Anyone looking at the current state of affairs in the US–the violence, racism, poverty, and corruption–will ask, How did we get here? The answer presented in Donald Levin’s Savage City is that we’ve always been here.
Levin takes the reader to Detroit in the Spring of 1932. The Great Depression is in full swing, as is the Great Migration. Competing forces in organized crime–the Purple Gang, the Sicilian mob–are vying for control of the city’s vice economy. The Black Legion, a white nationalist spinoff of the Klu Klux Klan, is intent upon taking the country back from Blacks, Jews, and Communists. On March 7, 1932, in a hunger march from Detroit to the Ford Rouge plant, demonstrators will be met by armed goons and police, led by Harry Bennett, Henry Ford’s enforcer. There’s plenty of death in the streets of this novel.
In 1973 Clifford Geertz introduced the term “thick description” to ethnographic studies, recognizing that “culture is a knotty and often mysterious thing, made up of layers upon layers of intertwined symbols and signs.” The researcher produces detail-rich accounts of his or her research, identifies patterns and relationships and contexts for meaning.
It is this penetrating cast of mind that Nancy Owen Nelson brings to her memoir, Divine Aphasia, a detail-rich memoir that, at its heart, is about patterns, relationships, and contexts of meaning. I would also liken her work in this book to an archeological dig, as she searches and asserts the meaning of her lived experience over the past decades.
What happened to Peggy Ahern? This question arises early in Erin Flanagan’s new novel Deer Season and captivates the community of Gunnthrum, Nebraska, the small farm town where this story takes place. Bored and rebellious, with dreams of the big world beyond Gunnthrum, the high school senior regularly sneaks out of the house at night to join the revels up at Castle Farm, a rundown farmhouse where booze and drugs and sex provide young locals with an escape. One night Peggy doesn’t come home.
In her new memoir Seven Springs Ellen Blum Barish explores big questions about what makes a life. She does so in two compelling narrative threads: one examining a car accident that occurred when she was a girl, and the aftermath of that experience; the other delving into the underpinnings of her faith life, and how that faith informs her relationships and her place in the world.
Barish weaves these two threads together, taking the reader to the scene of the accident, to neighborhoods and locations where we meet friends and family, to class reunions and visits with her parents of over two decades. “I had come so close to the sharp edge of death,” she writes, without ever unpacking that experience. Over the years, what happened to her, to her friends, and how her family handled that scrape with death lies buried “under a blanket of quiet.” Similarly her curiosity about God is buried “under shame and fear.”
This “psychospiritual-archeological dig,” as Barish calls it, reveals the usefulness of a faith tradition. Judaism as she comes to know it is practical. But come to know it she must. Her parents are not practicing Jews. As a child, when she asks her father if they believe in God, he tells her to go ask her mother. Her mother’s answer–she says she doesn’t know–leads Barish to a position of unbelief that lasts into her adulthood.
When she becomes a mother, she engages the tradition. The fruit of that study informs this memoir. “Judaism,” Barish observes, “is by its very nature an ongoing conversation.” That conversation, which she joins and shares, enriches this absorbing story.
Thank you, Liane Kupferberg Carter for this lovely review of Get Thee to a Bakery. An excerpt:
“Rick Bailey sounds like an ideal travel companion. He’s endlessly curious, astute, and hilarious. All these traits are on dazzling display in his new book, “Get Thee to a Bakery,” a delightful blend of memoir, travelogue and creative nonfiction. This is the perfect book for armchair travelers, which, thanks to the pandemic, most of us currently are. ”
Spectrum of Flight, David Hanlon’s new collection of poems, invites the reader to occupy an interior world—of pain, of struggle, of a search for a way to rise. These poems are intensely personal, some of them raw, many of them agonizing, as the speaker turns himself inside out, asking how a gay man can live in a straight world. Not just live in that world, but thrive, prevail, be free, be completely himself. Taken together these poems body forth a painful life story.
In roughly chronological in order, the over-arching narrative takes place in settings you might expect—in public and private places where identity takes shape: the home, the street, in classrooms and stores, where awareness of the body and desire gradually dawn on one. In the first poem of the collection a dead animal is the focus. The speaker, just seven or eight years old, sees a dead fox by the side of the road. Described as “the embodiment of abandon,” he sees himself in it: “because I too only came out in the dark,” “because I too had been gutted,” “because it was stillness after chaos.” In a poem entitled “Swimming Lessons” he is taunted, told he is gay. He writes, “they bully me / they think they know / the damage—they don’t.” In response the poet sounds a positive note in this poem, an expression of strength in the face of this adversity. He wonders “what they would say now / if I told them how lucky I feel / that I became / A strong swimmer.”
