NewPages Book Reviews
January 11, 2010
Interference :: How Some People Like Their Eggs :: Interfictions 2 :: Small Kingdoms :: Press 53 2009 Open Awards Anthology :: The Man in the Wooden Hat :: Homicide Survivors Picnic :: Hush Sessions :: Marcel Proust's Search for Lost Time
Interference and Other Stories
Fiction by Richard Hoffman
New Rivers Press, October 2009
Paperback: 260pp; $14.95
Review by Alex Myers
As Richard Hoffman is equally well known for his verse as his prose, it should come as no surprise that the thirteen stories (plus six interstitial very short-shorts) in this volume are at times lyrical, often beautiful, and move with a sense of rhythm and deep perception.
The stories span a wide range of topics – though most are set in an indeterminate present, a familiar time that could be anywhere from the seventies to today – from the widower song writer who visits a nude beach with his friends in search of new lyrics, to an existential dialogue between two billboard painters, all the way out to a fable whose main characters are a talking mule and goat. The variety here is astonishing, keeping the collection lively. Add to that six short-shorts based around a character, Guy, and his life story - spanning “Guy Goes into a Bar” to “Guy Looks for Work” and ending with “Guy goes up to the Pearly Gates” - and the collection builds unbelievable momentum. These “Guy” stories function not only as a sort of palate cleanser between courses but also as thematic settings, establishing what will be the main concerns in the following stories.
Hoffman’s strengths as a writer are many. In the first two stories of the volume, “Nothing to Look at Here,” which tells the tale of a police officer pulling over a speeding motorcyclist who happens to remind him of his deceased son, and “Gentlemen,” which concerns a car mechanic who is a recovering alcoholic, bent on protecting his daughter from a husband too much like he used to be, Hoffman masterfully balances the back story and the front story, creating tension in the present of the narrative while gradually filling in the past. The end result is a story that is as much back as front – which makes the stories feel real and multidimensional – yet the plots never feel bogged-down.
Also, Hoffman has a way with capturing identity, like the title character of “Harvey’s Story,” the man who visits the nude beach, who suffers from (among other things) terrible flatulence, his stomach generating “awful sounds, like cloth tearing or a chain run through a ring . . . or thunder, as if there were a storm inside the great inflated hollow of himself.” He is indeed a hollow man, barely able to emember his deceased wife “except for a few memories of their wedding, which were in fact memories of pictures of their wedding.”
Hoffman’s descriptions are deft and subtle, finding fresh ways of capturing defining features. Perhaps I was drawn to his characters so much because they are familiar; not just imaginable, but almost as if they are people I remember, like the boy in “Interference,” who would “sing into the window fan in his bedroom. He liked the funny way it made his voice sound and he imagined the words on the other side of the window, shredded into tiny pieces and blowing out over the neighborhood on the evening breeze.” This is something I did as a child, an action and sound I didn’t remember until I read Hoffman’s description; his prose is life-like, summoning.
Even down to the little details, Hoffman gets it right. Take, for instance, the titles of his stories – easy to overlook, but imbued with meaning. Like “Sugar,” just a simple word titling a simple story about a man who takes his toddler son to the supermarket; the two witness a fight in the parking lot, a representation of manhood, and the toddler has a temper tantrum, leading the father to “reach down deep in [his] pocket” for the candy he keeps there since he has quit smoking. In that line, the final line of the story, the title suddenly brings it all into focus, the sweetness, the addiction, the mollification, what’s inside. Likewise, in the volume’s final story, “Interference,” possible justifications for the title keep cropping up: the young protagonist interferes with his older brother’s activities, his mother interferes with his own, an older man begins to spend time with him in a way that is more than interfering and then, there it is on the last page, the sound the boy makes in his pain, “so harsh it was soft, so loud it was quiet, like rushing water or like the place on the radio dial between two stations, a muffled roar through which you could sometimes hear faint voices, though not what they were singing.” The titles create echoes, resonance that ripples through the stories, adding a whole new layer of meaning.
