After I finished reading Stories in the Old Style, I wondered why I had taken so long to get to the end of the book. And so I sat down, post-read, to...moreAfter I finished reading Stories in the Old Style, I wondered why I had taken so long to get to the end of the book. And so I sat down, post-read, to critically examine both the individual stories and the collection as a whole, both of which I concluded "worked" in the mysterious and illogical way of good fiction. In revisiting them, though, I realized how deliciously self-contained each story is--so complete within itself, that I needed to sit with the just-finished story a while, before moving on to another. I wanted to enjoy the resonance of the last word, and so had trouble immediately opening my reader's heart to the next story in line. "Better to set the book down and think on those perfect final words for a bit"--or so my reader's heart might have said.
But, now...if the brain could just make a logical interjection...
I think that this need-to-stop-reading is actually a testament to the strength of Sim's collection. In fact, during a class on ordering and assembling a story collection, Peter Ho Davies said that a collection should be read in just such a way. He suggested that each story be savored and granted a full stop at the end so that the reader might enjoy the final enduring image and keep thinking about the story long after the last words are read.
And now, another country heard from: the stomach.
For some (entirely strange and personal) reason, I often equate a good read to good food. I consume them both, relish them both, and leave both feeling satisfied when the chef or author has done his job well. And in the case of Al Sim's collection, his 18 stories were like a box of fine chocolates. (Yes, I'm aware that Forrest Gump has forever ruined that analogy...) But consider for a moment the fact that one really well made chocolate can be enough to satisfy even the most stubborn sweet tooth. Two-at-a-time can be eaten, yes--with somewhat diminished enjoyment--but three? Well, that definitely feels like overindulgence.
And since you are too polite to ask but nonetheless curious, my very favorite bon-bons were: Two Head Gone, a story of human helplessness in the face of ordinary but devastating loss; The Freedom Pig, in which a runaway slave and his master's pig conspire to reach the promised land; Get the Can, a lovely, lyrical short-short that uses a childhood game of one-up to show that all things are possible; and especially Fetch, an emotionally packed short-short that ripped my heart out and left it bleeding in the snow at the edge of the frozen lake.
No stranger to publication, Sim's stories have previously appeared in such vaunted journals as Glimmer Train, Antietam Review, Crab Creek Review, North Atlantic Review, Fourteen Hills, The Literary Review, Red Cedar Review, and New Millennium Writings. And his choice of title? Well, Sim titled his collection spot-on, in my view, because his stories truly are written in the "old style." They hearken back to such various influences as the surprise endings of O. Henry, the grit and realism of John Steinbeck and the barely contained wildness of Jack London.
As a group, or stand alone, Sim's stories are spare and brutally beautiful.(less)
Butterfly Soup is peopled by a very engaging cast. Although there are many aspects of the book to love--like the fine writing, the study of our human...moreButterfly Soup is peopled by a very engaging cast. Although there are many aspects of the book to love--like the fine writing, the study of our human obsessiveness, the unflinching examination of the frailty of the body, the damage that secrets can do, and the many lyrical descriptive passages--it was the characters I most adored.
Rose Forrester opens the book for us, and even though we "intimately visit" with her husband Everett and her teenaged daughter Valley in successive close-third-person chapters, it is Rose and her big secret that drives the story. Fortunately, it isn't a secret from us, the readers. We learn right off that Rose's daughter Valley is actually the product of a brief fling with a high school heartthrob who has just returned to the same small town where Rose lives with her husband and daughter-that-isn't-his.
There are a number of flashbacks that give us backstory, but the bulk of the story takes place in the present tense on a crazy weekend that for Rose begins with a Saturday morning phone call from the town gossip who tells her that Rob McIntyre (Valley's real father) is back in town. Rose dresses, jumps in her car, and drives into town to see for herself. From there, her disparate emotions gradually merge into an all-consuming religious-inspired exile. When Rose makes an impulse purchase of a used nun's bed (auctioned off in the grocery store parking lot of her home town), the bed (placed in her downstairs office) becomes a makeshift sanctuary that shelters her from what she knows will be the inevitable repurcussions from her sixteen-year-old sins.
