Saturday, December 21, 2013

Above All Men - Eric Shonkwiler

When a country collapses, what becomes of a man - not only materially, but morally? In Eric Shonkwiler's Above All Men (forthcoming from MG Press in 2014), David Parrish is a husband and father, recently returned from a war which has left America stretched and stressed to near-breaking. When a powerful storm destroys the country's oil rigs, a domino chain of natural and man-made events is set in motion that challenge Parrish and his family's survival, and that test Parrish's soul.

Parrish, his wife and child live on a farm somewhere in the mid-west, with an elderly neighbor next door, and another family to whom Parrish has offered a small homestead in exchange for help on the farm. Parrish is a stoic, capable man in the way that farmers and military men often are, with a strong sense of loyalty and duty, one that often leaves him torn between his family and others in need. When his son's best friend is murdered, Parrish struggles to both care for his family but also answer the call for justice.

While the imagined stages of societal decline and even some of the basic plot elements did not strike me as especially original, Shonkwiler creates a very distinctive and memorable story through his own writing of it. The landscape is bleak but striking, full of haunting images - fields and mines, small towns and old farmhouses, coyotes and dusters and big sky, and one feels Parrish's elemental connection to the place. The details bring the reader close into the small moments of the story: We walk the fence line with Parrish, feeling the sharp edge of wire and the rough of wood; we practically breathe in the dust that rises up out of nowhere, beautiful and terrifying, coating everything in its path and smothering out the crops. We share his sense of foreboding and feel his fierce love for his family. The author's careful pacing very effectively conveys the slowing of time in a world without machinery (and eventually without electricity, or running water) and the straightforward, unadorned narrative, too, reflects a world and a man stripped down to their cores.

If I had any quibbles, they were small, and probably only even attracted my attention because Above All Men overall is such a solid debut. The most relevant of them was that somehow I missed the specific motive for the murder beyond the villain's innate villainery - though maybe this lack actually speaks to the profound moral vacuum of the new social order, for the only thing more horrifying than a murder is a murder for which there exists no reason except the act of violence itself, the absence of reason only one more measure of our collective disrepair.

Above All Men is a somewhat intense read, testament to the portrayal of this future world, which is not all that comfortably far-fetched. It is one, sadly, we could envision, and it made me rather conscious of my dependence on modern conveniences and even a little anxious about them. But it also left me thinking that if the world were to collapse, you would sure want to know a guy like David Parrish.

My thanks to the publisher for a complimentary advance review copy of Above All Men.

Happy reading!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Last Word - Jonathan Blum

"In the Talmud it says that a father is supposed to teach his son to swim. Eric knew how to kick, move his arms, and advance in water but not how to swim, and this bothered me, not only because of how well both my daughters swim... but because having a non-swimming son can make you feel like a personal failure. Swimming is living. Swimming is you in the world, making it. To have a son so against disrobing and plunging into a pool that he avoids pools - and lakes and oceans - what kind of future did such a son have?"

Jonathan Blum's Last Word (Rescue Press, 2013) is a darkly funny yet touching portrayal of the challenges of parenting while human. In this slender novella,  Dr. Kip Langer is a loyal if critical father - realistic, he'd probably call himself - striving to do his best for his children and family. Langer is frustrated that he hasn't, so far, raised a more typically successful son, and is at a loss as to how to motivate Eric. When Eric begins to get into progressively escalating cyber trouble at his Jewish day school, Langer wrestles with the best way to do right by him.

To read Last Word is to be immersed in Dr. Langer's often humorous, frequently moving, and occasionally appalling thoughts, and often to be startled by their contrast to what is spoken aloud.

What Langer thinks:
"I kissed the side of his head. He smelled like a slightly fragrant oil that no one had detected before....I put my palm over my boy's kippah and felt the God-given life force I'd felt in him the day he was born... "
What Langer says:
" 'Tuck in your oxford,' I whispered to Eric."
These gaps in communication, the failures of emotional expression, happen over and over again throughout the story. Eric becomes more withdrawn and his actions more provocative; the father becomes more fraught, his own behavior more unstable. In the mix are Andi, Langer's sensible and compassionate wife and voice of reason; Eric's typically annoying younger step-sisters; a host of stern school faculty; slighted teacher and object of Langer's secret desire, Shoshanah Kalstein; and Eric's frenemies-slash-peers. Humor is pervasive, sometimes laugh-out-loud, sometimes sly, and sometimes uncomfortable. It's often at Langer's expense, though he might not know it. For example, when informed by phone of new and grave charges against Eric, Langer, without missing a beat, proposes "I"ll have my wife come in immediately." The school is also a source of pointed humor, taking its own culture of caring a tad too seriously - "Conferences of Concern" are held in rooms papered in posters proudly professing slogans of kindness despite the bullying that thrives there. And although we (you, I, Dr. Langer, the school, the community at large) can't, of course, condone them, even Eric's cyber crimes, with their juvenile phrasing and wild misspellings, have a comedic side. But the story is ultimately poignant rather than comic: Eric's social isolation and the anguish of a father who doesn't quite understand his son are all too real.

