Tag Archives: Literary Fiction

The Angel of Rome by Jess Walter

book cover

I suppose every person, at some point, tries to break free from the identity you are assigned as a kid, from the person your parents and friends see, from your own limitations and insecurities. To create your own story.Angel of Rome

First sex is like being in a stranger’s kitchen, trying all the drawers, looking for a spoon.Famous Actor

You know that guy in the second Indiana Jones movie, The Temple of Doom, the Thuggee priest Mola Ram? Questionable taste in haberdashery, but possessed of a special power. He could reach his hand directly into a person’s torso, secure a grip on the heart, and rip it directly out of the body, not a procedure certified by the AMA. While I expect Jess Walter has better taste in hats, he is possessed of a similar power. Of course, when he rips out your heart, you won’t, unlike Mola Ram’s victims, actually die. You will get your heart back. But you will feel deeply, sometimes painfully, and the experience will stay with you.

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The author? No. Heartbreaker Mola Ram doing his thing in The Temple of Doom – but clearly a relation – image from Swarajya

It has been nine years since Jess Walter’s last short story collection, We Live in Water, but he has continued to write them, publishing in a variety of journals and other outlets. When it was time, he looked through the fifty or so he had written since his last collection and managed to cull that down to a dozen, well, fourteen, but his editor made him cut two more. (Boooo! So mean of her!)

like many novelists, Walter got his start in fiction writing by crafting short stories and selling them wherever he could – Harper’s, Esquire, McSweeney’s, ESPN the Magazine. Despite his success as a novelist, he still loves writing short stories. After all, he said, they’re no more difficult to write than novels, “they’re just shorter,” he said.> – from the Spokesman Review print interview

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Jess Walter – benign twin of Mola Ram? – image from The Spokesman-Review – shot by Colin Mulvany

Just for the record, Jess Walter is one of the best writers working today, and this collection is a fine representation of a master at the pinnacle of his power. His work is engaging, powerful, moving, literary, and often LOL-funny.

There are several motifs that repeat through multiple stories but the overall theme here is hope. While there are no overt feathers floating about in the stories, still, there is a comforter’s worth of downy literary substance in the air. Faced with challenging circumstances, many of the lead characters find a way to a hopeful place.

It sorta surprised me because I think of myself as someone who likes to plumb darkness, but I kept coming across dark situations that led to moments of hope, and moments of connection between characters that I found surprising. I look back on those years, from 2013 to now [2022], losing a close friend, having my father suffer from dementia, and I can see different themes. A mother passing away from cancer and cancer always works its way…and I can see these themes that in almost all the stories that I ended up choosing, there was a surprising figure. Like Mr. Voice in the first story. And I think I was finding that I was finding such connection in my family and in my friends, even during a hard several years, personally and politically for a lot of people, I think I was looking for those places where you felt some refuge. – from the Spokesman Review print interview

A subset of this is characters, particularly young ones, coming to define themselves, to mold themselves into the people they want to be, rather than simply accepting the pre-fab path that has been laid out for them.

I suppose every person, at some point, tries to break free from the identity you are assigned as a kid, from the person your parents and friends see, from your own limitations and insecurities. To create your own story. – The Angel of Rome

In To the Corner, one youngster seems to find a way forward, out of the despair that permeates the place where he has been growing up. Before You Blow centers on a young woman who finds an unexpected career option in her future, In Fran’s Friend Has Cancer, a character wonders just how much of their life it is possible to control.

Place is important to Walter

Growing up, the geography of New York was imprinted on me in the literature that I read, especially “Catcher in the Rye.” I’ve always wanted to do that for the city I live in. I think as writers, we mythologize these places where we don’t live. And I love creating a kind of mythology of Eastern Washington. It’s one of my favorite things when people from other cities come to Spokane because they want to visit places from the books. I also just love it there. It’s an incredibly rich place to write and set literature. I can still see Holden Caulfield’s Times Square, and I want readers to be able to see my Spokane that way. – from the Seattle Times interview

More than half the stories are set in Spokane, with one in Boise and another in Bend, Oregon. Three travel farther afield, with one each in Manhattan, Rome, and Mississippi.

Fame
There are several famous characters in the collection. Mr Voice is a household name in Spokane for his voice-over work there. The Famous Actor is both impressed by his own fame, and massively insecure. One of the characters in Before You Blow is destined for fame, of a sort. The Angel of Rome features two stars, an Italian actress and an American TV actor. Walter manages to give them all personalities, for good or ill (mostly good).

Angels
Maybe not the magical sort, but no less benevolent. Mr Voice turns out to be so much more than meets the eye. An American actor in Rome takes a shaky American scholar under his wing. An old friend comes to the rescue of a woman in great need. An old man turns his despair into a pointed generosity.

Teens
Most of the stories focus on characters in their teens and twenties, some adding a POV from the character looking back decades later. A couple focus on older people

Thematic threads, and literary gifts are of no matter if the characters do not gain and hold our interest. Thankfully writing characters you can relate to is yet another tool in his shed. Jess Walter can be counted on to write tales that are both image-rich and accessible. But he also gives us relatable characters, heart-rending tales, great twists, and a comedy-club-night-out worth of raucous laughter. You will be charmed, moved, and very satisfied. A triumph of a collection, The Angel of Rome, I am sure even Kali would agree, is simply heaven-sent.

