Master Figure: Tony Magistrale on Daniela Gioseffi’s Wild Nights, Wild Nights


Wild Nights! Wild Nights! The Story of Emily Dickinson’s “Master,” Neighbor and Friend and Bridegroom, Daniela Gioseffi, Plain View Press, 2010

Daniela Gioseffi has produced a novelization of Emily Dickinson’s life.  While it manages to capture the nuances of Dickinson’s time and particular place, it is more focused on highlighting instances and relationships where the iconoclastic poet and unconventional woman broke from 19th century strictures and comportment.  Dickinson’s poetry peppers the text in places appropriate to furthering the story. One example is the use of the poem: “Wild Nights – Wild Nights! // Were I with thee// Wild Nights should be // Our luxury!….” in both the title and the text regarding Dickinson’s erotic love poems.

Dickinson’s rebellion against the strictures of Victorian comportment is most apparent in her struggle and eventual failure to adhere to her father’s oppressive brand of Calvinist Puritanism, which Gioseffi emphasizes early in her novelization.  Even more dramatic is the poet’s apparent love affair with a married man—botany and chemistry professor of Amherst College, William Smith Clark—who served as Dickinson’s male muse just before and through the time that Colonel Clark was at the front in the Civil War.  Relying on recent Dickinsonian scholarship in the identification of the “Master figure” – in Dickinson’s letters and poems, a figure who inspired the poet’s best work in the 1860s, Gioseffi then proceeds to breathe erotic life into their affair. Her dramatization of this relationship is the crux of Wild Nights! Wild Nights!

There are no fictional characters in the book, as Gioseffi characterizes only people who actually existed in relationship to Dickinson and her biographically known details. How much of this biographical novel is based on absolute fact is really a moot point, though there is a compelling non-fiction afterword, ‘Lover of Science and Scientist in Dark Days of the Republic,’ which cites many authoritative biographies and articles on the iconic poet, and Daniela Gioseffi is with the Dickinson Scholar’s Registry. The fiction is great fun and a sharp reminder to all of us that Emily Dickinson’s life and poetry was far from the spinster-recluse stereotype to which many readers still adhere. There is a whole new image of America’s greatest woman poet to be had from the book which shows her as part of the American Enlightenment known as The Transcendental Movement, with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, and Margaret Fuller of ‘The Dial,’ at its helm. The book is well worth the reading for the new light it casts upon the most iconic woman poet of our American culture, and for the renewed reading of her texts within a nineteenth century context that it affords within its pages.

*

Tony Magistrale is Professor of English and Chair of the Department of English at the University of Vermont. He has also taught at the Breadloaf Young Writers Conference and as a visiting professor at the University of Augsburg, Germany, and the University of Stockholm, Sweden. Prior to teaching at the University of Vermont, he taught at the University of Milan, Italy as a Fulbright post-doctoral fellow. Magistrale is an internationally known Stephen King scholar and has published analysis of the films of Stephen King and contemporary American horror fiction. He has published two volumes of poetry and won the 2007 Bordighera Poetry Prize for his collection of poems, What She Says About Love, 2008.

The Importance of the Personal: Glenda Burgess on Jane Lazarre’s Some Place Quite Unknown


Some Place Quite Unknown, Jane Lazarre, Hamilton Stone Editions, 2008

Some Place Quite Unknown is the most recent work of fiction by the prolific poet and writer Jane Lazarre, author of Some Kind of Innocence among other works of fiction, and of note in her nonfiction, The Mother Knot, Of Loving Men, and Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness: Memoir of a White Mother of Black Sons. Her background includes teaching creative writing at Eugene Lang College at the New School, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and the Meyers Center Award for the Study of Human Rights in North America.

Some Place Quite Unknown is a tightly constructed novel that seeks to plumb the depths of personal history, its meanings and dark metaphors. The narrative opens with an omnipresent storyteller observing a woman standing in front of her mirror, aware of new and disturbing disruptions in the thread of her life and her thinking, a seeping sense of displacement somehow tied up with the fate of her mother. The unidentified heroine of Lazarre’s story whispers to a self she can only viscerally anchor to by touching her own face and witnessing the touch in her mirror – “I’m in the middle of nowhere with a huge amount of utter strangers surrounding me going ahead to some place quite unknown…” They are, she tells us, the words of her mother. And now they are her own.