There is little about this volume not worthy of praise. Any one in need of well-plotted, beautifully written stories that will linger, thought-provokingly, after reading, is advised to get a copy of Richard Hoffman’s newest collection.
How Some People Like Their Eggs
Fiction by Sean Lovelace
Rose Metal Press, August 2009
Chapbook: 41pp; $12.00
Review by Cynthia Reeser
How Some People Like Their Eggs by Sean Lovelace is the recipient of the Rose Metal Press Third Annual Short Short Chapbook Contest. A collection of 10 works of very short fiction, Lovelace's book is as much about movement as it is about structural deception.
The opening title, "Meteorite," begins with a recollected story, a historical event in which a woman is hit by a meteorite. The narrative veers nimbly away from this initial thread, into another story entirely, so that the reader is immersed in its world. Said reader may begin to suspect some strange literary subterfuge at work when Lovelace pulls this sleight of hand a few more times in the same story. Food is described at length, and then none is ordered. And then it is. Sentences like "I think of Paige and me drifting off somewhere in glass elevators but the image doesn't catch and two sorority girls stroll by looking absolutely themselves" wrap this stealthy movement in delicate dressings, and eventually bring the powerful little story to an ending the author makes resonate with the effects of presence, absence, and the permanent sense of change that it brings.
Something similar happens in "Molasses"; the beginning leads the reader to believe the story is "about" a certain thing, but moves into another scenario entirely. There are advantages and disadvantages to this sort of post-structuralist sensibility. Each story seems to fly in the face of the notion that a narrative has to be "about" anything in particular; rather, Lovelace weaves scenes that flow organically (or maybe "morph" is a better word) into the next thing happening by the writerly imagination. One downside is that sometimes, the initial thread is abandoned entirely, as with "Molasses"; however, the opening narrative thread in "Meteorite" is redeemed because it is provided by way of an establishing metaphor. The author is very adept at creating a sense of place, character, and atmosphere, and the form he chooses enhances these attributes.
The sentences that Sherrie Flick refers to in the introduction as "unravel[ing] like a red carpet of words" seem to shine their brightest in "Charlie Brown's Diary: Excerpts." Six diary entries comprise a loose sketch of Charlie Brown, or what he would be like, were he human. An entry dated "Tuesday, March 14, 1984" reads in part:
All these medications. Spaceship names. Shapes and colors. They want to lift me and soar away. This same musty shirt, 34 years. One dog bowl. One stubby pencil. Drawn. Drawn is my word.
There is both humor and sadness in Lovelace's language (and post-structuralist approach, even if it is not intended as such), which sometimes takes the form of imagined conversations written out as interviews, and sometimes appears as invented commentary from cultural and historical figures, as in the title story.
"How Some People Like Their Eggs" is a veritable Our Town of quirky preferences. Including the seasoned tastes of such figures as Howard Hughes, Anne Sexton, Che Guevara, and (most notably) Andy Warhol, it is here that Lovelace allows his imagination to take a frivolous romp. It is in such places that Lovelace's talent shines, and simultaneously, where any sense of narrative in the traditional sense falls away.
Lovelace's narrators are almost always self-aware, even if only in the most intangible of senses. His fiction is informed, and funny, and poignant, and does not take itself too seriously. It is well-crafted, with careful attention to language (especially in "Crow Hunting") and detail and form, whatever form it shapes up to be.
An Anthology of Interstitial Writing
Edited by Delia Sherman, Christopher Barzak
Small Beer Press, November 2009
Paperback: 302pp; $16.00
Review by John Madera
Interstitial fiction is imaginative writing that slips through the cracks between literary genres. It’s an umbrella term under which numerous stylistic approaches like new weird, slipstream, fantastica, liminal fantasy, transrealism, and many more may fall. Though these terms lack precision, they do bear some resemblance to more established genres, using familiar science fiction tropes like spaceships and aliens, time travel and alternate histories; fantasy tropes like ghosts, fairies, as well as mystery and romance conventions. Interstitial fiction is distinguished by how it blurs the boundaries between genres and, if ever placed in one of these slots, rests uncomfortably. It blends the realistic and the fantastic in such a way that everything is defamiliarized, or where everything is (borrowing a term coined by Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky) “enstranged.” Paradoxically, it is its “in-betweeness” that defines it.