“I guess it seems to me”—Jeremiah pauses, choosing his words carefully—“that you shouldn’t give up hope until you’ve done everything you can.”

Review posted – July 15, 2022

Publication date – June 28, 2022

======================================THE STORIES

Story 1 – Mr. Voice
Tanya’s father has been out of the picture forever. Mom eliminated boyfriends like they were murder suspects. A looker, she was never short on male attention. But at some point you make a choice and hope for a life. Mom chose Mr. Voice, older, a voice-over performer well known in Spokane. Tanya looks back from forty-nine on her years with her Mom and stepfather from when she was nine into her teens. An intensely moving tale of parental sorts connecting, or failing, and lessons to be learned about relationships, with a gut-punch finale.

Story 2 – Fran’s Friend Has Cancer
On aging, lives being reduced to feeling-free stories
Sheila and Max, an older couple, are having lunch before a Broadway matinee when they notice something strange.

In that story there’s somebody doing what I used to do when I wanted to learn how to write dialogue, sitting in a restaurant, recording the way people speak. I really just wanted to get patterns of speech down. And I started thinking about the…kind of arrogance of that, and…just what sort of flawed thinking it is that just by overhearing a conversation you could create a whole human being. – from the Spokesman Review video interview

…most meta story in the collection. There are all these different parts of the process of writing, and sometimes you feel this ideal, like you’ve created life. And then other times it seems like they’re alive, but they’re only 3 inches tall and they can only do one thing. I was sort of just playing with that idea. – from the Seattle Times interview

Max confronts the writer and finds a whole other layer of concern.

Story 3 – Magnificent Desolation
Jacob is a 12-yo with an attitude problem. His constant smirk accompanies his constant challenging of career science teacher Edward Wells over basic scientific truths with “We don’t believe in that.” When Wells has had enough he e-mails Jacob’s parents. What to do when he is instantly smitten with Jacob’s mother? There are wonderful references here to two contributions to the world by Buzz Aldrin.

Story 4 – Drafting
Myra is 24, way too young to have cancer, to be facing the possibility of an early reaper. Needing a way back to living, she gets in touch with an ex, someone who provided her a highlight film of her emotional life. Beautiful, moving ending.

…so Myra told the carpenter’s wife how, during radiation, there was a moment when she thought it might be okay to die. “In fact, it was like I was already gone—like I was looking back at my life. And I could see the whole thing laid out, like, I don’t know, a straight line. You’re a kid. You go to school. And you see where the line is supposed to go: boyfriend, job, husband, baby, whatever. But when I looked at the line…the only parts that really meant anything to me were the jagged parts…the parts that everyone else saw as mistakes.

Story 5 – The Angel of Rome
is a coming of age story that very much reminded me of the amazing film, My Favorite Year. It is the longest story in the book, more of a novella really, at 65 pages. Nebraska twenty-one-year-old, Jack Rigel, has somehow signed up for a Latin class being taught at the Vatican. He is, of course, in way over his head. About to pack it in and return home he stumbles across a magical scene.

It was like looking into another world, the room so bright as to seem luminescent, like a religious painting, the sparkle of bejeweled patrons, swirl of silverware and wineglasses, gleaming white-shirted waiters carrying trays of rich food, every table filled with beautiful people. They laughed and gestured and smiled like movie stars.
It was as if some kind of dream has been constructed on the other side of this glass. And then I had the simplest realization: I have always been on the outside.

But what if you are invited in? An American TV star, believing Jack is fluent in Italian, and wanting to say something to a woman on his film, hires Jack as his interpreter. This is a hilarious, heart-warming tale that really, really deserves to be made into a film. It began as an audio original, and is the only story in the collection to have a collaborator. Walter had worked with actor Eduardo Ballerini before. Ballerini had read other Walter works for audio books. The paired work, a rare, maybe singular event on Walter’s career, turned out to be hugely satisfying. Walter’s love letter to Rome, this is one of the most fun stories I have ever read, LOLing throughout. You will be charmed, una dolce favola.

Story 6 – Before You Blow
Jeans is seventeen, a high school senior, waitressing in a local Italian restaurant. Joey is 22, works the pizza over Friday and Saturday. There will be flirting and more as Jeans is deciding whether to give this guy her V-chip. There are issues with Joey, but he is pre-law, from a long line of lawyers, which impresses her parents no end.

Your older brother Mike wanted to be a motorcycle cop; that’s what passed for ambition in your family. It was the first time you really thought about a career having anything to do with your station in life. Before, you always thought of careers as simple job descriptions, like figurines in an old PlaySkool town. This one’s a fireman. That one’s a teacher. It didn’t occur to you that a certain profession might make you a more important person, a better human being.

But there are some concerns. Maybe he’s a catch, maybe not. All it takes is a high-stress situation to put it to the test.

In the video interview linked in EXTRA STUFF, Walter reads this story, beginning at about 25:00. It is delicious.

Story 7 – Town and Country
Jay’s father is losing his grip, memory becoming increasingly dodgy, wandering off, mostly to bars. He has not lost his appetite for booze, cigarettes and women. When it becomes too much Jay looks into residential care facilities for him, most of which suck. But then he learns about a very special place, Town & Country, which is both an original kind of care place for a declining population in need of the comfort of an imagined familiarity and a powerful metaphor for a larger senescence.

He wouldn’t know an email from an emu. But this is what happened with him now—he would hear some phrase on TV (Hillary’s emails, slut shaming, Make America Great Again) and it would rattle around in his brain until it became real.

