Great new book from from Dr. Steve Sherwood, director of TCU's William L. Adams Center for Writing and winner of the 2003 George Garrett Fiction Prize...moreGreat new book from from Dr. Steve Sherwood, director of TCU's William L. Adams Center for Writing and winner of the 2003 George Garrett Fiction Prize. Published by the young Angelina River Press, Field Guide manages to perfectly balance a reverential love for nature with a bemused affection for the foibles and frailties of human beings. In this humorous yet poignant collection of essays and stories, Steve Sherwood sweeps from glorious mountain tops, through Mesoamerican canyons, across rolling fields of wheat, and into the whitewashed suburbs and seedy bars where hard truths lie waiting. A true tour-de-force! (less)
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the March 6, 2014 edition of The Monitor.
Recently the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studie...moreA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the March 6, 2014 edition of The Monitor.
Recently the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies announced its 2014 Tejas Foco Awards, and many deserving authors were awarded, including our native sons Xavier Garza and Isaac Chavarría, as well as UTPA professor Marci McMahon. It also happens that a book I’ve been reading — flesh to bone by South Texas poet ire’ne lara silva — was selected Honorable Mention winner for the Tejas Foco Fiction Award.
The author of two chapbooks and a collection of poetry, silva tries her hand at short stories in flesh to bone, with amazing results: nine haunting, beautiful and harrowing tales that emerge from a familiar yet alien place at the intersection of magical realism, fantasy and lyrical verse.
In “hunger/hambre/mayantli” a mother struggles with two unusual children: a thin son whose dreams are full of inexplicable hunger and a daughter who cannot stop the flood of seemingly random Spanish words that tumble from her lips. The siblings together manage to give release to a ghost, unleashing strange secrets of their own. The tense “hiding-place” retells the cucuy legend with nail-biting claustrophobia.
I don’t want to give away the reveal, but “cortando las nubes” retells a very famous legend from a wholly unexpectedand heart-wrenching perspective. In “duérmete,” a nurse who was once victim of terrible spousal abuse finds magical release with the help of an elderly patient of hers.
The many Mexican myths of supernatural owls are blended in the unforgettable “tecolotl,” in which a shape-shifting woman who has lost her love and her unborn child must make an impossible choice. A mother has a final chance to make amends with her dying daughter and understand her hermit brother in “thorn forest.” The plight of las desaparecidas of Juárez is explored in “la huesera” as a ghostly entity attempts to reknit the broken body of a victim, absorbing her story along the way.
The consequences of taking a goddess for a lover are interwoven with the tragic story of an immigrant family in the sensual yet heart-breaking “desembocada/the mouth of the river.” And finally, a pregnant woman risks her child and her happiness to take care of her dying father, only to discover horribly truths that leave her bereft.
With a wholly original voice that interweaves sacred and mundane, light and shadow, lyric and realism, inner life and vast landscape into an unforgettable tapestry, ire’ne lara silva emerges in the volume from the mists of folklore and custom to establish herself as an important and necessary figure of Texas letters.
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in The Monitor on February 7, 2013.
Brutal, Empathetic Noir
I really enjoy dark, complex novels that take an un...moreA TOP SHELF review, originally published in The Monitor on February 7, 2013.
Brutal, Empathetic Noir
I really enjoy dark, complex novels that take an unflinching look at human existence, at how far removed our reality typically is from our dreams, at how easily we destroy ourselves in our desperate attempts to become what we aren’t. Authors like Dashiell Hammet, James M. Cain, and Cormac McCarthy manage to stare at that ugliness without abandoning hope, without hating humanity altogether, and there is something classically cathartic about their work. Court Merrigan, an up-and-coming author recently returned to the US after a decade living in Asia, deserves to be shelved alongside those greats.
In Moondog over the Mekong, Merrigan presents 13 hard-boiled tales, set mainly in Thailand or the US Midwest. The first three pieces are solid blows to the gut, especially “Two Brothers,” in which a cockfighting Thai tries to keep his former drug-running sibling from despair. In “Twenty-Five Grand,” an American pimp running Japanese prostitutes in Bangkok tries to get his wife’s former maid to return a loan and is faced with both the abject destitution of the woman’s family and the gutsy attitude of her daughter. “Dogs at the Door” and “Our Mutual Friend” are companion pieces that show Merrigan at his most hopeful: broken, outcast people come together to form a sort of family, though its de facto head will have to use violence to keep society from tearing them apart. In the ambitious “We Would Start Here,” an American professor ends up staying in a remote Thai village after a serious accident, where he falls in love with a local girl. Their time together is idyllic…until an apocalyptic plague strikes. (The only fault I find with the entire collection is that this epic story needs to be a novel: I was hungry for more, and the quick denouement wasn’t satisfying enough). Other pieces swing from Western noir to simmering Asian crime fiction a la Beat Takeshi. The pièce de résistance, however, is “Moondog over the Mekong,” about an American who’s cashed in and dropped out of society to live in Thailand. He falls in love with a Laotian girl sold into prostitution by her family, and their bloody, thrilling escape from Thailand ends the collection on an uplifting note, one that reaffirms what the reader has already discovered: this author loves humanity, warts and all, and hopes that from time to time they get, not what they deserve, but what they dream.