Early in the collection, early in this narrative of confusion and suffering, that positive note is a rare affirmation of self. More commonly the reader senses disintegration and struggle to forge an identity in the face persecution and derision.
In many of these poems predator images recur. The poet describes “lion-boys.” Here, for example: “the lion-boys think I run like a girl / I feel their clawed-grip tighten / tear my safety net to shreds.” In the poem “If only my body was made of stone” we hear a teenage boy described as a lion safe in his den, shouting from an upstairs window, “fucking gay boy.” Again and again, Hanlon’s sense of isolation is captured in a line like this: Them / in their maned coalition / boys / Them / in their feathered congregation / girls / Me / a neither.”
Hanlon’s prosody challenges the reader. There are poems with a flowing poetic line, sentences with syntactic completeness, that he pauses, interrupts with a slash. Here, for example:
I remember being a teenager in that sportswear store with my younger brother / too scared to ask / the sporty / muscle-manly assistant for the Adidas cap I wanted / on the top shelf behind the counter /
And here, lines even more disrupted, from “Inhaling the Sky”:
Battered / weary-bodied toothpick bones / clipped wings alarm / flapping unceasing mind-chatters warm-buzz / anxious bees fist pummel collapsing into a ruinous truth
Then, as if to represent further the disjunction, the fracture of a self in a society that rejects him, Hanlon’s words appear on the page in a kaleidoscopic fashion, as something like shrapnel:
The violence in many of these poems is unrelieved. In the final poem, “Revive Yourself,” however, there is this positive note: “Remember,” Hanlon writes. Remember the pain, but remember too the possibility, “when you were a child / and you ran toward everything.”
It is an uplifting conclusion to this collection, suggesting flight not as fleeing from but as rising above.
Sometimes I look down at my hands and I see yours kneading the dough. I would choose this if I had a choice.
The prose poems in Kate Manning’s collection, 28065 Nights, written for her deceased grandmother, Wanda Faye Henson, are rich and evocative snapshots. The title refers to how much love accumulates in 76 years on this earth. How much love? A whole lot.
Titles are invitations. Scan the table of contents in this collection–“Your Death Explained in Birds,” “How to Use Vanilla,” “How I Measure Your Body,” “I Haven’t Eaten Fried Bologna Since You Died,” “I Sniff Your Socks,” “I Wore Your Pink Shirt Today”–and you’ll want to dive in.
In “I Was Afraid It Would Be Empty” Manning describes a notebook she gave her grandmother as a Mother’s Day gift, with a request that she write about her life, so that the stories of her grandmother’s youth, which Manning had heard recited, could be captured and collected. Finding the notebook after her grandmother’s death, Manning observes that it was blank, that “the first page was torn away.” And so begins, in real time, the task of writing down the stories her grandmother could not find the words for.
Some of the stories are funny, like how her granny’s panties saved her; some difficult, like the memory of a lost baby and Manning’s realization that she never asked her grandmother the baby’s name (Thomas Anthony). Throughout there are references to objects charged with meaning and her grandmother’s body of work. “Your body of work is other people’s bodies: children who made children who are still making more children. You built these bodies with bread and beans…your body replicates itself in brand new bodies–your nose, your feet, your rogue blond head in a family of brown.”
The theme of how one life echoes another plays out. Also the theme of renewal. Manning holds a newborn nephew at her grandmother’s funeral, “my body swaying to keep from falling, his body so small and so new.” These are loving acts, loving words. Reader, you will be touched.
Jacqueline Doyle’s collection of stories The Missing Girl is beautifully written. And it is, in its own way, a harrowing look at what happens to girls–girls who go missing, girls who become women, girls who become women and are haunted by their memories of what happened, or what might have happened to them, when they were girls.
There is in many of the stories in this short collection an air of inevitability. The boys and men are predators. They are treacherous, they are duplicitous. The women, most of them just girls, have unstable identities, with names like Eula, and Early (“I just bet the boys have called you pretty, Early”), and Molly (who plans to change her name because “she has bigger things in mind”), and Nola (who prefers names associated with gemstones, like Sapphire, Ruby, Topaz, and Amber). These women will be brutalized by boys and men, and will have to reckon with the consequences, if they live to do so. Violence will happen. Like Beryl in “You Never Know,” they live close to danger, in the vicinity of disaster.
