Fiction Reviews by Joe Ponepinto
by Jaimee Wriston Colbert
A book more apropos to our country and our times, in light of the results of the November election, would be hard to find. Colbert’s connected stories offer insights into the dissatisfied, disappointed existence on which we’re all so focused now—if you want to get a feel for the hopelessness that drives the choices some of us shake our collective heads at, read these stories.
As a professor of English and Creative Writing at State University of New York Binghamton, a city of 46,000 located in the heart of New York’s rust belt, Colbert knows of where she writes. The characters in Wild Things illustrate the desperate antagonism that comes from living outside the centers of power and culture, the places that like to dictate how we all should think and feel. But such people do not—as we might like to believe—simply accept their fate. They find other ways to rebel, whether that means escaping through drugs and drink, some other self abuse, through violence, through voting against their own interests in order to gum up the works everywhere else—in such a bizarro world even giving up is a form of rebellion.
Colbert’s writing is often spectacular. The density of thought and emotion in stories such as “Wild Things I—Ghosts” and “A Kind of Extinction” creates a voice for a people we think of as voiceless. Many of the pieces are held together by the slightest of connections; there’s no single plot device to drive them, and in fact the characters in the individual stories don’t know each other, but it hovers over the book, haunting the players like an evil spirit. A missing young woman; a solitary man who thinks he is saving her by imprisoning her. It’s fascinating to read—perhaps a paragraph or two in each story—how the girl simply melts into the collective mind’s oblivion—so easy to accept a disappearance as an escape when that’s all you want too.
Boris Vian Invents Boris Vian
Translated and edited by Julia Older
Black Widow Press
It’s pleasurable sometimes for we students of history to recall those times in which intellectualism was all the vogue, when the public respected new forms of art and new ideas about existence and its meaning, even if they didn’t understand them. One such place and time was Paris in the post-WWII years, when a nation, and a continent, began to reinvent themselves, in part by rejecting the values and governments that had allowed the war to happen.
Critical to this period were thinkers and performers like Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Edith Piaf. Among them, although not nearly as well known now, was a young writer named Boris Vian, whose puckish stories and poems established a humorous and satirical front in the intellectual debates of the time.
Writer Julia Older has devoted much of her career to bringing the art of Vian to light in both individual form and book-length works. In this volume, which features her translations side-by-side with the original French, there is plenty of sniping at the bourgeois way of life, although she pays special attention to the writer’s infatuation with American art forms, which is the connection that makes him important to readers today.
He takes a fantastical trip down the outside of the Empire State Building in New York to assess life across the pond in a series of descents past every tenth floor. He penned an amazingly prescient poem titled “Some of us have trumpeteeny” (remember this was about 70 years ago) that, while not directly referencing our new president, does seem to comment on the type of man. But most interesting is his take on that all-American phenomenon, jazz. “Jazz is Dangerous: the Physiopathology of Jazz” begins with “As far back in antiquity as you go one finds the sclerosis and necrosis of jazz on living cells and the macro-molecules of cytoplasm.” The sarcasm of this brief essay simply bubbles.
Perhaps it’s because Vian died at so young an age (in 1959 at 39) that he is not as well remembered as his artistic and philosophical contemporaries. Too bad. Vian’s wit filled a niche and complemented the more serious pursuits of the Paris art scene. His wickedly astute power of observation would have been well appreciated in these (supposedly) more modern times.
Letters from Dinosaurs
Stories by Leland Cheuk
Thought Catalog Books
Some of the stories in Leland Cheuk’s new collection rank among the best I’ve read this year. The book opens with “A Letter From Your Dinosaur,” which ran in our premier issue in 2014, and reminded me of just how much I loved that flash fiction. The imagination behind “First Person Shooter” and the speculative “1776” make them engrossing reads. Other tales are more traditional narratives, but all are well crafted, informed and driven by the author’s knowledge of the exterior world—current events and passions, politics, our manipulation by moneyed interests—the stories are never one dimensional. Cheuk frames his fictional worlds with these realities, and uses them to help motivate his characters. It’s the technique of a mature writer, one who is aware that characters (and people) are connected to their environments, and to more than just one or two other people.