Last Word is interesting and engaging, with compelling writing and characters. Langer's story will resonate with anyone who recognizes that in our deeply flawed humanity, parenthood is a very imperfect journey. But where there is love, there is also hope.

My thanks to the publisher for a complimentary review copy of Last Word.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

In These Times the Home is a Tired Place - Jessica Hollander

The women are perfectly poised and expertly posed: arms and legs extended, toes pointed slightly, backs arched just so, diving with seeming grace and confidence in perfectly choreographed formation.They have followed all the rules of diving and have launched themselves into the universe just as we've said they ought - except that instead of water below, there is nothing but air and solid ground. Will they crash, or will they defy the law of gravity and somehow take flight?

These bold yet imperiled divers represent well the characters in Jessica Hollander's Katherine Anne Porter Prize-winning collection In These Times the Home is a Tired Place (University of North Texas Press, 2013). In these precisely drawn stories of messy domesticity, Hollander's (mostly) young (mostly) women chafe under the strictures of expectations and life circumstances. We meet daughters challenging parental boundaries, girlfriends contemplating unexpected motherhood; a wife falling apart as her marriage, too, crumbles; mothers, sisters and daughters navigating gulfs of familial estrangement.

Gender roles are a prominent theme in the collection, and while the stories are told primarily from the point of view of women, the men in these stories struggle with their designated roles as well. A boyfriend considering fatherhood watches sitcoms to try to figure out how a family should be; a father clings tightly to Victorian mores in the bewildering face of his daughters' coming of age. The conflict in these stories is personal and intimate, but also hints at larger societal failure.

Some of my favorite stories in the collection, such as "The Year We are Twenty Three," and "Like Falling Down and Laughing," expand beyond gender to also consider the state of modern young adulthood, including the frustration of seeking meaning and gainful employment in a world where the path to success is no longer clearly defined. In "The Year We Are Twenty Three," a young woman, recently graduated from college, works at a fitness center where a feud simmers between liberal and conservative patrons. At home, she and her boyfriend work on opposite schedules, passing each other like ships in the night, their relationship reduced to messages left on the fridge. While her older customers wage a silly and stubborn war of clothing and ideology, the two young lovers exchange philosophical Post-Its in a search for answers and connection.

The stories in In These Times the Home is a Tired Place brim with tension and little moments of surprise, and I found them exciting to read. The author doesn't shy away from gritty subjects or dark emotions - yet her stories also offer unexpected and touching moments of hope. As in any collection, some stories, such as those mentioned above, stood out more for me and others a little less (the more experimental "If We Miss the Beginning"), but I devoured them all eagerly. Recommended for fans of literary short fiction of the more daring sort - Hollander's stories would be nicely at home on the bookshelf alongside collections by Caitlin Horrocks, Holly Goddard Jones, Danielle Evans, Megan Mayhew Bergman, Bonnie Jo Campbell and others.

My thanks to the author and publisher for a complimentary review copy of In These Times the Home is a Tired Place.

Happy reading!

Friday, October 4, 2013

Q&A with Letitia Moffitt

Letitia L. Moffitt was born and raised in Hawaii. She received a doctoral degree in English and Creative Writing from Binghamton University in New York, and currently teaches creative writing as an associate professor at Eastern Illinois University. Her work—fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction—has been published in literary journals including PANK, HTMLGiant, Black Warrior Review, Aux Arc Review, Jabberwock Review, Coe Review, The MacGuffin, and Dos Passos Review. Sidewalk Dancing, her novel in stories, is forthcoming from Atticus Books.

Sidewalk Dancing is a novel in stories – autobiographical stories - that your mentor Maxine Hong Kingston encouraged you to write.  In what ways did your writing style, or voice, or approach change as a result of her encouragement? What were the biggest challenges in writing about your own life in a fictional way? How difficult was it to find the right balance between fact and fiction?