Interfictions 2: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing gathers twenty transgressive stories from writers unencumbered by the desire for their work to fit easy market categories. “The War Between Heaven and Hell Wallpaper” explores the thin membrane between dreams and waking life. “The Beautiful Feast” is a marvelous tale (mystery? ghost story?) about a man searching in Vietnam for his missing-in-action father. In “Count Poniatowski and the Beautiful Chicken,” a purposeless Polish retiree figures out a way to travel back in time to make a long dead monarch “retrace” his steps on a pivotal night so that the “the course of Polish history” is changed. Peter M. Ball’s “Black Dog: A Biography” is about a man followed by a black dog who breathes fire and swallows up most of his girlfriends. It’s an extraordinary tale marred only by the ordinary dialogues between him and the dog. “Berry Moon: Laments of a Muse,” by Camilla Bruce, incarnates the creative spirit. Amelia Beamer mixes metafictive elements with ghosts in “Morton Goes to the Hospital,” and cooks a strange brew. William Alexander’s “After Verona” explores the places where the land of the living overlaps with the land of the dead.
“Valentines,” by Shira Lipkin, is about a woman who, having suffered from a seizure, lost “swaths of long-term memory” and is unable to incorporate new memories with whatever is left of her old. Drawn from Lipkin’s personal experience, it is, she writes, “an extended seizure state. It could be many-worlds quantum physics. It could be magical realism.” It deftly limns the ever-shifting boundaries of identity, time, place, and space of disassociated states. Nin Andrews’s “The Marriage” is a dark fairy tale that viscerally conveys how love changes us, how union demands compromise and acceptance that some things may never change.
Sometimes the story’s form itself mirrors its interstitial quality. Alaya Dawn Johnson’s “The Score” is one example of this approach. She explains: “It’s in the spaces between the pieces of this puzzle that the reader finds a story.” Brian Francis Slattery’s “Interviews After the Revolution” is structured as interview responses by business people, musicians, and politicians shedding light on how a group of four musicians unwittingly jumpstarted a revolution. And there is “The Long and Short of Long-Term Memory,” where Dunbar, a neuroscientist, in a kind of fragmentary tribute to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, develops a drug that will suppress traumatic memories.
“L’lle Close” is Lionel Davoust’s rewriting of the familiar Arthurian legend. Stephanie Shaw’s “Afterbirth” is a hilarious recounting of giving birth to twins with a twist: dragons inexplicably but believably appear, as does a four-headed obstetrician.
Two of my favorite stories animate the inanimate: “The 121,” by David J. Schwartz, is set, like Alan De Niro’s “(*_*?) ~ ~ ~ ~ (-_-): The Warp,” in a convincing post-apocalyptic U.S.A where an explosion is sentient and carries the souls of its victims. The narrator of Interfictions 2’s strongest story, “Remembrance is Something Like a House,” by Will Ludwigsen, is a house that travels cross-country to have a conversation with one of its former occupants. Actually, it endures the hardships of incremental movement across eight hundred miles, from Ohio to Florida, in all kinds of weather, for a span of over seventy years, to offer the last remaining member of a family, the son of a father who was executed for supposedly killing a child in the house, a confession.
At the end of each story of Interfictions 2 is an entry by the author about how their story was written, offering perspectives about genre, formal constraints, what can be accomplished through the ignoring or blurring of boundaries. Unsurprisingly, it is Will Ludwigsen who offers what is perhaps the most succinct and precise definition of interstitial fiction:
[It is] fiction that, regardless of the tropes and traditions involved, taps into universal emotions with a certain verve, awe, enthusiasm, risk, and abandon—a tossing aside of normalcy in the brave pursuit of some aesthetic or thematic end. Interstitial stories tend not to care what genre they belong to, what traditions they confront or invent, what audience they find. Their writers have simply written with every tool they’ve got: robots, ghosts, creeping houses, whatever. They’ve held nothing back, even risking embarrassment or failure.
