The central characters in The Expense of a View, Polly Buckingham’s dark and sometimes surreal story collection, face the kinds of suffering that many of us, if we aren’t experiencing them ourselves, would rather turn away from: grief over the loss of a loved one, drug addiction, domestic violence, parental abandonment, mental illness, poverty. Buckingham’s stories immersed me so deeply in these characters’ mental, physical, and emotional states that the barriers between their worlds and mine seemed to dissolve, giving me insights into experiences I might otherwise feel—or seek—distance from.
Favorite New Fiction
from Small and Micro Publishers
Looking to the past
Jeff Fearnside’s début story collection, Making Love While Levitating Three Feet in the Air, is rich in so many ways: in its deep explorations of diverse lives and experiences; in its immersion in place, which often becomes a character itself; in the subtle surprises of several tales—surprises that, retrospectively, feel completely earned and natural.
But one of my favorite aspects of the book is the way it explores the solo mission—certain characters’ efforts to find their way, largely alone, through difficult periods or situations in their lives.
A creekside cabin in summertime: it seems like the setting for a peaceful family gathering, unless the family is the one that Jen Michalski brings together in her moving and deftly crafted novel The Summer She Was Under Water. Its members include a physically and emotionally abusive father who is struggling with mental illness; a kind yet conflict-averse mother who has tried to look past the years of damage her husband has done; and two adult children—a long-estranged sister and brother—who share memories of their father’s abuse and of a taboo bond they formed in the wake of it.
The gathering at the family’s cabin threatens to be uncomfortable at best, explosive at worst. But because Michalski gets to the heart of the characters and their conflicts with such care and feeling, she offers more than a strife-laden drama. Instead, her novel is a complex exploration of family dysfunction, one that holds out a measure of hope.
Too often, recreational travel, even to the most interesting and exotic places, has the feeling of skimming across surfaces. As we move from notable site to notable site, we are sometimes dazzled. More often, though, we are dazzle-proofed by preformed expectations (think Walker Percy’s “The Loss of the Creature”).
Our outsiderdom also keeps us at a distance. As we observe the locals and even other tourists, we may get the sense that intriguing stories are being played out all around us, but with rare exceptions, we are never immersed in them.
The great gift of Lee A. Jacobus’s new story collection, Hawaiian Tales: The Girl with Heavenly Eyes, is how deeply and richly it immerses us in the predicaments of its characters, from Hawaiian natives to tourists, and in the psychological and physical landscapes of their lives. Reading it, I truly felt transported.
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: