We Were Witches by Ariel Gore

Ariel Gore’s action doesn’t rise like a narrative penis.  Because she doesn’t have one.  Her book reads like a vagina, like a book, both “potential space.”  No space at all until filled.  She fills her pages with her own story of single teenage motherhood, on welfare, going to school, with her own versions of fairy tales, with spells and the words of witches, that is, her fairy godmothers lighting her path with ceramic frogs and other charms.  She doesn’t culminate in a climax; she becomes herself.  She takes up the space and shape of herself.

It’s a novel and a memoir.  She integrates everything: “the holes we didn’t dig,” and all the creative (and destructive) ways we get out of them.  It is not a manifesto.  She’s not telling women how to be or what to do.  It’s empowering in precisely that way.  It makes me want to go out and resist ways I’ve been held down, to intend (not just want) to conform only to my own dreams and aspirations.  Ariel Gore grabs readers not by forcing us up to look up to an arc lording over us like an ideal, but by compelling us down into the process of her own truth-telling and metaphor-making.  I read the book in two sitting because I couldn’t put it down. I’ll come back to it again and again for the reading list in the back and the advice she gives herself: Light a candle.  Sit with it until it burns down.  “And as you watch the flame, picture yourself calm, self-preserving, and factual” (248).

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The Keeper of Dreams: Vol II by Matthew Keefer

In Matt Keefer’s second volume of short stories and poems, we join characters at crossroads.  In “A House Burning,” we ask, what do we keep?  What do we lose?  At the gates of heaven (or hell), in “Mercy,” what do we want to remember?  At a crime scene, in “A Typical Call,” whom do we deem the suspect and the victim?  Are the policemen the potential criminals?  In “The Prisoner,” are we prisoners in our own dreams or perpetrators of justice?  Can we write ourselves out of an ill-fated world in “A Student in Her Study”?  Who can save us from our hallucinations in “Time Stops For”?  And in “The Research,” can we create our own reality?  Is science a dead end?  Is there freedom if we’ve discovered the secrets of the universe in “When 6 was Nine”?  Is terror the flip side of love in “Terror”?  Three poems between stories pinpoint the beauty of not knowing, the singleness of wonder in the midst of multiple dimensions.   

We readers have no choice but to identify with Keefer’s characters; he sets us in medias res, watching house fires and warehouses being built.  We’re trapped in a desert outside “The Institution” with no idea how we got there.  There’s no backstory.  The only thing to do is proceed without a plan.  The overall effect of is confusion, chaos, illusion, tension.  The characters are not so much developed as they are palpable; we are lost with them in the moment, in the absurdity.  “‘Why do you want to get in there?’… ‘I don’t know’… ‘What don’t you know?’… I’m not sure,’” (47).  Yet, there are conclusions.  They’re implied and forthcoming, such as in the last story, “Terror,” which ends: “‘Hector… did you know that… that I…’” (166).  We can guess what this lover is trying to say but she doesn’t say it.  The pleasure is in the suspended satisfaction!  author site

Drifting, Falling: Diary of a Call Girl Suicide by A.J. Ullman

Death as a performance has been done many times.  But a story about a call girl planning her own “perfect suicide” set alongside the story of her therapist is new to me.  Ullman’s characters are tragic heroes in the classic sense of the word, but remain original nonetheless.  Although the main character, the narrator of this journal-story, Ripley Astilla Luna, identifies with Greek myths, giving herself nicknames like Cassandra and Medea, and finding ways her life mirrors stories of the gods, she doesn’t aspire to become a legend.  She just wants to be among the stars.  She wants to feel weightless.  She wants to be an astronaut. Only, she never got the chance.  Instead, she becomes a criminal sentenced to therapy after jail, who happens to take hefty “donations” for her escort service.  Her therapist, Dan Truscott, is not blind to her wiles.  He’s fascinated by her story and her face even before he meets her.  He wants to know more about her, and, as he finds out, he also finds he wants her.  Will he be able to help her?  

Getting to know someone, even a character, makes hearing about their death all the more difficult.  Why does Ullman tell us about it?  Is it masochism?  Is it voyeurism?  No, once a lawyer and now a nurse practitioner with experience in mental health, he cares about people.  I believe he’s telling us so we know; so we don’t close our eyes; so we might see beauty where the world only sees despair; and so that Ripley will live on in his words.  She’s not lost forever.  He captures well the voice of a twenty one year old woman as well as that of a forty year old man with references to movies and music, history and science that set them in a context most to which most readers can relate.  It’s not a happy tale, but it’s not all sad, either.  It’s insightful and dark as well as light-filled and probing.  You won’t come away unscathed.