Interfictions 2: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing performs the paradoxical feat of containing what does not want to be contained: a collection of inventive, genre-flouting stories that unnerve as much as they delight.
Novel by Anastasia Hobbet
The Permanent Press, January 2010
Hardcover: 344pp; $29.00
Review by Alex Myers
Ever wondered about those Americans who take jobs in treacherous foreign countries? Ever wanted to know what it is like to move to the Middle East and try to fit in to conservative Islamic culture? Anastasia Hobbet’s novel Small Kingdoms answers these questions through its carefully structured narrative. Set in Kuwait after the first Gulf War, Small Kingdoms takes place in a region familiar to us from TV news broadcasts; Hobbet portrays the decadence and the difficulty of this country masterfully. The story follows five main characters: two American expatriates, one native Kuwaiti woman and her Indian maid, and one a Bedooin or resident alien, a Palestinian woman living in Kuwait. Hobbet constructs her book in short chapters, each following a single character, as these five individuals’ fates are drawn closer and closer together.
The role of women, and particularly lower class women, is at the heart of this novel. Hobbet exposes the underbelly of rich Kuwaiti society, presenting the lives of the household maids with startling detail. These women, so-called guest workers from Third World countries, are represented by the character of Santana, who is “locked into the villa where she works. Her sponsors are starving her, beating her, the woman burned her, the man’s raping her. Now they’re getting ready to leave the country because of Saddam. They’re leaving her in the house, locked in, with the doors and windows bolted.” The maid’s plight serves as one of the focal points of the novel as Kit, an American expatriate whose husband is an engineer, and Emmanuella, another maid, work to free Santana from her dire straits.
Even as the theme of servitude and mistreatment of foreign workers is a major component of the book, Hobbet subtly parallels this with the treatment of women in general. Mufeeda, a rich Kuwaiti woman who is one of the main characters, gradually realizes her own bondage, the way that her wealth and culture have rendered her almost a prisoner in her own home, “a grown-up child who depended on [her husband] for love and protection.” As Mufeeda realizes this, and as she is drawn into the quest for the mistreated maid’s freedom, she recognizes that even though “she was made for softer things, for peace, safety, invisibility. For ignorance,” she must abandon both the protection and the confinement of her religion to establish an independent sense of self.
In addition to the compelling and emotional main story of the maid’s rescue, the novel is enlivened by details such as the trip of a gaggle of American women to an old souk; loud and brash, they horrify the natives. Or the little pieces of setting that Hobbet deftly inserts, like the gardeners who drag “thick, drooling pythons of hose to skeletal palms.” She describes the breakneck driving style, the massive and imposing houses, and the decay of the public hospitals with brilliant and entertaining detail. This far-away and very foreign land becomes imaginable through her prose and her characters.
I found the novel slow to start, perhaps because Hobbet must keep five separate story-lines afloat. Momentum is slow to arrive until the characters begin to meet each other and their story-lines merge, which happens about a hundred pages into the book. But once these interactions begin, the pace picks up exponentially, until by the end of the novel it is breathtaking. I was particularly taken in by the counterpoint story to the maid’s plight, a tale of love between Theo, an American expatriate doctor, and Hanaan, a Palestinian woman trying to make her own way in Kuwait. Hanaan takes in abandoned cats, yet another symbol of the decay behind the decadence; the pets that are discarded when they are no longer wanted. Perhaps it is because I am a cat lover that I was drawn to this storyline, but Hobbet creates a wonderful parallel between the cats and the foreign workers; as Theo is driving a sick animal to the vet, he sees an Egyptian laborer crossing the street, “his long gellibiya [loose-fitting robe worn by men] beating against his legs like a flag of desperate surrender. He had no protection against the oncoming weather […] Like another stray cat, Theo thought, left to fend for himself on the streets.”
Small Kingdoms is a well-balanced novel; the Americans are no more or less flawed than the natives, the men are no more or less sympathetic and compelling than the woman. Even in terms of religion, Christian and Muslim characters are equally devout or equally agnostic. Hobbet is careful not to woefully bias her account. This is a refreshing look at the Middle East, opening up a world at once familiar from news stories and completely hidden from western sight.
Press 53 2009 Open Awards Anthology
Edited by Kevin Morgan Watson
Press 53, September 2009
Paperback: 202pp; $14.00
Review by Henry F. Tonn
This is the second year of this anthology which features poetry, flash fiction, short-short story, short story, genre fiction, creative nonfiction, young writers, and novella. There is a total of 28 works from 21 authors and the editor proudly points out in his introduction that entries came from 32 states and eight foreign countries. Two of the winners were from overseas: Jerusalem, Israel and Bogotá, Columbia. All judging was done blind.
The poetry is consistently excellent. Here is the last half of the submission by Malaika Albrecht entitled “On Your Birth Day”:
on my face, I’m adrift, bobbing
on a huge bed in a sea
of activity. Push. I can’t
remember what the word
means. I think push, gush
rush – the sounds of water.
I hear a gurgle
and then a wet cry. This is how
it feels to spill the whole of you –
an ocean wave –
that knocks me back to shore.
My favorite prose offering was “Sarajevo Roses” by Kirk Barrett, the winner of the short-short story prize. It concerns a battle for this former Yugoslavian town and is told with grim realism: “They write that the snipers in the hills surrounding our beautiful city of collapse and ruin get paid per target. Extra for children. One sniper who was interviewed by a French reporter – rebroadcast on B92 – told of how he relished seeing the expression on a mother’s face when her daughter, standing next to her, is shot.” The author manages to inject sardonic humor also, and one of the main characters is a 70-plus year-old man who likes to collect bed sheets. Why? That’s the focus of the story.
Two other engaging stories are “Crawl On Out” by Sylvia Lynch and “Monster” by Ray Morrison. The former concerns a tough guy who smokes a lot and fights a lot but rarely speaks and his relationship with a teenager who doesn’t like fighting at all. “Monster” is about – guess what? – a terrible monster who lives near “a tiny village in a far off country, where the towns had unpronounceable names” The villagers try to keep the monster – if he’s there at all – happy by feeding him one of their own – an elderly person not thrilled with the arrangement – and the monster reciprocates by . . . well, read it and have a good chuckle.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the three young writers featured in this anthology: Beckett Bathanti, Clara Fannjiang, and Alice Hall-Partyka, all in high school and all displaying considerable talent for their young ages. Beckett, who garnered first prize for his story, “The Return,” demonstrates knowledge beyond his years with the opening lines:
She lived alone these days. She found solace in photo albums filled with pictures from another life and the nightly thunderstorms that roared across the plains like a clamoring water demon that uprooted her flowers and sent the dog, tail between legs, to huddle beneath the bed. The next morning she coaxed him out with kind words and beef jerky . . . If you could have asked the dog, he would have assured you that she was an angel.
This anthology comes out on a yearly basis and submissions for the 2010 anthology are open until January 31. The website features various events going on including a writer’s cruise in September.
The Man in the Wooden Hat
Novel by Jane Gardam
Europa Editions, November 2009
Paperback: 240pp; $15.00
Review by Laura Pryor
The bad news: if you have a less than comprehensive knowledge of British history and culture (as I do), you may have to run to Google periodically to understand all the acronyms and historical references in Gardam’s novel. The good news: it won’t matter. Gardam’s book is primarily a character study, the affectionate chronicle of a long marriage between two flawed but lovable characters.
Edward Feathers, QC (Queen’s Counsel) is a prominent lawyer working in Hong Kong, who falls in love with Elisabeth (Betty) Macintosh, a former captive of a Japanese Internment Camp in Shanghai; her British parents died in the camp. Edward was a Raj orphan (a term for British children whose parents, working in places such as India and Malaysia, sent their children back to England to be raised by relatives or boarding schools – thank you, Google). Edward proposes to Betty, who is torn; Edward’s wealth and good looks are appealing, but she barely knows him, and feels no great passion for him. His greatest appeal to Betty: he needs her. Edward is still at heart an abandoned Raj orphan who is terrified at the idea of being left again.