This approach works exceptionally well because thematically, the stories in this volume explore the conundrum that people of Asian ancestry often face, especially those who live in the U.S.: as a group they are not nearly as marginalized as African Americans or Latinos, yet they’ve hardly been accepted enough to feel the comfort of privilege. Even when they do well in life it is somehow attributed to race; so much so that some characters disdain their origins, especially when the old values are still embraced by members of their families. Also, there is always someone around to notice the differences, to make the awkward comment—occasionally that someone is the Asian-American himself. As Cheuk subtly shows in many of these pieces, Asian-Americans live in a kind of cultural limbo in which they are driven to adhere to the dominant, white narrative, but sometimes feel guilty about doing so. That gives the title of the collection an added dimension—more than just borrowing from the opening story, Cheuk seems to be hinting that these “dinosaurs” need to move forward, to stop looking over their shoulders at the asteroid glow of racial mayhem relentlessly chasing after them.
Sure Things and Last Chances: Stories from the Soul of New York
By Lou Gaglia
Spring to Mountain Press
Having been born in New York City and raised on Long Island, I was intrigued by Lou Gaglia’s pitch for his second collection of stories, all of which take place in the boroughs and neighboring areas. It’s been decades since I’ve been back—not that I’ve missed the place—but I’ll admit to a certain curiosity about the intricacies of life there, the internal logic that’s subtly different from that of folks in other places around the country. The fact that the book received endorsements from writers like Jen Knox, Clifford Garstang, and Jen Michalski helped as well.
Gaglia’s previous collection, Poor Advice, won the 2015 New Apple Literary Award for short story fiction and the 2016 New York Book Festival Award for fiction. So although unfamiliar with his work, I felt comfortable taking it on.
What I found were simple stories about relatively simple people, the ones whose lives butt up against NYC affluence but rarely cross into that terrain. These are tales of the blue collar folks who make up the bulk of the population back east, people who work and play, and love and hate much like people in other places, but who respond to life’s challenges not with resignation or militancy, as we are accustomed to seeing in fiction based elsewhere, but with a resolve that is often perceived as attitude. Whatever ya got, we can take it. It could be explained as a fatalism that stems from a long tradition of Catholic/Jewish value systems (my layman’s guess), and that’s different from the way people in the rest of the states react to adversity. That subtle difference I was looking for.
The stories are closely focused through the characters’ perspectives, so the language is not dense or poetic; it’s fitting for this fictional demographic. In fact it has that populist ring that’s established a beachhead on fiction’s lofty territory over the last couple of decades, and which defies the old order’s attempts to repel it, something like what the Russians did in Crimea. It represents a progression from Carver/Lish to George Saunders, and promotes a writing style that is now embraced by a significant percentage of MFA grads and lit journal editors. Gaglia does it better than most. Deeper themes emerge from his characters’ apparently shallow observations of their worlds, and he uses their piddling concerns to take readers to the edge of the profound. And he has the skill and good sense to leave them there, inviting them to take the leap, but not insisting on it.
4,500 Miles: Taking Jack Back on the Road
A Gonzo Prose Book
by Ciara Shuttleworth
ISBN: 978-0991203796 (Hardcover)
Humanitas Media Publishing
Jack Kerouac is almost as much an idea as he was a writer. No one prior so perfectly embodied the concept of the writer-wanderer, and his book On the Road has since inspired countless others to experience their own concrete/asphalt strip of America. Staying in the Kerouac House in Orlando, where she spent a three-month residency in 2015, brought poet and TLR contributor Ciara Shuttleworth to the same epiphany when it was time to leave. In fact, she recalls in 4,500 Miles, it was Jack himself who told her to “Road trip it” instead of flying.
So she did, renting a car and driving from Florida to eastern Washington with Flat Jack, a blown-up and paper-backed black and white of the writer, which becomes a spiritual and literary companion, as well as a 2-D icon for inclusion in her landscapes and snapshots taken along the way.
