Murderers, Whoremongers, Liars, and Worse

Murderers, Whoremongers, Liars, and Worse
By: Robert Earle
Published in: The Puritan
Reviewed by: Vickie Fan





A few years back I taught a writing class with underprivileged women in Baltimore. We did one lesson on writing about home and used two examples as models. One example was an excerpt from a novel that had been  written by a Pulitzer Prize winning, best selling author. The other, even better example, was taken from Robert Earle’s short story, Murderers, Whoremongers, Liars,  and Worse. The fact that work as vibrant as Earle’s can be found in the largely unpaid world of online journals says almost everything we need to know about the literary marketplace.

The home in Earle’s story is described with brutal economy: Two rooms in Pyongyang. 1930s. The room in back with sleeping pallets, cast-iron wood stove, cooking utensils they made themselves, and a chamber pot next to the food box. The room on the street only a half room with an awning open like a mouth in daytime and shut like an eyelid at night. No space to work safely.

Out of the grim poverty of his environment, Sung Wei emerges, a boy who is strong, smart, and passionately alive. Far from bemoaning his lot, he begins to worship — and then identify with — a Christian god who is intimately and triumphantly connected with hardship. Through the ravages of successive wars, Sung Wei forges a larger than life sense of self that powers a deeply rewarding short story.

This is Sung Wei escaping from a prison camp.

They made the moon their compass. Twelve miles, cold and breathless.

That night God told him if he failed, God would fail; God told him if he lived, God would live.

Sung Wei was powerful. He pulled the Korean with the broken glasses with one hand and pushed the American with the other. That’s how they crossed a freezing river in search of dawn.

God did not fail; God lived.


To read the story, click here.


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Time and Chance

By: Tom Blackburn
Published by: Tom Blackburn Books (July 2016)
No. of pages: 292
Reviewed by: Vickie Fang

The joy of writing a blog that emphasizes small press writers is in discovering original voices — ones that are vigorous, untamed, weird — and stories that are quirky, more concerned with having a good time than in reaching any particular audience. Blackburn has just such a voice, and Time and Chance is quirky and fun. It’s possible, though, that it could have quite a large audience if only people knew it existed. Historical fiction is an increasingly popular genre, and this is a novel that very successfully takes us back to another time.

Set in Charlotte, North Carolina in the year 1947, Time and Chance skillfully evokes the South of nearly 70 years ago. There are the anxious reckonings of pennies and nickles at a time when bread costs a dime and a few dollars at a second-hand store can buy a new wardrobe. Women engage in bitter — and hilarious — struggles to maintain supremacy in the world of coming out parties  and the local society columns. A quarter century before Roe v. Wade, an abortion means a long bus ride not to a clinic but to the home of a root conjurer. Throughout, the artful use of dialect and custom evokes both a slower pace of living and the myriad differences in social rankings. Consider this exchange between a poor young white woman and the older “Negro lady” who cleans the rooming house.

“Well, my goodness, Junie. You don’t have to do my room.”
Junie smiled and nodded. “That a fact? What you think Miz  Merrill say to me, she come home and find your room not done, still a tangle?”  .  .  . Junie laughed, more or less the way Jesus might have  laughed at some of Saint Peter’s sillier ideas. “What time you fixing to leave?”

The young white woman who is silly enough to think she can clean her own room is Faye Bynum. She’s a bright journalism intern on an urgent quest to change her life’s trajectory. Working for free while her male counterpart is paid, Faye is stuck doing the women’s news under the tyrannical instruction of an aging and apparently vindictive reporter who seems to be more interested in selling picture frames than in writing anything important. Faye, on the other hand, desperately wants to do something big. She could feel the ground sliding under her, a muddy, crumbling avalanche that would skid her into a Fayetteville trailer park and the checkout counter of the Piggly Wiggly before she was thirty and long before she had made a name for herself as a writer which would never happen.