More than a coming of age novel of the middle-aged soul, Lazarre’s latest work of fiction offers the diffused truths of the semi-autobiographical (c.f. author’s notes referring to letters of her mother’s credited to the character of her mother, Violet), and is distinctly flavored and framed by epigrams and quotes of Virginia Woolf’s famed paradoxical fictional heroines Clarissa Dalloway (Mrs. Dalloway) and Mrs. Ramsey (To the Lighthouse), not to mention the sometimes brutally-pained, beautiful poetry of Anne Sexton. Deliberate in its interweaving of narrative, dream, and a questing, questioning first person voice, Lazarre’s latest novel delves into the nature of the mind, adaptive amnesia, the dioramas of therapy, and the importance of personal history:

I am not crying from the real feeling, or weird vertigo of fiction. It is all happening right now, not back then or out there but right here, right now. I have imagined a story in the past more clearly than it happened in real time, and the imagining has led back to the real thing. Perhaps it is meaningless or dangerous to try to comprehend in language where certain stories began… (1. Refraction/ 8.)

The result is a quickly moving story that begins and ends in probing intimations by an unknown observer, but is voiced within the interior chapters in the heroine’s first person voice. This technique allows the reader to balance the storytelling nuances of a possibly unreliable heroine against the omnipresent, almost clinically detached observations that open and close the novel. At the novel’s conclusion, we better understand the journey of both mother and daughter, but questions of veracity are left to the reader’s own judgment, a comment in and of itself on personal narrative.

 

*

Glenda Burgess is a winner of The Rupert Hughes Fiction Award, and a short story finalist for the New Century Writer Award. She has published two novels, an academic reference work, and most recently a memoir, The Geography of Love, Broadway Books, August 2008, named a Top Ten Books of 2008 by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a finalist for the Books for a Better Life Award.

Fusing the Exceptional & the Everyday: Mimi Alpert on Catherine Brady’s The Mechanics of Falling


The Mechanics of Falling, Catherine Brady, University of Nevada Press, 2009

In many ways, a collection of one writer’s stories is analogous to a one-person exhibit of visual art. As well as being exposed to the impact of each individual piece, the reader or viewer  is given an overall impression of the artist’s skill and influences, and the general direction in which his or her work has developed. In Catherine Brady’s third collection of  short fiction, The Mechanics of Falling, the most powerful impression seems to be that of line drawings, not because of any lack of color but because each story has striking impact both in its  delicacy of nuance and its boldness of expression. However, in Brady’s unusually versatile and gifted voice, there is a seamless fusion between delicacy and strength. It is not surprising that this collection begins with an epigram from Chekhov, whose fusion of the exceptional and the everyday characterizes his finest work.

The delicate nuances of Brady’s writing are inherent in her sense of language, in her use of dialogue and imagery, and in the lightness of touch with which she infuses the most serious of issues with deft humor. She knows exactly how to capture the essence of a look, an exclamation or a gesture, so that, like a tiny sliver of glass or a needle sliding beneath the skin, it can penetrate the reader’s consciousness and leave its impression while hardly calling attention to itself. “Some people are too stupid to be afraid on a runaway horse,” Brady writes in the title story of The Mechanics of Falling, a revealing glimpse into the lives and loves of horse trainers at a stable near an affluent suburban community . “Some people freeze up. Some people turn cold and clear inside…and only start to shake afterward. Annie sails into trouble like she wants it to last forever, like she can skim off from fear only what’s precious.”

This same Annie, struggling with conflicting desires and the choices she must make, later bursts out, “I hate being young!” and instead of laughing at her – or perhaps, in addition to laughing at her – the reader understands all too well the causes and consequences, of her anguish, perhaps even recalling his/her own sense of clumsiness and lack of  social articulation at Annie’s age. The moral of this moment, perhaps, is that no one is worthy of being envied; no on, no matter how young, how nubile, or how gifted, e is too far outside the range of  helplessness and hurt to be admired beyond a reasonable doubt.

Brady’s  writing might at first seem  almost plain, but as the context of each story’s  situation unfolds, a fine-tuned understanding invariably reveals itself. The issues around which Brady’s plots revolve usually concern the struggles of a mismatched  or troubled couple; of their confrontation with some impossible situation and the general quandary of what each party of the couple needs to learn in order to survive. At the same time, her characters  sometimes seem diffident, confused, even comical.  Sometimes they are indeed so young  that they can’t even recognize what they’re feeling at any given moment. And yet  even when they’re not so young –even when, as frequently in these stories, they’re downright middle-aged — they seem to be searching for a way out of one of life’s myriad  ordinary dilemmas, whether social, personal, economic, or even physical. And in contrast to Brady’s frequently quiet, measured voice, the means of individual release is sometimes revealed explosively, under unusual or even violent circumstances.