Story 8 – Cross the Woods
Maggie, a single mom, was in a relationship with Markus that seemed more a serial hook-up than anything else. But she had feelings for the guy, despite his fondness for bolting before dawn. After a year of not seeing each other, he shows up at her father’s funeral, and she feels drawn to him again, despite their past. Has she really changed? Has he?

Maggie wondered then if there wasn’t just one ache in the world: sad, happy, horny, drunk, sorry, satisfied, grieving, lonely. If we believed these to be different feelings but they all came from the same sweet unbearable spring.

Story 9 – To the Corner
Leonard is an old, depressed widower, wondering about the point of living. A group of kids hang out on the corner, and indulge in some awful behavior He despairs for them as well. His ditto-head son has given him a gun, supposedly for protection against these middle-school desperadoes. Is there really no way out of this descending spiral?

Walter had been a reading tutor at a local Elementary School

“I would see the kids I tutored in the park,” he said. “Scary kids are a lot less scary when you’ve read ‘Johnny the Turtle’ with them sitting next to you.” – from the Spokesman-Review print interview

Story 10 – Famous Actor
The rich and famous are different from the rest of us, aren’t they?

Story 11 – Balloons
Ellis is 19, and the bane of his parents for not having a paying job. Mom gets him a gig checking up on Mrs Ahearn, the 40-something widow who lives across the street, doing a little shopping, raking leaves, being tongue kissed and having his ass grabbed. Life is not made any easier by having a sainted genius brother in U of Wash law school. Over the course of a few months, Ellis learns some things, and comes to a new appreciation for the experience of others.

That’s the thing, I guess—how impossible it is to know a thing before you know it. What whiskey will taste like. What it’s like to kiss someone. Probably even what it’s like to lose a husband.

Story 12 – The Way the World Ends
Two climate scientists interview for a teaching job at a Central Mississippi college. It gets raucous, which is a challenge for recently out Jeremiah, who is in charge of the guest house where both applicants are staying. Amid the partying there is much conversation about the despair of scientists, but also of reasons not to give up.

Among climate scientists, it’s called “pre-traumatic stress disorder” but the feelings are no joke: anger, hopelessness, depression, panic—a recurring nightmare in which you see the tsunami on the horizon but can’t convince anyone to leave the beach. She knows scientists who have become drunks, who have dropped out and moved to the desert, who have committed suicide.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, GR and FB pages

My reviews of earlier work by Jess Walter
—–2020 – The Cold Millions
—–2013 – We Live in Water

Interviews
—–Seattle Times – Spokane author Jess Walter on writing short stories, his working-class roots and his hometown by Emma Levy
—–The Spokesman Review – Northwest Passages: Jess Walter and ‘Angel of Rome’ – with Shawn Vestal – video
—–The Spokesman-Review – Finding truth and keeping it real: In Jess Walter’s new collection ‘The Angel of Rome,’ the Spokane author lets character shine through by Carolyn Lamberson

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, Short Stories

Woman of Light by Kaji Fajardo-Anstine

book cover

The radio smelled of dust and minerals, and in some ways reminded Luz of reading tea leaves. They were similar, weren’t they? She saw images and felt feelings delivered to her through dreams and pictures. Maybe those images rode invisible waves, too? Maybe Luz was born with her own receiver. She laughed, considering how valuable such a thing must be, a radio built into the mind.

Maria Josie insisted Diego and Luz must learn the map, as she called it, and she showed them around first on foot and later by streetcar. She wore good walking shoes, and dressed herself and the children in many layers. It tends to heat up, she had said, another moment, it might hail. The siblings learned to be cautious. It was dangerous to stroll through mostly Anglo neighborhoods, their streetcar routes equally unsafe. There were Klan picnics, car races, cross burnings on the edge of the foothills, flames like tongues licking the canyon walls, hatred reaching into the stars.

There is a lot going on in this novel, so buckle up. Focused on the experiences of 17/18 year-old Luz Lopez–the Woman of Light of the story–in Depression-era Denver, the story alternates between her contemporary travails and the lives of her ancestors. The beginning is very Moses-like, a swaddling Pidre being left by his mother on the banks of an arroyo in The Lost Territory in 1868. We follow Pidre and his children and grandchildren into the 1930s. All have special qualities. Among them, Luz, his granddaughter, reads tea leaves, seeing visions of both past and future. Diego, his grandson, would definitely belong to House Slytherin in a different universe. He tames and performs with rattlesnakes.

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Kali Fajardo-Anstine in the Western History & Genealogy Department of the Denver Public Library – image from 5280 – photo by Caleb Santiago Alvarado

This is a story about stories, how telling them carries on identity, while ignoring them can help erase the culture of a people. Pidre is noted as a talented story-teller, urged, as he is given away, to remember your line. KFA remembers hers, giving a voice to Chicano-Indigenous history.

My ancestors were incredibly hard working, generous, kind, and brilliant Coloradans. But they were also poor and brown and this meant our stories were only elevated within our communities. When I began writing seriously in my early twenties, I was reading books by James Baldwin, Sandra Cisneros, Edward P. Jones, and Katherine Anne Porter, and many, many others. I saw how these authors shined the spotlight on their people and I also wanted to write work that was incredibly sophisticated that honored my cultural group, making us more visible in the mainstream. – from the Pen America interview

Fajardo-Anstine brings a lot of her family’s history into this novel. Her great-aunt’s name is Lucy Lucero. In addition to the name of our protagonist, a second connection can be found in the name of the stream where Pidre is found, Lucero. An uncle was a snake charmer. An aunt worked in a Denver glass factory, as Luz’s aunt works in a mirror factory in the book. Her family had hidden from KKK, as characters do here. Her Belgian coal-miner father abandoned his family, as Luz and Diego’s father does here.