Everett's secret is a recently diagnosed medical condition that threatens to render him physically helpless in a few years. Already his legs are going numb and disobeying what his brain commands. To avoid acknowledging his body's impending self-destruction, Everett takes off on a Saturday adventure: an attempt at parasailing that has disastrous (although somewhat humorous--and familiar--for those of us who have ever thought we were still young enough to try something rash) results. Along the way he finds a beagle dog that helps to keep the whole story turning in her own right (and has her own secret, too, as it turns out) and a woman who first makes him question his marriage and then helps to reassure him of the value of said marriage.
Valley is a wonderfully rendered teenaged daughter. As a mother of two of my own, and a former teenaged daughter myself, I can tell you that Valley's depiction and deceptions are spot-on. She sneaks out that same crazy Saturday that her family seems to be self-destructing and winds up on a deserted road with a juvenile delinquent (appropriately named Snake) who happens to be a charge of Rob-the-heartthrob--MacIntyre.
All of these twists combine to create a dizzying plot of secrets-kept and secrets-revealed while life and limb hang in the balance for more than one of the protagonists. The ending? You'll have to read the book yourself to get that--I'm no spoiler--but I can tell you that the final chapter of the book seamlessly weaves together a puppy, a quilt, a belly tattoo, a box of chocolates, and Sister Mary Theresa's bed.(less)
**spoiler alert** The protagonist of Erasure, a novelist named Thelonious "Monk" Ellison, is having trouble getting his most recent work published whe...more**spoiler alert** The protagonist of Erasure, a novelist named Thelonious "Monk" Ellison, is having trouble getting his most recent work published when he comes across the work of an "authentic" black novelist whose book "We's Lives in Da Ghetto" is a runaway bestseller. Horrified by the stereotypes and the dialect in it, he sets out (angrily) to write a book just as horrible and titles it "My Pafology" (later changing the name to something that the publisher suggests he spells 'Phuck' so as not to alienate more sensitive readers--he refuses). Of course, he submits it to his agent and the book gets attention, raves and an obscenely large advance.
The problem is, Monk didn't submit it as himself. He submitted it under the pen name of Stagg R. Leigh, and endowed his doppelganger with a rap sheet and prison time in his past. Of course, everyone wants to meet the infamous Stagg, further complicating Monk's plan and forcing him into an even greater charade. Ever more humorous complications arise and the book is finally nominated for a prestigious award for which Monk is made a member of the jury. To recuse, or not to recuse??
That delightful romp aside, the book is also about relationships and love and filial duty...and about the damage a father inflicts when he dubs one child "the golden child" and emotionally excludes the others. (Damage, by the way, that is done not only to the siblings, but also to the golden child.)
Outside of his publishing woes, Monk loses a sister who is a successful OBGyn for underpriveleged women (at the hands of a radical right-to-lifer who guns her down), a brother who has come out of the closet and can't reconcile his relationship with Monk, and a half-white, racist half-sister he didn't even know he had until he found an old stack of his father's letters.
Monk is also slowly losing his mother to Altzheimer's disease, played out in tragic / comic scenes that were utterly devastating to read. Here's an excerpt from a scene on the day he decides to finally put her in a home:
I watched as she poured the water into the pot and dropped in the ball that I had already filled with tea. She put the cups and saucers on the table and set the pot between us.
"Isn't this nice?" she said.
"My favorite time is always waiting for the tea to steep." She looked past me to the screened porch. "Where is Lorraine?"
"Lorraine was married last night."
"Oh, yes." She seemed to catch herself. Then she appeared very sad.
"Will you miss her?" I asked.
She looked at me as if she'd missed the question.
"You were just thinking about Lorraine, weren't you?" I asked.
"Of course. I hope she will be very happy." Mother poured the tea.
"I'd like you to pack a bag this morning," I said.
"Why?" She held the cup in her hands, warming them.
"I have to take you someplace. It's kind of a hospital."
"I feel fine."
"I know, Mother. But I want to make sure. I want to be certain that you're all right."
"I'm perfectly fine."
"Your father can give me a pill or something." She sipped her tea, then stared at it.
"Father's dead, Mother."
"Yes, I know. There was a cardinal outside my window this morning. A female. She was very beautiful. The female cardinal's color is so sweetly understated."
Mother looked at my eyes. "I must have spilled something in bed last night."
I loved so much about Jim Tomlinson's short story collection, Things Kept, Things Left Behind. It was one of those reads that I felt compelled to care...moreI loved so much about Jim Tomlinson's short story collection, Things Kept, Things Left Behind. It was one of those reads that I felt compelled to carefully portion out so as to not have it be over too quickly. I wanted to savor it. I hated for it to end.