Unfortunately, there is plenty to write about, but for all her pluck and good intentions, Faye is no match for the real evil that stalks this small Southern town. Officially, the KKK doesn’t even exist, but they walk the midnight streets, hooded, unopposed, and carrying baseball bats. A man is murdered, and the police report that he died in a traffic accident. Somebody at the newspaper seems to be only too aware of everything that happens, but the staff is intent on creating elaborate fictions even for one another.

With all the passion of youth, Faye rails against the unfairness that surrounds her while still trying to navigate the book’s fast paced surprises, twists of fate, and carefully concealed identities. A small town can be the staging ground for endless class warfare, and nobody is going to abandon his own turf to make things easy for the newcomer in their midst. Much must be attempted and suffered before some enemies reveal themselves to be hidden, watchful friends. It takes even longer and a good deal of heartbreak to discover that privileged fools may be far smarter than they seem. Even so, Faye perseveres, undergoing an emotional and spiritual awakening in the process, and taking to heart the Biblical counsel, Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.

Time and Chance is a startling, funny, and deeply felt coming of age novel in which an ambitious young woman encounters one hard and confounding reality after another. The result is a newfound maturity. This is Faye riding the bus back to Charlotte early one morning after a trip to see the conjurer:  And while the cotton wheeled past her, still waiting for hands, the tears that sometimes spilled were neither tears of joy nor of despair — the two sources Faye Bynum had known in the childhood now past — but came of some third thing in which sorrow and gratitude and humility alloyed into a vision of herself moving across the face of the Southland under the sun. Seeing it now from the view of the sun: a woman among millions of women who were weaving the wilderness under the sun, holding their past with one hand and their future with the other, sometimes nearly torn apart by the burden and the hope. 

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Bertrand Court


Written by: Michelle Brafman
Published by:Prospect Park Books; (September 6, 2016)
No. of pages:  264 pages

Reviewed by: Vickie Fang

Bertrand Court is the second Brafman book reviewed on this blog. In April of 2015, we discussed Brafman’s debut novel, Washing the Dead, and noted how gently she led her readers into a foreign world, plying them with cookies and everyday worries about children until they found themselves at home with Americans who chose their daughters’ husbands for them and mourn for decades if they fall out of favor with the rabbi’s wife. Bertrand Court is a series of interlocking short stories that inhabit more familiar ground — middle class suburbia. Most, though not all, of the characters are Jewish, and their energies are focused on their marriages, their children, long ago lovers, and careers that often haven’t turned out quite as they had wished. Still, Brafman handles their lives with the same deft and respectful touch. She makes the familiar fascinating, just as she previously made the exotic familiar.

Bad news comes quietly in Bertrand Court. It can be the moment that a woman notices her sister-in-law watching a bit too carefully when their daughters play together. We soon learn that one of the girls is rapidly becoming an outcast because of her cruelty — and that her mortified mother is both too uncertain and too admiring to stop her. In another page, it is a different mother who is thinking: My limbs feel heavy, and my eyes burn. I want to hug my daughter, but I can’t face her turning away again. Pain ripples through the generations in a family that loves but operates primarily in terms of crushing one another’s spirits, or allowing themselves to be crushed in turn.

In another story, Tad, a man who works on Capital Hill, reflects on his fading career. People don’t listen to me like they used to. I even caught an intern, a little sorority girl from the University of Alabama, playing Sudoku while I led a staff meeting. This just didn’t happen when I worked four offices down from the President. The anger I numb daily with exercise is pitching a tent in my gullet like a Bedouin in a sandstorm. In the hands of a different author, such a character would be the object of contempt. Actually, Tad is a bit contemptible, but he is so aware of how far the world has slipped beyond his control that we sympathize with him when he thinks: Ever since my career went on life support, Nikki’s been sneaking my Harvard degree into conversations, or as he reflects that he’s become an underachiever whose arrogance unsuccessfully masks his “I got picked last for kickball” disappointment in life.

