Thread and Other Stories by Eric Halpenny

“Thread” is the title story in this collection by first-time author and chemical engineer, Eric Halpenny, but it also refers to the thread of conversation woven between the stories (always cut short by one unwilling conversation partner until the final dialogue), as well as the theme that ties together these tales: what really motivates our actions, what calls to us from outside the ordinary.  In the first story, siblings eke out an existence for themselves and manage to help one weaker than themselves, too, who ends up giving back beyond the scope of his short life.  Then comes a sad narrative about a soldier in Vietnam so traumatized by what he has to do that he becomes like the living dead, “not dead enough that anyone would dig him a grave” (67).  Third is a ghost story in which a child makes a doll that summons a witch, an eidolon.  “Conflict” is historical fiction, based on real experiences by the 7th battalion of the 1st Canadian infantry in WWI.  Jump from real-life to science fiction in the next story about time travel and sociological studies.  What happens when our subjects become The Subject, someone to whom we can relate?  Lastly, the spy is spied upon in a story about Soviet Russia and Ukraine.  The collection ends with the conclusion of the on-going conversation.  Two unnamed conversants try to understand the other’s viewpoint and come to common ground.  What is our understanding based on?  Upon what do we rely in our experiments?  Can we believe everything we know?  The author leaves us with both questions and answers, all explored through introspective characters and twists of plot.  What I liked best is the unpredictability of each ending and the sparse, pithy prose.  book website

De Facto Feminism: Essays Straight Outta Oakland by Judy Juanita

DE FACTO FEMINISM: ESSAYS STRAIGHT OUTTA OAKLAND begins with several reprinted works mostly from The Weeklings (theweeklings.com), an online forum dedicated to essay, and ends with an original piece comprised of letters between Faith, a writer, and Alexis, the wife of Faith’s deceased teacher.  The latter brings all the formers to an intense close filled with both grief and joy, making a story of what started out as a manifesto.  Essays on the N-word, guns, cleaning, the Beatles, black chick-lit, growing up in Oakland, and the Black Panthers flesh out what Judy Juanita means by de facto feminism: women who define feminism simply by doing what they must do, and what they do best.  They make the word, not it them.  So, too, the author, like the heroes and heroines she describes, exploits what might exploit her when she uses words and music as tools for change in her high school and college years and later, her own life as a source of creative material.  In the final piece, “Acknowledge Me: a true ghost story/epistolary essay,” instead of cowering beneath a powerful, successful, charismatic, not to mention alluring, older white male teacher, the author (Faith) becomes his medium.  She writes to his widow about their unconventional conversations and through him they become not only friends but collaborators.  This last piece is a brilliant play within a play, showing Juanita’s true talent for showing (not telling) character development while also developing ideas she explores in the previous essays – the artist/writer lifestyle, the role of “the establishment” in her work, friends/loved ones’ support and the spirit world.  

At first, I felt threatened by this book.  How could I relate as an affluent, caucasian, Midwest woman?  Even as fellow artist and writer, am I the establishment even if I don’t intend to be, because I’m white?  But, as the essays became more personal (and when she mentions a fellow writer she likes because she is Midwestern, with a dry sense of humor), I felt inspired.  We’re not enemies.  The enemy might lie within us or outside us, but whatever it is, it keeps us apart, not together, as we are when we work for a common cause, listening to one another as Judy Juanita so graciously and wittily does with herself, her peers, students and those who have blazed the trail for her, to whom she dedicates the book.   the book on Goodreads

A Penny for Her Heart by Alretha Thomas

Vanessa Rossi’s best friend Penelope Newhouse has been brutally murdered at City Hall, where she worked in a position senior to Vanessa.  Friends and competitors since USC, Vanessa learns more of Penny’s secrets after her murder than she knew before.  As Penny clamoured her way to the top, did political candidates use her to undo their opponents?  Did one of them murder her?  It’s easy to pin the blame on those corrupt politicians, but perhaps, Detective Rachel Storme surmises, someone closer to Penny had more of a motive to want her dead and the politicians aren’t as bad as they seem.  “Unbeknownst to the average person, the rapists, child molesters, and murderers aren’t lurking in the shadows; they’re the neighbor, the friendly teacher, or coach.  They’re the co-worker or even the boss” (291).  

Vanessa and Rachel’s distinct voices as co-narrators help Alretha Thomas weave a personal as well as a stark and creepy who-done-it story.  While Vanessa plays the part of empathizer, knowing and accepting Penny warts and all, Rachel is a skeptic from beginning to end.  She’s not satisfied until she considers all angles of the case and each suspect in turn.  The two narrate every other chapter, ending each with a cliffhanger.  Alretha Thomas excels at suspense; with a false ending that deepens the plot, she keeps us rapt until the very end.  This third in a series of Detective Rachel Storme mysteries includes book club questions.      Author site

The New Odyssey by Patrick Kingsley

In THE NEW ODYSSEY:THE STORY OF THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY REFUGEE CRISIS, journalist Patrick Kingsley follows one Syrian refugee, Hashem Al-Souki, as well as a host of other asylum seekers entering Europe from north Africa, Greece, and Eastern Europe.  He highlights both the individual story and the international phenomenon facing us today.  Kingsley became the Guardian’s inaugural migration correspondent at a time when the crisis was just reaching its height.  He bears witness to the events – voicing smugglers’, politicians, and travelers’ perspectives – and offers his own insights, namely, to European leaders bent on keeping migrants out, that “by denying the existence of these real root causes [wars and dictators] you simultaneously absolve yourself from the duty of providing sanctuary to those feeling from them” (71).  “What values will there be to uphold if we abandon our duty to protect those less fortunate than ourselves?” (230).  “The choice is not between the current crisis and blissful isolation.  The choice is between the current crisis and an orderly, managed system of mass migration.  You can have one or the other.  There is no easy middle ground” (296).  Kingsley cites instances of the latter in Croatia, where citizens are willing to help refugees, having been refugees themselves in the not-so-distant past.  He rides with Hans, a wandering shepherd who voluntarily “shepherds” refugees in his car, just as good samaritans helped his Jewish parents during WWII.  It is hard not to get wrapped up in this story, but Kingsley is not a sentimentalist.  He is a reporter; distant, engaged but not invasive.  The end is cautiously hopeful.  Hashem gets his own say and the others Kingsley updates the status of others he meets.       

