Other Voices Bookshelf

Appears in Other Voices #47

The Voices We Carry: Recent Italian American Women’s Fiction edited by Mary Jo Bona, Guernica, 2007

The Voices We Carry returns to print in a beautiful new edition. Originally published in 1994, this anthology has been difficult to find for many years. An important contribution to the growing body of literature by and about Italian American women, The Voices We Carry includes stories which present striking fictional situations. In “Desert Ruins” Dodici Azpadu writes of political longing that peaks during a visit to Southwestern Indian ruins. Susan J. Leonardi’s “Bernie Becomes a Nun” depicts a 1960’s era sixth grader who finds a prophetic book and an escape into a spiritual community of women. Dorothy Bryant’s impatient daughter prepares her aging and argumentative father for his driving exam in “The Test.” Each story takes readers to memorable times, places and desires.

Mary Jo Bona gathers together both stories and novel excerpts around four themes: “The Recreation of Historical Lives,” “The Intersection between America and l’Italia,” “La Famiglia in America” and “The End of a Generation.” Read in sequence, the groupings create a larger narrative about Italian Americans and ethnicity in the United States, but the individual stories are stunning on their own.

In each section, there are surprises with haunting images. Mary Bush’s “Planting” depicts a 1906 plantation where recently immigrated families suffer the hardship of sharecropping in Arkansas, and a mother strains the worms from the bottom of the flour barrel for one more loaf: Bush writes, “Whatever got into your hands, your fingernails, got into the bread, no matter how you tried to scrub them.” An agricultural researcher named Andrea experiments with breeding alpacas in Laura Marello’s “Claiming Kin.” Struggling to untangle her mother’s feelings of loss from the secrets of the past, Andrea wakes to a memory “almost thinking of sunlight on a wool blanket, the mustached man, the window, shut and open and shut again.” In Anne Paolucci’s “Buried Treasure” the Yonkers’ backyard is filled with unmovable rocks, beloved pets, the bulky metal innards of a player piano, and the tales that are spun about each of these buried family relics.

Braided throughout the collection of stories are the voices of young girls in Catholic schools, of older, politically active women, of traditional mothers who try to protect their families, and of worldly women who choose alternatives to those conventions. The small moments are juxtaposed with larger iconic moments, as in Adria Bernardi’s “A Slight Blow to the Cheek” where the narrator’s Confirmation coincides with the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, or in Daniela Gioseffi’s “Americans: One Minute to Midnight” where a woman imprisoned for civil disobedience recounts the steerage story of her father’s transatlantic crossing in a letter to her own daughter.

Like little magazines, anthologies mix emerging writers with established ones, and since the original publication, the writers of The Voices We Carry have continued to establish themselves by publishing novels and short story collections. Bona’s introduction outlines the historical struggles of Italian American women writers and adds a brief update for the new edition: “Placing writers of the same national and ethnic background together,” Bona writes, “would highlight a joy and turmoil woven with different threads, but from the same cloth. Illuminations are inspiring. Italian American women continue to approach narrative with a keen awareness of lived experience—passionate, daunting and painful.”

In our own conflicted times, with the debates over immigration, ethnicity and political rights still raging, The Voices We Carry is an anthology that speaks to us now as urgently as ever.

—reviewed by JoAnne Ruvoli

The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings, Random House, 2007

Matt King, the deadpan narrator of Kaui Hart Hemming’s debut novel, The Descendants, is descended from one of the oldest and largest landowning families in Hawaii. Now, the largest shareholder of that land, Matt is faced with a decision about whom to sell it to—or whether to sell at all—while surrounded by bickering cousins he barely knows, from privileged surfer-boys to old, drunken Hawaiian cowboys. The newspapers are following his situation daily, so that random strangers are asking him personal questions on the street. As if all this weren’t stressful enough, Matt’s ten-year-old daughter, Scottie, is sending bitchy text-messages to an unpopular classmate, his housekeeper will only cook lard, and his eighteen-year-old daughter, Alex, a recovering drug-addict (and lingerie-model), has an annoying pothead boyfriend who won’t leave Matt’s house.