The book has a beautiful, poignantly apt cover design with a number of excellent blurbs on the back, but one blurb in particular expressed what I found most to love about the collection. George Saunders wrote, "Jim Tomlinson uses the traditional gifts of the writer--love of place, a keen eye for the telling detail, unflagging interest in the human heart--to bring to life a very specific and eye-opening version of America, particularly working-class, rural America...his care for these people and his generosity toward them are evident on every page."
I have actually put off writing this review for over a week, because what I most wanted to do was point to Saunders' words and shout, "What he said!" But that would do a disservice to all of Jim's hard work and I truly was transported by the very real characters and their situations, so who better to discuss the book than me? I am a product of that "working-class rural America" that Saunders mentions and when Cass (in the the half-title story "Things Kept") says, "When he comes to see Ma, don't matter if it's a hundred degrees, Dale here is wearing long sleeves so she don't see them tattoos he's got drawed on his arms," I KNOW her. She is utterly, absolutely real to me.
And in particular, I was impressed by how the women in Things Kept, Things Left Behind are portrayed. In the reading, I had the sense that, while writing, Jim allowed them to live and breathe. They have flaws and desires and idiosyncracies that allowed me to see and appreciate them, warts and all--like real people. I think that can be difficult enough when we are creating characters; doubly so when we are creating characters across a gender divide. But there is no gender divide in this collection. Men cheat, women cheat, men love obsessively, women love obsessively, both succeed, both fail. It is such an even-handed look at what makes us human.
I am also so grateful that Jim resisted the urge that so many (particularly southern) writers of late have embraced: the urge to gently mock their characters. A fascinating article by Jonathan Dee (in Esquire?) opened my eyes to this, and ever since I have been sensitive to the notion that we, as writers, should respect our characters. As storytellers, you could even say we have a duty to let the characters show us their character, without a wink-wink, nudge-nudge by the author, over the character's head. I have been guilty of this in my own writing, but I have to say it was such a pleasure to read a book of stories in which the characters are allowed to blunder and fumble and generally be human, without commentary (spoken or unspoken) from the author. "They are who they are," Tomlinson seems to say. "I just write about 'em, I don't judge 'em."
What I feel most compelled to say in awe of Roy Kesey's talent, is that I read his entire book in one sitting. One! Honestly, I couldn't put it down....moreWhat I feel most compelled to say in awe of Roy Kesey's talent, is that I read his entire book in one sitting. One! Honestly, I couldn't put it down. Maybe that just illuminates my own obessive tendences, but I gluttinously devoured NOTHING IN THE WORLD, cramming it all in as fast as I could and then licking my fingers when I was done.
NOTHING IN THE WORLD lures you in innocently--and lyrically--enough. The first paragraph is lovely, placing the reader solidly in Josko' world, which manages (like so much of Kesey's work) to feel both familiar and exotic, no small feat:
"The white stone walls of Josko's house were tinged with gold in the growing light, and the only sound was the sharp ring of his father's pick glancing off the rocks in the vineyard. Josko ran to join him as the sun slipped into the sky, and they worked together without speaking, his father freeing the rocks from the soil, Josko heaving them to his shoulder and staggering to the wall they were building to mark their property line to the east."
This attention to detail and to the sensory experience of the reader is consistent throughout Roy's book and as I read I was drawn along, unwilling to leave that world that felt so very real to me. Even when the world became darker and more violent, or perhaps especially when the world became darker and more violent, for that is when Kesey's matter-of-fact, detailed style really grabs you by the throat:
"Josko opened his eyes, and the sky was a thin whitish blue. There was the warm salty sweetness of blood in his mouth, and behind his eyes he felt a strange dense presence. He raised one hand to his head. Above his left ear, a shard of metal protruded from his skull. He wrapped his hand around it and ripped it out. Pain deafened him, and strips of sky floated down to enfold him."
