I'm curious about lumps in the rug. What secrets have been swept under cover? What goes on under the surface of normalcy? Who are we on the inside? And, in spite of being an introvert, I'm drawn to community. Whether it's the way a small town itself becomes a character or the way people come together to achieve something important, most of my work celebrates a sense of community.
I taught for many years in K-12 settings as an English and drama teacher and a writer-in-residence, and in college classroom at both undergraduate and graduate levels, designing and teaching courses in education, documentary studies, gender & women's studies, and writing. I am currently a senior scholar at the Institute for Ethics in Public Life, State University of New York at Plattsburgh.
“A small-town hairdresser is not quite what she seems in this novel of life under cover.”
– Kirkus Reviews
This volume of diverse short stories offers an exploration of memory and age.
Subtle surprises abound in Maher’s stylish collection. The opening tale, “A Real Prince,” introduces Yanka, a young girl who lives at an “outpost” and is ordered to do chores by her “keepers.” Due to her “obvious deficits,” the narrative reveals it is “irregular” that she has been allowed to live. She finds pleasure in folktales and retreats into her imagination, but when soldiers come to lodge at the outpost, she believes she has encountered a real prince. “Livia’s Daddy Comes Home From the War” continues the theme of youthful innocence, as the scene of a father returning from combat is recollected from the naïve perspective of a child. In “Vitae,” an academic plans on writing her magnum opus after being handed a severance package but finds herself working in a pizza shop and making an unusual deal with an armed robber. In “Dancing in the Dark,” a couple who have long fallen out of love are trapped in a dark elevator. The collection then turns to issues faced by older protagonists. The heartbreakingly moving “Turn, Turn, Turn” sees the world through the fog of dementia, where memory and understanding appear and recede without control. “Answering” is a whimsical but telling tale about a man named Howard whose vital organs take it upon themselves to call him on the phone to tell him how they feel. And the title story introduces a great-grandmother who hops on her great-granddaughter’s bicycle to evoke past memories and prove that she can still ride.
Maher’s writing has striking scope and breathtaking versatility. The diction of juvenile characters such as Livia, who struggles to recognize her father returning from war, is thoroughly convincing: “I’m membering hard now looking at his back but I can’t member about this man. I member a man in France who sended me shoes but now I can’t member what he’s sposed to look like.” At the opposite end of the age spectrum, the author effortlessly captures the ebbing tide of memory in “Turn, Turn, Turn”: “Sitting in my chair. Anna—that’s it, the name of the woman…my wife…she read to me about there being a time for everything. A time to sow, a time to die, and…something about stones.” These are poignant, wistful stories, but they are also carefully counterbalanced with Maher’s signature deadpan wit. In “Dancing in the Dark,” Claire, now desperately irritated by the foibles of her former partner, muses: “Victor. What a perfect name. Victor. A man who always has to have his way.” In addition, the author has the skill to draw from readers a childish snigger, as when Howard is bewildered by his body parts calling him on the phone: “Enough was enough, with his heart, his liver, his prostate (named Dick, for Chrissake) and his lungs all nagging him.” This is a prize collection that examines each stage of human life—how memories are lost and won; their value; and their weight.
Elegantly written tales laced with melancholy and mischief.
Pub Date: Feb. 15, 2020
Page count: 128pp
Publisher: Dog Hollow Press
Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2020
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020
A small-town hairdresser is not quite what she seems in this novel of life under cover.
