Winner of Butler University’s Pressgang Prize, this collection examines the dangers and seductions of fantasy and lies.
Hardworking Appel (The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, 2014, etc.), an attorney, physician, bioethicist, essayist and fiction writer, published a strong story collection in Scouting for the Reaper (2014). Now, in the eight stories comprising this volume (some previously published in literary magazines), he offers an equally strong, striking follow-up. Many of the stories here involve characters being asked to participate in some kind of deception, ranging from children’s fibs to murder. In the title story, a travel guide identifies a family’s run-down bungalow as the cottage where Albert Einstein spent his Princeton summers. When tourists arrive, the narrator’s father puts up a blackboard with equations scribbled from a math textbook and starts charging money. But then an old woman shows up claiming to be Einstein’s niece—and claiming, therefore, ownership of the house. Bewilderingly, she succeeds: “That marked the end of Papa’s clever ideas.” In the superb “La Tristesse Des Hérissons,” Josh, the narrator, humors his girlfriend Adeline’s obsessive caretaking of a pet hedgehog, such as keeping quiet during sex lest “an errant moan…alarm our barbed roommate. Actually, the word she used wasn’t alarm. It was traumatize.” Expensive veterinarian and pet psychiatrist visits follow. Diagnosis: hedgehog depression. Treatments include complete darkness, so Josh light-proofs the apartment, “while Adeline tend[s] to the hedgehog in a rented darkroom at the Manhattan Institute of Photography.” Appel brilliantly contrasts Josh’s pungent wit about the situation’s absurdities with the couple’s real, mostly unspoken needs, conflicts and sad family histories. By the end, it’s clear Josh values the hedgehog, too, exactly for its prickly, stabbing neediness. “Paracosmos,” a very different story, shows a similar ambiguity about fantasy. A woman meets her daughter’s imaginary friend’s seemingly real father and has an affair with him. She doesn’t question his reality—why would she: “[W]hether Steve was the product of a coincidence or a hoax or a paranormal vortex, she did not want to lose him.”
Sharp, observant, darkly funny and deeply humane. Another winner from Appel.
A multigenerational exploration of the impact of southern Italian heritage on the offspring of immigrants who came to America at the turn of the 20th century.
Divorced and later alienated from her only child, Arianna Naso decides to plumb the depths of her Italian-American upbringing, in search of a pattern that could explain the chaos that she feels rules her personal life. The book begins as memoir, with Arianna recalling a pivotal 1963 trip to Florida when she was a rebellious teenager. It then lurches forward to 2008, pausing to present Arianna’s three-chapter manuscript of a biography of her great-grandparents Angelina Rotolo and Orazio Longo. With two babies in tow, Angelina and Orazio left the small, poverty-stricken village of Rutino, Italy, to find a better life in Brooklyn, New York. Enduring hardships and discrimination, the family nonetheless experienced financial success.Arianna’s mission, however, is to understand the darker side of the family dynamic, particularly the heavy drinking and violently abusive treatment of women. As she digs into Angelina’s past, she discovers the mythologies handed down from the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Arabs, and finally the Spaniards, all of whom settled in southern Italy before the country was unified in 1861. Feola (George Bishop, 1997) debuts as a novelist with a complicated text that alternates between past and present and between first- and third-person narratives. Through her protagonist, Arianna, she creates an intricate, intimate portrait of Italian immigration to the United States and of subsequent generations of Italian-Americans who grew up within the confines of their parents’ and grandparents’ customs and expectations. The author’s work is rich with historical tidbits, but it’s Arianna’s personal struggle to break free from her alcoholic husband, deal with her drug-addicted, emotionally disturbed son, and overcome her own escape mechanisms—including eating disorders and binge shopping—that form the heart of the story.
A touching account of family dysfunction as it exists side by side with loving, close-knit relationships.
Fitzjerrell’s (The Dividing Season, 2012) engaging tale depicts a Texas town during the Great Depression.
Mike Lemay was recently hired by the Federal Writers Project to interview and write about the people suffering in this hard time. He himself feels guilty for leaving his surviving family in North Carolina, but he needs whatever work he can get so he can send money home. He winds up in Cooperville, Texas, and immediately confronts the mysterious disappearance of the town eccentric and loner, Effie Beck. After renting quarters with the Travises—widowed Cora Mae and daughter Jodean—Mike is quickly drawn in. Cora Mae, with her chronic headaches, is a classic manipulator, and everyone seems to see Jodean as a good daughter but damaged goods. Why? And does that somehow involve Effie Beck? Such questions form the backbone of the novel as Mike and Jodean fall in love slowly, warily, predictably. Groups and minor characters pop in throughout the story. Though the town is suspicious of any outsiders, a crew from the Works Progress Administration is building a bridge over the Medina River—a bridge that, at book’s climax, might be washed away. The menacing sheriff and his beautiful wife (aka the richest couple in town) contribute a subplot, and the historically factual “orphan train” plays a major role. The story is as much about Mike’s coming to terms with himself and his disgust at the Depression and his situation as it is about his solving the mystery of Effie Beck. Fitzjerrell packs a lot in, and her pacing is impressive. Characters are real and detailed, and the town feels like a real place, not a stage. Small wonder that the book already won the Will Rogers Gold Medallion.
