I'm going to try to review this properly when I have a chance, but it's quite a book. Rees' cross-genre, hybrid approach of blending essays, stories,...moreI'm going to try to review this properly when I have a chance, but it's quite a book. Rees' cross-genre, hybrid approach of blending essays, stories, comics, and visual art (by Ada Jusic) is the perfect choice for a space that is never only one thing or another and a complicated hybrid itself. The book is smart, sometimes funny (including a magnificently delivered set piece joke about bloggers), richly descriptive, and deeply compelling. This is the kind of book I've been wanting to see more of from environmental writers, taking a place seriously in ALL its dimensions from the social to the artistic to the historical to the imaginative to the polluted.(less)
Full disclosure, he's a friend and I was asked to blurb this, but it's a very good book of linked stories. Here's my blurb:
The deceptively straightfor...moreFull disclosure, he's a friend and I was asked to blurb this, but it's a very good book of linked stories. Here's my blurb:
The deceptively straightforward stories of Almost Gone sneak up to unfold in every direction, across distance and generations, as in raw-edged, pared-down lyricism Brian Sousa reveals a humming web of tragedy and wonder staked across the sprawling networks of modern life. In his resonant overlapping of characters losing and finding themselves he works magic, revealing those timeless in-between spaces where life—and art—mean the most.(less)
Full disclosure, I wrote this as a blurb at the author's request, and not as a review, but I meant every word:
“Stefanie Freele's fiction offers the th...moreFull disclosure, I wrote this as a blurb at the author's request, and not as a review, but I meant every word:
“Stefanie Freele's fiction offers the thrill of discovering details sure to be overlooked by a less alert eye. Her characters take control of their lives by insisting — as their author does — that each moment matters, and can become something resonant and moving and strange in the very best way. Read these rare stories, and you will learn all over again how to look.”(less)
Kathy Fish's collection Wild Life is divided into halves: first a set of stories gathered under the heading “Wild,” and a second under “Life.” In a su...moreKathy Fish's collection Wild Life is divided into halves: first a set of stories gathered under the heading “Wild,” and a second under “Life.” In a surprise to no one familiar with my reading habits/obsessions, I preferred “Wild” to “Life,” which based on a number of other reviews on Goodreads puts me in the minority. The earlier stories are often set in the outdoors, and involve wild places and creatures, but more than that there’s a wildness to the stories themselves. They’re moments of myth-making tucked into what seem like otherwise ordinary lives, featuring events in which characters’ lives point toward stories of themselves larger than what actually happens.
Not to be predictable, but I’d like to offer two bits about bears to show what I mean. In “Land and Sky and Cosmo,” the narrator tells us about a camping trip at a campground owned by her step-uncle:
My boyfriend wondered about the bears and the step-uncle said sure, there are black bears, plenty of them. He said make yourself look bigger, wave your arms and yell and he demonstrated and we saw the forest of his armpits. He warned us about the dangers of leaving scraps. You don't remember me, do you, I said.
Later, in “Quantum Physics Forebears,” some friends are spending what seems like an ordinary evening drinking and talking, until the narrator offers us this:
That's when I see the grizzly bear rummaging around Coop's garbage, light shining on his fur. I point and mutter, point and mutter, ineffectually. TC doesn't even stop yammering, but Coop rearranges his forehead and goes and looks over the edge of the deck. He goes "RAWR" and waves his arms up and down, and the grizzly (the fucking grizzly!) looks at us with uncertainty and runs off with something in its mouth. An orange peel, I think.
Coop saunters back to the table, says, "Black bear. We get them all the time."
Both of these ursine encounters point toward their own retelling: there’s an awareness of these moments as stories, not in the sense they’re being written but because each of these narrators, we know, is actively revising the story of herself to fit a bear — whether real or imagined — into it. In the first case, there’s a rethinking of the past and what it means to the present and future, and in the second we can almost hear the story this night will become in the retelling — despite learning the “grizzly” is in fact a black bear, surely it will remain a grizzly when our narrator recounts the night later and makes it part of the myth of herself. So these bears loom large (as do other animals and encounters in other stories), symbolically and suggestively, and not only on the page: they’re physically or psychically present enough to feel like more than “just” symbols. The stories, too, are about more than themselves, more than the moment in which they occur — they extend backward and forward into the characters’ lives and into our own like all the best myths or fables or legends. I’ve used these bears to make my point because, well, I really like bears and they’re probably the most vivid examples, but I think the point holds true for all the stories in the first half of Fish’s book.
