Children of the Country

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By: Abigail Shaffer
Paperback: 262 pages
Publisher: Outpost19 (November 1, 2016)

Reviewed by: Vickie Fang

Abigail Shaffer, the author of this novel, is a former social worker with roots in the Ozarks, and her background transforms what could have been just another Southern Gothic into a unique work of art.  While Children of the Country  has plenty of poverty and bad food, run away daddies, and swampland hoodoo, it is also peopled by very real, three dimensional characters who struggle with the kinds of hopes and difficulties many writers overlook. The fifteen year old heroine, Cindy Rae, fights for her heart’s desire — a spot in an academic class instead of more vocational tech. “Well, that’s awful ambitious, don’t you think?” is her advisor’s response. Therein follow two pages of tense sexual politics and gathering rage before she emerges, triumphant, with permission to take trigonometry.  Cindy is hungover, and poor, and consorting with dangerous people, but she is also becoming aware of what she wants to do with her life and of what she needs to do to get from where she is to where she wants to be. That she has to fight so hard to be placed into what is the most appropriate math class is a powerful illustration of just how hard her journey will be.

Cindy’s older brother Ricky, on the other hand, is wandering from one rash act to another. When he almost fumbles a chance to become a regular drug courier, Ricky and a friend swear “solemnly, their promise sealed with shots of Wild Turkey, to thoroughly get their heads out of their asses in light of the amount of cash.” Both boys manage, for a while, to make money in a world of muddy back roads, drunken parties, and men with automatic weapons. Though they play out against a lush and sweltering backdrop, the mechanisms of white rural drug dealing appear to be remarkably similar to the depictions of black, urban dealing. The hopelessness is the same too. This is Ricky’s boss, who has failed to make amends with a woman from his past.

All at once he needs to get gone, and wishes he’d tucked his Gobbler under the seat for the long ride home. He looks once at the kids, nodding before backing down the sidewalk, then eases his bum leg and his bum self into his Jeep, thinking of the liquor store he passed on Chicot and how time and remembrance fold over and back in on themselves, in cahoots and thoroughly against him.

Life is hard for  middle aged people who end up here; not even righteous violence is pleasurable. Methodically, his fists feel the connection to flesh, the momentary cushion of it, then the hardness of bone. His own knuckles bloodied, raw, he keeps swinging, nice initial heavy pounding. The cheek gives as the bone underneath shatters and the skin sinks in, like the depression of earth over a wooden coffin in oldtime graveyards, the weight of soil finally bearing down. . . He’d always imagined there’d be more of a reckoning at the end.

Although in the course of this novel, they never leave their home, Ricky and Cindy Rae meet their different fates. Their love never waivers, though. They take joy in each other, in the physical beauty of the world around them, and in their own small hopes for the future. This is Ricky after having cleared the air with his sister. In a flash he is eight and Cindy Rae is five, and they are walking to the bus in the high heat of the asshole end of August, her quiet as hell, but beaming up with that pirate smile she had even as a bitty baby, her pudgy fist, sweaty and soft, nestled in his left hand. She was always the morning sun to him, the color of her baby room with the fairy princess crap and that yellow, raggedy stuffed bird she probably still has and sleeps with if he knows a goddamn thing about anything.

Children of the Country is a beautiful book that depicts a hard way of life without ever condescending to the characters or losing sight of their humanity.

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Swing Time

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By: Zadie Smith
Publisher: Penguin Press (November 15, 2016)
No. of pages: 464
Reviewed by: Vickie Fang

Late in this novel, a central character is remembered for her honesty and warmth during deathbed visits.

I remember a friend of hers, a painter who had lost decades to the severe anorexia that eventually killed her, saying to Aimee, on what turned out to be her deathbed: “God, Aim — didn’t I waste so much fucking time!” To which Aimee replied: “More than you know.” I remember that stick figure between the sheets with the gaping mouth, so shocked she burst out laughing. But it was the truth, no one else had dared tell her, and dying people are impatient for the truth.

Swing Time is a novel about many things, racial and cultural identity, reinvention, community, girlish friendships, changing technology, the haves and the have nots. Most of all, however, it is about time itself, which rushes forward when we want it to stay still, doubles back on itself when we think we have escaped the past, slips away from us altogether if we don’t seize hold and make some vivid use of it.

Narrated by an unnamed young woman with a Black Jamaican British mother and a White British father, the book begins with an intriguing prologue that lets us know she is in some sort of disgrace as an adult and then settles into her lower class London childhood in which she is dominated by two of the three powerful female figures who will define her life. One is another brown-skinned girl in her dance class Tracey who is crude, garishly dressed, arrogant and demanding. Both girls love dance, but Tracey is far more talented. The other powerful woman in the narrator’s life is her mother, an aspiring intellectual, feminist, and keeper of a middle class aesthetic in a lower class neighborhood, a woman who considers it bad taste “to dress your daughter like a little whore.” Both mother and friend are hell bent on creating their own futures, while the narrator drifts through life. She stops dancing, goes on to a mediocre undergraduate career, becomes involved with controlling boyfriends, and is exposed to new ideas without really pondering them. “She said that a hundred years ago mankind was confronted  with the question of space, but that the problem of the twentieth century was the simultaneous existence of different notions of time. I looked over at Rakim: he was making notes in the darkness, hopelessly stoned.”

Shortly after graduation, she goes on to become a personal assistant to a globally famous pop star — the third domineering woman in her life.

