Other Voices Bookshelf

by Stacy Bierlein

Appears in Other Voices #37

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, Little, Brown, and Company

Perhaps bravery is the most important quality a writer can have, and Alice Sebold seems to possess it in abundance. Her novel begins with a fourteen-year-old dead girl. On Earth, she has been gagged, raped, beaten, and sliced into pieces, and from heaven, she tells us her name: “Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie.”

From her heaven, Susie Salmon watches her sister, parents, baby brother, grandmother, the boy who maintains his crush on her, a detective investigating her murder, and the last girl she saw as her body left Earth. “I could not help but graze her,” Susie says. “Once released from life, having lost it in such violence, I couldn’t calculate my steps.” This is precisely what some have called unimaginable territory, and Sebold charges in.

What does it feel like, for example, to see your family at your own memorial service? “I wanted to snake up my father’s back, circle his neck, whisper in his ear. But I was already there, in his every crack and crevice.” To lose your daughter, then come face to face with her murderer? “Knowing, the deep-soul knowing that my father had, was not, in the law’s more literal mind, incontrovertible proof.” Or to know sisterhood with death? “When people looked at Lindsay, even my father and mother, they saw me. Even Lindsay was not immune. She avoided mirrors…took her showers in the dark.”

And Sebold pushes the limits ever further. With clarity and calm, Susie Salmon watches her killer, a man who keeps a garden and builds dollhouses. “In the hours after I was murdered…Mr. Harvey had collapsed the hole in the cornfield and carried away a sack filled with my body parts.” She tells us “it would be some time before I realized what you’ve undoubtedly already assumed, that I wasn’t the first girl he’d killed.”

Sebold understands grief better than most, and becomes our guide as we look deep into the eyes of violence and loss. She maps out in gorgeous and painful detail the way a traumatic event calls even the most basic human relationships into question, threatens the attachments of love and family, and violates our faith in the natural order of things.

Between chapters sixteen and seventeen, a chapter called “Snapshots” appears. Here we shift into the future, with an undeniable awareness that “horror on Earth is real and it is everyday,” that grieving families must shatter, expand, and reconnect. In a chapter called “Bones,” we come to understand that the lovely bones are not Susie’s physical remains, lost deep inside a sinkhole, but the emotional connections formed by those who loved her back.

Jobs and Other Preoccupations by Daniel Coshnear, Helicon Nine Editions

The stories of Daniel Coshnear never go where one expects. His impressive debut collection, Jobs and Other Preoccupations, focuses less on employment than on our American culture of opportunity-turned-obsession. These stories are compact and intense. Many, reminiscent of Mary Robison’s tour-de-force, “Yours,” travel great emotional distances in only two or three pages. In crisp, clear prose, Coshnear finds the real truth of a moment, grabs onto it, and nails it down.

The characters here dislike their place in the world, or feel indifferent to it. “Too many transmissions shifting out of gear,” says the narrator in “Toxic Round-up.” “Too many hands in the air. Too many new releases…Too many drugs to chose from. Too many missiles, spears, bullets, words. Not enough targets. Too many choices of coffee makers. Too many shoes in the closet.”

These women and men find little to enjoy and much to endure. Coshnear, in addition to working the night shift at a group home for people suffering from mental illness and substance abuse, teaches writing courses in San Francisco. It seems easy to imagine this work in future classrooms, these characters evoking vibrant discussions.

In “How We Remember You,” a spirited and beloved woman in a group home commits suicide on her fortieth birthday. In “Double Shift,” an exhausted counselor reaches the verge of a breakthrough. In “The Resolution of Nothing,” a ten-year-old worries about his prizewinning science project and the nature of God.

Perhaps the most extraordinary story in the collection is “White Veil.” Ty and Lucy, just married, drive toward their honeymoon cabin. Recalling the reception they have just left, Lucy thinks, “the jokes had been awful. Loose Lucy was especially not funny, like calling an obese man Tiny.” As they drive on, Ty says that his mother believes the cabin to be haunted. Lucy, sure she had not heard about the ghosts, acknowledging she does not believe them, must contend with this startling image—“a wisp of a woman, in a lacy white veil.”

Here and throughout the book, Coshnear’s scenes are carefully crafted, yet not too refined. They may become examples of the claim that to represent contemporary culture, contemporary writing must possess a touch of chaos—the knowing writer will remain willing to muck things up a bit.