Along with inevitability, there is an air of uncertainty in many of these stories. What really happened? Who did what? Who said what? Is that what he–or I–really said? In “Hula,” the narrator, named Lucy, tries to sort out what actually happened in a bar in Hawaii. “He says his name is Philip and he tells you he’s from New Jersey.” That’s what he says, but is it really true? He says he likes 25-year-old blondes. “Already you’re grossed out, thinking it’s loud in the bar, maybe that’s not what he said.” And later, when he says something infantile and coarse, “you think he says [that], but you must have misheard him.” When she tells him her name, she’s not sure he’s heard. Lucy. Nothing is lucid, or clear, in these stories where men and girls smash together. Nothing except the cost, in unspeakable hurt.
Eight stories, four from the female characters’ point of view, three from the male point of view, one that’s a combination. Doyle has an unfailing ear for these characters’ voices, for their yearning (“she was used to wanting things she knew she wasn’t going to get”), for their stumbling toward violence (“once you start lying you don’t know what’s going to come out”).
This is flash fiction at is best, not a wasted word or extraneous detail. These are stories that will leave a mark.
Sharon Harrigan’s Half (University of Illinois Press) is the story of twins, Artis and Paula, born into a blue collar family in Michigan. They are raised by a domineering father whose nickname is Moose (he tells the girls that living in Alaska he rode moose, “steering with the antlers”) and a submissive mother who runs a daycare center out of their house (a house that “reeked of warm milk and pureed peas, diaper rash and ear infections”). As the girls come of age, Harrigan explores the issues of identity, gender, and power in a narrative that is deft, entertaining, and satisfying on a number of levels.
The girls tell their story in one voice. “We” is the dominant point of view. The reader is taken into the mysterious interior world of twins, one of the attractions of this novel. They are essentially two halves of the same person. But each, being only a half, raises the question, Do they ever become whole in the course of the novel? Do they have a life and identity, one apart from the other?
And, similarly, do they have a life and identity apart from their family? In Moose, Harrigan presents a character who personifies male power and brutality. The girls think: “We knew to keep our family secrets.” While their father tells them: “If you tell what happens in this house, you’ll be taken away and never see your mom again.” There is love in this home, but it is love that crushes. In the course of the novel Artis and Paula learn and acquire power from their father while they also become aware of power they discover in themselves, power that is singularly female in nature–the other half of the human creature.
The story begins in the future, Christmas 2030, at Moose’s funeral. In the minutes after the church service, one of the father’s friends, named Wild Pete, says to the girls, “You’re the ones who killed him.” That charge launches this compelling story. For the reader, the rewards that lie ahead are rich. Sharon Harrigan has written a wonderful novel.
Dorene O’Brien’s collection of short stories, What It Might Feel like to Hope, surprises and delights the reader on every page. Eleven stories, whose titles are irresistible invitations–”Eight Blind Dates Later,” “Tom Hanks Wants a Story,” “Pocket Philosopher”–take the reader into the lives of characters on the threshold of change.
In “Turn of the Wind” a scientist specializing in crystallography, facing the onset of dementia, leaves the lab and builds weathervanes for a hobby. A weathervane, he says, “is a story on a stick,” it “offers beauty without the hope of anything more.” Faith, the main character in “Falling Forward,” takes responsibility for her dysfunctional neighbor, Ed, “a creased and rumpled man with doom etched on his face.” She is alone, and he is alone but for a lizard named Little Richard who figures prominently in the story’s climax, which holds out the promise of “falling forward into a new life.”
In “Honesty Above All Else,” along with the title of the story, O’Brien deploys a skilled writer’s second device for grabbing the reader, a smart first sentence: “I’ve never told anyone this story, and I’m only telling you now because Mrs. O’Leary is dead.” These first sentences aren’t just springboards; they’re catapults. Like this, in “A Short Distance Behind Us”: “Braelynn and I have been operating at the intersection of I love you and Fuck off for the last year.” And like this, in “Reaping: “Her hair was pulled up into a plastic bag, and red dye trickled down her face and neck as she stood on the front porch trembling.” And here, in “Little Birds”: “May told Dina to take the chair, or she’d regret it for the rest of her life.”
Five of these stories are first person narrative, five are third person, and one, the Tom Hanks piece, subtitled “An Anatomy of a Tale” (it might also be subtitled “What It Might Feel like to Write”) is at times first, second, and third.
Technically accomplished, emotionally taut, always captivating, these vivid stories are little worlds of conflict, pain, beauty, and hope. They are richly imagined and deeply satisfying. Dorene O’Brien has written a truly beautiful book.