What makes this story especially engrossing is the fact that we have just learned Nikki’s story, and we understand exactly how the choices of her youth led her to Tad. In the next story we get a good look at the life of their friend Georgina who has seemed so professionally successful, so beyond the sad compromises of their own marriage. Nikki and Tad might not fear Georgia’s unspoken judgments quite so much if they knew that her younger lover’s friends refer to her as that woman who does your laundry.

Similarly, in the side by side tales of two sisters, we see the hurt of caring for and supporting a woman who responds with small, wordless insults rather than thanks. Then we feel the humiliation of always being the woman who needs to have somebody else’s money slipped into her purse.  Still, the two women are bound to one another  by their love and resentment, and perhaps most of all simply by the fact that they have known one another all their lives. In old age, the elder sister does not look inward to contemplate the end of life. She looks outward at her sister. The tarnished silver, Heidi the help’s dreck on the counter, the knee-highs falling down Goldie’s bony white legs — it all reminded Sylvia of a darkened movie set after all the actors had returned to their regular lives, the props too worn to recycle. 

The quiet, carefully observed moments in this collection reverberate through one another’s worlds in ways that are unexpected and profound. We get a sense of the sweep of this collection in the opening story, SHHH, which is narrated by Baby #5, a fetus in a woman who has had a devastating string of miscarriages. As Jewish folklore promises, the archangel Michael has spoken to the unborn baby, and told him the secrets of the universe, from the language of the pelicans and the dolphins to his father’s theft of a Playboy from his bar mitzvah tutor’s briefcase.  Baby #5 witnesses an afternoon of his parents’ worried squabbling and small betrayals. He sees their fragility and wishes he could reassure them about their future. He can’t, though. Instead, his brief, uneasy existence serves to remind the reader that the hopeful deeds of ordinary people are the stuff of life and death.







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Bad Jobs and Bullshit: It’s Unlikely that We Will be Missed (An Anthology from the Geeky Press)

Title: Bad Jobs and Bullshit: It’s Unlikely that We will be Missed
Published by: The Geeky Press
Editors: Brad King, Amber Peckham, Jessica Dyer
Length: 145 pages
Kindle price: $2.99

Reviewed by: Ellen Birkett Morris

When your own bad jobs have included student loan collections and working retail at a store called “A Taste of Kentucky,” it’s nearly impossible to bypass a book titled Bad Jobs and Bullshit: It’s Unlikely That We Will Be Missed. The anthology contains fiction, nonfiction and poetry centered on the indignities of life working for the man. The pieces don’t shy away from the scatological, the maddening and the unjust. They detail crazy bosses, hard, dirty work, demanding customers and outrageous dress codes. Some pieces are sad and others funny.

One of my favorite stories was Vickie Fang’s Getting Fired from the Assembly Line, which uses a sexual encounter as the spark for a flashback where a visiting Chinese American businessman gets a female assembly line worker fired, but not before she stands up to her domineering bosses.

The two become a couple. The relationship is complex. Fang writes: You can pretend almost anything in the bedroom. Even that you’re back in the factory again, and that a man you’ve never seen before has found out what you’ve done. If you are unhappy enough you want to pretend that he still looks at you the way he did the first time and that all the years of silence and disappointment that followed that day were nothing but one long string of misunderstandings.

In the nonfiction section of the anthology, Prodigal Reminder by James Figy tells the story of trying to breaking away from his father’s remodeling business only to be drawn back in by circumstance.

Figy writes: Making a clean cut is rough. You look at the board sawn in two and see divots where you cut too far over the pencil line, edges where you didn’t cut enough. Usually, leaving the board a little off works best. “That’s why they call it rough framing,” dad says. To make a clean cut, you’ll run the saw through once or twice. But always, when you do, you cleave more from both boards than you planned.

The poetry section includes both prose poems and verse including this clever stanza from Cat Conway’s poem Pillow Dictionary:

Let’s crawl inside.
I’ll draw the curtains of meshed paper clips
and by the light of our mobile phones we’ll
read passages from our favourite style guides:
Chicago Manual for me, Hart’s Rules for you.

Most readers will find there is something familiar in the work. It brought back my own memories of jobs long gone from which I am sure I’m not missed.

