TO LAY TO REST OUR GHOSTS explores haunted family relationships with empathy and grace

To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts: Stories

By Caitlin Hamilton Summie

Fomite Press: Aug. 8, 2017

201 pages, $15.00


I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. We are in the Golden Age of Short Stories. More story collections are being published now than ever, and the quality is unsurpassed. In general, major publishers don’t love story collections because they don’t sell as well as novels. They’ll use them to introduce a new writer they’ve signed, because he/she will come to them with a backlog of stories which can be released while the writer works on their debut novel (which is what the publisher really wants). It’s a good way to get new talent under contract while they develop (like signing a young baseball player and assigning him to the minor leagues for a year or two). On the occasions when a new writer comes to a publisher with a novel that is worthy of publication, the publisher will use a short story collection as a gap filler to buy time for the writer to work on their second novel.

But, in most cases today, a short story collection is likely to be published by a small, independent publisher or university press. As a result, they fly below the radar and rely on reviews and word of mouth to reach potential readers. That is where blogs and social media can play a key role in helping writers and readers connect.

The latest example of a stellar short story collection from a small press is Caitlin Hamilton Summie’s To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, a ten-story, 200-page book that deserves your attention. As the title suggests, Summie’s characters are at crossroads of various kinds; they are struggling for emotional independence, attempting to resolve long-standing conflicts (usually familial), and trying to make sense of a complex and confusing world. These are quiet, intimate stories driven by character more than plot, yet they are compelling in both their dramatic tension and often unsettling (but not unsettled) resolution.

Set mostly in rural and urban Minnesota, with detours to and New York City, these stories are probing examinations of the seemingly small, mundane moments that reverberate through our lives. Life-changing decisions or events do not always arrive in the form of violent confrontations or shocking accidents. Sometimes it’s as simple as looking at old family photo albums (as in “Patchwork”) or failing to show up at your grandfather’s deathbed because you just can’t bear it (as in “Geographies of the Heart”).

The opening story, “Tags,” takes place in WWII-era Kansas City, where young Dolores bides her time playing marbles with her friend Jimmy and fighting with her teenage brother Larry while she waits for her father to return home from the war. Jimmy learns that his father has been killed in the war but at least he has his father’s dog tags. The situation will be more complicated for Dolores. Summie sensitively depicts what it was like growing up during the war, when the world was nearly incomprehensible to a young girl.

“Growing Up Cold” finds John returning home to Minnesota from Japan following the death of his sister, Lonnie. The renewal of a long-simmering conflict between John and his older brother James adds to the tension in a family that is now down to three men, his mother having died several years earlier. John has lost his mother, his sister, and, in a sense, his brother. But he has his own way of grieving, which his father and brother find mystifying. The story’s potent ending creates a sort of peace, or at least a truce.

“Brothers” treads similarly fraught sibling territory. A car accident has left 28-year-old George in a wheelchair. He has abandoned graduate school and his girlfriend in Minneapolis and moved to the family cabin in the woods of Wisconsin, thinking a quiet life of furniture making will suit him best now. But his younger brother Ephraim wants him to return to the Twin Cities, to be near him and his parents and close to top-notch medical care. Ephraim’s visit to the cabin brings matters to a head.

“Patchwork,” “Geographies of the Heart,” and “Taking Root” feature the same characters. In “Patchwork,” recently unemployed Sarah MacMillan decides to write the family history, but she encounters resistance from her grandmother, Catherine, who insists that her sister Cecily be left out of the story. That only spurs Sarah on to investigate what Cecily had done to be the subject of such longstanding scorn. Her determination to write about Cecily, while maintaining her relationship with Catherine — and what she learns about not just Cecily, but the whole family — forges a hard-earned respect between the two women.

In “Geographies of the Heart,” Sarah’s grandfather is dying; she is his constant companion, while her sister Glennie, an OB-GYN, is physically and emotionally absent, to Sarah’s constant frustration and disappointment. Eventually, the sisters struggle to reach each other across the resulting chasm.

In “Taking Root,” which concludes the MacMillan trilogy and closes the collection, we catch up with Sarah, who is now married to Al, a religion professor, and the mother of Amelia. They’ve recently suffered a miscarriage, which has left them grieving in different ways. Sarah and Amelia decide to take a road trip, and Al is soon caught up in the labor and delivery of his neighbors, Howard and Norda, which stirs up the recently settled sediment of his emotions. The cavalry arrives in the form of Glennie, now one of the best OB-GYNs in Minneapolis. And Al manages to keep his head above water, where he can see the sunlight.

To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts can sound depressing in the description, but Summie’s empathy for her characters’ humanity is so strong, and her prose so lovely, that a palpable warmth emanates from the stories despite their physically frigid settings. I look forward to the publication of her first novel; the trilogy in this collection suggests that she will be equally accomplished with the longer form.