But all of these plotlines—well-drawn as they are—are really only the backdrop (like lush Hawaii itself) to Matt’s story. Because The Descendants is, at its heart, a love story, if one that is doomed from the first page. The love of Matt’s life—his younger wife, Joanie—is in a coma and on life-support following a boating accident, and the novel chronicles not only his having to abide by Joanie’s living will by ending her life, but also his journey as he learns Joanie was cheating on him and planned to leave him for a mysterious real estate agent.

Matt and his daughters have never been close. Joanie—who was in many ways like a kid herself, with her risk-taking and fun-loving ways—was always the buffer between them. Now Matt, Alex and Scottie have to find a way to say good-bye to their mother (about whom each has complex and conflicting emotions), and to stop being strangers and find some way to go on as a family. With this dramatic set-up, The Descendants is full of poignant, funny and weird moments. Scottie, desperate for a “good story” to tell her brain-dead mother, repeatedly puts herself in harm’s way so as to be able to amusingly relay the accounts of her near-death experiences. Joanie’s father punches Alex’s sidekick in the face. Alex, in an attempt to become her younger sister’s surrogate mother, makes Scottie repeat after her that the worldly and cruel ten-year-old friend Scottie worships is a “fucked-up ho bag twat.” Through it all, Matt stands by, hurt and furious at Joanie, mystified by their children, and unsure what the legacy of his Hawaiian ancestors means to him and his own family.

It would be easy to dismiss Matt as a “passive” narrator, if he weren’t so damn smart and funny —if he didn’t have such a good reason to be shell-shocked. And when he finally does act, it is usually in ways that defy expectations, such as taking his daughters from the hospital room of their dying mother so that they can chase down her lover and try to force him to go to the hospital to say goodbye to the woman who betrayed Matt, and yet whom he still loves and wants to grant what he believes would be her dying wish.

The prose in The Descendants is stark and at times stunning in its bluntness. With the exception of a few well-earned moments, the story is devoid of the sentimentality and schmaltz that would usually accompany a novel about a dying mother, published by a major commercial house. Matt, Alex, her possible fuck-buddy Sid, and precocious-but-dysfunctional Scottie are not—any of them—conventionally “sympathetic” characters, and the novel is far the better for it. The real heroine of the novel, Joanie—who is remarkably compelling despite being in a coma and the novel containing no actual “flashbacks”—is also far from “likeable,” and has wrought a lot of destruction in her wake. Yet the reader roots for Matt and his daughters, and even more remarkably, loves and hates Joanie along with them, and constantly feels the lack of her, the hole she has left behind, even if her presence often felt like being sucked into a vortex.

There is bound to be a lot of marketing hype about this being a “Hawaiian” novel—and yeah, the little details about Hawaii are cool. But really, Matt and his girls could be from Anywhere, and this story would still grab the reader and not let go. A brave and wonderfully irreverent story about wealth, privilege, betrayal, family, love, loss, disaffection and reinvention, The Descendants explores honestly how it feels to have the thing you love most ripped from you, and the pain and necessity of having to face that you are probably better off for the loss.

—reviewed by Gina Frangello

every crooked pot by Renée Rosen, Griffin Original, July 2007

In her debut novel, every crooked pot, Renée Rosen introduces the reader to the likable, wry and sensitive Nina Goldman. Nina lives a typical middle-class life, with a typical middle class family: a dominant father, a protective and compassionate mother, an older brother who is part playmate, part torturer, and the inevitably beautiful, somewhat distant older sister. What isn’t typical in Nina’s world is the way she sees it—literally and figuratively.

Nina was born with a birthmark over one eye that resembles a swollen, giant bruise and this is the crux of the problems that plague her formative years. Nina had learned at a young age how to compensate for her appearance, so as an adolescent she decides to develop a funny, though somewhat subservient personality, to attain the sense of belonging that is such a necessity to all teenagers. Even though she manages to become friends with a group of popular girls, boys and dates still elude her—her greatest hope was to have what she thought other teen girls had—“To have someone love me on sight alone, without needing to know who I was on the inside first, would have been fine by me–even preferred.”

As Nina becomes a young adult the appearance of her eye improves (as a result of a series of treatments) and she finds love. It is this acceptance by someone else, this belief that another could love her that finally allows Nina to fully become herself. Eventually, she comes to the realization that her life wasn’t really as awful as she thought it was, it only looked that way to her as she saw it through her bad eye and the curtain of hair that covered it for so many years.