Ellen Birkett Morris’ book reviews have appeared in Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Courier-Journal, and Best New Fiction.

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The Marble Army


By: Gisele Firmino
Paperback: 184 pages
Publisher: Outpost19 (March 1, 2016)
Reviewed by: Vickie Fang

It’s a cliche of historical fiction writing that if major historical events are portrayed, then the main characters must be the people who drove those events. Gisele Firmino’s charming new novel, The Marble Army, turns that cliche on its head, ignoring the dictators who oppressed the people of Brazil in the 1960s and focusing on the family that is left behind when a teenage boy is “disappeared” for his small protests against the military regime.  The regime itself  — its leaders, rivals, rationales — appear not as they would to historians, but as they would to the ordinary victims of the time, as a series of catastrophes, dimly resented, not even remotely understood.

The novel begins in a mining town where the narrator’s father works in the mines as a supervisor. The new regime sends “the General,” along with an armed guard, to oversee the change in ownership. The men, who have known nothing except mining, are lined up and given the  opportunity leave or to work for the new boss. It is far from an easy decision.

Some of the miners posed as if they were about to have their portraits taken, hoping their faces, their already nostalgic eyes, would tell each of their stories for generations to come. Some held on to their tools as if they were mementos they should never part with, while others hooked their thumbs through their belt loops, on a desperate attempt to look tough. After a day’s work in side the mine, the men were covered in black dust, creating the illusion of a uniformed army, or that of slaves, depending on who was watching.

This sense, of uncertainty, of the hope of strength and the uneasy realization that they may already be defeated, permeates the book. After their son disappears, the mother lives in hope, which looks very much like denial, while her husband takes the opposite approach. She would leave snacks outside his bedroom window, in hopes he would pass by some day and not resist. I’m pretty sure my father was convinced that he was dead, although he wouldn’t dare say it. It was an objectivity he always said ran in the Fonte family, but I saw it as hopelessness. There is a scene of near desperation in the Andes. Guerrilla training in the Andes. Except no one really knew what they were doing. Most days they just fought among themselves. Even something as innocuous as seeing a young soldier wearing a fairly commonplace Sao Jorge pendant sparks fear that the man has killed the missing son and taken his necklace. (I)t seemed pretty clear that he didn’t seek protection, but instead he carried it like a trophy, a proof of his dominance, a reminder of his power. 

In this world of dread and confusion, the family attempts to carry out what is left of their life. They move away from the mining town when the father leaves his job, then move again when their child disappears. The younger brother grows up, goes to college, and, like his parents, tries to hold on to his sanity by sacrificing  for the rest of his family. He also tries to emulate his brother by spray painting his brother’s message, They Can’t Shut Us Up, although what it is he or anyone else actually wants to say is not particularly clear. This is a book of great, inchoate yearning.

It is also a marvelously realistic and effective book of details. We know what the dirt near the mine smells like, where to get fresh parsley for dinner, the importance of wiping down the moist walls every day during the hot and humid period that begins in December. Most delightfully, we learn how a small, overlooked thing can lead to a marble army. Read about how Firmino incorporated scenes of daily life with her research into her nation’s past in this interview with Ellen Birkett Morris.



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The Book of Harlan


By: Bernice L. McFadden
Print Length: 354 pages
Publisher: Akashic Books; (April, 2016)

Reviewed by: Vickie Fang

The Book of Harlan, which begins in Georgia with the innocent longings of a preacher’s young daughter and ends in New York with an explosive outburst from an aging holocaust survivor, could serve as a how-to manual on making a wide swath of history both accessible and fascinating for a lot of people. Like almost all good works of historical fiction, it unites the great sweep of history with the struggles of very individualized characters who are far more interested in their own needs than the those of the larger world. The preacher’s young daughter dreams of stardom as a pianist, hardly imagining, or for that matter, caring, about the significance of the dawning jazz era. The holocaust survivor knows only his own pain, not the convulsions of a world at war. The reader, however, is able to enjoy both the large and small scale stories, told in short, vivid, explosive chapters  made all the more interesting by the fact that, as a Black man, Harlan manages to inhabit both the wider worlds available to him as a musician and the narrow confines of Jim Crow.