In “The Dazzling World,” the second story of the collection, a couple, Cam and Judith – unmarried and living in separate apartments, despite having been lovers for four years —  journey together across Guatemala to visit a friend’s archaeological dig.  Cam  is a “journeyman actor;” Judith,  an illustrator of scientific articles and books. Although they have examined all the various issues and options of their relationship , both with one another and under the counsel of a therapist, they have not grown closer or dared to move in together.  But on this journey they are suddenly confronted by situations which they might never have expected in their reasonable and somewhat predictable city lives.

Even on the crowded bus that will carry them to the dig at which they  expect to be at most, guests and observers, they are accosted by the sense of the “dazzling world” overcoming their individual identities. They encounter forces over which they have no control but which surround and threaten them nonetheless. The bus lurches; a woman’s bag slams wildly into Cam’s body;  rather than exploding with anger as he might have done in his native, “civilized” city, he eventually responds with good humor, and the relationships begin to change. Then, on an isolated  road,  the bus is invaded by armed bandits and all the passengers are threatened, humiliated and robbed. Despite this, Cam and Judith find that they are able to continue their journey, arriving  frightened but relatively unharmed at their destination. And there, after being welcomed and comforted by their friend,  Cam and Judith witness the results of the archaeological dig they have come so casually to witness: they are present when the carefully opened trenches in the soft, pebbled earth are excavated and opened, to reveal a long-buried skeleton and an ancient flute. “Twelve hundred years in the ground had stripped from this body the taint of fear and sorrow but somehow left an irreducible beauty,”  Brady writes, and as the wind shifts loose earth from the trenches, Cam calls out, “It’s the spirit flying,”  while Judith fits her own fingers into the contours of the ancient flute. Without reading further,  one knows that both of them have been changed by these encounters, and that their new awareness may well bring about a transformation of their lives together.

Perhaps one of the most interesting elements of Brady’s writing, in this collection,  is her lack of fear of happy endings. After what has seemed to me a lifetime of expecting serious contemporary fiction to end  in sadness, confusion, or pain,  I found myself coming away from many of her stories with a sense of optimism, even of renewal and hope for human relationships. In the title story, the male protagonist suddenly realizes – in the most subtle and personal way – that he’s in love with the woman who has most specifically antagonized him. At the end of another story, “Last of the True Believers,”  what looks like a typically dysfunctional contemporary marriage turns out to be a construction of mutual regard as exquisitely engineered  and executed as the inlaid and bejeweled murals at the Taj Mahal.

As do so many of her characters, this author  takes risks. She allows herself to risk describing unadorned emotion, lifelong devotion and responsibility both to family and society,  and even bawdy humor in her characters’ actions and dialogue. There are a number of funny moments throughout the stories, but one of the funniest occurs when, helping her lovable but baffled Hispanic cleaner to decipher the instructions on a bottle of prescribed medication, a typically overworked wife, mother and professional woman reads them to a medical friend: “Vaginal suppositories. To be taken with food,” and then, exploding with exasperation, demands, “What’s she supposed to do? Shove a ham sandwich up there?”

It’s evident that Catherine Brady is a writer who seems content to leave us with a regard for our lighter side, our more ordinary moments,  as well as a healthy respect for those other, perhaps more powerful human emotions which contemporary fiction seeks so often—perhaps too often—to explore. No matter how elegant or bawdy her writing, Brady always brings us home to the truths of human engagement –  to the truths of our lives right here, in the cities and ranches and suburbs and remodeled houses and alternative radio stations and  summer resorts of our own modern lives; among full-time activists and  part-time waitresses and horse wranglers and overstressed mothers and wives, among wounded  teenagers  and young urban professionals and undocumented workers and  all the other survivors of our 21st century world.

Stories to Make the World New: David Atkinson on Amelia Gray’s Museum of the Weird




Museum of the Weird, Amelia Gray, Fiction Collective 2, 2010

It is difficult to analyze a collection of stories that starts out: “One morning, I woke to discover I had given birth overnight. It was troubling to realize because I had felt no pain as I slept, did not remember the birth, and in fact had not even known I was pregnant.” In this first story in Amelia Gray’s Museum of the Weird, when the narrator notes the above and subsequently sees that the “child had pulled himself up to my breast in the night and was at that moment having breakfast,” her reaction is to simply say “Hello.”

Truthfully, I felt the narrator’s confusion at that moment; hers at suddenly finding an unexpected baby feeding on her seemed a lot like mine at finding this on the first page of the first story in the collection. I fumbled for a reaction. I ended up resorting to the same response as the narrator- I merely said hello. Then I kept reading.