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A Reading List for Men Who Talk to Me About Hemingway

  

By Angela Palm

At AWP this year, I was caught off guard when a young, white male writer said to me, “I’m surprised you’re not more well-read.” I was surprised, too — because I’m an author and editor and thus well-read through the nature of my chosen profession. Surprised, because over the course of my reading life, which is longer than his by at least a decade, I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of books. Surprised, because all day while I work in my home office, I’m surrounded by mounds of books that I’ve read or will soon read.

The young man and I had been talking about the ending of “Escape from Spiderhead” in George Saunders’ collection Tenth of December, and he brought up a short story by Ernest Hemingway to make a point about what short stories ought to invoke and how. I admitted to having read just three books from Hemingway’s oeuvre—none of them story collections, and none of them recently. That’s when he made his claim.

I walked away from the conversation stunned, without formulating a defense, and later it occurred to me that this wasn’t the first time I’d been told that I’m not well-read. Last spring, I was chatting with a white male musician about literature, and he, too, expressed similar surprise that I had not read the books that he held dear. This time, the authors were Marcel Proust and, again, Hemingway. I confess: I haven’t read Proust at all. And I’m fine with that.

When I thought about why I hadn’t read the works these men read and loved, and why they had no qualms about assessing my readership as subpar based on whether I had read these works, I realized that I hadn’t often sought out many works by white, cis, male writers since I’d been made to read them as an undergrad. It’s not that I find them problematic (though they sometimes are) or uninteresting or unworthy of reading—I’m sure I’m missing out on some great books—but I do feel I often already understand the human and worldly concerns frequently expressed in those works because I’ve been taught to consider them since I could read English. I’m hungry for other concerns, other voices, other characters. When selecting books to read for pleasure, I gravitate instead toward works by women, queer writers, and writers of color. This, to me, is being truly well-read.

I find that I most want to read contemporary stories about women, written by women who are writing right now, alive right now. Stories that are not only well-written, engaging, and full of heart, but also that inspire or influence my own writing in some way.

So, here are five short story collections by women that impressed me or motivated me in some way. Five books I couldn’t put down, a few of which I’ve read more than once.

* * * * *

Every Kiss a War by Leesa Cross-Smith (Mojave River Press, 2014)

I discovered Leesa Cross-Smith’s work about five years ago via Twitter. I had come to Twitter in search of an online writing community and access to what indie lit journals were publishing. I began reading Leesa’s flash fiction online and was blown away by how she finesses a sentence, impresses a mood, a universe of joy and pain and longing, upon the reader. The way even her half-page flash stories gutted me. Her characters’ heartbreak became my heartbreak. Leesa’s work reminds me that every sentence can slay, ought to slay, and that life’s too sopping wet with intensity and love and disappointment and miscommunication and things said and not said to waste words on lightweight sentences. When Every Kiss a War came out from Mojave River Press, I bought two copies.

Almost Famous Women by Meghan Mayhew Bergman (Scribner, 2014) 

I heard Meghan Mayhew Bergman read a short story from her second book, Almost Famous Women, at a reading in our home state of Vermont. Meghan had studied the lives of women who were, well, almost famous or lived lives adjacent to fame in some way but were in their own right worthy of fame, giving them new life through her stories. My favorite story in this collection is “Norma Millay’s Film Noir Period.” (Norma Millay was Edna St. Vincent Millay’s younger sister.) Meghan’s stories bring fascinating women out of obscurity and put them in the spotlight, and she inspires me to seek out and tell the unexpected tales, the stories no one has heard.

The Other One by Hasanthika Sirisena (University of Massachusetts Press, 2016)

I met Hasanthika when we were Bread Loaf fellows last year and I fell in love with her work instantly. Her debut collection moves between Sri Lanka and the states, contending with the aftermath of civil war at home and abroad, bringing to life a cultural history and trauma I previously knew very little about. Here we have characters old and young, connected and scattered, presented with humor, hope, and certain beauty as the world changes and exhales. Hasanthika writes the way I hope to write fiction: coming right up to the matter at hand, unflinching. And her stories’ endings, to my mind, are masterful examples of how to close. They seem, somehow, to contain the entire world.

Half Wild by Robin MacArthur (Ecco, 2016)

Robin and I were paired for a string of readings last fall because our first books were released the same month, were both Indie Next picks, and we both live in Vermont. Robin’s stories have a lyric, musical quality to them. When I heard her read the line, “The one who wanted something other than what she was born with, who nursed me until I was three (little titty-monkey), the one who lays her hand on my shoulder when I come home from class and says, ‘Angel, you be good. You be real good, baby-o,’” from the story “Creek Dippers,” I knew two things: we were going to get along well, and I had to buy that book immediately. Now, when my sentences start sounding too mechanical, I open to a random page of Half Wild, and I remember the way words can sing—in a manner both half wild and wholly unexpected.