The two have a non-stop conversation during the trip—in the car, in the restaurants, bars and shops along the fifteen-day route—and it doesn’t take long before you’re believing it really happened that way, the two them reveling in the scenery and the people they meet, trading stories about writing, even that Flat Jack nearly talked Shuttleworth into turning the car around and heading back to liberate the baby alligators they encountered at a roadside stand.
It’s friends and philosophy from coast to coast, as Shuttleworth visits childhood haunts and writing pals she’s made in her literary career. “Like Jack, I am restless to move on, despite love and good times,” she writes. She gets the real Jack into the story as well, infusing the prose with Kerouac’s search for God that took him from Catholicism to Buddhism in his abbreviated life, and his long disappointment with criticism in the press and from other writers. Her book helps dispel the myth of the writer as a semi-literate drunken seeker of good times, whose work as one of the Beats helped pushed open the door to the crumbling of literary and moral standards. Kerouac was really quite different from that, as Shuttleworth’s book makes clear—and Flat Jack becomes human long before they cross the Idaho border into Washington.
The Face of Our Town: A Novelish in Stories
by Elizeya Quate
I don’t want to be told a story, I want to experience a story. I’ve said this many times to writers both emerging and established in my quest for tales that blur the divide between author and reader, the ones that take me out of myself and transport me to another place and another mind. I’ve found no better example of this recently than Quate’s The Face of Our Town, an intellectual journey into the jaded, corporate-deflated, hyper-connected yet lonely lives of the good people of Velton and its Detroitish nearby environs. So engrossing are most of these stories that one may not at first notice their incredible density, possibilities and tangents layered upon events layered upon personalities, keeping the read always fresh and engrossing.
Quate inhabits a feature film-length cast of dreamers and slackers and malcontents, including that of the “author,” Elizeya Quate, whose book Ideas for Words invents a language for the words we need but don’t yet have, such as delestration, the feeling one gets after deleting the wrong file from one’s computer, or effwidget, to fidget one’s cursor in order to burn off the energy created by the delestration.
Quate is actually a pseudonym for the writer Edmund Zagorin, whose “Toilet Fish” was one of the most popular fictions in our fourth issue, and whom I’ve known for several years, ever since he slinked into a writing class I taught for a Michigan arts organization. He needed only speak once before I knew I would have to step up my game to keep pace with his literary knowledge; as for his writing ability, a good teacher knows when it’s best to just get out of the way. I don’t mind revealing our personal connection in this review, since Zagorin’s talent makes any thought of cronyism moot. He deserves the press and the praise. He’s a writer I expect to see achieve prominence in the coming years.
I used to wonder if there were no more true philosophers left. They’d all become specialized as ethicists, semioticians, linguists, logicians, aestheticians; had turned to narrowly-defined studies of behavior and logic. But there wasn’t anyone dedicated to synthesizing and broadening the knowledge of our human endeavors: religion, physics, biology, mysticism, and more—into a universal approach on how we might live, until I read this book.
As a rule TLR doesn’t review books produced by major publishers, or by writers whose careers don’t need our publicity. But Krista Tippett’s book transcends those barriers.
Tippett is host and executive producer Of On Being, the long running American Public Media radio show that visits each week with some of the most profound thinkers of our time, in one-on-one interviews with scientists, religious leaders, activists, and artists, most of whose names would be lost among the cult of celebrity that dominates our society’s feeble attempts at culture, and even among the glitterati who form the pantheon of our own exclusive literary world. Usually they are people who have not sought any form of spotlight, but have dedicated their lives to simple truths discovered while living, often surmounting oppression or personal tragedy to do so.
Over the course of that time Tippett’s investigations have unearthed a wealth of independent and compassionate thinking that has escaped the mainstream, but which has formed the basis of her own, encompassing philosophy.
…the idea of a kinship between the spirituality of the scientist and the spirituality of the mystic: a constant endeavor to discern the truth while staying open to everything you do not yet, cannot yet, know.
Tippett’s background and experience, coupled with her natural curiosity about life and the lives of others, is the root of her journey. Born in Oklahoma farmland, the granddaughter of a Southern Baptist preacher, she worked first as a journalist, much of it covering the politics of Europe, and then as an assistant to the U.S. Ambassador to West Germany. But she returned to the U.S. to obtain a master’s degree from Yale Divinity School, and on graduating, began a series of endeavors designed to bridge the gap between religion and the secular world that has continued to this day.