These stories seem like they should be so normal, well mannered and plainspoken if you will, but then they just keep walking past the top of the escalator and right out onto the sky. Moreover, when I read, I felt like many of the characters were having a similar reaction to the absurdity that I was. They were trying to make whatever has happened normal, though some were on a related wavelength in that they themselves were the absurdity and were trying to act as if it was normal.

In “Fish,” for example, “Dale was married to a paring knife and Howard was married to a bag of frozen tilapia. Each had fallen into their respective arrangements having decided independently that there was no greater match for them in life.” However, the two men encounter into a women as they are out on a fishing trip. When she pokes fun at the bag of frozen tilapia and acts as if she might open it, Howard merely stares helplessly but Dale “clocks [the woman] on the mouth with his Rick Clunn baitcaster.” Remember, Howard is the one married to the tilapia, not Dale. To Dale’s confusion, Howard and him argue about what he has done, leading to Howard opening the bag and flinging the frozen fish (which is his spouse) into the water. And, “[w]hen they finally came ashore, the police were there with [the] woman” and Dale wasn’t “immediately sure why.”

As I read them, these stories essentially center on normal, ordinary parts of life- procreation, relationships, trying to make some kind of meaning in life, and so on. However, Gray brilliantly and quietly knocks me for a loop each time, presenting these routine topics in such forms as an armadillo with a Miller High Life and a penguin drinking gin out of a highball glass. These absurdities are so strange, so marvelously imaginative and odd, that it makes me laugh (and/or weep, depending) and look at what is routine in a fresh, new way. They fill the world with wonders for those who can no longer see the wonders that are out there. In short, Gray makes the old new again and manages to delight her readers at the same time.

In short, I found the stories in this collection to be the sort of wild, unique fiction for which I often turn to writers like Etgar Keret and Huraki Murakami, though Gray is definitely her own animal. I am thrilled to see that there are still Americans out there who can still write in new ways like this, intrigue me with something I have honestly never seen before. I loved this collection and cannot wait to find out whether Gray has more like it.

*

David S. Atkinson is a Nebraska-born writer currently living in Denver. He holds an MFA from the University of Nebraska as well as a BA in English, a BS in computer science, and a JD. His stories, book reviews, and articles have appeared in Fine Lines, Gently Read Literature, The Nebraska Lawyer, and 2600: The Hacker Quarterly. The website dedicated to his writing is davidsatkinsonwriting.com

A Lush & Intriguing Set: Emilie Tarrant on Madeline McDonnell’s There Is Something Inside, It Wants To Get Out


There Is Something Inside, It Wants To Get Out, Madeline McDonnell, Rescue Press, 2010

“Wife,” the first of the three stories in There Is Something Inside, It Wants To Get Out felt like it was written just for me, just for my generation. This no doubt captured my favor early on. No, no, it does not play on generational divides. The book is heavy on trans-generational exchanges. It was the nostalgia as Wednesday, the story’s protagonist, reminisces the potential-laden romance of high school—the “eyelet skirts, candy necklaces, [and boys] in unlaced sneakers and unbuttoned flannels.” That is, as she reminisces on what I am certain many young lust seekers of the nineties would agree are the important things.

It was also the feminism. I was unspeakably amused, personally, by mention of the National Women’s Studies Association conference in Orlando. It was presumably slipped in for authenticity, but as one of two NWSA conferences I have attended, you might see how I was uniquely touched. More importantly, “Wife” accomplishes something for the book that contemporary literature is generally lacking. By acknowledging the zeitgeist and using feminism as a framework for character development, the story can resonate with feminists and non-feminists alike. Wednesday’s mom, Ms. Jefferson, is described as a second-wave feminist. It will likely be a familiar generational reference for many readers who came of age during the second-wave era or are the children of those men and women. Whereas fictional works are frequently received for a feminist appeal, or else shy from feminism entirely, There Is Something Inside, It Wants To Get Out bridges that divide by employing the topic for literary effect.

Many people have recognized author Madeline McDonnell as a savvy wordsmith, and the praise is certainly earned. Is it possible to be derisive and compassionate? McDonnell’s acumen makes the unseemly unification natural. The characters are impregnated with many antithetical drives that find easy cohabitation. The result is that protagonists Wednesday, Mary, and Lucy, as well as the others we meet, are a lush and intriguing set. Their banter can be both humorous and barbed. Their love is laced with mild disgust. Yet McDonnell harbors her characters from vilification. They are ambitious and self-directed, but they are navigating the world without a blueprint and sometimes falter. Herein lies their charm.