There is a feel to the book of family stories being told around a table, or in a living room, by elders, passing on what they know to those most recently arrived. Remember these tales, the speaker might say, and in doing so remember where you came from, so you can better know who your people are and ultimately who you are.

As they hopped and skipped in and out of the archway lights, Luz imagined she was jumping between times. She saw herself as a little girl in the Lost Territory with her mother and father walking through snow fields, carrying fresh laundry to the company cabin. Then she saw herself in Hornet Moon with Maria Josie, beside the window to her new city, those few photographs of her parents scattered about the floor, the only remnants of them she had left. She saw herself eating Cream of Wheat for breakfast with Diego in the white-walled kitchen. They were listening to the radio, the summertime heat blowing in from the windows, the mountains far away behind the screen.

The racism that Luz and other confront is not subtle. A public park features a sign

NOTICE
This Park Belongs to WHITE PROTESTANTS
NO GOOKS
SPICS
NIGGERS
Allowed

Luz is denied an opportunity to apply for a job because she is not white. A KKK march has a very pogrom-like, 1921-Tulsa-like feel.

Luz gets a chance to see the range of crimes going on in the city, when she gets a particular job. Sees how the system that is supposed to protect regular folks does anything but. The murder of a Hispanic activist by the police is not just a historical image, but a resonant reminder of police killing of civilians in today’s world, usually with little accountability. The more things change…

There is a magical element in this novel, that, when combined with the multi-generational structure, and richness of language, and, of course, her focus on particular groups of people, makes one think of Louise Erdrich. As to the first, among others, Luz receives visions while reading tea leaves, and at other times as well. An ancestor speaks with the dead. A saintly personage associated with mortality appears in the flesh. People appear who may or may not be physically present.

The ancestry begins with Pidre in 1868, but in his infancy we meet elders who reach back much further.

The generation I knew in real life was born around 1912 and 1918. They would talk about the generation before—their parents, but also their grandparents. That meant I had firsthand knowledge spanning almost two hundred years. When I sat down to think about the novel and the world I was creating, I realized how far back in time I was able to touch just based on the oral tradition. My ancestors went from living a rural lifestyle—moving from town to town in mining camps, and before that living on pueblos and in villages—to being in the city, all within one generation. I found it fascinating that my great-grandma could have grown up with a dirt floor, not going to school, not being literate, and have a son graduate with his master’s degree from Colorado State University. To me, time was like space travel, and so when I decided on the confines of the novel, I knew it had to be the 1860s to 1930s. – from the Catapult interview

Luz is an appealing lead, smart, ambitious, mostly honorable, while beset by the slings and arrows of ethnic discrimination. Like Austen women, she is faced with a world in which, because of her class and ethnicity, making her own way in the world would be very tough without a husband. And, of course, the whole husband thing comes with its own baggage. Of course, the heart wants what it wants and she faces some challenges in how to handle what the world offers her. She does not always make the best choices, a flaw likely to endear her to readers even more than an antiseptic perfection might.

The supporting cast is dazzling, particularly for a book of very modest length (336p hardcover). From a kick-ass 19th century woman sharpshooter, to a civil rights lawyer with conflicting ambitions, from a gay mother-figure charged with raising children not her own to a successful Greek businessman, from Luz’s bff cuz to the men the two teens are drawn to, from an ancient seer to a corrupt politician, from…to…from…to… Fajardo-Astine gives us memorable characters, with color, texture, motivations, edges you can grab onto, elements to remember. It is an impressive group.

And the writing is beautiful. This is the opening:

The night Fertudez Marisol Ortiz rode on horseback to the northern pueblo Pardona, a secluded and modest village, the sky was so filled with stars it seemed they hummed. Thinking this good luck, Fertudez didn’t cry as she left her newborn on the banks of an arroyo, turkey down wrapped around his body, a bear claw fastened to his chest.
“Remember your line,” she whispered, before she mounted her horse and galloped away.
In Pardona, Land of Early Sky, the elder Desiderya Lopez dreamt of stories in her sleep. The fireplace glowed in her clay home as she whistled snores through dirt walls, her breath dissipating into frozen night. She would have slept soundly until daybreak, but the old woman was pulled awake by the sounds of plodding hooves and chirping crickets, the crackling of burnt cedar, an interruption between dawn and day.

Really, after reading that, ya just have to keep on. One of the great strengths of this novel is its powerful use of imagery. There are many references to light, as one would expect. Water figures large, from Pidre’s introduction in the prologue, left by a stream, to our introduction to Luz and her aunt Maria Josie sitting together in Denver, near the banks where the creek and the river met, the city’s liquid center…, to a rescue from a flash flood, to an unborn buried near a river, and more. A bear-claw links generations. This makes for a very rich reading experience.

I felt that the narrative fizzled toward the end, as if, having accomplished the goal of presenting a family and group history, filling a vacuum, there was less need to tidy everything up, a quibble, given that the novel accomplishes its larger aims.