I remember Maxine telling the class once that she knew so little about her father than when she started writing China Men, she had to use her imagination a lot in crafting his character, even though the book is considered nonfiction. One of the things I learned from her is that “fiction” or “nonfiction” designations don’t really matter all that much. It isn’t as though fiction is “less true” than nonfiction, or that nonfiction is less “imaginative” than fiction. Writing is both truth and imagination. Once I understood that, I felt free to write about these people and events in my life because it didn’t matter if I “got it right” or not. What I didn’t know factually I could imagine, and through imagination I hope I did get at some truth.

Your story “Only Say True” opens with a funny and provocative challenge to the legacy of Amy Tan’s widely beloved The Joy Luck Club.  Grace insists that her daughter Miranda should aspire to write like Tan, and the story evolves into a poignant exploration of Grace’s isolation in America, and of the similarities and differences between mother & daughter. Who were the writers who resonated most for you, or who influenced your own writing? What was the significance of The Joy Luck Club for you, for your own mother?  How has Amy Tan’s success affected other writers - has it helped pave the way for new voices, or crowded out opportunity?

For the record, I really do like Joy Luck Club. No, really, I do! But yeah, my mother really did want me to write a best-seller, and it kind of irked the heck out of me. I kept trying to tell her I can’t just decide to write a best-seller; I write what I write. In that way I don’t know whether Amy Tan’s success or any famous writers’ success helps or hurts the rest of us because that aspect of writing isn’t about craft but business. I’ve gotten ideas, inspiration, and insights from best-sellers appearing in airport newsstands and from the works of unknown authors published at rinky-dink presses. Maybe everything I read influences me somehow. That doesn’t mean I’m going to write like the person I read, only that it makes me see writing in yet another new way. 

I recently read an interview with the novelist Jhumpa Lahiri, who also writes about the intersection of culture and generations. She reflected “It’s interesting to be a mother to children who have a sense of home, especially since I’m a person without that.” While largely set in Hawaii, your stories also take place in China, in New York, and in Ireland, and the three members of the McGee family are at once at home in the starfish-shaped house in Hawaii while each also identifying strongly with other, far-away places, as if they are holding multiple homes in their hearts. What does a sense of home mean to you, and how did it come to be important theme in your work?

Wow, that is a tough (but terrific) question! I guess “a sense of home” has always been one of the huge themes in literature. It’s important to me personally because I can relate to Lahiri’s words about not having a sense of home. Everyone in my family is a wanderer; we’re constantly uprooting and moving, and maybe the only “home” we have is in our own heads. There are people who discover early in life that they never feel like they quite fit in anywhere, and they make that part of their identity; they believe that to be themselves, to know themselves, they always have to be at odds with their environment, always the outsider. And yet they—we, I—still have that same essential longing that most everyone else does for safety, comfort, familiarity. I suppose I’ll grapple with this forever in my life and in my writing.

There are many forces at work within your stories – generations, culture, and personality - each exerting their own tension on the characters in complicated ways. I found the relationship between George and Grace especially fascinating – George, the father, is an idealist and dreamer raised on the mainland and trying valiantly to find acceptance among Hawaiians; Grace, the mother, an immigrant from China whose circumstances demand hard work and fierce pragmatism.  Add a sulky teenager to the mix, and it becomes very complex - yet you manage to capture the tensions perfectly and balance all the perspectives. Which of the three characters was your favorite to write, and the hardest to write, and why?

Grace was the most challenging; George was the most fun. George was just a fun character; there’s a whimsy about him that I enjoyed trying to capture. Grace was tough. I’m still not sure I did what I wanted to do with her. In both cases I think the reason I felt this way about these characters wasn’t age or culture but personality. George is reasonably self-aware, and that made it easier to get in his head. Grace is a mystery perhaps even to herself. 

Your stories are written with a wonderfully clear and consistent voice, but a few have a distinctly edgier tone – “Living Dead,” “Incognito,” and especially the suspenseful opening story, “Knives.” These stories seem to give outlet to some of the emotions that are kept below the surface in many of the others. Would you talk a little about your overall process and approach to Sidewalk Dancing – did you set out to write with a vision of the whole already in mind, or did your stories come together into a novel over time? How did these three stories in particular come to be, and how do you see them with relationship to the others?