In their way, Wednesday, Mary, and Lucy unify the stories. Each woman narrates her experience. Each is self-reflective and strives to be self-directed. Each relates to the world through her body. Mary though, as highlighted through the anthropomorphizing of her white blood cells, is subject to her body. In this way and others, “Physical Education” distinguishes itself from “Wife” and “Trouble.” As events unfold by Mary’s telling, they open a window on her dad and make it his story nearly as much as it is hers. Grappling with her health, her dad finds an easy niche. Like the narrators, he falters, shows flaws in his affection, and is all the while well-meaning and endearing. Personalities are exposed and augmented by the intimate relationships of parents, children, and romantic partners throughout the book. But of the supporting characters, Mary’s dad is much closer to being a protagonist.

Ms. Jefferson would certainly give a nod to There Is Something Inside, It Wants To Get Out. It is rich with nuance—a trait she laments Wednesday’s boyfriend lacks. It is written with prowess. And tapping into the internal motivations of its characters, the book is cunning in its navigation of contradiction to find a sense of self.

*

When not working at Los Angeles’ archives and museums, Emilie co-authors the culinary blog Ceci N’est Pas Un Repas (unrepas.blogspot.com). Proud to have read the Spanish translation of Charlotte’s Web this year, she is now reading the Armenian translation of her favorite childhood picture book, The Paper Bag Princess. She has been stuck on the first page for  3 months.

Of Things That Were and Could Have Been: Parth Vasa on James Nolan’s Perpetual Care


Perpetual Care and Other Stories, James Nolan, Jefferson Press, 2008

In one of the stories in James Nolan’s Perpetual Care, a boy stays in a house with his mother’s corpse for more than a week, until the police carry him out of the house by force. Going on living with something that was a part of your life, but is now dead: A lot of people do that in James Nolan’s universe, albeit not all as explicitly as the boy in that story. For some it’s a dead dream that they carry around, for some a way of life that ceased to exist. And still the stories aren’t morbid. They have beauty like the fall leaves that have the brightest color just before they wither away and die. The stories are mostly set in New Orleans or surrounding areas. In some of them Northern California is a presence. The former is a part of the country that could have been the Promised Land; the latter, a place that actually was until, as Nolan says in “The Immortalist,” it turned into “caricature and real estate.” The stories that are set in New Orleans can only be set in New Orleans. The grime, the moisture, the brown sludgy water held away by flimsy levees, the hurricanes; they are all required for the stories to be told. And yet, there is something universal in the stories. Something that I, a software engineer from India who shares hardly anything with the characters, can relate to.

I bought Perpetual Care from a bookstore in Faubourg Marigny about a month ago. I read the first two stories on my way back to New York and then took the book along when I had to rush to India to see the man who raised me slowly give in to cancer. It’s been two weeks since my uncle died. He stood by me for twenty-eight of my thirty years like a father. I saw him go from a fully functioning man to a grunting, stuporous mass of skin and bones in the last two years. After he stopped breathing, I stood by as the townspeople gathered around his body. They trussed him to a makeshift bamboo stretcher with rough coconut-skin strings, carried him to the beach close by, dipped him in the sea that he had always loved, and put him on the pyre. About two hundred people—Hindus (every possible caste), Muslims, Jains—carried planks of wood and placed them over his body. I looked on as they arranged him on the pyre. Then, as is the Hindu tradition, I took a shovelful of burning coals and tossed it on the pyre. Flames lashed out within minutes like the tongues of mad dogs. Within an hour and half he was reduced to ashes and smoke that went up towards his beloved Pleiades.

All this while I was thinking about the title story in Perpetual Care, I would rather put him in a tomb above the ground. As strange as the custom may be to the tourists to visit New Orleans, you don’t have to see the feet of the man who taught you to walk curl up as the rest of his body burns to ashes. In that story, an old French Catholic woman notices a black man’s voice singing a love song from the tomb of a white family known to her. What unfolds is a story of love tortured by social norms. Nolan could have used magical realism here to make his point, but he doesn’t use it as a crutch.

I read stories from the book while tending to my uncle when he was sick and in between the constant flow of visitors after he went. In some strange way it kept me sane. A smell emanates from the stories, a human smell of sweat and follies. That was what I related to. I have loved New Orleans from the first time I visited it. It reminded me of every place I had called home so far. I thought of the city and the stories as I moved from consoling my aunt, who had not spent a single day apart from her husband of thirty-three years, to hiding my live-in relationship with an American girl from my conservative Jain relatives, who wanted me start seeing girls from families they knew. The stories gave me a window to somewhere different from where I was (a hell and a home very different from mine but also very close to it).