Kaji Fajardo-Astine’s 2019 short-story collection, Sabrina & Corina, made the finals for National Book Award consideration. You do not need to read tea leaves or have visions to see what lies ahead. Woman of Light, a first novel, illuminates that future quite clearly. By focusing a beacon on an under-told tale, Kaji Fajardo-Astine, is certain to have a brilliant career as one of our best novelists.

Celia, Estevan’s sister. Luz listened and watched as she read her own words in her own voice. First in Spanish and then in English. The crowd moved with each syllable, cries of anguish. A lamp unto my feet, a woman yelled behind Luz. A light unto my path.

Review posted – June 17, 2022

Publication date – June 7, 2022

I received a digital ARE of Woman of Light from One World in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–Red – June, 2022 – Q&A: Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s “Woman of Light” with Cory Phare
—–Pen America – 2019 – THE POWER OF STORYTELLING: A PEN TEN INTERVIEW WITH KALI FAJARDO-ANSTINE with Lily Philpott – not specific to this novel, but interesting
—–Catapult – June, 2022 – Kali Fajardo-Anstine Believes Memory Is an Act of Resistance with Jared Jackson

Items of Interest
—–Following the Manito Trail
—–5280 – Inside Denver Author Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Much Anticipated Debut Novel by Shane Monahan

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Filed under Feminism, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Native Americans

How to Find Your Way Home by Katy Regan

book cover

…here begins one of the last evenings I remember of my old life. The life I had constructed like the tough, prickled outer shell of a horse chestnut around me, before it was cracked open and the truth of my life was laid bare, as frighteningly untouched and uncharted as that shiny conker hidden inside.

Do we choose our homes? Physically, sure. As adults we can move here or there. Does a chick choose its nest? We are not necessarily bolted to our birthplaces, but they are our first homes, and that initial setting is a very powerful thing, rich with association, memory, and attachment, particularly if we remain there more than just a few years. Many, maybe most people move away, significantly away. We may return annually to see family, or not. Maybe the places to which we relocate become truer homes for us. I shudder, for example, at the thought of ever again living in the neighborhood where I was raised. While I love the city, that particular part of it holds no attraction for me. I got out as fast as I could, and never wanted to be back there again. But for many, like Dorothy Gale, there is a primal bond with that ground. There’s no place like home for Stephen Nelson, as well, as he carries deep ties to the place where he was raised. He has been away from it for a very long time.

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Katy Regan – from her Facebook pages

Emily Nelson has different rootedness issues. A connection to her brother is where home is for Emily. Stephen was an amazing big brother, about five years older. Delighted to have her there, eager to teach her about what excited him in the world, which was mostly birds, an interest his father shared and nurtured in his children. And she was always thrilled to be with “Deebie.” They found a particular Eden-ic magic in the avian-rich marshlands very near their home on Canvey Island, (Essex’s answer to the Mississippi Delta) even camping out there sometimes. She is concerned about his survival.

Their allegiance gained significance when their mother, unhappy with her exurban experience, ditched their father for what she’d hoped would be a more satisfying life. Sadly, her new mate seemed to have a bug up his bum about Stephen, always criticizing him, never recognizing Stephen’s strengths, and generally being a total horse’s ass of a stepfather. The sibs really needed to stick together when they were with Mum and Mitch. But something happened when they were still kids. Mitch was severely injured, and Stephen was jailed, from his teens into his twenties. Once out, things did not go well. He has been living rough for the last fifteen years.

We meet Emily in the today of the novel, 2018. She is 31, living in London, a housing officer in the council’s homeless department. She has had a series of relationships, (failure to nest?) the latest of which is with an architect, but:

She realizes that James will not last, no one will until she can resolve the huge hole in her from the loss of Stephen.

They have been out of touch since shortly after his release from prison. She has been desperate to find him for some time. When she hears his voice in her office one day, the chase is on. She invites him to move in with her.

The story moves along two time tracks. First is the contemporary, as Emily searches for Stephen, wanting to reconnect with him, wanting to help him, wanting to get her brother back after a very long absence. This current-day look is split between Emily’s first-person and Stephen’s third-person POVs. The second time track is a slow unraveling of the past, from Emily’s birth to the tragic event that defines the story. What happened in their lives as kids? What forged their bond? What ultimately caused Stephen to be sent to jail? Why has Stephen been homeless for so long? This is told in ten chapters, named for birds, telling stories from their childhood involving specific birds, or breeds, or just using bird imagery. Stork, for example, is about Emily’s arrival. Mother Duck tells of a Make Way for Ducklings event. Cockatoo refers to someone’s hairstyle.

Stephen struggles with hope, whether to keep on or to fly the coop on possibility. Lord knows, he has had plenty of reasons to. His father has been willing to keep lines of communication open, if with less than total warmth. But his mother, unhappily, stuck with caring for the husband whose tetraplegia is the reason Stephen was imprisoned, is not so eager. Stephen has learned to survive on the streets, kept going by his love of birds. He has artistic ability, and picks up some money selling drawings of them.

Regan first volunteered at a soup kitchen for the homeless when she was 17.