Just an hour after Betty accepts Edward’s proposal and swears to never leave him, she meets his arch courtroom rival Terry Veneering at a party. The instant she meets him, Betty muses: “And it is just one hour too late.” She also meets his young son, Harry, and they form a quick bond, so quick that later that evening, when she hears of an airplane full of schoolchildren that has crashed, she panics (Harry was supposed to fly back to England that evening) and runs to see Veneering. Harry is fine – he missed the flight – but this encounter leads to a romantic tryst between Betty and Veneering, virtually on the eve of her marriage to Edward.
The rest of the book tells the story of Betty and Edward’s long marriage. To Betty’s surprise, she comes to truly love Edward, despite his inability to express his feelings, and her lack of passion for him. When she suffers a miscarriage, followed by a hysterectomy, Betty’s attachment to Harry Veneering becomes stronger than ever; though she rarely sees him, she thinks of him as her son.
This is not a plot-driven book. Betty never leaves Edward for Veneering; Edward’s career never falters. It is mainly Betty’s story, the story of a woman who is torn between two men, between two cultures, between love and passion. Her search for identity is paralleled by the historical changes in her adopted country of Hong Kong, and the theme of British colonization figures prominently throughout the novel. Betty loves the East, but can’t forget what happened to her parents there. In the end she becomes her mother, a proper British lady, cherishing her memory of her passion for Veneering and her bond with Harry.
Betty is a rich, complex character, a free spirit with an irreverent wit and a bit of a split personality, the legacy of her years in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Edward, too, is no stock Englishman, but a fragile and endearing soul. The reader gets the feeling that there is a lot of Edward’s story left out of the book, probably due to the fact that Edward has his own book, Gardam’s previous novel, titled Old Filth (Edward’s nickname, an acronym for Failed In London Try Hong Kong).
Gardam’s writing style is economical, sometimes to the point of terseness. For example: “She heard laughter. Cheerful shouting. English laughter and across the terrace saw Eddie’s legal team all drinking Tiger beer. There were six or seven of them in shirts and shorts, and Edward standing tall among them without a tie, head back, roaring with laughter.”
Edward and Betty are supported by a Dickensian cast of characters: a dwarf, a married couple of actors (the husband only plays butlers), a missionary couple with a brood of children and a perpetually depressed houseguest. The story is peppered throughout with Gardam’s dry English wit, as in this description of Edward’s briefcases: “It was the class of luggage that would grow old along with its owner as he became Queen’s Counsel, Judge, High Court Judge, perhaps Lord of Appeal in Ordinary, even Queen’s Remembrancer, and possibly God.”
Gardam’s novel satisfies that ultimate test of character-driven works: when it’s over, you will miss Betty. I do.
Fiction by Lorraine M. Lopez
BkMk Press, November 2009
Paperback: 263pp; $16.95
Review by Alex Myers
It should come as no surprise that the ten stories in Lorraine Lopez’s collection Homicide Survivors Picnic make an impact, bringing the reader face-to-face with situations that are realistic and gritty but never hopeless or pitiful. Lopez, the winner of the International Latino Book Award for short stories, among other accolades, handles intricate characters and complex emotions deftly, all while spinning out plots that are captivating and believable.
Lopez’s stories are traditional in form, anchored in semi-urban, lower-middle class reality. The people in her narratives drive cars like a “dusty Honda hatchback,” which an ex-wife secretly calls “the filth-mobile.” They live in modest houses, stay in cheap hotels, or rent apartments where the sinks are “stained with rust streaks, the countertops lucent with grease.” Such details in the stories are more than setting; they echo the characters themselves, worn-out, neglected, and a bit on the rough side. Even the jobs these folks have, a grant writer for Catholic Social Services, a mediation counselor, a social worker for substance abuse, speak for the rougher sides, the needs, within society. Lopez embraces characters who are teetering on the edge.