Stellar fiction about hard living during the Depression.
In this novel, set in 1930s New York, the lives of three brothers diverge and intertwine as each finds his own pathway to manhood.
Hess’ (Bergdorf Boys, 2011, etc.) latest work is a brutally dark, lyrical fairy tale in which three siblings pursue their respective journeys through life while finding their places within a shattered family. The story establishes its characters right away when eldest brother Dickie pushes youngest Adlai to the ground over a perceived slight. Middle brother Walt doesn’t respond, but Big Ed, a member of the Butchers, Dickie’s small-time Irish gang, finally intervenes. The sheer gravity of Dickie’s violent temperament drags all the brothers down with him. In an effort to go big-time with the Butchers, Dickie intrudes on a meeting between rival Italian mobsters and ends up shooting one of them. Later, he sends an Italian bagman packing by smashing a pickle jar on his head. These acts garner the attention of Frankie, a sharp-dressing mobster, who kidnaps Dickie, beats him to a pulp, and then offers him a job as a hit man, with the caveat that Dickie’s brothers must also work for him. Beautifully written, infused with symbolism and baptisms of blood, fire, and water, this tale shows each character reaching epiphanies in their separate journeys. Adlai, for example, is on the threshold of coming to terms with his homosexuality: “He was thinking almost like another person, an older person, a man from the future…he was aware of a newness coming through him.” Meanwhile, they all find love: Dickie meets his match in an African-American woman named Eva; would-be doctor Walt falls for Adriana, whose physician father despises him; and Adlai enters a dangerous but fulfilling relationship with another man. When Dickie’s plot to fix Walt’s romantic problems backfires, the family hides out in an upstate cabin, where their zombielike father, Pat, rises from the dead, taking charge. At once gritty, poetic, and romantic, Hess’ masterful, elegant style weaves these diverse elements into a seamless narrative that touches the heart of what it means to be human.
A compelling tale that’s a must for Hess’ fans and an excellent introduction for everyone else.
Decrepit humans rescue desperate canines, cats and the occasional rat in this collection of shaggy but piercing short stories.
Kearney’s impoverished, misfit, outcast characters live mainly on the fictional Sebequet Peninsula, which features a Native American reservation, ramshackle trailer parks and plywood cabins surrounded by trash and rusting metal. In this zone of squalor and despair, people’s connections with animals are, for many, their only links to life. In the story “Sparrows,” a disabled man and his meth-head sister precariously prop each other up but find a stabilizing influence when they take in a maimed pit bull. In “Beverley and Jim,” a raucous old woman, stricken with multiple sclerosis and alcoholism, lives in a caved-in trailer with a herd of cats. An exasperated neighbor helps her out only to realize her importance in his life too late. In the engrossing title story, members of the Sebequet community—including a pot-dealing commune, an animal-control officer and a busybody city transplant who runs a local resort—work out their mutual responsibilities by helping a household full of abused dogs. The Sebequet-based stories are remarkable for their understated, yet vivid, realism and their pitch-perfect rendering of the hard-bitten poverty and frayed social fabric of rural America. Other stories move beyond this territory: In “Driving While Remembering,” a woman returns to her childhood home in Des Moines, Iowa, and realizes how much she has missed; “Circles” ponders a Wyoming wilderness landscape—gorgeously painted by Kearney—and a woman’s regret at rejecting a stray dog; “The Christmas Rats” elegizes the lingering impact of two short-lived, offbeat pets in a girl’s life. Kearney’s prose is elegant and unfussy, with threads of humor and lyricism. She has an excellent eye for settings and ear for dialogue, and she treats her characters, and their relationships with their pets, with a cleareyed, unsentimental sensitivity and psychological depth. Through their struggles, she shows readers a search for meaning through the humblest acts of caretaking and companionship.
A superb collection of stories about the most elemental of bonds.
Fresh new writers rub elbows with past masters in this scintillating collection of verse.