Some of Her Friends That Year, New + Selected Stories by Maxine Chernoff, Coffee House Press

This impressive volume is the best of Chernoff—one of today’s most under-recognized writers. Fifteen vibrant new stories lead the way to selected stories from two previous collections, Signs of Devotion and Bop.

These stories fill with intrigue and whimsy. Within them, one befriends a woman who says “on the last day of our vacation in Paris, I was thinking that it’s better to be content at Our Lady of Perpetual Aluminum than to feel disappointment at the Notre Dame Cathedral.” One watches a little girl decorate her barrette by gluing onto it her grandmother’s pills. “The Nobel Prize for Shoes” begins one evening “after a very long, dull Slovakian movie in which every character eventually dies.” In “Element 109,” there is Kenneth, who “just turned forty-one, yet insists dating women who are twenty…born after Sonny and Cher fell from prominence.”

Chernoff experiments and succeeds, finding and embracing the colorful absurdity of everyday life. Her characters unleash fresh, wicked humor, and never allow themselves to drift into denial. In other words, they remain super-present in their own lives. As one narrator explains, “mostly everything is funny for you now, except the disappearance of (a lost white and gray cockatiel), whose existence seems like a center of reason in a world gone mad.”

Readers meet Chernoff’s bold characters against bizarre backdrops like Buddhist divorces and Velcro bullfights. Several stories leave us questioning the need for a distinction between fiction and non-fiction. “Satchmo,” for example, takes an organic look at the world’s most talked-about murder trial. The narrator in “Snowflake, Come Home” points out that “in real life, the bird in your cat’s mouth is limp as a rag…In real life, you’re happy when your children come home alive from high school. You’re happy when your daughter visits after a weekend of heartbreak.”

For those who have yet to encounter Chernoff’s work, Some of Her Friends That Year is a superb introduction. And readers who know her work well should feel pleased to discover this compilation.

My Life in Heavy Metal by Steve Almond, Grove Press

It surprises me that rock and roll does not find its way into short fiction more often, so this stunning collection takes my attention. Leaning on great rock and roll themes like sex and regret, Almond proves himself as a thoughtful observer of his generation. These are men and women who grew up screaming at concerts. They can recall the early days of MTV, the angst they felt mirrored in the way their musical heroes beat on drums, jammed and smashed guitars, or set catwalks on fire.

In the title story, the narrator, a music reviewer, recalls the late eighties hair bands he loved. “Ratt, Poison, Winger, Warrant, Great White, White Snake, Kiss, Vixen, Cinderella, Queensryche, Skid Row, Def Leppard, and Kiss without makeup.” He explains, “at my first concert, Metallica, the band’s new bassist introduced himself to the crowd by farting into his microphone. This was the heavy metal equivalent of a bon mot.” He remembers the fans, “heads banging in unison, like angry mops.”

In “Run Away, My Pale Love,” a graduate student travels to meet his lover in Poland. He finds the place where longing becomes obsession, then returns, discovering the corner where obsession runs into exhaustion. “There is a point,” he admits, “when you are just something bad that happened to someone else.”

“The Pass” offers one narrator’s straightforward view of an urban social life in the 1990s: “Clusters of college graduates knotted at the bottom of tall cities, trying to invent community. Everyone has slept with everyone else and they all drink together, hoping the alcohol and the music will restore some of the previously eluded glamour, or obscure its dissipation.”

A stand-out story, “How to Love a Republican,” introduces us to Billy, a liberal activist, and Darcy, the McCain-then-Bush aid who pursues him, “scandalized by the intensity of her desire.” Weeks into the relationship Billy admits, “I was a fool to watch the Republican Convention, but there was an element of morbid curiosity at work. I wanted to see Jesse Helms reborn as an emissary of tolerance. And besides, I had promised Darcy.” Eventually, Billy—resenting the passivity of watching ballot recounts from Florida—craves battle. “Why…as her knees fell open…could I only think of James Baker?” In the end, their relationship has taken on an intensity as dysfunctional as the entire election.

An observation in “The Body Extremis” might serve as a lynchpin for the entire story collection, or any number of great metalhead anthems: “The heart is not only a lonely hunter, though it is certainly that…It is a bloodied clown, an incurable disease. We pay dearly for its every decision.”