Review of Clare Beams’ WE SHOW WHAT WE HAVE LEARNED AND OTHER STORIES


We Show What We Have Learned and Other Stories
Clare Beams. Lookout Books, $17.95 paperback (184p) ISBN: 9781940596143

            Clare Beams merges literal and historical elements with magical images in her short story collection, We Show What We Have Learned and Other Stories. Each story is distinctly different in character and topic, but the stories are tied together with the underlying theme of the mysterious effects people have on one another. Not only does Beams provide odd, spellbinding details that bring her stories to life, but she also pulls in subtle social commentary of body image, gun violence and the effects of war on soldiers and their loved ones, creating haunting illuminations by the end of each story.
            On the surface, the stories appear quaint in tone. In “Hourglass”, a young girl describes her mother telling her future headmaster, “We would just love to see Melony blossom, that’s all”, making the headmaster’s life changing, body image alterations appear harmless for the majority of the story. A man’s professional life in “World’s End” reads like a fairy tale: “He shaped land, not buildings: he was the builder of landscapes, one of the first of his kind in New York, although this was the 1880s and Olmsted had already carved out Central Park.” In “The Drop”, a woman, preparing to marry a man deeply troubled as he returns from war, ignorantly hisses, “If I have to wear it I will die” when she sees the parachute her future husband wants her to wear to the wedding. Readers have no idea the discomfort they are about to endure as the stories more forward. As I read on, I was pulled into Beams’ homey prose. She emphasizes what it truly means to be human by gearing into each character’s private moments in a completely riveting manner that creates a one-on-one feeling between character and reader.

Review of Jennifer Tseng’s THE PASSION OF WOO & ISOLDE

The Passion of Woo & Isolde
Jennifer Tseng. Rose Metal Press, $12 chapbook (52p) ISBN: 978-1-941628-09-6

I love when writers cross genres. Fiction, especially flash, becomes stronger when it borrows from poetry—the emotion in object, the power of what’s not said, and endings that change the beginning. Jennifer Tseng, Winner of the Eleventh Annual Rose Metal Short Short Chapbook Competition (judged by Amelia Gray), is an award winning poet and prose writer, and we can see how well the two genres speak to each other in The Passion of Woo & Isolde. The chapbook is full of small narratives, some that stand alone, some that build on each other, all with a keen attention to language, precision, and breadth. The book is broken up into three sections. The first—and in this reader’s opinion, the strongest—section is comprised of standalone shorts. Each has the feel of a modern day fable. A mouse has a covenant with a lion. A woman wakes to find she’s turned into an old man. Sheep live for ages surrounded by an electric fence, some occasionally testing their boundaries. But Tseng uses our prior knowledge of fables to trick us. There is rarely a moral to the story. Instead, there’s either a sharp turn or a dead end just as the conflict begins. Endings like “She had to strain her failing eyes to finally see it,” “She knew if she stood there a minute longer, her life would change completely,” and “The taste of grass,  the secret red burn, were equal to knowing they could go beyond, survive, and return,” stick with us and leave us meditating in

Review of THE BEST SMALL FICTIONS 2017

The Best Small Fictions 2017
Amy Hempel, Guest Editor; Tara L. Masih, Series Editor. Braddock Avenue Books, $13 paperback (164p) ISBN: 9780998966717

A good short-short isn’t that different from a good traditional short story. They both need strong writing, developed characters, specificity, and surprise. But the strange thing about brevity is that it adds more to a story, which can be seen in the 55 stories collected in The Best Small Fictions 2017. The third volume in the series features stories 1,000 words and under from collections and journals, both print and online. You’ll find some expected voices here like Joy Williams and Stuart Dybek. Likewise, you’ll see well-established presses featured. But you’ll mostly find emerging writers and small presses.

While the stories in the anthology are varied—fantastic and realistic, language-driven and character-driven, allegorical and domestic—each shows what can be accomplished through concision. In one paragraph, Joy Williams gives us the normal world. In the next, a disruption, then a twist. In six paragraphs, a character is changed. Larry Brown relies on object instead of exposition. Cereal and beer paint a relationship without the need for explanation. In her introduction, Guest Editor and small fiction hero Amy Hempel writes, “There is no writing toward the story in a short-short; the author must begin with the story.” Allegra Hyde’s “Syndication,” begins with “My parents are in the backyard, digging their graves.” Randall Brown opens “What a Beautiful Dream” with “My aunt had a puppet made to look like her dead daughter, Peach.” And immediately we are running alongside the narrators with no time, or need, to get settled.