The characters are in the stories are varied and from different walks of life. A private detective with bills to pay, a gay hustler with a glib mouthful of made-up life stories and missing front teeth, a retired mortician sick of tourists on “Vampire Tours,” a cross-dressing plumber, or as in a few stories, older Creole ladies still holding on to an idea of aristocracy that went bankrupt many years ago. Mr. Nolan describes the characters in a way you would talk about family with affection but also a bit of anger.

The characters are undeniably a part of their city but they are fleshed out enough to have similarities to real people in any part of the world. How different are the aristocratic Creole ladies withering away in their mansion in “Lucy LeBlanc’s last Stand” from the old man who lived across from my parent’s house, in India? He walked around in a tattered suit every evening, greeting people as if he was in a pre–World War II England. Couldn’t the story of Narda, the woman from “The Tower,” clinging to the soul of a San Francisco neighborhood long after its body has been killed by gentrification, be true of someone living in New York’s East Village? The language is rich and in parts beautifully muddled. What do I mean by that? It’s not crisp and clear cut like that of so many authors writing short fiction these days. There is a taste to it. If there is chaos within, that is the beauty of it. How would you describe a muggy summer in the French Quarter or the sickening heat that tires you out but also makes you want to feel? In “All Spiders, no Flies,” Nolan gives us:

At dusk everybody comes scampering out like roaches hiding from the scorching light. Then the neighborhood is one big cocktail party. Music blares out of open bar doors. Hunky guys in tank tops and cutoffs lean against car hoods sucking on ice cubes, rattling go-cups at you as you pass. People scream at each other from balcony to balcony, hang out on their stoops, draining beers and mopping their brows and shooting the shit with everyone who walks by.

It’s too hot to touch. And too hot not to.

 

*


Parth Vasa is an Indian writer living in New York City. He writes software for a living and short fiction, narrative non-fiction, and short screenplays to make that living worthwhile. His film reviews have been published on www.slashfilm.com. He blogs occasionally at http://somniumcache.blogspot.com.

Somewhere, Somewhere: Oriana Leckert on Christie Hodgen’s Elegies for the Brokenhearted




Elegies for the Brokenhearted, Christie Hodgen, WW Norton, 2010

Elegies for the Brokenhearted begins in a rush and never loses momentum. It is crafted with galloping long sentences, clause within clause within clause, that swerve the reader away and then back and then away again. The characters are so sharp, their scenarios so poignant, their interactions so painful and real… This book is a devastating joy.

It’s a novel in stories—or, more accurately, in elegies—direct addresses by Mary Murphy to five central people in her life, which tell the stories of their lives, or at least those periods where their lives intersected with hers. This nested-story structure is a kind of herky-jerky stop-and-start format that can sometimes be jarring, but Hodgen makes it work beautifully, telling us always the story of Mary while making it look like Mary is telling us the stories of those around her.

Mary herself has lived since childhood in an almost impenetrable halo of silence—silence as rebellion, silence as a defensive coping mechanism, silence as a sarcastic attack. She always lets others speak for her, or no one at all. And yet the whole book, written in second-person direct address to each person being elegied, seems to be Mary’s attempt to reconcile the silence she’s spent her life ensconced in, to make others see how important they were to her—once it’s too late for it to matter.

Every character herein is consistently striving, reaching out in wrong-headed ways for more, yet secure in the conviction that he is meant for something better, easier, more rarefied. Each person knows that she is infinitely more special than the mundane and bitter circumstances in which she finds herself, time and again. But most of them do nothing to hasten their transfiguration, adding to the general sense of despair and frustration that permeates the novel.

Another marked similarity between the novel’s disparate personalities is how each is obsessed with death. Uncle Mike only gossips about friends who have died. Carson, Mary’s college roommate, decorates the wall above her bed with a constellation of Polaroids of her deceased relatives. One of Mary’s mother’s dependable morning rituals is reading—and mocking—the obituaries in the local paper. The entire book, of course, stars a cast of characters who have passed away.

One more overarching similarity between everyone is a desperate, suffocating loneliness, coupled with a near-hysterical inability to love. And yet the whole book is a vindication, in a way, of all this sorrow, all this despair. That Mary, who has spent her life silent and resentful, can recollect and reify these small, sad, bitter lives winds up speaking to an inherent beauty in all of us. Her ability to penetrate the layers of meanness, of abuse and anger and petty fury, and to render people real, is a parting gift, a gift to those parted, an indication that, despite everything, for a time they were truly understood.

