Other Voices Bookshelf

Appears in Other Voices #44

Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir by Joe Meno, Triquarterly, 2005

Each story in Joe Meno’s Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir holds up a mirror and reflects a part of who you are. Meno’s characters work out their emotions through actions, just as we do in real life. On a city bus, a small girl named Emily fakes a terrible cough for sympathy, and between her wheezes she describes the death of her parents to an old woman. A man wants nothing more than to possess Hannah, the woman he hooks up with in the laundry room and who works as a pirate slash waitress at Ahoy There, Mateys! Twins become anesthesiologists, experimenting on small animals and in the end suffering heartache on the largest scale. These are just a few of Meno’s awkward and very real characters. Each character is on a journey to his or her graspable yet hopeless destination.

Plastic deer ornaments, dead parents, butterfly collections, missing children, eye patches, stolen luggage, camp kisses, Tijuana women and ever expandable imaginations wrap around these short stories and spin like pale blue cotton candy in your brain.

Many of the stories are seen from a young man’s eye; most of these men are city bound and suffering a loss. But there are some stories from the point of view of small girls, and the infamous, ‘we.’

With each image, the reader feels the emptiness the character seeks to fill. The story, “Midway,” which won the Nelson Algren Award begins, “It is bad to go to the airport to steal stranger’s bags. I know this. My brother, Junior, on the other hand, he goes up there every day and comes home with someone else’s suitcase.” Later you find out Junior steals the suitcases to peek on the lives of their owners. He wonders whether they are happy or sad. At the end of the story he finally tells his brother why he goes to Midway, “I like seeing the people. When they come home to their friends and kids and stuff. I like seeing them walk out after they land. When they hug and everything. I like seeing that.” Not only does each story start out with a memorable one liner, but memorable writing fills entire stories. “Astronaut of the Year” evocatively begins, “The Astronaut of the Year is unhappy.”

The voice of Joe Meno draws you in and you stay there until you find out more about yourself. Meno has not gone much further than his own Chicago back porch to tell these stories. His characters live in factories and warehouses, Midway airport and Pulaski Avenue and let you know where you are the entire the time.

—reviewed by Iliana Regan

HOMEWRECKER: An Adultery Reader edited by Daphne Gottlieb, Soft Skull Press

Every artist explores themes of desire and betrayal, but few as fiercely as the twenty-six writers and poets featured in Homewrecker: An Adultery Reader. If adultery is an old story, editor Daphne Gottlieb says in her introduction, “it is an endlessly compelling one that we cannot stop telling.” Certainly we are drawn to the contradictions, the tales of calculation and cataclysm, the fear that prescribed, pair-bonded love fails to conquer all.

On these pages we join the cheated and cheaters, traveling far beyond prevailing adultery stories of popular culture. (Those that begin with adulterous boy meeting adulterous girl, and end with girl cast out, punished, and boy returning, renewed). Here, we tear at the layers, and in some cases, at the legacy of adultery. We marvel and pause over the consequences of desire unbound. We face what happens when, as Phil West says in “The Art of the Rebound,” your heart “thinks itself an empty stomach”.

Gottlieb appreciates surprise—these stories are never what we expect—and finds many writers at their best to date: Michael Hemmingson sets forth certain rules in “How to Have an Affair.” Lori Selke’s “Sex and the Married Dyke” introduces Joan as she dares an office romance with a straight girl. Thomas Hopkin’s Jane recalls the blind tiger that was her college bedroom. Neil Pollack’s “Confessions of a Dial-Up Gigolo” describes the early days of the internet, when it became possible for a man to ruin marriages of people he would never meet.

A wife tears down the walls of her apartment with a sledgehammer in Suzannah Breslin’s “Belonging Impossible, Longing All There Is.” In “Making Adultery Work,” Marri Lisa Johnson steps into “official girlfriendhood” during a dance called the sanctioned affair. S. Bear Bergmann’s “Protection” catalogues objects in a whore’s chamber. The narrator in Matthue Roth’s “Beating around the Burning Bush” believes he is cheating on his girlfriend with God. David Hernandez’s “How to Commit Adultery” instructs potential cheaters to put their hearts in Ziploc bags inside their freezers.

Gottlieb collects diverse points of view and a wide range of writing styles. The characters within Homewrecker are torn, euphoric, guilty, unapologetic, subverted, empowered, and silenced—sometimes at once. The compilation is intense, complex, energetic and original. Still we are left wanting more. This anthology—like many of the affairs mapped on its pages—seems to end just as it begins.

—reviewed by Stacy Bierlein

Big Cats by Holiday Reinhorn, Free Press, 2005

Holiday Reinhorn’s first collection of stories will take you to unexpected places: the Big Cats’ house at the zoo, a Lipizzan breeding farm, the end zone of a high school football field and the grassy lawn in front of a glassy office building. The sparkling promises of these places are unmet, and characters searching for connection are forced to rewrite their expectations. Reinhorn captures these moments of searching alienation in emotional prose that draws you in and holds you off at the same time.