Under the label “New Neo-Realist,” Lark, editor of the Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities, assembles a collection of narrative poems that usually feature frank engagement with ordinary life; a modern, colloquial idiom; and emotion leavened by irony, astringency, and flashes of humor. That leaves room for a huge range of subjects, styles, and moods. Erika Meitner’s “Wal-Mart Supercenter” contrasts the stores’ sublime friendliness with the police-blotter hell surrounding them (“A couple tried to sell their six-month-old for twenty-five bucks / to buy meth in the Salinas Walmart parking lot”), and L.W. Milam’s surreal “Tootie Fruit ME and Ass-Grasp LA” invokes “crowds of crying turtles, & / Peasant armies of hymn-singing, drug-ridden geckos.” Christopher Kennedy’s mordantly funny “Riddle of Self-Worth” laments that “My pet vulture has the disconcerting habit of staring / at the clock and then at me”; Howard Nemerov’s lyrical “Goldfish” spotlights the creatures’ “Waving disheveled rags of elegant fin / Languidly in the light”; and Tom Crawford’s “Companion to a Loon” levels a matter-of-fact elegy: “Listen bird, I’m past making death sad. / The tide has no time for wakes / or tragedies. We’re either coming in / or going out.” The volume contains an especially strong set of poems by women, including Kate Gale’s agonized “What I Did Not Tell Anyone,” in which a new mother confides “That I felt my whole family / greedily feeding off me. / That my body felt stolen. / That I felt like Russia during all the wars / troops tramping over me on their way to Moscow,” and Christine Hamm’s bitterly whimsical “Signs You Are Ovulating”: “As you apply mascara / in the bathroom, your eyes slit, / a crow hops onto your shoulder, / and whispers, right here, now.” Lark juxtaposes works by well-known legends, such as Allen Ginsberg, Philip Larkin, e.e. Cummings, and Langston Hughes, as revealing counterpoints to the newer poems. Unlike the strings of cryptic non sequiturs in much Master of Fine Arts—bred poetry, these poems are decidedly reader-friendly without compromising their literary artistry. Along with their inventive language and dazzling metaphor, their accessibility and immediacy pack a wallop.
A fine anthology of some of the best contemporary poetry around.
In a second Amish-themed novel, Moore (An Unseemly Wife, 2014) spins her grandfather’s journey West into the rich tale of a prodigal son.
In 1882, 21-year-old Joshua revisits his Amish homeland for the first time in 10 years. The sight of the inscription on his gravestone—“Beloved Boy, 1872”—plunges him back into memories of the horrific day when he was 11 and fought with his alcoholic father, Abraham, causing a candle to fall over and the barn to catch fire. Joshua went on the run, leaving his mother, Miriam, and four sisters to presume him dead. Joshua’s decadelong search for home and identity, which eventually leads him back to New Eden, Pennsylvania, takes him to unexpected places, like a saloon and a prospectors’ camp, where his companions include a bar wench and a circus bear. Along the way, he avoids a number of unsuitable romantic dalliances and finds a few surrogate mother figures. Consistent allusions to the Bible and other classical texts lend literary weight to Joshua’s journey. For instance, one of his longer stays is at the Baylors’ pig farm, reminiscent of the swine in Homer’s Odyssey; Joshua also likens urban Pittsburgh to both Gomorrah and an “inferno, Dante’s hell made flesh.” Scriptural and folksy vocabulary mix in interesting ways: “He felt the beam in his own eye as he cast about for the codger’s mote” and “How low the English had brought him, a fisher of garbage.” The novel carefully balances its storylines, with various chapters recording Miriam’s daily life as she tends Abraham’s severe burns, while descriptions of hearty meals, lambing, and milking chores add authentic period detail. It can be difficult to believe that entire years are passing, a fact Moore has to emphasize by frequently inserting the children’s ages. Still, the novel eschews moralizing clichés to tell a powerful story of exile and reintegration. Joshua—“part Lazarus, part prodigal”—proves to be a memorable, multifaceted protagonist.
Following three generations of women, Polli’s debut traces an intricate web of family secrets as they are created, buried, and discovered.