Doll Palace by Sara Lippmann (Dock Street Press, 2014)

Sara Lippmann is another writer I discovered on Twitter. The short stories in her collection, Doll Palace, often span only a handful of pages but somehow manage to precisely capture the modern lives of girls and women. Sara’s writing shows me, again and again, how narrative voice can propel everything from character to plot. Take these two short sentences from a story called “Tomorrowland,” for example: “Enthusiasm is contagious. I worry my daughter will meet a nice man.” Many of the stories in this collection are written in the first person. Whenever I try my hand at that point of view, I return to the dog-eared pages of Doll Palace to remember how to say things without saying things. How to lead a story through first-person point of view without directing.

* * * * *

If I could rewrite my responses to those men, I’d say, “Have you read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Mia Alvar, and Roxane Gay? Sandra Cisneros or Louise Erdrich? No? Leesa Cross-Smith or Robin MacArthur?” I’d give them this list. I have no doubt I’ll find myself in this position again—cornered by a man heralding Hemingway. Next time, I’ll be ready to reframe the accusation, quick with my response.

 

Angela Palm is the author of Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here (Graywolf Press), an Indie Next selection, winner of the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, and a Kirkus Best Book of 2016. She lives in Vermont, where she works as an editor. angipalm.com/

THE JUNGLE AROUND US: STORIES probes the mysteries of people and places

the-jungle-around-us

The Jungle Around Us: Stories

By Anne Raeff

University of Georgia Press: Oct. 1, 2016

$24.95, 140 pages


The folks at the University of Georgia Press who administer the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction have done a stellar job of “discovering” new talent. The list of winners includes Dana Johnson, Lori Ostlund, Ha Jin, Bill Roorbach, Amina Gautier, Antonya Nelson, Debra Monroe and, in the last few years, Monica McFawn and Karin Lin-Greenberg.

One of the two 2016 winners was Anne Raeff, an English teacher at East Palo Alto Academy. UGP recently published The Jungle Around Us, a collection of Raeff’s stories, which were previously published in literary journals like Guernica, New England Review, and Antioch Review.

The Jungle Around Us is a darkly compelling series of stories set in places we rarely visit and know little about, from southern Mexico and Nicaragua to Bolivia and Paraguay. The characters share a sense of dislocation, literally and figuratively, and Raeff coolly probes their psyches and actions as they try to orient themselves to threats both real and imagined. Yes, there is jungle, as well as war, heartbreak, loss, memory, and identity, all surrounding, oppressing, and confusing these characters. Raeff’s narrative voice and prose style are calm and hypnotic, a contrast to the intensity of her characters’ struggles.

The centerpiece of the collection is a quartet of stories featuring sisters Juliet and Simone Buchovsky, in which we observe the two young women as they try to make sense of the mystifying adult world.

In “Keeping an Eye on Jakobson” they encounter the man who is only referred to by his surname, sitting in their back yard and smoking big, smelly cigars while discussing the Vietnam War with their father Isaac and his woman friend, Mrs. Tuttle, whose son is off fighting in the war that has so disturbed Jakobson.

In “The Buchovskys on Their Own” their father, forced to travel to Russia to do research for his book, leaves the girls in the care of his friend, Katja Ladijinskaya, whom he has known since their families immigrated from Russia together in 1941. During his time in Russia, Isaac and his daughters discover that people and places are not at all what they expect.

“Maximiliano” finds the adult Simone, now a home health care worker, visiting Juliet in Asuncion, Paraguay, where she is living with an older man and his precocious young son, Maximiliano. In a setting unlike any she has experienced, Simone is perplexed by Juliet’s choices and the mysterious comings and goings of Raul but intrigued by his son’s gentle nature and fascination with birds. The sisters find each other inexplicably foreign after years in which one has lived in New Jersey and the other in places like Paraguay.

“Chinese Opera” concludes the collection with an exploration of the effects of the murder of their neighbor, Danny McSwene, with whom the sisters once listened to music and practiced dancing.

“After the War” concerns Karl and Margot Epstein, who fled Vienna to avoid the Nazis and ended up waiting out the war in the jungles of Bolivia. After six years, they immigrate to New York City, where they struggle to adjust. Although New York City is not unlike the Vienna of their memories, they have been marked by their time in Bolivia and it has affected their marriage. Karl had tried his best but he never felt part of Bolivia. He found some solace in his friendship with the drug addicted priest Antonio, in scenes that remind one of Graham Greene’s work. But the ghosts of the past follow Karl and Margot to their new life in the new world.

In “Sonya’s Mood,” we meet the daughter of Karl and Margot, living in New York City in the late 1980s, as AIDS decimates part of its population. She was 11 when they left Vienna and 17 when they moved from Bolivia to New York City. Now, approaching her 60th birthday, she still daydreams about Bolivia and listens to her “scratchy old 78s. They sound right to her, even though they are full of static and skips.” The music recalls her first love, Luis. Despite her long marriage to Dan Cohen, her moods have only worsened rather than faded. She meets a gay friend, Rick, for lunch, and his stories of heartbreak and newfound romance add kindling to her low but long-burning flame.

