Reviewed by Lindsay Denninger -

More of This World or Maybe Another by Barb Johnson
    Harper Perennial - October 2009
    ISBN: 978-0061732270, 208 pages, $14 (paperback)
 
Reasons For and Advantages of Breathing by Lydia Peelle
    Harper Perennial - July 2009
    ISBN: 978-0061724732, 208 pages, $14 (paperback)


Barb Johnson's More of This World or Maybe Another reads more like a novel than a compilation of short stories. In her debut collection, former carpenter Johnson documents the tumultuous lives of four New Orleanians who orbit around a laundromat owned by Delia Delahoussaye. In telling their stories, Johnson covers the trials and tribulations of New Orleans life over the past forty years, from the 1970s (Delia's oldest brother fought in Vietnam and came back "a man who screams and cries when you drop a pot") to present-day New Orleans, still fresh with scars from Hurricane Katrina.

In the title story, Delia is a stoned teenager in the midst of her first crush, on a girl named Chuck. The two find themselves in the bottom of an abandoned, empty oil tank, and the only thing Delia wants is a kiss. "If the Holy Spirit Comes for You" centers around Delia's brother, Dooley, and the baby pig he is nursing, the pig his uncles are setting to slaughter for the evening's dinner. Dooley is also featured in "Killer Heart," where he finds, once again, that the good intentions he attempts upon the world are indeed the quickest way to Hell. "Titty Baby" chronicles Pudge, a chubby child given a cruel nickname by his classmates. His father is abusive, so Pudge, aided by his aunts, sets in motion plans to protect his baby sister from his father's hand. "Invitation," originally published in Oxford American, was cited in our Fall 2009 issue as a Lit Pick of the Quarter.

Though Johnson's stories focus primarily on the disenfranchised, there is little sympathy needed for her characters. It is not that their lives do not garner any sympathy, it is simply that they wouldn't want any. Johnson's stories tell the tales of lives in progress: lives are being broken and mended, destroyed and healed, but it is, put simply, life. The characters aren't particularly heroic or spectacular in any traditional sense, but what matters is their knack for survival. Through bigotry, death, abuse, and war, the featured players of More of This World of Maybe Another keep moving through, and this makes Johnson's award-winning debut a true testament to the resilience of the human spirit. As Delia notes, "there is real trouble in the world, but there is real magic, too."


Lydia Peelle's debut collection of short stories is, like Johnson's, award-winning (at least three of the eight stories have received official acclaim) and full of characters trying to negotiate the changes in their quickly-evolving worlds. Peelle's stories in Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing focus on the people who work the land, men and women who have become a part of the soil, and the way they cope with the loss of this land, the evolution of technology and the invasion of former urban dwellers.

"The Mule Killers" is among the best, winning an O Henry Award in 2006, detailing the dilemma of keeping up with technology on a family farm. The narrator's grandfather must decide whether or not to purchase a tractor, rendering the mules he previously needed for the burden work as unnecessary and thus superfluous and disposable. "Phantom Pain" focuses on Jack Wells, a one-legged taxidermist and the only man in his small town not crazed; the residents are convinced that there's a panther loose in the woods. In "This is Not a Love Story," a mother finds herself with an empty nest and a box of old black and white photographs. She reminisces of a summer she spent in her youth: the dreams that died and the men that never quite panned out.

The overarching theme of Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing is the universal one of memory. Is it possible to keep the memories and traditions of the past while staying in line and ready to adapt for what's to come in the future? And if those memories and traditions are indeed bad, how can one let go in order to make new memories? Peelle's characters ask the questions that every human at one time or another asks, and unfortunately for them (and us), the universal question does not always lend itself to a universal answer. But Peelle is not afraid of this. She, like her characters, recognizes that the answers will be revealed, and all will go on.