What I Read From January Through March
April 5, 2015 § Leave a comment
This is not a complete list. I did eventually finish Little Women; the weird vanity-press edition that I found in my mother’s nightstand only contained the first half of the book, so I had to pony up the ninety-nine cents to read the rest of the book on the Kindle.
I am making a resolution to read lit journals again, and started with two produced right here in my backyard of western Massachusetts.
The Common #8. The Common always impresses me with its ability to find well-written work that evokes place without seeming like it is reaching to meet that objective. It occurred to me while reading this issue how much the identity of a place is tied into its history—the rivers that cut away the earth, the pioneers and settlers who brought their customs and languages.
Sara Smarsh’s “Death of a Farm Family” is greater than a history of her family, beginning with how her grandfather, Arnie, met her grandmother, Betty, and persuaded her to move with her teenage daughter onto his wheat farm west of Wichita. It is a history of habits adjusted to meet the demands of one’s environment—such as the need to stock up on food staples when stores are far away. “By summer the air is so dry that thunderstorms are smelled before they are seen,” Smarsh writes. Then:
[Betty] learned the blowing dirt of the country summer, when teeth turn gritty in the wind and shower water turns brown between shoulders and toes. She rode the combine with Arnie, a rite of passage for any would-be farmer’s wife, and woke up the next morning with clogged sinuses. She sweated the harvest nights of midsummer, when fans blow hot air through hot bedrooms, and sleep is impossible but for the day’s exhaustion, and humor is found in shared suffering.
Smarsh writes well about the security of memories and traditions—the mosquito bites and scratches from haywire—against the readjustments that must take place within a large family after its patriarch passes. The farm is abandoned, its machines and structures and mouse-chewed linens left there.
Smarsh is five years younger than me, but her grandparents are almost the same age as my parents—in the summer of 1977 my mother was thirty-four and my father forty-four. The closer generations place the characters in Smarsh’s essay in a dynamic that feels strange to me, as when young Sara rides with Betty in a canoe hauled in a truck driven by Arnie.
Meat for Tea #7.3. This little journal appears to be an individually run operation and features a number of local voices. I recognized several of the names, including my friend Daniel Hales, who has two poems featured. Western Massachusetts makes its presence felt in much of the content, too, such as in Miles Liss’s poem “Springfield, MA,” with its opening mention of the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Some of the writing in the fiction here is a bit stretched—do we need to know that a boy’s bicycle is shiny and red? And how does a truck door “groan in agony”?
I thought Sara Rauch’s story “Swell” had an authentic Western Mass feel to it, but it is also a tender story about two lovers caught in the in-betweenness of wanting both to lock each other in place and move forward:
–Perhaps it is too soon, Alex says. Alex has dark curls and wears baggy denim cutoffs. She is secretive and familiar. A martini drinker and reciter of classical poetry.
–No, we are passionate and bold, Rose says. Rose whose family disowned her. Alex’s family drives up from the city on weekends. They sleep late and drink all day and tease Rose when she returns from the trees with twigs in her hair, her skirt full of mushrooms that might be poisonous.
Hobart #15. This issue is dedicated to the theme of hotel culture. Hotels make for a rich setting in fiction: they are where affairs happen, where business folks misbehave, where transients cross paths and regular people are afforded the opportunity to pretend to be someone they are not. You also stand a chance of running into a random celebrity—someone there as a guest, just like you. (On a recent stay in Boston, my wife and I stayed at the same hotel as a whole tour of UFC fighters, even chatting with them in the elevator at one point.) So a story like Katrin Gibb’s “As Elvis,” about a professional impersonator at an impersonators’ convention, is simultaneously exotic and realistic.
Becky Adnot-Haynes’ “Thank You for the _____” is only three and a half pages long, but probes deep into the psyches of a couple displaced (literally) by a natural force:
I watch my husband sop up red sauce with a piece of bread. He is less handsome in profile than he is straight-on, his chin weak and baggy and his nose slightly too large, with a bump in it, and I feel suddenly irritable with him. “You know,” I say, “they can hide in the spines of books.”
