Favorite New Fiction
from Small and Micro Publishers

Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness

Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness

It’s rare for my attention to linger on the cover of a book I’m about to read, but it certainly did when I picked up Jennifer Tseng’s poetic, richly imagined début novel Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness. The cover features an overhead shot of a pale woman in a fuschia dress lying, arms outstretched, on a rippling blue-green sea. Though this might be the sea of happiness, the image suggests a more complicated truth. Underlying the tranquility and sensuality of the scene is a sense of isolation, even peril—seemingly contradictory threads that this novel, like its cover, weaves together deftly and powerfully.

The Mayumi of the title is a forty-something librarian who inhabits a tourist-attracting island off the coast of New England (think Martha’s Vineyard) with her beloved five-year-old daughter and her not-so-beloved husband. Though kind and decent, he no longer interests Mayumi erotically or otherwise. They share little more than affection for their daughter and a ramshackle house, where they sleep in separate beds.

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Swarm to Glory

Swarm to Glory

Last fall, after posting “Women: please send me your fiction,”  I received a number of excellent books by women authors and their publishers. A dear friend and fellow writer who’d seen the post handed me Garnett Kilberg Cohen’s collection Swarm to Glory, and I am deeply grateful that she did. The book contains those rare kinds of stories that pulled me completely out of myself and into the lives of the characters—seemingly everyday lives in which, in the words of my friend, complexities and dangers lurk under the surface.

The stories in the collection are united by a concern with endings, which range from the deaths of loved ones to the withering of romantic relationships. In an interview with Newcity Lit, Cohen said, “In the face of such endings, my characters often must decide whether they will be ruled by these endings, or whether, in spite of the ephemeral nature of all things, they will ‘swarm to glory.’”

In the title story, the central character, Ellen, finds glory through nature—in this case, through a swarm of bees that has settled into a tree at the foster home where she has been living since her mother became seriously ill. Ellen is living a life of alienation, not only because she is apart from her mother but also because she is the only Jew in the foster home, which causes her to be disparaged by certain members of the community, especially by congregants of the Christian mega-church she’s now compelled to attend. When Ellen observes the cluster of bees, that sense of alienation lifts, and she reconnects to her mother, who “loved nature and educational activities.”

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Carry the Sky

Carry the Sky

Back in December, in a post about grieving during the holidays, I mentioned some new works of fiction (all from small presses) that deal in some way with loss. I am pleased to finally be writing about one of them, Kate Gray’s profound and poetic début novel, Carry the Sky.

The novel alternates between the stories of two young teachers at St. Timothy’s, a fictional Delaware boarding school established “for farm boys to learn Chaucer, to learn rowing, to learn ways of tending corn.” One of the teachers is Taylor Alta, who at the beginning of the book, in the fall of 1983, is just starting her job as an instructor of English and geography and as coach of the girls’ rowing team. The other is Jack Song, a more seasoned (and, consequently, more disaffected) teacher who nevertheless remains committed to sharing his passion for physics with St. Tim’s students.

Uniting the stories of Taylor and Song is sorrow over the deaths of loved ones: Song has recently lost his sister, Kim, to a blood disease; Taylor’s wounds are fresher: almost as soon as she arrives at St. Timothy’s she learns that a fellow rower from college—her first and greatest love, Sarah—has drowned in the Schuylkill River while coaching rowers at a Philadelphia boarding school. Gray’s writing about grieving is powerful not only because of the beauty of her language but also because of the intensely physical nature of it. As Taylor takes up her coaching duties at St. Tim’s, every part of her surroundings seems haunted by Sarah:

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Ghost Horse

Ghost Horse

One of my reviewing regrets of late is my delay in highly recommending Thomas H. McNeely’s powerful and moving coming-of-age novel Ghost Horse (winner of the Gival Press Novel Award).

The setting is mid-seventies Houston, and the central character is Buddy Turner, who at the start of the novel is leaving Queen of Peace, a largely Latino school in one part of the city, for an all-white school in another. The schools seem worlds apart given the racial divide between them, and in the city at large. We sense this divide from the very beginning of the novel, when Buddy and his good friend Alex Torres make their way from Buddy’s last day at Queen of Peace to Alex’s home.

In bare-dirt yards along the bayou, dogs bark, pulling at ropes and chains; and Alex seems to fade, to disappear. Both of them, Alex and Buddy, have heard the story that the dogs’ owners teach them to bite Mexicans, a story that they know probably isn’t true; and yet, Buddy can’t help but feel glad that he himself will be safe; and as soon as he thinks this, he’s ashamed.

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The Farm at the Heart of My Stories

I’m getting back up to speed with my small-press reading, and I’ll be posting more reviews shortly. In the meantime, in honor of my dear mother, Barbara Castrodale (1928-2015), I thought I would share this essay about a place central to both of our lives.

 The farm in Washington County, Pennsylvania, where my mother grew up, is the setting for much of my second novel, Marion Hatley. It was also the setting of a novel I attempted in my twenties, a work now (justifiably) moldering in my cellar. And it has made cameo appearances in a couple of my short stories.

It was—is—a small farm, taking up just 130 hilly acres of southwestern Pennsylvania. The home at its center is likewise modest.

“I can say that it was not the most comfortable place,” my mother wrote in her memoirs. “It was a frame house with eight rooms, one bath, and front and back porches. There was a basement, which had a floor that was partially dirt. There was no insulation in the walls [until] I was in high school (around 1944 or 1945). … As a child, I can remember getting out of bed in winter, hurrying down the stairs to the living room, and getting in front of the fireplace, the only one in the house, to dress. The windows would be covered with frost so that you could not see out.”

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Hiatus

Dear Readers,

I’m going to be taking a bit of a break from Small Press Picks to deal with some personal issues (mainly, the loss of two parents in four months’ time) and to try to get a new novel of mine out into the world. I am looking forward to getting back into the reviewing saddle in the spring, and I hope you’ll tune back in then.

Thanks,

Beth Castrodale

Editor, Small Press Picks

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Interview with Pamela DiFrancesco, author of The Devils That Have Come to Stay

Interview with Pamela DiFrancesco, author of The Devils That Have Come to Stay

In her starkly beautiful, poetic novel The Devils That Have Come to Stay (to be published by Medallion Press in February), Pamela DiFrancesco takes us into a dark and violent world that only gets darker with each turn of the pages. The novel brings us to California in the midst of the Gold Rush, and into the life of a saloon keeper whose wife has taken leave of him to care for her desperately ill mother in a town to the north.

Early in the novel, the saloon keeper (also the narrator) crosses paths with a Me-Wuk Indian, who’d vanished from the bar after stealing gold from another customer. When the narrator discovers the Indian scattering this gold, leaving a trail of white feathers, the Indian explains that he is only returning to the earth what has been “stolen” from it. “Perhaps if I can make it back to where the gold came from,” he explains, “my bag will empty, and the last feather will fall.” The place he has come from is close to where the narrator’s wife is caring for her mother, so the narrator decides to set off with the Indian. In the interest of not giving too much away, all I’ll say is that their journey is dark indeed, bringing the two men (and readers) in contact with the large-scale slaughter and the environmental, and spiritual, degradation that marked whites’ settlement of the West.

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