The collection is bookended by two linked stories, “The Flood” and “The Landscape,” that feature Lydia, a junior college professor who is taking care of Roxanne, her sister’s child, while her sister serves a jail term for drug use. Like many of the characters in these stories, Lydia isn’t used to children, isn’t sure what it means to take care of them; she takes Roxanne to museums and muses that “the past must seem a distant planet to her . . . these strangely garbed figures, with their out-dated contraptions and tools, as alien and incomprehensible as extraterrestrials.” Lydia, like the child she wonders about, is displaced, uncomfortable, a feature which, again, is echoed by the setting. As I finished the collection, reaching the last pages of “The Landscape,” it was incredibly satisfying to return to these characters with which the book began; Lopez provides a happy ending, a sense of growth and promise, without being trite.
Lydia and Roxanne are just one example of the most prevalent theme in these pieces: adults who are forced into playing a parental role. In other stories, grandparents must take custody of grandchildren as their own kids flounder with legal troubles or mental illness. Lovers walk in to relationships where someone else’s children dominate the household. Lopez has a knack for capturing children’s behavior, from the whiny tones of bored five-year-olds to the petulance of teenagers, as when one new boyfriend of a divorcee observes her two daughters who “have the habit of opening the refrigerator to scrutinize the contents when they return to the house, as though they expect transubstantiation to have occurred in its frosty recesses during their absence.” Small details like this make even the minor characters memorable.
Although Lopez explores common themes such as love, belonging, and identity, her stories move in unexpected ways. In part, this is due to her engagement with tough issues, the grittiness of real lives that don’t go smoothly. But it is also because Lopez creates characters who have depth and a real sense of interior life. With quick brushstrokes, she paints in new dimensions, like the teacher who “relegated the best of what she had to say to the parenthesis, the suppressed feeling, the unspoken thought.” Or the young man at the heart of the title story, a boy to whom others are drawn, who finds himself constantly being confessed to and wonders “what would happen if people weren’t allowed to speak unless they said what they meant. He imagined a delicious silence unfurling like a beach blanket on sun-warmed sand.” These are characters who have their own deep-seated desires, who don’t behave predictably; consequently, the stories, even those with familiar premises, explore new and unanticipated avenues.
As with many short story collections, Homicide Survivors Picnic suffers from a bit of evenness. “The Imam of Auburn,” for instance, simply feels out of place, with characters, content, and pacing that don’t match the other pieces in the collection; it is the only story that doesn’t deal with children in any capacity and the only one in which the main character is the individual suffering with mental illness. In all the other stories, the main character is either the caregiver, the responsible one, or the child who is displaced by the mental illness or substance abuse. Instead of providing a respite, “The Imam of Auburn” is jarring, breaking the consistent mood and the development of the cross-collection themes.
Lopez has written stories that are eminently readable, with plot and characters that are not only believable but familiar. She doesn’t shy away from issues of race and class, and while all of her stories carry in them the sense of hope, her writing is never maudlin. There is much to enjoy about this collection.
Poetry by Kristi Maxwell
Saturnalia Books, October 2009
Paperback: 62pp; $14.00
Review by Krystal Languell
As the epigraph from Gertrude Stein suggests, Hush Sessions is a collection of poetry interested in wordplay, but Kristi Maxwell’s new book also assesses ways of approaching intimacy and fertility in long-term relationships. By presenting the body as imperfect, these poems expose the disappointment a lack of control brings.
The collection is dominated by long series, poems that stretch up to sixteen pages in length. These episodic mini-epics chronicle battles between the speaker and the body. Three long poems, “Like the Earth, 2/3rds Water,” “Imperative,” and “Hush Sessions,” detail a medical misadventure in which the speaker addresses her ovaries, heart, and veins, often employing Steinian wordplay. “Like the Earth” contains a section that begins, “Aortic Valve – yes, I resort to your full name,” and then goes on to describe the body’s systems: “the body has nine / which should have clued me in to ‘no’ sounds like nein / sounds like blood, where are you?”