He swallows. “What can?”
He turns to me so that he’s straight-on, his face now the better version of itself, but I’m already mad. “You think I brought them in?” he says.
“It seems highly possible.”
Tempo Maps, Daniel Hales (Ixnay Press): I heard the author, who is a good friend, read this chapbook of poems in its entirety last year. They are arranged to be read starting at either end and working toward the middle, then starting at the other end and doing the same. Reading them slowly, one sees a curiousness emerge about ambient noise and its enchanting patterns, not only produced by nature but the incidental workings of pre-digital technologies:
The notation insists that you are an instrument in this
says here comes the mallet
now radiate like a stuck vibe
(“Minor Symphony: Score”)
finding the day
or beautiful somehow because of
fuzz from a dirty connection
moving parts’ audible hiss
It may wake us later like the printer
cleaning its heads at three a.m.
it may hum what you meant to write
on the back of your hand
the pharmacy robot garbles your name
on the answering machine
like it’s a tropical disease
These allusions are not coincidental, especially when one considers the book’s title as well as the fact that 9 of the poems are titled “Minor Symphony” with a parenthetical object of study: snow, sweep, toads, signatures. The book is paired with a CD of Hales’ music.
Swell, Corwin Ericson. I am acquainted with the author. Swell came recommended by several people close to me, and it’s unlike any book I have ever read. Set on a fictional island called Bismuth (the names here alone are eyebrow-raising—the narrator is named Orange Whippey–and the fake geography is imaginatively laid out) off the coast of New England, the novel manages to be fantastical and realistic at the same time; what struck me is how believably its eclectic cast of characters, living in such close quarters, interacted with each other: naturally unsurprised by each other’s quirks, yet frustrated at certain moments through their lack of options. There is a resignation that the geographical limitations of their homeland are something they have accepted. (The TV series Northern Exposure came to mind, even though I never really watched much of it.)
There is a plot, too, involving a scheme to erect a cell-phone network using an army of coastal whales and a narrator who is somehow tasked with locating a critical package that has gone missing. There is also an element called seagum whose valuable properties are both functional and orgasmic, making it high in demand and the object of underhanded maneuvering. With all of these stretched objectives, the middle is ballasted with a hefty amount of explaining, which the narrator’s jokey manner of reacting to challenge offsets.
The Gardner Heist, Ulrich Boser. I was 14 years old when, early in the morning of March 18, 1990, two thieves dressed as policemen entered the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston, tied up two guards, and made off with thirteen priceless works of art, including Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee and Vermeer’s The Concert and five sketches by Degas. Twenty-five years later, despite numerous leads and a $5,000 reward, the works have never been found. The empty frames of the Rembrandt and Vermeer still hang in the museum’s Dutch Room.
Boser profiles the detective charged with investigating the case, Harold Smith, an eccentric who, in true noir style, wears a false nose and an eyepatch due to disfigurement from skin cancer. When Smith dies in 2005, Boser is given Smith’s notes, as well as blessings from the investigator’s family to take over the case. Among the suspects he approaches are small-time crooks and infamous members of Boston’s criminal underworld—Myles Connor and William Youngworth and David Turner, among others–all of whom bask in the journalist’s attentions as well as the whiff of a reward. They drop enough pearls in front of Boser for him to keep listening to them and continue his cat-and-mouse enterprise until it ropes in the Boston Irish Mafia and its most famous member, mastermind Whitey Bulger (captured in 2011, convicted on charges of racketeering, extortion, and accessory to murder in 2013).
Since the publication of the book in 2009, investigators now believe they “know the identities of the thieves and could trace the art from Boston to Connecticut and Philadelphia,” but have not released the names of the suspected thieves, nor have they indicated knowledge of the current whereabouts of the art.
How to Catch a Coyote, Christy Crutchfield. Another local author. This novel from Publishing Genius Press is an honest and spare book about a family sundered by tragedy. You cannot write honestly about family without getting into its dark closets, its secrets poorly kept, its slights and grudges and stretches of forgiveness, and the author achieves this through a careful manipulation of her characters and what she chooses to reveal about them.
