Stephanie's Reviews > Topograph: New Writing from the Carolinas and the Landscape Beyond

Topograph by Jeff  Jackson
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Feb 18, 11

bookshelves: favorites, greatfnwriting
Read in February, 2011

The latest (and apparently last) book from Novello Press is a collection of short stories from the American South. Thankfully, you won't find any nostalgic reminiscences about the "good old days" of segregated lunch counters, free labor, and forced politesse. There's not even a single ode to grandma's old scrap bag. Instead, Topograph is a reflection of the 21st century South, to which writers have often emigrated from states outside the Confederacy.

Crappy jobs, fractured families, conflicted cultural identities...these stories reveal a shifting South, in which the national identity has somehow subsumed regional pride. Many of the stories, poems, and memoirs are laced with dark humor. Alan Michael Parker's "From the Committee on Town Happiness" and Gilbert Allen's "The Final Days of Great American Shopping: 2084" are especially delicious, and coincidentally derive much of their humor from a suffocating corporate culture that almost makes the antebellum South seem like Haight-Ashbury. Jack Pendarvis's "A Wonderful Excursion to the Moon" was just that; after reading this story, I'll follow this hilarious author anywhere. His story reminds me a bit of the ones you used to find in The National Lampoon, back when it was, um, good. Frank Lentricchia, my new favorite writer, has a great piece called "The Rookie" that offers a tantalizing peek at life behind the academic curtain, while offering several laugh-out-loud moments for this reader.

There are some radical departures from traditional short stories, and these inclusions are refreshing. Megan McShea's brilliant one-minute stories ("Martini," "Film," "Forgery," "Teeth," and "Skeleton") are beautiful blasts of spring air, while Blake Butler's "Choir" is more like a fetid kiss from the coffin. Both writers are stand-outs in a very strong group.

There is room for sentiment here, but it's not the treacly kind conjuring up old Country Time commercials. Alec Niedenthal's "Dog w. Velvet Ears" is oddly moving, a story that somehow warms your heart while tearing it to shreds. Melissa Malouf's "Along the Way" is lovely and entertaining, with one of those protagonists you hope is actually walking around out there in the real world. Jon Pineda's "Nothing Beautiful about the Ocean" was a personal favorite, with a mother-daughter relationship that offered this reviewer a generous dollop of validation.

All the poetry featured is exceptional, and gives me hope for the future of the form. Janice Fuller's "Flies" got me excited about poetry in a way I hadn't felt since first reading Baudelaire. Amy Bagwell actually made me want to pick up a pen and write some verses of my own, in a futile attempt to emulate her raw power; her words hit like bullets. I was particularly struck by Kirsten Hemmy's "Sabbath," but really, there isn't a weak poem in the entire collection.

There are some more melancholy pieces, all quite engrossing. Jody McAuliffe's "Mythical Bill: An Inordinately Bright, Dreary Life" is the heartbreaking story of a daughter trying to come to terms with her father's mysterious -- and ultimately fatal -- illness. Rosa Shand's "Solomon" is a gripping story of Uganda that will resonate with fans of Barbara Kingsolver's "The Poisonwood Bible." Marann Mincey's "Rewriting Khe Sahn" is one of those stories with an ending that feels like a punch in the gut -- and I mean that in a good way.

If you're looking for something good to read that's off the beaten path, be sure to pick up a copy of this book. It features writers that should have a much bigger presence, and probably will if there's any justice in the world.
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message 1: by Robin (new) - added it

Robin Hmm...a biased rating, methinks?


Stephanie Are you casting aspersions at my ability to review books objectively, Robin?! I am OUTRAGED.

Can't wait to read Walker's pan of your most recent show. ;-)


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