Many of the stories are from the first person point of view of female narrators, although they vary in age and situation. The best moments occur when the narrators comment on what they see. Upon witnessing a kiss between her parents, in “Golden Pioneers,” the narrator says, “It is a small gesture in the history of the world, butterflies do not cause tornadoes, civilizations do not rise and fall, but for both of them, for now anyway, it is enough.” In “Good to Hear You,” the narrator imagines her father napping with his cat on September 11th, “They curl on the sofa together, and he dreams whatever a man dreams who is sixty and lives in Memphis with his second wife and the cat he loves. He is known to very few people, my father, but I’m sure the dreams rub up against him, purring.”

Perhaps because of the feminine sensibility of the rest of the stories, “Get Away from Me, David” and “Africa” stand out as intriguing portraits of two male characters coming to terms with their own limitations. The David of the first story finds himself left in charge of the branch bank in the immediate aftermath of a minor earthquake and the long-term consequences of an alcohol addiction and a lost love. In “Africa,” a man who has inadvertently poisoned his lover’s prize stallion is stopped by a state trooper and charged for transporting stolen horse sperm. In both of these stories, these men aspire to be something more than what they have limited themselves to so far.

Reinhorn’s endings are especially effective in ratcheting up the tension that changes the questions for the reader. In “Fuck You” the pregnant narrator looks to a neighborhood baseball player to feel needed perhaps, to make some connection. With an undercurrent of Mrs. Robinson-type sexual tension throughout, the story turns into an erasure of the narrator when the boy’s indifference fades to inattention: “When I was his age, I thought adults were like gods. Lightning came from their fingers, and their words were like thunder and fire. I lowered myself back onto my elbows and looked up where he was looking. In the distance somewhere a dog was barking. Over and over without any purpose. The kind of barking where you know all it wants is to hear the sound of its own voice.”

These stories are in the tradition of the Raymond Carver, Joy Williams or Mark Costello collections of the 70s and 80s, but Reinhorn has updated that particular alienation with touches of experimentation and speculation. For those of us who find comfort in stories that probe that failure of connection, Big Cats will not disappoint.

—reviewed by JoAnne Ruvoli

Story Matters: Contemporary Short Story Writers Share the Creative Process by Margaret-Love Denman and Barbara Shoup, Houghton Mifflin, 2005

Full disclaimer: I am a huge fan of Denman and Shoup’s interviews, several of which have appeared on the pages of Other Voices over the years. Their first book of interviews, Novel Ideas: Contemporary Authors Share the Creative Process, sits within easy reach of my computer.

Story Matters is an excellent addition to the Shoup and Denman oevre and an important contribution to the genre of writers interviewing writers. It combines instruction on elements of fiction with extensive writing exercises, and author interviews with the stories that the writers talk about in depth. It is an anthology of stories, a collection of interviews and a writing instruction text all rolled together. Perfect for a college or high school classroom, this collection will also be valuable to any level writer looking to provoke her or his thinking about craft. Included are diverse writers who are masters of the form: Dorothy Allison, Ha Jin, Jamaica Kincaid, Jhumpa Lahiri, Stuart Dybek, Jill McCorkle, Grace Paley, Tobias Wolff and many others.

Denman and Shoup’s focus on issues of process and craft as it relates to specific stories make each of these interviews into condensed seminars. Sometimes the instruction is intuitive and sometimes specific. For example, each of the writers speaks at some point about revision. Charles Baxter says, “I read and reread and reread what I’ve written. I try to put myself in the position of a reader who is gamely looking for a good meaningful story with a feeling of some kind attached to it. If I feel that something is wrong with a story, something probably is, and I keep searching for it so I can fix it…. When I revise, I often have to take out extraneous images and details; I have to keep things moving.” Carolyn Ferrell claims, “I generally work on a story for about a year…. I revise constantly; there are no hard and fast rules for revision. I’d say I instinctively know when a story is finished, but even that is not true. Sometimes I just get tired of a piece, realize it can go no further, and put it to rest…. You can’t underestimate the power of time and distance when you are writing.” Grace Paley tests her stories, “…I go through a story for lies. I might discover the lie of trying to show off. Sometimes they’re lies of character. Sometimes they are lies of writing the most beautiful sentence in the world that has nothing to do with the story.” Jhumpa Lahiri adds, “As most writers will tell you, revision is ninety-five percent of the work. It is certainly true in my case. It seems as if everything I’ve ever written has gone through literally hundreds of drafts.”

There is an ongoing thread that runs through these interviews about the role of the writer and of writing itself. Russell Banks claims that “Under the strictures and restrictions and rigors of fiction, the writer, when writing, is always more honest and more intelligent than at any other time. The requirements of art create a possibility of greater honesty and greater intelligence and greater insights, a greater access to one’s unconscious, greater access to the world around us than at any other time in one’s life.” Luis Alberto Urrea describes it this way, “I tend to see writing on a very mystical level. I see it as a kind of shaman’s pursuit. I see it as an ancient ritual that we enact, so I feel in part that it’s a kind of spiritual practice.” Ha Jin sums up with “Literature operates on the principle of similarity and identity. I believe in universals and try to make my work speak to similarities…. At core, meaningful work should rest on the bedrock of humanity.”