The preacher’s young daughter is Harlan’s mother who leaves her comfortable, upper middle class home to marry a working man, soon finding herself  in the only job available for a Negro woman, “weeping in shame over all those rich white people’s floors, silverware, and bed linen.” As she puts it, she “was raised in silk, now living in burlap.” When she does manage to come into some money, she moves with her husband and young son, Harlan, to New York where she remains on the periphery of the exploding worlds of Harlem’s jazz and swing scene. Her childhood friend, who has become a successful singer, lives nearby, and the two women resume a friendship that allows McFadden to tell a very urban story in a very down-home way. When the spoiled and thoughtless Harlan leaves high school to play guitar full time, the novel tells a personal story of dissolution while introducing a series of minor characters who are striving to create better lives for themselves.

Harlan gets his big break at the book’s midpoint — his youthful band is invited to perform in Paris. Only one person, a friend named Lizard, worries that February of 1940 is not a good time to go to France, and Lizard is overruled by his excited friends. Even after the Germans invade, Harlan never does understand the danger he’s in. Apparently, he has a great deal of company.

God cried. The dry bones of the devout crackled in the cemeteries, skies split, bled pink, and the devil wailed: Don’t worry tomorrow, live for today. Don’t just dip your toe, wade in. Discard your scarves, welcome the wind against your neck; let it rake its airy fingers through your hair. Leave your umbrellas at home, step out into the rain and get wet. Let the children have cake for breakfast, tell strangers you love them. Fuck, drink. Feed the pigeons fresh bread. These are the last days; there will be no weeping here because Montmartre is not a place of sadness or regrets, it’s a haven of art, freedom, and celebration, so revel, revel!

A long and powerful series of scenes follow, telling the rarely-imagined plight of a Black man in a concentration camp. Harlan returns home, but he will never be the same again. He will wander through the rise of the civil rights movement, the loss of his friends, his parents’ old age, and his own inheritance of the family home in Georgia. Driven by memories, powerful outside forces, and un-examined needs, Harlan could be a stand-in for most of humanity. When he lashes out in the end, McFadden unleashes a series of surprises that dazzle Harlan and the reader alike. It is a richly satisfying novel about a rather small man who perseveres through a great era.





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Measure of Darkness

By: Liam Durcan
Length: 254 pages
Publisher: Bellevue Literary Press (March, 2016)

Reviewed by: Vickie Fang

This is a complex book based on a very simple plot line. An architect, Martin, who has been in a serious traffic accident suffers from long term neurological damage affecting his ability to process visual information. Martin leaves the hospital with his formerly estranged older brother, hoping to regain his prominent career, but at the end of the book he is still struggling to manage even daily self-care. The humble events that make up the plot manage to encompass many great issues — neglect of family relationships, aging, compassion, reconciliation, vision, aesthetics, even the stifled career of a Soviet architect  — but most of all, they are a meditation on the limits of personal power. Slowly, quietly,  inexorably, Durcan makes clear just how profound those limits are and that they are imposed both from within and without.

From the beginning Martin is aware that his own hopes for rehabilitation are much more optimistic than his doctors’.

He was unrealistic; he was in denial. He could walk, though; didn’t that
count for something? How many others could claim to have walked out
of the Dunes? His wing of the Dunes hosted residents whose stories hadn’t
allowed them to come this far, shrieking, tremulous young men who’d lost
their footing on a rooftop or whose motorcycle had found that
infamous dream-ending, dream-beginning patch of wet pavement. Bed to bath, bath to chair, chair to bed. He could hear their lives triangulated in these short
voyages, in the grunts and groans of the orderlies, whose efforts they
needed to move at all. But that wasn’t his life. That wasn’t him.