Mr. Either/Or by Aaron Poochigian

Take an ancient legend, warring gangs (including a septic group of misfit-zealots and an interplanetary crew), politics and two savvy agents, fashioned in epic verse, Aaron Poochigian creates his own genre.  In MR. EITHER/OR, he saves the world through poetry, with the help of a student-cum-FBI interlocutor, Zack Berzinski (aka Bob), and his “would-be wife,” Li-Ling, a PhD curator at the Met.  Or, characterized by the author: “the young man universal;/she, your trusty sherpa, showpiece/and better half” (171).  These two first force a phoenix and statue to outdo each other.  Then, they combat aliens ready to take over New York.  Not the usual content for a saga in meter, but that’s what makes it alive.  The words want to leap off the page as, in their innovative usage, they transport us to our imaginations.  We can imagine the scenes taking place on a stage.  “Chill til chance/chooses a path” (30) describes our mindset while reading.  Like Mr. Either/Or’s temporary side-kick, “a dork,” we witness heroism riding right along on a half-urban-half-fairy-tale adventure through sub-cultures and big ideas.  Poochigian tackles forces of good and evil facing us today in a jaunty, on-edge style that inspires and jars.  With Independence Day looming, I came away from this read with jazz in my ears and pride in my heart.  “No Marx for you, though.  Nope, to you this land,/like, Duh, is, was, and always must be free/from Alcatraz to Lady Liberty” (157).  book site

Scavenger Girl: The Season of Atchem, I in the Series by Jennifer Arnston

“What would he have done if his choices were unlimited?” (832).  Una wonders this about her resourceful and beloved brother Calish, but it’s also a question for herself.  At a turning point in her life, does she choose to marry to a man who’ll give her and her family security above what they ever dreamed attainable?  Or does she opt for love?  Can she have both?  Does having unlimited choices help or hinder us make the best ones?

Follow Una as she traverses her passage into Womanhood and as she discovers her hidden identity in society.  Raised by a salt-of-the-earth family who risk their lives for one another, Una resists being cared for.  While her family builds her a safety bunker to hide her from the Authority, she loves to ride the horse she names Rebel, whom she claims from another Scavenger family run off (or killed off) their land.  She loves to contribute to the family’s welfare, not to be protected to the point of captivity.  But over the course of Atchem, during which the land prepares for the dark season of Talium, mirroring her own preparations for adulthood, Una learns that she needs the help of her brothers and mother and father to navigate the brutal culture at whose fringes they exist.  Through Blue, the just-Coined man who wants to marry her, Una learns the ways of the Citizens.  So, too, we readers learn as Una does, what the gods require of their people.  We cheer for Una as she decides for herself which requirements to honor and how.  

The pleasure in this novel is in empathizing with Una.  She is both a victim and a heroine, and, so, one with whom many of us can identify.  We are sucked into her plight from page one, when, drawn by forces she can’t explain, she runs off on market day, returned to the family by strangers.  Like this unnamed force, we are compelled by Una’s waywardness and big heart.  One can also hear overtones of our American society in the Ashlund world.  The fantastical world is a safe one in which to form opinions about the real one.  To make connections between the two is another pleasure of this read.  This is the first in a series of novels following these same characters in different seasons.  book site    

Little Nothing by Marisa Silver

 

“If nothing is little then it must be something indeed” (32).  In an unnamed village (seems Eastern European), during an unnamed era (perhaps turn of twentieth century), Pavla (“Little”) starts out a dwarf but changes forms over time.  Or, perhaps she was never any one thing but all of them at once, like time, which circles in on itself, past, present and future layering until time both exists and doesn’t.  It isn’t meaningless, it isn’t nothing; it is something indeed.

Danilo assists in Pavla’s changes and loves her unquestioningly.  Cowardly, he never quite gets up the gumption to find her when she goes missing.  Instead, he follows his fellow escapee from an asylum and adopted “son,” Markus, when Markus can do nothing but find her.  What they they hope to find?  What changes have overcome Pavla?  What has time does with her?

These are the questions at the heart of this moving novel full of the fantasy that makes life more real than it could ever be on its own.  Reminiscent of two other recent novels, The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood and To Name Those Lost by Rohan Wilson, in its themes of wandering through desolate landscapes, encountering temporary associations, the relationship between animals and humans, hunter and hunted, the effect is equally brutal and tender.  At some point each character in LITTLE NOTHING does prison time, but, like a reader “trapped” by an engrossing tale, none of them allows confinement to break them.  No, imprisonment serves to strengthen Pavla and Danilo and Markus to their next challenge.  So too, this novel will embolden readers well after we’ve finished it.  Its tone is lyrical, symphonic, sweeping through various tempi and volumes, including silence, like the clipped exclamations – “She looks just like…” (32) that hang open for interpretation.  What makes this work superior is its unification: its means is its message.  The fairly simple plot (a boy searching for a girl-dwarf-…, who isn’t easily found) rendered beautifully becomes richly complex, mythical.  We are left touched by the potential that it could be our story, too.