Story Matters is collection of stories and interviews that many writers and students of writing will find useful to study carefully or dip into occasionally. Denman and Shoup’s interviewing draws from a thorough familiarity with each writer’s body of work as well as an intimate working knowledge of what writers wrestle with to tell their stories. Two contradictory impulses result from reading Story Matters: you will simultaneously want to run out and read more of these writers’ stories and also to sit down and write your own.

—reviewed by JoAnne Ruvoli

Choir Boy by Charlie Anders, Soft Skull Press 2005

In Choir Boy, Charlie Anders relates the unlikely tale of androgynous Berry, a singer in a boy’s church choir who fears his sweet voice will soon change and—through a castration mishap and a hormone replacement oversight—becomes an accidental transgender in his attempt to preserve his cherished chords. The effects of the change are often predictably painful, but Anders, a transgendered woman and former choirboy herself, has tempered the inevitable scenes of emotional and physical cruelty with a delightful wackiness and keen sense of the absurd. Here is a world where the children secretly feed the priest Viagra right before the service, boys come home to find their dads skinning their fingers on carrot peelers just to see how long it takes to draw blood, and fathers attempt to curb their daughters’ alleged insubordination with controlled bursts of aqua-therapy, sealing them for hours on end under a grate in the backyard swimming pool. Overall, the plot doesn’t so much develop as recede like a hairline from reality.

Survival soon becomes a double-edged sword for Berry as he evades both those who want to hurt him and those who want to exploit him for being different. His ecstatic mother wants to make him a girl, his guilt-stricken father wants to make him a man, and his drag-queen hooker friend, Maura, wants to make him her protégé. Each sees Berry’s transformation as a means to his or her own end and tries to coerce Berry into deciding what he will be once and for all, but Berry insists, “I don’t know what I want to be. Maybe there isn’t a word for it.” All Berry knows is that he wants to sing. Adeptly woven throughout the novel is also a traditional coming-of-age story, including Berry dealing with his best friend Wilson’s latent homosexuality and homophobia, and a surprising and clandestine relationship with the most popular girl in school.

At its core, Choir Boy is a book about the fear, not of getting older but of growing up. It’s kind of like a return to Neverland, only Peter Pan has a rack. For Berry, the world of adults connotes rust: all of the adults drive “rusty” cars and, more importantly, the voices of the other boys in Berry’s choir that have changed all sound “rusty” like his father’s. In this motif’s model of maturation, people don’t age like fine wine, becoming more precious with time, but, like those cars, slowly rust away while they navigate the same tired roads day in and day out. The insinuation is that stagnation destroys. Berry wishes that “people would stop telling him he couldn’t do what he did forever.” The problem with the adults is that they have forcibly defined themselves, buying into the credo that a person is only one thing and in the end everyone must choose a label, casting off childish dreams and desires that don’t mesh.

If there is a lesson at the heart of Choir Boy, it is that if we insist on seeing ourselves as immutable, if we stop allowing for loopholes and contingencies in our personas, if we buckle under the awful pressure to consolidate our passions to the least common denominator, then we are doomed to rust. For those who resist, however, a quiet salvation awaits, as sweet and pure as the chimes of a church organ.

—reviewed by Adam Jeffrey Pasen

Giovanna’s 86 Circles by Paola Corso, University of Wisconsin Press, 2005.

The South Side, the Steelers, Schenken’s furniture store. These markers of Pittsburgh life fill the pages of Paola Corso’s first collection of short stories, Giovanna’s 86 Circles, providing readers with a remarkable glimpse into the regional and class identities of its characters. Each of the ten stories radiates with light and warmth, and evokes an emotional connection among individuals, objects and the power to imagine.

The title story, “Giovanna’s 86 Circles,” establishes both oral tradition and place as central sources of invention for the young female protagonist whose future lies somewhere between the past and the present. The mother/daughter relationship in the two stories that frame the collection emphasizes a reclaiming of the maternal that unites these women despite the limits of death and illness. In the first, “Yesterday’s News,” a daughter comes to know her mother only after donating her clothes to a thrift store. The donning of her mother’s driving coat recalls a memory Denise cannot know; nevertheless, the invention of her mother’s past—of the moment the daughter literally comes into being—enables Denise to heal and to connect with her self through the memory of her mother. The last story, “Roman Arches,” is a poignant tale about redemption, of a mother’s physical healing through her daughter’s imagination. The theme of recovery connects the stories, offering each character the possibility of a future on his or her own terms.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Corso’s storytelling is the effortlessness in which she employs magical realism as a way to read ethnicity as both myth and reality, thus creating a continuum of hope and possibility in shaping the present and future of the Italian American working-class community she writes about. Similar to Carole Maso’s Ghost Dance and Christina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban, Corso’s short stories weave the voices of the young and the old, bridging the gap between the past and present through lived experience and reinvention. Corso’s lyrical prose is richly detailed, funny and real. Her memorable collection offers the important perspective of contemporary voices struggling to make sense out of the symbols of the past, a familiar journey to us all.

—reviewed by Michele Fazio