Okay, from that point on, I was entirely hooked. My own brain began to throb with a "strange dense presence" and I realized it was Josko in there, Josko in my brain, becoming part of my grey matter creating new peaks and grooves as he becomes a legend in his own country (unknown to him)--a celebrated war hero, first for shooting down two enemy planes with his unit, and then for singlehandedly killing the infamous sniper Hadzihafizbegovic and setting his severed head on a table in a cafe. The trouble is, as Josko moves through the countryside alone, becoming more and more dirty and disheveled (also crazed by the haunting female voice that sings in his head, pulling him along siren-like) he looks less and less like a war hero and he is repeatedly shot at, beaten, even arrested and imprisoned. In prison, in an utterly painful and ironic scene, the soldiers beat Josko most brutally of all because when they demand to know his name, he tells them he is Josko Banovic. Of course you are, says the soldier, and I am Marshall Tito. They kick him for claiming to be a man they have made into legend, a famous hero. We know he is Josko, he knows he is, and yet the soldiers may just kill him for telling the truth which they are certain is a lie.
That sense of tragic unfairness permeates NOTHING IN THE WORLD, absolutely aptly, given that it is a novella that has the fighting between Serbs and Croats as its backdrop. The writing is intelligent, the story is gripping and dark but also funny and redemptive in places, and the ending is perfect. NOTHING IN THE WORLD is a great read--and like nothing in the world I have read before.(less)
Perry L. Crandall would like you to know that he is not retarded. Retarded would be 75 on an IQ test, and he is 76. Besides, Perry takes care not only...morePerry L. Crandall would like you to know that he is not retarded. Retarded would be 75 on an IQ test, and he is 76. Besides, Perry takes care not only of himself, but also of his Gran, a crusty, no-nonsense woman who loves him for who he is and lets him shine his light through his own accomplishments. (She tells him the L in his name stands for Lucky.)
Perry describes his life in simple and succinct sentences that manage to be full of wonder and surprise. As he speaks, we see all too clearly the many ways in which his nuclear family has failed him, but Perry never sees it that way. His glass is always half full. Shoot, his glass is three-quarters full--it only looks half-full to those of us too blind to see things the Perry Crandall way. And it's this innocence and optimism that makes his family betrayals all the more heartbreaking to the reader. We want to crawl into the book and protect Perry from the vultures, especially when he faces the biggest tragedy of his life.
But Perry insists he doesn't need protecting, and he proceeds to prove it us and to the three remaining people who care the most about him: Gary, the owner of Holsted's Marine Supply who has employed Perry since he was sixteen years old; Keith, Perry's heavy, flatulent, potty-mouthed co-worker; and Cherry a young, tattooed and pierced cashier at the local Marina Handy Mart.
When Perry wins the Washington state lottery we learn just who his real friends (and real family) are. His mostly estranged cousin-brothers come knocking, strangers arrive on his doorstep...and we hope--oh how we hope--that Perry can learn to distinguish the friends from the leeches.
There is so much to love about this big-hearted first novel. The characters are rich and real and alive. Perry's voice is fresh, authentic, consistent, and homespun-philosopher-wise...and then, there's the ending. Oh, the ending! The ending is so unexpectedly perfect and poignant and satisfying. I keep trying not to write, "Keep a box of tissues handy," but, well, keep a box of tissues handy. You'll need them. But--to use another cliche--you'll be smiling through your tears.(less)
Several of the stories in The Species Crown are lighthearted, always a nice touch in short story collections. One of my favorite stories was "My Total...moreSeveral of the stories in The Species Crown are lighthearted, always a nice touch in short story collections. One of my favorite stories was "My Totally Awesome Funeral" first published in Hobart. Although written in the first person, there's a wonderful twist of an implied directive, the storyteller directing the reader to celebrate his passing--when the time comes. Here's a sample: "Drink another just because you can. After my wife and son have gone to bed, let the hardcore partiers hijack me for one last ride--shotgun!--and no matter the season, roll down the window and let the wind lash my hair." It manages to be a raucous celebration of death that makes the reader smile. How often can you say that about a short story?
Another story I especially liked was "The Real, True-Life Story of Godzilla!" It's a third-person tale of Billy Glenn, a washed up semi-pro basketball player who gets conscripted to join a Team America style group that will play throughout Japan. When that ship runs aground, Billy--because of his height--finds work playing Godzilla in grade B films. He finds love, then loses it unexpectedly and ends up spending his days searching through the eyeholes of his Godzilla costume for lost love.