When he meets with his former partners from the firm he had founded, he realizes that one partner’s smiling reassurances mean that he is now “the asshole client” that she is manipulating while the other partner has become noticeably more relaxed and confident because he had needed “only the leveling effects of brain trauma for it to be a fair fight.” The world that Martin had built for himself before his injury is not a kind or welcoming place. In fact, the only real kindness he receives is from the brother he hasn’t spoken to in decades and who doesn’t much like him. Good luck, in other words, is also possible, as he accepts the unearned grace of a sibling who has a strong nurturing bent and is at a crossroads in his own life.

The Measure of Darkness shifts to this brother Brendan’s point of view, allowing insight that Martin wouldn’t have been capable of and giving the reader a welcome escape from Martin’s limitations. Brendan, however, has his own life to assess, and the effort of caring for his crippled and irritable brother brings him into greater awareness of his own shortcomings. It is Brendan who probes the question of whether character flaws are inborn or chosen over time as he becomes increasingly aware of the hidden similarities that he and Martin share.

Together the two brothers also paint a picture of Martin’s strange visual deficits. We see a small part of the world, for example, a deck on a lake house, through Martin’s eyes as he moves awkwardly across it, and then we see Martin himself as his brother watches his stumbling progress. Like so much of life, these deficits are always present and yet they seem to disappear and re-emerge. One moment Martin is talking with his brother during the drive, the next he is wondering why the grey sky is taking up so much of the horizon, only to puzzle out the fact that he is seeing the aluminum side of a truck that is traveling at the same speed.

For all that is explored in this book, it is Martin’s loss of his ability to control the visual world that is most important. He returns again and again to his old idol, the Soviet architect Melnikov whose career was destroyed by Stalin. The beauty of Melnikov’s thoughts, the tragic frustrations of his life, and the apparent passivity in which he must endure form a triangulation of their own. It’s one that Martin attempts to understand as he takes up the old man’s question of the meaning of despair and the possibility of acceptance.





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The Past


Written by: Tessa Hadley
Number of pages: 325 pages
Publisher: Harper (January 5, 2016
Reviewed by: Ellen Birkett Morris

Tessa Hadley’s novel The Past, uses the English countryside, with its wide open fields, dark forests and dilapidated houses, as a backdrop for a story that explores desire and fulfillment across two generations of a family.
The novel takes place in the family home in Somerset. The first and third sections of the book are set in present day and titled The Present. Four siblings, Alice, Harriet, Roland and Fran, with Fran’s children Arthur and Ivy, Roland’s daughter Molly and his wife Pilar, and Alice’s ex-boyfriend’s son Kasim, gather for three weeks to decide the fate of their grandparent’s house. In the middle section, titled The Past and set in 1968, the siblings’ mother Jill and three of the children come to her parent’s house when Jill leaves the children’s father.
The stories echo across time as they explore questions of desire and fulfillment, connection and separateness. This mood of the novel is set early on as Alice stands in the house and experiences this:
. . . light moving on pink wallpaper, the dark bulk of the wardrobe in the corner
of her vision, the children’s voices from outside, the room’s musty air and its secrets, a
creak of the floorboards—these aroused a memory so piercing and yet so indefinite
that it might only have been a memory of a dream. There was summer in the dream,
and a man, and some wordless, weightless signal of affinity passing between him and
her, with everything to play for.
The novel echoes this dream in scenes between the Molly and Kasim, as they strike up a youthful romance, Harriet and Pilar, as Harriet experiences a surprising attraction, and Jill and an old school mate Mikey, as Jill struggles to figure out what do about her marriage.
The natural world is both itself and a rich metaphor for desire and the cost of giving in to your impulses. As Harriet writes in her diary:
In the field above Bardon Huish I found what I’d never seen before: a waterfall
hidden in a cleft in the ground, grown thickly over with brambles. The berries
still very green and hard. The little fall of water jetting off its miniature cliff
curved purely and perfectly as glass, yet not still but in perpetual motion, I
interrupted it with my hand, feeling its force, indifferent to me. Touched myself
with the water, although of course I knew it might be poisonous.