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Girl with the Empty Suitcase by Krysta MacDonald

“Nothing symbolizes discontent like an empty suitcase.  Or perhaps an undeveloped roll of film” (85).  Armed with both, Danielle can make her getaway, away from Mark, her husband, and into her art.  The suitcase may be empty, the film may not become pictures, but they are far from void.  Instead, they are full of intangibles: Danielle’s expectations and regrets, her hopes, fears and her vision for something better, something more.  These symbols are her power.  This isn’t just her story, however.  Krysta MacDonald tells two first person narratives.  Danielle and Mark alternate telling their tale over the course of forty years, from childhood, before they meet, to old age, after one of them has passed.  Together and separately, they grapple to balance life goals, career, family expectations and affection.  It is not a particularly colorful tale; rather, it is muted and understated.  The sentences are short.  The characters struggle to find words for their feelings; they come out sideways.  Far from a fairy-tale romance, this book still conveys a heroic and enduring love.  I was inspired by this down-to-earth, relate-able couple and MacDonald’s care for them.      author site

The Mountain: Stories by Paul Yoon

A satchel, a missing limb, morphine, a camera, a motel, an explosion, a motorbike, a piano, a mountain.  Paul Yoon’ s characters wander through the detritus of their lives like explorers gathering bits from their pasts, building a future, or, at least occupying the present.  In the first story, a boy is orphaned when his, mother, a volunteer at a French mountaintop sanatorium, overdoses on morphine and his dad leaves him.  In the second story, an itinerant worker takes a risky job which leaves him handicapped and at the mercy of an unstable nurse.  In the third story, Antje and Matias work side by side at a Spanish hotel, married but strangers to each other.  A train worker discovers an old friend who stays briefly with him in Vladivostok Station.  A woman returns home to China from Korea to work in a factory in the fifth story.  Lastly, a father and daughter travel together in England, keeping alive their family’s fragile love.  Yoon writes in clipped sentences with few adjectives.  The emotion comes from juxtapositions.  “I tried calling her back but she didn’t answer.  I wished I had cleaner clothes” (223).  Sadness is palpable, there, in the what isn’t said. Yoon doesn’t spoon feed us drama but instead lifts up just the right details to elicit a response.  The result is a sheer, immediate connection to a set of characters at the edge of disaster.   

The Living Infinite by Chantel Acevedo

The first name of its kind in Spanish royal history, Eulalia, means “well spoken.”  She is a prism of similar cultural and political “originals” swirling around her in the late 1800s.  Napoleon, the Cuban revolution, the Carlist revolt, electricity, feminism, Jules Verne’s literary wonders: Eulalia, Infanta of Spain, empathizes with all these forces working against her monarchy, yet, cannot deny her place in it.  In this work of historical fiction, Chantel Acevedo imagines Eulalia’s attempt to publish her outspoken memoir with the help of her milk brother, Tomas, the son of her wet nurse, or nodriza, Amalie.  Tomas, “rugged and large as America itself” (229), a writer and Verne devotee himself, accompanies Eulalia as secretary and friend to Cuba, New York and Chicago, where her work might be appreciated.  Together, they explore “the living infinite,” Verne’s metaphor for the sea, but which also captures the breadth and depth of the heart.  Will it call them to change or to endure what they can’t change – or both?

Through gem-like clarity and sparkle, Acevedo gives readers a glimpse into the past, as well as an opportunity to persuade the future.  My favorite line is “this army of ladies [attending the princess]… were gossipy, loud, well-dressed young women, and they were everywhere, skittering about the palace like an invasion of sugar ants” (87).  At ease describing both the upper echelons and in farming communities like Amalie’s, Acevedo places readers between worlds, in a place like Eulalia’s, on the cusp of a new era, requiring effort and valor to cross.  What will it take for us to take the step into the frontier?  Whom do we admire and follow?  What is our perspective on this current Cuban independence and resistance?  Acevedo does not purport to being a historian.  Her project is bigger than that; in the imaginative world she creates, history can re-write itself, can take root differently in us.  Her perspective is entertaining and insightful – a dynamic duo.  Published by Europa Editions, September 2017

Ferment by Chris Minnick

Ferment is a verb not a noun.  This is about a process, not a product.  The story begins as two strands, one from the past and one in the present.  In the past, Mike helps out at the circus, little brother to a beloved clown and taken in by the party-animal dwarfs.  In the present he’s a recently unemployed heavy drinker chased by Rita and her gang.  These two threads come together like sugar and yeast, bubbling and reacting and reaching a point of either scrumptiousness or waste, depending on your tastes.  Either way, you’ll enjoy the dramatic progression.  Minnick writes with a simplicity and sparsity ironically befitting the big ideas behind his words.  He may be describing circus antics but when is the circus ever just the circus?  It’s a metaphor, an alternative universe that allows us to escape our normal routine.  But it also comments on that normal routine, and perhaps we need a stiff drink, or several, to hear what it has to say to us.  What do drinks and the circus have in common?  They’re both fermented.  They both transport us to where we’re more ourselves than we ever thought we could be.  Let Chris Minnick take you there.  He’s a great bartender, and ringleader, even though he’s never been to the circus!     author site