An oft-repeated criticism of small towns is that too many residents have an unsavory and insatiable interest in the lives of their neighbors, an interest that no amount of acreage—geographical, emotional, or social—can discourage. One of the many strengths of Jodi Paloni’s début story collection, They Could Live with Themselves, is how it acknowledges a corollary truth: the impossibility of fully understanding the experiences or realities of others—sometimes, even those with whom we share a roof. By immersing us in the lives of residents of one fictional community, Paloni honors, with great compassion and insight, both private realities and the ways in which individuals do—or don’t—connect with others.
Favorite New Fiction
from Small and Micro Publishers
If you’ve read more than a few of my postings on Small Press Picks, you might have noticed that I’m a big fan of the short story, and I’m always eager to check out new collections from small/indie publishers. Recently, I read Margaret Malone’s début story collection, People Like You, and I can’t say enough how much I enjoyed this hilarious, wonderfully strange, and occasionally heartbreaking book.
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.”
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:
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.
Who among you remembers those golden days when a middling high school student—a kid with respectable grades but with ACT scores in the toilet, with daydreaming making up a solid sixty percent of her extracurricular activities—could get accepted into the only university she applied to? One offering affordable, in-state tuition?
“If you can make it through high school and still fog a mirror, Bob’s your uncle.”
I can’t recall who shared that observation about the admissions process, but I can tell you that the listener, the middling high school student, was me. I can also tell you that in the decades since I heard those words, I’ve reflected many times on how lucky I was—not just to have gotten into college but to have done so without having to toil through the emotionally fraught college-prep boot camp that the K-through-12 years have become for many students. Years in which—for far too many youngsters—daydreaming is seen as a weakness at best, as a character flaw at worst.
In her insightful, moving, and incredibly funny new novel, Gifted and Talented, Julia Watts takes us into the heart of what can be the most unsparing of educational boot camps: classes for gifted students—in this case, an honors class at a fictional magnet school, Fairmont Elementary, in Knoxville, Tennessee. At the center of the novel are Crispin, newly enrolled in Fairmont and its third-grade gifted class, and Crispin’s parents, Rachel and Ethan.