Charlie Bader, a dentist living in Dallas in 1933, is happily married until his wife catches him lounging in her nightgown doing his nails. She runs off to New Boston, Texas, to train for missionary work in Africa. He relocates to Chicago, where he finds a circle of secretly cross-dressing men—most of whom, like him, are staunchly heterosexual—who give him fashion advice, invite him to drag teas, help him cultivate a high-pitched lilt, and call him “Charlene.” But Charlie’s life is still lonely, as he feels unable to approach a woman, for fear she will discover his hidden passion and reject him. After a stint in the U.S. Army during World War II, he emerges feeling even further alienated from his manhood. He goes to the town of Heaven, Indiana, to live as a woman, using well-honed makeover skills to open a hairstyling and manicure salon. Charlie’s perspective shifts from studying womanhood through the eyes of a man to connecting more intimately with it through the lives of Charlene’s customers. Her beauty shop becomes a gathering place for the ladies of Heaven to trade gossip, hatch plans, and share confidences with the always sympathetic and discreet Charlene. She initially basks in Heaven’s seeming quiet and orderliness, but tension builds as she falls in love with a customer, knowing that she might be run out of town if she voices her feelings. Maher (Heaven, Indiana, 2000, etc.) treats Charlene’s story with sensitivity and nuance, letting it entwine organically with the life of the town that first appeared in her previous novel. Charlie’s early exploration of femininity is portrayed as less sexual than sensual, consisting of a fascination with elegant outfits, perfectly poised manners, and the seductive tactile pleasure of women’s clothing: “The silkiness felt exquisite and forbidding, soothing and terrible, comforting and dangerously damning.” The author’s limpid prose also captures the subtleties of women’s lives, from catty fencing—“Elizabeth Tipton had a way of complimenting you, Minnie thought, that almost made you feel like she didn’t take you seriously”—to a 10-year-old’s clumsy stabs at sophistication to the exasperated kindness of a daughter caring for her parents. The writing is suffused with deadpan humor but resists caricatures; Charlene balances her furtive yearnings with sober restraint, and her customers aren’t small-minded yokels but complex, curious people who are willing to expand their horizons. Heaven is a richly textured place of church socials, quilting and pie-making contests at the county fair, and neighborly help for families burdened by sickness and age. But there are darker elements, as well, such as a con man who threatens to expose Charlene and a mystery involving a teenage girl who died after giving birth to a now-missing child. In Maher’s tapestry, the unconventional, even subversive, impulses of misfits and “ordinary” folk find a place in a convincing whole.
A quietly luminous tale of folksy gender-bending that’s entertaining and authentic.
Pub Date: Jan. 23, 2017
Page count: 276pp
Publisher: Break Away Book Club Edition
Review Posted Online: Aug. 10, 2017
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2017
Buried secrets churn beneath the placid surface of a small town in this tragicomic debut novel.
Once a station on the Underground Railroad and later a Ku Klux Klan stronghold in the 1920s, the village of Heaven, Indiana, has a tangled history of grace and sin. Maher begins its beguiling saga in 1954, when Madame Gajikanes, a Romani fortuneteller passing through with a traveling carnival (her decidedly non-Romani real name is Nancy White), finds a newborn infant left in a basket at her tent. She duly raises the baby girl, named Nadja, to be a carnie performer who specializes in telling fortunes from dirty dinner dishes (“It’s like tea-leaf reading. I read from the pattern left on your plate after you’ve eaten”). Nadja’s wanderings intersect with the lives of Ellie Denson, a waitress at Clara’s Kitchen who wishes she too had the gumption to get out of Heaven, and Sue Ellen Sue Tipton, whose House of Beauty becomes the clearinghouse for artful gossip thanks to her phenomenal head for town lore. Also threading through the tale are aging farm couple Helen and Lester Breck. When Helen decides that Lester is not really Lester but a farmhand who looks just like him, the long-suffering husband takes his wife’s delusions in stride while covertly seeking consolation with other women. There’s more than enough death and derangement in Maher’s yarn for a prairie gothic potboiler, but she defuses the melodrama in a well-observed comedy of rural manners that breaks down larger villainies into smaller misdemeanors, tinging all of it with a wisp of magical realism. (Fortunetelling, it turns out, is 99 percent reconnaissance and 1 percent something else.) The author’s prose manages evocative flights—“Elephants paced restlessly, their immense feet beating slow syncopations”—but it dwells mainly in small-town naturalism rendered in pitch-perfect dialogue by sharply drawn characters whose folksiness still encompasses layers of complication and conflict. A bit like a darker-tinged version of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon narrative, Maher’s fictive universe unfolds with richly humorous details and expansive meaning.
A funny, poignant tale of an imperfect paradise.
Pub Date: Nov. 15, 2000
Page count: 169pp
Publisher: Dog Hollow Press
Review Posted Online: March 2, 2018
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2018
THE PERSISTENCE OF MEMORY AND OTHER STORIES: Kirkus Star
THE PERSISTENCE OF MEMORY AND OTHER STORIES: Named to <i>Kirkus Reviews'</i> Best Books, 2020
EARTH AS IT IS: Kirkus Star
EARTH AS IT IS: Named to <i>Kirkus Reviews'</i> Best Books, 2017
HEAVEN, INDIANA: Kirkus Star
HEAVEN, INDIANA: Named to <i>Kirkus Reviews'</i> Best Books, 2018Jan Maher Reads 'Earth As It Is' at Lopez Book Shop, 2017 Local Author Spotlight: 'Earth As It Is' looks into the world of heterosexual cross-dressers, 2017 GREAT MIDWEST BOOK FESTIVAL HONORS ‘EARTH AS IT IS’ FOR TOP HONORS, 2017 Best Indie LGBT Stories of 2017, 2017 When Cross-dressing Didn't Have a Name, 2017
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