In lean, evocative, relentless prose, Court Merrigan peels back the skin of the world for us and makes us see: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” I can think of no better argument for the usefulness of noir. How can you feel empathy for the truly down-and -out unless you spend 200 pages in their skin? It’s ugly, but in Merrigan you’ve got the perfect guide.(less)
Brian Allen Carr reads like the unholy child of Cormac McCarthy and Charles Bukowski. Darkly amusing, brutally honest, unflinchingly stark, the six st...moreBrian Allen Carr reads like the unholy child of Cormac McCarthy and Charles Bukowski. Darkly amusing, brutally honest, unflinchingly stark, the six stories in Vampire Conditions left me emotionally stunned. Carr explores brief moments of loss, hope and despair in the lives of people on the margins: a couple’s baby is stillborn and a flea market memento takes its place; a bullied Asian youth finds himself auditioning for George Strait’s brother Buddy; a Valley man follows his friend to Oklahoma, fleeing a divorce, only to have that buddy die on him; a special education teacher at a Valley high school forms a strange bond with the family of some of his students; a fingerless gunslinger earns the pity of a revenge-bent young woman; a fireworks salesman tries to connect with the young man who might be his son. Nearly everyone suffers from “vampire conditions” in these tales, that eternal and often deliberate leeching away of humanity, the sacrifice of parts of yourself that “follow you back in glistening trails you can trace toward the ghoulish deeds left done.” Highly cinematic, Vampire Conditions is definitely one for the Coen Brothers, whose own black humor and artful realism would find kissing cousins in the pages of Carr’s slim volume.(less)
A Top Shelf review, originally published in the August 30, 2012 edition of The Monitor
Twenty-one Vignettes of Vulnerability
McAllen native Jan Seale i...moreA Top Shelf review, originally published in the August 30, 2012 edition of The Monitor
Twenty-one Vignettes of Vulnerability
McAllen native Jan Seale is most widely recognized for her verse—incisive, heartfelt, and often humorous pieces that led to her being selected Texas Poet Laureate for 2012. However, she is also the author of several volumes of short fiction, the latest of which, a collection of 21 stories entitled Appearances, was published in April by Lamar University Press.
It’s rare that I like every story in such a book, but Appearances speaks to me at a deeply human level, as I suspect it will many readers. I’ll single out some of my favorites. In “The Noise Expert” a troubled man finds a solution to his crippling need for noise, thanks to the help of his co-workers. A second-grader asserts her creative individuality and connects with her stepmother in “The Only Dancing Dog in Captivity.” “After Long Silence” describes the reunion of three cousins after thirty years of separation, a single day in which friendship blossoms anew. “Going Forth” tells the powerful story of a man who decides to leave his wife, his every reason for the abandonment an indictment of his own character. In “Wheels,” a man with Parkinson’s finds a lovely, selfless use for the Mustang he can no longer drive and in doing so rediscovers joy. Finally, “Personal Effects” describes the final hours a woman spends with her dying friend, encountering her grief and her affection in a wooden carving of Archangel Gabriel: “The icons of love. Every sawn figure, book, painted pot, doll. Things that our rough hands must cling to. Clay comforting clay. Brief appearances of a hidden spirit.”
What an apt description of these stories themselves. Seale’s deft hand has carved narratives of dense, poetic beauty that serve, for those who are willing to clutch her words close, as reminders that—beyond human foibles and frailties, our vices and virtues, our fleeting notions of gender, race, right and wrong—a delicate specialness sits at the heart of every man, woman and child. The author explores the experiences of vulnerable people for whom life is often a mystery, whose attempts to control and understand fail more often than not, but whom we invariably pity and love by the end because she has revealed them to us fully. To read these stories is peer into ourselves and find our “hidden spirit,” the potential to transcend that we often ignore. (less)
Infante explores the lives of (especially young) Mexican-Americans in south Texas and northern Mexico, focusing on how disaffected members of the evan...moreInfante explores the lives of (especially young) Mexican-Americans in south Texas and northern Mexico, focusing on how disaffected members of the evangelical Christian community navigate the gap between the creed they've been brought up to follow and their own budding identities. A pregnant girl, a victim of rape, a gay young man, an increasingly agnostic teen...these resonant, true-to-life characters struggle to retain their dignity and find happiness despite the rigidity of their culture.
A must-read for Hispanic teens, and a powerful collection for all adolescents. (less)