At one point in the narration, Mary states, “Even the evocation of loneliness was something undertaken with the purpose of communicating it to someone, who would hear it and perhaps understand it.” This is a beautiful summation of the crux of this sad novel—no matter how alone we are, no matter how we despair, in our private moments, that we will die without ever having made a true connection with another living soul, someone has been watching, someone has been affected. Someone, somewhere, if only for a little while, has understood.

*

Oriana is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn with her longtime boyfriend and their two dogs. She edits for a slew of publishers, including McSweeney’s, Random House, NYRB, Melville House, and many more. She writes a blog about Brooklyn art and culture at www.brooklyn-spaces.com, and she reads like a maniac.

Vengeful Beast: Cicily Janus on David Nash’s Van Gogh’s Ear


Van Gogh’s Ear, David Nash, Star Cloud Press

If you talk to any writer, regardless of genre, you would know that it’s nearly impossible to get your work published in today’s literary climate unless you’re already “established.” Despite this fact, new voices emerge all the time. Some tank within the first month or two of their book’s release. Others flourish and pave the way for future works to be acquired. These are the writers who bypass tradition and go to great lengths to follow the voice in their works. They ooze with originality, landing them in the right hands at the right time. Star Cloud Press, an independent press based in Arizona, found their diamond in the rough when they signed David Nash. I must say that Van Gogh’s Ear, his debut novel, has proved to be one of the darkest, most intense and wonderful romps in literature I’ve come across in the last five years. As a budding literary agent, I do not hand this praise down lightly. The enormous amount of advanced praise for Nash is well-deserved.
Van Gogh’s Ear, is audacious. Impassioned. More than worth the read. Nash allows the controversial subject of rape to be intimately explored. VGE isn’t your typical witch-hunt. It’s more of a portrayal of the after effects that tear down the victim and their loved ones. Rightfully so, Nash does not displace or minimize the crime at any one point. Instead, he places it right in your face with its consequences glaring and clouding the reader’s view of reality. Morals and ethics are pushed beyond the norm and into the extreme. Fine lines of sane, rational thoughts cross over to the unspeakably insane.

From the beginning, the reader is tossed into the fatalistic mindset of a man (Ross) who is scorned upon learning that his true love has been defiled and damaged by the act of rape. Ross then sets out on a journey with no clear map or means of escape. A vengeful beast is unleashed within him that will eventually destroy everything in its path. This anger comes with consequence and risk. Unfortunately this involves the only family he has. Brentwood (Ross’ brother) then begins spiraling down the same drain with Ross. His sanity and unconditional love for his brother is then tested over and again until the hard weight of the climax, three brutal murders, reigns down upon them. Nash’ style is quite unforgettable. Thick and often sultry, his turn of phrase and beautiful prose thrives throughout. The voice is unwavering, a constant reminder of the pain his characters are living in…

Her voice was meek and breathy. She had more fear of the moment than any of us. But tremulously she stood there breaking down Ross on my scant behalf. Her face glistened like frost on the cusp of a melt. I bowed my head a bit without taking my eyes from hers…

For a first time novelist to pull off this style of haunting voice is impressive. Nash executes it with meticulous clarity allowing the reader to immediately drop into a vivid waking nightmare. It is obvious that risk taking is Nash’ strength:

I walked back out of the room and angled over to the other side of the living room to where I could see Ross’ door. It was open. On the floor at the bottom of the doorway an arm lay, flung carelessly into the living room area. It was still and bent awkwardly. It was long and thin with just the slightest glint of downy auburn hair riding the top of the forearm. It was not Ross’. I stared at it for at least a minute, looking around and behind me a time or two as if someone might be there to confirm what I saw. Its clumsy crook and peaceful stillness frightened me. It seemed paralyzed or asleep, but only because I did not want to consider the other possibility.

Nash poetically renders this tale of love that is lost, found and murdered in its own right with due justice. He is irrefutably unafraid to explore and excavate the darker side of the all too human yet criminal mind. I suppose each of us, even if we don’t admit to it, has this darker yet human side of our thoughts too. It’s our actions and conscious thoughts that separate us from the monsters of society. This especially comes to play when someone you love has been hurt. This makes novels such as VGE a thrill to read. Allowing the reader an escape all the while pulling back slowly, letting worry and fear bleed out onto its pages. This talent clearly sets Nash apart from the average writer…For Nash to display this level of maturity and the ability to harvest fertile and formidable words and worlds, is a skill that will serve him well. Hopefully he will continue to generate works like VGE, providing gripping experiences for readers of all genres.

Intimate Narrative: Joanna Terrero on Robin Reardon’s A Question of Manhood


A Question of Manhood, Robin Reardon, Kensington Publishing

 

A touching account of coming of age in rural America during the Vietnam war.