All the physical exercise, all the deliberate blindness, the innocence cultivated, the spiritual epiphanies she was able somehow to experience spontaneously, the very many ways she fell in and out of love, like a teenager — all of this came to seem to me effectively a form of energy in itself, a force capable of creating a dilation in time, as if she really were moving at the speed of light , away from the rest of us — stranded on earth and aging faster than her — while she looked down on us and wondered why.

The narrator’s story ricochets between the star’s dazzling race from venue to venue around the world, to a small village in West Africa where the star is building a school, to the childhood memories of Tracey and the narrator’s restless mother. It is a testament to Zadie Smith’s genius that every moment is lucid, vividly realized. We are there as Tracey’s defiant life slowly unravels or as the African village reveals its beauty and its poverty. We understand the lies the characters tell themselves and their desperate desire not to be erased. In the end, time is on no one’s side. It can not be stopped or evaded, but there are rare moments of transcendence by the women who remember who they are.

 

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Dog Years

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By: Melissa Yancy
Series: Pitt Drue Heinz Literature Prize
Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press; 1 edition (October 5, 2016)

Reviewed by: Vickie Fang

Ellen, a molecular geneticist, labors to find a cure for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy while also maintaining for “the principle of the thing” a normal home life for her children, including the son who suffers from the disease she is researching. Ellen is so tired that she forgets which season it is. She gasps “with primal relief” when her husband gives her a watch that spells the time out in words — thus sparing her the mental effort of translating numbers to language. When Ellen gives a lecture, a student stands up and asks if it is bad that she wants to study Alzheimer’s because her grandfather died of it.

“Define bad,” Ellen answers.

There are no easy answers in Dog Years and no easy definitions either. The winner of the 2016 Pitt Drue Heinz Literature Prize, this intelligent and deeply felt collection of short stories uses the limitations and changes of the human body to explore the even more profound questions of time, purpose, possibility, and the need for hope, or at least an occasional lie. In Consider This Case, Julian, a gay fetal surgeon, is visited by his proud, judgemental, dying father. Although the issue is never directly stated, the surgeon appears to be the only person who doesn’t guess that his father has spent his life as a closeted gay man. In a complex and beautifully interwoven series of images and subplots, we see both hidden shame and genuine, well-lived outward lives. A patient is forced to spend two months carrying a dead baby inside her while oblivious strangers ask her about her pregnancy. The father can never acknowledge his orientation and can almost never bear to mention another son who was addicted to drugs. This impeccably groomed old man locks himself in the bedroom so that he can hide his physical deterioration. Both father and physician son are stunned by his sad exposure.

His father is wet, prone on the floor between the shower and the toilet; there is a smear of feces across the floor in front of him, and Julian cannot quite piece together the order of events. Without his clothes on, his father looks more than naked — he is a sea creature yanked from its shell. .  .  . It is not until later, after he has dried his father and put him in his proper pajama set and gone to sleep out on the couch so that he can come to him in the night, that he closes his eyes and finally sees his drooping breasts, the last tuft of hair sprouting proudly on his concave chest, his skin so translucent it’s a road map, a surgeon’s dream.

And yet, while his father dies, never able to speak his own truth or his connection with his gay son, life goes on. Julian is a kind man, and though there is much he is unable to see, he presses on with coworkers who love him and a host of patients who thrive. After a night of near unconsciousness, the father rallies so successfully that he is up the next morning smiling and making chocolate-chip pancakes. Julian wonders if there is some deep truth his father needs to pass on. Perhaps. It is not a truth that can be spoken out loud, but it can exist nevertheless in the strange, sweet tableau that ends this story. As Ellen would put it, “Define bad.”

In Firstborn, a woman thinks that she would rather suffer her delusions than her sister’s boring realities, when she leaves for Paris hungover, abandoned, comforted by “the familiar, stale odor” of the plane as she “settles in for the duration.” She has tried and failed at a moment of connection. Even in Paris, she will still be aging and alone, trapped in her own very limited world. Go Forth is a story about a “chain” of kidney donors, a large group of strangers who donate a kidney so that their own loved one can receive a kidney from someone with whom they are compatible. It is a profound and bizarre form of connection, taking someone else’s organ into your own body, and meeting their fellow “chain” members is a disorientating experience for one couple. For the husband, there seems to be a moment of grace and lasting gratitude. The wife, on the other hand, who has had her health restored, “(D)id not know what she would do with this feeling, this imperative to commence, but already she feared that the execution of it would be small.”

The characters in Dog Years meet their limitations as their bodies age, grow cancer, go to war, pass genetic defects down to their children. There are horrible realities which can never be overcome, and yet Yancy is able to show us in many unsentimental ways the great strengths and small weaknesses that allow people to go forward. Ellen will almost certainly outlive her son. He is barely an adolescent, and he is already beginning to have trouble standing and walking. Ellen and her other son join him as he exuberantly practices a drama class exercise of pretending to run in slow motion to the music from Chariots of Fire. She thinks of the song as “the most undeniable kind of lie,” and is not surprised at the difficulty of pretending to run fast. “If she knows nothing, it should be how hard it is to bend time, how pointless it is to muscle against.” Still when her husband comes home, “(T)hey are just reaching the treacly crescendo and mother and sons are standing, fists wild in the air, necks craning forward, and she has the stupid feeling for just a moment that she can feel the wind.”

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Murderers, Whoremongers, Liars, and Worse

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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

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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

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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)

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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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