Throughout the book, Tippett refers to a concept she calls “moral imagination.” It’s a morality that is not hamstrung by systematic rigidity, but is open to possibility, flexible and ever evolving, its goal to encourage dialogue among parties that is founded on respect for the other.
I can disagree with your opinion, but I can’t disagree with your experience.
It’s a philosophy that exposes the polemic rancor of our times, and simultaneously faces down the concept of unachievable perfection demanded by many religious and ethical systems.
Tippett’s philosophy is not a system, but a life—make that lives, as in the lives of the many people she’s interviewed who are dedicated to listening before speaking, and knowing always that other people, instead of themselves, form the center of the universe. It’s a pan-philosophy that seeks common origins and goals, and often in the interviews (excerpts of which are used throughout the book) reveals that knowledge can be achieved without doctrine, and therefore that our apparently competing intellectual disciplines are not as exclusive as they may appear. And it says without saying that the life of avarice, hedonism, and self-centeredness is logically indefensible.
The crack in the middle where people on both sides absolutely refuse to see the other as evil—this is where I want to live and what I want to widen.
When one refuses to judge other people or modes of thought, it leads not only to understanding, but also to honesty. Perhaps what impressed me most about Becoming Wise was Tippett’s sparkling candor about her own life: her divorce and her estrangement from her father are part of her journey, but they do not, as they might under some systems of thought, preclude her pursuit of her goals.
Such openness counters what many see as the constant and growing discord in our society, the pitched battles over the assumed high ground of righteousness. It’s helped me realize there is another direction in which we can go, a direction away from the illusion of corporation-inspired self-interest that strangles our culture. It leads away from politically charged polemics. This is a book that reveals other connections, other paths that lie open—wide open in fact—the life perhaps you had been looking for and which was always right in front of you, if you only knew you were looking, if you only knew how to see it.
Poetry Reviews by Kelly Davio
The Book of Hulga
Rita Mae Reese
The University of Wisconsin Press
When I bought this volume, I told the bookseller, “I need this desperately.” He laughed, but I meant it. I have what most Flannery O’Connor fans have–a fierce devotion to all things O’Connor, and the sense that the legendary writer died not only too soon, but also with her greatest work ahead of her. If this rich collection of poems on O’Connor’s life, family, work, and religious philosophy is any indication, the wildly talented Rita Mae Reese is part of that die-hard fan club, too.
It would be challenge enough for most poets to write a compelling sequence on any great artist, but Reese doesn’t just succeed in creating moving, original poems on O’Connor—she also inhabits the rhythms, tones, and voices O’Connor used in her own work. Take this passage from “The Misfit’s Sonnet”:
“Listen, nobody came along
to raise my daddy after he passed.
I sat up and watched & he ain’t never moved
all that night. I put my hands on him & said rise!
Rise rise rise, you sonofabitch.”
That’s as much Misfit (from “A Good Man is Hard to Find”) as it is Hazel Motes (Wise Blood), but characters conflate, merge, and shape-shift throughout this collection. The O’Connor persona sometimes merges with that of Joy/Hulga (“Good Country People”), and many of the character-speakers borrow lines from Simone Weil in three technically exquisite crowns of sonnets.
In addition to the poems in this collection, the volume benefits from a number of illustrations by Julie Franki, whose work has both a softness and whimsy as well as the sardonic humor O’Connor used in her own cartoons.
But that’s not to say that the book succeeds only because its literary and visual style mirror O’Connor’s; there are moments of Reese’s pure—often heartbreaking—invention, such as this passage in which Regina (Flannery’s mother) cleans house after her daughter’s death:
“the house is on fire & Joy beside her bed
the house is on fire & fire is Joy & Joy is fire burning the house”
This collection is a must-read, must-own for all O’Connor enthusiasts. Will non-Flannery fans enjoy the book as well? It’s hard to say (having never been one). Play it safe and pick up a copy of O’Connor’s short stories at the bookstore while you’re buying The Book of Hulga. Thank me later. –KD
Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workspace
Ed. Carolyne Wright, M.L. Lyons, and Eugenia Toledo
Lost Horse Press
From Lost Horse Press and Carolyne Wright—a repeat TLR contributor who has written powerfully about wage inequality here on the TLR blog—comes a substantial new anthology about women and work.