My favorite bit of the shift was to sit down after we’d served breakfast and chat. What surprised me then, besides the sheer resilience these people possessed, was how little there was between my life—a “normal life”—and theirs. A few wrong turns, a relationship breakup, some bad luck was all it seemed to take for you to wind up sleeping on the streets and relying on charity to eat. Most of all, what I learned there (as well as from my research for How to Find Your Way Home) was that the difference between those who managed to dodge homelessness and those who slipped through the net was just that: too-big holes in the net. If you’d burned the bridges of your support network or had been abandoned by the people in it, you were out of luck. When I became a writer, I promised myself I would one day write a book telling the story of a homeless person. – from the Bok Club kit

Bird imagery permeates the novel. In fact, there is enough avian material here to fill a king-size comforter. It is as lovely as one of those too, the feathered supporting cast bolstering the issues among the feather-free characters. A skein of geese, for example, is explained as group members taking turns bearing the brunt of the migratory lead. Swifts faithfully return to the same nesting site every year, maintaining their pair-bond for life. Although birds permeate the novel, the bird-title chapters focus on this imagery most pointedly.

Another motif to keep an eye on is windows. Stephen is an outsider from childhood. Emily feels like one as well. Windows always mark a separation, and what you see through them may not tell a true or a full tale.

That’s what you’d see, if you looked through the window: four thirty-something friends, “upwardly mobile” themselves I suppose, having dinner, chatting, having fun on a Saturday night, me in the middle in my orange top that says “Happy Days” on it. But I’m not happy.

Sometimes, windows offer frightening views.

A dark, tall shadow flashed across the kitchen window and I jumped half out of my skin.

Stephen and Emily have some serious issues between them to contend with, in addition to the challenges that both face with the wider universe. Stephen has good reason to be cautious about the world. He may have been sent to prison for a crime as a teen but he seems a pretty decent sort as a served-his-time thirty-something. Emily may have cut herself off from the world of love emotionally, if not physically, but we come to see that this originates in pain. She seems to have a good heart. So, rooting for these two is easy. And there is a very satisfying twist toward the end. HTFYWH was moving enough that my notes include three instances of TEARS!. There is also some exquisite, lyrical writing here.

I suppose there a few loose feathers that might make one sneeze a bit. Stephen seemed to spend an extreme number of years living on the street. Really? No social service types managed to coral him into a rehab program, maybe got him set up with a social worker. Possible? Oh, sure. But, still. Could Emily really have afforded a London flat in a nice neighborhood on a public employee’s income? Also, the wrap-up seemed a bit speedy. Without spoiling anything, situations were presented that seemed lacking in sufficient preparatory support. And yes, there was certainly a large volume of feathery references. Some might find that a downer. I rather liked it. I will spare you the Emily Dickinson quote, but it is certainly an undercurrent here as Stephen’s ability to carry on is bolstered by his love of birds and birding.

Louise Erdrich this ain’t, but it is a lovely, warm-hearted novel. That said, I found myself always very eager to return to my bedtime book home for the week and a half for which I was able to stretch this out. Dorothy Gale was right. There’s no place like it.

Stephen loved the sounds as much as he loved the space out here: the wind, creeping through the grasses, that reminded Stephen of rain, when it first, softly, begins to fall; the hum of traffic coming from the A130; and the occasional train, slicing through the countryside with its ghostly sigh. Stephen liked these reminders that the town was nearby. It was as if England and all it had to offer was right here, at the edge-lands—a world within a world. And it had been rolled out like a map, for him to run free over.

Review posted – February 4, 2022

Publication date – February 15, 2022

I received an ARE of How To Find Your Way Home from Berkley in return for directions. Thanks, folks.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Katy Regan was brought up in a seaside town in northern England. She studied at the University of Leeds before moving to London, where she worked as a journalist and as a commissioning editor at Marie Claire magazine. How To Find Your Way Home is her fifth book.

Items of Interest from the author
—–A map of locations in the novel
—–Book Club Kit

Songs/Music
—–The Hollies – He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother – chapter 6
—–Robin S – Show Me Love – chapter 13

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews

And Now, Presenting… – Performance Art by David Kranes

book cover

I’m missing a dove, he tells me, a small water fountain…half an assistant.
I’ll keep my eyes out, I tell him. 

It’s that awful moment when any of us realize that why we began something is no longer why we’re doing it.

In his latest short story collection, literary lion David Kranes puts on quite the show. Performance Art offers up stories about people who perform in public. Nine of the stories in the collection were published between 1991 and 2015, with four new tales fleshing it out to a baker’s dozen. While offering some new material the collection serves more as an introduction to a powerful literary writer you may not know. Kranes is 84, and has been at this a long time. He writes in whatever vessel seems appropriate for the stories that occur to him, whether that is poety, plays, novels or short stories. Sometimes the stories migrate. One of the included tales here was the inspiration for a novel.

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David Kranes – image from Continuum

The external focus in this collection is performance, stage performance, for the most part, although the definition is somewhat fluid. The talents on display run quite a gamut, from a daredevil to a stand-up comic, from an actor to an escape artist, from a spokesperson for a weight-loss program to a magician, from a fire and glass eater to a master of sleight of hand, to a world-class photographer, to a carnival knife thrower, and a bit more.

There are some themes, images, and issues that run through, central among which is invisibility. People feeling unseen, maybe even being unseen.