In the second half of the collection, “Life,” the stories are fittingly more domesticated, less feral. They also seem more contained, by being set mostly indoors but also because they don’t extend as far beyond their own pages. In “Backbone” we’re told of a girl’s ride along with her sisters in her uncle’s “black Ford Falcon,” a drive on which,
Uncle Jayce smoked Raleighs and flicked his ashes out the window and they flew back into our faces. He told us to tell him when we saw a red-tailed hawk and when we did, he'd take a sip of something he had in a bottle between his legs.
We were as well-tended as livestock.
These characters are livestock, not wildlife, and even the hawk (not to mention the Falcon) is reduced — by Uncle Jayce, not by Kathy Fish — to a cheap drinking game. That’s a far cry from the mythic, suggestive creatures of the earlier stories. And these characters’ lives are generally smaller, if more familiar and facing more immediate problems (you know, the kinds of things readers want to read about when they aren’t bear-obsessed weirdos). But for me, the character in “Prague” killing time on a youthful visit to that city with the same conversations and boredom that might occur anywhere — which certainly resonates with my own experience of travel — is less compelling than the earlier characters who seem more likely to act than wait.
In “The People Here Are So Hardy And Cheerful,” Tom Bridge is stuck in Denver’s airport, calling someone named Sandy over a poor connection. “Everybody just wants to get out of here,” he tells her, and later, “I hate it here, Sandy.” It’s a compact, powerful image of the literal and metaphorical difficulties of connection and distance, and wholly true to life in a powerful way. I easily understand why some other readers and reviewers have preferred these “Life” stories over the “Wild.” And yet, I prefer the earlier tales that take as their starting point not “I want to escape!” but instead “Off I go!” Less realistic, probably, and less like most of our lives, but I guess I prefer stories more mythic than life instead of stories just like it. So I really appreciated the bifurcation of this collection, and its invitation to think about the difference.(less)
This is a powerful set of stories coming at questions of self-invention in a number of ways. In one story it's an unflattering past haircut (and the m...moreThis is a powerful set of stories coming at questions of self-invention in a number of ways. In one story it's an unflattering past haircut (and the mother responsible for it) by which a character defines herself, clinging perhaps self-indulgently to that ugly identity even when it is upstaged by the ability of those around her to rise above their own damaged bodies. In others characters know themselves by the presence, absence, and discomfort of their own children, or (in the title story) by the apocryphal stories they invent for and project onto other people as an escape from their own anxious lives, without regard for the consequences and potential damage of those projections. In probably my favorite story, "Baby Love" (which, full disclosure, I had the privilege of editing and publishing), this social dimension allows Levine to give us not only the tight domestic sphere of a couple whose lives are changed by a baby, but gives us that couple in a nest of cultural assumptions about parenthood, class, and identity with that baby as the center. Overall, I was impressed by the way these characters and their flexible lives aren't insular but social, giving the stories a sense of consequence and complication rather than treating identity as something that can be crafted in isolation without impacting others and as if characters live in a box apart from the world—a dimension that, for me, is too often absent in this style of tightly-focused, slightly surreal urban fiction, so makes these stories stand out.(less)
I recently had the pleasure and privilege of hearing Sarah Rose Etter read the title story from this collection, and now that I've read the book that...moreI recently had the pleasure and privilege of hearing Sarah Rose Etter read the title story from this collection, and now that I've read the book that story feels like the pivot point of the set. "Tongue Party" forces us, through an incredible turnabout midway through, to wonder about the implications of telling a story straight versus telling it through filters of metaphor and fantasy and suggestion, and to ask which story is "real." I don't want to spoil that powerful turn by explaining it here, but as perhaps the most literal, entirely realistic moment of the book it became a lens through which I read the rest, always aware both of the strange surface (eg, a father wearing a chicken mask to cover his grief, kidnapped dates locked in glass rooms, or a tide of washed up koalas) and of wondering what "real" experience such strangeness distorts or obscures. That made for exciting, provocative tensions between reader, writer, and text.
The strongest of these stories suggest a larger world their characters inhabit, rather than a discrete, contained storyworld. "Chicken Father," for one, complicates grief both within a family and socially at once, and "Husband Feeder" takes what in plain description might sound like too literal an image of consumption to take on the richness it eventually does through complications of gender, wealth, and culture. If anything, I would have liked to see that aspect of the collection pushed further, because a few moments felt like doors opened but not quite stepped through. Not because the stories lack anything as they are—far from it—but turning questions asked of the domestic onto other spheres, too, might have added another dimension.