With contributors including former US Poets Laureate Rita Dove and Natasha Trethewey, alongside Northwest greats Carolyn Kizer and Madeline DeFrees (not to mention a foreword from Lilly Ledbetter—for whom the Fair Pay Act of 2009 is named) this anthology features an all-star lineup of women writers. But don’t let the stature of the contributors or editors mislead you; this isn’t an anthology about prestige, but about women honoring their labor and the labor of those who’ve gone before us. Field work, factory work, service work, office work, religious work, sex work, medical work, academic work, creative work, laboratory work, domestic work—this feminist anthology finds places for all women’s labor (paid, unpaid, and unequally paid though it might be).
Raising Lilly Ledbetter doesn’t shy away from messy work, from scrubbing the grit of manual labor from the hands with Brillo pads (in TLR contributor Karen J. Weyant’s “Beauty Tips from the Girls on 3rd Street”) or separating the joints of a freshly killed deer (in Lois Red Elk’s “The Knife Wearer”) or from work that feels absurd (see Lytton Bell’s “Another Day in the Dildo Factory”) or even work denied (see Denise Duhamel’s “Unemployment”).
There are poems of office drudgery, but they’re enlivened with humor, as in Sandra Beasley’s “Vocation”:
“I type ninety-one words per minute, all of them
Once I asked a serial killer what made him
get up in the morning, and he said “The people.”
And there are the moments that mark transformation, as in Kathleen Flenniken’s “Siren Recognition,” in which the speaker, at work in Hanford’s nuclear facility, hears a demonstration of a meltdown siren:
“Hear the siren once and it will change
your life. That night I’ll wake transformed
into a cockroach, scaling the inside
of a reactor dome.”
It’s an anthology impressive in scope, diversity, and range, and one that I hope leaves you, as it left me, all the more determined to see equal pay for equal work in our lifetimes.
Abdul Ali’s debut collection, the winner of the New Issues Poetry Prize, doesn’t read like a first book. The confidence and technical skill that underpin the poems in Trouble Sleeping make this collection feel as though it were Ali’s third or fourth—we’re in capable, mature hands throughout. Like the best of dancers, Ali knows how to make the hard work of the poem look and feel effortless.
Trouble Sleeping moves fluidly between the public and the private, and where its poems are humorous, they also hum with sorrow. Take these lines from “After the Blizzard,” a meditation on single fatherhood:
We, single fathers, can tell each other from the pack—our daughters’
curious hairstyles—mounds of wild hair bound by a rubberband
resembling a big waist strangled by a skinny belt.
…You’ll wait for the
white man to appear on the traffic box and you’ll shout from across
the street, Later Daddy-o.
Sorrow emerges as a controlling emotion in the book, especially in poems as timely—often tragically so—as “Elegy,” a poem for Troy Davis. And as in-the-moment as many of the poems in Trouble Sleeping are, they read as sharply relevant, never rushed into being.
Nickole Brown first established herself as a major talent with her 2007 novel in poems, Sister, and Fanny Says marks a further development in Brown’s exploration of what a poetry collection can be and do. This substantial book—with its 138 pages of poems—is a both a collection and a biography. In Fanny Says, Brown examines the life of her grandmother, but if that sounds like fertile ground for sentimentality, think again. This book explores Fanny in all her troubled humanity, and confronts domestic violence, racism, and poverty in the American South.
One of the great strength of Fanny Says is the comprehensive nature of its poems; Brown exhibits a tireless fascination with detail, giving us poems like “Clorox,” a five-section poetic investigation of Fanny’s relationship with the commercial disinfectant:
A complete sentence might read:
Careful now, or Fanny’s gonna Clorox
the shit out of your clothes; you and I know
she burns through a bottle a week.