“The Boys of El Tambor” takes us to Coatzacoalcos, Mexico, a coastal town near Veracruz.  Ester, a painter, writes to her former lover, Amy, a writer, back in Albuquerque, about her sudden decision to pick up and leave after experiencing personal and artistic frustrations, in part because Amy insists she needs both Ester and her boyfriend, Gilbert. Ester has stopped in Coatzacoalcos and taken work as a domestic of sorts. She enjoys her anonymity because no one asks about her painting or Amy, and she finds comfort hanging out at El Tambor, “a sleazy bar where all the drag queens hang out” and where a lesbian is welcomed as “one of us.” She enters into an arrangement with Marta and Rafael, her employers, mirroring Amy’s circumstance but without love or passion. The middle-aged homosexual who owns El Tambor offers Ester a moment of solidarity that begins to set her back on track. Interestingly, “The Boys of El Tambor” connects with “Sonya’s Mood” and “After the War” when Ester notes in passing that she might return to her hometown of New York City or even Bolivia, “where my mother and my grandparents spent the war years.”

“Carlito on Pink” introduces us to Kenard, a 16-year-old American student in Nicaragua who is equally possessed by his new passion for photography and the developmentally disabled son of his host family, Carlito. At home, his father is in jail for murder and his mother is going through a series of boyfriends. Kenard’s life at home is limited to school and the Boys and Girls Club, so the school trip to Nicaragua offers him escape and time to think. Carlito becomes his preferred subject.

Raeff’s stories are subtle and haunting, and I occasionally felt as mystified as her characters in sorting out the import of people and events. I was rewarded by second readings, a sign of rich, complex stories that, like the characters within, don’t reveal all their secrets at first meeting. There is a quiet confidence to Raeff’s writing that belies a fierce intellect unafraid to confront the darkness in the jungle around us.

Ronna Wineberg: “Nine Facts” About Writing a Collection of Stories

ronna-wineberg-photo-nine-facts-cover

Now that my new collection of stories, Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life (Serving House Books), has been published, I’ve begun to think more about the process of writing—what writing means to readers, what it means to me. I’ve thought about the difference between writing a story and building a collection of stories, and what happens when a book is launched into the world.

A collection is a different entity from a single story. Putting together a book is like creating an issue of a literary magazine. The writer has to consider the individual stories and the composition of the book as a whole.

For my new book, I pulled together disparate pieces of my work and had to arrange the stories in a logical order that made it seem as if the stories were inextricably connected.

I was faced with choices and decisions.  Doubt crept into my thinking. Could I really create a collection of stories that would work and coalesce? I had written lots of stories, more than could fit into one book.  I piled them on my desk and read them, added stories to the manuscript, took out others.  Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life has had a different title, a different epigraph. The selection of stories changed over time and so did the order. When I wrote a story I considered strong, I removed a weaker one from the manuscript.

The book includes two pieces that weren’t part of the manuscript I submitted to Serving House Books.  And as I was preparing the pages for galleys, I decided to add “Bare Essentials.”  I’d removed the story earlier, but the piece tugged at me.

As I read the stories in the collection, I learned that the unconscious has a will of its own.  I was surprised to find I’d repeated similar images, even the same names and words in stories.  I wasn’t aware of the repetition when I wrote the pieces, but it was there, on the pages.  I’d used the word “foolish” too many times, and described buildings as “red brick.”  I had to find replacements.

I didn’t include some of my favorite stories in the book. They either didn’t reflect the book’s themes or touched on ideas explored in other pieces. Parting with these stories was hard, like leaving a dear friend whose company I cherished.

My collection went through many lives.  It was in flux.


A friend recently described a woman, saying, “She lived alone.” She meant that the woman had lived alone as a child. Not literally. The woman had lived inside of herself as a child; she wasn’t heard by her parents.

I found this observation chilling: A child with thoughts and emotions whirling and no place to put them, no receptacle, no possibility of discussion or sharing.  We’ve all had that feeling at one time or another, of not being heard, and felt the tension between what we wanted from parents and what they gave us.

I thought of my childhood and the times when I had experienced living alone even though I was with family or friends.  What are the ways we can be heard?  Some people talk a lot, perhaps trying to compensate for what they didn’t receive as a child. Some retreat into silence, a familiar stance.  And, perhaps, others become writers.  Is that why we write—so our thoughts, voice, and vision can be heard?

The irony is: there’s no guarantee of an audience, even if a story is published in a literary journal.  “There’s no echo,” a writer friend once said.  The story may have a relationship with the reader, one the writer will never know about.


A few years ago I went to a poetry reading. The writer, who was famous, read aloud his poems. They were perfect.  I knew him in high school; he was a football star then. At the reading, he talked about poetry like a man in love.  “I couldn’t find a container for what I felt,” he said, “until I tried to write a poem.”