The writing stops short of magical realism as characters feel called to walk the countryside, are enchanted by the ramshackle remains of a cabin (home to several pivotal scenes), and seek to lose themselves in the wilderness.
The book is satisfying, as it confirms that suspicion we all have that we carry the sins of our parents and grandparents that we are in some ways replaying the roles they played as we move forward into the future shadowed by the past.

Ellen Birkett Morris’s author interviews and book reviews have appeared in Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, The Courier-Journal, Best New Fiction and Authorlink.

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The Soul Hunters


By: Christopher Torockio
Paperback: 292 pages
Publisher: Black Lawrence Press (February 15, 2016)

Reviewed by: Vickie Fang

The Soul Hunters takes place in a single afternoon and night during which three brothers come together to finish cleaning out the family home after their father’s death. Accompanied by their wives, they take in what is left of a yard sale; they get pizza; they bury a dog. They do average things because they are average, contemporary, middle class, middle aged men. Still, as I read this book, I kept thinking of the novels written in another era about high society Bostonians or New Yorkers. Torockio brings the careful, psychological analysis of Wharton or James to lives of his characters, rendering them complex, individual, and deeply worthwhile as they go about their apparently ordinary lives.

Early on, son Nick, recalls his confusion when a military doctor examining him in 1967 determines him unfit for duty because a high school football injury has left him unable to fully raise his left arm. The sergeant who processes his paperwork is equally confused.  “So what’s the problem? That your jerking off arm?” Filled with unnamed, conflicting emotions, Nick goes home to tell his father.

“Well, I . . . I kinda failed.”
And his father’s gaze left him for just a moment, a brief scan of the sky above the grape arbor and then returned. “You did, huh?”
“Your shoulder.”
Nick nodded. He sensed a pulling in his chest. He was ashamed; he was insanely happy. He had the distinct understanding that he was safe, yet this safety made him sick with fear.
His father rose, nodded almost imperceptibly. “That’s good,” he said, and let out a breath of unmistakable relief. Nick felt a cry rise up in him but he choked it back, expelling a sound like a goose honking.

Nick is spared going to combat, but the fear and shame, doubtlessly magnified by his eventual understanding of the real reason behind the doctor’s decision, alter his view of himself and the world. A compromise has been made that radiates subtly throughout the book and causes deep and wide ranging ramifications.

An apparently offhand remark has an almost equally deep effect on the younger brother, Stewart. Stewart is a nontenured English professor who finds a rare joy in teaching a class based on the writers who inspired him when he was a young man. At a late afternoon faculty meeting, as people are already standing to leave, a new professor denounces the failure of the department to teach works written by women and minorities. He cites the curriculum of  Stewart’s class as an especially egregious example of racism. There is certainly  no happiness mixed with Stewart’s sensations of fear and shame. Nor is there the confidence he needs to either defend himself or to accept criticism and make meaningful change. There is only the sense of having been unmanned, made infinitely worse by his own later attempt to find out if the new professor is personally angry at him. In a few words that capture much of the social turmoil of our era, Torockio shows what it is like to be unequal to larger forces, to feel simultaneously embarrassed by a social gaffe and humiliated by the possibility that he actually has been perpetuating racism. Stewart broods over this single accusation from a new colleague as deeply as he broods over other issues that might ordinarily appear far more important, but we understand why. His sense of self has been shaken.

The third brother, Lawrence, shares with his wife the painful secret of their past bankruptcy. Although the couple has since repaired their credit and “emerged” as the financially secure people they pretended to be all along, they are slow to shake off their sense of unworthiness. A trip to Italy to celebrate their hard won solvency culminates in a night of opera at a magnificent 2,000 year old arena. The beauty of the music and the night are too much for his wife, who finds herself “unable to imagine it, even as she lived it.” She remembers the look on the hotel clerk’s face as they counted out “archaic” traveler’s checks because they didn’t have an acceptable credit card. In lesser hands, anguish like this would be object of petty satire, but in The Soul Hunters it is moving because we see how hard the couple is working to do the right things and how difficult it is for them to hold onto the life they had once been sure they would have.