Scott paces four rooms, each one of which, even when he’s in it, seems empty. (A Man Walks Into a Bar)

Nothing about me took up—space or anything else (Target Practice)


Ginger’s twenty-seven and has almost perfected invisibility. (The Weight-Loss Performance Artist)

I turned and moved away. Went. Didn’t stop. Didn’t look back. Instead: became invisible. Became a ghost anchored only by an abiding faith, finally, in the power of absence. (Escape Artist)

Painters permeate. Two of the lead characters paint, and painting is an element in several others. In Daredevil, a character is fascinated with Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death. Target Practice includes a character very into Turner. The Garden of Earthly Delights get some spotlight in Devouring Fire.

Celebrities drift or flash through the stories, and not in a particularly favorable way.

Several characters are faced with potentially life-changing opportunities. A painter has a chance to be a very in-demand actor. Another painter might have a chance to direct a film for a household name producer. A stage performer has a chance to revive a career long thought dead and buried. An obese woman is offered a huge sum to be the public face of weight loss. A drug addict is offered a chance to be the knife instead of the target.

The notion of next comes up. In Daredevil, pop offers useless advice to his son re next steps in life. In Target Practice a social services report on the narrator calls her directionless. (“I had no comprehension of next. I had no next moments; obviously no next month, no next week.”)

The stories are set in Vegas, mostly, the southwest, generically, Idaho a time or three. It is pretty clear that Kranes knows The Strip and Vegas like a local. He lives in Salt Lake City. I do not know if he ever lived in Vegas or maybe spent a lot of time there. Both seem likely.

There are a few tales that include bits of fantasy. Most do not. I would not categorize this as a fantasy collection, per se.

While the circumstances are sometimes extreme, there is still plenty to relate to. How many of us have felt unseen, invisible in the world, or maybe want to be. I can certainly relate to the latter. In my theatrical debut (It was Kindergarten I think) I was called on to walk to center stage and recite Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater. I managed to get the words out, but that was not all. By the time I exited stage left my pants had taken on an unwanted yellow tint. Invisibility cloak, please, NOW!!! And we have probably all felt the sting of feeling completely unseen by that boy or girl, man or woman whom we really, really want to see us.

Bottom line is that this collection may not feature all new material (that said, even the previously published stories were new to me) but it offers a splendid sample of a literary talent of great skill and power. David Kranes is a writer worth getting to know. This is top-tier, star-power material.

Review posted – 10/5/21

Publication date – 10/15/21

I received an e-galley from the University of Nevada Press through NetGalley, in return for a visible, performative review. Thanks.

======================================THE STORIES
The Daredevil’s Son (2010) – imagine your father was Evel Knievel. Imagine he was dead set on you following him in the family business. Imagine you have the body, the build, and the looks. Then imagine you have zero interest in doing that.

“So then, you don’t want to be like…do what your father does?” people asked.
“No, because my father scares people,” Lucas Jr said.

There is a lot here that resonates with Kranes’s life. He grew up in the Boston area, his father a big-shot surgeon at one of the biggest hospitals in the city. He even enrolled in pre-med, but knew it was not for him. Later even tried Yale Law School. Ditto. Dinners at home would feature Nobel Prize winners (as guests, not on the menu). The bar seemed too high, the pressure too intense to succeed, to perform at that level, at things that did not appeal to him all that much. He headed west instead, opting to follow his own inclinations, not those of his father.

The Stand-up Phobic (2015)
Ethan Fallon feels compelled to perform on stage.
The language of the story mimics the sort of stream-of-consciousness that Robin Williams might have launched into in a moment or that George Carlin might have scripted. It is about words, words, words, and associations, free or otherwise There is a manic aspect to Ethan. It is presented as an interview between Ethan and…someone. You feel bad for the guy, with all this verbal churn going on in his head, and only the stage as a venue for relief.

Ethan’s hair is an air show and he’s sweating. Every performance lately seems a conspiracy-theorist’s nightmare. Any room he’s booked into is slack-jawed and oversized and swallows him. Like a bad Jonah dream. Like having a three-day booking at the Whale. AT THE HOUSE OF RIBS. YEAH! PUT Y0UR HANDS TOGETHER—WON’T YOU, PLEASE—for our own sackcloth and ashes! Ethan Fallon!

A Man Walks Into A Bar (2012)
Scott Elias, a dealer (cards, not drugs) and painter, is approached by two men in a Vegas bar. They mistake him for a well-known actor, but offer him a screen test because they like his presence. They see something in him. So Scott is carted off to appear in the film, sorry, project, they are producing, and life gets crazy from there. But is this the life he wants? He has a roomie, a young man, Tory, also a painter, who had been injured in an auto mishap. It is more of a ward and sponsor relationship, not a sexual one. Tory’s paintings reflect Scott’s inner battle.

Escape Artist (2002)
From birth, Lou has been getting out of things. The need comes with some innate capacity. But there are others who would do well to escape unwanted circumstances, yet lack the native tools and even when they learn the learnable skills, opt for the safety of captivity to the freedom of escape. This story includes a bit about escaping the East Coast, and doctor father, which echoes the author’s relationship with his father.

When I was two, a nurse locked me in a closet under a pile of coats. I got out. When I was six, three bullies tethered me with clothesline, filled my mouth with detergent. I escaped, spat the detergent into the sunlight. It turned green in the bright air, hardened into a nugget of turquoise.
At two, six, I had no words, no plan, only knew my need: lift. Rise, break out, court the insane of the world—if that’s what it took.