Maxwell’s poems smoothly exist in multiple worlds at the same time, describing a bodily failure while engaging in linguistic play, implying that the speaker should have used knowledge about language to predict her body’s behavior. The movement from “nine” to “nein” transcends mere homophonic delight when Maxwell employs the denotation of each word to serve the meaning of the poem in which they appear.
“Imperative” concerns itself with the response to illness, containing corporeal words such as “leukocyte,” “artery,” and “disease.” Yet it is difficult not to read the poem as specifically about the fallout resulting from a miscarriage. It begins:
antibodies oust the virus from a body –
I virus I
to keep you
The ways in which the body lets the speaker down are various, personal, and felt. The verbs Maxwell uses indicate the intimate nature of the speaker’s loss: “yes I begrudge,” “I asked your body,” “I clotted your mouth.” The sparseness of this poem mirrors the emptiness it and many other poems in the collection seek to describe and reproduce.
The title poem documents an attempt to resolve a fertility problem with institutional intervention. It is this piece that best deploys Maxwell’s strongest techniques. Though at times in the collection the homophonic wordplay is flat, a cute pair of words (“called. Culled.”) rather than an interrogation of language (“which she liked like the wet center / of a poached egg, which she liked”), in this poem the shout-outs to Gertrude Stein hum and sing.
The last few poems in the collection address infidelity in marriage and color the husband as problematic. In “Dominant,” the husband “was a blizzard that holed the Fourth [wife] / in his house.” The poem “Scrap for Grappling” is in the form of a Q&A on how a wife should respond to a cheating husband. Perhaps these closing poems are an effort toward answering the difficult questions raised in the rest of the book. If so, the answers are not pleasant or easy. This sounds about right.
Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time:
A Reader’s Guide to The Remembrance of Things Past
Nonfiction by Patrick Alexander
Vintage Books, September 2009
Paperback: 385pp; $15.95
Review by Jeanne M. Lesinski
French author Marcel Proust created an acknowledged masterpiece of modern literature in his 3,000 page novel The Remembrance of Things Past, which is also known as In Search of Lost Time, first published in seven volumes from 1913 to 1927. Patrick Alexander’s guide to this work serves as an introduction to readers who haven’t yet read Proust’s masterpiece, a useful tool for those in the process of reading it, and a refresher for readers who’d like to revisit favorite passages.
Part One provides an overview of the main story and its themes, followed by a 600 word summary and finally, a detailed plot synopsis. The plot synopsis helps readers understand the overall architecture of the book, which baffled readers for years as they waited for publication of the final volumes that had been delayed because of war. The more detailed plot synopsis includes quoted passages that effectively illustrate the style of the writing as well as the pacing of events and their comic application as anecdotes.
Part Two offers an alphabetized list of all the characters in the novel and character sketches of the fifty main characters. Yes, fifty main characters, whose names are often abbreviated, shortened, or misunderstood by the young, first-person narrator, fill these pages. Some characters are composites of famous historical personages, and Alexander carefully explains these relationships, helping to illuminate their significance within the plot and Proust’s own thought systems.
Part Three contains a short biography of Proust and historical information about France during La Belle Epoque and including a map of Paris denoting places important to the plot and where Proust himself lived. Because so much of the intricate plot revolves around social mores and etiquette of the upper social classes of France, this historical and societal information is critical to understanding the work, and unless the reader has already studied nineteenth- and early twentieth-century French history, this background information will be crucial.
As Alexander stated, “The purpose of this present work is to show that . . . Proust’s novel remains not only fresh and relevant to contemporary life but is extremely funny and shockingly entertaining.” While I’m not sure that readers of Alexander’s guide will be convinced of this purported high entertainment value, one thing is certain: readers will have had at their disposal ample useful information to guide their reading. Moreover, if they haven’t yet decided if they will take the plunge into Proust’s world, they will be able to make an informed decision. To read or not to read is always an important decision when there are so many words and so little time in life.