As a young teen novel Rosen’s work contains two of the most important ingredients, it is both accessible and relatable. Her narrator has a familiar voice, one that we have all heard in our head at one time or another in our teen years. Nina’s eye could represent anything that one can imagine as a hindrance to normality and acceptance in the teenage world—acute shyness, being overweight, bad acne… It is this universal theme that draws the reader into Nina’s struggle to overcome her obstacles as she discovers who she is and her place in the world.

—reviewed by Kathryn Kosmeja

Havana Noir edited by Achy Obejas, Akashic Noir, October 2007

Havana Noir brings together a talented group of authors who slam the Cuban state from a range of stylistic angles. This most recent collection in the Akashic Noir series pulls in the reader very quickly. The authors create vivid and striking scenes saturated with physical decline, material want and personal frustration. They effectively paint a bleak but engaging landscape in which Cubans either strive and fail, or flounder in their alienation. While the authors usually (although not always) refrain from blunt political statements, their stories give a more damning depiction of Cuba than an overt political tract could convey. These writers are not political only in the same way that Milan Kundera has refrained from direct commentary in most of his work. Like him, these authors depict the absurdities of a bureaucratic state, and souls in various states of despair as they cope with such a society.

The great range of writing styles in Havana Noir is at times jarring, but nonetheless exhilarating. Some of the stories draw upon distinctly Latin American styles, such as Miguel Mejides’ “Nowhere Man,” where dwarves control the underground economy in a magically real Havana. Carolina Aguilera-Aguilera’s “The Dinner” has the poignant cadence of a folk tale. But Leonardo Padura’s “Staring at the Sun” has the cold, detached narration style that documents self-destruction reminiscent of Bret Ellis’ Less Than Zero.

The stories of Havana Noir are depressing. But a collection of noir stories is not supposed to be uplifting. Havana, the capital of communism’s last western bastion, and so close to the United States, offers up a prime setting for this genre. The authors of Havana Noir use this backdrop with great effect as they artfully relate compelling vignettes of human wreckage.

—reviewed by Ted Lewis

Vulgar Lives by Rosalyn Dexter, Chiasmus Press, 2007

Vulgar Lives is a dreaming stream of consciousness novel. Rosalyn Dexter has composed one hundred and thirty-two pages and divided them into sixty-three chapters, making each short piece a letter to the storyteller’s dead brother, ideas and snippets reflecting on rare meetings with famous icons. She creates images and thoughts that one may have while lying in bed at night just before falling into a heavy dream.

Just before the storyteller learns she has been accepted to a residency in Bellagio, where she will work on her writing, she hears of her brother’s suicide. She writes “…and I found myself compelled to address him directly in a way I could not when he was alive.” Her first chapter, titled “Dear Brother,” explains the nature of a banana to him, exploring sexuality and making comparisons. “…This masculine flower bud, dearest, opens into a glorious cascade of blossoms, each one female! And each one destined to become a banana. How duplicitous of nature to cast this female blossom into its final shape that of a male organ: upright, tasty, fragrant , procreative, thick-skinned; firmly attached to others of its kind.” And she is not shy to tell of their incestuous relationship; which is fire enough to continue reading. “I begged you to stop staring at me. When the lights went out you did. There was no need for staring—you managed to find your way to me.”

In a chapter titled “Thoughts,” she writes, “The world is best understood in infancy when one can and does put it into ones mouth. The world is then conquered by taste by taste, smell by smell. Sound, received as a place one has set aside for future use. If one is lost familiar sights and sounds will lead one back home. The world is memory.” Her chapters also contain ideas for plays, one about an artist whose medium is hunger; there is a possible novel idea about the Adventures and Misadventures of Tommy the Turd. She goes on to write about Tommy with some sense and some nonsense, “He lay there shivering, wrapped in a leaf, looking for all the world like a Cuban cigar come alive,” but enough to make one think and smile.

There all also several recollections of nights with John Lennon and Yoko, as well as Fred Astaire. “Astaire went into the bedroom with Yoko to be filmed doing a dance (with her?). When they were done, Astaire promised to talk to Dick Cavett about having John and Yoko on his program.”

Vulgar Lives is intellectually strange and slightly haunting, touching on taboos and striking sensitive nerves. The prose is almost poetic and changes here and there into actual poetry. Just the form alone will keep one turning the pages.

—reviewed by Iliana Regan