"Koala Tide," for instance (and fair warning, bit of a spoiler), uses dead koalas washing ashore as the jarring, monkey's paw-esque fulfillment of childhood desires. It's a terrific story, building up then subverting readerly assumptions and expectations several times in its course. The koalas seem arbitrary as an animal, chosen perhaps for their cuteness or for the sound of their name, but koalas are also real, and endangered, and geographically specific, so a story about heaps of them dead on an ambiguous shoreline has implications beyond the aesthetic. Not that the story should be "about" endangered species or koala ecology or anything so didactic, but perhaps questions raised elsewhere in the collection about the realistic and the fantastic could have been engaged to ask not just how we use metaphor to make sense of experience but also where our particular metaphors come from and why our choice of them matters in a reader's world as much as a character's (particularly, perhaps, a reader who tends toward ecocritical reading and is a little obsessive about animals as metaphor. Ahem.)(less)
These stories are fairly unrelenting and bleak, without even the occasional moments of near-humor and fantastical disruption in Rohan's first collecti...moreThese stories are fairly unrelenting and bleak, without even the occasional moments of near-humor and fantastical disruption in Rohan's first collection Cut Through The Bone. At first, that relentlessness and the repetition of suffering and abuse in a tight domestic sphere was a struggle and made me want to look away, so to speak, because they felt "familiar" in the Irish context (ie, struggling up through misery to consciousness, Angela's Ashes style). But as I kept reading, I discovered the repetition served a different purpose: repetitive not because the character's lives were one-dimensional, but because the narrator leaves out so much: the worst moments of these stories, the worst abuses and brutalest beatings, almost always happen off-page, while the narrator offers us only the in-between moments, the "ordinary" (albeit a bleak ordinary) punctuated by those horrors.
So while the longer arc that emerges through these linked stories delivers the familiar escape to consciousness, what's more exciting is the escape to narrative consciousness and the way writer, character, and text take control of the story through what they keep to themselves. That creates a provocative tension between readerly demands for more (a perhaps prurient, voyeuristic expectation to "see" the worst as it happens) and the refusal of the narrator to be defined or limited by those unwritten worst moments. In fact, the one aspect of the collection that didn't quite work for me, specifically because of the way it contradicts that refusal to be defined by individual moments, was the tendency for each story to include a single line that succinctly, often lyrically, pinned down the emotional "point" of the story. That directness seemed like an attempt to make individual moments definitive in precisely the way the rest of the text resisted, and was always jarring. That's an awfully small complaint, though, dwarfed by the overall strength of this set.(less)
First things first, a couple of these stories were published in the webjournal I edit, so I read Cut Through The Bone already a fan; weigh that relati...moreFirst things first, a couple of these stories were published in the webjournal I edit, so I read Cut Through The Bone already a fan; weigh that relationship as you will.
These tend to be short, sharp shocks of story, and even those occurring over several days are compact and quick. Their characters are often trying to regain control against forces outside their influence, whether that's illness or economics or aging or the kind of ennui that sets like frostbite. My favorites are those in which characters reach for that control in unexpected, even counterintuitive ways. Like "Reduced," in which a married couple attend an art opening and the wife, stung by reminders of the more imaginative life she might have led, makes the knowingly mistaken decision to drink—more than that, the decision not to stop drinking—into a powerfully defiant, declarative act:
He rubbed his eyes with his fingers, weary, sad. "You promised."
I swallowed and looked into my wine glass, pictured my parents inside. They sat facing each other with their knees pulled to their chests and heads tipped back, their mouths open, filling. I drained my glass and waved to the waiter.
Or "Scraps," in which a woman meets with her ex-husband in order to finalize their separation, and drowns out unwanted feelings with a voice that's not hers:
"How's that teen intern you're banging?" she asks. The word is foreign in her mouth, but satisfying.
"She's twenty," he says.
"Tell her I said, 'Happy Birthday.'"
But my favorite is "The Trip," one of the collection's longer stories, about a woman taking her aged father on a cliché Irish-American "homecoming" journey. The daughter aims, by taking charge of the details, to maintain control of the trip and of her father and of his no longer deniable decline. And the father, straining against his own weights, foils her efforts at every turn until his beautiful, tragic gesture at the end of the story (and you'll have to read it for yourself to find out what that is). It's a moment that makes so clear what underlies this whole set of stories: the moments we don't expect to matter can be the ones in which we most vigorously and vitally battle to become and remain ourselves.