Review of Grant Maierhofer’s FLAMINGOS

Flamingos
Grant Maierhofer. Itna Press, $14 paperback (188p) ISBN: 9780991219698

Grant Maierhofer’s Flamingos rings with electricity. In his iteration of what a novel should be, Maierhofer dives into the lives of his characters, revealing their inner nature. Within this story, a host of characters have been subject to therapy, rehab, and hospitalizations for various, yet unknown, reasons – this book is their journalistic musings of life in the current moment. The characters are singular, vibrant in the details we are given of their lives, and more so the inner workings of their minds and thoughts. The ambiguity of their situations transcends our view of the conventional novel; it transposes upon us a kind of diary – something so intimate and personal it shakes us, as readers, down to our very cores.
A common theme among the characters is the displeasure of integrating into society, and pressures pressed upon them. The demands from a culture that does not cater to these characters draws upon the unnerving fear of never entirely belonging: “What you might do as a young human animal is fail, or succeed. Neither matters, but both have their time and place above a slow-poured cup of gas station brittle” (45).  Nihilistic in ways, Maierhofer perpetuates the idea that everything these characters do or have done might not really matter. With undercurrents of intelligence mixed with a power-driven desire to make sense of it all, Maierhofer’s characters reflect the inner battles that plague many readers.

Review of Sara Moore Wagner’s HOOKED THROUGH

HOOKED THROUGH
Sara Moore Wagner. Five Oaks Press, $14 paperback ISBN: 9781944355258

To explain death and love to children, adults often use folklore, myths, fairy tales. In telling these stories, adults teach themselves as well. Hooked Through is a mother’s beautiful, emotional, and at times grotesque attempt to explain the suicide of a close family member to her child and herself. This short collection is full of deep, mysterious grief. Reading these poems truly makes you feel hooked, lifted, and raw.
     The collection begins with a narrative anchor in “Like a Fish”, where the speaker is in the hospital with a loved one who has recently shot himself. Suddenly the wound becomes visible behind the bandage, but the speaker must ignore this ugly reality and instead tell the nurse a story:

He hammered my mother’s
wedding ring out of a quarter,
I say, because I don’t know
what to look at. Too many
rings and hooks. Too many.

Death turns us all into fishes,
green and gasping.

Review of Deborah Wood’s AN AORTA WITH BRANCHES: A TRAVELOGUE

An Aorta with Branches: A Travelogue
Deborah Wood. Sunnyoutside Press, $12 hand-bound chapbook (32p) ISBN: 978-1-934513-56-9

In this beautifully crafted poetry chapbook, the speaker begins with an idea of a beginning, a starting over, and, early on, slips in perhaps the finest October simile this reader has ever come across: “October is like hugging in sweaters.” Readers are taken on a road trip of two companions that, given the order of the titles/locations, appears to move from California to New York. Surprising sentences populate the work, such as this line from the opening poem: “Some days I believe the world is flat, wish the day/was full of only useless things, remember I am/only a number, that flowers fall out of fashion.” And sensory treats abound like “...and all of a sudden the car/smells of onions.” There’s a recurrence of the idea that “things are happening”, internally and externally, and there’s also a spiritual frustration in which “...we cannot close the gap/between ourselves and things.”  The speaker notes that our desire for simplicity is frequently clouded by our want to complicate, sharply stating: “But the simple explanation is not always/the one we want.” This brief and dynamic work of making maps, making a new life, and moving forward is sure to delight readers while also leaving them wanting more. (March 2017)

“Terrible Things Await You” Review of Cavolo and McClanahan’s THE INCANTATIONS OF DANIEL JOHNSTON

The Incantations of Daniel Johnston
Ricardo Cavolo and Scott McClanahan. Two Dollar Radio, $17.95 paperback (132p) ISBN: 9781937512453

     The other day I saw a documentary on Darius McCollum, a man with Asperger syndrome who’s been imprisoned nineteen times for impersonating employees of the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). McCollum had no malicious intentions with these MTA impersonations, he just really, really wanted to conduct buses and trains. Since he was a kid, McCollum has been obsessed with the landscapes of rails and roads, the experience of moving from one space into the next. He’s memorized schedules and maps, “borrowed” uniforms, practiced and mastered the language of a world which, for him, is magical. For McCollum, the world of transit is so magical its wonder overshadows all threat of arrest, overpowers all self preservation.
     His mind makes this world so beautiful: channels of movement and bodies and sound wherein everyone has a place and a role and each thing is connected.
     His mind makes this world so dangerous: tunnels of darkness, desire so powerful that he repeats his mistakes—taking crazy risks—just to be part of it.