When the Magician Calls
Daniel Lawrence, or maybe Lawrence Daniel, has tracked Sheila down. (There is a reference in another story to a Sheila who had been at least partly mislaid by a fading magician) He seems to think Sheila will remember him. Sounds like they had had a prior connection. He would like to help her fully disappear from her current, somewhat imprisoned life. Maybe he can conjure a bit of magic, although it may not be his true calling. My stage-self hungers for standing-room-only. Mostly, though. I feel like some kind of bulked tortoise, lumbering to the sea.

Target Practice
The female narrator seems to have almost died too many times to be a coincidence as a kid. Became a target when she got older, for a Sunday school teacher, for boys with an interest and for needles. But when she meets a carnival knife thrower (and former MLB pitcher) she learns, ironically, how not to be a target, but to be the knife, her survival no longer an unexpected miracle.

The Warren Beatty Project (1991)
Ethan Weise has had a bit of success with his painting, sold canvasses to some famous people. He is working on a series of Edward-Hopper-type paintings, set outdoors. Once, he worked as a “visual consultant” with a student at the American Film Institute. And then, one day, Warren Beatty calls, wanting him to direct a project for him. LaLa Land beckons, limo-driven and low on artistic merit, rich with industry glitterati and the suggestion of connection and work, while short on actual delivery. While his girlfriend pulls him in a different direction. Will he gain notice, or remain largely unseen? Is this project the stuff dreams are made of, or something else?

The Weight-Loss Performance Artist (2008)
Ginger is 5’5” and 340 pounds. Two men approach her to take part in a project. They have a weight-loss program called PoundSolve that offers tailored meals to subscribers, and software that can project what someone will look like after reaching certain weight-loss benchmarks. They would like Ginger to be their spokesperson, and will pay her $4k per pound for every sixteen ounces she takes off. It a pretty good deal from where she sits. Ginger’s twenty-seven and has almost perfected invisibility. As she moves up to translucent, and even apparent, life changes in many ways. The question is how she will cope and whether the changes are all welcome.

My Life as a Thief
The narrator here is unnamed. His father is a doctor, working at Mass General (where Kranes’s father worked). He started doing magic at eleven, with a kit his dad bought him. Turns out to be a gateway drug to ever more professional levels of magic. His life as a thief begins when he is thirteen, teamed up with Arthur Foley, a pal, whose father happens to be a criminal. Turns out having a talent for making things disappear offers a direct path to shoplifting. They move on from there.

Devouring Fire—An Interview
Robbie, a young reporter, has a chance to interview an entertainment legend, Anthony Aquila, 89 years young and still scary. Anthony is renowned for his ability to eat both fire and glass.
There is a fun interaction between the two of them, as Anthony totally intimidates the young man, but also sees the potential in him.

I’ll confess here: I was drawn to his image. It was like one I’d seen in my History of Religions course at State; he was an ascetic. A kind of harp with skin. Bare feet. Ribs like a rack of lamb. Deep hollow cavernous eyes. You could almost hear his echos echo. Shabby, torn clothes. I got the sense that whatever he did, at the same time he could stand back and watch himself doing it.

The Resurrection of Ernie Fingers
The Downtown Palace in Vegas seems to be doing everything right, post Covid, yet the players are not showing up. The place needs something

We need an attraction,”Dickie Rice, the GM, said to Tony Padre, Head of Marketing. “We need crowds fighting to get in. We do that and who we offer, what we offer will sell itself.”
Tony Padre agreed, “Attraction! Absolutely! But what? Who?”

They bring a legend back. Ernie Fingers is a fill-the-place-entertaining performer, but he has been out of the business for a while and has gotten way too familiar with a particular brand of hooch. Can Ernie be brought back to his old form? Ernie ha a special ability, though, and his skills may be fading.

The Photojournalism Project (1996)
Melissa Probert is a gifted, very much-in-demand international freelance photographer. Her work has been shown in major national museums. Hunt is a painter, working on a project making tempura images of roadside memorials. They had a thing once but have remained friends. Melissa calls Hunt to help her with a special project, a book. She wants to make a photo history of a binge drunk, her own, she having a history of such antics, sans lens. Hunt and Leah, his wife? gf? have an ongoing conversation while he is at Melissa’s multi-day drunk re what and how he sees and her forbearance of his friends. In offering a stage for the unseen, is Melissa making Leah vanish from Hunt’s life?

The Fish Magician (1997)
Malcolm volunteers from the audience at The Monte Carlo in Vegas to participate in magician Lance Burton’s show. He steps into a Lucite box on the stage and in short order is vanished…well…transported, to Idaho it would appear. Oopsy. And the aging magician cannot recall where he’d sent Malcolm. Some time later his wife, Ginger, alarmed at her husband’s sudden disappearance, and failure to reappear, hires an investigator to find out just WTF happened. This is a fun tale in which the investigator is a psychic former NFL player who dreams of doing standup. The story was the basis for Kranes’s 2018 novel Abracadabra.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Kranes does not maintain an on-line presence, as far as I can tell.

Here is a profile of him in Mapping Literary Utah

Interview
—–Radiowest – The Legend’s Daughter – by Doug Fabrizio – audio – 52:04 – even though it was recorded eight years ago I found this interview very illuminating re this collection

Songs/Music
—–Arthur Rubinstein – Chopin’s Nocturne in E-Flat – From Ernie Fingers

Items of Interest from the author
—–short story from this collection – The Daredevil’s Son
—–short story – A Figure in a Window
—–a one-act play – Infrastructures

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews, Short Stories