Some of the stories in Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life had been published in literary journals.  I revised them again for the book.  I’d considered them finished, but realized they needed work. The editor suggested changes, too.  I saw the stories with fresh eyes and altered scenes and images.  I had never been happy with the ending of one. The story seemed to stop; I wrote a new ending.

I labor over a story, examining descriptions, words, images, and character development, and try to make a piece work, even sing, if I’m lucky. This is challenging, sometimes punishing labor.  Even when I’m not writing, a story pours through my mind.  Often the key to a piece comes to me when I’m not at my desk.

Sometimes I never find the key.

I’ve thought about a story in the middle of the night, fallen asleep, and awakened to find the thoughts lost. What seemed essential in the night was obliterated in the morning.

Had I really finished the published stories or just abandoned them?


When I decided I wanted to write, I took classes at the University of Denver in the graduate school creative writing program. I was in my thirties, older than other students—the mother of two children, and then three. I was allowed to attend classes without being enrolled in the program. The professors met with students individually during office hours.  At my appointment with one professor, he said, “What are your goals for writing? What do you want?” He had gray hair and a wrinkled smile.  He was in his fifties or sixties.  He had been writing for a long time.

I thought for a moment.  I wanted to write eloquently like the authors of books I had read and admired did.  I wanted to write a story that worked. To see if I had it in me. And there were stories I felt an urgency to tell. I told him this and also said, “I want to learn to master the form.”

“Don’t you want to write the great American novel and be on the cover of TIME magazine?” he asked.

I imagined he was joking, but realized he was serious. Was this what he had once wanted for himself?

“No,” I said.

What he had suggested seemed to cheapen writing, as if TIME magazine was the arbiter of literary taste.  I was surprised by the question, though I shouldn’t have been.  He was talking about fame, recognition, celebrity.  He knew how difficult literary fame is to achieve and how brightly seductive it is.  He knew a writer had to be realistic: to write, you have to sit in a chair alone in a room and put in the time.  This isn’t glamorous like a splashy photo on the cover of a magazine.  He knew about years of rejection, the small victories of publishing stories in literary journals.

When I left his office I felt confused. Should his suggestion be my goal?

No.  I wanted to write without trying to fit my work into a category.  I wanted to say what I wished without shaping it for a purpose or audience.

I should have told him what T.S. Eliot wrote: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

I didn’t know at the time I spoke to the professor that I would have my own version of the TIME magazine fantasy.  I wanted to have a book published by a large New York publishing company, with its resources and possibilities for promotion.

This didn’t happen.  And for a while I was disappointed.  Writer friends told me not to be discouraged; rejection was part of the process, part of the business of writing. They were right.  I collected rejections from literary journals, agents, big publishers, small presses, contests.

Each story of mine that appeared in a literary journal felt like a gift. I began to understand the thrill of these victories.

And I’m grateful that three terrific independent presses published my books and took great care with them, nurturing the work.


After a book is launched, many things occur.  My gratitude.  Reviews.  Or lack of reviews.  Readers’ reactions.  Not only the readers’ judgments about whether a book is worthwhile, their positive and negative comments, but also their sense of what the author has borrowed from life and put onto the pages.  Did that really happen? a reader may wonder.  A writer consciously or unconsciously may borrow elements from his or her own life.  My daughter calls this “the crumbs of your life.”

Readers may see something in the work that wasn’t intended. There is the possibility of misunderstanding.  In my novel, On Bittersweet Place, a scene unfolds in which an uncle inappropriately touches the narrator, Lena.  I made this up.  The incident seemed to describe the uncle’s character and was a burden Lena had to carry through the book.  However, my cousin read the novel and told me that an uncle by marriage had done something similar to her. She was surprised I knew about this. Though that was my cousin’s sense of things, I hadn’t known about her upsetting encounter with our uncle and was shocked to learn about it.  

While I was writing On Bittersweet Place, I read aloud the Prologue to my mother.  Her family had fled from Russia after World War I.  In the book, Lena’s family also fled then. “But that’s not the way it happened,” my mother said after she listened to the Prologue. She frowned, and corrected the facts.

“That’s okay, Mom.  It doesn’t have to be true,” I said.  “This is fiction. It’s a novel.”


A character in “Bare Essentials,” one of the stories in Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life, quotes the sculptor Henry Moore.  His words apply to writing, too. “The secret of life is to have a task,” Moore says, “something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is—it must be something you cannot possibly do.”


When my children were young, writing temporarily whisked me away from the worries, joys, and responsibilities that come with raising a family.  My children are grown; I miss the immediacy of being a mother.  Now writing takes me away from daily obligations and the startling sense that time is passing, more quickly every year, it seems.


I’ve learned that, for me, the process of writing is pleasurable as well as difficult and challenging, but it is the pleasure that I love.  Diving into the unknown.  I didn’t understand this at the time I talked to the gray-haired professor or I would have told him this.

When I’m concentrating on writing, in that special mental space, immersed in the flow of writing, I’m not thinking about real life or having a book published or being reviewed or whether a reader will like my work or not.  I’m not thinking about TIME magazine or misunderstandings or the labor of writing—the decisions, doubt, and revisions—or the crumbs of my life. I am in love with the process, hard as it is at times, in love with what I do in a room alone: putting one word after another on paper or on the computer. Revising those words. I love the joy of creating something new.

When I write, I feel most myself, and not like myself at all. If the work is going smoothly—and even when it’s difficult—I am a happy contradiction. I am ageless. I am young; I am old. I am living many lives. I am the age of whatever characters I am writing about. My characters are my companions.  I carry their baggage, fears, and happiness, their emotions.  I’m wandering in the great green expanse of my imagination, trying to capture feelings and descriptions, images, characters, and scenes before they fly away and disappear.


Ronna Wineberg is the author of a novel, On Bittersweet Place (Relegation Books, 2014), and two collections of short fiction: Second Language (New Rivers Press, 2005), which won the New Rivers Press Many Voices Project Literary Competition and was the runner-up for the 2006 Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction, and Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life, which was published earlier this year by Serving House Books.  Her stories have appeared in such places as American Way, Confrontation, Colorado Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and South Dakota Review, and have also been broadcast on National Public Radio.

Wineberg is the recipient of a fellowship in fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the John Atherton scholarship in fiction from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and residencies to the Ragdale Foundation and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.  She is the founding fiction editor of the Bellevue Literary Review. Her essays have appeared in Ethics in Criminal Justice, River Oak Review, Steam Ticket, The Tennessean, and Writers on the Job.  Please visit her at: http://www.ronnawineberg.com

THE LOSS OF ALL LOST THINGS confirms that Amina Gautier is among our most fearless writers

Amina Gautier with Loss cover

The Loss of All Lost Things: Stories

By Amina Gautier

Elixir Press, Feb. 2016

$19.00, 200 pages

 

Win a signed copy of The Loss of All Lost Things (two available)! See below for details. 

The contest is now closed. Congratulations to the winners, Nazalet Hernandez and Melanie Page! 4/25/16

One of the great joys of reading authors with whom one is unfamiliar is discovering a truly distinctive writer whose work pushes all your buttons, intellectually and emotionally, and leaves you stunned, as if you’d looked at the sun for more than just that one permissible moment. In the last few years, I’ve experienced this reaction to the work of Molly Antopol (The UnAmericans), Rebecca Lee (Bobcat and Other Stories), Violet Kupersmith (The Frangipani Hotel), Brittani Sonnenberg (Home Leave), and Nina Swamidoss McConigley (Cowboys and East Indians).

Amina Gautier is the latest writer to make me mutter to myself in amazement as I read her stories. Her debut collection of stories, At-Risk (2012), won the Flannery O’Connor Prize for Short Fiction. The follow-up, 2014’s Now We Will Be Happy, won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction and an IPPY at the Independent Publishers Book Awards. Her debut focused on at-risk youth, while the follow-up examined the bi-cultural lives of Afro-Puerto Rican-Americans with her trademark combination of intensity and insight. Gautier is unsparing with her very human characters (and readers), but she is also compassionate.

Gautier’s third collection, The Loss of All Lost Things, is her best work yet. Here she moves beyond the concerns of her earlier work to the issue of loss in its many forms. Her characters have either suffered a loss, literally lost someone or something, or are at loose ends in figuring out what to do with their lives following a significant and often unexpected event. What so impresses me about these stories is Gautier’s ability to plumb the psyche of very complex characters with a psychological acuity that will break your heart repeatedly.

The opening “Lost and Found” follows a young boy who has been abducted by a man identified only as “Thisman” as they move from motel to motel over a period of several months. They watch The Twilight Zone wherever they stay. One episode teaches him that “this is something one can do with words, stretch them into softness and push them past their meaning. Take him, for example. He prefers the word lost instead of taken. Lost is much much better. Things that are taken are never given back. Things that are lost can be found. He doesn’t like to think of himself as a stolen thing, taken away in plain sight of his own home, plucked from the curb like a penny found on the sidewalk. . . He knows that there is a place for things that are lost. . . He remembers the Lost and Found at the school he no longer attends. . . If only he could find the Lost and Found and turn his own self in.” Only five pages into this collection and Gautier has sent repeated bolts of lightning through my heart and mind.

The title story takes us into the home and life of the grieving parents of the boy from “Lost and Found.” The opening line scalds.

“The posters go up immediately.”

The narrator continues. “They search in all weather; they harass the media for coverage. They leave the light on outside. They do not touch their answering machine: they keep the message exactly the same. They supply the authorities with recent photos, with medical and dental records, with everything they ask. They do all they can think of. They never rest. They never tire. They never lose hope.”

As the weeks and months pass, each deals with the heartbreak, anger, and sense of loss differently, and it begins to wear down their unified front and eventually their relationship. “Blame is the glue that keeps them together. They shuttle it between them, neither one able to shoulder it alone. . . They cannot endure this without each other. Splitting up is too simple of a solution. Far too easy to buckle under the strain of it all. . . They are stuck. Stuck here. Stuck in this time. Stuck together. . . Worse than mourning is this waiting that never ends.”