Those unexpected moments are made so powerful, in fact, that the more "obvious" ones often pale in comparison. There are experiences we know define us—the loss of a parent or child, or facing our own terminal illness—which renders the stories hinging on them less surprising even though they're written every bit as well. It's just that they show us the world we already know we're living in, whereas the others—those surprising moments—show us a world we didn't yet realize we'd always been inhabitants of. And a world that, once Rohan leads us into it, we can't help but marvel at for as long as she lets us stay.(less)
Kevin Fanning is a friend – full disclosure – but I can't think of any writer who writes the web as well. The stories in this chapbook capture the web...moreKevin Fanning is a friend – full disclosure – but I can't think of any writer who writes the web as well. The stories in this chapbook capture the web's depth as a vessel for fantasies and dreams, and the flexibility of postmodern identity that spills offline into everything we do these days. All aspects of culture from high to low, from art to everyday, get swirled together in these stories blending styles from fantasy and science fiction to more straightforward literary pieces. Through it all Jennifer Love Hewitt becomes the center of an odd but moving mythology, and if that sounds too ridiculous to work you'll just have to read the book and find out how well it does.(less)
As others have said, the pieces collected in American Gymnopédies aren't "stories" so much as moments, perhaps the germs of stories or even the longin...moreAs others have said, the pieces collected in American Gymnopédies aren't "stories" so much as moments, perhaps the germs of stories or even the longing for stories. I liked how each moment is grounded bodily and materially, because for such short fragments most of them offer a real sense of physicality and presence and that prevents the collection from becoming too ethereal even while it is otherwise ambiguous. At the same time, most of the stories feel like moments en route to somewhere else – characters look over fences to long for what's in the distance, they stop at hotels before reaching their real destination, and they daydream through the dark tunnel of a cereal box. So each story ends up feeling both grounded and untethered at the same time, an alluring and sometimes jarring sensation, and one that is increased by the book's lack of geographic detail. Although each story is named for a city, there's rarely any detail of those cities offered so I found myself wondering what about a moment was specifically "Duluth" or "Atlanta" or "Boston." There's an occasional street name but that's about it, so rather than the cultural details of place we're offered a purely experiential landscape, one in which cities only exist as our private, minute memories of and encounters with them and in which one place is more or less the same as another except for what might happen to us there (if anything does). At first that lack of clear geography felt like a missed opportunity to me, and I wished Garson had made these places more particularly themselves, and though it stopped bothering me as I fell into the daydream state of the collection, that's what I mean by a "longing" for stories. These moments almost seem to wish they meant more, or were clearer, and I felt like I was trying to make sense of a larger landscape by focusing intensely a whole bunch of individual points that may or may not be connected. My impulse as a reader was to project my own knowledge of these cities onto the stories, trying to fill in the gaps, but they resist that so firmly that I never stopped feeling adrift, and got used to the feeling instead.(less)
Over and over while reading Pathologies I had the same reaction. I read a story and thought, "Ha ha, that's funny," and felt like I'd got the point. T...moreOver and over while reading Pathologies I had the same reaction. I read a story and thought, "Ha ha, that's funny," and felt like I'd got the point. Then I finished the story and thought, "Hang on, that's more than just funny...," and reread it to enjoy the many layers Walsh packs into each very short piece. These stories read quickly, giving the illusion of easy understanding, but they become more complex and subtle as you read. Most are pared-down portraits of characters, honing in on their strangest quirks not to reduce them to laughingstocks but to make them more nuanced than those quirks at first seem to allow. I was reminded of Gary Lutz' fiction in how powerfully they get to the heart of a character, and have a "simple" surface that belies the complexity beneath. But rather than the skewed syntax of Lutz, the stories in Pathologies accomplish this by offering precisely the right detail at precisely the right time.(less)
Of the two novellas included here, "The Golden Bird" is by far the strongest. Moving across decades and generations of a small crofting and fishing co...moreOf the two novellas included here, "The Golden Bird" is by far the strongest. Moving across decades and generations of a small crofting and fishing community, following a few characters not constantly but episodically as their lives intertwine, Brown captures a complicated moment of transition into the modern, electrified, mechanical world. Through those poetic and crystallized moments "The Golden Bird" manages to convey a vast sense of time and culture with impressive efficiency and focus. The second novella, "The Life and Death of John Voe", limits itself mostly to one character and his more personal moments of upheaval, but the narrative starkness isn't as effective as in the other story - the skeletal telling becomes a bit too abstract. So four stars for the first story, but three for the book as a whole.(less)