My very favorite story was "Vacation in Ten Parts." The descriptions put me smack in the middle of a floundering marriage desperately attempting to find its footing in the shifting sands of the Caribbean. The supporting cast of characters all ring true as fellow desperados on a flight to or from somewhere--no one is quite certain. The second-person lyricism throws it all in high relief: "Study your wife through the fine scrim of mosquito netting. Peaceful, her slumber, her legs tangled in crisp, white sheets, the cotton ripe with the ocean's briny scent."
This collection is so rich and varied, so skilled in the many different voices, locales, and points-of-view, that I was sad when I reached the end--always the sign of a great read.(less)
The Sky is a Well and Other Shorts is a gorgeous hand-stitched chapbook recently published by Rose Metal Press. Claudia Smith won their competition, j...moreThe Sky is a Well and Other Shorts is a gorgeous hand-stitched chapbook recently published by Rose Metal Press. Claudia Smith won their competition, judged by Ron Carlson. I had no chance to see the other entrants, but I have to believe that this is a well-deserved win.
Smith's work is spare and elegant in its simplicity. Each short-short, by saying as little as possible, expresses volumes more. The first three sentences of the short "Mermaid" is an example of Smith's terse, shot-in-the-arm prose : "My sister killed herself the week I turned eight. Three days before my birthday. We didn't celebrate."
Such care and attention to each word and to each story make the collection as a whole sing. (I found "Toads" and "Angel Wings" to be especially moving.) This is a wonderful, beautifully packaged chapbook.(less)
Not only do I love the way Jim Ruland thinks and views the world, I love the way he makes me think and view the world. Seriously, if you want to read...moreNot only do I love the way Jim Ruland thinks and views the world, I love the way he makes me think and view the world. Seriously, if you want to read a book of short stories that kicks ass and takes names, Jim Ruland's debut collection BIG LONESOME is it.
These stories are far from the usual fare--they're a breath of fresh air. Okay, wrong metaphor. They're a breath of smoke-filled, honky-tonking, tough-loving beer and animal sweat air. But trust me when I say you'll go there with him, and you'll like it.
I was captivated by Ruland's writing from the very first story, Night Soil Man, in which a group of World War II Belfast men--a zookeeper, a zoo curator, and the official shit-shoveler (through whose eyes the story unfolds)--are assigned the odious task of destroying all the zoo's animals ("specimens" as the higher-ups label them) before another German air attack sets them loose, wild, onto the city streets. The men don't relish this directive, and how they manage to carry out the orders will break your heart--in the most manly way, of course.
By the time I worked my way through The Previous Adventures of Popeye the Sailor (Bam!), Kessler Has No Lucky Pants (Pow!), A Terrible Thing in a Place Like This (Oof!), Pronto's Persistence (Unh!), Still Beautiful (Ouch!), and Dick Tracy on the Moon (Socko!), I was thoroughly hooked. I'm talking swallowed-the-lure, using-the-needlenose-pliers, guts-ripped-out-into-the-river hooked.
Then he gave me Red Cap. This one, wow. This one tore me up. Poor war-torn little skinny Ilse who gets mistaken for a boy in her favorite red cap...until she finally gets back to the one place she thought of as a refuge...finds it, too, invaded by the horrors of war...and then she isn't mistaken for a boy. And it's too bad. It might have saved her.
As for the final five stories? Well, I'll just whet your appetites with a few of my favorite lines:
From The Egg Man:
"The dancer winks at me and only an idiot would miss the message encrypted in the torpid descent of those lashes. She oozes closer, introducing a thousand possibilities in the curve of her lips, possibilities ten folded by the light grace of her hand on my shoulder."
From Big Lonesome:
"The bounty hunter stood at the trailhead and surveyed the expanse of desert before him. Nothing but crusty scrubland as far as he could see. To the west: a salty sink crawling with snakes and scorpions; the the east: a wasted plain stippled with sun-bleached bones. It was hotter than donkey piss and dry as beans. He had a fair piece to go and this was the way to get there."
"Boticelli Moon, the harlot, pushed her way to the front of the crowd in a ridiculous dress that exposed a fair portion of her oft-handled charms. "What," she asked, "do you require in return for your services?""
The voice in these 13 stories commands your attention, much as a good prizefighting tournament would. Clearly Ruland-the-writer has the skills of both an inside-fighter and an outside-fighter, with the occasional brash moves of a brawler thrown in for good measure.
With all this talent and diversity, here's hoping he stays in the ring all the way to the final bell.(less)