I had a few short stories written about these characters—I think “Only Say True” might have been the first, followed by “The Boat”—and I wanted to turn them into a novel. However, I had a very difficult time creating an overall story arc; their lives just kept turning into individual stories that were connected only in the sense that they dealt with the unfolding lives of this family. Finally I decided not to keep trying to force it to be a conventional novel and instead wrote it as separate stories. “Living Dead” and “Incognito” were written with a Miranda-like character in mind, though I didn’t necessarily think of the narrator as being Miranda herself at the time I wrote them. “Knives” is kind of strange—I started by wanting to make this a story about Miranda and then I realized it worked a lot better if I wrote it about Grace! I had to change the original story a lot, of course, but it’s interesting that “Knives” and “Living Dead” ended up having something of the same sort of vibe to them given that one is about Grace and the other Miranda.

Finally, what advice would you give to writers who are still working on finding their writer's "voice"?

Experiment. Read different writers, try different forms of writing and different subjects, think about different points of view. All writers, I think, are constantly finding their voice anew. It’s a process that keeps going, always. 

Many thanks to the author for taking the time to answer questions about Sidewalk Dancing, her wonderful novel in stories forthcoming from Atticus Books, and to the publisher for a complimentary review copy. You can read my review of Sidewalk Dancing here

Sidewalk Dancing - Letitia Moffitt

"The house looked like a starfish. One particular starfish, in fact -- the stumpy-armed one Grace had seen in a tidepool back in Monterrey. The creature had been battered, barely looked alive... and George had nudged her and said, 'You think he looks bad, you should've seen the other guy.' They had known each other for only about two months then, and she'd been speaking English for only three years; even though she didn't understand what he meant, she at least perceived that he was making some kind of joke. She smiled at him. She wondered fleetingly if starfish were edible."

And so George and Grace McGee embark upon married life with the construction of a house - a quirky, starfish shaped house - in Kaneohe, Hawaii. It's a house built of dreams, its quirky character only enhanced by contractor error and shortcuts. It's the kind of house which, in its troubled construction, calls attention to the unlikely pairing of its builders: one an idealist raised on the mainland, one a pragmatic and determined recent immigrant from China. Like many houses, it is the kind that doesn't always fit its inhabitants exactly right, but which is home nonetheless.

In this autobiographical novel-in-stories, author Letitia Moffitt explores the life of a family within and beyond the walls of the McGee's idiosyncratic house. Sidewalk Dancing (Atticus Books 2013) follows George, Grace, and their daughter Miranda through marriage, child- and parent- hood, coming of age and fleeing the nest, their relationships characterized by deep bonds and the sometimes profound divides of generation, culture, and personality. The members of the family know each other intimately, and yet in some ways not at all. The fascination lies in the real and perceived gaps between them.

I loved these stories, which are poignant, funny, nuanced and engaging. Moffitt creates complicated, interesting relationships between her characters, whom one can't help but like and admire, flaws and all. George's constant scheming is frustrating, but we respect his dogged integrity. Grace may strike those around her as brusque or aloof, but we are intrigued by the worlds of stories hidden behind a quiet facade. Miranda, in typical young adult fashion, goes to great lengths to distance herself from her family, but she is maybe not as unlike them as she might think. There is wonderful humor, for example, in "Only Say True," Miranda playfully blames Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club for setting unattainably high expectations for mother-daughter relationships. In a few of her stories, Moffitt goes darker and writes with an exciting edge - the suspenseful "Knives" introduces us to a more dangerous side of Grace; "Living Dead" to a more fragile side of Miranda. The author's clear, consistent voice holds the stories beautifully together, though, living up to their billing as a "novel in stories."

Above all, Sidewalk Dancing leads us to consider what makes up "home" - is it in our similarities to the people to whom we're related, or is it defined by our differences? Is home the geographic location in which we exist, or the one for which our heart yearns? Is home a building, or the rituals that take place inside, or is home all of the above? We contemplate all these possibilities, seeking evidence in the lovely details: "I woke up remembering that this house was full of little sounds. Little creaks in the floorboards and in the furniture as bodies moved through rooms in the morning." In these fine observations - the sounds of the household in motion, George hearing Grace in the next room and knowing exactly what she is doing, the familiar shape and weight of a coffee mug wrapped in newspaper and ready to pack in a moving box - we, too, are brought close into the fold of the McGee family. A highly recommended read for fans of literary short fiction.

Many thanks to Atticus Books for a complimentary review copy of Sidewalk Dancing. Ms. Moffitt was kind enough to answer my questions about her book - read our conversation here.

Happy reading!