While poems like “Clorox” and “Fanny Linguistics: Publix Hieroglyphics” have laugh-out-loud funny moments, Fanny Says is largely a serious, often disturbing book. The third section of the book consists entirely of “A Genealogy of the Word,” a long poem first printed in its entirety in TLR’s third issue; in this poem, Brown digs deep into the shame of a family’s racist history, and deals with the painful matter of reconciling a woman she loves with her troubling legacy of intolerance.
Bright Dead Things
Forthcoming, Fall 2015
This forthcoming fourth collection from Ada Limón is a highly readable, almost conversational book that charts the speaker’s sense of self in moments of transition. Limón’s precise craft and candid voice shine in poems like “How to Triumph Like a Girl:”
I like the lady horses best,
how they make it all look easy,
like running 40 miles per hour
is as fun as taking a nap, or grass.
But Bright Dead Things, Limón’s playful language is coupled with a tendency to flow, almost dreamily, into dark content—she moves seamlessly from spiders in the magnolia tree and zucchini in the kitchen to a woman floating dead in a water tank.
If these are dark poems, there’s also a poignant openness to them, and a refreshing earnestness in Limón’s voice as she examines the upheavals of life. There’s an especially close attention paid to the world in these poems—an attention born out of the wreckage of grief and change.
Nonfiction and Fiction Reviews by Yi Shun Lai
Ana Maria Spagna
University of Washington Press, 2015
Ana Maria Spagna calls the verdant Pacific Northwest home, but she has her roots in the arid Southern California desert. These two narratives seem to form the helix that is the story behind Reclaimers, a book that tells a story of ecological change, and the people behind the efforts to restore land and water to what it once was.
Does it sound obscure? Well, it might be—you probably won’t have heard of many of the places Spagna visits in this narrative, nor heard of any of the people she interviewed to get these stories of reclamation. But Spagna’s great skill is in making the obscure seem personal, and so she lets us into her home and community in Stehekin, Washington, and encourages us to follow as she takes a mother-daughter trip to Death Valley and follows that up with trips up and down rivers and mountains, trying to get to suss out the answers to a puzzle that feels surprisingly personal, even to Spagna.
This book reads like a mystery: we meet passionate characters; unravel some history, peel back the layers of some complex works. We get to learn so much about something we never knew we should be caring about. Reclamation is the taking back of something, sure, but in this book, Spagna takes us with her to a conclusion we somehow knew we’d arrive at within the first few pages of this book: the act of reclamation is primitive, natural, something that calls to us all.
Lost Among the Baining: Adventure, Marriage, and Other Fieldwork
University of Missouri Press, 2015
My couch is about as far away from Papua New Guinea as one can possibly get. And yet, Gail Pool made her story of the year she and her husband Jeremy spent studying the Baining for Jeremy’s anthropology PhD feel nearly tangible.
That’s misleading: although Pool does take us through the couple’s year among the Baining, she also delves deep into her marriage; into her own securities; into the fact that it took her forty years to write something that felt meaningful enough to address the time she and Jeremy spent among the Baining tribe. And, perhaps most important, she lets us in on the struggle she experiences as she tries to understand the Baining people and what she once saw as their idiosyncrasies.
The book opens and closes with Gail and Jeremy’s return to the Baining tribe. While it’s accurate to say that watching Pool learn about herself and her marriage is satisfying, it may give the reader a more complete picture to say that Pool’s reflections—forty years later—encourage us to take a deeper look at ourselves.
The Extreme Life of the Sea
Stephen R. Palumbi and Anthony R. Palumbi
Princeton University Press, 2015
Where was this book when I was struggling through college biology? Co-written by a father and son team (Anthony Palumbi is a novelist and science journalist, and father Stephen is a well known marine ecologist), this book takes a successful run at deciphering life in the deep waters of the sea.
Granted, some of us are more fascinated by the ocean than others, and so we may not balk at reading about tiny krill and protozoa, and how coral form polyps. But even us die-hard fans are happier when Dr. Who, the Marvel universe, Morrissey, and Looney Tunes get mentioned, all by way of bringing what seems foreign right back to relatable ground for us landlubbers.