It’s 1950, and Emily lives with her mentally unstable, alcoholic mother, Anna, and her Polish grandmother, Marishka. Emily’s father died when she was a baby, and she misses him desperately. After exploring Emily’s life, the novel flashes back in time to 1920, when newly arrived Polish immigrant Marishka was the young wife of a Polish coal miner in rural Pennsylvania. As she worries about her husband’s dangerous job and cares for her two daughters, Paulina and Anna, Marishka’s worst fears are realized when her husband is killed in the mines just before their third daughter, Eva, is born. The novel then returns to Emily before focusing on an older Paulina; the narrative alternates between them as Emily grows up wondering why her family is the way it is and Paulina realizes she has fallen in love with Anna’s husband just as baby Emily is born. Polli neatly dovetails the timelines, focusing on the parallel lives and pulling readers deeper into each woman’s life. Strand by strand, she reveals just a little more about each character, delicately intertwining the various threads of their existences in a way that subtly shows the complex emotional ties that exist between family members. The story grows honestly and organically, to borrow a phrase of Emily’s, and her emotional exploration feels cathartic without becoming cliché. When Marishka dies and Emily finally discovers the existence of her aunt Paulina—and the reasons why the family decided to disown Paulina and Emily’s own father—she reaches a turning point and decides to finally figure out who she wants to be and what her family means to her now that all the secrets have unfurled.
A quiet yet powerful saga of imperfection and the struggle for family connection.
In Tomkins’ (Dynasty: Fifty Years of Shankly’s Liverpool, 2013, etc.) novel, a forensic artist’s romantic obsessions and traumatic past rise to the surface as he works on a cold case.
Patrick Clement has been tasked by authorities with reconstructing the face of a young, unknown victim named “Marina,” found murdered many years before on a pier in the English seaside resort of Brighton. With his marriage in shreds, Patrick moves into the cottage given to him by his aunt, the terminally ill Kitty. Surrounded again by memories of a tragic childhood (including a mother who committed suicide and a father who died an alcoholic), Patrick works to shed light on the identity of the mysterious woman, even as his thoughts revolve around some significant women who’ve disappeared from his own life: his mother, a young Frenchwoman he met as a teenager in London, and a troubled teenage girl that his Aunt Kitty once took in to live with them. In particular, Patrick’s thoughts drift toward a young woman called Black, with whom he spent a memorable evening at the pier and who’s haunted him since their first meeting. He tries to trace the whereabouts of Black and consults the retired policeman for whom he’s working on the reconstruction. As the reconstruction nears completion, Patrick comes nearer and nearer to the truth. Tomkins’ prose is evocative and devastating. He portrays the Brighton beach beautifully—the facile amusements and giddiness of the holiday destination as well as the darkness that lies beneath, as when Patrick recalls walking there with his father as a child after he’d been abandoned by his mother: “From a vendor beside a Punch and Judy show he bought me an ice cream, but not even its sweetness could distract from my distress…he bought me a red balloon, which, like a beaten finalist, I carried as a worthless consolation prize.” Tomkins’ painstaking descriptions of the minutiae of Patrick’s forensic artistry are remarkable for their lyricism and for the insight that they provide into Patrick’s need to impose order on chaos: “She is evolving, returning to life….She is far from finished, but to someone, somewhere, she might already be alive.”
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints grapple with the harshness of church teachings in these ironic but heartfelt stories.
Townsend’s (Lying for the Lord, 2015, etc.) latest collection features mostly Mormon characters, some devout and some questioning, whose faith is tested by crises great and small. A man whose niece is missing in a great tsunami wonders why local churchgoers seem indifferent to the catastrophe; a literature student is asked by a church leader to write Amazon reviews of anti-Mormon books—without reading them; and a teacher decides that cruelty is next to godliness, for her students and everyone else. In other tales, a couple’s marriage is threatened by church regulations; a woman is appalled when the death of her family in a car crash becomes grist for church moralizing; and a Girl Scout troop endures heat, bugs, and horror stories about anti-Mormon atrocities. In still other stories, a woman finds her bishop’s condemnation of her murdered son’s homosexuality to be strangely comforting; an ex-missionary who’s abandoned the church decides to apologize to all the converts he baptized; and a teenage girl wonders why divine prophecies about her future keep changing. Townsend’s tales are steeped in religious peculiarities—his characters shape their lives around rituals and process the world through the lens of Mormon doctrine, which invests ordinary family life with cosmic significance and even the tiniest vices, such as drinking coffee, with dire sinfulness. Some motifs repeat: the experience of young missionaries scrounging for converts is a favorite, as are iconic scenes of family get-togethers. The author treats Mormon idiosyncrasies with a mixture of fond bemusement and resentment; many stories are about how empty theodicy—theories of why God permits evil—can seem to suffering people. In his great theme of the eternal clash between liberal humanism and religious strictures, the latter usually come off as petty and callous. Still, Townsend is a wonderful writer with a wry but sympathetic eye for humans’ frailties and the ways in which religious belief both exacerbate and console them.
More vibrant parables about doubts and blasphemies that hide beneath a veneer of piety.