Gautier stares across the abyss of what is perhaps every parent’s greatest fear and suggests what might be found on the other side, if it can be reached somehow. After the supporters and media have moved on, after hope seems like pretending, the parents make a random decision which they are convinced is the only way to save themselves, their marriage, and the well-being of their younger son. Only those experiencing this loss can decide what is best, even if it appears illogical or pointless to those on the outside.

“Cicero Waiting” is a variation on this theme of parents coping with the loss of a child. “Intersections” explores the seemingly cliched affair between a white college professor and a beautiful and brilliant black student with results that manage to sidestep those cliches.

“A Cup of My Time” probes another marriage, this time that of young, expectant parents. Sona’s twin boys are “battling it out inside of my womb.” Her doctor advises her, prior to a risky procedure, that if it fails to save the fetuses, “the two of you will have a tough decision to make. You’ll have to choose which one you want to live.”

“Disturbance” is the odd man out in this collection, a piece of speculative fiction with echoes of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Ursula LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Gautier takes what seems like a domestic drama and stretches it into purely metaphorical territory with haunting results.

Gautier also explores individuals searching for the solutions to the voids in their lives.

In “What’s Best for You,” we meet Bernice, a black single mother who works in the university library and is lonely but maintaining her standards. When the amiable new custodian flirts with her, she is forced to confront the cost of her biases.

“As I Wander” finds a widow named Judy trying to adjust to her life following the loss of her older husband. She has lost track of the shape of her normal life. She spends the night on a bench in a local park, sleeping among the homeless. “She had lost her ability to find anything disgusting in mingling among those whom she would have normally avoided. . . Life had stolen something from them, robbed them, made them crazy and despairing so that they cared only for something to distract them. The park had become a depository for the unwanted, forgotten, and discarded.” Including, now, Judy. She seeks solace in an unexpected form with disappointing results.

The Loss of All Lost Things is a dark and often disturbing collection, but Gautier is such a gifted storyteller, the characters and conflicts so compelling, the telling details so perfectly chosen, that you can’t turn away. Amina Gautier is a fearless writer who I am willing to follow anywhere.

The Loss of All Lost Things contest

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COWBOYS AND EAST INDIANS is a unique contribution to Indian-American literature

Cowboys and East Indians Nina McConigley 2

Cowboys and East Indians: Stories

By Nina McConigley

Curtis Brown Unlimited: June 22, 2015

(First published in 2013 by Five Chapters)

162 pages, $10.99

Imagine standing out by virtue of your appearance when you want to blend in. Or being invisible because of that same appearance when you want to be noticed. That is the experience of many bicultural Americans; people view them as “different” because of their appearance when most of them are just as “American” — legally through citizenship and culturally through having been raised in the U.S. It is a situation in which one can feel constantly out of sorts, as though one is a square peg when the holes are round, and a round peg when the holes are square; things just never seem to align properly.

Nina McConigley explores this dual existence in the cleverly-titled Cowboys and East Indians, a collection of ten stories based on her experiences as an East Indian living in Wyoming. Where most fiction exploring the immigrant experience is set in urban environments, McConigley takes us to the high altitude, windy isolation and cozy cities of the least-populous state (584,000 as of July 2014), a place most people would never expect to find Indian-Americans.

McConigley perfectly captures the duality of being pulled in two directions, the culture in which you live and the culture in which your parents and older relatives came from. While it is possible to feel at home in both, there is often a tension in identity “code switching.” The dominant complicating factor is how other people see you; because you look a certain way, you are viewed as foreign rather than “American” (whatever that means). And because people see you as Indian or Asian or some other minority ethnic or religious group, you may well end up becoming a sort of ambassador representing your culture. That has been my experience living in a very Christian area with a relatively small Jewish population.

In each of these stories, McConigley explores characters’ attempts to navigate through their home and outside lives. She also shows us that Indian-Americans are not a monolithic group with uniform positions on religious, social, and political issues. She drives home what should be an obvious point; while the white, Christian majority, with its limited knowledge of Indian-American life, simplifies them instead of realizing that they are as varied as the majority themselves. (We always imagine that others are not as unique as we are.) Not every Indian is Hindu; not all Indian-American women wear traditional clothing; not all Indian-Americans speak one of the many languages spoken in India (there are 23 constitutionally recognized official languages).

McConigley’s characters are quirky, three-dimensional individuals who are working through strange places both literal and figurative. She writes with a pleasing blend of deep empathy, droll wit, and vivid descriptions of people and, especially, places. The unique nature of Wyoming makes it one of the most memorable characters in this collection.

The result is one of the best books of the past few years, a collection in which all the stories make a powerful impression, and one I expect will last a long time. Read it and you will see why Cowboys and East Indians won the 2014 PEN Literary Award. It is THAT good.