Anthony also takes the unusual step of trying to place us right in situ with him—some of the book’s charm comes from the passages that put you on vacation in the Caribbean, just like that, too: “You’re on vacation in the Caribbean, taking a snorkel cruise over a local reef.” And the last part of this narrative’s draw comes from the many people we meet who are studying, and trying to save, the ocean and its ecosystem.
Perhaps the weakest part of the book is its insistence on beating the climate change drum. Some of this, certainly, is one reader’s annoyance at what feels like preaching to the choir. But the science behind the phenomenon of oceanic warming, coral bleaching, and algal blooms doesn’t get lost, and neither does its significance.
The Courtship of Eva Eldridge: A Story of Bigamy in the Marriage-Mad Fifties
University of Iowa Press, August 2016
Some of us are perpetually, desperately, in love with letters. We love writing them, getting them in the mail, and we may even still have a box or two of those silly notes people passed back and forth to each other in junior high and high school, folded in all kinds of intricate ways.
So when I saw the description for Diane Simmons’s new book—that she had relied on over 800 pieces of correspondence and ephemera to write her forthcoming book about a woman married to a bigamist in the 1950s—I was immediately hooked. But I worried that the book wouldn’t live up to my standards of letters. What would we learn from these 800 pieces of people’s long-ago lives?
Let me just stop you from worrying right now—yes, it met my admittedly voyeuristic expectations. We get all the lonely details of a woman who’s trying to piece together what might have happened to a marriage she thought was rock-solid, via more than just letters: scribbled notes, tickets, even. But The Courtship of Eva Eldridge goes further. It also delves into our collective history, reveals and educates its reader. We learn about the choice women had to make between marriage and career after having had a taste of what it was like to go to work under the aegis of the war effort, and we learn about the male-dominated atmosphere they had to live in.
In the end, although this is very much one woman’s story, what we get—without revealing too many spoilers—is the story of what it was like to be a woman in the 1950s. And Simmons does a masterful job of relating her thorough research without making us feel in the least like we’re sitting in a Sociology 101 lecture hall. She makes her case slyly, so that we don’t even notice we’re nodding along and going, “Ohhhh, yes, of course!”
It’s no secret that life was hard for women in the 1950s. But Simmons adds to our collective understanding, and more importantly, makes it clear that her understanding of life then is due to the work of so many others who both went before her and continue to work to collect and interpret ephemera from that period. She draws on so much—and we reap the benefits, and feel compelled to pass on what she’s taught us through the telling of one woman’s story.
Oh, politics. Some of us are not good with politics. But even those of us who hate politics, in general, probably like people, so it was with that in mind that I picked up Craig Tomashoff’s set of profiles about folks who exercise their constitutional right to run for the office of President of the United States, with no realistic chance of actually being elected.
This book’s premise is a great hook, but it was with real pleasure that I noted how much of a personal undertaking this book is for Tomashoff. Not only is he in it to write a book that will elucidate and educate, he’s also, as he notes early on, in it to prove something to both himself and his son. “I had to go on this trip to support these people, but also to give my son a graduation present that would hopefully last longer than a new baseball mitt or a video game,” he writes.
So with this significant burden on our shoulders, we go with Tomashoff on a road trip, from California to Massachusetts and back, rolling through Nevada, Chicago, Florida, Brooklyn on the way. We meet candidates who are better known, like a guy named Vermin Supreme, who’s running for president in an absurdist exercise, and more earnest Can’t-idates like Doris Walker, who almost cancels her interview with Tomashoff because she’s not sure she wants to be included in the same volume as the other Can’t-idates. Tomashoff also encouraged every Can’t-idate to record a short video, which he then posted on the book’s Facebook page, something you shouldn’t miss.
We meet some very interesting people along Tomashoff’s journey, but for me, the real pleasure of this book was in meeting Tomashoff himself. We know there’s a parallel thread running through his mind as he meets these people: What stories will I tell my son about this guy? About this woman? About Sydneys Voluptuous Buttocks, bona fide presidential candidate?Ultimately, it’s Tomashoff’s personal journey that interests me the most, and that keeps me turning pages.