Reading How to Catch a Coyote is like viewing an album of photographs spilled out of order. Events cover a span of thirty years: a chapter set in 1978 is followed by one set in 2005, then one in 1997. We also jump around from one character and viewpoint to another—though one character, Daniel, provides its moral center, and the act that happened to his older sister, wayward Dakota, is the fissure that sets the family to ruin.
Nature is presented as an unforgiving force against which humans struggle to behave. Coyotes threaten the neighborhood, including the woods behind the Walkers’ home. At the encouragement of a friend, Daniel’s father—named Hill Walker, a name that evokes a laboring against the obstacles of nature—sets traps to try to catch and kill them. The animals’ presence is a constant against the flux in which the family finds itself, which explains why, at the beginning of the book, Daniel attempts to write a family history for a class and titles it The Encyclopedia of Coyotes—a work from which we are treated to excerpts throughout How to Catch a Coyote.
This is an earthy and sensitive book that gives voice to the quiet human struggle. I am impressed with Crutchfield’s ability to allow Daniel’s and Dakota’s characters to become polished with maturity as the age but remain consistent in personality. And I think the soul of the book lies in the interaction between the two siblings:
“Where do you go at night?” Daniel asked Dakota.
She prepped him for when she would leave for good, told him to picture a bigger room. She asked him to choose a parent, but he never could.
The moon was a bitten-off fingernail the night before he left, when she let Daniel sit on the roof with her, when they could touch the telephone wires but he promised he wouldn’t. She let him tap on her cigarette pack before she smoked.
Rufus had been gone for an entire day, and they were sure he’d been eaten.
It was the night Daniel trapped a moth in his hands and she punched him hard in the shoulder until he let it go.
It was the night Dakota said, “Promise me something, Daniel. Promise me your first kiss will be someone with dark hair and dark skin. Promise me she’ll look nothing like you.”
It was the night he finally said, “I think I’d pick Dad,” because his mom was yelling all the time back then.
This wasn’t the right answer, and he’d had to struggle back into the window by himself.
After Dakota left, Daniel poked the bruise on his shoulder every day until it didn’t hurt anymore. Rufus came back two days later. No signs of hunger, no signs of struggle.
Selected Stories of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. I read this book as part of a course on 19th-century American Realist and Naturalist Fiction. It introduced me to a number of authors I still check back on—William Dean Howells, Stephen Crane. I’m not sure what inclined me to keep it, or to check out the stories again when I haven’t read them in twenty years.
A lot of the stories begin with descriptions of the landscape or the weather:
A damp air was blowing up, and the frogs were beginning to peep. The sun was setting in a low red sky. On both sides of the road were rich green meadows intersected by little canal-like brooks. Beyond the meadows on the west was a distant stretch of pine woods, that showed dark against the clear sky. Aurelia Flower was going along the road towards her home, with a great sheaf of leaves and flowers in her arms. (“A Gatherer of Simples”)
The New England ethic in Freeman’s work is strong—characters live in villages and attend church, and pride of self-reliance is both a virtue and a complicating motive:
Harriet’s face brightened. “Thank ye, Mis’ Simonds,” she said, with reluctant courtesy. “I’m much obleeged to you an’ the neighbors. I think mebbe we’ll be able to eat some of them doughnuts if they air tough,” she added, mollifyingly, as he called turned down the foot-path.
“My, Harriet,” said Charlotte, lifting up a weakly, wondering, peaked old face, “what did you tell her them doughnuts was tough fur?”
“Charlotte, do you want everybody to look down on us, an’ think we ain’t no account at all, just like any beggars, ‘cause they bring us in vittles?” said Harriet, with a grim glance at her sister’s meek, unconscious face.
“No, Harriet,” she whispered.
“Do you want to go to the poor-house?”
“No, Harriet.” The poor little old woman on the doorstep fairly cowered before her aggressive old sister. (“A Mistaken Charity”)