
"Mourning Chair," a story from the point of view of a mother waiting for her daughter to come home (containing the line she knows she'd tell a cop if one came to her door---'She's the one with her heart beating in my pocket;'
She read "Soft Landing," sort of a fantasy story, and she also read "To the Bone," and I'm glad I was there to hear the introduction to this one as it pointed out a very specific element of repetition that I hadn't noticed that really works well.
It was a nice evening as Desiree Cooper lives locally and so the crowd mostly knew her, or her work. She even had a relative show up. She did a Q&A at the end and signed copies of the book and all in all it was a good reminder of why I used to attend a lot more readings than I have lately.
That is, if I'm counting correctly as I go through the tables of content. This wonderful looking trio of titles arrived today:
The Big Book of Exit Strategies by Jamaal May (Alice James Books, 2016)
Forest Primeval by Vievee Francis (Triquarterly Books, 2015)
Play Dead by Francine J. Harris (Alice James Books, 2016)
Just in time to enjoy during National Poetry Month.
One Hundred Sixty-Six new poems to read!
Book Review 2016-005
Safe From the Sea by Peter Geye
2010 by Unbridled Books, 244 pages
(While I am sure I received a galley of this from the publisher when it came out, I bought the copy I read from Literati in Ann Arbor)
Somebody out there smarter and better read than I am has probably put together a list of wonderful writers that were brought to the reading public for the first time by the duo of Greg Michalson and Fred Ramey in their various publishing incarnations (William Gay, Steve Yarbrough, Rick Collignon, Masha Hamilton, Andrea Portes, Virginia Pye, Frederick Reuss for starters), and while it took me six years to get to it, I'm very glad that Peter Geye was added to that list. Safe From the Sea is a great read on many levels. There's a great father-son story; there's at least one great husband-wife story within; there's a not quite coming-of-age aspect to it; and smack in the middle there's a page-turning aspect that would make most suspense writers happy. It also is a wonderful representation of Midwest writing.
What Geye has really done though in my mind, is taken a somewhat familiar premise--dad and son not speaking so much for many years, dad let's son know he needs help/is dying, they pretty much work through things before dad dies--yet created a novel in which his readers will find themselves flipping the pages rapidly, caring about the characters--not just those two but the others that sit more on the peripheries--and not find that everything fits together in the end like it was just a well-conceived jigsaw puzzle.
The novel begins with a prologue that I believe actually works. Too often a prologue simply to me seems to be chapter one with no reason to be singled out. However in this work, the prologue occurs many years before the current time. It has one of the main characters, Olaf Torr (the father) working on a ship in the Great Lakes, talking to a co-worker about the fact that his wife has just recently (nine days) had given birth to his son, Noah (the son). In a scant few pages the reader learns quite a bit about Olaf, about his work as an officer on the ship headed for the Soo, on his thoughts ("sad and beautiful") about his missing his wife and child.
The novel proper begins with Olaf calling Noah, who he really hasn't spoken to since attending Noah's wedding to Natalie some six years earlier. He asks Noah for help, which might stun him even more than the fact that the old man has called in the first place. A quick side story develops as Natalie is pretty horrified that Noah is even considering leaving as they've been trying to have a child regularly and she's ovulating. Noah's taking off creates at least two potential issues of tension--he and his father, and the obvious tension with Natalie.
What transpires between Noah and Olaf is extremely well done. There's no big blow up scene between the two of them, there's no big make-up scene. Their conversations begin slightly stilted and develop throughout the novel. Noah realizes just how bad off Olaf is as the two of them fish and work a bit around Olaf's very out of the way home in Misquah, a good hour outside of Duluth, Minnesota. Noah, who owns and works in a vintage map store, takes at the very least a small liking to the physical work necessary around the place--the chopping of wood, the crisp weather, even going to far as to do something he never was considered man enough to do before he left, something he'd only seen his father and grandfather do, bathe in the lake--the water cold enough to shock your body into not breathing upon entry. It's this subtle transformation of Noah that I consider to be a not-quite coming-of-age story.