A fact worth noting is this book is not about being a gay teenager. The main character, Paul, is straight and his own sexuality, it’s never questioned. This is his journey toward tolerance of others’ homosexuality.

Paul faces a difficult relationship with his parents, increased by the guilty loving hating one with his dead brother, Christ. And the secret he took to his grave. A secret he confessed to Paul shortly before dying. Paul struggles with his memories, and the fact that being gay, makes Christ in Paul’s view, not so perfect after all. Sadly, he cannot tell his parents, who worship Christ’s memory. Ignoring how Paul languishes in the shadow of a brother who he will never surpass.

Paul’s brief encounter with a prostitute gets him in trouble with the law, his father confines him at home, only allowing him to work at the family’s pet supply store during the summer. Paul’s duties include training JJ, the new employee, who seems flawless and who is also gay. Paul is overjealous of JJ’s qualities, and the admiration his own father has for him. Eventually, an unexpected friendship joins Paul and JJ, who will teach Paul, among other things, that manhood and sexual preferences are two completely different issues.

The story intimate narrative reads as a biography, and there are moments when Paul comes across as selfish and biased. Other times, he is vulnerable and grief-stricken, inspiring sympathy. The author brilliantly uses the training of aggressive dogs as a vehicle for JJ to show his wisdom and sensibility, while Paul learns about confidence, patience, respect and friendship.

The moment of truth in the book, when Paul has to stand up and protect JJ, is heartbreaking. Paul finally understands Chris’ life choices. Being written in first person, we never get a chance to know how JJ, the gay character in the book, really feels. Yes, there are a couple of glances, but only through Paul’s perspective. I would have liked to have JJ’s inner thoughts too. Maybe we will, I have the feeling he might get a book by the way this one ends.

A Tendency to Distort the Real: Allyson Hicks Heyen on Alta Ifland’s Elegy for a Fabulous World


Elegy for a Fabulous World, Alta Ifland, Ninebark Press

“Elegy for a Fabulous World” by Alta Ifland both begins and ends on a high note with some distinct highs and lows in between. This eclectic collection of short stories has something to offer for every reader. Sometimes serious, sometimes silly, and often all within the same page, Ifland lets the reader experience a full range of emotions throughout. In reading “Fedea the Gravedigger”, I felt deep embarrassment, joy, sadness, and guilt. I wanted to embrace Fedea, while at the same time wanting to turn away from him. Just as the narrator has mixed emotions about Fedea, those emotions translate easily to the reader, creating a relaxed, almost recognizable, relationship between story, characters, and reader.

As a reader, I was delighted by the familiarity of Ifland’s stories. In the story “Elegy for a Fabulous World”, I felt as if I was at the beach sitting on the white sheet next to Aunt Irma and Uncle Pista. I could feel the “almost palpable heat melting the asphalt in places” and picture the “daytime with soaking-blue sky”. I truly felt like I could be a part of this story and share a seat at the family dinner table. The fact that Ifland’s beach scene took place so far from the beach scenes of my own life, yet was thoroughly relatable, speaks to the ease and skill of her writing. But just as the reader becomes comfortable in Ifland’s world, she throws a literary curveball.

“The Random Bus” was one of those times. The story started out with promise; I wanted to believe in this exciting, mysterious transport. I loved how riding the bus “triggers in its temporary inhabitants a desire for closeness” and how the rattling doors “is a constant reminder of the darkness outside trying to creep in and surround them”. As if the safe haven of the bus is not truly even safe, just as is real life for most of us. But the story left me feeling depressed and empty in the end. I wanted more from its pages; I wanted to know more of the secrets of the bus, wanted to experience more of its magic. The end came all too abruptly.

Throughout the collection, Ifland’s stories are punctuated with witty and unexpected descriptions. From the picture of Sandra as the “the girl who carries furniture” in “Elegy”, to the description of the building’s “cream façade in the melting sunlight/melting façade in the cream sunlight/melting sun in the cream light of the building’s fading lines” in “Sawdust Powder”, Ifland keeps the reader entertained with such colorful pictures. When I read in “Harry and the Tree in his Lung” how “man can only invent, never create. And what he invents sticks like Adam’s apple in his throat, and he chokes on his invention”, I had to laugh out loud at the truth and irony of that statement. Although “Harry” was a somewhat silly story, there was a reality to it as well.

Although many number only a few pages, Ifland’s stories delight and intrigue throughout. Just like the narrator in “A Week in Our Town”, Ifland has a “dangerous tendency to distort the real”, and that tendency is repeated over and over again, each time swinging the reader from reality to fantasy and back once again.