This is a novel of great subtlety, intelligence, and dignity, portraying both unique individual characters and the social angst of their eras with an easy grace.









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An Unrestored Woman


By: Shobha Rao
Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Flatiron Books (March 15, 2016)

Reviewed by: Vickie Fang

I first came across Shobha Rao’s work in this past fall’s Best American Short Stories which included Kavitha and Mustafa, a story about a young Indian woman in a train that was  attacked by bandits. As she does in all of her work, Rao deftly combines the ordinary with the extraordinary. Although the setting is the Indian border at the time of the Partition, the readers are confined to the single train car in which the characters are trapped. We feel the heat of too many people in a motionless box and see the women silently trying to hide their jewels in their shoes. The heroine is in many ways an ordinary person who has led a sadly constrained life. She has never had any kind of power; the only way she can even say  her last goodbye to her husband is by pressing her head wordlessly against his knobby shoulder, and yet she seizes salvation when it comes in the form of two pebbles, a length of twine, and a smart little boy. Grounded in one humble detail after another, Kavitha and Mustafa ends in a kind of triumph that could be read as a love story to all the impoverished Muslims and Hindus who struggled to survive during a violent era. Neither the woman nor the boy is an allegorical figure, however;  Rao has created intensely real people with a dignity that demands that they be seen as individuals.

Almost all of the stories in this collection involve escape in one form or another, escape from a brothel or a bad Manhattan marriage, from a camp for widowed women, from the unbearable sadness of having lost a child, or from prosecution for the crime of murder. In many stories a terrible moment comes when the characters realize that the more or less settled lives they had imagined for themselves are no longer possible. It is worth quoting at length the thoughts of Renu who looks at the Shivalik mountains and remembers how she had once imagined that,

The Shivaliks would stand like they always stood against the morning sky, whipped and creamy like clotted ghee, and that the dandelions would bend like baby’s heads in the northeasterly wind, and that she would be a farmer’s wife, with its days of toil and earth and anguish, measuring the rains as one measure sugar into a teacup, with care and constancy, and by the spoonful. And she assumed something further: that her destiny was like the small stream that ran at the edge of their property. That it would flow — diverted at times by a fallen branch or a pile of rock, true, and thinned in the dryness of summer while abundant in spring, undoubtedly — but that essentially and always, it would flow, and be tied, deeply and incontrovertibly, to the destiny of the man to whom she clung. .  .

In that moment Renu realized one last thing: that nothing she’d imagined of her life, of her destiny, would ever come to pass. Not one thing remained. Not one, except — and these she saw as angry, open mouths gnawing at the tender twilit sky — the Shivaliks still stood.

After her moment of shock, Renu begins to act. The wild new destiny she creates for herself is nothing at all like the life of a farmer’s wife. Unreflecting, unsentimental, entirely amoral in any conventional sense, her life bursts forward, not like a small stream that could be diverted by a mere fallen branch, but like a torrent, finding any weakness and then knocking down all obstacles.

Desperate circumstances and a powerful desire to overcome them do not always make for easy moral decisions. Complex situations call for complex and often distressing responses. We want to cheer for a little girl who finds the courage to face down a gang of threatening boys, but it’s hard when she intimidates the bullies by crushing the leader’s pet bird to death in her hand. The stories take on even more layers of meaning when a friend or enemy in one story reappears in another with his own burden of tragedy or desire. The characters in An Unrestored Woman are good and evil and everything in between. They battle demons within and without, and they don’t always win. Still, a great spirit pervades every story in this collection. The little girl who crushed the bird poses a question to herself when she faces a crisis as an adult.

I wondered if I could be that girl again. Was defiance temporary, like a gust of wind that lifted you once, then set you down? Or was it always there, inside of you, like a small dinghy tied to the harbor of your heart, waiting, at the ready, to launch?

Every story in this book launches. It’s a thrilling collection.






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