Throughout the novel, Olaf and Noah treat each other more like men than they do father and son. The father-son dynamic is present, but with Noah needing to do so much to help Olaf, there's just enough of it pulled back to allow Noah to act closer to an equal to his father than as a son. Make no mistake, there is still that presence of a son wanting to please his father, wanting to make him proud, but it's not over the top.
There's something about this man to man aspect their relationship takes that allows some things that occur to make more sense than they otherwise might. A monster component to this story is the fact that the ship Olaf was an officer on in the prologue, the Ragnarøk, sank in Lake Superior. Olaf was one of three survivors. From the moment they were rescued he lived life differently--he drank too much, quit properly communicating with his family, became much more withdrawn. This led to his wife cheating on him with their neighbor, to the kids, Noah and his sister, Solveig, growing up confused to say the least, and shut out from him. While Noah is in Misquah, he asks Olaf about that night--quick aside, the day he arrived in Duluth, he visited a Great Lakes Shipping Museum and had reviewed a section on the wreck of the ship, including a photo of the crew including his father--and where I'm not so sure Olaf would have shared the story were Noah acting the petulant child, his going along with the conversation seemed to fit.
This would be the page-turner aspect of the novel--it's hard to believe that Peter Geye didn't spend some time on freighters in the Great Lakes as a young man. He's either very well read on the topic or listened to a lot of old yarns in bars over the years, but his description of the storm hitting Superior while the Ragnarøk was cutting across, and how the men worked to get through, and the details of the various rooms, and the ice on the deck, and the lifeboats, and beyond is riveting. It's a lengthy section of the novel and it is subtly interspersed with Noah either having recollections, or having realizations about his father--about this event and how it affected the old man. While they've seemingly been doing okay together, hearing this story direct from Olaf is what pushes their relationship to being truly back to solid father-son ground. Especially when it hits a point, after telling of their rescue, when Olaf admits:
“For most of your life I’ve used that night as an excuse. Not because I wanted or needed one but because I had no control over what it did to me. I should have. Hard as it would’ve been, I should have beaten it.”
It's a pretty astonishing admission and it comes across in a simple fashion. And this is what brings me to the Midwestern aspect of Geye's novel. And it's not surprising, Peter Geye was born and raised in Minnesota and resides there now. This novel is not flashy in any way. The language is straightforward, and there's a strong element of work ethic within. It's a trait Midwesterners are rightly proud of--you get up, put in a hard day's work, and go to bed exhausted. There is also that feeling of needing to beat back the elements that try to slow you down--the weather, downturns in the economy, jobs being sent elsewhere, and even things like a huge storm over Lake Superior causing you to be one of three men to survive a shipwreck and fire.
Geye has again taken a pretty standard fiction trope and created within that trope a story that is anything but standard. It is powerful in the emotions it brings forth, especially with the lack of flash invoked. Even the story of the shipwreck works through in a straightforward manner. The shipwreck aspect might keep this from what I would call a quiet novel, but just barely. This is a novel full of events, but they don't feel eventful; they feel more like every day life than again, the idea of a well-conceived jigsaw puzzle. Once again, Greg Michalson and Fred Ramey, this time via Unbridled Books, have given readers their first taste of a wonderful writer in Peter Geye. I look forward to reading much more of his work over the years.
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Reminder--May will be National Short Story Month around the EWN. Here's hoping many others join in as well.
Looking for guest posts--basically anything dealing with short stories--reviews of stories, reviews of collections, looks at authors that are known as short story writers, interviews, etc.
My own plans include:
a) reviewing at least a story a day
b) going through the Dzanc Books published short story collections and noting what I remember about their being selected for publication and something about the stories within
c) looking at story collections by Dzanc authors published by other publishers
And for Twitter folks, I think a simple #NSSM2016 should help everybody find as many posts as possible throughout the month.