MY LIFE AS A MERMAID: STORIES explores the lives of women in deep, stormy waters

My Life as a Mermaid

My Life as a Mermaid: Stories

By Jen Grow

Dzanc Books: June 9, 2015

$14.95, 136 pages

It has been a good year so far for short story collections. Rebecca Makkai’s Music for Wartime, Liz Prato’s Baby’s On Fire, and Nina McConigley’s Cowboys and East Indians (just republished for wider distribution) are particular favorites.

But the one that took me by surprise was Jen Grow’s My Life as a Mermaid, perhaps because I was unfamiliar with Grow before Dzanc Books sent me a copy of her book. The title and cover art piqued my interest, as did the fact that Grow had won the Dzanc Books Short Story Competition in 2012. And it turns out that honor was justified because Grow is a writer worth reading.

My Life as a Mermaid introduces us to a range of characters who are, like us, trying to make their way in a complex and confusing world. In a sense, the water image of the title and cover design reflect the human struggle to function in the water in which we swim. Like fish, we often aren’t even aware of the nature of our environment; it’s as invisible as the air we breathe. It also suggests the evolutionary pull that water has on humans, drawing us back to the beginning, security, and contentment.

In these twelve tightly wound and tightly written tales, Grow inhabits a range of characters. The opening title story explores the relationship of two sisters, one a discontented mother and housewife and the other a relief worker in Honduras. The former envies the latter her sense of adventure, fearlessness in the face of actual and existential risk, and her ability to avoid the traps of gender roles that inhibit her potential.

The narrator’s dilemma is clearly presented in these lines. “I fuss over my children in the same distracted, heartsick way while I count the tiny pairs of socks that come out of the dryer. I fold their miniature clothes into piles. Some days I feel like Gulliver, every part of me tied down by Lilliputians, as if, somehow, it is me and not my sister who has wandered into a strange land. The land of marriage, motherhood, and matching socks. It’s not what I expected. How did I choose this, wandering the grocery store with my squeaky cart?” A few paragraphs later, she tells us, “I’m envious. I would run away; I would like to be the kind of person who could run away.”

“Joe Blow,” one of this collection’s standouts, drops us down into the part of town we usually take pains to avoid, and provides a close-up of gentrification’s effects on a rough neighborhood, but one with a distinct character — and many distinct characters. Larry and Roger live in an abandoned pickup truck parked on the street. When Joe moves into the neighborhood, conflict ensues when he begins to renovate his house and clean up the street. The climax occurs when he calls the police to tow away the truck.

“What Girls Leave Behind” is a heartbreaker of a story about a mother who has lost custody of her daughters. In a bittersweet first-person narrative, Grow reveals that the mother is lost as well and that there might well be good reason for her daughters to be with their father. But she is always recognizably human.

The must-read story in My Life as a Mermaid is “Still at War,” one of the best pieces I’ve read about the effects of the Iraq War on those who serve. When Douglas returns home after a stay at Walter Reed Army Hospital, he is not the same man. “I stared at him for a moment and saw someone I didn’t like, a version of a man I might not have married. It was like suddenly realizing one day that you accidentally tied yourself to a stranger, maybe a tobacco-chewing hayseed who was as angry as he was skinny.”

When a man from their church comes over to interview Douglas about his experiences for a human interest piece he is writing for the church newsletter, we see clearly the contradictory nature of those effects. Douglas has lost a leg and is reeling emotionally, unable to sleep without nightmares, watching TV and drinking beer all day. But he puts on a brave face for the interviewer and says with enthusiasm that he’d go back in a second. Is he deluded? As the conversation progresses, Douglas becomes more philosophical and has some powerful words for his interviewer, and his wife.

“I Get There Late” introduces us to a female agent provocateur who imposes upon a married couples she hasn’t seen in years and then proceeds to make all kinds of passive-aggressive trouble. Of course, the most intriguing aspect of the story is figuring out what motivates the protagonist.

“Fixed” is another highlight of this strong collection. A young woman attends a hipster party in a warehouse loft in an attempt to cope with her grief over the loss of her boyfriend to a heroin overdose. It is a perfectly structured, poignant investigation of heartbreak, disorientation, and the yearning to belong.

“Small Deaths” is a gut punch of a story about a woman caring for her dying mother. The narrator’s reaction to her mother’s death is realistically surreal, for we often respond to death in what may appear to be strange ways.

“OK, Goodbye” closes My Life as a Mermaid in appropriate fashion, considering the collection’s themes. Grow has imagined several scenarios in which a woman attempts to leave her husband, but something always goes amiss — until she encounters a self-possessed young woman who inspires her to reclaim her younger self and move ahead without looking back.

Grow’s stories are crisply told, trimmed of unnecessary digressions and prolix prose. The result is a series of probing and memorable character studies of people doing their best to swim rather than drown in the deep and often stormy waters of their lives.